Ancient Science and Early Christianity

By Olson, Richard G. | The World and I, September 2000 | Go to article overview
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Ancient Science and Early Christianity


Olson, Richard G., The World and I


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.

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