Posts Tagged ‘Natural Theology’

Natural Theology the Motive for Biological Research between 1650 and 1850

May 28, 2013

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.


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

Christian Wolf’s Other Edens

May 11, 2013

Way back in the 1970s there was an anthology of Science Fiction stories entitled Other Edens, probably referring to the strange worlds and bizarre futures envisaged by the stories’ authors. In the 18th century, however, many European intellectuals took the idea of extraterrestrial life very seriously. One of the Christian apologists of the 18th century was the German, Christian Wolf. Wolf was a follower of Natural Theology. He believed that the Book of Nature did indeed testify to the presence of an almighty and beneficient God. Some of his views now seem quaint or ridiculous. He followed many 18th century philosophers and theologians in believing that the Earth’s creatures had been formed for the benefit of humanity. The moon and stars, for example, had been made so that humans could perform at night some of the activities they also did during the day, such as going fishing. This idea was widely mocked even in Wolf’s time. Wolf did not believe that these celestial bodies had been formed only for humanity’s benefit. He reasoned that as there were so many different worlds in the universe that astronomy was increasingly revealing, so they must have been made by God for the benefit of these planets’ different inhabitants. These beings naturally would be adapted to the very different conditions on their worlds.

This view, that the universe was full of inhabited planets, formed the intellectual background for the early, proto-SF tales of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Cyrano de Bergerac’s The States and Empires of the Sun and Voltaire’s Micromegalas. This last was a satire, in which two vast aliens, thousands of miles huge and with a multitude of different sense beyond the five of humans, travel to Earth from the star Sirius. They are greeted by a delegation of terrestrial scientists, eager for the aliens’ superior knowledge of the cosmos. The aliens duly grant the scientists’ request for a book containing their knowledge of the universe. They give them a book the size of the present day Baltic states. Looking through the book, the scientists find every page empty, and duly complain. The aliens have broken their bargain with the international scientific research team. No, the creatures from Sirius reply, they have kept their word. That is precisely what they know about the universe. It shows Voltaire’s satiric wit about the nature of science, and the idea that the universe may be far more vast and unkowable than we can ever truly know. The 20th century British biologist, J.B.S. Haldane, said that ‘Not only is the universe queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can possibly imagine’.

The idea that God had formed the various worlds of the universe to support different intelligent species was known as the doctrine of plenitude. It was seriously shaken in the late 19th and 20th centuries when increased astronomical investigation revealed the worlds of the solar system to be mostly barren rocks, either too scorching, boiling hot or icily cold to support life. Far from the notion of alien life attacking the belief in God or Christianity, it was the opposite – the notion of a vast, sterile universe devoid of intelligent beings except humanity, that led many to atheism. Despite this the recent discoveries of a vast and increasing number of extra-solar planets has led people to consider the possibility once again that humanity may not be alone in the universe. A few years ago there was a scientific conference called by the White House to debate the consequences and possible approaches to alien contact. One of the subjects discussed was the effect such contacts would have on terrestrial religion. Would it undermine religious faith? All of the representatives of the world’s religions consulted, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and so on concluded that alien contact would not affect their particular faith, but they weren’t sure of the others. There is still much speculation that alien contact would somehow undermine human religions. Historically, however, the opposite has been true: the existence of alien life has been seen as proof of the Almighty’s existence, rather than His absence.