Bible and Science
By Stanley L. Jaki
Christendom Press, 222 pages, $9.95
In this book Father Jaki discusses with much learning, insight, and wisdom the complex relationship between biblical religion and science.
In the first chapters he gives an illuminating analysis of the Bible’s view of the natural world. That view, Fr. Jaki bluntly shows, presupposed a cosmology that was extremely primitive even by Ptolemaic standards. The earth was a flat disk supported by pillars, and the sky a hard inverted bowl with apertures through which rain and manna fell. The biblical authors evinced no interest either in natural phenomena as such or in anything remotely resembling science. Indeed, their worldview was, in some ways, profoundly antiscientific, especially in attributing to God continual interferences in nature to produce not only miracles but quite ordinary phenomena such as rain, snow, and earthquakes.
The curious thing, however, is that it was precisely the God-centeredness of the Hebrew Bible that cleared the ground for the later emergence of science. While overwhelmingly supernatural in its outlook, the Bible concentrated that supernaturalism in a God distinct from nature, and in that way had the effect of desacralizing and depersonalizing nature. Moreover, since the world was God’s creation, it necessarily had the quality of being well designed. Indeed, Jaki observes, even the notion of a universe governed by laws can be found in several passages: “When I have no covenant with day and night and have given no laws to heaven and earth, then too will I reject the descendants of Jacob and my servant David” (Jeremiah 33:25-26); God gave the sun, moon, and stars “a law which shall not pass away” (Psalm 148:6). One of St. Augustine’s favorite verses, and one of the most often cited by medieval writers, was Wisdom 11:20, “But you have disposed everything according to measure and number and weight.”
Thus it was not directly, through its descriptions of natural phenomena or its presumed accounts of natural history, that the Bible played a positive role in the emergence of science, but indirectly, through the Church’s creed. Jaki notes that “Instead of the relation of the Bible and Science, one should . . . speak of the relation of the Creed and Science. In doing so, one would also do justice to the historical reality of the former relation. Whatever concern some Church Fathers had for science, it was the Creed ultimately that they wanted to vindicate.”
The most important case in point is the first chapter of Genesis. Jaki points out that “countless commentators (patristic and scholastic) on Genesis 1 . . . use it . . . to assert basic truths of the Christian creed and theology, [as that] all was created by God, that He was free to create, that He alone was the Creator, that all He created was good, . . . that He created out of nothing and in time, . . . and that He created for a purpose which culminated in man’s special status and destiny.” One of these affirmations, that the world had a beginning in time (defined by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215), actually helped lead the fourteenth-century professor Jean Buridan to the idea of an “impetus” given to the celestial bodies in the beginning. This impetus, he argued, could be conserved only if the celestial motions take place in a region without friction. Thus were the new ideas of momentum and inertial motion born. These ideas were further developed by Nicole of Oresme, bishop of Lisieux and Buridan’s successor at the Sorbonne, and were the first stirrings of a true science of motion and of the scientific revolution.
Unfortunately, throughout Christian history many have attempted to forge more obvious links between the Bible and science, and in so doing have projected ideas into the sacred text utterly foreign to the thought of its authors. This dismal program of “concordance,” pursued in every age from the Fathers’ to our own and intended to make the Bible respectable for the science of the day, has had the opposite effect.
Few commentators through the ages were able to resist the temptation to correlate the events of the six days of creation with contemporary scientific theories. (Here Jaki is a little too hard on Pius XII, whose reference in the 1950s to a connection between Genesis and the Big Bang was, to my mind, poetically quite apt.) Jaki argues that the sequence of events in Genesis had quite another meaning. Those of the first five days teach primarily that God is the Creator of all things, with that totality being signified by the rhetorical device of “totum per partes” (which is used three times). The totality is first expressed by “heaven and earth,” and then on days two and three by the firmament and the earth—the ceiling and floor of the tentlike world, and finally on days four and five by reference to the main contents of the world.
The middle section of Jaki’s book takes us from the early Christian era (by which time Greek science was already moribund, due, Jaki says, to the revival of pantheistic conceptions of the cosmos) up to the Galileo fiasco. He has many fascinating things to say along the way, some profound, some provocative, and some merely curious. (I was unaware, for example, that in the sixth century John Philoponus argued from the colors of stars that they might be made not of some kind of divine matter, as was commonly thought, but of the same type which on earth produces flames of various colors.) Unfortunately, this part of the book is not as well organized as it could be, and the exposition suffers from frequent lapses into a peculiar Jakian style, which is unnecessarily polemical and sometimes obscure. Nevertheless, the ideas are still there, and the line of thought can still be discerned under the epicyclic twists and turns by a thoughtful reader.
In the final chapters Jaki returns to the biblical text, and discusses the best-known miracles of both Testaments. His speculative hypotheses about some of the more dramatic Old Testament miracles, as well as his general reflections on the meaning and manner of divine intervention in nature, are reasonable and valuable.
In spite of some infelicities of style, and one or two questionable contentions, this is an admirable treatment of the Bible and science, and would be highly suitable for a college course.
Stephen M. Barr is Associate Professor of Physics at the Bartol Institute, University of Delaware.