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Natural Science - Year I

Unit 19: Early Christian views of nature

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History Weblecture for Unit 19

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History Lecture for Unit 19: Early Christianity and Science

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Lecture outline:

The Early Christian Fathers: In the Classical Tradition

The early Christian church faced many challenges, and its adherents struggled to find the best way to meet them. One of the most demanding and subtle was the problem of reconciling or countering the teachings of classical philosophy with the traditional Jewish understanding of a world order created and subject to God. Those Church Fathers who produced works that we still have were themselves the products of classical education, trained in the methods of reasoning and rhetoric developed by the Greeks and prized by the Romans. They could not simply deny the very language in which they had learned to think. Instead, they had to explore ways to reinterpret the Greek and Roman ideas of the world in the light of the new ethical and spiritual dimensions into which their experiences as Christians led them.

The fathers in Alexandria, Egypt, extended to the stories of Christ, God, and Nature a method of allegorizing Scriptures put forth by the Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria in the early first century. Philo balanced literal readings of Scripture with allegorical interpretations, acknowledging both as divinely inspired. Philo was greatly influenced by the Platonic concept of a mathematical universe, with harmonies and relationships that echo the Pythagorean world views. For example, in Pythagorean and Platonic terms, "perfection" depends to some extent on mathematical whole-number ratios. From the Jewish tradition, the world was created and was perfect. In questions 83 and 91 of his commentary on Genesis ties the number of days for Creation to the perfect number 6, (perfect in the sense that it is the product of 1 * 2 * 3 and the sum of these factors 1 + 2 + 3).

Clement, Origen, and Basil

One of the earliest prominent Christian writers to use this method of allegory was Clement of Alexandria, a teacher whose Greek works were translated into Latin, which secured him a lasting place in the philosophical history of Western Europe, despite controversies over his interpretations. In his work The Instructor (Paedagogus), Clement distinguishes between the proper goal of improving the soul, and the less worthy goal of teaching the intellect alone. The Instructor accordingly is concerned with appropriate behavior, including how to eat, dress, conduct oneself in public and with members of the opposite sex, and how to behave in church. But in the Stromata, Clement cannot bring himself to condemn the pursuit of classical philosophy and rhetoric entirely, even when he goes on to argue against the conclusions of the Sophists. He says

And such persuasion is convincing, by which those that love learning admit the truth; so that philosophy does not ruin life by being the originator of false practices and base deeds, although some have calumniated it, though it be the clear image of truth, a divine gift to the Greeks; nor does it drag us away from the faith, as if we were bewitched by some delusive art, but rather, so to speak, by the use of an ampler circuit, obtains a common exercise demonstrative of the faith. Further, the juxtaposition of doctrines, by comparison, saves the truth, from which follows knowledge. Philosophy came into existence, not on its own account, but for the advantages reaped by us from knowledge, we receiving a firm persuasion of true perception, through the knowledge of things comprehended by the mind.

Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book I, Chapter 2

Clement believed that philosophy was God's gift to the Greeks, as direct divine inspiration was his gift to the Jewish nation. While some truths are first perceived only through divine revelation, philosophical study can give men the tools of reason and rhetoric with which to defend this truth, and set it in the wider context of human experience and the natural world.

The theologian Origen was the son of a teacher, Leonides, who died a martyr's death, leaving Origen to support his family. Origen became a catechist, a teacher of Christianity. To better prepare himself, he studied not only Scriptures but the Greek philosophers, and gained so much renown for his learning that he aroused the jealousy of the elders of the church in Alexandria, and was forced to retire to Caesarea in Palestine. He was persecuted and tortured for his Christian faith and when he died, buried with honor as a martyr and defender of the faith.

In his work on basic principles de Principiis, Origen draws on the Greek philosophers of his youthful studies to explain how God created and endowed the world with its good qualities.

Read through chapter I of Book II of Origen's De Principiis. Pay especial attention to his discussion of the nature of matter and its qualities and ability to appear in diverse forms.

[part of 1 page.]

  • What is Origen's list of qualities of matter?
  • What is Origen's list of the types of matter?
  • Does Origen think that the world is ordered or random in its events and relationships?

Another important theologian/philosopher is Basil of Caesarea. Basil was one of the key proponents of the Nicene Creed, written to confirm the full deity of Jesus Christ. Raised in a Christian family, he became student of law and rhetoric, but determined to devote his whole life to Christ after studying with Eustathius of Sebaste. He wrote about himself

I had wasted much time on follies and spent nearly all of my youth in vain labors, and devotion to the teachings of a wisdom that God had made foolish. Suddenly, I awoke as out of a deep sleep. I beheld the wonderful light of the Gospel truth, and I recognized the nothingness of the wisdom of the princes of this world.

But he was not against study of classics; in fact, he wrote an Address to Young Men on Greek Literature encouraging the study of Greek texts. Basil was one of the early founders of communal monasticism, and his opinions influenced many of those who entered monasteries.

Read through Frederick Padelford's translation of Basil's Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature.

  • Why should young men study pagan literature?
  • What kinds of literature should be read?
  • What kinds of literature is injurious and should be avoided?

Augustine of Hippo

Perhaps the greatest, and during the middle ages, if one counts the number of manuscripts available, the most popular and influential of the early Church fathers was Augustine of Hippo. Son of a Christian woman, Monica, he was educated in the life of Jesus and the Christian writings and epistles available to his community. Despite this training, he had a wild youthful period, followed by a spiritual crisis in which he was attracted to the teachings of the Manichaeans that the material world was evil and as a physical being, he could not help but sin. However, he was disillusioned eventually when he realized how little the Manichaean philosophy had to say about the actual physical world. During a visit the Bishop of Milan, Ambrose, Augustine began to revisit his philosophical training, becoming fascinated first with neo-Platonic ideas, and eventually with Christianity again. His early works describe some of his struggles with different schools of philosophy, and as he grew in maturity and became Bishop of Hippo, he regularly defended the Christian faith by using Greek philosophical methods to analyze heretical positions to clearly show their inconsistencies.

Augustine's greatest work was undoubtedly The City of God, but perhaps the most human of his works was his Confessions. In the last books of this work, Augustine tries to understand how God created the earth.

Read through Book 11, sections 11.3.5, 11.4.6, and 11.5.7 of The Confessions.

[1 page.]

  • Augustine says of the heavens and the earth, "They cry aloud that they were made, for they change and vary." How does this agree with Aristotle's ideas of generation and corruption? How does it contradict his perception of the heavens?
  • Augustine believes that the Word of God remains forever. How could he use this idea to reconcile Aristotle's claim that the world is eternal with the Genesis story of creation of the world in time?
  • How does the idea that God's Word is forever justify the idea of a "physical law"?
  • How does the idea that God's Word establishes the world justify the study of the natural world?

Decline in the West

Boethius and the quadrivium

At the end of the Roman Empire, we find the philosopher and teacher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy. He also wrote books on each of the four sciences of the quadrivium. He knew that pitch was related to the frequency of vibration of the string producing the sound. He planned to write commentaries on all the works of Plato and Aristotle; but unfortunately, we have only his Latin translation of Aristotle's Categories and De interpretatione, which he was able to finish before difficulties with the Emperor Theodoric cut short Boethius' life. His importance for science is that he preserved the idea of the quadrivium into the middle ages, in particular, the fundamental position of astronomy.

The Encyclopaedists

There is a long tradition of manuscript transmission between the classical world and the Renaissance. Many of those who copied information did so without changing the content. Others like Bede read and commented on their readings, extending the work of the original author and amplifying it with new perspectives based on their own experiences. Still others tried to distill and "count" what was known, reorganizing information into formats where one could look up facts. The last group are the encyclopaedists, starting with Cassiodorus, and including Martianus Cappella, Isidore of Seville, Bartholmaeus Anglicus, and a host of others who simply wrote down everything they knew. We are greatly indebted to them for preserving information as important even when it made little sense to them.

Isidore of Seville

Isidore was born into a family that diligently prepared its members for a life of service in the church. Two of his brothers were bishops; his sister Florentina was an abbess who controlled forty convents. He himself was educated at the cathedral school of Seville, mastering the trivium and quadrivium before moving on to become fluent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. As bishop of Seville, he struggled with first the Arian and later the Acephalaen heresies, and with Visigoth invasions. Despite his temporal cares, he managed to consolidate a considerable amount of information in his Etymologiae, as well as a number of other treatises.

Take a brief look at the Latin Etymologiae and its section on astronomy as one of the four sciences of the quadrivium. Those of you who have a bit of Latin will be able to pick out some of the information.

[1 page.]

  • In Caput XXIV (chapter 24), Isidore discusses what the term astronomy means, and what is appropriate to its study:
    Astronomia est astrorum lex, quae cursus siderum et figuras et habitudines stellarum circa se et circa terram indagabili ratione percurrit.

    Astronomy (astronomia) is the law of the stars (aster), which, by investigative reasoning, touches on the courses of the constellations, and the figures and positions of the stars relative to each other and to the earth.

    Later on, he write (in section xxvii):
    Inter Astronomiam autem et Astrologiam aliquid differt. Nam Astronomia caeli conversionem, ortus, obitus motusque siderum continet, vel qua ex causa ita vocentur. Astrologia vero partim naturalis, partim superstitiosa est. [2] Naturalis, dum exequitur solis et lunae cursus, vel stellarum certas temporum stationes. Superstitiosa vero est illa quam mathematici sequuntur, qui in stellis auguriantur, quique etiam duodecim caeli signa per singula animae vel corporis membra disponunt, siderumque cursu nativitates hominum et mores praedicare conantur.

    There is some difference between astronomy and astrology. Astronomy concerns itself with the turning of the heavens, the rising, setting, and motion of the stars, and where the constellations get their names. But astrology is partly natural, and partly superstitious. 2. It is natural as long as it investigates the courses of the sun and the moon, or the specific positions of the stars according to the seasons; but it is a superstitious belief that the astrologers (mathematicus) follow when they practice augury by the stars, or when they associate the twelve signs of the zodiac with specific parts of the soul or body, or when they attempt to predict the nativities and characters of people by the motion of the stars.

There is an English PDF of the entire work available, but it will take awhile to download it.

Study/Discussion Questions:

Further Study/On Your Own