When it comes to the origins of modern-day science and research, there is a popular narrative that goes something like this: The ancient Greeks were fledgling scientists that, left alone, would have brought the world to where we are today even sooner. But then, unfortunately, Christianity took over the Mediterranean world, put a stop to scientific thinking, and the result was the Dark Ages. It was the Muslims in the Middle East that invented science and they passed it on to the Europeans, resulting in the Renaissance. To this day, Christianity is doing all it can to stifle science. Conclusion: Christianity and science are fundamentally incompatible. Get rid of Christianity and science would flourish as never before and everyone would benefit.
But this popular narrative ignores a number of historical facts. So once again, let’s take a closer look. It is likely true to say that scientific thinking, at least in the Western world, began with the Greeks. But the Greek philosophers never produced a “scientific age”. The main reason for this is not the interference of Christianity, but the methodology of the Greek philosophers themselves. You see, the Greek philosophers were deductive thinkers rather than experimental researchers. They despised the material world and they despised manual labor. As a result, while they came up with many brilliant theories of how things work, they didn’t test their theories (what we call research), as that would require literally getting their hands dirty. They thought long and hard about how many teeth might reside in a horse’s mouth, but never actually opened a horse’s mouth to find out (gross!). There were exceptions to this general trend, like Archimedes and Galen, but as a rule they did not encourage the kind of hands-on research so characteristic of today’s world. As we noted in the previous blogs on education, they also emphasized memorization and conformity over critical thinking. The proof of that? They never produced universities and they did not produce a scientific revolution.
Elsewhere in world, it was no different. The Arabs were inherently fatalistic, so they didn’t try to transform the world, they believed only God could do that. Animists, on the other hand, equated the natural world with the gods and you don=t experiment with “the gods”. In India, the prevailing philosophy was that the physical world is unreal, an illusion. And if that is the case, scientific experimentation doesn’t make a lot of sense. Things were more promising in China. Chinese people invented the abacus, the crossbow, gunpowder, paper, and printing. But without anything like the Reformation, Chinese science didn’t go very far. There was no “Scientific Revolution” in China until recent times.
Then Jesus came. Like a mustard seed, His view of the world gradually brought about changes in the way people thought, and these changes made all the difference over time. Jesus rejected the idea that the material world was evil and, therefore, unworthy of investigation. For Him the world was a gift from a loving God to the human race. Rather than being despised, the world was to be mourned as a victim of sin, but delighted in as a gift of love and a glimpse of the glory of God. It was not to be worshiped, as the animists did, but it was to be cherished, cultivated, investigated and enjoyed. In this Jesus was building on His Jewish heritage, which affirmed that God created the world and that the world He made was “very good” (Gen 1:31). Human beings were created to care for the earth, to understand and shape it (Gen 1:28). The material world was a positive thing that human beings could preserve and transform with their labor (Gen 2:15). Jesus affirmed the Jewish belief in the dignity of labor by His own practice as a carpenter or stone worker. A great philosopher, Jesus did what the Greek philosophers would never do, get His hands dirty improving the world around Him.
While Jesus and the Jews of His day shared this view of the earth and the dignity of labor, Judaism had only a marginal influence on the Greco-Roman world. It was the influence of Jesus and the Jesus movement that eventually prevailed in the Greco-Roman world. Jesus set the foundation for scientific research and also the basis for critical thinking (Isa 1:18; John 8:32, 36). The search for truth was affirmed as a central task for those who would follow Jesus. In the words of Alfred North Whitehead: “Science is grounded in the Christian conviction about the rationality of God.” On what basis would Whitehead make such an assertion? We will look at the evidence for that in the next blog.
Summing up. The Greeks made an advance toward modern scientific research in seeing the world as something that ought to be understood. The Hebrews provided support for that idea in seeing the world, not as an object of worship, but as a cause for worship, it is a record of God’s mighty acts. Collectively, this was a big step in the direction of scientific research, rejecting the ideas that the world was the abode of gods that should be left alone, or that it was an illusion. But the Greek advance in scientific thinking never combined with the Jewish idea of the world as a gift of God worthy of investigation. At least not before Jesus came. Only then did the idea that the world should be both understood and shaped begin to transfer people’s thinking.