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Natural Theology

Natural Theology And The Birth Of Modern Science

Although it had roots both in ancient Greek philosophy and in medieval Christian theology (for instance, in Thomas Aquinas's famous "five ways" of demonstrating the existence of God), the heyday of natural theology was between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries and was intertwined with the rise of modern science (see Brooke, 2003; Brooke and Cantor).

Nature was investigated and interpreted in new ways in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Europe. These innovations (which have traditionally been summed up as the "scientific revolution") included the use of new scientific instruments (such as the telescope, the microscope, and the air pump), a new emphasis on experimentation, and the use of mechanical models to explain natural phenomena. The natural theological genre was one that both allowed practitioners of the new mechanical and experimental philosophy to justify their work to a sometimes skeptical religious establishment and also allowed religious apologists to enlist new knowledge in the service of Christian piety.

Many of the early members of the Royal Society in London (founded in 1660) saw a connection between their experimental investigations and their Christian faith. (Robert K. Merton famously argued that the Puritan religious beliefs of many of the founder members played a key role in shaping the activities of the Royal Society.) Robert Boyle (1627–1691), for instance, as well as conducting important experiments with his air pump to investigate the pressure of air and other gases, wrote on The Excellency of Theology, Compared with Natural Philosophy (1674) and composed a work entitled The Christian Virtuoso (1690), subtitled, "shewing that by being addicted to experimental philosophy, a man is rather assisted than indisposed to be a good Christian." Another early Fellow of the Royal Society whose writings explored the way that the new experimental and mechanical philosophy could be used to support theology was John Ray (1627–1705), whose The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation (1691) was to become a classic of the natural theological genre. In this work, Ray argued that since the creativity of God was present throughout the natural world, no part of it was too low or insignificant to be a subject of natural-philosophical study.

The experimental investigation of nature in seventeenth-century England was, then, justified as being to the greater glory of God and for the good of man. The natural theology produced by men such as Boyle and Ray reflected the character of the new natural knowledge they were engaged in producing. Their God was an able mathematician, a geometer, a designer, a mechanic. If the experimental philosopher displayed his ingenuity by designing and constructing a telescope or a microscope, how much more ingenious must be the God who could design and construct the human eye? If the man of science gave evidence of his intelligence by discovering that natural phenomena were governed by elegant mathematical laws, how much more intelligent and powerful must be the God who drew up and laid down those laws?

In his will, Boyle left money to pay for a series of lectures to promote this natural theological vision, which he hoped would prove the truth of the Christian religion "against notorious infidels, viz. Atheists, Pagans, Jews, and Mahometans" (quoted in Brooke, 2003, p. 157). The result was a series of Boyle Lectures, which were delivered for around forty years, annually, starting in the year of Boyle's death, 1692, when the first Boyle lecturer was Isaac Newton's friend, the Reverend Richard Bentley (1662–1742). Another Newtonian and theologian, Samuel Clarke (1675–1729), was the Boyle lecturer in 1704–1705.

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