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The Protestant Reformation and the Rise of Modern Science

  • G. B. Deason (a1)


The vast literature on the Reformation and the rise of science has produced what may be called strong and weak interpretations of their relation. The strong interpretation holds that specific doctrines or attitudes affirmed by the Reformers and their followers contributed directly to the growth of science. On this view, the Reformation was among the causes of the Scientific Revolution. Without the changes in thought and values wrought by the Reformation, proponents of the strong interpretation argue, modern science would not have developed as it did. The weak interpretation, on the other hand, does not claim a direct influence of Protestantism on science. It acknowledges that modern science developed as a movement independent of the Reformation and it claims only that Protestantism offered relatively few obstacles to scientific expansion. On the weak interpretation, the absence of the Reformation would have had little, if any, effect on the Scientific Revolution. After brief discussion of each of these interpretations, I will argue that the strong interpretation is too strong and that the weak one can be strengthened. I will outline an indirect approach, which falls between the above extremes, and offers advantages not offered by either of them.



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1 In addition to the literature cited elsewhere in this article, important studies of Protestantism and science include: Dillenberger, John, Protestant Thought and Natural Science (Nashville: Abingdon, 1960); Klaaren, Eugene, Religious Origins of Modern Science (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977); Westfall, Richard, Science and Religion in Seventeenth Century England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958); Westman, Robert S., ‘The Melancthon Circle, Rheticus, and the Wittenberg Interpretation of the Copernican Theory’, Isis, 1975, vol. 66, pp. 164193. Studies of English Puritanism and science include: Webster, Charles, The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine and Reform, 1626–1660 (London: Duckworth, 1975); Hill, Christopher, Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965); Jones, R. F., Ancients and Moderns (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965); Stimson, Dorothy, ‘Puritanism and the New Philosophy in Seventeenth Century England’, Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine, 1935, vol. 3, pp. 321334; Hall, A. Rupert, ‘Merton Revisited or Science and Society in the Seventeenth Century’, History of Science, 1963, vol. 2, pp. 116; Rabb, T. K., ‘Puritanism and the Rise of Experimental Science in England’, Cahiers d'hisloire Mondiale, 1962, vol. 7, pp. 4667; Greaves, Richard, ‘Puritanism and Science: The Anatomy of a Controversy’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 1969, vol. 30, pp. 345368; Morgan, John, ‘Puritanism and Science: A Reinterpretation’, The Historical Journal, 1979, vol. 22, pp. 535560; and the exchange among Hugh Kearney, Christopher Hill, and T. K. Rabb in issues 28 (July 1964), 29 (Dec, 1964), 31 (July, 1965), 32 (Dec. 1965) of Past and Present.

The categories of strong and weak are useful, although they should be refined further. A more complete analysis than that given in this paper would require further distinctions to be drawn among types of strong interpretations in particular. A fuller analysis should appear soon in my article ‘Protestantism and Science: A Typology and Criticism of Interpretations’.

2 Gerrish, B. A., ‘The Reformation and the Rise of Modern Science’ in Brauer, Jerald C., ed., The Impact of the Church Upon Its Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), pp. 231275.

3 Cited by Gerrish, , ‘Reformation and Rise of Science’, p. 250.

4 Calvin, John, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses called Genesis, trans. King, John, 2 volumes (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 18471850), pp. 8687.

5 Gerrish, , ‘Reformation and Rise of Science’, p. 263.

6 Hooykaas, R., Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1972), pp. 9899.

7 Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Parsons, Talcotl (New York: Scribner's, 1958).

8 Kuyper, Abraham, Calvinism: Six Lectures Delivered in the Theological Seminary at Princeton (New York: RevellCo., 1900), pp. 146153; and Mason, Stephen F., A History of the Sciences, rev. ed. (New York: MacMillan, 1962), pp. 180182. While this interpretation resembles Merton's in holding that Protestantism was necessary for the rise of science, it differs in claiming that Protestantism made scientific thinking possible, whereas Merton claims that it made possible the social acceptance of science. This is an example of the finer distinctions that would be drawn if a complete analysis of interpretations were to be given.

9 Mason, , History of Sciences, p. 182.

10 Hooykaas, , Religion and Rise of Science, pp. 107108.

11 For discussions of Galileo's conflict with the church, see Langford, Jerome J., Galileo, Science and the Church, rev. ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1971); and de Santillana, Giorgio, The Crime of Galileo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955).

12 For example, Cardinal Bellarminc's correspondence with Galileo and Galileo's ‘Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina’ repeatedly address the question of the Fathers' interpretation of key biblical passages. See Langford, , Galileo, Science, and the Chunk, pp. 5078.

13 A fuller discussion of the type of analysis presented in this paragraph can be found in Trocltsch, Ernst, Protestantism and Progress, trans. Montgomery, W. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), pp. 89127 and 155–64.

14 Luther, Martin, ‘Lectures on Galatians (1535)’, in Luther's Works, eds. Pelikan, Jaroslav and Lehman, Helmut T., 56 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955) vol. 26, p. 126.

15 Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. McNeill, John T. and trans. Ford Lewis Battles, in The Library of Christian Classics, 26 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), vol. 20, p. 22.

16 Jewel, John, An Apology of the Church of England, ed. Booty, J. E. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1963), pp. 6869.

17 Bacon, Francis, ‘The New Organon’, in The Works of Francis Bacon, comp. and ed. Spedding, James, Ellis, Robert Leslie, and Heath, Douglas Denon, 15 vols. (Boston: Taggard and Thompson, 18601864), vol. 8, p. 72.

18 ibid., p. 76.

19 Spratt, Thomas, The History of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (London, 1687), p. 345.

20 This discussion of the implications of the Protestant doctrine of radical sovereignty of God for the rise of science is dealt with more fully in my ‘Reformation Theology and the Mechanistic Conception of Nature’ in God and Nature: A History of the Encounter between Christianity and Science, eds. Lindberg, David C. and Numbers, Ronald L. (forthcoming).

21 Luther, , Luther's Works, vol. 26, p. 127.

22 Luther, , Luther's Works, vol. 1, p. 25.

23 ibid., p. 127.

24 Calvin, , Institute, vol. 2, p. 199.

25 Cited by Mason, , History of Science, pp. 187188.

26 Calvin, Jean, Calvin's New Testament Commentaries, eds. David, W. and Torrance, Thomas F., 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), vol. 12, pp. 362363.

27 Boyle, Robert, The Works of the Honorable Robert Boyle, ed. Birch, Thomas, 5 vols. (London, 1744), vol. IV, p. 361.

28 ibid., pp. 372 and 362.

29 ‘Isaac Newton to Richard Bentley, February 25, 1692–3’ in Isaac Newton's Papers and Letters on Natural Philosophy, 2nd edition, ed. Cohen, I. Bernard (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), pp. 302303.

30 These two reasons underlying Newton's conception of matter are discussed in McMullin, Ernan, Newton on Matter and Activity (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978).

31 Newton, Isaac, Unpublished Scientific Papers of Isaac Newton, eds. Hall, A. Rupert and Hall, Marie Boas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), pp. 138139.

32 Newton, Isaac, Sir Isaac Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy and His System of the World, trans. Motte, Andrew, rev.Cajori, Florian, 2 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1934), vol. 2, p. 545.

33 Clarke, Samuel, The Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence, ed. Alexander, H. G. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), p. 22.


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