Natural Theology the Motive for Biological Research between 1650 and 1850

In their book on the relationship between Christian faith and the history of science, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton point out that Christian apologetics provided much of the motive for biological research from the Renaissance to the late eighteenth century. Following Aristotle, Christians saw the features of animals and plants as deliberately formed by the Creator to provide for them. Because it was believed that mere chance alone could not create them, they provided superb evidence for the existence and creative power of the Almighty. They quote evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr, stating

‘The study of natural history in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century was almost completely in the nads of amateurs, particularly country parsons’. They, and Meyr, also note that the secular bias of most textbooks obscure just how far Christian belief permeated and shaped all the sciences, including biology, in this period. Meyr states that ‘It is difficult for the modern person to appreciate the unity of science and Christian religion that existed from the Renaissance and far into the eighteenth century. The Christian dogma of creationism and the argument from design coming from natural theology dominated biological thinking for centuries’.

Pearcey and Thaxton make the point that the argument from design was not a ‘god-of-the-gaps’ argument. It instead drew its information from the increasing knowledge of the complexity of living creatures. As a result, the theory became increasingly stronger with the advancement of biological knowledge. They note that natural theology was popular with both orthodox Christians and Deists, and inspired most of the biological field work between 1650 and 1850.

My point here is not that the argument from design is correct, but simply that the Christian view that nature itself demonstrated the existence of an almighty God acted as a stimulus to scientific research, and that criticism of it as a ‘god-of-the-gaps’ argument is unfounded.

Source

Nancy R. Pearson and Charles B. Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway 1994).

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