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Reclaiming the Christian Roots of Modern Science

Ken Yeh
ACSI Convention
November 25, 2008
Our students will face great challenges as Christians working in the field of science.
Our task is to equip them with both the critical thinking skills and knowledge to
build a rational Christian thought framework, capable of handling the issues
surrounding the interchange between science and faith as faithful ambassadors of

I. Intro – The media portrayal of Christianity and Science

Three popular statements about the history of science and Christianity:
 Medieval Christians believed that the Earth was flat, until Columbus proved
the Church wrong.
 Galileo Galilei proved scientifically that the Earth revolved around the sun,
thus confirming Copernicus’ theory of heliocentrism.
 The Scientific Revolution was a triumph of reason over religion, as the early
scientists applied science to undermine the authority of the Church.

The general belief is that Christians have always been opposed to science, holding
instead to “anti-scientific” views such as:
 A flat Earth
 Geocentrism
 Supernatural Creation of the Universe

The last one of course is not anti-scientific. But because of the perceived
association between Christians and the first two erroneous positions, when
Christians today try to present the scientific merits of a created universe, we are
given the same credibility as if we were trying to make the case for a flat Earth or a
solar system with the Earth at the center.

II. The Church and Science at War?

Concludes historian of science Colin Russell in his essay, “The Conflict Metaphor and
its Social Origins,”
“The common belief that… the actual relations between religion and science over
the last few centuries have been marked by deep and enduring hostility… is not
only historically inaccurate, but actually a caricature so grotesque that what needs
to be explained is how it could possibly have achieved any degree of respectability”
(quoted in John Lennox, God’s Undertaker, p. 26-27).

The Origins of the “Conflict Thesis”

Popularized by two influential textbooks (both of which are still being printed and
sold today):
John Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1875)
Andrew White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom
“Roman Christianity and Science are recognized by their respective adherents as
being absolutely incompatible; they cannot exist together; one must yield to the
other; mankind must make it’s choice – it cannot have both.” (Draper, History…

“In all modern history, interference with science in the supposed interest of religion,
no matter how conscientious such interference may have been, has resulted in the
direst evils both to religion and to science.” (White)

Their influence continues today…

“[B]ased on historical evidence, religious thinking *in science* [sic] only stunts the
creativity and logical thought processes of scientists.” (E. Thomson, review of A
History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom on

III. The Myth of the Flat Earth

The Flammarion Woodcut

The Flat Earth Myth in Textbooks

“[Columbus] felt he would eventually reach the Indies in the East. Many Europeans
still believed that the world was flat. Columbus, they thought, would fall off the
earth.” America Past and Present (Scott Foresman, 1983), 98.

“The European sailor of a thousand years ago also had many other strange beliefs.
He turned to these beliefs because he had no other way to explain the dangers of
the unknown sea. He believed . . . that a ship could sail out to sea just so far before
it fell off the edge of the sea. . . . The people of Europe a thousand years ago knew
little about the world.” We the People (Heath, 1982), 28-29.

Columbus’ Conflict with the Church

Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in
“The warfare of Columbus the world knows well: how the Bishop of Ceuta worsted
him in Portugal; how sundry wise men of Spain confronted him with the usual
quotations from the Psalms, from St. Paul, and from St. Augustine; how, even after
he was triumphant, and after his voyage had greatly strengthened the theory of the
earth's sphericity, with which the theory of the antipodes was so closely connected,
the Church by its highest authority solemnly stumbled and persisted in going

The source for White’s account was the book, The Life and Voyages of Christopher
Columbus, written by Washington Irving, the author of other such historically
accurate accounts as Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Reproductions of Irving’s book can be found here:

The issue of contention was not whether the earth was flat or round, but over the
size of the earth. Those who opposed Columbus believed that the circumference
of the earth was too great for ships to sail around to the other side. There was no
talk about “falling off the edge of the world.” Columbus had calculated that the
distance for his trip from the Canary Islands to Japan would be about 4,450 km,
which is one-fifth the actual distance of 22,000 km. If not for the placement of the
Americas in between, Columbus and his crew would have surely perished, as his
critics predicted. Columbus’ voyage—and later explorations by others—did not
change the perception of the shape of the earth, but merely added new land
masses to the Middle Age maps of the world.

Besides that, it was Magellan (or rather, the remainder of his crew) who actually
circumnavigated the world and proved empirically that the Earth was round.
Early Christian thinkers who wrote about the spherical Earth
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) in his great systematic work Summa Theologica
“Both an astronomer and a physical scientist may demonstrate the same
conclusion, for instance that the earth is spherical; the first, however, works in a
mathematical medium prescinding from material qualities, while for the second his
medium is the observation of material bodies through the senses."1

The French Roman Catholic bishop Nicole Oresme (1323-1382) proposed several
playful paradoxes dealing with a round and rotating earth, including one that
established the principle behind changing time zones and the international date line
for east-west travels.2

Oresme’s teacher, Jean Buridan, discussed the rotation of the earth.

All three of these Middle Age thinkers wrote as if the round earth was common
knowledge, not something that still needed to be established.

Observations affirming a spherical Earth

1. Shadow of the Earth during Lunar Eclipses
Thomas Aquinas: "In [lunar] eclipses the outline [of the earth] is always curved: and,
since it is the interposition of the earth that makes the eclipse, the form of this line
will be caused by the form of the earth's surface, which is therefore spherical."3

2. The Stars in the Sky

Johannes de Sacrobosco (1195-1256), an English monk, wrote an astronomical
textbook that was used in universities for many centuries.
That the earth, too, is round is shown thus. The signs and stars do not rise
and set the same for all men everywhere but rise and set sooner for those in
the east than for those in the west; and of this there is no other cause than
the bulge of the earth. Moreover, celestial phenomena evidence that they
rise sooner for Orientals than for westerners. For one and the same eclipse of
the moon which appears to us in the first hour of the night appears to
Orientals about the third hour of the
night, which proves that they had

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, vol. 1, trans. by Thomas Gilby (New York:
McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964), q.1, a.1.
Nicole Oresme, Lu Livre du Ciel et du Monde (1370), Bk. II, ch. 31, pp. 573-581.
Thomas Aquinas, Exposition of Aristotle's Treatise On the Heavens, 2 vols, trans. by
Larcher, R. F., and Pierre H. Conway (Columbus, OH: College of St. Mary of the Springs,
1964), Book II, lect. 28. 400-402.
night and sunset before we did, of which setting the bulge of the earth is the

3. Observations of a ship’s mast

Sacrobosco also described how the dropping of a ship’s mast below the horizon as it
sailed away was another proof of the spherical shape of the earth.

These examples show that a spherical earth was already an accepted fact in the
early 13th century.

Earlier Church Writings about a Spherical Earth

The Controversy Over Antipodes

But discussions about the round Earth appeared much earlier in Church history. A
controversy that arose within the church involving the shape of the earth was the
issue of antipodes, the idea of people living on the other side of the earth with their
feet facing in the opposite direction. The debate over antipodes has wrongly been
viewed as an example of the Church rejecting a spherical earth.

But consider this explanation from St. Augustine, writing in the 4th century in his
City of God:

But as to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the
opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us, men who
walk with their feet opposite ours, that is on no ground credible. And, indeed,
it is not affirmed that this has been learned by historical knowledge, but by
scientific conjecture, on the ground that the earth is suspended within the
concavity of the sky, and that it has as much room on the one side of it as on
the other: hence they say that the part which is beneath must also be
inhabited. But they do not remark that, although it be supposed or
scientifically demonstrated that the world is of a round and spherical form,
yet it does not follow that the other side of the earth is bare of water; nor
even, though it be bare, does it immediately follow that it is peopled. For
Scripture, which proves the truth of its historical statements by the
accomplishment of its prophecies, gives no false information; and it is too
absurd to say, that some men might have taken ship and traversed the whole
wide ocean, and crossed from this side of the world to the other, and that
thus even the inhabitants of that distant region are descended from that one
first man.5

It can be clearly seen in this passage that Augustine does not refute the “scientific
conjecture” that the earth is round, that “it has as much room on the one side of it
as on the other.” What he rejects is the possibility that there could be inhabitants on
this other side, men who were not descended from Adam. But from Augustine, we
can see that even at such an early time in church history, a round earth was not
considered to be an unacceptable view.
Johannes de Sacrobosco, The Sphere, trans. by Lynn Thorndike, 1949, 10 Dec. 2004
Saint Augustine, The City of God, trans. by Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library,
1993), Book XVI, chap. 9.
Even in the early Middle Ages, the Venerable Bede (673-735), a monk recognized
as both a great historian and natural scientist, was already making clear statements
about the earth as a sphere:

The cause of the inequality of the length of days is that the earth is round,
and it is not in vain that in both the bible and pagan literature it is called the
“orb of lands.” For truly it is an orb placed in the center of the universe; in its
width it is like a circle, and not circular like a shield but rather like a ball, and
it extends from its center with perfect roundness on all sides.6

He specifically points out that the earth is not a flat disk like a shield but an actual
ball or globe. Bede’s writings show that by this point, the Church saw no Scriptural
conflict with a spherical earth.

This doesn’t mean that all Christians believed that the Earth was round, for some
did write of a flat earth.

However, this brief survey of key Christian thinkers during the Middle Ages shows
that the Church was not opposed to the concept of a spherical earth, and that the
conflicts that arose were not about the shape of the earth but over the belief in
antipodes, men who were not descended from the line of Adam. Any critic of the
Christian faith who accuses Christians of being ignorant and opposed to scientific
advances would do well to examine the actual writings of these early Christians
before continuing to propagate “The Flat Earth Myth.”

Jeffrey Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth

“Our determination to believe the Flat Error arises out of contempt for the past and
our need to believe in the superiority of the present.” Jeffrey Russell, Inventing the
Flat Earth

IV. The Trial of Galileo

The Trial of Galileo is the most commonly cited example of the conflict between
science and faith, or at least the conflict between men of science and men of
faith. Indeed, this can be an accurate assessment, but in contrast with the usual
perspective, it was Galileo who was the man of faith, and he was fighting against
the secular scientists of his day.

The trial of Galileo is much more nuanced and complex than the simplistic “science
versus the church” caricature painted by the popular press.

An excellent resource for the full story of the trial of Galileo as well as the stories of
Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton, read Charles Hummel, The Galileo Connection:
Resolving Conflicts between Science and the Bible.

Popular Myths about the Trial of Galileo

Bede, Bedae opera de temporibus, ed. C. W. Jones (Cambridge, Mass., 1943), chap.
32, quoted in Russell, 87.
 Galileo was tortured and abused by the Inquisition until he recanted his belief
in heliocentrism.
 Galileo was able to prove scientifically that the Earth moved around the sun.
 Galileo was trying to undermine the authority of the church through his
scientific work.

Myth 1. Galileo was tortured and abused by the Inquisition until he

recanted his belief in heliocentrism.
Galileo was never tortured nor abused by theInquisition. He was given a number of
concessions in recognition of his age at the time of the trial. He was housed in a
comfortable apartment in the Villa Medici, given servants to attend to him, and had
his meals prepared by the personal cook of the Florentine ambassador.

Myth 2. Galileo was able to prove scientifically that the Earth

moved around the sun.
Galileo showed that the Copernican system could explain phenomena that the
Ptolemaic system could not—such as the phases of Venus—and he argued that the
moons of Jupiter provided circumstantial evidence that bodies in the solar system
were not required to orbit the Earth. However, these were not considered to be
conclusive proofs for the Copernican system, as the Tychonian system could also
preserve the appearances and explain the same phenomena.

The Need for a Conclusive Demonstration

Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, Letter on Galileo’s Theories, 1615
For to say that, assuming the earth moves and the sun stands still, all the
appearances are saved better than with eccentrics and epicycles, is to speak
well; there is no danger in this, and it is sufficient for mathematicians. But to
want to affirm that the sun really is fixed in the center of the heavens and
only revolves around itself (i.e., turns upon its axis) without traveling from
east to west, and that the earth is situated in the third sphere and revolves
with great speed around the sun, is a very dangerous thing, not only by
irritating all the philosophers and scholastic theologians, but also by injuring
our holy faith and rendering the Holy Scriptures false.

In other words, it is fine to hold to a heliocentric system hypothetically, as a better

model of observations, but not as an actual truth. But was Bellarmine blindly
opposed to heliocentrism?

I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun was in the center of
the universe and the earth in the third sphere, and that the sun did not travel
around the earth but the earth circled the sun, then it would be necessary to
proceed with great caution in explaining the passages of Scripture which
seemed contrary, and we would rather have to say that we did not
understand them than to say that something was false which has been
demonstrated. But I do not believe that there is any such
demonstration; none has been shown to me. It is not the same thing to
show that the appearances are saved by assuming that the sun really is in
the center and the earth in the heavens. I believe that the first demonstration
might exist, but I have grave doubts about the second, and in a case of
doubt, one may not depart from the Scriptures as explained by the holy
If there had been a true, conclusive demonstration that the Earth moved around the
sun, he was ready to take the necessary steps of re-examining those passages in
Scripture that seemed to imply an immovable Earth. Examples:

Psalm 104:5 Ecclesiastes 1:5

He set the earth on its foundations; it The sun rises and the sun sets, and
can never be moved. hurries back to where it rises.

Galileo himself adopted Augustine’s hermeneutic affirming the need for a conclusive
demonstration before considering that Scripture required re-interpretation.

He wrote, “Yet even in those propositions which are not matters of faith, this
authority [of the Bible] ought to be preferred over that of all human writings which
are supported only by bare assertions or probable arguments, and not set forth in a
demonstrative way” (quoted in Hummel, The Galileo Connection, p. 107)

Galileo’s “Killer Proof” for the Motion of the Earth

Galileo’s “killer proof” that the Earth moved around the sun—presented in his
Treatise on the Tides (1616)—was the motion of the tides in the sea.

The only problem was, his proof was wrong. Other scientists who considered his
argument concluded that it made no sense.

Galileo’s explanation would have resulted in only one tide per day, but there were
two tides per day, 12 hours apart. Galileo tried to dismiss this by attributing the
second tide to other factors, such as the shape and depth of the sea, etc.

He rejected the alternative explanation proposed by Kepler, that the moon caused
the tides. Galileo also rejected Kepler’s evidence that the shape of planetary orbits
was elliptical rather than circular, both of which were later proved to be correct.
Observational proof of the motion of the earth didn’t come until the 18th
century with the discovery of stellar aberration, and later stellar parallax.

It is an example of his acerbic attitude that in his Dialogue Concerning the Two
Chief World Systems, Galileo makes this statement through the character Salviati,
“Among all the famous men who have philosophized [about the tides], I wonder
more at Kepler than any of the rest. Though he is a free and acute genius, he has
lent his assent to the moon's dominance over the oceans and to other occult
happenings and other such trifles.”

It seems that even the greatest scientist can fall prey to dogmatic assertion at

Myth 3. Galileo was trying to undermine the authority of the church

through his scientific work.
The conflict between heliocentrism and geocentrism was an example of science
versus science, not science versus faith.
Galileo’s battle was with the scientific establishment of the day led by the
Aristotelian scientists. Galileo was trying to prevent the church from becoming
irrelevant in clinging on to an obsolete understanding of the world.

Galileo promoted heliocentrism in opposition to the Aristotelian geocentric universe,

not against Scripture. It was these scientists who made the conflict into a
theological issue by raising their concerns to certain church officials, who
unfortunately for Galileo, were mainly subscribed to the Aristotelian system.

Galileo himself saw no conflict between theology and science, and developed an
early apologetic for apparent conflict between science and theology.

Throughout his life, Galileo maintained his devotion to God and the Church, even
after his trial.
Galileo: “I have two sources of perpetual comfort—first, that in my writings there
cannot be found the faintest shadow of irreverence toward the Holy Church; and
second, the testimony of my own conscience, which only I and God in Heaven
thoroughly know. And he knows that in this cause for which I suffer, though many
might have spoken with more learning, none, not even the ancient Fathers, have
spoken with more piety or with greater zeal for the Church than I.” (quoted in
Hummel, The Galileo Connection, p. 124-125)

V. A Rational Universe
A critical component to the rise of modern science is a belief in the rationality of the
universe. It was the Christian belief in infinite, eternal, and personal God who made
this universe which gave the fathers of modern science a basis for the rationality of
the universe.

To men like Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Bacon, the creation was orderly and
uniform because it was created this way by an orderly, rational God.

Johannes Kepler
“The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the
rational order and harmony which has been imposed on it by God and which He
revealed to us in the language of mathematics.” (Defundamentis Astrologiae
Certioribus, Thesis XX, 1601)

Isaac Newton
“This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed
from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.... This Being
governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account
of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God…. In him are all things contained
and moved.” Isaac Newton; Principia

Writes historian John Hermann Randall:

“The whole form of Newtonian science practically forced men, as a necessary
scientific hypothesis, to believe in an external Creator” (quoted in Pearcey and
Thaxton, The Soul of Science, p. 91)
God as the Source for the Laws of Nature
Presbyterian theologian Thomas Derr
As the creation of a trustworthy God, nature exhibited regularity, dependability, and
orderliness. It was intelligible and could be studied. It displayed a knowable order.
(quoted in Pearcey and Thaxton, The Soul of Science

C.S. Lewis, Miracles

“Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they
expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator. In most
modern scientists this belief has died: it will be interesting to see how long their
confidence in uniformity survives it. Two significant developments have already
appeared-the hypothesis of a lawless sub-nature, and the surrender of the claim
that science is true. We may be living nearer than we suppose to the end of the
Scientific Age.”

The Scientist as Priest, Revealing the Glory of God

Morris Kline, Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty, quoted in The Soul of Science by
Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton:
“The search for the mathematical laws of nature was an act of devotion which
would reveal the glory and grandeur of His handiwork.... Each discovery of a law of
nature was hailed as evidence of God's brilliance rather than the investigator's.”

Johannes Kepler
“Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of
nature, it befits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above
all else, of the glory of God.”

Kepler, Harmonies of the World, quoted in Pearcey and Thaxton, The Soul of
Science, p. 23
“I give you thanks, Creator and God, that you have given me this joy in thy
creation, and I rejoice in the works of your hands. See I have now completed the
work to which I was called. In it I have used all the talents you have lent to my

Nicolaus Copernicus
“To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and
power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful workings of His laws, surely all this
must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom
ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge.”
The Birth of Modern Science
Loren Eiseley, Darwin’s Century
“We must also observe that in one of those strange permutations of which history
yields occasional rare examples, it is the Christian world which finally gave birth in a
clear articulate fashion to the experimental method of science itself.”

Man was created in the image of God, so humans could reason and were also
capable of discovering truths about God through nature, His creation.

Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton describe in The Soul of Science that:
“Far from impeding the progress of science, Christianity had actually encouraged it
—that the Christian culture within which science arose was not a menace but a
midwife to science” (p. 20).

Modern science has its foundation in Christian theology.

Believers who led the way in science

William Foxwell Albright, archaeologist
Charles Babbage, creator of the computer
Francis Bacon, father of the scientific method
Robert Boyle, founder of modern chemistry
John Dalton, father of modern atomic theory
Leonhard Euler, mathematician
Jean Henri Fabre, chief founder of modern entomology
Michael Faraday, founder of electromagnetic induction and field theory
William Thomson Kelvin, thermodynamics
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, co-inventor of calculus
James Clerk Maxwell, electromagnetic theory of light
Gregor Mendel, father of genetics
Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph
Blaise Pascal, mathematician and hydrostatics
Louis Pasteur, formulator of the germ theory of disease
William Mitchell Ramsay, archaeologist

The Testimony of Nature

Romans 1:20
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal
power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from
what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

Psalm 19:1-2
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they display knowledge.
For further reading:
J.L. Heilbron, The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar

Charles Hummel, The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts

between Science and the Bible

John Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?

Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles Thaxton, The Soul of Science:

Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy.