I have just finished my latest bout of exams and am now technically half way through my degree in theology. Excelsior!
In the course of preparing for the exams I read the excellent Reformation Thought: An Introduction by Alister McGrath. On page 230-231 he writes:
One of the most distinctive features of the modern world is the high profile of the natural sciences. The origins of modern natural science are both complex and controversial. Theories which attempt to explain the remarkable development of the natural sciences in terms of single controlling factor are ambitious and generally unconvincing; it is clear that not one, but a number of contributing factors are involved. One of those is unquestionably religious, and is due to John Calvin.
That last line grabs your attention, right? He goes on to discuss sociological examinations of the preponderance of the early scientists who were Reformed Christians. Then he picks up the idea again:
The Reformation thus appears to be implicated in the promotion of attitudes favourable to the natural sciences.
At first sight, this might seem improbable. For the last hundred years, the attitude of the reformers such as Calvin to Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the solar system has been the subject of ridicule. In his vigorously polemical History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896), Andrew Dickson White wrote:
Calvin took the lead, in his Commentary on Genesis, by condemning all who asserted the earth is not at the centre of the universe. He clinched the matter by the usual reference to the first verse of theninety-third Psalm, and asked, “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?
Sounds like Dickson White might have disproved McGrath’s positive claims.
Except! Calvin never wrote that.
This assertion is repeated by writer after writer on the theme of ‘religion and science’. Nobody seems to have bothered to check their sources. For Calvin wrote no such words, and expressed no such sentiments in any of his known writings.
McGrath goes on to argue, with quotations from Calvin’s actual writings to support him:
It may thus be argued that Calvin gave a new religious motivation to the scientific investigation of nature.
I am reminded of Marilynne Robinson’s comments in Death of Adam:
I have encountered an odd sort of social pressure as often as I have mentioned [Calvin.] One does not read Calvin. One does not think of reading him. The prohibition is more absolute than it ever was against Marx, who always had the glamour of the subversive or the forbidden about him. Calvin seems to be neglected on principle.
And more’s the shame.
Your Correspondent, His real name is not Fr. Rebulah Conundrum, Fr. Peewee Stairmaster, Fr. Jemima Racktool, Fr. Jerry Twig, Fr. Spodo Komodo, or Fr. Cannabranna Lammer.