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The Scientific Revolution: Challenges and New Forms

When Newton began working out the physical laws of nature, he in a sense demolished this form of the argument, for he gave an explanation of the motion of bodies according to fundamental mechanical physical laws. No appeal to direct divine intervention to move things around in space was needed.

But in another sense he only reformulated the argument, for he assumed God was the architect of these physical laws he had discovered. Science could explain matter and motion without recourse to supernatural forces, but these mechanical secondary forces were simply the out working of structural conditions given by God at the creation.

As the scientific revolution made many new discoveries, there was in fact more to work with theologically - from God's book of nature. But there came to be greater ambivalence about the place of natural theology. Some scientists were concerned that appeal to final causes might usurp attention to physical causes. Science needed to preserve its integrity and not be a "quarry" mined for theological arguments. And some orthodox theologians, on the other hand, were concerned that natural theology might usurp revelation (Emerton 1989, p. 133).

Nevertheless most theologians, philosophers and scientists (people like Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Rene Descartes, and Issac Newton) assumed the legitimacy of natural theology. Francis Bacon, founder of the new scientific approach, adopted Tertullian's view and wrote (in The Advancement of Learning 1605, 1.6.16), "God's two books are...first the Scriptures, revealing the will of God, and then the creatures expressing his power; whereof the latter is a key unto the former" (as quoted in Emerton 1989, p. 133).

Contributed by: Dr. Anna Case-Winters

Cosmic Questions

Was the Universe Designed? Topic Index
The Argument from Design: What is at Stake Theologically?

The Scientific Revolution: Challenges and New Forms

Early Greek Philosophy and the Early Church
The Middle Ages: Classic Formulation
18th and 19th Centuries: New Form and New Challenges
20th Century: New Forms and New Challenges
Contemporary Forms: Intelligibility and Suitability for the Emergence of Life
Conclusion: What is at Stake Theologically?


Anna Case-Winters

A revised version of this paper was published in Zygon, March 2000, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 69-81.

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