October 29, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Did the Reformation Advance Science?

On this special 500th Anniversary Reformation Sunday, it’s important to consider the Reformers’ influence on the Scientific Revolution that followed.

In a surprisingly favorable piece for a secular-materialist magazine, National Geographic published “Martin Luther and the Long March to Freedom of Conscience.” In this article, Joseph Loconte, an associate professor of history at the King’s College in New York City, recognizes that Luther was a “flawed prophet” (as do most historians; he was guilty of anti-Semitism, persecution of his opponents, and mixing church and state). Despite the flaws, however, Luther started a movement that rallied other reformers to bring in a new age of freedom. When Luther stood before the council that had ordered him to recant his writings, he said these epochal words:

My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.

On October 31, 1517—500 years ago this Tuesday—Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door at All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg. At the time, he only wanted to start a reasoned debate, primarily about the Catholic church’s sale of indulgences (read the document here). Underlying these ideas, however, were challenges to church authority, and affirmations of individual conscience to interpret the Bible. Luther’s reading of the Bible had awakened in him a passion for God’s grace, and the light of truth he had long sought for his soul. Along with it came recognition that church authorities stood in direct contradiction to clear teachings of Scripture. Who has final authority? Clearly God does, but who gets to decide the meaning of His revelation? The answers to these questions would reverberate through subsequent history in a multitude of disciplines. One of those was science.

In Nature, David Wootton downplays the Reformation, arguing that the Scientific Revolution would have happened without it. He credits the printing press and the discoveries of the New World as triggers. He thinks that Copernicus would have published his book anyway, and he discounts the religious faith of Kepler, Galileo and Newton. But does he really think Copernicus could have published his heliocentric theory within Europe under the control of strict Catholic dogma? Does he forget that Copernicus delayed publishing till the end of his life, and was assisted and encouraged by Protestants? Does he forget that the first great work printed was the Gutenberg Bible? Does he forget that Galileo was tried and found guilty by the Catholic authorities? While there may not be a direct line from Luther to the Scientific Revolution, here are some consequences of the Reformation that provided fertile ground for it.

Loconte points out the following effects of the Reformation on the subsequent history of Europe:

  • Religious liberty became a high value, weakening authoritarian political and ecclesiastical powers.
  • Deliberately or not, he overturned many of the bedrock assumptions of Western culture, instigating a revolution in human freedom that continues to shape the modern world.
  • “…in defending a gospel of salvation ‘by faith alone,’ Luther introduced a new source of authority into the bloodstream of the West.”
  • The individual believer and his conscience, standing before God and his Word—here was a confession that redefined the meaning of faith and the dignity of the human person.
  • The Reformation weakened “the scandal of Christendom: a political society that preserved spiritual unity through coercion and violence.” This was far, far removed from the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament.
  • Luther’s writings stimulated ideas of limited government, where he “sharply distinguished the aims of church and state, limiting the reach of government to preserving life and property.”

“For over the soul God can and will let no one rule but Himself,” Luther wrote. “Therefore, where temporal power presumes to prescribe laws for the soul it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads and destroys the souls.”

  • Rejecting the notion of a Christian commonwealth, Luther argued that the state possessed neither the competence nor a mandate from heaven to intrude into spiritual matters.
  • Luther did not embrace separation of church and state. “Nevertheless, virtually every important defense of religious freedom in the 17th century—the liberal politics of William Penn, Roger Williams, Pierre Bayle, and John Locke—took Luther’s insights for granted.”
  • Because of these after-effects of the Reformation, The United States became “the first nation to enshrine in its constitution the Protestant conception of the rights of conscience.”

In a letter to F.L. Schaeffer, dated 1821, Madison explained that the American model of religious liberty “illustrates the excellence of a system which, by a due distinction, to which the genius and courage of Luther led the way, between what is due to Caesar and what is due God, best promotes the discharge of both obligations.”

  • “When the modern human rights movement took shape after the Second World War, a committee of public intellectuals acknowledged Luther as they searched for a philosophical basis for an international bill of rights”
  • Luther might be gratified to have learned that “Today the Catholic Church, once a fierce opponent of religious liberty, is one of its most vigorous defenders on the world stage.” That’s Loconte’s opinion, and circumstances may vary from country to country. Officially, the church still upholds the dogmas of the Council of Trent, which anathematized Luther’s ideas. At least they cannot burn heretics at the stake these days. The Reformation did have the effect of reducing some of the worst abuses of Catholicism, including indulgences and political entanglements, and some of its leaders give lip service to some of the Reformation’s ideals.

Another benefit not mentioned by Loconte was the Reformation value of work, the so-called “Protestant work ethic” which viewed all labor—not only ecclesiastical work—as a calling from God. This opened the door for individual satisfaction in secular vocations. Calvin, in fact, encouraged scientific work as a means of glorifying God. He said, “there is need of art and more exacting toil in order to investigate the motion of the stars, to determine their assigned stations, to measure their intervals, to note their properties” (Pearcey and Thaxton, The Soul of Science, p. 23). By extension, any investigation into the workings of nature could be considered a divine calling. Kepler, a devout Lutheran, felt that way about his labors to decipher the “music of the spheres.”

The AAAS just released a Statement on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility. While not mentioning the Reformation, one can see the influence of the Reformation behind it:

Scientific freedom and scientific responsibility are essential to the advancement of human knowledge for the benefit of all. Scientific freedom is the freedom to engage in scientific inquiry, pursue and apply knowledge, and communicate openly. This freedom is inextricably linked to and must be exercised in accordance with scientific responsibility. Scientific responsibility is the duty to conduct and apply science with integrity, in the interest of humanity, in a spirit of stewardship for the environment, and with respect for human rights.

The statement recognizes individual freedom, but also the flip side: personal responsibility. Scientists must do their work with integrity, Michaela Jarvis says in Science Magazine. Those are all distinctly Reformation values.

Loconte ends with this eulogy to Luther. Consider the influence of this statement on the rise of science:

Nevertheless, the moral courage and intellectual coherence of Luther’s dissent should not be undervalued. If Luther was a flawed prophet of human freedom, his voice was nonetheless vital in the long march toward a more just and pluralistic society. In Luther, we find an advocate for human dignity who defied the forces of religious oppression and reimagined the political ideals of medieval Europe.

In his defiance, Luther delivered a challenge to the conscience of the West like no other since the Sermon on the Mount—as essential today as it was half a millennium ago.

A Reformation implies a prior Formation. Loconte’s ending statement implies that the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus was that Formation. The Reformation was not so much a new thing as a return back to the principles of individual liberty, conscience and personal responsibility. Try to derive a Scientific Revolution without that. Those principles are grounded in the Word of God, the Bible. They are alien to The Origin of Species by Natural Selection and the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.


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