Science and the Early Church

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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.

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Handmaiden Metaphor

Image via WikipediaClement of Alexandria (c.150-211/216).

 

“During the Middle Ages theology was understood to be the queen of the sciences, and classical learning, insofar as it was true, was theology’s servant or ‘handmaiden.’  The metaphor described the relationship between Greek wisdom and Christian theology.

“Quite early in the Christian era theologians had to come to terms with classical learning.  Almost inevitably there were tensions between Christian teaching and aspects of pagan thought, with St. Paul declaring on one occasion that the Gospel was ‘folly’ to the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:23).  Subsequently, the church father Tertullian declared philosophy to be ‘the parent of heresy’ (The Prescription against Heretics, chap. 7).  Some early Christian writers, however, stressed the value of pagan wisdom, suggesting that it was a ‘preparation’ for the Gospel (see, e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1.5, 1.7).  Tertullian was more positive toward philosophy than some of his more extreme statements might suggest.

“When Aristotelian learning was reintroduced in the West in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the question of the role of Greek philosophy and its relationship to Christian theology was raised again.  While there was some initial resistance to Aristotelian philosophy, by the middle of the fourteenth century it was entrenched in university curriculums.  Its predominant role in the universities was justified because it was said to serve the interests of Christian theology.  In this sense it served as handmaiden to the queen of the sciences, theology.”

— Heidi A. Campbell and Heather Looy, A Science and Religion Primer, 116-117.

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Philosophy Word of the Day — Aquinas’ Philosophical Theology

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“In addition to his moral philosophy, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is well-known for his theological writings.   He is arguably the most eminent philosophical theologian ever to have lived.  To this day, it is difficult to find someone whose work rivals Aquinas’ in breadth and influence.  Although his work is not limited to illuminating Christian doctrine, virtually all of what he wrote is shaped by his theology.  Therefore it seems appropriate to consider some of the theological themes and ideas that figure prominently in his thought.

“The volume and depth of Aquinas’ work resists easy synopsis.  Nevertheless, an abridged description of his work may help us appreciate his  philosophical skill in exploring God’s nature and defending Christian teaching.  Although Aquinas does not think that philosophical reasoning can provide an exhaustive account of the divine nature, it is (he insists) both a source of divine truth and an aid in exonerating the intellectual credibility of those doctrines at the heart of the Christian faith.  From this perspective, philosophical reasoning can be (to use a common phrase) a tool in the service of theology.

“An adequate understanding of Aquinas’ philosophical theology requires that we first consider the twofold manner whereby we come to know God:  reason and sacred teaching.  Our discussion of what reason reveals about God will naturally include an account of philosophy’s putative success in demonstrating both God’s existence and certain facts about God’s nature.  Yet because Aquinas also thinks that sacred teaching contains the most comprehensive account of God’s nature, we must also consider his account of faith—the virtue whereby we believe well with respect to what sacred teaching reveals about God.  Finally, we will consider how Aquinas employs philosophical reasoning when explaining and defending two central Christian doctrines:  the Incarnation and the Trinity.” (continue article)

— Shawn Floyd at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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Philosophy Word of the Day — Cardinal Virtues

(Latin, cardo, a hinge) The four classical cardinal virtues, as listed in Plato’s Republic, are [justice, wisdom (or prudence), courage, self-control (or moderation, being sensible)].  St. Ambrose (339-97), using Cicero as the immediate source, assimilated them to Christian doctrine, and seems to have been the first to use the word (Latin: cardinalis) for these four pivotal virtues (in his commentary to Luke chapter 6).  In medieval philosophy, the three theological virtues faith, hope, and charity were added to this list.

The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy, 95.

St Ambrose

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World’s Oldest Temple Discovered

New Testament scholar Ben Witherington reports on the discovery of an 11,500 year old temple complex being excavated in Eastern Turkey.  The complex predates the pyramids by 7,000 years and Stonehenge by 6,000 years.  In addition,

This temple lies west of the Biblical plain called Haran and is only 20 miles from the Syrian border. . . . This is the world not only of Genesis, but of the great Anatolian civilization of the Hittites (yes those Hittites as in Uriah the Hittite — husband of Bathsheba).  In short, if you are wondering if this is important to understand the OT, wonder no longer.  It is.

Klaus Schmidt is heading up the dig, and Newsweek describes his views on the site:

Schmidt’s thesis is simple and bold: it was the urge to worship that brought mankind together in the very first urban conglomerations. The need to build and maintain this temple, he says, drove the builders to seek stable food sources, like grains and animals that could be domesticated, and then to settle down to guard their new way of life. The temple begat the city.

Witherington describes the relevance of the findings for both Christian theology and ancient history.

The importance of this find for Biblical thinking is this — the Bible says that from the outset, human beings were created in God’s image.  Human beings were religious creatures from Day One.  Archaeologists and sociologists have long dismissed this theory saying organized religion comes much later in the game than the beginning of civilization and city building.  As  Ian Holder director of Stanford’s prestigious archaeology program says — this is a game changer. Indeed, it changes everything experts in the Neolithic era have been thinking.   Schmidt is saying that religion is the cause of civilization, not the result of it. Towns were built to be near the Temple complex. Agriculture was undertaken to feed those living there and supply the temple complex, and so on. The first instincts of humans were to put religion first. Maybe there is more to that Genesis story than some have been willing to think or admit. Maybe human beings are inherently homo religiosis.

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What Theology Has Done for Science

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Most scientific naturalists are unaware that modern science was incubated in and born out of a Judeo-Christian worldview.  Denis Alexander lists four theological themes that were indispensible to the rise of modern science, and historian Humphrey Clarke gives insightful commentary.  The first two:

1. The Concept of Scientific Laws

Alexander writes:
‘there seems little doubt that the concept of scientific laws was nurtured by the Christian belief that God has established moral laws for the universe and therefore, ipso facto, God must maintain similar laws that govern the physical world. The rational God of Christian theology provided a rationale for seeking intelligibility in the world, as expressed through laws. This is made explicit in the writings of early natural philosophers such as Descartes, Boyle and Newton.

I wrote something similar a while back, based on the Faraday Lecture series (which are a fantastic resource).

2. The Contingency of God’s Actions

A second theme that we often find in the early natural philosophers is the idea that the contingency of God’s actions encourages an empirical attitude towards the natural world. The God of the Bible can do what he likes, and it is up to natural philosophers to determine this empirically; it cannot be worked out from first principles as the Greek rationalists mistakenly thought. Contingency stems from the free will of the omnipotent Creator. (Continue)

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Book Review – Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers

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  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (November 30, 2009)
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  • This was not the book that I was expecting. I anticipated a study of the doctrine of the Trinity and its development in the early church. What I found was not nearly as academic as that, though this was published by the Academic imprint of IVP. Donald Fairbairn doesn’t seem to do theology in the modern sense, so much as offer his personal reflections on scripture within the context of the Church Fathers who have shaped his views. In fact, the quantity of scriptural references far exceeds those from the Fathers. Fairbairn references forty-five books of the Bible, but less than a dozen of the Fathers. Fortunately, he provides paragraph-length quotes from the Fathers which help to give a broader context than the single- sentence snippets we sometimes see in similar works.

    Fairbairn attempts to follow what he considers the most helpful theological theme through the Bible and the early church: theosis or deification, which he defines as sharing in the relationship of the Trinity by participating with God the Father as adopted sons through the person and work of Jesus Christ who is the natural son, or Son according to his nature. He then ties theosis into other theological topics such as Creation, Fall, Incarnation, Resurrection, soteriology, justification, sanctification, and ecclesiology.

    The overall tone of the book is almost devotional. Due to lack of in-text citations from the Fathers it is difficult to assess where they end and Fairbairn begins. It seems that he has immersed himself in dialogue with the Fathers and even undertakes to use their hermeneutic. Fairbairn articulates the most important difference between the patristic and modern methods of hermeneutics as one of direction. The Fathers start with the context of the whole Bible and then read individual passages in light of the wider context (deductive approach), whereas modern exegesis attempts to study each passage in its immediate context and work from the narrow context to the broader context (inductive approach).

    Fairbairn’s work is also very ecumenical in tone, but I was somewhat unhappy with the balance he tried to strike. First, he is obviously conversant with Eastern Christian theology. The theme of deification is a major one in Eastern Christianity and Fairbairn has written on the topic before in Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes. However, Fairbairn seems to cling too tightly to the Protestant distinctives for me to feel like he has given Eastern Orthodoxy a fair shake. It feels more like he has attempted to plunder the Egyptians.

    I was similarly disappointed in his treatment of the current justification debate. Early in the book he distances himself from modern theological debate by emphasizing that he is a Patristic scholar, not a systematic theologian and by claiming to avoid the standard loci of Western theology. However, the book is still roughly organized according to the standard loci and when he does address the issue of justification, he comes down very squarely in the Reformed camp.

    Overall, I deeply appreciated Life in the Trinity. If you are looking for an academic study of the doctrinal development of Trinitarian Theology within the early church you will need to look elsewhere. If you are seeking to deepen your appreciation for how at least some of the early church understood the Christian life and their relationship to God, this is the book for you.

    Reviewed by Adam Reece

    Thanks to Adrianna at IVP for this review copy.

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