Exam 2 Essay Question 3


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.