The Genesis of Modern ScienceVol. 29 No. 1 | Nov-Dec 2018
Today, belief in a supernatural creation is rejected by the scientific establishment, but its concepts helped jumpstart the 17th century Scientific Revolution.
By Gillian Bethel, PhD
Who cares about creationists? They don’t know anything!” quipped militant atheist Richard Dawkins in a recent CNN Red Chair interview.1 Dawkins is famous for heaping ridicule on those who don’t accept what he believes is irrefutable evidence that Darwin and evolution can account for the “apparent design in all living things.” His comments showcase the attitudes that the scientific establishment feels towards those who believe that God is responsible for the order and beauty in nature.
Today, the scientific establishment has fully divorced science from the Bible, particularly from the Genesis account of Creation. The National Academy of Science website attempts to explain why observations of the natural world that involve a notion of God as Creator are “unscientific:” “Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science.”2
Let’s unpack this statement. If our observations of nature would lead us to suspect that a divine Designer was at work, the scientific establishment would consider this inference “unscientific;” because it introduces the possibility of a supernatural element for which science cannot investigate. Instead of merely admitting that forces beyond the scope of science might exist to explain these observations, the gatekeepers of science maintain an unnecessarily high wall against any acknowledgment of supernatural involvement in nature. They must then only offer us natural causes for anything they seek to explain, be these causes ever so speculative, far-fetched, or impossible to observe because they are lost in the mists of billions upon billions of years.
This is a curious situation given the beginnings of modern science! Its founding fathers would be surprised at the official position taken for dismissing evidence of a Creator. Their writings show a connection between the Bible and the scientific revolution of the 17th century that goes deeper than personal faith. As Oxford-educated Professor Peter Harrison remarks, “Not only were many of the key figures in the rise of science individuals with sincere religious commitments, but the new approaches to nature that they pioneered were underpinned in various ways by religious assumptions.”3 Science historians confirm that the nature of God, the nature of the cosmos, and the nature of man needed to have been seen in a creationist perspective for the scientific revolution to take off. Let’s investigate!
THE NATURE OF GOD IN GENESIS
The God of Genesis is awe-inspiring! Looking at the heavens on a clear night awakens wonder at their beauty and the power and greatness of their Creator. As Isaac Newton studied the same sky in the 1600’s, he too was awed and wrote, “The most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”4
Isaac Newton (1642‒1727) was a physicist and mathematician who discovered foundational principles of modern physics, including the laws of motion and gravity. He was one of the greatest scientists of all time, yet he wrote more on theology than on science and was a devout Christian. He stated, “All variety of created objects which represent order and life in the universe could happen only by the willful reasoning of its original Creator, whom I call the ‘Lord God.’”5
Working more than a century before Newton, the earliest pioneer of modern science, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) famously challenged the established world-view with his heliocentric (sun at the center) model of the solar system. Although he trod on toes in the church, Copernicus, a faithful Catholic, thought of scientific endeavor as no less than an act of worship:
“To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful workings of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful [pleasing] than knowledge.”6
Copernicus’ work was confirmed by Galileo Galilei, often called the founding father of science. In his awe of the universe he was observing, Galileo said, “I give infinite thanks to God, who has been pleased to make me the first observer of marvelous things.”7
Newton, Copernicus, and Galileo were men of their time. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was unthinkable not to believe in the Creator-God. All the scientists of that era were creationists, and their beliefs were rooted in the foundational truths of the Bible. This was fertile ground for the growth of science.
Why was biblical belief in the Creator important for the 17th century scientific revolution? It meant that early investigators could make assumptions about the world based on the character and actions of God as described in the Bible. These assumptions allowed them to confidently collect observations and draw general conclusions from them—at that time, a new approach to gaining knowledge. The founders of modern science believed that the universe is regular, orderly, and rational because its Creator is reliable, orderly, and rational in His dealings with His creation and man.
The assumptions embedded in the biblical portrayal of God go a step further. 17th century scientists saw God as the sovereign lawgiver who has not only established universal moral laws, but also ordinances for nature (see Job 38:33). Believing this, they undertook their investigations to search out the Creator’s laws of nature. For example, physicist and chemist Robert Boyle wrote, “God [is] the author of the universe, and the free establisher of the laws of motion.”8
Robert Boyle (1627‒1691) is considered the founder of modern chemistry. As well as being a chemist and physicist, he was a philosopher and theologian. He too was a committed Christian.
So it’s clear that belief in a Creator and the biblical portrayal of His character and government informed early scientists’ attitudes to their work. This brings us to a consideration of the subject of their investigations.
THE NATURE OF THE COSMOS IN GENESIS
The influence of the Bible on these pioneers reminds us that a culture’s view of the world also factors into the development of science. Some cultures’ belief systems conceive of the world as evil and dangerous, with natural objects inhabited by malevolent spirits. Scientific investigation certainly is not encouraged by these fear-ridden worldviews. But Genesis portrays God’s creation as being “very good,” making nature very inviting for believers to investigate! The Bible describes the cosmos as being created by God according to precise mathematical specifications (see Job 38:4, 5) as well as operating according to laws. These were vital assumptions in the development of systematic scientific research. Researchers believed they would discover not only laws, but mathematical precision in nature, reflecting its Creator’s orderliness and consistency.
Professor Peter Harrison gives us an example of this assurance: “The mathematician Isaac Barrow, who was Isaac Newton’s predecessor in the famous Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge, suggested that the only reason for having confidence that repeated experiments will yield general principles that hold true is because we can be assured that the laws of nature God has instituted are constant. ‘We have no reason to believe,’ he wrote, ‘that Nature is inconstant, for that would imply that the great Author of the universe is unlike himself.’”9
“The most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”
Newton himself wrote, “God created everything by number, weight and measure.”10 Where did he get this idea? “I have a fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God, written by those who were inspired. I study the Bible daily,”11 he affirmed. It’s probable that without their biblical belief in the orderliness and consistency of God’s creation, these pioneers of modern science would not have pursued consistent measurements and laws so confidently.
THE NATURE OF MAN IN GENESIS
Did the biblical view of man influence the 17th century growth-spurt in science? Genesis describes man as being in the image of God with a mind able to understand and appreciate God’s creation. Adam was to give the animals names, and in Hebrew thought, a name showed the characteristics of the one bearing it. This means Adam was expected to investigate and understand the attributes of God’s creatures. According to the Bible, man has been delegated to “have dominion” over the world using the wisdom and understanding given by his Creator (see Genesis 1:26; 2:19; Job 38:36). So the Genesis account assured the fathers of modern science that with the rational minds God gave them, they could understand His rational world. For example, Johannes Kepler (1571‒1630), the famous German mathematician and astronomer who discovered the laws of planetary motion, asserted:
“…Those laws are within the grasp of the human mind. God wanted us to recognize them by creating us after his own image so that we could share in his own thoughts…and if piety allow us to say so, our understanding is in this respect of the same kind as the divine, at least as far as we are able to grasp something of it in our mortal life.”12
Encouraged to use the minds they believed God gave them, 17th century scientists took a fresh look at the world, collecting observations and deriving new theories from them. Ironically, the scientific method they pioneered is still being used today, although its theological roots are largely unacknowledged.
So, by reading the words of these fathers of modern science, we discover their work was faith-based. Far from being a stumbling block to the advance of science, as some modern critics claim, Genesis was for them an inspiration to find verifiable answers to long-held questions. Their biblical understanding of the nature of God, the nature of the cosmos, and the nature of man provided a matrix within which science could leap forward. Today’s debate would surprise them; there is no question where they would stand in it. And interestingly, the discoveries of science are convincing some of today’s establishment-educated scientists to return to the same position. As contemporary scientist Robert Griffiths, winner of the Heinemann Prize in mathematical physics, remarked, “If we need an atheist for a debate, we go to the philosophy department. The physics department isn’t much use.”
- “Dawkins: Creationists Know Nothing,” CNN Red Chair Interview, Sept. 6, 2012.
- “Compatibility of Science with Religion,” National Academy of Science and Institute of Medicine, www.nas.edu, 2008.
- Christianity On The Rise Of Western Science,” ABC Religion and Ethics, www.abc.net.au, May 8, 2012.
- “General Scholium,” The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, vol. 2 (London: 1729), www.newtonproject.ox.ac.uk.
- “Sir Isaac Newton: More Than Just a Genius,” World Net Daily, www.wnd, March 19, 2018.
- “Quotes About God To Consider…If You Think Science Leads To Atheism,” God Evidence, godevidence.com, Aug. 12, 2010.
- “Galileo Galilei Quotes,” Brainy Quote, www.brainyquote.com/quotes/galileo.
- See note 6.
- See note 3.
- See note 6.
Gillian Bethel teaches English and Bible at Hartland College.
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