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Ancient Science and Early Christianity.

While some church fathers feared science might undermine religious belief, many found it useful for scriptural interpretation, and yet others saw it as a means to learn more about the Creator.

"Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules; and history records that whenever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter has been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed, if not annihilated; scotched, if not slain." So wrote Thomas Henry Huxley shortly after his famous confrontation with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce over the religious implications of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. This view, presenting science and religion at war with each other, was widely popularized in Andrew Dickson White's A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom (1896), and it has maintained a powerful hold on the imagination of unbelievers and believers alike into the present.

Yet, no matter how colorful or stirring it may be, the conflict model represents a partial view that radically distorts the overall picture. For, as noted by physicist and theologian Ian Barbour, there have almost always been three additional major forms of interaction between science and religion, since early history. Some have argued that science and religion are (or should be) independent of each other--that one concerns itself with facts of nature; the other, with morality and the ultimate meaning of life. In this view, the two domains call for fundamentally separate approaches. Others have noted that science and religion are in a continual and usually constructive dialogue with each other, in areas where their domains of interest inevitably overlap. Yet others have maintained that science and religion are (or should be) supportive of each other and integrated into a single, coherent worldview.

The interactions between early Christianity and ancient science were at least as often characterized by dialogue and integration as they were by conflict. In fact, I would suggest that in the late Hellenistic world, neither science nor Christianity would have thrived without assistance from the other.

Greek natural philosophy

Examples of opposing positions taken by religious apologists and secular theorists can be found even in ancient Greece. Thus, Aristophanes' comedy The Clouds (performed at Athens in 429 bce) condemns the undermining of traditional Greek religious beliefs by natural philosophers. On the other hand, Epicurus' Letter to Herodotus (written around 300 bce) insists that if we recognize the purely material causes of events, we will be freed from the fear of eternal suffering after death and of the willful malevolent interference of the gods in our lives.

Yet, beneath the apparent conflict between Greek natural philosophy (science) and religion, it was almost always the case that the philosophers supported one set of religious commitments against another. In fact, most of the major philosophical systems of the Hellenistic world--Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism-- interpreted natural phenomena in a manner that undermined the traditional, polytheistic view and tended to support the acceptance of a supreme, intelligent, and good Divinity who served as the creator or "unmoved mover" of the world. Even Epicureanism, which rejected belief in any deity, was more of a reaction against the whims of the Greek pantheon. Socrates, Plato, and Xenophanes promoted the idea of a single God who, unlike the Olympian deities, was active in the world through a nonlocal, immaterial presence.

From the viewpoint of the later development of Christianity, perhaps the most important expression of the new philosophical approach appeared in the late Platonic dialogue Timaeus. While providing a virtual compendium of pre-Socratic science, the Timaeus represented the universe as the creation of a single, loving, and rational God. It insisted that many features of the universe could be derived from the divine characteristics of goodness and reason, and it grounded all physical causes in the structure impressed on matter by the Divine Creator. It represented the physical universe as fundamentally good yet less than perfect, arguing that the nature of the material from which the universe was created limited God's ability to make it as perfect as the immaterial and eternal pattern in his mind.

This account of the origin and character of the universe included a number of features that were remarkably similar to the account given in the biblical book of Genesis. Moreover, the Platonic emphasis on divine goodness and love was particularly valuable as an intellectual resource for early Christianity, allowing a distinction to be made from Judaism, which tended to emphasize divine power and judgment.

Astral religions

If trends in Greek natural philosophy helped produce an environment favorable to the growth of Christianity in the Hellenistic world, there was a second influence from the East that was every bit as important and closely linked to scientific pursuits. It was connected to the development of astral religions, notions of astral determinism, and the eventual revolt against astral religions in the Tigris-Euphrates flood plain.

Starting around 2400 bce, omenology texts began to connect astronomical phenomena to predictions of events related to agriculture. Astral omens and their interpretations were initially simple but became progressively more complex. For instance, around 1800 bce, it was maintained that if Venus disappeared as the morning star during a certain month, there would be rainfall and the crops would prosper.

In a later text, dating around 1560 bce, the successive appearances (and disappearances) of Venus as the morning or evening star were not simply recorded after observation but projected into the future, according to a mathematical scheme. Now priests who had that knowledge could not only interpret the observed omens but could predict what those omens would be. This new ability gave them substantial authority, for we see an accelerating astral influence in Mesopotamian religions.

As mathematical astronomy grew more sophisticated, it allowed for greater fine-tuning of the religious calendar and increasingly spectacular predictions of events such as lunar eclipses centuries in advance. At first, astral priests suggested that lunar and planetary signs simply indicated more or less propitious times to undertake actions. But as the motions of astronomical bodies appeared to be totally unchanging, a doctrine of complete astral determinism--that astral events control terrestrial events--spread rapidly throughout the Mediterranean region.

In the face of such a doctrine, a number of sects, emerging first in Mesopotamia, began to rebel against astral religions. With rare exceptions, they did so by identifying the physical world governed by the astral deities as bad. Then they posited the existence of a single good God who existed outside and above the physical universe. The following lamentation from the Mandeans illustrates the basic beliefs of a whole series of so-called Gnostic cults, which spread across the Mediterranean basin around the time of the emergence of Christianity:

"The Seven [planets] and the Twelve [signs of the zodiac] become my persecution. ... The Seven will not let me go my own path, how I must obey, how endure. ... The evil ones [stars and planets] conspire against me. ... You see, O child, through how many bodies, how many ranks of demons, how many concatenations and revolutions of stars, we have to work our way to hasten to the one and only God."

The Gnostic cults--with their focus on a single, transcendent God and their negative evaluation of both the physical world and doctrines of astral determinism--provided a major complement to Greek natural philosophical trends toward monotheism in producing the setting for the growth of Christianity. On the one hand, they encouraged the acceptance of monotheistic ideas and the belief that perfection could be found only beyond the physical universe--both of which became central to Christian orthodoxy. Indeed, they literally prepared intellectuals, such as Saint Augustine, for conversion to Christianity. On the other hand, they were among Christianity's most powerful competitors, forcing Christians to articulate, distinguish, and defend their own doctrines with great care.

Early Christianity in Alexandria

Alexandria in Egypt was a haven for scholarly work for several centuries prior to, during, and after the time of Jesus. It was in Alexandria that Greek knowledge was preserved and advanced; Jewish scholars assembled their Scripture in the form we know it today; and the first great Christian school developed. Alexandria was also the place where Gnostic teachers Valentinus and Basilides taught during the second century, as Christian doctrine was being consolidated.

To promote their new religion in this context, Christian scholars had to be able to hold their own in competition with Greek, Hebrew, and Gnostic intellectuals. So Christian apologists such as Clement of Alexandria (c. 150--215 ce) and Origen (c. 186--254 ce) enthusiastically adopted and adapted pagan philosophy, especially natural philosophy, for their needs. In a letter to his student Gregory Thaumaturgis, Origen states the common Alexandrine Christian view that resonates as an important theme through most of Christian history:

"I wish you ... to take over from Greek philosophy whatever studies can be made encyclic and preparatory to Christianity and from geometry and astronomy whatever will prove useful for the interpretation of Scripture. I hope that what the sons of the philosophers say about geometry, music, literary study, rhetoric, and astronomy--that they are handmaidens of philosophy--we may also say of philosophy itself in relation to Christianity."

Moreover, Origen challenged the Gnostic notion that nothing good could come from study of the "evil" physical universe. In On First Principles, he argued that study of the physical world may be divinely ordained and good in its own right: "This desire, this passion [to study God's creation] has without doubt been implanted in us by God."

To the extent that any single Greek philosophical perspective was dominant in the Alexandrian Museum, it was Aristotelian. But early Christian apologists were more inclined to draw from Plato. As mentioned above, Plato's Timaeus offered support for the Genesis account of Creation, and it helped explain how the physical universe could be imperfect without itself being evil. In addition, it claimed that knowledge of the visible world could be used to gain insights into God's eternal, transcendent world. Thus, the growth of Christianity promoted Platonic and Neoplatonic views of the natural world.

Following Plato, the Alexandrine Fathers argued that laws governing the universe were established by God, so the ordinary course of events was knowable. But unlike Plato, they insisted that the world is not ultimately deterministic because God could, at any time and for any purpose, will the suspension of any of his laws. Well into the seventeenth century, Christian scientists (including Robert Boyle, John Locke, and Isaac Newton) knowledgeable about these early doctrines persisted in distinguishing between natural laws, which were an expression of God's "ordinary providence" and could be discovered by humans, and miracles, which were an expression of God's "special providence" and therefore beyond human comprehension.

Natural theology in Cappadocia

During the fourth century in Cappadocia, a small group of Greek- speaking Christians initiated the tradition of "hexameral" literature-- commentaries on the biblical account of the six days of Creation. This literature became the locus of the most pervasive tradition of positive interaction between science and Christian theology for more than a thousand years.

From the appearance of Saint Basil the Great's Homilies on the Hexameron, sometime around the year 362, up to and including John Calvin's Commentary on Genesis in the mid--sixteenth century, nearly all major Christian thinkers, Greek or Latin, brought to bear their scientific knowledge in interpreting the biblical story of Creation. For some, such as Augustine, knowledge about the natural world seemed to demand that the words of Genesis be read allegorically rather than literally. But for Basil it was possible to reconcile a literal reading of Genesis with the best of Greek natural philosophy.

Basil was particularly concerned about protecting an alliance between Byzantine Christianity and classical Greek culture that Emperor Julian the Apostate (who reigned 361--363) sought to destroy. Julian wanted pagan learning to be used solely to support pagan religion, and he sought to forbid Christian educators from expounding on classical Greek texts. Basil's Homilies were intended to challenge Julian by demonstrating that pagan science supported Christian doctrine.

In putting forth this challenge, Basil elevated the Alexandrine claim that something of God might be understood by examining the natural world into a major justification for what later came to be called "natural theology"--the argument that an appreciation of God's wisdom, power, and beneficence can be most easily achieved by studying his natural creation. In his words,

"If you see the heavens ... and the order in them, they are a guide to faith, for through themselves, they show the craftsman; and if you see the orderly arrangement about the earth, again through these things also your faith in God is increased. ... [The natural world] is truly a training place for rational souls and a school for attaining knowledge of God, because through visible and perceptible objects it provides guidance to the mind for contemplation of the invisible."

On other occasions, Basil argued that the simplicity of faith was to be preferred over the demonstrations of reason. Moreover, his approach to Genesis certainly made him a consumer of Greek science rather than a producer of his own, and this approach set a pattern for many who came after him. But by establishing natural theology as one of the major genres of Christian apologetic literature, he guaranteed that science and Christianity would remain in dialogue with each other over the years.

Role of Nestorian Christians

The Alexandrine and Cappadocians Fathers insisted that Greek natural philosophy should be studied only to the extent that it could support Christianity. It should hardly be surprising, however, that some Christians found it interesting enough to make it a large part of their lives. Among those who did so were the Nestorians--believers in the teachings of Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople during the fifth century.

Nestorian theological views, which emphasized Christ's humanity over his divinity, were condemned by church councils in 431 and 451. Then in 489, the Nestorians were forced to flee to Persia, where they promoted the study of Greek natural philosophy and medicine. At several cities, including Nisibis and Jundishapur, Nestorian scholars established teaching centers. But because the region's language of education was Syriac, they began translating Greek philosophical and medical texts into Syriac.

When Islam spread into the region, the Abbasid Califate created Baghdad as its center of government and culture. The new rulers appointed the Bakhtishu family, who were Nestorian Christians, as court physicians and advisers. And they placed a Nestorian Christian, Hunyan ibn Ishaq, in charge of a newly created research institute and library, the House of Wisdom.

Under the leadership of Hunyan and his son, many medical works of Galen and Hippocrates, Euclid's Elements, Ptolemy's Almagest, Plato's Timaeus, and Aristotle's logical works and Physics were made available in Syriac and then in Arabic, to be spread through the Islamic world. Thus, by becoming the conduit through which Greek science reached the Islamic people, Nestorian Christians repaid the debt of support that Christianity owed to Greek science.

Ambivalence of Latin Fathers

On balance, early Greek-speaking Christian intellectuals were supportive of Greek natural philosophy, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy, even though their priorities were religious and few, if any, of them were scientists in their own right rather than transmitters of existing scientific knowledge. Christians in the Western Roman Empire, on the other hand, tended to be much more skeptical about the value of classical literature and philosophy in general and of natural philosophy in particular.

It is crucial to recognize that the Latin Christian disdain for theoretical philosophy reflected a broad-based anti-intellectualism found everywhere among the Roman educated elite, and that it was not uniquely Christian or even religious. Augustine thus argued that it may be desirable for the Christian to have some knowledge of natural philosophy for exegetical purposes, observing that "it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics."

On the other hand, when it came to basic matters of belief, Augustine rejected Basil's view about the importance of natural theology:

"When it is asked what we ought to believe in matters of religion, the answer is not to be sought in the exploration of the nature of things, after the manner of those whom the Greeks call "Physicists." ... For the Christian it is enough to believe that the cause of all created things, whether in heaven or on earth, whether visible or invisible, is nothing other than the goodness of the Creator, who is the one and the true God."

For the most part, the Latin Fathers simply saw natural science as irrelevant to any Christian purpose other than exegesis. But a few-- including Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Lactantius--took their anti- intellectualism a step further and argued that the investigation of natural phenomena was positively pernicious. Returning to a theme raised by Aristophanes some seven centuries earlier, they feared that scientific knowledge might in fact undermine religious belief. Thus, Lactantius, commenting on the dangers of natural theology, wrote, "If you believe, then why do you require a reason, which may have the effect of causing you not to believe?" And Irenaeus noted, "If we leave some questions in the hand of God, we shall both preserve our faith uninjured and continue without danger."

A bigger picture

If one is determined to detect conflict between early Christianity and the science of its time, it is there to be found. But if one examines their relationships more carefully, a rather different, bigger picture emerges. With the exception of some Mesopotamian astral religions, which grew up completely integrated with the astronomical knowledge of their time and place, Christianity probably grew during its first four or five centuries with more positive interactions with ancient science than any of its near competitors.

The various Gnostic sects, which were the most direct religious competitors to early Christianity, had grown up in direct opposition to the astral religions of Mesopotamia. Consequently, the Gnostics were so focused on the evils associated with the physical world that they tended to see any systematic attempt to understand nature as fundamentally harmful to religion.

Christianity, on the other hand, was based on the Genesis account that declared the world as good, albeit not perfect. Thus, most Greek- speaking Fathers viewed most Greek natural philosophical systems-- especially those grounded in Plato's Timaeus--as a valuable resource for interpreting scripture. Some of them even went so far as to argue-- taking a cue from Plato--that the study of the natural world itself could generate valuable knowledge of the character of the God who created it. As a result, natural theology, which continues to play a substantial role in contemporary Christianity, was born. Although Latin Christian thinkers tended to share the generally practical and antiphilosophical perspectives of most Roman intellectuals, even they sometimes accepted the notion that natural philosophy may help with scriptural interpretation.

Finally, just as Christianity benefited from certain implications of Greek natural philosophy, Christian scholars in turn played a major role in the preservation and transmission of ancient natural philosophy when the Roman Empire collapsed and ancient learning degenerated in the Latin West. Even Western monasticism kept some ancient scientific knowledge alive, mostly in highly simplified form. More significantly, Eastern monasticism preserved many of the original texts, which were recovered by Europe during the Renaissance. But the most important contribution in this area came from groups of scholarly Christian heretics, especially the Nestorians, who were responsible for transmitting Greek medical, mathematical, and natural philosophical knowledge into Islam, from which it reentered Europe in the Middle Ages.

Additional Reading

Additional Reading:Ian Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990.

Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, 2nd ed., Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.

David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers, eds., God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986.

Otto Neugebauer, The Exact Sciences in Antiquity, 2nd ed., Providence, R.I.: Brown: University Press, 1957.

Richard Olson, Science Deified and Science Defied, vol. 1, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

A. Pannekoek, A History of Astronomy, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1961.

R.B. Tollinton, Alexandrine Teaching on the Universe, New York: McMillan, 1932.

B.L. Van der Waerden, Science Awakening, vol. 2, Leiden, Netherlands: Noodhoff, 1974.

Richard G. Olson is professor of history and Willard W. Keith Fellow in Humanities at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, and adjunct professor of history at Claremont Graduate School. He is the author of numerous articles and several books on the history of science. His previous contribution to The World & I was "The Scientific Revolution Reshapes the World," April 1999.
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Author:Olson, Richard G.
Publication:World and I
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Date:Sep 1, 2000
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