“At the heart of scientific enquiry is the faith that the world is orderly and behaves consistently from one day to the next.1 One might ask, however, how this belief arose. According to Peter Harrison, formerly Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, it was, in a large part, “the theologically informed assumption that there are laws of nature, promulgated by God and able to be discovered by human minds (emphasis added)”.2 Eminent Philosopher of Science Alfred North Whitehead would agree. He wrote: “My explanation is that the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.”3
Platonic thinking was antithetical to science because it detracted from the view that the world could be understood by learning from observations. In contrast, biblical thinking pointed to this as the only way of discovering reality. The Bible teaches that God is omnipotent and was in no way constrained to create according to any prescribed pattern.
The rejection of Greek thinking by the founders of modern science is exemplified in Roger Cotes’ preface to the second edition of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy):
“Without all doubt this World … could arise from nothing but the perfectly free will of God directing and presiding over all. From this fountain it is that those laws, which we call the laws of Nature, have flowed; in which there appear many traces indeed of the most wise contrivance, but not the least shadow of necessity. These therefore we must not seek from uncertain conjectures; but learn them from observations and experiments.”
Newton himself, in the very first sentence of his preface, wrote of how modern thinkers, having discarded “[soulish] substantial forms and occult qualities have endeavoured to subject the phenomena of nature to the laws of mathematics”. A committed biblical creationist, he also rejected the Greek view that God would have been constrained in His acts of creation in any way. He wrote of God:
“ … we admire him for his perfections; but we reverence and adore him on account of his dominion … and a God without dominion, providence, and final causes [i.e. design], is nothing else but Fate [i.e. necessity] and Nature.”20
Newton also wrote:
“This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. … This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God or Universal Ruler.”27
Plato taught that the cosmos created by the Demiurge was a living organism, that the world had a divine soul, and the stars and planets were gods. In a similar vein, Aristotle taught that stones fall to the ground because they have a yearning for the centre of the universe (which he believed to be the centre of the earth). Such thinking was an obstruction to science because it attributed causes of motion to motives and inner compulsions, rather than to impersonal, external forces.21
In contrast, the Bible clearly distinguishes between the Creator and the creature (i.e. that which was created). God is spirit (John 4:24) and is a being separate from the world.
The God of the Bible is the lawgiver in both the moral and physical realms. He gave the 10 commandments to Moses (Exodus 20:3–17) and wrote the requirements of the law on the hearts of men so that they “by nature do what the law requires” (Romans 2:14–15). He is the one who gathered the waters together (Genesis 1:9) and “assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command” (Proverbs 8:29). He “made a decree for the rain and a way for the lightning of the thunder” (Job 28:26). He created the sun to govern the day and night (Genesis 1:16), “commanded the morning … and caused the dawn to know its place” (Job 38:12). He created the stars to mark the seasons (Genesis 1:14), knows “the ordinances of the heavens”, and established “their rule on the earth” (Job 38:33). He continually “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).
Picture of the father of mathematics Rene Descartes (1596-1650)
He stated that “the rules of nature are identical with the rules of mechanics” and, in his Le Monde (The World), he asserted “that God is immutable, and that acting always in the same manner, He produces always the same effect”. These laws, he said, are not immanent but ‘imposed’ on nature by God.39
The courses of the planets, the oceanic tides and the universe in general are regular and predictable because they are determined by the God of the Bible who is faithful and sure. Descartes’ contention that the natural world is governed by an unchanging God, and hence behaves consistently from one day to the next, was an essential step in scientific progress.
The belief that there are laws imposed upon a world by an orderly, faithful, and immutable God caused philosophers to see the universe as a designed mechanism, rather than an eternally existing organism. This, in turn, led to the belief that the workings of God’s creation could be investigated, understood, and described mathematically. All this hung on the Christian doctrine of creation, as articulated so clearly in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.”