Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The Design Argument in Scientific Discourse: Historical-Theological Perspective from the Seventeenth Century

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The Design Argument in Scientific Discourse: Historical-Theological Perspective from the Seventeenth Century

Article excerpt


When one considers the revolutionary changes brought about through Darwinian and neo-Darwinian science he is ultimately led to an important question: How could modern science have undergone such a dramatic philosophical drift from its earliest theological moorings? From the journals and published writings of the seventeenth-century virtuosi 1 one can scarcely find an example of scientific investigation that is not in some way grounded in a theistic purpose. Yet when Charles Darwin proposed his alternative naturalistic explanation in the field of biology2 his theory not only challenged existing theistic explanations but also was enthusiastically embraced by the majority of scientists by the end of the nineteenth century.3 God-fearing scientists of Darwin's era were incapable of answering naturalism as a philosophical system because their theological base of authority had long since been eroded. They had received from the forefathers of science a weak, and sometimes erroneous, theology of nature. Ironically the origin of this faulty theological foundation can be traced to the seventeenth-century virtuosi themselves, whose piety and doxological aspirations for science could scarcely be questioned. Their skill and enthusiasm as scientists and philosophers, however, sometimes exceeded their discernment as theologians.

The natural theology of the seventeenth-century fathers of modern science, which permeated the philosophical fabric of science for two hundred years, contained subtle and significant compromises when compared with the truth of Scripture. The far-reaching effects of these concessions were not clearly seen in the seventeenth century by the virtuosi themselves but are later brought to their fruition in the deism of eighteenth-century science and the agnosticism and atheism following Darwin's revolution.

The present paper will focus on the natural theology of three prominent seventeenth-century scientists in England: Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Their theological views are surveyed not only because they shaped science in this period but also because they chronologically span the entire seventeenth century. The theology of these three men shows a steady progression from the devout Christianity of the early 1600s to the deism of the eighteenth century.

It is the thesis of this paper that the theological slide toward deism and ultimately atheism in science was precipitated by the theological compromise of early scientists in two important doctrinal areas: the authority of Scripture, and the doctrine of sin and salvation. Their theology of nature was a welcomed response to the inadequate medieval view of nature that had discouraged scientific study, but it went too far in its claims about the authority and clarity of nature's revelation. The influential scientific viewpoints of these pioneers contained not only some theological premises that promoted Biblical Christianity but also others that contradicted Scripture and ultimately laid the foundation for deism. The conclusion of this paper will summarize the common elements in the natural theology of the virtuosi that laid the foundation for deism and Darwinism. Since able Christian scholars are presently reasserting the design argument in scientific discourse, this study will seek as well to relate aspects of this historical study to the contemporary debate.


An English philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was born in London and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. As a philosopher of science he emphasized the conviction that people are to be servants and interpreters of nature, that truth is not derived strictly from a position of authority but rather through careful investigation. In Novum Organum he called prejudices and preconceived attitudes idols that must be abandoned. An eloquent writer and orator, Bacon promoted empiricist thinking, careful observation of data, and accurate experimentation in science. …

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