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The Love Affair Gone Wrong

The period from around 1680-1800 saw the great flourishing of natural theology. The great explanatory power of the new science, especially of Newtonian physics, was pressed into service to investigate how the Creator had worked and was working. In the process more and more purely scientific explanations were given of natural phenomena.As Kaiser makes clear this was a process which had been going on at least since the 12th Century [Kaiser, C, ‘The Laws of Nature and the Nature of God’ in Facets of Faith Volume 4: Interpreting...At first this was not in tension with a strongly theistic position - Newton himself regarded God as directly mediating the force of gravity.

Newton’s successors developed the idea of the mechanical universe. This idea accepted action-at-a-distance without the need for divine mediation, but this was not necessarily in tension with the narrative of God’s creative action. Rather the mechanical model was regarded as constituting the ‘how’ of the great Architect’s work, and was therefore a source of understanding of God’s character. The ‘Book of Nature’ could be read alongside the ‘Book of Scripture’.

The great irony of this period is that as Brooke puts it: ‘the God known through science would prove most vulnerable to being overthrown in the name of science.’Brooke, JH, ‘Science and theology in the Enlightenment’ in Religion and Science: History, Method, Dialogue, ed. by WM Richardson and WJ Wildman (London: Routledge, 1996) p10The atheist Anthony Collins remarked that it would never have occurred to anyone to doubt the existence of God if theologians had not tried so hard to prove it.

Mechanistic explanations of natural phenomena, not involving miraculous intervention, were suggestive of true objectivity. Such explanations

  • were celebrated by Robert Boyle and his successors, the ‘physicotheologians’, as descriptions of the Creator’s activity, but

  • were equally attractive to ‘deists’, who confined God’s work to the initial establishment of the created order, and

  • were highly prized by the new movement of atheists which developed from the 1740s.

Moreover ‘The Book of Nature’ could only give rise to generalised theistic conclusions about creation; over-focus on this aspect of theology tended to cut practitioners of natural theology off from the great strengths of Christianity in giving an account of redemption. Pascal had described seeing in his famous vision the ‘“God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob”, not of philosophers and scholars’Pascal, B, Pensées (transl. by A.J.Krailsheimer, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966) p309- a God who had been in saving relation to humans throughout history - but this perspective tended to be lost.

John Brooke has emphasised the complexity of this period,Brooke, JH, Science and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) Ch.4, Brooke, JH, and Cantor, G, Reconstructing Nature (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998) Ch.5 but the radical nature of the change in the relation between the sciences and theology is unmistakable. A hundred years after Newton came Laplace (see determinism, indeterminism and their implications); a hundred years after Burnet’s The Sacred Theory of the Earth came James Hutton’s The Theory of the Earth. Gone from Hutton was Burnet’s interpretation of Noah’s Flood as an example of divine design - in its place came a theory based on endless cycles of mountain building and destruction. But as Brooke insists, it would be wrong to see science as simply an agent of secularisation - rather scientific interpretations illustrated in a particularly vivid way the secularising effect of other forces - social, economic, philosophical.The impact of the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-76) is an example. Hume questioned the argument from design which was such an important element in natural theology. His sceptical empiricism in...

See the rise of Darwinism to understand more about the conflicts that followed an immensely influential scientific proposal - Charles Darwin’s scheme in The Origin of Species (1859), which finally put an end to any simplistic argument from design.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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