Ancient Science and Early Christianity

By Olson, Richard G. | The World and I, September 2000 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Ancient Science and Early Christianity


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?