The Radical Scientific View of Biblical Cultures

Fr. Stanley Jaki

To review so far, “Fr. Stanley Jaki’s Definition of Science” must first be understood to further grasp what he meant by “science was born of Christianity.” Then it is helpful to understand what Fr. Jaki meant by “The Stillbirths of Science in Ancient Cultures.” The essay below will show how the biblical and early Christian world view was 1) conducive to the birth of exact science and 2) radically different from other ancient world views. Note: Quotes are used intensively because the original quotes are the facts that show the conviction with which the people of Bible cultures and early Christianity held a belief in Creation.

Ancient Biblical Cultures

In the ancient Hebrew culture there was a literary codification of the concept of a Creator and of a creation out of nothing, the teaching from the book of Genesis. The Old Testament gives factual evidence of this world view throughout. Christians today take this for granted, but this concept was a radical break from Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek thought. The Israelites knew they must trust the faithfulness of God because they knew God orders the day and night and that the law of God extends to all things moral, societal, and natural. Isaiah points to the order and measure of physical objects, i.e. what Jaki defined as “exact science,” as contributing proof of God’s omniscience, literally translated to mean having all knowledge.

“Who was it measured out the waters in his open hand, heaven balanced on his palm, earth’s mass poised on three of his fingers? Who tried yonder mountains in the scale, weighed out the hills?” Isaiah 40:12

The Old Testament people saw nothing that happened in nature as vain, even the rain that falls from the sky makes the land fruitful.[1] “Yahweh alone, who created nature, can bring nature to an end and final judgment of all.” (Isaiah 23:10-11) Genesis 1 is much more rational than the Enuma elish creation myth of Babylon. This mindset permeated the thought of the Israelites, the Jews, and the early Church.

There are also detailed references in the books of the prophets and the psalms to the faithfulness of the regular and permanent structure and function of nature, offered repeatedly as the basis for believing in the trustworthiness of God.

“A message from the Lord, from him, the God of hosts, the same who brightens day with the sun’s rays, night with the ordered service of moon and star, who can stir up the sea and set its waves a-roaring.” (Jeremiah 31:35)

The naturalness of the universe, the predictability and order, the power of God as Creator and Lawmaker are all emphasized, indicating a view of the cosmos that was sustained leading up to the birth of modern science. The absolute certainty of the faithfulness of God is invoked to give credibility to the belief that Jerusalem will be rebuilt:

“It was I framed the earth, and created man to dwell in it; it was my hands that spread out the heavens, my voice that marshaled the starry host.” (Isaiah 45:12, 19)

In the psalms is found a poetic conviction regarding the work of Creation and its relevance to everything man thinks or does.[2] The monotheistic outlook on the world is unmistakable and uncompromising, enthusiastic even. This striking confidence is abundantly evident, and shows the belief in Creation of the entire cosmos out of nothing as well as a belief in the miraculous Creator who could accomplish the former obviously could produce the latter. Even in the earliest psalms, there is a most confident vision of nature, a precursor of the science to come.

The universe of the Old Testament is good, complete, and ordered. The universe is not a creature of unpredictable volition, but the creation of a personal and loving Creator. There is no conflict between reason and revelation, and the order, stability, and predictability of the cycles of the cosmos testify to the faithfulness of God.

“Give thanks to the Lord for his goodness, his mercy is eternal; give thanks to the God of gods, his mercy is eternal; give thanks to the Lord of lords, his mercy is eternal. Eternal his mercy, who does great deeds as none else can; eternal his mercy, whose wisdom made the heavens; eternal his mercy, who poised earth upon the floods. Eternal his mercy, who made the great luminaries; made the sun to rule by day, his mercy is eternal; made the moon and the stars to rule by night, his mercy is eternal.” (Psalm 136:1-9)

God is not just a dispassionate creator; He is eternally merciful and faithful to His people, and that faithfulness is evidenced in the stability of creation. There is an abundance of such praises in Psalms 35, 80, and 120 of the stability of nature as a work of the Creator. Psalm 73, for example, praises God’s hold on creation: “Thine is the day, thine the night; moon and sun are of thy appointment; thou hast fixed all the bounds of earth, madest the summer, madest the cool of the year.” (Psalm 73: 16-17) Psalms 118 praises God for the stability of the moral law as well as nature: “Lord, the word thou hast spoken stands ever unchanged as heaven. Loyal to his promise, age after age, is he who made the enduring earth.” (Psalm 118: 89-90) Passages such as these demonstrate the naturalness of order and stability in creation.[3]

The Hellenistic Jews held a sacred respect for the Two Books of Maccabees where the first biblical appearance of the phrase creation ex nihilo is found.[4] It is the story of the mother who was martyred after watching her seven sons be tortured and martyred first. The sons were tortured as she watched because they refused to break God’s command and eat the flesh of swine. Their tongues were cut out, scalps torn off, hands and feet mutilated, while the mother and remaining brothers stood by. Then each one was roasted alive, maimed and suffering as they were. The brothers comforted each other as they died bravely, “God sees true,” they said, “and will not allow us to go uncomforted.” (2 Maccabees 7:6) As they died, the mother continued to hearten her sons:

“Into this womb you came, who knows how? Not I quickened, not I the breath of life gave you, nor fashioned the bodies of you one by one! Man’s birth, and the origin of all things, he devised who is the whole world’s Maker; and shall he not mercifully give the breath of life back to you, that for his law’s sake hold your lives so cheap?” (2 Maccabees 7:22-23)

Outraged at the defiance of his authority, the king turned to the youngest and only still-living son whom the mother counseled in her native tongue:

“Nine months in the womb I bore thee, three years at the breast fed thee, reared thee to be what thou art; and now, my son, this boon grant me. Look round at heaven and earth and all they contain; bethink thee that of all this, and mankind too, God made out of nothing. Of this butcher have thou no fear; claim rightful share among thy brethren in yonder inheritance of death; so shall the divine mercy give me back all my sons at once.”(2 Maccabees 7:27-29)

Jaki tied this story to the history of science because it demonstrates the radically different view of creation held by the Old Testament cultures. He explains, “No martyrdom with a hope of bodily resurrection was ever inspired by a Demiourgos whose ‘creative’ power consisted in the ability to manipulate the already existing ‘formless’ matter into actual shapes.”[5]

Early Christianity

The facts are in the writings of the Church Fathers. St. Justin Martyr (c. 100–165 A.D.) rejected pantheism in favor of the Creator in his First Apology.

“Stoics teach that even God Himself shall be resolved into fire, and they say that the world is to be formed anew by this revolution; but we understand that God, the Creator of all things, is superior to the things that are to be changed.”[6]

In his Second Apology to the Roman Senate, he explained why the Stoic morality did not hold under the doctrine of eternal cycles.

“For if they say that human actions come to pass by fate, they will maintain either that God is nothing else than the things which are ever turning, and altering, and dissolving into the same things . . . or that neither vice nor virtue is anything.”[7]

Athenagoras (ca. 133–190 A.D.) taught that Christians, not the pagans, were the ones “who distinguished God from matter, and teach that matter is one thing and God another, and that they are separated by a wide interval, for the Deity is uncreated and eternal, to be beheld by the understanding and reason alone, while matter is created and perishable.”[8] He also taught that the world was “an instrument in tune, and moving in well-measured time,” and that the Deity is the only one who deserved worship because He gave the world “its harmony, and strikes its notes, and sings the accordant strain.”[9] Athenagoras noted that the failure of philosophers to realize this distinction led them into inconsistencies about the origin and permanence of the world.

“Neither, again, is it reasonable that matter should be older than God; for the efficient cause must of necessity exist before the things that are made.”[10]

As Christianity spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire, Christian thought and fundamental characteristics of Greek science achieved a sophisticated awareness crystallizing in Alexandria where the first school of Christian thought emerged.[11] Clement of Alexandria (died A.D. 215) was an intellectual who studied with Christian teachers elsewhere before coming to Alexandria to teach at the school and refute paganism and pantheism.[12] One of his students was Origen (c. A.D. 182–251). Clement and Origen had a “double task,” to articulate the Covenant to the faithful and serve as apologists to the pagans, which required them to address cosmology.[13]

In his Exhortation to the Greeks, Clement taught that a result of idol worship was the mental chaining of the intellect to the blind forces of nature.

“Why, in the name of truth, do you show those who have put their trust in you that they are under the dominion of ‘flux’ and ‘motion’ and ‘fortuitous vortices’? Why, pray, do you infect life with idols, imagining winds, air, fire, earth, stocks, stones, iron, this world itself to be gods?”[14]

Clement urged for a more confident attitude toward nature, a view of a world created by a rational Creator. Not only did he exhort the Greeks to view the world as creation, a robust confidence in human and cosmic existence, but he exhorted them to have faith in Christ who generated that confidence.

“How great is the power of God! His mere will is creation; for God alone created, since He alone is truly God. By a bare wish His work is done, and the world’s existence follows upon a single act of His will. […] Let none of you worship the sun. Let no one deify the universe; rather let him seek after the creator of the universe.”[15]

Origen tried in his De Principiis (On First Principles) to synthesize Christianity with pagan and Eastern ideas of the cosmos, and he sought understanding of the eternal cycles.

“So therefore it seems to me impossible for a world to be restored for the second time, with the same order and with the same amount of births, and deaths, and actions . . .”[16]

Origen noticed the impossibility of eternally repeating worlds and that such an idea was in conflict with revelation. He recalled the events of biblical and salvation history, noting that if the world repeated itself over and over again, there would be more than one of all biblical events. He also noted there could be no free will because souls driven in an endlessly repeating cycle are all predetermined.

“For if there is said to be a world similar in all respects (to the present), then it will come to pass that Adam and Eve will do the same things which they did before: there will be a second time the same deluge, and the same Moses will again lead a nation numbering nearly six hundred thousand out of Egypt . . . a state of things which I think cannot be established by any reasoning, if souls are actuated by freedom of will, and maintain either their advance or retrogression according to the power of their will.”[17]

Origen reiterated a firm conviction that the cosmic vision was not predicated on eternal cycles but on the fusion of truth and benevolence, the recognition that Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Word of God.[18] There is no place for the resurrection in the doctrine of cosmic cycles, and the early Christian Fathers recognized this clearly.

“For we know that even if heaven and earth and the things in them pass away, yet the words about each doctrine, being like parts in a whole or forms in a species, which were uttered by the Logos who was the divine Logos with God in the beginning, will in no wise pass away.”[19]

Origen, like many of the early Church Fathers, demonstrated the depth of his conviction by martyrdom.[20] The worldview of the Bible and of Christianity was not merely a philosophical outlook; it was a pervasive conviction that was kept pure and protected at any price because the faithful held it as true.

In his work The City of God, St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354–430) addressed questions about the destiny of man, which hardly made sense in the doctrine of eternal cycles.[21] Augustine taught that the physical universe had its origin in the sovereign act of creation by God. It was baffling to Augustine that anyone would believe that good is not the source of all things.

“But it is much more surprising that some even of those who, with ourselves, believe that there is one only source of all things, and that no nature which is not divine can exist unless originated by that Creator, have yet refused to accept with a good and simple faith this so good and simple a reason of the world’s creation, that a good God made it good; and that the things created, being different from God, were inferior to Him, and yet were good, being created by none other than He.”[22]

When other scholars tried to interpret biblical references as evidence of eternal cycles, Augustine strongly rejected such an interpretation, just as his predecessors had, on the grounds of the impossibility of more than one Savior:

“At all events, far be it from any true believer to suppose that by these words of Solomon those cycles are meant, in which, according to those philosophers, the same periods and events of time are repeated. . . far be it, I say, from us to believe this. For once Christ died for our sins; and, rising from the dead, He dies no more. Death has no more dominion over Him; (Romans 6:9)  . . . The wicked walk in a circle, not because their life is to recur by means of these circles, which these philosophers imagine, but because the path in which their false doctrine now runs is circuitous.”[23]

For another thousand years, the writings and wisdom of Augustine remained a principal source of instruction that held consequences for the coming new phase of human history immersed in scientific enterprise. It was under the stronghold of faith in a Creator from Old Testament times and strengthened through the first millennium of Christianity that the European scholars received the Greek philosophical and natural works from the Arabs.

Next week: “The Middle Ages and the Greek Scientific Corpus

Notes

[1] Stanley L. Jaki, The Savior of Science (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 63.
[2] Stanley L. Jaki, Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, Ltd, 1986), 148.
[3] Jaki, Savior of Science, 65.
[4] Knox, 2 Maccabees 7:28; Jaki, Savior of Science, 71.
[5] Jaki, Savior of Science, 71.
[6] Alexander Roberts, Sir James Donaldson, Arthur Cleveland Coxe, editors, Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925), 169; quoted in Jaki, Science and Creation, 164.
[7] Roberts, Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1, 191; quoted in Jaki, Science and Creation, 165.
[8] Alexander Roberts, Sir James Donaldson, Arthur Cleveland Coxe, editors, Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume II: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermes, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925) 131; quoted in Jaki, Science and Creation, 164.
[9] Roberts,Vol. II, 136. quoted in Jaki, Science and Creation, 164.
[10] Roberts, Vol. II, 136. quoted partially in Jaki, Science and Creation, 164.
[11] “Church History Study Helps: The Alexandrian School,” Theology Website.
[12] “Church History Study Helps: The Alexandrian School.”
[13] Jaki, Science and Creation, 163.
[14] Clement of Alexandria, translated by G. W. Butterworth, The Exhortation to the Greeks, The Riches of Man’s Salvation, and the Fragment of an Address Entitled To the Newly Baptized (London: William Heinemann, 1919), chapter vi, 153; quoted in Jaki, Science and Creation, 168.
[15] Clement of Alexandria, The Exhortation to the Greeks, 143; quoted in Jaki, Science and Creation, 168.
[16] Alexander Roberts, Sir James Donaldson, Arthur Cleveland Coxe, editors, Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume IV: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Part First and Second (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925), Origen, De Principiis, Book II, Chapter 3 “On the Beginning of the World, and Its Causes,” paragraph 4, 273.
[17] Roberts, Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume IV, 273; quoted in Jaki, Science and Creation, 171.
[18] Jaki, Science and Creation, 175.
[19] Origen, translated by Henry Chadwick, Contra Celsum (Cambridge: University Press, 1953), 281; quoted in Jaki, Science and Creation, 175.
[20] Jaki, Science and Creation, 175.
[21] Jaki, Science and Creation, 177.
[22] Philop Schaff, editor, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, St. Augustine, The City of God, Volume II, “St. Augustine’s City of God and Christian Doctrine,” (Grand Rapids, MI: William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), Book XI, Chapter 23, 217.
[23] Augustine, The City of God, Book XII, Chapter 13, 234.

Photo: The picture was taken from Santa Caterina del Sasso, on the Lake Maggiore, and provided by Fr. Jaki’s friend, Antonio Colombo.

Click here to receive these essays by email. Say hello to Stacy on Twitter or Facebook.

Print this entry

About the Author

Stacy Trasancos is a wife and homeschooling mother of seven. She holds a PhD in Chemistry from Penn State University and a MA in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. She worked as a chemist for DuPont in the Lycra® and Teflon® businesses.

She teaches Chemistry and Physics for Kolbe Academy Online and Homeschool Program and serves as the Science Department Chair. She is teaching a set of summer mini-workshops titled “Science in the Light of Faith” for students, parents, other educators, or any Christian interested in the nuts and bolts of navigating science.

Similarly, she is teaching a “Reading Science in the Light of Faith” at Holy Apostles College & Seminary next Fall (2016). The course is funded by a John Templeton Foundation grant through John Carroll University for teaching science in seminaries. She is on the Board of Directors for ITEST (the Institute for the Theological Encounter with Science and Technology) where the essays from the course will be shared with the public.

Also in the Fall of 2016, she will teach a “Theological History of Science” course at Seton Hall University, where her mentor, the late Fr. Stanley L. Jaki was a distinguished professor. She is the author of Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki.

Her new book, Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science is forthcoming with Ave Maria Press…

She teaches, researches, and writes from her family’s 100-year old restored mountain lodge in the Adirondack mountains, where her husband and children (and two German Shepherds) remain her favorite priorities. Here is her website.

Author Archive Page

1 Comment

  1. “The Old Testament people saw nothing that happened in nature as vain, even the rain that falls from the sky makes the land fruitful.”

    Nature operates by consistent and intellgible laws. All we know about these laws is that they exist and are the reason we are here. It appears to believers that Nature has a reason for everything and each reason involves humanity. Nature IS the reason we are here but it doesn’t have a reason for operating in just the right way for us to be here. It just does. It is a blind, purposeless, unguided process.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *