True science and Christian faith have often been allies in history instead of at odds with one another. This article shows how scientists in history were motivated by faith in God and aimed to understand his creation for his glory.

Source: Australian Presbyterian, 1998. 2 pages.

God and the Scientists

About 100 years ago two popular books were written which helped to establish the public image of the relationship between science and Christianity.

The first, written by a professor of chemistry, John William Draper, was enti­tled History of the Conflicts between Religion and Science and was published in 1874.

The second, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, was written by a his­torian and president of Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White, in 1896.

Both these books fostered the idea that science and Christianity had been at log­gerheads for centuries, and the notion that these two ways of thinking are irreconcil­able opposites survives strongly today.

However, this powerful image of sci­ence and Christianity forever at one anoth­er’s throats, engaged in a fight to the death, conceals the fact that, for many Christians through the ages, science has been some­thing which they did because they were Christians. Science, carried out appropriately, was fully compatible with their faith rather than in conflict with it.

In the 17th century there was a dramat­ic increase in the number of people actively involved in science and the first scientific society — the Royal Society — was estab­lished in England in 1663. At that time Puritan Christians were only a small minority of the English population but they made up two thirds of the founding members of the Royal Society (which still exists today). What was it that led these sci­entists into a career which White insisted should have been contrary to their most basic religious beliefs?

The scientists of the Royal Society believed that the God they worshipped was not capricious, and that the orderly world which he had created could be studied to find out the laws he had built into it. It was not sufficient for them to sit in their stud­ies and read what the ancient scholars had thought the world was like. Instead their faith encouraged them to study nature itself, at first hand, through experiments.

Johannes Kepler, a Lutheran on the con­tinent, described his scientific activities as ‘thinking God’s thought after him’. John Ray, in a book entitled The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation, saw his task as helping people to see the world around them as God’s handiwork. Even the word ‘law’ applied to nature carried with it the idea that they were the result of ‘legis­lation’ by God — they were His decrees and not just something which somehow existed by themselves independently of Him. God did not just create the world and then cut it adrift and allow it to function on its own as the deists believed. Instead, He continues to be active in upholding, maintaining and caring for what He has created.

In describing their purposes as scien­tists, many of these ‘natural philosophers’ wrote about their faith that God’s glory was to be seen in his works, and they saw their investigations as a way of demonstrat­ing that glory to other people. In this atti­tude they echoed the words of the psalmist: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands’ (Psalm 19:1).

For many writers of this time their stud­ies and experiments had revealed a world so marvellous that one could only attribute its existence to an all-knowing, all-powerful Creator.

A favourite theme of these early scien­tists was that God had revealed himself through two books — the book of Scripture and the ‘book’ of nature — and there was information about Him to be obtained from each book which was not contained in the other. Because of this many argued that, just as they were under an obligation to study the Bible to understand God’s written word, so there was an obligation to study the world to become aware of what He had revealed in His creation.

The notion that the Christian faith and science are, in significant ways, incom­patible with each other is also belied by the fact that many modern scientists are believ­ers in the same God who was glorified by those early scientists. The following com­ment in 1960 by Malcolm Dixon illustrates this well:

I have been rather struck, while looking through the recent Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, by the num­ber of Fellows who are specially mentioned as having a deep Christian faith. One can hardly pick up an issue without finding at least one, and in the latest number, out of seventeen who died during the year, three or perhaps four are mentioned in this way. This is rather remarkable in notices which are primarily concerned with scientific work.

A number of such scientists briefly tell their stories in a booklet, God and the Scientists, compiled by Mike Poole in 1997. For these scientists, as for many scientists in Draper’s and White’s time, their voca­tion was a task to which God had called them and which they carried out with the intention of bringing him glory. Their work as scientists was a natural implication of their faith as Christians.

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