The First Several Thousand Years:  Theology First

“Science” as we think of it – a systematic attempt to uncover and catalogue knowledge through testable hypothesis – is a modern term. The word “science” was first used     .  Since then ….

Natural Philosophy

From ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman times (the world of the Bible) through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the type of knowledge we label “science” was considered a branch of philosophy.  The term “natural philosophy” was used to describe most of what we would now call “science.”

For the ancient Greeks philosophy and observation, understanding, and theorizing about the nature of the universe were intimately intertwined.   For instance, Aristotle (384-332 BC) assumed as a matter of faith three basic principles:  (1) the Earth is at the center of the Universe, (2) all motion in the heavens is uniform circular motion and can be described mathematically, and (3) the objects in the heavens are made from perfect material, and cannot change their intrinsic properties (e.g., their brightness).   He believed everything was made up of four (or five) elements:   earth, air, fire, and water (and potentially a fifth weightless, incorruptible, “heavenly” element called “aether“).  And he developed a model in which the earth was at the centre of 55 concentric, crystalline spheres to which the celestial objects – the moon, planets, sun, and stars – were attached and which rotated at different velocities.  Unfortunately, even with many refinements  by Ptolemy and other philosophers, Aristotle’s model struggled to  describe accurately the observed movements of astronomical bodies.   Aristotelian physics dominated European thought from the days of the ancient Greeks through the early Middle Ages.

Unlike the ancient Greeks, spent much time investigating the natural world around them, Jewish scholars and later Christian thinkers showed little interest in systematic observation and study of the natural world.  While Jewish and Christian academics and authorities believed natural philosophy had some value, they prized God-centered theology much more highly.  The main purpose of studying natural philosophy – science – was in what could be learned about God through the process.

As we reflect on the historical inter-relationship between what we call “science” and faith, it is helpful to know that the sort of “scientific knowledge” we value so highly in our culture – theorizing, and observable, testable, prove-able data – was not highly regarded in the ancient Jewish or Christian cultures until the 16th Century.   The knowledge they valued most, from both nature and from sacred texts, was the theological meaning and truth about God they could glean from them.

Because natural philosophy was not considered to be of great importance, Jewish and early Christian writers added little new knowledge about the world.  Their “scientific observations” simply reflected what they easily observed (e.g. Psalm 104) or they reiterated what the Greeks had already discovered (e.g. Isidore’s Etymologies).  What these theologians added was reflection on the theological lessons that could be learned from God’s creation.  For Jewish and Christian authors, the main reason to observe and understand the natural world was to identify spiritual allegories that revealed truths about God.   In later centuries, Jewish and Christian writings about spiritual matters became so intense, detailed, and systematic that there was little energy left for anything else.

This is important because all theology – including interpreting biblical texts, their meaning and application – reflects culture and context.  To quote eminent physicist, theologian, an ordained clergyman, John Polkinghorne, “All theology is done in a context. The accounts that the theologians give us are not utterances delivered from some lofty detachment, independent of culture – views from nowhere, as it were – but they are all views from somewhere, offering finite and particular human perspectives into the infinite reality of God. Each such perspective not only offers an opportunity for insight, but is also open to the danger of imposing limitation and distortion.”

  • The author of Genesis wrote from his context: to understand Genesis (including the literary genre, style, and meaning of the creation narratives), we need to wrestle with the issues, cultures, religions, and worldviews of his age;
  • The prophets wrote from their contexts:  to understand their message, we need to study the issues God inspired them to speak in and to;
  • Paul wrote from his context:  to understand his writings, we do well to learn about Judaizers, Gnostics, and other struggles of the early church;
  • The early Church Fathers wrote from their contexts:  to appreciate their writings we need to be aware of their drive to define key doctrines, to deal with persecution, and to confront specific heresies;
  • Later scholars spoke from their contexts:  reflecting the knowledge, assumptions, and worldviews of their times;
  • Writers today are influenced by the scientific worldview – and scientific theories – that are dominant in Western societies.  In a few decades/centuries people may look back and smile at our scholarship and marvel at our ignorance, misunderstandings, or naivete …

Sometimes context just doesn’t matter:  the facts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection transcend time and space.  But other times context does matter.  Augustine’s reflections on the meaning of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection are best understood in context of his attempts to address Gnosticism.  The theology of reformers like Luther, for instance, is profoundly shaped by his context of 15th-16the Century Roman Catholicism, European politics, technological and social changes, and his own clerical background.  While not determining Luther’s theology, these influences (and more) helped shape his theological reflections.  To understand Luther, we need to understand his context.

Unlike in previous centuries, since at least the late 19th Century, science is one important context for theology.  Until then, it was not.  While some theologians and scientists (who we consider below) did, at least in part, seek to explore connections between theology and natural philosophy (“science”), this was not a critical issue.  Certainly through most of church history, theology and natural philosophy were not perceived to be in conflict, but rather explorations of God’s creation was approached as a way to know, appreciate, and understand God more fully.

Now, in the 21st Century, however, Christianity exists in a world obsessed with science, scientific methodologies, and scientific knowledge.  Observable, measurable, testable data is perceived to be “true,” while other ways of knowing – including spirituality – is devalued or even ridiculed.  Our challenge, then is to wrestle with Christian faith in this highly “scientized” cultural context.  As 21st Century Christians – lay people, pastors, theologians, biblical scholars, and scientists – we wrestle more deeply with what our faith means in a scientific context than ever before.

In the next few pages we will consider the history of the relationship between theology/Christian faith and natural philosophy/science …

I am thankful for sabbatical time from my congregation and a Pastoral Study Project Grant from the Louisville Institute to support my research.