CHRISTIANITY AND EARLY MODERN SCIENCE: THE FOSTER THESIS RECONSIDERED

In Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective, ed. Mark Noll, David Livingstone, and Daryl Hart (Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 75-95.


Abstract: Did Christianity "cause" modern science? The question would have shocked Voltaire, provoked a heated denial from Andrew Dickson White, and knocked George Sarton entirely off his chair. According to the Enlightenment tradition, the normative relation between Christianity and science in all periods has been one of cultural and intellectual conflict rather than cooperation or conversation. Fortunately, recent scholarship no longer allows such a view to flourish. In its place, we have a growing sense of the sheer complexity of religion/science interactions that works both ways relative to questions such as the one posed here: on the one hand, the decline of the warfare school allows questions of this type to be asked without provoking sneers and jeers; on the other hand, our new sensitivities no longer allow us to ask such questions quite so simply or baldly. What was once seen as an absurd question is now seen as hopelessly naive.

More limited questions/claims about Christianity and modern science, however, can be addressed quite well without upsetting our heightened historical sense. This paper explores one of the most interesting such claims. In the mid-1930s, British philosopher Michael Beresford Foster argued that Christian theology deeply influenced the content of early modern natural philosophy. Theological assumptions about God's relation to created minds and created things, Foster claimed, affected philosophical assumptions about how created minds ought to try to attain knowledge of created things. More specifically, rationalist theology of creation was closely linked with rationalist science, and voluntarist theology of creation was closely linked with empirical science.

Foster's thesis has generated a considerable body of scholarship, but surprisingly little is focused carefully on what major early modern natural philosophers actually said about God's relation to the creation and about how, therefore, science actually ought to be done. The three case studies presented here aim to do just that. First we show that Galileo Galilei held an essentially rationalistic conception of science, reflecting his commitment to an Aristotelian understanding of scientific truth as that which can be demonstrated necessarily from clear axioms; this was coupled with a rationalistic notion of God's relation to the world and to the human mind. Next we see how Renè Descartes used an extreme form of voluntarism (ironically) to undergird a rationalistic natural philosophy, effectively making human minds the standard for determining what God did and did not do in creating the world, so that the overall structure of the world and the laws of nature could be deduced from pure reason -- though he was forced to concede that some aspects of the creation were underdetermined by reason, and these were linked explicitly with divine freedom. Finally we examine the subtle notion of nature put forth by Robert Boyle, a voluntarist thinker who stressed God's sovereignty over the laws of nature and God's freedom to create those laws in any way God pleased. Consequently, a rationalist science was out of the question for Boyle, who desribed physical laws as "collected or emergent" truths "gathered from the settled phenomena of nature," not "axioms metaphysical, or universal, that hold in all cases without reservation."

Overall we find that theological presuppositions were closely allied with conceptions of scientific knowledge in just the way that Foster suggested. But this does not prove, as Foster thought, that Christian theology actually caused modern science: such a claim could only be shown by accepting too narrow a definition of what constitutes modern science. Nor were theological factors the only ones of importance to this issue; to single out one factor as the sole cause is to misrepresent the actual situation. Voluntarist theology neither "caused" modern science, nor was it the single cause of a particular kind of science. It was rather one factor, albeit a very important one, in giving modern science its strong empirical bent.