International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century

by Amos Funkenstein

Introductory Essay by Ladislav Kvasz

The main thesis of this fascinating book is that, in the seventeenth century, theology and science merged into what the author calls “secular theology” – a particular form that never existed before or after. Theologians ceased to have a monopoly on God, the world was turned into God’s temple, and the layman became its priests. Three divine predicates played an especially important role in this process of secularization: the omnipresence, the omnipotence, and the providence of God. These predicates, and especially their role in the birth of science, are the subject of the three main chapters of the book.

In the first of these chapters, God’s Omnipresence, God’s Body, and Four Ideals of Science, the author discusses the origin of one of the fundamental ideas of Newtonian science – the idea of empty, infinite, homogenous, absolute space, which Newton called sensorium Dei. He explores the rather complex origins of this idea and describes it as the outcome of the interplay of four fundamental ideals which influenced the formation of early modern science: the ideals of mathematization, unequivocation, homogeneity, and mechanization. These ideals have deep roots and Funkenstein traces them from their ancient origin through their revival in the early modern period until their incorporation into scientific method. Funkenstein contrasts the methodological side of the formation of the idea of empty space with a thorough and scholarly reconstruction of its theological side, focusing on views of God’s corporeality and presence. He lays out interesting theological discussions on the presence of Christ’s body in the Host, which was understood extensionally, and the possibility of Gods action in distans, i.e. without being present.

In the second main chapter, Divine Omnipotence and Laws of Nature, Funkenstein explains the origins of another fundamental ingredient of modern science, the concept of a natural law. As in his exploration of the theological roots of the idea of the infinite, homogenous, absolute space in God’s omnipresence, Funkenstein traces the theological origins of the notion of a natural law in divine omnipotence. Starting with patristic sources and early scholastic theories, he follows the theology of divine omnipotence through Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus to William Ockham. He contrasts the theological side of the problem with a thorough reconstruction of the philosophical discussion of the role of experiment and idealization from Aristotle, Johannes Philoponos, and John Buridan, to Galileo, Descartes, and Newton.

In the third and last main chapter, Divine Providence and the Course of History, Funkenstein describes the theological roots of the secular explanation of history. In this case it was the theological idea of divine providence which played a fundamental role in the formation of a new view of history. This view explains historical events by a mechanism by means of which “private vices” are turned into “public virtues” – the individual pursuit of self-interest contributes to the common wealth and welfare. The central figures in this debate were Maimonides and Giambattista Vico.

Funkenstein’s book contains many fascinating insights supported by well-documented arguments and brings the process of the formation of modern science into new perspective. Even if some of the conclusions of this book are debatable, the overall analysis presented by the author is a lasting contribution to our understanding of the theological background of the scientific revolution.