Protestant Hermeneutics and the Rise of Modern Science

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Protestant Hermeneutics and the Rise of Modern Science

Today’s society is structured and dependent on technology. Thanks to scientific advances, we are able to send robots to other planets, carry microcomputers in the palm of our hands, and even tweak the genetic code of any species. However, science hasn’t always been like this. When we look at the way scientists used to do their work during the Middle Ages, we soon realize that things used to be quite rudimentary. This difference can be explained, not only by the technological distance from both periods, but especially by the way people used to interpret natural phenomena.

“Modern science” and its extremely successful scientific method only came to exist during the 16th and 17th century. Many have tried to find the factors and influences that promoted a change in scientific thinking at the end of the Middle Ages. Among the many proposals, some have recently argued for a link between the change in the way people read the Bible (God’s special revelation book) and how creation (God’s natural revelation book) began to be studied. When the Protestant Reformation changed the way people read the sacred text, science indirectly felt its effects.

Medieval Interpretation

During the Middle Ages, the most popular method used by scholars to interpret the Bible was the allegorical method. Origen (185-253) was one of the first to promote this genre of biblical interpretation. In the fourth volume of his On First Principles, he developed his hermeneutical theory advocating that every biblical text has three senses: a literal, moral, and allegorical sense. This last one was supposed to be highest and the one most sought after by Christian interpreters.[1] Through the allegorical method, exegetes were supposed to find the spiritual meaning of the things found in the Bible. Thus, objects, animals, places, or people mentioned in the Scriptures represented spiritual truths beyond themselves. Just to give an example, the five stones that David picked up to kill Goliath were interpreted by medieval scholars as representing faith, obedience, service, prayer, and the Holy Spirit. Another example can be found in the sermons published by Bernard de Clairvaux (1090-1153). In them, Clairvaux claimed that the teeth of the lover in Song of Solomon 4:2 represented monks and their life of reclusion.

By using the allegorical method, everything was seen as symbolic, nature included. For medieval philosophers, the symbolic value in nature was superior to its physical or natural value. Basil (329-379), for example, claimed that “all poisonous animals are accepted for the representation of the wicked and contrary powers” existent in human beings.[2] Augustine believed that flying creatures represented believers who had received instruction in the Christian faith and were thus able to soar into the heavens.[3] With this intent in mind, the quest for knowledge of nature was encouraged by clerics, for it was essential to identify the similitudes which exist between the Bible and the natural realm.  Those natural phenomena which are not mentioned in the Bible received little or no interest. Hence, nature was explored, not for its intrinsic value or for its natural processes, but for its theological and moral intents.

Another contrast between modern and medieval science is that it was not as empirical as it is in our day. Natural philosophers (what we would call scientists today) of those days used to do their research in the libraries of universities. When someone wanted to know something about oceans or stars, it was to encyclopedias or books from Aristotle or Pliny that specialists would turn. The way science was performed in the medieval period was of an exploratory or inquisitive sort, as we are used to seeing in our days. However, for them, animals and plants were not to be studied in the fields or forests, but in the written page, for the intellectual culture during the medieval era was essentially a culture of the book. Science was understood to be an activity of preservation and transmission of knowledge obtained by ancient authorities.  The true source of information was not considered to be nature, but the legacy left by ancient authorities.[4]

Sola Scriptura

With the advent of Protestantism, the allegorical method of interpretation proposed by Origen was abandoned. When Luther pushed for a literal reading of the biblical text, he broke from centuries of allegorical tradition. For him and many other Protestants, what really mattered was the obvious sense that grew out of the text. Also, since the biblical text was the ultimate authority in questions of faith and practice, there was no more need to check on what the Fathers of the Church wrote or believed. Everyone could interpret and understand the Bible on their own, and that was enough. This insistence on the primacy of the Bible as the primary source of truth opened the way for the Protestant Reformation.

Therefore, contrary to medieval hermeneutics, the literal sense of the words found in Scripture became the principal concern of protestant exegetes. Once the Bible became the only trusted parameter for truth and practice, Protestants became aware of the need to use the biblical text in its original form and language. Centuries of misleading translations had corrupted the text and were jeopardizing Christian doctrine. Echoing the humanist motto, Protestants promoted a return to the true source of spiritual knowledge.

Protestant Science

The changes promoted by reformers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Zwingli and many others produced such an impact on European society that their ideas transformed, not only religion, but other areas of human knowledge, such as philosophy, education, and the sciences.

The methods developed during the Middle Ages to acquire knowledge were abandoned and, following the example of the biblical exegetes, scholars of other areas realized their urgent need for new methods of acquiring knowledge in each field. Science was especially affected by the hermeneutical changes proposed by Luther. His literalist approach to the biblical text changed the way scientists interpreted natural phenomena. The migration from an allegorical exegesis to a literal one allowed scholars to look at the text, and consequently at nature, not as symbolic, but as concrete entities, bearers of value and practical meaning.[5] Ultimately, science witnessed a return to its fundamental source of empirical knowledge—nature.

While medieval science focused on contemplating God’s creation, the new science preferred to focus on the different ways society could manipulate the natural world in order to improve the human condition. The protestant insistence on the obvious sense of things provided the religious impetus for scientists to look for “scientific” ways to explain and find practical utilities for the different natural phenomena observed.

Science as a Redemptive Practice

In a special sense, the literalist reading of the book of Genesis changed the way Christian scientists related to the natural world. Once the Bible was cleansed from all the mysticism and mystery created by medieval interpreters, the events, people, and places described in the Bible began to be interpreted as real and historical. The references to the garden of Eden, which in medieval times was carried with theological and allegorical meaning, began to be read as literal. This motivated curious readers to find the true location of the garden and confirm its physical characteristics. More than that, “The text of Genesis, read literally, afforded glimpses of how the human race had once been in the possession of a complete knowledge of the natural world, had exercised a dominion over all of its creatures, and had thought and spoken in a natural language perfectly able to capture the essences of all things.”[6]

The fall of Adam and Eve into sin was now interpreted as a historical event. Protestant exegetes began to believe that all perfection of humanity and all perfect knowledge that humanity possessed of the natural realm was lost with the paradisiac perfection. In a redemptive attempt, protestant scientists began to see in their scientific duties a way of restoring humanity to its original condition as sovereign over nature. This redemption of human kind (and of creation, consequently) was to be done in two ways. Firstly, the human mind would restore all things to its original unity by its knowledge of the natural world. Secondly, human beings would recover control over nature and reclaim their position as vice-regents of God on Earth. By understanding all of its mysteries, human beings would become like Adam—masters of creation.

This concept was especially promoted by Francis Bacon. In his Novum Organum, Bacon argued that “man, by the fall, fell at the same time from this state of innocency and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses however can even in this life be in some part repaired; the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences.”[7] Inspired by this redemptive purpose, Bacon was able to create a “reform of the sciences”, structuring it through his now famous scientific method.

Bacon was also a central influence behind the establishment of the Royal Society, the renowned British organization that, to this day, stimulates and promotes the advancement of scientific knowledge in the United Kingdom. As Thomas Sprat, the first historian of the Royal Society, describes, it was the Royal Society’s objective to reestablish “Dominion over things”.[8] Thanks to this mindset, England became the cradle of baconian empiricism and of the technological advances that nurtured the industrial revolution during the 19th century. “If it had not been for so-called British empiricism, founded by Francis Bacon during the Elizabethan era, modern science would have remained largely a speculative branch of ‘natural philosophy’”.[9] Thus, for many, scientific research and investigation became a soteriological activity.

Conclusion

As we have seen, in conjunction with other factors, the way Christianity interpreted the Sacred Text had an indirect impact on the way scientists interpreted natural phenomena. From the moment Christians began to adopt a literal reading of the text, science was able to look at nature in a new way and find the obvious sense of processes and phenomena in the natural realm. It is ironic to think that, in our days, hermeneutical literalism is treated as an impeachment to scientific progress and to the dialogue between religion and science. However, when we look back on history to the relationship between religion and science, we notice that protestant hermeneutics were precisely the element that provided the religious impulse that fed the scientific revolution and the rise of modern science.

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Notes.

[1] Origen, “De Principiis”, in Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, org. The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), v. 4, p. 359.

[2] Basil, “Hexameron”, in Roy Joseph Deferrari, ed. Fathers of the Church, (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1963), v. 46, p. 207.

[3] Augustine, “The Confessions of St. Augustin”, in Philip Schaff, org. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), v. 1, p. 199.

[4] A. R. Hall, “Intellectual Tendencies: Science”, in G. R. Elton, ed. The New Cambridge Modern History The Reformation 1520-1559, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), v. 2, p. 423.

[5] Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 70.

[6] Harrison, p. 204.

[7] Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 2.52, in James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, eds. Works, 14 vols., (London: Longman, 1857-74), v. 4, p. 247.

[8] Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal Society (London, 1667), p. 62.

[9] Carl Raschke, “Physics in Protestantism”, in Anne L. C. Runehov and Lluis Oviedo, eds. Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions, (Dordrecht: Springer Reference, 2013), p. 1751.

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About the author

Glauber S. Araujo

Glauber S. Araujo is a PhD student in systematic theology at Universidad Adventista del Plata. He holds a master's degree in Sciences of Religion and works as editor at Casa Publicadora Brasileira. Passionate about Physics and Astronomy, he enjoys reading and writing about the intersections between science and religion.