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Exam 2  Essay Question 3

Page history last edited by Amanda Beattie 12 years, 6 months ago


A common assumption about religion (especially Christianity) and science is that they are always in conflict, and that the Church generally hinders intellectual progress and freedom of thought. Use the material from the assigned readings to show that this assumption is largely false (with some important exceptions) for the case of Christianity.


    Many view the conflict and separation between religion and science as longstanding and absolute.  Religion is generally stereotyped as an ensnaring force that binds the intellectual progress of science, while science scoffs at religion's theology-based explanations.  It is no surprise then that Christianity has been perceived to be at odds with natural philosophy (science). That such a schism was present during the Middle Ages is commonly held to be a logical conclusion. By most historical observations, however, this idea is not well founded. The Christian church was a nurturing force for intellectual progress and freedom of thought in the Middle Ages despite its condemnations of specific classical philosophical ideas and opposition to certain aspects of natural philosophy.

     In the Middle Ages, natural philosophy did not pertain to the exact fields of study we commonly associate with science, but rather included ethics, metaphysics and theology.  Therefore, before discussing the natural philosophy of the Middle Ages, one must understand the drastic differences between modern science and medieval natural philosophy. Today the disciplines of science (biology, chemistry, physics, agricultural science, etc.) are fairly distinct and separate from each other, while in the Middle Ages strict partitioning of disciplines was not always the case. Most natural philosophers studied a vast array of subjects; it would not have been unusual for an individual to work in the areas of mathematics, astronomy, and alchemy in addition to many others. They were also frequently teachers, educating in a more generalized manner across many disciplines, as opposed to teaching one specific subject (Lindberg 511). The most important differences between the Middle Ages and today, however, involved the aim of natural philosophy and the overall attitude towards it.  These foci in learning and research in medieval times show a close tie between religion and philosophy. Religion would not likely stamp out or hinder natural philosophy, since the majority of natural philosophers were trying to use the discipline to support the claims of Christianity.           

     In order to support the faith, medieval scholars borrowed extensively from the natural philosophy of the classical tradition. Logical tools evolved from Greek philosophy (particularly the works of Aristotle) helped to develop defenses for Christianity against learned opponents. This use of pagan logic to defend Christianity, known as apologetics, also aided in the conversion and inundation of new peoples into the church. The apologetic tradition began with Justin Martyr (d. ~182-6) (Lindberg 513).  Justin and his fellow scholars were well versed in Stoic, Aristotelian, Pythagorean, and Platonic philosophies.  Another such scholar, Origen, pieced together bits of Platonic and Aristotelian traditions in order to support the beliefs of the Christian faith. Origen was acclaimed by his students for employing all ranges of philosophies in his studies, Christian and pagan, Greek and non-Greek (Lindberg 514). 

     In addition to incorporating Aristotilian logic, medieval philosophers adopted, with some modifications, specific classical propositions, Platonic cosmology, for instance, correlated nicely with Christian teaching, since Plato's Demiurge could be easily likened to the Christian Creator, God.  One of the church fathers, Augustine (354-430) believed Greek philosophy to be the best way of explaining the natural world, but considered theology the absolute truth when the two were in contradiction. Roger Bacon, a scholar from the 12th century, wrote on integrating new secular learning with Christian theology in his work, the Opus Maius Proper interpretation of scripture, or exegesis, required the use of natural philosophy but, according to Bacon, scripture revealed the Aristotilian final cause, or “true” nature of things. Although relegating natural philosophy to handmaiden status common to medieval thought, Bacon's Opus Maius helped to fuel natural philosophy rather than stifle it. Despite chronological differences, Christian scholars incorporated natural philosophy as a means to foster religious understanding rather than snuffing it out altogether.

     The main contribution of the religious culture of the early Middle Ages was one of preservation and transmission. The monasteries served as the transmitters of literacy and a thin version of the classical tradition, which included natural philosophy, during a period when literacy and scholarship were severely threatened.  Much of what the modern world knows about the classical theorists, in fact, comes directly from copies and translations from people in this time. Some of these translators and scribes had religious adherence/exploration in mind and therefore if these two worlds were in fact separate, our society would suffer a serious disadvantage in classical knowledge. These monasteries were filled with students and teachers of natural philosophy who translated many works on natural philosophy.  Not only were philosophers of the time striving to translate these works, but people such as Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon strove to unite secular and theological learning and study.  Without these translations and some new works as well, the state of natural philosophy at the time may have slipped into further decay. 

     Furthermore, the Church contributed to the development of natural philosophy by the creation and support of schools. Much classical learning was based on polytheistic philosophies which caused concern for contradicting the monotheistic values of the church. Nevertheless, many church leaders valued classical education and could not think of an adequate replacement. After all, the church fathers themselves were well educated in classical tradition. Classical learning continued due to these circumstances, but noted inconsistencies remained between the philosophies of the classical corpus and Christian theology. 

     Christian scholars also had direct use of natural philosophy, as is evidenced by the Venerable Bede. In addition to his works On the Nature of Things and Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he instructed other monks on timekeeping and the construction of religious calendars. Bede utilized the limited available astronomical knowledge to develop time standards used throughout Christian Europe, a practice especially important for determining religious holidays and observances such as Easter.  In the Byzantine Empire the geometric aptitudes of architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus who designed the resplendent Hagia Sophia blessed the Eastern Christian Church. Their work provides a direct example of the utilization of new scientific ideas by the Christian church.

     Though there were some Christians who readily accepted pagan methods ideas, there were also those who harbored a negative view towards natural philosophy and secular learning in general. One of those men, Tertullian, is famously quoted as saying, "What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" referring to "what does philosophy have to do with Christianity?" (Lindberg 515).  Tertullian, like others who were against pagan learning, warned that any path besides that of Christianity was an easy path to heresy.  Thus it was not particularly natural philosophy he was against, but rather its potential outcomes.  Likewise, he acknowledged the uses of reason and rational argument and at the same time reminded others that faith and belief must come first (Lindberg 516).

     Despite many attempts to merge the secular studies of the time with the theology of Christianity, the Church nonetheless perceived certain aspects of the ancient Greek tradition as an outright threat.  Many of these threats stemmed from the Aristotelian corpus, texts noted for their logical prowess and limitations on the natural world. The classical ideas that Christianity had incorporated became a double-edged sword, so to speak. On one side, the logical power of Aristotle was a godsend for protecting the ideas and values of the church. On the other, the cosmologies that were assumed to be compatible with Christianity displayed some irreconcilable differences. Commentators, such as Simplicius (d. post 533), attempted to resolve Aristotelianism with Platonism and thereby Christianity, but the differences were too great. 

     Such disparities led to further conflicts within Christian Europe, with the University of Paris at the epicenter. Throughout the 13th century several official condemnations sprung forth, demanding that instructors and students refrain from the study of Aristotle under the threat of excommunication.  In the earliest of these documents, composed in 1210, stated: "Neither the books of Aristotle on natural philosophy nor their commentaries are to be read at Paris in public or secret, and this we forbid under penalty of excommunication" (trans Thorndike 42).  Regarding this passage, editor Edward Grant noted that "this prohibition had only local force and was restricted in its application to the arts faculty at the University of Paris, leaving theologians free to read the prohibited books" (42).  In the early stages of the condemnations the prohibition seems to be much less of a dynamic force that hindered the study of natural philosophy, Aristotilian or otherwise.   A later condemnation, the Condemnation of 1277, however, outlined specific "errors," primarily prohibiting anything that set limits on the omnipotence or unquestionable power of God. Such bans included "that there was no first man, nor will there be a last; on the contrary, there always was and always will be generation of man from man" (Grant 48) and "that from the different [zodiacal] signs of the sky diverse conditions are assigned in men, both with respect to spiritual gifts and temporal things" (Grandt 49).  Many would view this event as detrimental to scientific thought at the time, but this act brought about a revolution in how philosophers thought in the Middle Ages.  By banning the teaching and practice of mainstream ideas in philosophy at the time, especially Aristotle's dominant philosophy, academics were forced to question beliefs that were once held to be absolute, causing a boom in philosophical advancement that varied beyond the realm of Aristotle.

     The suppression of some classical ideals allowed natural philosophers of the Middle Ages to stop slavishly following the models of others and to start asking hypothetical questions like "If God were to do this, then what does this mean with our current understanding?" The format of questions was an attempt by the natural philosophers of medieval times to find the true format of the universe around them while not subverting the overall hegemony of religion at the time. In these questions, philosophers of the day sought to ask questions based upon how the universe might work; ultimately, many of these early pseudo-hypotheses fell back on religion and never strayed far beyond the theological status quo. “How many celestial spheres are there” serves as an empirical example A philosopher of the day would contend that these celestial spheres, based upon Aristotelian ideology, follow not only the form of logical assumptions based upon classical thought, but also (near the end of the thought process, in an attempt to quell the religious ends of natural philosophy) should take into account matters such as Genesis firmament. These questions functioned as an exploratory mechanism for medieval natural philosophers while eventually affirming the need for religious input. In this instance, the modern observer should be able to construe that far from being separate spheres of thought and ideology, religion and science at this time were actually dependent upon one another.

     The immediate result of questions was a removal of contradictions within those cosmologies that were incompatible with Christian theology, but the long term results were ever expanding ideas and a change in the natural philosophers' way of thinking.  What some modern historians consider the stifling of scientific study was merely a shift in the way scientists approached their art.  There was no abrupt end to scientific thought when Christianity spread throughout medieval Europe, rather the church incorporated natural philosophy (science) into its teachings.  The medieval Christian church, though it may have banned the passage of certain types of scientific knowledge, clearly opened the floodgates for others.             

     The Christian church helped to advance natural philosophy in the Middle Ages both through active involvement and passive influence. Through its condemnations of many Aristotelian ideas the Church actively broke the bonds of Aristotelian thought, giving rise to a new generation of natural philosophy.  These new philosophers infused the ideas of scholarship with the theology of the church furthering the study of natural philosophy.  The Church passively influenced through the establishment of schools, where the translating and copying of texts helped preserve both the knowledge and traditions needed to keep medieval natural philosophy thriving.  For these reasons, while exceptions can be made, the Christian church was a beacon of progress in natural philosophy in the Middle Ages and not an opposing force as previously conceived.    








Lindberg, David C. "Science and the Early Christian Church." Isis vol. 74, no. 4 (Dec., 1983), pp. 509-530.

"The Reaction of the Universities and Theological Authorities to Aristotelian Science and Natural Philosophy." Trans. Lynn Thorndike and Edward Grant. Ed. Edward Grant. A Source Book in Medieval Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U.P., 1974. 42- 50. rptd in NASC 400 History of Science to 1700. Ed. Peter Ramberg. Fall 2008. 42-46.  





Comments (32)

jgm829@... said

at 4:21 pm on Oct 14, 2008

I started with some of the stuff from chapter 7 of the text.

Grant Berry said

at 9:03 pm on Oct 14, 2008

I added an intro paragraph. Tomorrow I may make an outline and put it on here. I think having a guide for this essay will be really helpful.

jgm829@... said

at 8:38 pm on Oct 15, 2008

I added some more information from chapter 7 of the text.

Grant Berry said

at 8:54 am on Oct 16, 2008

Added information from the Lindberg article "Science and the Early Christian Church."

I'm worried we're starting to digress. Remember, guys, we're talking about the Christian church. Make sure that any natural philosopher you talk about has direct ties with Christianity or with making Classical ideas compatible with Christian cosmology. Also, the Lindberg article can be found here. It is excellent, and I'd like to see us use it as a guideline, as Lindberg basically gives all the evidence we need to show that the claim is false.

Lindberg article:

Garrett McCormack said

at 12:16 am on Oct 17, 2008

i added a little on the condemnation of 1277 but i think theres plenty more to add about that issue.

Nicole Hagstrom said

at 5:03 am on Oct 19, 2008

Thanks for the link Grant! Also, very good comments.
All righty guys, you need to be really, really careful in this essay. There is A LOT of, what I think, erroneous information. The original thesis even contradicted with the prompt!!

I took out two paragraphs already, one I replaced, the other, I think is irrelevent, but could go some where, perhaps shortened to a sentence in the intro if you'd like, but does not stand on its own. I'll paste them here in case you guys are partial to it:

With the rise of secularism in today's society, one would be inclined to say that the "Church" and science have always been in conflict. Theology is seen as something that makes non-empirical claims and falls outside of the framework of traditional science, while science in practice tends to deny or ignore the idea of an omnipotent deity. The "Church," generally having most of the political power in a society is seen by some as a constant, ensnaring force that binds the intellectual progress of science. This idea is, by most historical observations, entirely false. One paradigmatic example of such flawed logic can be seen with the Christian church in the later middle ages.
Some scientists, like John Draper and Andrew White, believe that the Christian church was, like it generally is today, in constant conflict with natural philosophy. As Draper said in Lindberg's article "Science and the Early Christian Church", "[The Church] became a stumbling block in the intellectual advancement of Europe for more than a thousand years." David C. Lindberg delineates an analysis of the state of natural philosophy in the middle ages and examines whether or not the Christian church was the main cause for the decadence of natural philosophy.

Grant Berry said

at 10:30 am on Oct 19, 2008

Just some minor grammatical/style edits. Nicole, I agree with you on the information. Your thesis is also excellent. I know this was probably intentional, but I feel like the last chunk of information on all the scientists needs to be incorporated into the essay somehow. I'm trying to decide what would be best. Should it be abridged and then stuck in between the second and third paragraphs, or should it all be incorporated? Later today I'll try to supplement the essay with a little more from Lindberg's article, since I think it's got a lot of what we need.

Garry Polley said

at 12:42 pm on Oct 19, 2008

I am sorry I completely forgot about the group essay. I have read it and I edited three very small grammatical mistakes. The missing of is, boon to boom, and a colon. So I don't think it really counts as an edit. But it did help me to catch up.

Garry Polley said

at 3:58 pm on Oct 19, 2008

I added a little bit about the OPUS MAIUS I felt it needed some talking about further than what was there. Change edit and delete as you all see fit.

Grant Berry said

at 10:09 pm on Oct 19, 2008

I did a few little things. I think the essay is coming along very nicely. We need a solid concluding paragraph. I know this sounds kind of harsh, but I feel like the last paragraphs on the individual scientists don't really have a place in the essay anymore. Can anyone find a way to incorporate them into relevant places (maybe with abridged versions)?

Garry Polley said

at 11:48 pm on Oct 19, 2008

As long as the current editor is not doing it would have no problem fitting them in.

Kristy Carey said

at 12:08 am on Oct 20, 2008

I attempted to incorporate the specific philosophers into the body text, but I felt most of the information was superfluous to the thesis. I did other editting as well, including more (hopefully relevent) "name dropping" in most of the paragraphs. I'm planning on adding bits on Tertullian and the anti-intellectual group early tomorrow morning to the "opposed" paragraph.

A WARNING, however. Be careful of plagiarism. I found more than one instance were sentences, or even paragraphs, were lifted verbatim from Lindberg. I changed/incorporated it. We all know this not acceptable.

Amanda Beattie said

at 12:36 am on Oct 20, 2008

I tried to make the different sections of the text more fluid, which still needs quite a bit more work, and I agree that there is still a bit of superfluous information that could be left out to make the essay more clear and concise in response to the prompt. I also added a bit to the conclusion.

Nicole Hagstrom said

at 4:43 am on Oct 20, 2008

I worked primarily on transitions for the first half of the essay. I chunked out one section that made a modern commentary and placed it at the bottom of the page, not so much because I think it belongs in that spot, but I felt that it did not flow with the paragraph it was currently in. Do what you want with that text. It's not perfect yet, but we're getting there.

I like Kristy's prospective contributions as well as her warning about plagiarism. If you're unsure whether you've plagiarized or not, go ahead an cite it. We can edit around excess citing, but we can't salvage a zero on the text. Thanks for catching that, Kristy!

Nicole Hagstrom said

at 4:48 am on Oct 20, 2008

Also, to Grant. Yeah, I definitely see where you're coming from. I would suggest placing it towards the beginning of the essay, perhaps in the first paragraph, in order to establish that "yes, there are actual scholars who believe[d] that the Church strongly opposed 'science." However, we don't want to completely copy Lindberg, so perhaps somewhere else might be prudent. I'll leave that up to you.

Good ideas with Lindberg, I'm looking forward to reading what you conclude.

Peter Ramberg said

at 11:06 am on Oct 20, 2008

After a quick skim, this looks like a good start. I don't have any specific suggestions except to make sure that you have several (2-3) specific examples that support your claim in depth, and that, as Kristy said above, you do not plagiarize from the readings. Make sure that you put everything into your own words.

Garry Polley said

at 2:47 pm on Oct 20, 2008

I made a few word choice changes and I high lighted what I thought the thesis was as of now. I do like the essay thus far. I do think the last paragraph.. which I think is an early draft of a conclusion could be a bit more clear.. but I don't want to edit it because the original poster may have an idea as to where they want it to go.

Kristy Carey said

at 7:04 pm on Oct 20, 2008

I did some reworking of the first paragraph and other basic editing. Paragraph 2 still seems awkward to me, as do the first few sentences of paragraph 6...seems choppy. Also, someone with more grammar skill than I needs to check on the uses of "Church" and "church." That's all for now...

Garry Polley said

at 7:28 pm on Oct 20, 2008

I attempted to "fix" or reword paragraph 2 and also some of paragraph 6. I am also not too sure what is correct with the bit and little "C"'s on church.

Kristy Carey said

at 9:03 pm on Oct 20, 2008

Added a paragraph on Tertullian and the anti-intellectualists and did basic editing.

Grant Berry said

at 9:16 pm on Oct 20, 2008

I found a lot of places that looked too similar to Lindberg, and I cited them as well as the direct quotes that were not cited.

jgm829@... said

at 10:15 pm on Oct 20, 2008

I corrected a few spellings and a couple grammatical errors. The word partioning in the second paragraph looks misspelled, is it perhaps portioning?

Grant Berry said

at 10:40 pm on Oct 20, 2008

I think partitioning is okay. It means dividing a set up into separate parts. Maybe it should be "the partition?"

Garry Polley said

at 11:26 pm on Oct 20, 2008

I fixed my misspelling of partitioning and I changed some grammar problems or sentences that seemed to be awkward. I also think we need to try and say natural philosophy and not science because the whole purpose is to show the science of the middle ages which was natural philosophy similar to science as we know it but not quite. Just a thought.

Nicole Hagstrom said

at 1:38 am on Oct 21, 2008

I added in a little more work on the condemnations. I attributed the quotations to whoever translated the passage and placed an entry in the works cited. I am not entirely sure if that formatting is correct, however, so feel free to change it.

On another note, I am a little perplexed with the paragraphs at the end. I'm not sure I entirely agree with the proposal. Some more information, especially from outside sources, would be exceedingly helpful in clarifying this issue.

Grant Berry said

at 8:46 am on Oct 21, 2008

In any case, let's finalize this baby. There are still a few typos, an we need to do some final polishing. I've got class until 12:30, so does someone want to take control of this?

Garry Polley said

at 10:09 am on Oct 21, 2008

I added some to the concluding paragraph and some to other various paragraphs. I also tried to take out every use of the word science when it did not pertain to current day. I don't think we should add anymore brand new information just keep on polishing what is there.

Mark Philippi said

at 10:24 am on Oct 21, 2008

I just went through this beast again (this makes 5 woohoo!) and corrected all the grammar mistakes I could find. I personally think we're done, but it wouldn't hurt for someone else to read through the whole thing (making sure not to add any new errors) and make sure that I didn't miss anything.

Nicole Hagstrom said

at 11:08 am on Oct 21, 2008

A paper is never actually "done." It's just abandoned at the due date. Watch out for passives. I tried to fix most of them, but I'm sure a few slipped past me. Overall, a good paper, though if anyone wants more to do, I would suggest tweaking the paragraph order a little bit. Or incorporating the actual Lindberg text, which we said we incorporated, but I don't think we actually did.

Larry_Crump said

at 11:48 am on Oct 21, 2008

Hey folks, I added the medieval nat. philosophers' format for inquiry (i.e. commentaries, questiones, etc.) to reinforce the fact that religion and science actually worked in tandem at this time. I also emphasized that if the preconceived notion of separation between these two fields were true, we would not know much of anything about many of the classical thinkers that we know today (because scribes and translators with religious intent were among the people that kept the intellectual momentum so to speak).

Kristy Carey said

at 12:15 pm on Oct 21, 2008

I did some rearranging of paragraphs for flow and brevity, and more editing.

Amanda Beattie said

at 12:38 pm on Oct 21, 2008

Did some editing with grammar, spelling, and flow. I guess it's a good sign that I couldn't find that much to edit :)

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