How a Literal Understanding of Genesis Promoted the Rise of Modern Science!

In this article, a non-creationist historian of science describes how a literal understanding of Genesis, as favoured by the Protestant Reformers, actually promoted rather than hindered the rise of modern science!

All quotations are from Peter Harrison. 1998. The Bible, Protestantism, and the rise of natural science. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. Page number references from this book are given at the beginning of each section. Bold print indicates emphasis added.

[page 8] . . . I shall be arguing for an indirect, even diffuse, influence of Protestantism on the development of modern science. The specific agent which I wish to identify as having been a major catalyst in the emergence of science, however, is the Protestant approach to the interpretation of texts — a central feature of the Reformation which up until now has received surprisingly little attention in literature on the relationship between Protestantism and science. While I do not wish to be seen as setting out a monocausal thesis for the rise of modern science, for there is no reason why a range of factors should not play some role, yet I shall argue that of these factors by far the most significant was the literalist mentality initiated by the Protestant reformers, and sponsored by their successors.

[page 97] The Reformation was an attempt to reconstruct Christian religion from its origins, and those origins were to be discovered in the New Testament. Because the authority of Christianity was now to be located, not in the total history of the Church, but in that short period in which the apostles lived, taught, and wrote, historical criticism of the biblical texts took on an unprecedented importance. The enterprise of natural history [later called "science"], during its constructive phase at least, was similarly the reconstruction or restoration of a past discipline which had been created by Aristotle, Theophrastus, Dioscorides, and to a lesser extent, Pliny.

[page 108] The major reformers — Martin Luther, John Calvin, Philipp Melanchthon, and Martin Bucer — shared a clear preference for the literal or natural sense of scripture, combined with a suspicion of allegory. Luther argued that the scriptures should be understood 'in their simplest meaning as far as possible'. The literal sense was 'the highest, best, strongest, in short the whole substance nature and foundation of the holy scripture'. Origen [a third century Christian interpreter of the Bible] was singled out for particular censure because 'ignoring the grammatical sense, he turned trees and everything else . . . into allegories'. Allegorical studies, in Luther's final judgement, were for 'weak minds', and 'idle men'. John Calvin, in his more prosaic fashion, also argued that 'allegories ought to be carried no further than Scripture expressly sanctions: so far are they from forming a sufficient basis to found doctrines upon'. . . . We can thus endorse Hans Frei's observation that 'the affirmation that the literal or grammatical sense is the Bible's true sense became programmatic for the traditions of Lutheran and Calvinistic interpretation'.

[pages 114-115] The Protestant insistence on the literal sense of canonical texts had far-reaching, if unintended, consequences. As we have seen, the allegorical reading of scripture proceeded from a particular attitude to the world of things. The allegorical methods of interpretation pioneered by Philo [a Jewish interpreter of the Bible around the time of Christ] and Origen were premised upon the notion that the things in the phenomenal world referred to by words in canonical texts actually represented, through resemblance, other things. To insist now that texts be read literally was to cut short a potentially endless chain of references in which words referred to things, and things in turn referred to other things. A literal reading of scripture was one in which the previously open-ended process of deriving a series of references from a single word was terminated once a word had performed its basic task of referring to a thing. The assertion of the primacy of literal reading, in other words, entailed a new, non-symbolic conception of the nature of things. No longer were objects in the natural world linked to each other by sets of resemblances. As an inevitable consequence of this way of reading texts nature would lose its meaning, and the vacuum created by this loss of intelligibility was gradually to be occupied by alternative accounts of the significance of natural things — those explanations which we regard as scientific. In the new scheme of things, objects were related mathematically, mechanically, causally, or ordered and classified according to categories other than those of resemblance.

[page 122] With the new biblical literalism which followed in the wake of the Reformation, many portions of scripture were read for the first time as having, as their primary sense, history. The significance of narrative passages of the Bible now lay in the fact that they recounted things which had happened hundreds or thousands of years ago. Whereas the accounts of creation in the book of Genesis had previously provided scope for the imaginations of exegetes given to allegory, now the significance of these stories was seen to lie in their literal truth as depicting past events. As a measure of this development, the status of Moses underwent a subtle change. From being a leading actor in the drama of the Exodus, he became 'the sacred historian', 'the father of history', an author and natural philosopher, an historical figure, who had written a factual account of the first ages of the earth, the significance of which was historical, not figurative or allegorical. The contents of the book of Genesis attracted new descriptions: 'the history of creation', 'mosaical history', 'scripture-history', the 'mosaick history of creation', 'the history recorded by Moses'.

[pages 126-127] The new status accorded scripture as a result of these developments meant that not every passage of holy writ could be read for its moral or theological message. Where the Bible was not obviously — that is at a literal level — conveying theological or moral information, it was thought to provide knowledge relating to history and geography, or the arts and sciences. Indeed, allegory and tropology [treating Scripture both literally and figuratively] were now regarded as having for centuries blinded readers to the history and science which could be found in the scriptures. John Donne observed in this connexion that 'by the example of our late learned Reformers, I forbear this (allegorical) interpretation; the rather because we are utterly dis-provided of any history of the World's Creation, except we defend and maintain this Book of Moses to be Historical, and therefore literally to be interpreted'. The import of Donne's claim becomes apparent when we consider more traditional readings of parts of the earlier chapters of Genesis. In the early modern period, the geography of paradise, to take one example, took on an unprecedented significance. Whereas for medieval and patristic exegetes the Garden of Eden had been a potent idea, laden with psychological or allegorical meanings — paradise was thus placed in the third heaven, the orb of the moon, or in the human mind — now considerable efforts were expended on attempts to identify the earthly location of Eden and in describing its physical features.

[pages 128-129] In the seventeenth century the details of the story of the Deluge which had been the occasion for much fruitful allegorising throughout the Middle Ages were now related to more mundane questions of science and logistics. Where did the waters come from, and where did they eventually go? What mutations of the earth took place as a result of the Deluge? How, wondered the moderns, could the great catalogue of creatures whose lives were to be preserved from the impending inundation be physically housed in a vessel of the specified dimensions? And further, how was the craft constructed, how navigated, by what means did Noah assemble his cargo, where were the provisions stored, how were fox and fowl kept apart? True, some readers of scripture regarded such texts as having metaphorical reference to contemporary events. But for the more worldly and conservative seventeenth-century reader, these narratives came to have present significance because they provoked scientific and cosmological questions, or provided knowledge which could be categorised as 'science'.

[pages 132-133] The book of Genesis, in particular, contained many narratives which when taken literally were not obviously to do with faith or morals, but appeared to be in the form of crude cosmology. One could therefore agree with Galileo that the scripture's main function was to teach salvation [Galileo had written, "The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes" (letter to the Grand Duchess Christina)], but still be faced with the problem of the status of that material which seemed to present a kind of natural science. Were the Mosaic accounts of the creation and the Deluge, now no longer regarded as allegorical representations of theological truths, to be accepted as literal accounts of actual events? And if so were they true in all their details? The conclusion which most exegetes wanted to avoid was one which suggested that Moses was expert in theological matters, but totally ignorant in the field of physical science, for this conclusion would impugn the whole authority of scripture.
     A widely accepted compromise was the position which held on the one hand that scripture did not contain anything which contradicted known scientific truths, but conceded on the other that the science which was to be found in scripture was 'accommodated' to the mental capacities of its initial audience. Moses' account of the Deluge, for example, was generally thought to be accurate in its historical details, and this had important implications for cosmology. The events which Moses described had actually taken place, and they had taken place in the order set down by Moses. However, on those occasions when Moses had spoken of the physical mechanisms involved it was assumed that his explanations were couched in simple terms which could be readily understood by his audience.

[pages 168-169] The study of the natural world thus became, as it had been for the discoverers of nature in the twelfth century, a religious activity, albeit in a new sense. Nature no longer comprised a vast array of symbols which pointed to a transcendent realm beyond: instead, the way in which the things of nature were ordered and disposed came to represent a logical premise from which God's wisdom and providence could be inferred. Of equal importance was the emergence of the conviction that God's purposes in the creation could only be realised when the functions of those things originally designed for human use were discovered. Interpreting the book of the creatures became a matter of discerning the intention of its author. In much the same way as the true meaning of a written text came to be identified with the designs of the writer, so legitimate meanings of the book of nature were sought in the purposes for which God had designed its living contents.

[pages 169-170] While it has been maintained that teleological explanations hindered the progress of the natural sciences, in reality, the search for the 'ends' of natural things proceeded on the very practical assumption that everything in nature was in some way useful. The motivation to study and explore all aspects of the natural world thus sprang, in part at least, from teleology. And while over the course of the seventeenth century criticism of the use of final causes in scientific explanation mounted, numerous writers in the field of natural history were happy to conflate Aristotle's final causes with the 'divine purposes' of Judaeo-Christian tradition. 'Final cause' thus came to be understood not as a telos immanent in the natural object, but rather the purpose for which God had designed the thing. . . .
     While not all writers were to identify these final causes with divine purposes, most did. . . . For such writers the investigation of nature had as its goal the determination of ends or purposes, which in turn would lead to both the praise of the Deity and the advancement of humanity.

[page 171] The combination of Aristotle's final causes and the Christian belief in the divine purposes of all natural things gave rise to a new category of literature — physico-theology [cf. page 203, below]. This enterprise amounted to a detailed elaboration of the design argument for God's existence, based on the systematic elaboration of divine purposes in the natural world. A tradition dominated by the English, whose clergymen seemed to have the time to devote to natural history, it began with Henry More's Antidote Against Atheism (1653), reached its acme in the Boyle Lectures, and enjoyed its last hurrah in the Bridgewater Treatises (1833-40).

[page 203] In the seventeenth century, then, natural objects were regarded as having been designed for their utility rather than their meaning: creatures were not symbols to be read, but objects to be used or investigated for potential applications. . . . In this new scheme of things physico-theology [cf. page 171, above] presents itself as the key to the interpretation of the book of nature. This theologically motivated mode of enquiry reinvests the natural world with a purpose, a purpose which had been lost with the disintegration of the symbolic world view of the Middle Ages. Physico-theology thus attempts to mediate between the two books, providing a new, rational discourse to take the place of the old, symbolic order. As Robert Markley observes, 'physico-theology becomes the quest for a single system of representation that articulates its equally strong commitments to experimental philosophy [now called "experimental science"] and theology'.

[page 204] The text of Genesis, read literally, afforded glimpses of how the human race had once been in the possession of a complete knowledge of the natural world, had exercised a dominion over all of its creatures, and had thought and spoken in a natural language perfectly able to capture the essences of all things. If the search for benevolent adaptations in nature provided the motivating force behind the new scientific enterprise, natural philosophers, as we shall see in the final chapter, were also drawn forward by the vision of a natural world which once again would meekly serve its human masters.

[pages 205-206] The literal approach to texts which became increasingly dominant in the sixteenth century had the consequence that objects in the natural world could no longer be regarded as signs. As a result, those who believed that the Deity had imposed a particular order on the cosmos moved their attention away from the symbolic functions of objects and focused instead on the ways in which the things of nature might play some practical role in human welfare. As we saw in the previous chapter, the scientific investigation of nature in the seventeenth century was motivated to a large degree by the necessity to find uses for the numerous objects which had hitherto derived their purpose and place in the cosmos by acting as signs or symbols. The literalist mentality which effected these transformations, it need hardly be said, also had important implications for the way in which the Bible was read. Certain passages of scripture, when taken in their plain or historical sense, were also to have profound influence on the development of the scientific approach to the natural world. In particular, the literal reading of the first chapters of Genesis which accompanied the view that things in the world are not signs, provided this additional motivation by holding out a vision of Eden which was to do neither with moral imperatives nor theological verities, but represented an historical past which might be revisited through present human efforts.

[pages 206-208] Why did the Genesis imperatives which grant dominion to the first man and his progeny only begin to take effect in the early-modern period? Why did science have its rise in the seventeenth century, and not before? Part of the answer to this question has already emerged. The Christian doctrine of creation had always held that the natural world had a purpose, a purpose related to human welfare. However, up until the modern period, that purpose encompassed both spiritual and material aspects of human existence. When the world could no longer be interpreted for its transcendental meanings, it was actively exploited solely for its material utility. Equally importantly, however, the central canonical text of the Western tradition [i.e., the Bible] contains a narrative which, when interpreted in its historical sense, presents the image of a human individual who knows and controls nature, and who directly exercises a divine grant of dominion. The recognition that the paradise of knowledge enjoyed by our first parents was an historical reality, combined with the acceptance of the command 'have dominion' in its full literal sense, provided a vital impetus to the seventeenth-century quest to know and master the world. Only when the story of creation was divested of its symbolic elements could God's commands to Adam be related to worldly activities. If the Garden of Eden were but a lofty allegory, as Philo, Origen, and later Hugh of St Victor, had suggested, there would be little point in attempting to re-establish a paradise on earth. If God's command to Adam to tend the garden had primarily symbolic significance, as Augustine had believed, then the idea that man was to re-establish paradise through gardening and agriculture would simply not have presented itself so strongly to the seventeenth-century mind. If dominion over the animals was thought to be an oblique reference to mastery of the passions, or the scholarly activity of collating an encyclopaedia, then Baconian notions of reproducing the effects of nature through knowledge of efficient causes would never have been allied with the necessary religious motivations. If the command to 'be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth' was taken to refer to the cultivation of virtues or 'fruits of the spirit', then there would be no onus on the human race to colonise under-utilised lands. If the Fall were not an historical, but a cosmic event in which souls fell into bodies, then its consequences would be difficult to reverse in the present life. Now that Genesis was regarded primarily as historical narrative, however, the divine imperatives it contained could be read unequivocally. The contemporary relevance of those early narratives of the book of Genesis — the Fall, the expulsion from the Garden, the Flood, the confusion of tongues — now lay in regarding them as past events which, through human endeavour, could in some measure be reversed. Human redemption could be achieved through the mastery of nature, and this was not a mastery which consisted, as twelfth-century visionaries had thought, in the passive reordering of the natural world in the human mind. The natural world was to be known and literally mastered, and in the process would be restored in some measure to its paradisal perfection. Literalism thus contributes to the emergence of natural science in two distinct ways: first, by evacuating nature of its symbolic significance; second, by restricting the possible meanings of the biblical narratives of creation and Fall, in that they cannot be read other than as enjoining upon the human race the necessity of re-establishing its dominion over nature. The impact of these literal readings of the creation story on the scientific endeavours of the seventeenth century is the subject of this final chapter.

[pages 248-249] For the seventeenth century, the story of the Fall was literal and not allegorical. It was about the material world, not merely the spiritual. It contained an imperative, as well as an indicative. True, it portrayed the past, but also held out a vision of the future, a future in which the human race could attain a perfect knowledge of nature, and with that, a mastery of the world. Having once been cast out of a divinely-created Eden, it was now time for mankind to make amends, and begin the reconstruction of a paradise made with human hands.

[pages 249-250] Knowing, naming, and commanding were linked by a literal reading of Genesis 2.19, where it is recorded that after the creation of all the animals, God paraded them before Adam to be named. The particular denominations which Adam bestowed upon the animals were thought to have been part of a natural language in which words were not arbitrary tokens of the things they represented, but the expression of the nature of things. Luther had written of Adam's naming of the creatures that 'because of the excellence of his nature, he views all the animals and thus arrives at such a knowledge of their nature that he can give each one a suitable name that harmonizes with its nature'. In the first half of the seventeenth century, this was still a common view. According to Robert Bostocke, Adam 'was endowed with a singuler knowledge, wisdom and light of nature, that assoone as he did behold any beast, he by & by did so exactly now all their natures, powers, properties and vertues, that he gaue them names, apt, meete, and agreeable to their natures'. Our first father, said Reynolds, 'was able by Intuition of the Creatures to give unto them all Names, according to their severall Properties and Natures; and shew himselfe, as well a Philosopher, as a Lord'.

[page 266] In this book I have argued that the historical origins of two of the hallmarks of modernity — the identification of the meaning of a text with its author's intention, and the privileged status of scientific discourse — were closely intertwined. The modern approach to texts, driven by the agenda of the reformers and disseminated through Protestant religious practices, created the conditions which made possible the emergence of modern science.

[pages 267-268] Another reason that historians of early-modern science and religion have tended to overlook the impact of methods of biblical interpretation on the development of the sciences, I suspect, is to do with the contemporary association of biblical literalism with religious bigotry and hostility towards the sciences. Viewed from this perspective, a link between the emergence of biblical literalism and the development of modern science seems highly implausible. The real difficulty here is that the negative associations of biblical literalism are projected back into history, so that the differences between the Catholic Church and Galileo, to take a prominent example, are seen to amount to a difference between biblical literalists who had elevated the literal truth of the scriptures over the evidence of their own senses, and a scientist prepared to take a more liberal approach to the interpretation of scripture in order to accommodate his scientific convictions. In other words, the literal interpretation of the Bible is thought to have acted as an impediment to the advancement of the sciences. As I have argued, however, this seventeenth-century dispute was more to do with the rights of individuals to make their own determinations about how the books of nature and scripture were to be read. Galileo himself adopted a literal approach to scripture, albeit one which allowed for a certain amount of 'accommodation' on the part of the biblical authors. The mistaken premise of this version of history is the assumption that to read the Bible literally is to consider the Bible literally true. On the contrary, the triumph of the literal approach to scripture opened up for the first time in the history of biblical interpretation the real possibility that parts of the Bible could be false. In order to see the force of this, we need only consider the conditions which led to the implementation of allegorical readings of scripture in the first place. Origen attempted to put in place a system which virtually guaranteed the truth of every word of scripture. Medieval exegetes, too, saw as their task that of reconciling biblical texts with each other and with known truths. Resort to allegory and tropology made this possible. It is not surprising that with the dismantling of the quadriga [fourfold approach to interpretation, in which Scripture passages may have historical, allegorical, moral, and eschatological meanings], the text of scripture was for the first time exposed to the assaults of history and science. While the Protestants' insistence that passages of scripture be given a determinate meaning proceeded from the purest of religious motives, they were inadvertently setting in train a process which would ultimately result in the undermining of that biblical authority which they so adamantly promoted. [Question for the reader: How might a Bible-believing Christian respond to this view of the history of biblical interpretation?]

[pages 269-270] We might turn again, at this point, to the further question of why science arose in the West, and why in the seventeenth century. . . . The Christian doctrine of creation assumes an intelligible world, created to be understood by its human inhabitants, and to serve their needs. Throughout the patristic and medieval periods, the book of God's works was interpreted, like scripture, and served both spiritual and physical needs. A change took place in the sixteenth century which challenged the assumption that the purpose of the material world lay in its referential or symbolic functions. Henceforth the quest for the divinely-instituted purpose of nature is diverted solely into the search for its practical utilities. The literal approach to texts precipitated this change of attitude towards the world, while the literal content of key passages of the Bible further motivated natural philosophers in their quest to master nature. In particular, narratives relating to dominion over the earth were now read as literal imperatives, attempts were made to restore the original paradise once enjoyed by Adam, and the lost language of nature was actively sought. . . . Aspects of the Christian tradition contributed to the development of modern science; inevitably they led also to the exploitation of nature. It is not clear that the former could have occurred without the latter, for science is motivated by the same instrumental view of the world which led to environmental degradation. [Questions for the reader: Does a biblical worldview necessarily entail environmental degradation? Are there scriptural checks and balances that would help curb excessive exploitation of nature?]

For further reading:

"The Bible and the Emergence of Modern Science" (Peter Harrison's after-dinner discussion with scholars at Cambridge, May 24, 2005) <>

"Religion and the Early Royal Society" (lecture, c. 2009, by Peter Harrison) <>

"Science: Child of a Biblical Worldview" <>

"Men of Science — Men of God" <>

"On Restoring Science to its 'Rightful Place' " <>

"Medieval 'Flat Earth' Belief: Another Evolutionist Fallacy!" <>