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Natural Philosophy and the Controversy Concerning
the Church's Position in the Development of Science
During the European Early Modern Period

by John Eberts

The controversy over the church's position and its influence in the development of modern science has occupied a central position in intellectual history dating back to the medieval period. J. W. Draper and A. D. White have argued that science and religion contain conflicting mentalities. In the works of R. K. Metron, A. N. Whitehead and Duhem-Jaki, the analysis has gone to the other extreme, stating that science and religion developed a relationship of intimacy where one area influenced the development of the other. Residing in the middle of these polar opposites is the theory of complementarity. Rudolph Bultmann demonstrates that in the final analysis, each area deals with its own discipline in a manner conducive to its own structure. The controversy was more than just a squabble between the church and science; it was a shift in power. Power is not a thing but a process, and it was this process in scientific development, which could be circulated and productive, that created a shift of authority from Aristotelian natural philosophy to mathematics, or the new science. What I would like to consider in this paper is that it was the re-interpretation of nature and the challenges to natural philosophy rather than a direct challenge to the church's doctrine which laid the foundations for development of science in early modern Europe. This challenge, directed toward natural philosophy and more specifically toward Aristotelianism, was political and social in nature and had repercussions within the Church.

In any exploration of the relationship between the Church and Science, the usual starting place is a study of the classic works of John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. J. W. Draper provides the reader with catalogues of assumptions stating that what was at stake were disputes concerning cosmological constructions. He infers that the construction held by the Church was forced into the background as a result of new scientific theories concerning astronomy. Draper also states that this in fact was necessary and was the intention of the new developments in scientific thought. 'Religion must relinquish that imperious, that domineering position which she has so long maintained against science.' (Draper, p. 367. 1979). Both Draper and White repeatedly present challenges that were launched against religious and Church dogma. White states ' 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 A. D., p. 8. 1876). Brought to our attention are the inquisition, the Jesuits and the Counter-Reformation's zeal in elimination of heretical ideas. Draper sees theologians as, '...hounding the pioneers of science 'with a Bible in one hand and a fiery fagot in the other...' (Lindberg & Numbers, p. 2. 1986). Conflicts in doctrine and religious disputes are tied together with scientific inquiry, when in fact many of the early advances in science came from within the ranks of the clergy and went unhampered by the Church. The historical perspective that is presented is one in which science is seen as waging war with the Church head-on, hoping to scale the walls of dogma and lay waste the foundations of religion.

It is important to remember that White was antagonistic towards the Church. According to Brooke, White had run up against clerical opposition at Cornell University when he proposed a nonsectarian charter. White also felt that science should play a predominant role in the curriculum at Cornell. In England, Draper developed similar animosity toward the Church. Draper had played a role in the Darwinian controversy at Oxford and he also was reacting towards the Quanta Cura issued by the Church in 1864.

It also must be remembered that in any reconstruction of history, a focus on only the extremes of an event may overlook factors which played a significant part in the event's historical development. A. Wolf, in his definitive A History of Science and Technology and Philosophy in the 16th & 17th Centuries Vol. 1, maintains the same view of the role of the Church. 'The chief obstacle in the path of science during the Middle Ages was the Christian Church. Even the Renaissance and the Reformation afforded no direct help to the advancement of science' (Wolf, p. 8 1959). Again, just as Draper and White had generalized or made assumptions concerning the relationship between the church and science, Wolf arbitrarily states that religious movements in general disregarded or showed intolerance toward science.

The process of evaluating the impact of the church on science or science on the church is not as simple as these scholars would have us believe. 'Conflict between science and theology rarely arose in the technical sciences, but developed in that part of natural philosophy concerned with the larger principles of cosmic operation, especially where science and theology sought to explain the same phenomenon' (Lindberg & Numbers, p.49. 1986). The religious disputes unleashed during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation had a major impact on how scientific innovation and new cosmologies such as Copernicus' On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres were received. 'The way in which the relationship between scientific and religious claim has been perceived in the past has depended on social and political circumstances that the historian cannot ignore' (Brooke, p.10. 1999).

As a result of doctrinal disputes raised by the Reformation/ Counter-Reformation, attitude toward Church Doctrine became less flexible. At this point, the question arises as to how Church Doctrine and scientific development came into conflict, if in fact they did. To answer this question, one must first look at what science consisted of during the Reformation period and how it was defined.

The acceptance of Greek philosophy and science came at the hand of the early Church fathers. Although some were hostile to its inclusion within Christianity, in the end it was accepted when 'Philosophy and science could be studied as aids in understanding Holy Scriptures...' (Grant, p. 4. 1996). In essence, philosophy and science became tools in helping one understand theology. It was felt that natural philosophy and science would provide a better grasp on explaining creation. This acceptance and use of the natural sciences had long-range effects. 'As a consequence of the emergence of natural philosophy within the unique University system of the Latin Middle Ages, the revolutionary developments in science of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries were made possible' (Grant, p. 9. 1996).

With the translation of Aristotle into Latin, a pivotal point occurred in the development of natural philosophy and science. Aristotle's works transformed the intellectual domain in Europe. According to Peter Dear, Aristotle's work only considered the realm of explanation: 'Aristotle was not interested in 'facts' themselves...' (Dear, p. 4. 2001). Scholars following Aristotle's philosophical framework felt that nature consisted of what they could see and infer from experience. Aristotle's philosophy became the backbone of intellectual life in Europe, with effects felt down into the seventeenth century. Aristotle's works become the crux of this natural philosophy. It was his writings which are the heart of medieval science, a science with order and coherence, and a world that was 'unchanging' at its core. The goal of the natural philosopher or Scholastic was not to discover; in their opinion, there was nothing new. The job of the natural philosopher was only to explain the 'Known'.

The natural philosophy of the Reformation period '...was to describe and analyze the structure and operation of the cosmos, with all its objects and creatures' (Grant, p. 133. 1996). Within the system of natural philosophy, there was a dual aspect; one dealt with the structure of the cosmos, the other with its operation. The conflict which resulted, was due to interpretations of the latter. But why did these controversies develop? The controversy developed as a result of a challenge to the Aristotelian model, not as a direct challenge to the Church. But Grant raises a point of contention. For Grant, the threat to theology and the church's doctrine came from that very source that had helped support the Church — natural philosophy. 'The impact of Aristotle's thought can not... be overestimated. For the first time in the history of Latin Christendom, a comprehensive body of secular learning, rich in metaphysics, methodology, and reasoned arguments, posed a threat to theology and its traditional interpretation (Lindberg & Numbers, p. 52. 1986). Grant does not consider this as a drawback. He supports the premise that in reality, rather than suppressing science, the controversy over interpretation may have in fact stimulated the development of science. Grant develops the idea that with this divergence, the Aristotelian natural philosopher considered other alternatives and other avenues of exploitation concerning cosmology.

Dear points out an important development that most historians have overlooked. Until the discovery of new lands, there were no new things to be found, according to the Scholastics. With the discovery of the new world, not only were there new geographic locations, but new species, and different inhabitants that did not fit the model of what the world since creation was allegedly composed of. Natural philosophy cannot be characterized as always dealing with the natural world as a creation of God. Problems resulted when some scholars went outside of religion and Church doctrine and developed alternative interpretations of what was considered natural philosophy. Both Grant and Dear suggest that it is the discovery of the New World that first subverts Aristotelian Natural Philosophy. These new discoveries proved that many classical scholars were wrong in their findings.

Aristotle had become an integral part of the Church; to be anti-Aristotelian was to be anti-Thomistic. 'However, as far as its fundamental concepts were concerned, Aristotle's philosophy proved to obstruct the development of science' (Nebelsicki, p. x. 1992). In challenging Aristotle's universe, one challenges the authority of the Church. 'It is important to understand these indirect effects of religion on science. The defensive measures taken by the Catholic Church against what was perceived as a Protestant cancer altered the criteria of truth, allowing authority on scientific issues to be wrested from scholars, and vested in a Roman bureaucracy' (Brooke, p. 99. 1991). Given the political and religious atmosphere during the Reformation, this could and did result in confrontation.

Luther saw Aristotle as a vice in Christianity, and into this milieu came the need for the Catholic Church to reestablish its authority. The world of Aristotle in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation '...made sense within the philosopher's overall world view' (O'Connell, p. 339. 1974). Aristotle had dominated thought in Europe since the 12th century. By challenging the Church, as the Reformation attempted, and by challenging the cosmos and the prevailing natural philosophy, as the mathematicians did, Europe began to divest itself of Aristotle's influence. 'The Counter-Reformation was, therefore, the last age of the ancient world, not because of its religion or politics or economies, but because it was innocent of that mathematical physics which has created the modern world' (O'Connell, p. 341. 1974). It becomes for O'Connell the final stage in an ongoing revolt against Aristotelian Doctrine. This final battle was to be fought on the home-front of Science in its assault on a natural philosophy based on Aristotle but not against the church in particular. For the first time, science was looked upon for it own sake. As a result of the new discoveries of land, people, and differing life styles created new vistas and strained old doctrines established by the church. Even with these new developments, the growth of science was not initiated to undermine church doctrine. It was a response to the inadequacy of the Aristotelian model.

It was this disintegration of the Aristotelian model more than anything else that caused the great confrontations during the early modern historical period according to most historians. The controversy that results from this interpretation of history, then, raises the question as to whether it was between the Church and science or between intellectuals. In undermining Aristotle, scholars undermined the legitimacy of the European worldview. If in fact the development of the new science (Mathematics) resulted in a breakdown and collapse of natural philosophy, and this took place in the battle for academic supremacy between Aristotelians and mathematicians, why did some scholars remain true to the former when it was no longer accurate? These are questions that need to be addressed. The historian needs to move from the academic issues to the individuals involved. An in-depth study needs to be directed at several of the key individuals of this controversy. In searching archival material, journals and correspondence between scholars, the historian could better understand how these individuals saw not only their world, but their place and interaction with it.

We began with a general universal, the Church and science, and have spiraled down to reach the human aspect that really makes the history. Without delving into the personal and professional lives of the scholars involved, we may never see the true controversies that took place. To get a better knowledge of the scholarly debates that transpired during the formative years of science, one must look to the true source — the scholars that created the atmosphere that gave birth to the 'new science'.


Brooke, J. H., (1991). Science and religion: some historical perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University press.

Dear, P., (2001). Revolutionizing the sciences. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Draper, J. W., (1874). History of the conflict between religion and science New York: D. Appleton & Co., James R. Moore, the post-Darwinian Controversies: (1979). A study of the protestant struggle to come to terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Grant, E., (1996). The foundational of modern science in the middle ages: their religious, institutional, and intellectual contexts. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University press.

Lindberg, D. C. & Numbers, R. L. (Eds.). (1986). God and nature: historical essays on the encounter between Christianity and science. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nebelsicki, H. P., (1992). Renaissance and reformation. Scotland: T&T Clark. O' Connell, M. R., (1974). The Counter reformation 1559-1610. New York: Harper& Row Publishers.

White, A. D. (1876). The warfare of sciences New York: D. Appleton & Co.

Wolf, A., (1959). A history of science, technology & philosophy in the 16th&17th centuries. Vol. 1, (original pub. 1950) .New York: Harper Torchbooks.

© John Eberts 2004