Science and the Early Church

Saint Augustine of Hippo, a seminal thinker on...

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“In Augustine’s influential view, then, knowledge of the things of this world is not a legitimate end in itself, but as a means to other ends it is indispensable.  The classical sciences must accept a subordinate position as the handmaiden of theology and religion—the temporal serving the eternal.  The knowledge contained in classical sciences is not to be loved, but it may legitimately be used.  . . .

“Does endowing scientific knowledge with handmaiden status constitute a serious blow against scientific progress?  Are the critics of the early church right in viewing it as the opponent of genuine science?  I would like to make three points in reply.

(1) It is certainly true that the fathers of the early Christian church did not view support of the classical sciences as a major obligation.  These sciences had low priority for the church fathers, for whom the major concerns were (quite properly) the establishment of Christian doctrine, defense of the faith, and the edification of believers.

But (2), low or medium priority was far from zero priority.  Throughout the Middle Ages and well into the modern period the handmaiden formula was employed countless times to justify the investigation of nature.  Indeed, some of the most celebrated achievements of the Western scientific tradition were made by religious scholars who justified their labors (at least in part) by appeal to the handmaiden formula.

(3) No institution or cultural force of the patristic period offered more encouragement for the investigation of nature than did the Christian church.  Contemporary pagan culture was no more favorable to disinterested speculation about the cosmos than was Christian culture.  It follows that the presence of the Christian church enhanced, rather than damaged, the development of the natural sciences.”

— David C. Lindberg in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, ed. Ronald L. Numbers, 16, 17.

8 thoughts on “Science and the Early Church

  1. Hi Tom,

    Yes, I enjoyed the conversation too.

    I’m a fan of science and all the benefits that we derive from it. It’s very good at what it does, which is telling us about how the physical world works. But it also has its limits: it can’t tell us what’s right and wrong, what’s beautiful, or give us meaning, value, or purpose. It also relies heavily on a web of philosophical commitments that underlie how it is understood and practiced. As much as I appreciate science, we can’t make it the sole judge of what’s rational or true, because reality is a lot bigger than science can encapsulate.

    All the best,

  2. Chris,

    Thanks for your lengthy response.

    I have no quarrel with the fact that individuals may have performed scientific work during the period of time where scientific advancement slowed down or stopped (the Dark Ages, which cannot be glossed over). The Church may have even helped to some degree some individuals. However, it is clear from all that I have read that the Church did not allow or approve of anything that questioned its dogma, which science tends to do. If you feel differently, then I think it best to agree to disagree on this.

    Your comments about science and knowledge are typical of those who refuse to acknowledge that personal experience can be, and often is, unreliable and/or biased. The problems with personal experience as it relates to knowledge is soundly supported by neuroscience and psychology. This is one of the big pluses of science, as it is structured to minimize such. Your several sentences attacking science are tautological and obfuscates the facts. Philosophy and logic have value in informing science but do not take the place of evidence. Since the booster rocket of philosophy, math and logic launched science, now we have a method of objectively analyzing the world within and around us to best determine reality. It requires EVIDENCE. It is not perfect, only the best we have. Does it “prove” things? Not really. It only tells us what is most likely and is subject to falsification if a better idea is established through the same method.

    I’m sure you are aware of the difference of opinion between and among theists and non-theists regarding the compatibility of science and religion. While I am “live and let live” as long as religion does not interfere with science, education or the US Constitution, the two methods of determining reality are not and never have been compatible in my opinion.

    Please take this comment as my final statement on this post. I will let you have the last word.

    Peace and I wish you well. It has been a nice conversation.

  3. Hi Tom,

    Thanks for those thoughts. The scholars I was referring to aren’t biblical scholars, but historians of science. The editor of “Galileo Goes to Jail” (published by Harvard Univ. Press) seems to have anticipated a charge of bias, and explains that 12 of the 25 contributors are either agnostics or atheists. There’s also a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, and two whose beliefs don’t fit a conventional category. The rest are Christians of various kinds. (Of course, because one adheres to a certain religion doesn’t mean they can’t produce good, objective scholarship). But the fact is that experts in this field (historians of the relationship of science and religion) are essentially agreed that there was never a sustained “warfare” between science and religion. Rather, the relationship is much more complex. Sometimes these two have been foes, but they’ve often been friends.

    About the “Dark Ages,” many historians have abandoned that label, viewing it as inaccurate and distorted. As the Wikipedia article on this notes, “many modern scholars who study the era tend to avoid the term altogether for its negative connotations, finding it misleading and inaccurate for any part of the Middle Ages.”

    Just as there’s a popular cultural myth that science and religion have been dueling for centuries, it’s a myth that the medieval period produced nothing of social or scientific value. The church in this period actually did a great deal to support science–probably more than any other institution. Science historian John Heilbron in his book “The Sun in the Church” writes, “The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and probably all, other institutions” (Harvard Univ. Press, 1999, p. 3).

    About ways of obtaining knowledge, I would have to disagree that only what can be verified by others counts as knowledge. For example, no one except me can verify my thoughts–they aren’t subject to third-party observers–yet I have knowledge of them apart from others’ verification. Scientism attempts to restrict knowledge to only what can be verified empirically, but this approach was rejected several decades ago when it was pointed out that it’s self-defeating. The Logical Positivists were forced to abandon this position, because the statement “only what can be empirically verified is knowledge” can’t itself be empirically verified. There’s no scientific experiment that will yield this conclusion. Thus, it fails as a viable epistemology. Knowledge and truth can’t be captured by this kind of one-dimensional approach.

  4. Chris,

    Thanks for your response.

    You said “—majority opinion of scholars working in this field.” I would say that they were also mostly Christians. See here for several posts regarding Biblical scholarship:

    You said “Those who fall under the spell of scientism can be just as blinkered as any religious person.” Just the use of the term “scientism” exposes your bias. I will pose the same question to you that I ask on my blog before I will discuss matters — “Other than science, is there another way of obtaining knowledge that can be verified by others (i.e. peer review)? If so, what is it?” (see:

    While there may have been individual religious/clerical people in support of some aspects of science, it is difficult to deny that the whole period of the Dark Ages was just that for science. And, Western society was totally controlled during that time by “The Church.” Do you honestly think that the ACTIONS of the Church supported science?



  5. Hi Tom,

    Thanks for your comment. It’s commonly accepted in our culture that religion and science have been locked in a constant battle for all of recorded history. Yet, this “conflict thesis” has been discredited and is not held by the people in the best position to know: philosophers and historians of science. Richard Carrier is an ancient historian, not a medieval or renaissance historian, or a historian of science, and he clearly has an axe to grind against Christianity. He maintains the conflict thesis, and this pits him against the majority opinion of scholars working in this field.

    I highly recommend the book I quoted from in this post, which is written by experts in the field, most of whom are not religious. They universally reject the conflict thesis in favor of a more nuanced and balanced approach–which they are driven to by historical evidence. This very question is taken up in the second chapter by Michael H. Shank, who teaches history of science at the university of Wisconsin-Madison. He rejects the notion that the medieval church suppressed science, citing, among other evidence, the fact that 30 percent of the curriculum of medieval universities dealt with subjects and texts on the natural world. I also recommend science historian James Hannam’s book “The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution.” A few of the points he mentions pace the myth of suppression are:

    * A mathematician Pope at the turn of the last millennium.
    * A monk in 1092 who used an astrolabe to construct the lunar calendar.
    * St. Anselm and Peter Abelard, clerics who elevated the role of reason and logic in philosophy and theology.
    * Cathedral school scholars who taught that “God is loving and consistent rather than capricious and arbitrary” paving the way for the study of a consistently operating world of nature.
    * The universities, products of the Church.
    * The influential bishop of Paris who condemned certain (not all, especially in view of the work of St. Thomas Aquinas) Aristotelian-based dogmas. It was an act that remains controversial, yet one which clearly opened the door for experimental study, rather than restricting natural philosophy to Aristotle’s pure reasoning.
    * A Polish clergyman, Copernicus, who challenged Aristotelian and Ptolemaic views of the heavens.

    The conflict thesis and the myth of the church’s suppression of science have been discarded by scholars in the field. But many who want to discredit Christianity will continue to push these theories, regardless of the evidence. Those who fall under the spell of scientism can be just as blinkered as any religious person.

    All the best,

  6. Hi Arthur,
    Thanks for your comment. You make some good points. There’s a popular myth that our culture has bought into that science and religion are perpetually in conflict. I think a good case can be made that Christianity provided excellent soil for science to flourish in. Some of the great scientists of the past and today are Christians, and many are motivated by their love for God to explore His creation. The new atheists continue to assert the conflict myth, but the real experts (who are historians of science) tell a very different story.
    Take care,

  7. Excellent post! Most of today’s world is shamefully unaware of the Christian influences and contributions to the scientific pursuits. Even the minor consolation it would be simply if academicians were aware and acknowledged this fact, has been robbed. Most are painfully ignorant of this fact. Thus, we see the naturalistic worldview pummel theism, ironically against the very notions that allow for logical framework for understanding anything at all, let alone complex natural systems. In a completely natural and mechanistic reality it would truly be a miracle for biochemistry to advance to such levels so as to reason and understand reality, able and willing to debate the origins of its own source.

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