On how Christians helped and hindered science (I)

Alister McGrath outlines the paradox of Christian faith, the church, and the history of science.



Alister McGrath outlines the paradox of Christian faith, the church, and the history of science.


We don’t fully understand why what we sometimes call the Scientific Revolution happened in the way it did or indeed in the place that it did. What we can begin to do is say there are a number of factors that may have played into this. One of them might well be the Christian doctrine of creation, which talks about an ordered universe whose structure is discernible to the human mind – or, if you like, that there’s a rationally transparent universe that the human mind can grasp, and at the same time giving us motivations for doing that. And in effect, to study God’s creation is to give you an amplification of your vision of God himself.

So that’s part of it I think. It’s not the full story at all, but it certainly is part of the picture. And as I look at the interaction between science and faith in that very exciting period, I see a curious interaction. There’s a Christian faith itself which gives you this wonderful, if you like, roadmap, this wonderful way of looking at things which says, look, investigate this! By looking at nature you are discerning more about the mind and the beauty of God.

Then on the other hand we have the church, the institution. And sometimes the church was very resistant to this kind of thinking. So we have this paradox: at one level Christianity is saying, investigate, rejoice; on the other, the church, the institution, is saying, hey hey hey, slow down, we’re not sure about this. And so it’s this dialectic between the ideas and the institution.

I often wonder what would happen if we had Christianity but no church, might the Scientific Revolution have moved even more quickly? But here’s a key point: you cannot say that the church is to be equated with Christianity. We all know, if you’re a politician, if you’re anything, that institutions very easily distort the core vision of a philosophy that lies behind them.