The Church and Science through the Ages:
Seven Key Questions from the History of Science
By Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D.
Chapter 6 in Here We Stand: A Confessional Christian Study of Worldviews, edited by Curtis A. Jahn, with an introduction by David C. Thompson (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2010), 176-227.
Abstract: Drawing from history, philosophy, and theology, Dr. MacPherson explores several key questions that have arisen during the past four centuries as to the relationship between Christianity and the natural sciences. Some of the questions to be discussed have been of interest to Christians and non-Christians alike. Other questions call for particularly Christian, and even specifically Lutheran, inquiries concerning the role of the natural sciences in people’s lives. The presentation concludes with theological recommendations drawn from Luther’s Small Catechism, a book that may be regarded as foundational for a Christian understanding of the natural sciences.
- Is the church oppressive to modern science? Many people have argued that it is. We will explore the most frequently referenced case study that would seem to prove that the church has been hostile to the development of modern science: the case of Galileo’s persecution by the Catholic Church for his endorsement of the Copernican theory.
- Does the church produce the best scientists? This question aims in the opposite direction of the preceding one. Whereas the first question implicates the church for impeding science, this question suggests that the church has fostered science. The Christian doctrines of Creation and Providence, so goes this argument, instill confidence that knowledge of God’s world can be gained by careful observations and experiments in nature. To explore this claim, we will focus particularly upon Isaac Newton, a deeply religious man whose formulation of three mathematical laws of motion marked the high point of the scientific revolution.
- Can God do this: “2 + 2 = 5”? With this question, we explore the roles of reason in matters science and in matters of faith. Here our focus turns to a Lutheran astronomer named Johannes Kepler. We will first examine Kepler’s Greek philosophical assumption that God’s mind is geometrical. Then we will trace how that assumption led him to develop three laws that are foundational to modern astronomy. But could Kepler’s God make 2 + 2 equal 5?
- Are the natural sciences integral to the church’s theology? This question received considerable debate during the nineteenth century. We will examine an alliance that was forged between theology and the natural sciences at Princeton Theological Seminary and Princeton College at that time. Then we will trace the legacy of this Presbyterian model and compare it to a Lutheran understanding of science.
- Does the church have DNA, and is the human soul genetic? Physics and astronomy may have been king during the scientific revolution, but geology and biology enjoyed prominence during the nineteenth century, and by the late twentieth century genetics became the most culturally significant branch of science. This likely will continue for some years to come. Genetics, perhaps more so even than evolutionary biology, touches upon the fundamental meaning of the human person. Who are we? What is our destiny? Where, one might wonder, does the Christian church fit in this age of genetics?
- Where does science fit in Luther’s Small Catechism? This question shifts our attention from the history of scientific research to the practice of science education in our Lutheran schools. Lutheran education is, by definition, centered upon Luther’s Small Catechism. If we are to understand properly the relations between our Christian worldview and science, then we must be prepared to apply Luther’s summary of the Bible’s chief doctrines—his Small Catechism.
- Does science belong in the church’s ministry? This final question invites us to apply the lessons learned from the preceding discussions to the special work for which Christ established his church. The lessons to be learned here apply in special ways to pastors, to teachers, and to lay people.