Hermeneutical hi-jinks with Peter Harrison

Hermeneutical hi-jinks with Peter Harrison.

Australian laureate and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland has written a stunning book about the impact of the Christian Reformation on the development of Natural Science in Europe. His book is entitled The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science, Cambridge, CUP, 2002 pb (1998 hb). Before coming to U Q Harrison was the Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford, a post currently held by Alister McGrath.  His book demonstrates an extraordinary knowledge of Biblical interpretation from the earliest Fathers to the C17th and provides much food for thought in regard to the debate about the relevance of the Bible today as well as the role of natural theology, if any, in the plan of God’s communication with humanity.  In this analysis I will simply pull out some key elements of his argument with very limited comment.

In his introductory chapter Harrison summarises his book this way: It is commonly supposed that when in the early modern period individuals began to look at the world in a different way, they could no longer believe what they read in the Bible. In this book I shall suggest that the reverse is the case; when in the sixteenth century people began to read the Bible in a different way, [ i.e. in a more literal way] they found themselves forced to jettison traditional conceptions of the world. The Bible — its contents, the controversies it generated, its varying fortunes as an authority, and most importantly, the new way in which it was read by Protestants — played a central role in the emergence of natural science in the seventeenth century….The new conception of the order of nature was made possible, I shall argue, by the collapse of the allegorical interpretation of texts. [which had dominated European thinking from the Fathers to the C15th.] (p4)

Harrison has broadened the traditional thesis of Dorothy Stimson and R K Merton in the 1930s that the rise of modern science was due to the impact of Puritanism in Europe, especially the effect of the Calvinistic doctrine of election. Other historians have challenged the narrowness of the Merton analysis demonstrating that many C17th scientists were latitudinarians, or simply Anglicans, rather than Puritans and Harrison has taken up this position defending the role, not of Puritanism specifically but of Protestantism in general. In brief Harrison highlights a number of elements of Protestant ideology which may have provided important stimuli for the development of the new science. These elements include:

– the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers…all individuals have direct access to God and the Bible without the necessity of official priestly mediators or sanctioned interpreters. (p7)

a suspicion of scholastic philosophy which led to calls for educational reforms and for an end to Aristotle’s domination of the university curriculum  (p7)

–  the theological voluntarism which lay at the heart of Calvin’s doctrine of election….the operations of nature were regular and lawful, but these laws of nature, resting upon the divine will rather than the divine reason,  could only be discovered by research and experimentation. (p7)

Protestant demystication of the world also promoted the mechanical conception of nature. Scepticism about Catholic miracles, the denial of sacramental magic, the challenging of the special status of priests, saints and supernatural intermediaries…contributed to the emergence of the lawful and deterministic universe which is the prerequisite for scientific investigation. (p7)

– Christopher Hill’s thesis that what mattered for the development of science was not so much Protestant doctrine…as the breaking of clerical monopoly control. (p8)

Harrison’s book focusses on this last issue, specifically the Protestant approach to the interpretation of texts which he argues was the key factor in the rise of modern science. The key historic components of his analysis are firstly the symbolic view of the world and the allegorical approach to texts developed by the Fathers especially Origen and Augustine; secondly the C12th century renaissance and rediscovery of nature (including the impact of Islamic texts which reintroduced classical Greek writers to Europe) and finally the Protestant Reformation itself with its emphasis on the literal meaning of the Biblical text rather than the allegorical. The  three later chapters in the book focus on discussions regarding the beginning and end of the world and of resurrection,  the rise of physico-theology and the impact of a literal reading of Genesis 1 -3.  There is a final trenchant concluding chapter with many far-sighted and helpful suggestions. In case you get no further in this analysis, I note perhaps his most far-reaching conclusion.  While the Protestants’ insistence that passages of scripture be given a determinative meaning proceeded from the purest of religious motives, they were inadvertently setting in train a process which would ultimately result in the undermining of that biblical authority which they so adamantly promoted.

The following brief extracts contain some of the key ideas from Harrison’s book which gave me much food for thought.

  1. On the early and mediaeval method of interpreting the Scriptures:  Scripture, according to Origen, had three senses…the literal sense…or the obvious or historical sense….the moral sense…how life was to be lived….and the allegorical sense…the spirit of scripture..the highest sense , and contained timeless theological truths. (p18f)…Origen went so far to suggest that certain passages of scripture have no literal sense at all, and that others, when taken literally, could reasonably be dismissed as ‘absurd and impossible.” [On First Principles, IV,ii.5,9]  (p19)  See also p43 ..the quadriga which the Fathers bequeathed to the Middle Ages is nothing but a guide to reading, in which similitudes are categorised according to type…allegoria or ‘prefiguring’ relies upon resemblances between events separated in time e.g. Moses lifting the serpent to save Israel and Christ on the cross saving mankind; anagogia, on resemblances between physical things and theological truths e.g. phoenix and resurrection; tropologia, on resemblances between physical things and moral truths e.g. the ant and the virtue of industry; in addition to the literal.
  1. Augustine revised Alexandrian hermeneutics, in an attempt to control interpretation by forcing exegetes to occupy a middle ground between stark literalism and overimaginative  allegorisation. (p29) He was cautious about man’s quest for knowing things. In the City of God, says Harrison, he wrote that curiosity about the material world was merely another species of sensual temptation…there exists in the soul, a cupidity which does not take delight in carnal pleasure but in perceptions acquired through the flesh…[this is]..vain inquisitiveness…dignified with the title knowledge and science…when people study the operations of nature which lie beyond our grasp.. they merely give rise to…a diseased craving, a lust for experimenting and knowing. (p32) Augustine [died 430] and through Augustine, platonism, held sway in Europe for 800 years. Not until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were the symbols which constituted the physical world invested with their own syntax. (p33)
  1. Key players in the C11th revival in interest in the physical and the uniting of the physical and spiritual body were Hildergard of Bergen(1098-1179); Allan of Lille (d.1203); Thomas Aquinas (1225 -1274); Anselm (1033-1109), Bernard of Clairveaux (1090-1153) and Hugh of St Victor (1096-1141)       Hildegard of Bergen wrote..the spirit without the bloody matter of the body is not the living person (p3)…we are strengthened and brought to our soul’s salvation by the five senses.. we can know the whole world through our sight, understand through our hearing, distinguish it by our sense of smell…dominate by our touch, and in this way come to know the true God. (p37).  Allan of Lille wrote that it was the nature of human being to be united with the material. The embodiment of human souls was not, as Plato had thought, the imprisonment of an essentially spiritual being in a corporeal body, but was rather part of God’s original design for humanity.(p37)  Hugh of St Victor wrote…Nothing in the universe fails to participate in the Highest Good.  Thomas Aquinas …reasserted the Aristotelian view, though not without qualification, that the human person is form and matter, soul and body. The individual was not to be identified with the incorporeal soul, but was a substantial union of spirit and matter…resurrection of the body for the first time became philosophically as well as theologically necessary. (p36) Anselm’s theory of atonement [in Cur Deus Homo, [1098 ]reasserted the centrality of Christ’s incarnation in which Deity puts on human flesh, and equally importantly, shifted the venue for human redemption into the sphere of the mundane. [ie atonement was no longer a transaction in the heavenly realm between God and Satan but an act of redemption by Jesus, fully man on earth]. (p36) Bernard of Clairveaux wrote there is no access open to us, except through the body, to those things whereby  we live in happiness…the spiritual creature, therefore,  which we are, must necessarily have a body, without which, indeed, it can by no means obtain that knowledge which is the only means of attaining to those things, to which constitutes blessedness. (p37)
  1. Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great 1200-1280, teacher of Aquinas) sounding rather like an eighteenth century British empiricist, announced that all universal knowledge arises out of sense experience. (p38).  Thomas Aquinas agreed that all our knowledge takes its rise from sensation. Augustine wrote: it is God who makes possible our knowledge of the world. Aquinas wrote: it is the world which makes possible our knowledge of God! [which is why Aquinas rejects Anselm’s  ontological proof for the existence of God]. (p38)
  1. Plato, of course, was not entirely defeated. The study of his dialogue the Timaeus at Chartres in the twelfth century was to have a dramatic impact on cosmological speculations  (p40) as was the translation by John Scotus Eriugena of The Celestial Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius and other Hermetic texts which described the world as a great and perfect living thing (p40) and included man as part of a unified physical/spiritual  “great chain of being”..an idea that was maintained throughout the early modern period until the Enlightenment. Put simplistically, Augustine’s modified platonism held sway in the monasteries and Aquinas’ newly formed synthesis of Christian faith and Aristotelianism held sway in the newly founded universities. Two ways of knowing God emerged….The Book of Nature and the Sacred text (although at this stage the ways in which the book of nature was to be read were shaped by methods of scriptural interpretation. Theologians studying both scripture and nature used scriptural interpretative models in looking at nature using the ancient idea of microcosm-macrocosm intimated in Plato’s Timmaeus.  Thus the priest/scientist Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253) could write: A speck of dust…is an image of the whole universe and a mirror of the creator. Man was seen as occupying a pivotal position in the cosmos…uniquely on the horizon of two worlds (William of Auvergne)  a microcosm of the whole world ..spirit and body. (p54). The link between the highest heavens and man maintained the power and interest of astrological readings of human destiny in spite of Augustine’s concerns 600 years earlier. (p54)
  1. Augustine, powerfully inspired and influenced by the neoplatonism of C3rd Plotinus had laid great stress on the Fall and original sin. Plotinus had written..We are become dwellers in the place of Unlikeness, where, fallen from all our resemblance to the Divine, we lie in gloom and mud. (Enneads) (p.58) But the twelfth century priest scientists believed the losses of the Fall could be regained by  human knowledge and thus the human conception of the world, of ‘nature’, would be that same conception which had been in the mind of the Creator. The study of nature was enjoined on mankind as an integral part of the process of human redemption. (p59) The idea  – that the accumulation of knowledge about the natural world would in some measure restore to man what had been lost at the Fall – is most commonly associated with Francis Bacon and the rise of modern science. Yet we can now see that the roots of this conception go back much further…to the C11th. (p61)
  1. The renewed influence of Aristotle’s writings, translated from Greek to Arabic and from Arabic to Latin had a profound influence on late mediaeval scholarship although while it is true to say that nature was discovered in the twelfth century, up until the end of the sixteenth century it was a nature which for the most part was interpreted according to written authorities….to a large extent ..the secular writers of antiquity came to share the privileged status accorded to scripture and the Fathers. As the hapless Galileo was to discover, these combined authorities were to delimit the range of legitimate ways of reading the book of God’s works, and together could present a formidable obstacle to novel interpretations of nature.  (p69)  …The greatest threat to this form of intellectual activity lay in the possiblilty of irreconcilable differences arising between written authorities, and in particular between those of pagan and those of Judaeo-Christian origin….earlier objections to Greek philosophy seemed to have been silenced for a time by the masterful synthesis of Thomas Aquinas …however…for various reasons.. the sixteenth century was  to witness the beginnings of an irrevocable breakdown of the concord. (P70)
  1. The factors causing this breakdown in the scholastic synthesis of scriptural interpretation and the methods of interpretation of nature were fivefold according to Harrison —a) the development of textual criticism, the movement to return to the earliest and most accurate available texts and to distinguish the work of original authors from subsequent interpreters..                         b) the actual methods which the ancient authorities had used to acquire their knowledge came gradually to take precedence over the mere rehearsal of their findings…                                                                                                                                                      c)                                                               c)voyages of discovery exposed enormous gaps in the ancients’ knowledge of the world —gaps which could only be filled by first-hand investigation of nature…  e.g. Augustine’s denial of the Antipodes had a lengthy authority until Columbus.               d                                                               d) the move towards a literal, rather than an allegorical, interpretation of sacred texts made it more difficult to gloss over inconsistencies between written sources…                                                                                    e                                                                e) the re-emergence of the view, latent in Augustinian thought and revived again in the nominalism of fourteenth century Oxonian William of Ockham, that Greek wisdom and biblical faith might be fundamentally opposed, was to drive a wedge between the classical authorities and scripture. (p70)
  1.   [NOTE:  William of Ockham asserted that the universal is not found at all in reality, but only in the human mind, for every substance is radically individual…universals are only ways of conceiving or knowing individual things…in its application to theology…Nominalism, which conceives God exclusively as omnipotence and mercy, denies the plurality of His attributes and the distinction between His Intellect and His Will. It simplifies  His Being to such a degree that the reality of the Three Persons which depends on formal distinctions  and real relations can be accepted only on the authority of faith. Nor can reason demonstrate that the First Cause of the existing universe is the One God. Thus nominalism in its theological consequences withdrew almost all the data of faith from the realm of reason and paved the way for the disintegration of Scholasticism. [from article “Nominalism” in Cross and Livingstone:Dictionary of the Christian Church, Peabody MA, Hendrikson, 1997, p1158f].
  1. Nevertheless, in spite of the tireless work of secular scholars in the Humanist revival the textual bias of this humanist vision of natural history is evident still in the seventeenth century.  (p74) Thus popular writers on nature wrote without any personal observation of real plants and animals so that descriptions could be quite bizarre  [cf with the bizarre carvings of “elephants” with horses hooves etc in the misericords of mediaeval English cathedrals]. In addition many popular “accounts” of nature happily included descriptions of such fantastic creatures as satyrs, unicorns, mermaids, manticores, dragons, lamias, and griffons. (p74) A notable exception was William Turner (periodically exiled to the continent for his radical views about religion). (fn,p78)
  1. The Protestant Reformation was the major force behind the new logocentric science of interpretation. If humanist scholarship had drawn attention to the importance of written texts and stressed the necessity of fidelity to original sources, the Protestant reformers were to apply this principle to the rectification of a religion which in their view was founded solely on the foundation of canonical texts. The reformation of religion..owed much to the textual criticism of humanist scholars .[especially Erasmus] On the foundations of the labours of the humanists the reformers constructed a new exegetical science which could find no place for the symbolic interpretation of the book of nature. (p92)
  1. The Bible which had served as the text book in the mediaeval schools was not the bare words of the writers of the Old and New Testaments, but was the Glossa Ordinary—an amplified Latin translation in which the original deposit of the scriptural writers was surrounded by the commentaries and notes of the Fathers. The text of scripture lay embedded in its own hermeneutical web in such a way that the words of the biblical authors were in practice not distinguished from the history of their interpretation…..By extricating the original biblical text from what had become its natural setting — a thousand-year old tradition of gloss and commentary —Luther not only made possible novel ways of reading scripture, but also took the first step in distinguishing the authority of scripture from the tradition of the Church. He was later to write: ‘Scripture without any glosses is the sun and the whole light from which all teachers receive their light, and not vice versa.’  It was his reading of this new text, and his insistence that it was the ultimate court of appeal on matters of Christian doctrine, which precipitated the Protestant Reformation.  (p93)


  1. For the first 1500 years of the Church’s history scripture did not exercise an authority which was independent of ecclesiastical tradition. Indeed, it was generally assumed that authority was vested in scripture by the Councils of the Church….the decisions of Church councils represented a tradition which had controlled (1) the text of Scripture, by declaring the ‘Vulgate’  (a late C4th Latin translation, for most part the work of Jerome) to be the only official version of the biblical text. (2) the canon of scripture, by declaring which which books were to be included in the Old and New Testaments  and which were to be regarded as apocryphal and (3)  the meanings of these canonical texts, by providing authoritative interpretations. This general position was reasserted at the fourth session of the Council of Trent, which convened on 8 April 1546….this stance accounts for the vigour with which the Roman authorities prosecuted those guilty of translating the Bible into the vernacular ,[eg Luther and Tyndale] for not only did such translations present a challenge to the supremacy of the Vulgate edition, but they gave licence to all individuals, on the condition of literacy, to come to their own understanding of the meaning of passages of scripture. (p94).


  1. Harrison quotes David Norton: The History of the Bible of the Bible as Literature, 2 vols., Cambridge University Press, 1993, p53 who writes that a major aspect of the Reformation is that it changed the basis of religion not only, to speak in extremes, from the accumulated tradition of the Church to private intercourse with the text of the Bible, but also from Biblical lore to the Bible text…This reforming spirit was still alive in the great Isaac Newton [1643-1727], who in an unpublished manuscript entitled ‘Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture’, made the heretical claim that the biblical doctrine of the Trinity rested chiefly upon Catholic corruptions. The author of the Vulgate, he charged, ‘did insert ye testimony of the three in heaven.’ Newton believed that disinterested textual criticism would bring to light such emendations, and vindicate his unitarian view of the Deity …ultimately, of course, the multiplicity of interpretations which this new freedom enabled was to undermine the authority of scripture, but this was to come later. (p99) ….All things considered, Cardinal Bellarmine had ample justification for his complaint against the reformers, that they made ‘individual persons the judges in matters of faith, not only of the Fathers but also of the councils,’ leaving ‘almost nothing to the common judgment of the Church’ . [p.100, quoted in Blackwell: Galileo,  Bellarmine, and the Bible, University of Notre Dame Press, 1993, appendix,111, p193] (p100)
  1. In relation to the book of nature…in freeing persons to make determinations about the meaning of the book of scripture without deferring to authorities, the reformers had at the same time made room for individuals to make determinations about the book of nature, unfettered by the opinions of approved authors. (p101) …part of the problem which the Catholics faced was that since the time of Aquinas a considerable proportion of their dogma had been explicitly formulated in terms of Aristotelian philosophy. There is a degree of truth in Luther’s description of the Roman establishment as ‘the Aristotelian church.” [Luther: Babylonian Captivity, in Three Treatises, p144]  (p103)…Some contemporary commentators..clearly regarded the “two reformations’ as parts of the same historical process. The followers of Paracelsus [Theophrastus], in particular, regarded the movement back to the books of scripture and nature as part of a single revival of learning which would overturn the unholy alliance of Aristotle and the Church. (p105)Protestant insistence on the primacy of scriptural authority demanded a new approach to the interpretation of scripture..this hermeneutical stance brought with it an alternative conception of the natural order — a conception which was the precondition for the emergence of natural science. …abandoning all natural objects …to that silent and unintelligible realm which was to become the subject of the modern science of nature. (p107)
  1. The major reformers – Martin Luther, John Calvin, Philipp Melanchthon, and Martin Bucer —shared a clear preference for the literal or natural sense of scripture…only Zwingli exhibited a lingering fondness for non-literal interpretations. (p108)…It must also be conceded that the principle adopted by the reformers —that only the literal sense of scripture was of use in matters of theological disputation — had been a long-standing rule in the Roman church, endorsed by both Augustine and Aquinas (p110)..but, over all, evidence from mediaeval commentaries supports the assertion that throughout the Middle Ages systematic allegorisation had universally destroyed the literal text of scripture…it was difficult for Catholic commentators ..to extricate themselves from an ongoing history of interpretation which had burdened biblical texts with meanings that went well beyond the literal. The Reformers did accept the single sense of some biblical passages was not, strictly, its literal sense, as for example the parables of Jesus, or the prophecies of Revelation….(p111)
  1. The plight of the Catholic natural philosophers was well expressed by Kepler: “Let me say this about the authority for the sacred writings….In theology the influence of authority should be present, but in philosophy it is the influence of reason that should be present. St Lactantius denied that the earth is round; St Augustine conceded its roundness but denied the antipodes; today the Holy Office concedes the smallness of the earth but denies its motion. But for me the truth has been demonstrated by philosophy, with due respect to the Doctors of the Church, that the earth is round, that its antipodes are inhabited, that it is quite despicable small, and finally that it moves through the stars.”….the fortunes of the Protestant Reformation and the scientific enterprise were linked…for the downfall of an entrenched tradition would serve the purposes of each. (p113)
  1. The iconoclastic frenzy unleashed by the Reformation represents a graphic, if unfortunate, way the desire to restrict to words those capabilities once shared with alternative modes of representation…i.e. images painted onto canvas or plaster or constructed from pieces of stained glass or coloured tile, or carved into wood or stone….describing the effects of activities was devastating in another sense as well. Describing the effects of Protestant iconoclasm in sixteenth century England, Eamon Duffy writes that ‘for most of the first Elizabethan adult generation, Reformation was a stripping away of familiar and beloved observances, the destruction of a vast and resonant world of symbols.’  [Stripping of the Altars, p591] (p115).
  1. ..As Lawrence Stone describes it, ‘Europe moved decisively from an image culture to a word culture.”…symbolic objects gave way to words, ritual practices were eclipsed by propositional beliefs and dogmas…the natural world, once the indispensable medium between words and eternal truth lost its meanings…it was left to an emerging natural science to reinvest the created order with intelligibility…(p120)
  1.   The Reformation required a new way of reading scripture…these words, it is plain to us, were written in another time, about another time, addressed to an audience inhabiting a thought-world very different from our own….with the new biblical literalism which followed in the wake of the Reformation many portions of scripture were read for the first time as having, as their primary sense, history. (p122)       [It is worth noting here that  whilst reading the scripture primarily for its literal sense was a major positive step forward in general terms for hermeneutics, the stress of the Reformers on the literal understanding of e.g. Genesis 1- 11 was to provide a major stumbling block for some parts of Protestantism in the C19th biological revolution.]  …thus while in principle freedom to determine the meaning of the sacred text was given to individual readers of scripture, it was hoped at the same time that such readers would voluntarily submit themselves to a set of publicly available, rational, and universal canons of interpretation….Ironically, this would mean that the bare words of scripture, so painstakingly distilled from the Glossa ordinaria by Luther, were destined, almost from the start, to be enveloped in the glosses of the new authorities. The Geneva Bible, so beloved of the puritans, was thus accompanied by extensive marginalia. The authority of these glosses, however, was derived not from the Church, but from a new and independent interpretive discipline which had emerged from the labours of the humanists….Defenders of the inspiration of scripture now resorted to the argument that while the Bible might cover some of the same ground as writings of purely human origin, it was, in these areas, incomparably superior to profane works. (p125)…this turn to literal readings of Eden and the fall was to provide a crucial motivation for scientific enquiry. e.g. explorations of the location of Eden, investigations of the flood/ark account,  investigations into the science of the last things and investigations into reproduction(p127)
  1. The new found emphasis on literalism that came with the Reformers was modified by a new emphasis on typology e.g. Adam as a  type of Christ/ wicked rulers as a type of bad rulers in their own day.etc. (p130). In addition the emphasis on literalism in the midst of the scientific revolution led to an emphasis on accommodation in relation to biblical language i.e. the bible’s key task was the support of Christian faith for every person so the language was not intended to be complex thought requiring scientific knowledge. So Richard Baxter..the Bible is no perfect Rule of natural sciences, as Physiks. Metaphysiks, nor as a rule for Medicine, Musick, Arithmetick, Geometry, Astronomy, Grammar, Rhetorick, Logick, Mechanics, Navigation, Architecture, and all the trades and occupations of Men [from A Christian Directory]. Also Galileo’s famous dictum: The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.  [in Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.] (p132) Accommodation was a longstanding principle of Augustine e.g. the creation narratives were adapted to the sense of the unlearned [in De Genesis ad literam].  (p133)
  1. The scientist/theologians also argued that the new scionce would assist our understanding of the biblical writings. Bacon wrote that the book of nature was the key to the understanding of God’s written word. [in Advancement of Learning.] Isaac Newton also believed that the new discoveries in the sciences were in fact re-discoveries of ancient truths, traces of which could be found in a variety of texts, including the bible. (p136). Leibniz objected to Newton’s approach, pointing out that it made God appear like an incompetent watchmaker, always having to mend his work. [in The Leibniz Correspondence.] (p144).
  1.   The shrinkage of the symbolic world of the Middle Ages brought with it an increasing emphasis on the utility of natural things, and in the absence of some obvious application to human needs, provided motivation for natural philosophers to seek out the divine purposes hidden in the things of nature. (p161f)…The idea of the great chain of being was to play a central role in more general seventeenth- and eighteenth-century explanation of imperfections in the natural world (p163) e.g. apparently useless petty insects and things like maggots. Most seventeenth-century natural philosophers [eg John Ray, John Cockburn, William Derham, Robert Boyle, Francis Bacon, Thomas Browne, George Hakewell, Henry More, Rober Hooke, even ‘the young Diderot (p174)] shared a commitment to the principle that God had made everything for a purpose, and it was human destiny to seek out that purpose. …The combination of Aristotle’s final causes and the Christian belief in the divine purposes of all natural things gave rise to a new category of literature — physico-theology. (p171) This exercise amounted to a systematic elaboration of the design argument for God’s existence, based on the systematic elaboration of divine purposes in the natural  world. e.g. Henry More’s Antidote to Atheism (1653), reached its acme in the Boyle Lectures, and enjoyed its last hurrah in the Bridgewater Treatises (1833-40..commissioned by Lord Egerton following the influential work of Paley cf the ongoing role of the Gifford Lectures of which Peter Harrison is one of a line of distiinguised lecturers!] 
  2. Not all was sweetness and light in this accord between theology and natural science especially because theology tended to stress an anthropocentric view of the universe but astronomy and microbiology were extending the insignificance of man both in the vastness of the heavens and the extraordinary richness of the newly found minutiae of existence. Thus could Donne write:  The new Philosophy cals all in doubt,

The element of fire is quite put out;

The Sun is lost, and h’earth, and no man’s wit

Can well direct him, where to looke for it. [The First Anniversary, lines 205-8] (p178)  The dread which filled Pascal as he contemplated the vastness of space and the innumerable stellar bodies is attributable to the fact that the infinite heavens were now ‘silent’ . [in Pensées,  para.201] (p179) Later Donne was more positive about the new natural science citing with approval the view of Raymond of Sebonde, that ‘the book of  the creatures….teaches al [sic] things, presupposes no other, is soon learned, cannot be forgotten, requires no books, needs no witnesses, and in this, is safer than the Bible itself , that it cannot be falsified by Hereticks.’  Donne however did not agree with Sebonde that in libra creaturanum there is enough to teach us all particularities of the Christian religion. [in Donne, Essays in Divinity.] Thus in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the ‘book of nature’ was no longer seen as symbolic of God’s purpose for man but rather as an alternative and at times superior authority (over e.g. the Bible or Aristotle). (p197) So Kepler described astronomers as ‘priests of the high God, with respect to the book of nature. [in Were vii,25] (p198) cf George Herbert ..’Man is the world’s high priest’ for man alone is able to articulate the praise of trees, birds and beasts. [in Providence, line13] (p198fn193]  This form of natural religion inevitably lead to C18th Deism. So Pope: Take Nature’s path, and mad Opinions leave,…All States can reach it, and all heads conceive. [in An Essay on Man, iv.29f] (p200).  Such a theology of course went well beyond the Reformers, who, while they grudgingly conceded that God could be known through his creation, had categorically denied that this information was in any way useful. (p201)

those who believed that the Deity had imposed a particular order on the cosmos moved their attention away from the symbolic functions of objects and focused instead on the ways in which the things of nature might play some practical  role in human welfare. (p205) So Francis Bacon:  For 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. [in Novum Organum] (p205)..

Numerous writers  have commented on some supposed connection between God’s command to Adam and Eve in Genesis to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over…every living thing” and the contemporary tendency to exploit the natural environment. Best known proponent of this view, Lynn White Jr., has argued that the typically Western propensity to exploit the earth and its living contents finds its ideological origins in the ‘orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature.’  [in The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis”, Science, 155/3767, March 1967, pp1203-7.] More positively, perhaps, the thesis posits a link between the Judaeo-Christian tradition and the rise of science, suggesting that the quest for order in nature, and for mastery over it, was motivated by a characteristically Judaeo-Christian vision of the nature and destiny of the human race. (p206)…The fundamental inadequacy of this thesis, as it stands, is to do with timing. Why did the Genesis imperatives which grant dominion to the first man and his progeny only begin to take effect in the early modern period? Why did science have its rise in the seventeenth century and not before?  [Further detailed criticism  of White’s article  with references can be found in A McGrath: The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion, Oxford, Blackwell, 1998 pp48-51.]

Harrison’s final chapter focusses on detailed examples of C16th and C17th exegesis from within the world of an emerging and exciting natural science. It is fascinating reading and includes detailed documentation not readily available elsewhere. Topics discussed include the desire to recreate Eden on earth’  (p208), the fall and its recovery which includes some amazing treatment of the issue of human sexuality (p215), the Babel story and languages, reversing the curse, replanting the garden and learning the language of nature.

Harrison’s final conclusions are far-reaching:

– on post – modern interpretive methods: the death of the author should remind us of the birth of the author, some five hundred years ago. Whatever its merits, the modernist presumption which equates meaning with authorial intention has, in my view, masked the true significance of those changes to methods of textual interpretation which took place at the advent of the modern world, and which led in turn to new interpretations of the book of nature…there is now such a disparity between our approaches to words and things, that scientific and literary activities have become so alien to each other, that the  ‘two cultures’ share increasingly less common ground is owing largely to the breakdown of that universal hermeneutics which, in pre-modern times, had informed the study of both the book of scripture and the book of nature. The transformations which brought on the birth of modernity moved western culture from the era of “the two books” to that of “the two cultures”  (p267). [Tom McLeish in his book Faith and Wisdom in Science, Oxford, OUP, 2014 has also picked up this issue of post-modern loss of faith in both science and religion and the need to reverse both trends for the sake of humanity.]

  • on C20th  Christian fundamentalism: another reason that historians of early-modern science and religion have tended to overlook the impact of methods of biblical interpretation on the development of the sciences, I suspect, is to do with the contemporary association of biblical literalism with religious bigotry and hostility towards the sciences. Viewed from this perspective, a link between the emergence of biblical literalism and the development of modern science seems highly implausible. The real difficulty is that the negative associations of twentieth century biblical fundamentalism and literalism are projected back into history  (p267) ….examples like the Galileo controversy led to a view by many that the literal interpretation of the Bible is thought to have acted as an impediment to the advancement of the sciences …the mistaken premise of this version of history is the assumption that to read the Bible literally is to consider the Bible to be literally true. On the contrary, the triumph of the literal approach to scripture opened up for the first time in the history of Biblical interpretation  the real possibility that parts of the Bible could be [when taken literally] false. In order to see the force of this, we need only consider the conditions which led to the allegorical readings of scripture in the first place. (p268)
  •   on paradigm shift as the rationale for the explosion of science in the C17th:        Harrison challenges the idea that science “began” in the C17th  because of the now widely accepted idea of a paradigm shift between two scientific discourses, a geocentric scientific discourse  and a heliocentric scientific discourse. We must ask therefore whether both beliefs occupy comparable, but interchangeable, positions within a particular thought structure, or whether instead they are indicative of fundamentally distinct ways of viewing the world. Belief that the earth lay immobile at the centre of the cosmos was not, in the sixteenth century, merely a matter of giving assent to a geocentric theory of the solar system. It was linked to a set of commitments of metaphysical, moral, religious, and anthropological import, not least of which was to do with the dignity of human beings and their place in the cosmos….It is a commonplace that during the Middle Ages science was a handmaiden to theology. The full implication of this, however, is that inasmuch as science was subservient to theology, it was not science at all. My concern has been to show that what we might regard as mediaeval science…is better classified not as a science but as one aspect of biblical hermeneutics….The revolution which gave rise to a proper natural history was not the result of new facts or observations, nor of the discarding of irrelevant and extraneous material, but of a change to the mental field in which generally accepted facts were located. [Curiously Hawking and Mlodinov say something similar in their recent book The Grand Design, London, Bantam Press, 2014, p41… Although it is not uncommon for people to say that Copernicus proved Ptolemy wrong, that is not true….one can use either picture as a model of the universe, for our observations of the heavens can be explained by assuming either the earth or the sun to be at rest. Despite its role in the philosophical debates over the nature of our universe, the real advantage of the Copernican system is simply that the equations of motion are much simpler in the frame of reference in which the sun is at rest.]
  •   on why science arose in the West, and in the seventeenth century and not elsewhere.  Harrison provides a provisional answer that the Christian doctrine of creation assumes an intelligible world, created to be understood by its human inhabitants, and to serve their needs. A change took place in the sixteenth century which challenged the assumption that the purpose of the material world lay in its referential or symbolic functions. Henceforth the quest for the divinely-instituted purpose of nature is diverted solely into the search for its practical utilities. While, as noted above, Harrison does not concur with Lyn White’s view of the impact of Christianity on the exploitation of the earth, what remains to be contested is whether, on balance, more harm than good resulted from these new interpretations. Aspects of the Christian tradition contributed to the development of modern science; inevitably they led also to the exploitation of nature. It is not clear that the former could have occurred without the latter. (p270)
  •   re why some aspects of the old symbolic order continued into the C17th. These instances, I would suggest, are indicative of an unconscious reluctance to admit the failure of the old world picture, combined with deep misgivings about the partial and fragmentary sciences which were proposed in its place….This ambivalence towards the mechanical world remains with us. (p271)…even sober scientific practitioners themselves have spoken of evidence of design, not in biological structures, but in the laws and constants of the physical universe.  (p272)
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