The Reformation and Science

The Reformation and Science

The Reformation was, historically, speaking, an era of great religious ferment and change. In the 1500’s the European theater became a theological-ecclesiastical, political and military staging ground for cultural changes that would maintain upheaval in that part of the world until well into the Age of Enlightenment.

At the crux of these earth-shaking historical events were such persons as Martin Luther (b. A.D. 1483 – d. A.D. 1546) in Germany and Ulrich Zwingli (b. A.D. 1484 – d. A.D. 1531) and John Calvin (b. A.D. 1509 – d. A.D. 1564) in Switzerland and, then, John Knox (b. A.D. 1505 – d. A.D. 1572) in Scotland. In England King Henry VIII was establishing a Protestant Reformation as well, but more for political reasons than for theological change. Although these men were trained in Roman Catholic Church theology and obedience, at more or less simultaneous cross points in history they began to challenge the authority of that very powerful ecclesiastical-political entity in their lives and the lives of all people.

This Reformation in religion created favorable conditions for a reformation in science as well. The view of the emerging representations of Protestantism was that the sciences should be less subordinate to theology and more independent. To conciliate the conservative theology of the day, still in power, however, those defending the newly suggested Copernican theory of heliocentricity, for instance, were usually still willing to support theologies and teachings that continued to place mankind and the earth at the center of God the Creator’s concern and care symbolically; this still mildly pleased the churchly powers at the time, since it continued to agree with their theological and ecclesiastical teachings and gave them at least an outward semblance of continued, perceived authority.

Protestant teachings were beginning to allow much more latitude in learning about the natural world when this observation and learning did not intrude into the essentials of a person’s eternal salvation. The Protestant teaching of “Adiaphora” (Greek for “things indifferent” – it was appropriate to speculate on matters that were not essential to the basic, core beliefs of salvation – if the sacred scriptures were silent on a particular subject or said only enough to be considered vague in an area of discussion, most Protestant theologians were willing to allow room for non-theological opinion) opened up the possibilities of non-ecclesiastical empirical investigation and scientific speculation about what could be taking place in the natural world.

The Protestant teaching called the “priesthood of all believers” asserted that the power to decide theological and churchly matters should no longer be vested solely in the office of the clergy; laypersons had the right to be their own theologians within certain limits. As an individual living in the world, a layperson was, in a sense, much freer from a theological point of view to go exploring the natural world all around him and to develop his own conclusions about his observations, independent of the need to please the ecclesiastical authorities.

Luther on Creation (also paraphrasing Romans 1:20, New Testament): “We are at the dawn of a new era, for we are beginning to recover the knowledge of the external world that was lost through the fall of Adam. We now observe creatures properly…..But by the grace of God we already recognize in the most delicate flower the wonders of divine goodness and omnipotence.” [As quoted in Kobe, “Luther and Science,” (1995-98)].

Francis Bacon (b. A.D. 1561 – d. A.D. 1626): “When it pleased God to call the Church of Rome to account for their degenerate manners and ceremonies, and sundry doctrines obnoxious and framed to uphold the same abuses; at one and the same time it was ordained by the Divine Providence that there should attend withal a renovation and new spring of all other knowledges.” [Bacon, quoted in Eugene M. Klaaren. (1977). Religious origins of modern science. (p. 92), Grand Rapids, Michigan.]


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