The Refashioning of Christianity and Science - Dynamic Interactions between 1200 and 1700

By Olson, Richard G. | The World and I, October 2000 | Go to article overview

The Refashioning of Christianity and Science - Dynamic Interactions between 1200 and 1700


Olson, Richard G., The World and I


Prior to and during the scientific revolution, discussions and debates between theologians, arts masters, and scientists led to the profound restructuring of both science and Christian theology.

On the face of it, the period from the high Middle Ages through the scientific revolution (1200--1700 c.e.) seems characterized by continual open conflicts regarding the place of science in Christian culture and the place of religious commitments in scientific activity. On careful examination, however, it turns out that most of these were not hostilities between religion and science per se. More often, they were rivalries between contesting groups of equally religious scientists who saw different theological implications in different sciences, or between theologians with differing views of the nature of scientific activity. In some cases, there was clearly an element of contention over relative social status, with theologians battling to retain their authority in the emerging universities of Europe and natural philosophers seeking to establish a legitimate social role of their own.

Prior to 1200, Western monastic education had adopted the Roman organization of learning into the seven liberal arts--the trivium (rhetoric, logic, and grammar) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music)--as preparation for study of Scripture. Emphasis was on the more scientific quadrivium, but logic was also deemed important for its value in defending Christianity against the arguments of nonbelievers. Some ancient scientific knowledge was kept alive by Western monasticism, but the level of knowledge retained in all but a handful of Irish and Northumbrian monasteries was extremely low.

At the same time, Islamic science was vastly more advanced than European science. Islam had the advantage of direct access to classical Greek texts, mainly because of translations by Nestorian Christians [see "Ancient Science and Early Christianity," The World & I, September 2000, p. 133], as well as access to Indian and Near Eastern traditions. While Islamic learning was mostly focused on the Qur'an and religious law, a number of Islamic scholars synthesized materials from various available traditions and developed the sciences beyond the level of the ancients.

Islamic and Christian scientific learning further differed in that the latter emphasized Plato's Timaeus, while the former depended strongly on Aristotelian natural philosophy as well. Indeed, by around 1100, Islamic scholars referred to Aristotle as "the Philosopher," while Abu al-Walid ibn Rushd (Averro's)--the most learned interpreter of Aristotle--was called "the Commentator."

Medieval universities revive science

After 1200, Europe became the dynamic center of scientific knowledge, while the Islamic world became a backwater in scientific learning. There are many reasons for this reversal, but the initial phases were largely associated with the growth of a new kind of educational institution--the medieval university--and with the importation (via Islam) of Aristotelian natural philosophy into the university arena.

Within Islam, advanced education was done almost exclusively through an apprenticeship system. Consequently, most scholars were highly specialized, and there was little lingering on general knowledge preparatory to professional specialization.

In Europe, education developed in a vastly different direction. Increasing wealth and urbanization led to a growing demand for skilled physicians, canon and civil lawyers, and church officials. As a result, the cathedral school model--in which many students studied with several masters--formed the basis for the development of institutions in which professional programs in theology, medicine, and law were attached to a common preparatory liberal arts program focused on logic and the quadrivium.

At the university, a young man typically studied in the arts faculty for several years, earned the master of arts degree, and taught in the same faculty while completing his professional degree in theology, law, or medicine. …

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