Roger Bacon

1214 - 1294
by David F. Coppedge

Roger Bacon was a man ahead of his time. In the so-called “Dark Ages,” he foresaw a world of flying machines, powered ships, telescopes and other inventions that would result from experimental science. His faith in science was born out of his faith in God.

Bacon studied at Oxford under the eminent Bishop of Lyons, Robert Grosseteste, who advocated the study of nature as evidence of the Creator. Bacon performed systematic experiments on lenses and mirrors. When he caught the excitement of what experimental science could do, he became an ardent promoter of the experimental method as a way to understand the world, improve the human condition, and avoid the errors of superstition and magic. To Bacon, experimental science was superior to deduction from authority, having better accord with experience. Bacon also saw the value of science as an apologetic, to draw people to faith in Christ.

On this theme, Roger Bacon wrote to Pope Clement IV in 1266, suggesting it would be good for the church to gather the work of scholars into a great encyclopedia of the sciences. The pope misunderstood his request and asked to see this encyclopedia, believing it already existed. Fearing to disobey the pope, Bacon hurriedly performed a monumental achievement – writing a three-volume encyclopedia of the known science of his day (which even included a description of how to make a telescope). He worked feverishly on this project in secret, since his superiors at the monastery did not approve of it. Bacon wanted to demonstrate to the pope that science was the friend of faith and should be a worthy part of the University curriculum.

After the pope died, hope for Bacon’s plans diminished, but not Bacon’s enthusiasm for science. He continued to write on the value of experiment, and made remarkable predictions of what science could accomplish: powered ships and vehicles, eyeglasses and other inventions. He wrote that the earth was a sphere and that it would be possible to sail around it. He estimated the distances to stars, and encouraged mathematical rigor for good scientific work. At age 64, his fellow Franciscan friars imprisoned him for “suspected novelties” in his teaching, but Bacon continued to write impassioned essays for his last 15 years.

Roger Bacon, by J. Beverly Greene.

Roger Bacon, graphic by J. Beverly Greene (special commission)

Roger Bacon is rightly honored as being one of the fathers of the scientific method, fully 300 years before it became popular (largely through the philosophical writings of another but unrelated Bacon, Sir Francis, also a Bible believer). While some in the thirteenth century were content with superstition, habit and acceptance of authority, Bacon saw the value of glorifying God through study of the world. He believed science would draw people to faith in God. It is interesting to note that it was the Christian thinkers in the universities and in the monasteries who connected the dots between the Bible and science. Bacon made errors, and had some superstitions of his own about alchemy and astrology (as did most people in his day), but he saw how experimental science could lead people away from the errors of superstition and magic by demonstrating how the world really works.

In order to think along these lines, clearly Roger Bacon had to have a Christian worldview. It included the conviction that nature was rational and obeyed natural laws. While other cultures achieved successes in engineering or medicine through pragmatism, luck or necessity, Bacon’s point was philosophical (philo=love, sophos=wisdom); he valued knowledge not just for its practical benefits, but for its own intrinsic value both as a means of avoiding error and for understanding the mind of God. This was the foundation that led to a sustainable scientific enterprise. His prophecies were to be vindicated hundreds of years later as experimental science was taken up vigorously by more great Christians – Kepler, Boyle, Newton and others. The world would never be the same.

A crater on the moon is named in Roger Bacon’s honor.

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