Natural philosophy – “science” – was not highly valued through the Middle Ages. Formal education was centred in monastic institutions and cathedral schools (including the first great universities such as the University of Bologna, University Paris, and Oxford and Cambridge Universities). Teaching theology was the core purpose of these schools, in order to train people for ecclesiastical offices, to clarify and defend orthodox doctrine, to establish church and canon law, and to further the legal rights of the church.
Theology was “The Queen of the Sciences” – other subjects, including natural philosophy, existed primarily to help with theological thought.
Within the limited teaching of natural philosophy, the writings of scholars like Isidore and Bede dominated the curriculum.
Other contributions of note:
One of the best things for the development of observation and critical thinking about the natural world may actually have been the “Condemnations” delivered to the University of Paris. Seven hundred years after John Philoponus, on March 7, 1277, the Bishop of Paris, Étienne Tempier, prohibited the teaching of 219 philosophical and theological theses that were being discussed and disputed in the University of Paris, on pain of excommunication. This, the most famous of a series of restrictions, on the one hand, restricted academic freedom. On the other hand, because some of Aristotle’s more religious and philosophical teachings were banned. the Condemnations also may have finally broken the influence of Aristotle’s philosophy and physics. This forced the teachers of the time seriously to begin to question the unassailable cosmology and worldview provided by Aristotle and pervasive throughout Europe. While scholars debate the actual extent of the influence of the Condemnations, they likely had a considerable effect, by allowing scholars to consider more possibilities than strict adherence to the teachings of Aristotle allowed.
Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253)
Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, was a theologian and scientist, writing extensively in both areas. He articulated the concept of controlled experiments, instrumental in the later development of the scientific method. Drawing on the best of Aristotle, he argued for a dual path of scientific reasoning: generalizing from particular observations into a universal law, and then back from universal laws to prediction specific results. Grosseteste also developed the concept of the subordination of the sciences. For example, when looking at geometry and optics, optics is subordinate to geometry because optics depends on geometry. Focusing his research on light, Grosseteste concluded that mathematics is the highest of all sciences and the basis for all others.
Thomas Bradwardine (1290-1349)
A cleric, physicist, and mathematician, Thomas Bradwardine, was part of a group of scholars at Merton College, Oxford, known as the Oxford Calculators. They first formulated the properties of uniformly accelerated motions, typically attributed to Galileo. Bradwardine and his compatriots also began to use mathematical terms to describe the laws of nature. For Bradwardine and his colleagues, no conflict existed between the ways in which mathematics helped explain the world and their faith in a God who created and sustained His world in an orderly way.
Alfred North Whitehead claimed that, contrary to popular opinion, Christianity is the mother of science because of “the medieval insistence on the rationality of God.” Because of the confidence of the early scientists in this rationality, they had an “inexpungable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles. Without this belief the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope.”
Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards argue: “Since they believed that God is one and that human beings are created in God’s image, medieval Christians and Jews could expect nature to have a sort of unity (to be a uni verse) and to be accessible to the human mind. These ideas, brought to fruition by interaction with the Greeks, were the seedbed from which natural science slowly grew. It’s hardly a coincidence that science emerged in the time and place where these many factors converged. Although they are now forgotten, modern science draws on the interest of specific theological convictions.” (in The Privileged Planet: How our place in the cosmos is designed for discovery)
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I am thankful for sabbatical time from my congregation and a Pastoral Study Project Grant from the Louisville Institute to support my research.