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The Reformation and Science: No Simple Answers, but Some Clear Foundations


October 31 is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, marked by Martin Luther’s nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg. The effects of that act have been monumental, not just for religious reasons. It released pent-up frustrations about corruption in the established church, true, but it also flung open doors to fresh air in the world of ideas, arousing new conceptions of man’s place in the universe and our duties to one another. The grounds of individual freedom and responsibility would sprout fruitful fields (along with weeds) in the areas of government, the arts, and natural science. A century after that October day in 1517, the scientific revolution really took off with the work of Galileo, Kepler, Boyle and Newton.

Drawing connections in history is as difficult as taxonomy is to biology. You find lumpers and splitters among historians: those who want to connect everything and those who want to divide everything. An example of the latter is David Wootton, who argues in Nature that seeds of the scientific revolution were already sprouting before Luther, and would have flowered without the Reformation.

Scientists, as scientists, are under no particular obligation to either celebrate or bemoan the publication of Luther’s theses 500 years ago. There have been great Protestant and Catholic scientists, and others who had different faiths or (perhaps including Galileo) no religious belief at all. What happened in the scientific revolution was that science developed its own procedures and modes of enquiry and thus established its independence from both philosophers and theologians.

The link between the Reformation and the scientific revolution is not one of causation. But it is more than a coincidence, because both were made possible by the rapid growth of printing in the years after 1439, when Johannes Gutenberg developed his press. Where previous reform movements, in both science and religion, had failed dismally, the press made it possible for these two to succeed. If we are looking for the preconditions of modern science, it’s to Gutenberg, not Luther, that we should turn.

Wootton’s opinion runs counter to that of other historians and scholars, including Stanley Jaki, Alfred North Whitehead, Vishal Mangalwadi, and Rodney Stark. Mangalwadi in particular, having grown up in eastern tradition, was struck by the difference in worldview of the West compared to his native India. And if printing led to the scientific revolution, why didn’t China and Korea bring it on, since they had invented movable type centuries before Gutenberg? Terry Scambray writes in New Oxford Book Reviews about Mangalwadi’s book, The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization, that worldview differences have more to do with why science arose in the West.

Why, then, didn’t printing have the momentous effect in China or Korea that it had in the West? Mangalwadi writes, “Printing and books did not reform my continent because our religious philosophies undermined reason.” As other historians, philosophers, and anthropologists have noted, none of these cultures had a god like the God of the Bible, who is interested in human destiny. By contrast, the Greek and Roman gods were frivolous and capricious, and Buddhism offers awe and silence in the face of the unknowable. Neither picture of the cosmos affirms that men have inherent value.

The Reformers’ writings on the “Protestant work ethic” and the priesthood of all believers did not emerge out of nothing. They were grounded in a theistic worldview that took personal responsibility seriously. To Luther and the other reformers who followed, the “inherent value” of the individual under a caring God had been clouded by years of tradition and corrupt leadership, robbing the populace of both knowledge and inquiry. But those pillars of the Reformation were active among medieval scholars before Luther, who exalted logic in their disputations about Aristotle and the Bible. Their reliance on propositional arguments can be traced further back through the Church Fathers’ disputations about the nature of God and Christ, back through the New Testament reasoning by the apostles — indeed, all the way back to the Pentateuch. Consider that the Ten Commandments were given to individuals as if they were capable of thinking and choosing individually. Even more basic is the Judeo-Christian concept of a Creator who is unchanging in truth and morals, a non-capricious Designer operating the universe in a non-capricious way. Try to imagine these ideas emerging from Darwinism! Yet science cannot exist without these fundamental ideas about the reliability of nature, reason, human exceptionalism, and individual responsibility.

In their book The Soul of Science (1994), Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton find additional empowerments for science in the Protestant work ethic, which taught that all human vocations have value:

The dignity of work became an even more prominent theme in the Reformation. The concept of “calling” was extended from church vocations to secular vocations. According to theologian Ian Barbour, Protestants believed that “man should serve God not by withdrawing into a monastic life but by carrying out any honest and useful job with integrity and diligence.” This general enhancement of the dignity of work, Barbour says, served to endorse scientific work as well.

John Calvin, for example, did not call merely for the devotional contemplation of creation; he also called for active labor in creation, both practically and intellectually. In Calvin’s words, “there is need of art and more exacting toil in order to investigate the motion of the stars, to determine their assigned stations, to measure their intervals, to note their properties.” (p. 23).

Pearcey and Thaxton quote Kepler who found great joy in studying the works of the Creator’s hands. Needless to say, this attitude motivates scientific excellence. Scientific institutions today are grieved over shoddy workmanship and lack of scientific integrity. They could use a little Reformation themselves.

Wootton’s dismissal of the Reformation (“It’s to Gutenberg, not Luther, that we should turn”) falls apart when you ask what books should have been printed on his press. Would science have flourished with publications of Eastern myths that demand “silence in the face of the unknowable”? Would instructions on how to placate “frivolous and capricious” deities have motivated Galileo and Newton? (Wootton demeans the reputations of those two, by the way; Galileo vigorously defended his faith, and Newton’s devotion to the Bible, despite some peculiarities in his views, was unquestionable, to the point of occupying much of his life in its study — more time, in fact, than his investigations into science).

For the answer, just look at the record: Gutenberg’s first printed masterpiece was the Gutenberg Bible. Beginning with Luther’s German translation, copies of the Bible in the common tongue spread far and wide, becoming the common ground of knowledge for the great scientists who followed.

Not all the scientists who came after accepted the Bible, except in one important sense: they did not question the validity of reason. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Miracles:

The Naturalists have been engaged in thinking about Nature. They have not attended to the fact that they were thinking. The moment one attends to this it is obvious that one’s own thinking cannot be merely a natural event, and that therefore something other than Nature exists. The Supernatural is not remote and abstruse: it is a matter of daily and hourly experience, as intimate as breathing.

In a sense, Luther and the other Reformers merely revived ideas that had always been grounded in a Biblical worldview: human dignity, personal responsibility, and the validity of reason. One cannot do science without these principles. Science could not, and did not, flourish in the societies that demanded acquiescence to shamans, or that offered no way to figure out what the gods wanted, or otherwise encouraged people to turn off their minds. Much less could it have thrived in a society teaching survival of the fittest.

Wootton points to trends prior to, or contemporaneous with, the Reformation that suggest the scientific revolution would have happened anyway. He accuses both sides of anti-scientific views.

What fatally weakened the hold of the old Aristotelian physics and Ptolemaic astronomy was the voyages of discovery, followed by the invention of the telescope and the barometer. It was not the Reformation: the scientific revolution would have taken place without that. Indeed, progress might even have been more rapid, because the Church would have been less dogmatic in responding to novelty. The Council of Trent (1545–63), assembled by the Catholic Church in reaction to Luther’s bombshell, tightened up doctrine, requiring it to conform to long-established tradition. This led directly to the condemnation of Copernicanism and its heliocentric cosmos as heretical. One only has to think of the continuing clash between Protestant fundamentalism and Darwinism to see that there is no straightforward match between Protestantism and scientific values. The Catholic Church has never condemned Darwinism.

Talk about non-sequiturs! The number of errors in this paragraph would take too long to unpack and refute in a brief article. Suffice it to say that Wootton is relying on a Biblical worldview to attack it. He would never say such things if he were a consistent Darwinist. What are “scientific values”? What are values at all? Such notions presuppose human exceptionalism and personal responsibility to moral absolutes. Throughout his essay, Wootton uses propositional reasoning without justifying it. He fails to recognize that the roots of reason are grounded in the Judeo-Christian worldview, not in Darwinism.

Drawing a line between the Ninety-five Theses and Newton may be overly simplistic. At the very least, the Reformation rejuvenated scientific values that had long been grounded in ancient propositions believed to have been revealed from a personal God who created a meaningful cosmos, and then created man in His image and instructed His sons and daughters about the right way to think and live. That is what Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Francis Bacon, Boyle, Newton, and the other giants of the scientific revolution took for granted. If David Wootton himself did not take the Reformation’s principles for granted himself, he would be speechless.

Image: Martin Luther nails Ninety-five Theses to church door at Wittenberg, by Julius Hübner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.