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The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science Paperback – August 13, 2001

4.2 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

'This is a learned book, enormously ambitious, clearly and elegantly written, copiously documented, subtly and persuasively argued.

--David C. Lindberg, Isis

'... admirably lucid ... an arresting and provocative thesis.  Harrison's sophisticated analysis is essential reading for anyone interested in the field of science-and-religion.'

--John Hedley Brooke, Metascience.

'Probably the most significant contribution to the early modern relationship between science and religion to be published for ten years.'                                                       
--Fraser Watts, Expository Times

'... a valuable survey and compelling account of the interaction between biblical hermeneutics and the natural sciences....  Well written, balanced, and rich in documentation....'

--Stephen Snobelen, Ambix

"The achievements of this ambitious book should be debated by scholars." Religious Studies Review

"Harrison has written a very interesting addition to the literature about Protestants and science, one that expands our understanding of the history of science and of ideas about nature." Mark Stoll, Environmental History

"Harrison's book is well written and his arguments are easy to follow...I am convinced of the importance and fruitfulness of his approach in investigating the study of nature and the study of the Bible as inextricably linked." Church History

"peter Harrison's splendid new book adds to the mounting evidence that the relationship between science and religion has been much more complicated than the military metaphor of an incessant "warfare" allows." Journal of Religion

Book Description

In this book, Dr. Harrison examines the role played by the bible in the emergence of natural science. He shows how both the contents of the bible, and more particularly the way it was interpreted, had a profound influence on conceptions of nature from the third century to the seventeenth. The rise of modern science is linked to the Protestant approach to texts, an approach which spelt an end to the symbolic world of the middle ages, and established the conditions for the scientific investigation and technological exploitation of nature.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (August 13, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521000963
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521000963
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,026,209 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Peter Harrison is a former Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford and is presently Research Professor and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. He was the 2011 Gifford Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and holds a Senior Research Fellowship in the Ian Ramsey Centre at Oxford.

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In this book Harrison develops the historical parallels between ways the Bible was read and interpreted and views of physical reality. I think the main thesis is summed up in this quote from the introduction: "It is commonly supposed that when in the early modern period individuals began to look at the world in a different way, they could no longer believe what they read in the Bible. In this book I shall suggest that the reverse is the case: that when in the sixteenth century people began to read the Bible in a different way, they found themselves forced to jettison traditional conceptions of the world." This change in thinking about the Bible and the world was central to the emergence of modern science.

The book opens with the tradition that emerged out of the early church, most importantly from Origin and Augustine, in which each physical object was believed to symbolize hidden theological or moral truth. In this way the physical reality of objects came to be overshadowed by their spiritual significance. Truth and meaning were not to be sought in the objects themselves, how they work, or cause and effect, but in the spiritual realities that they symbolized. For example, in the early church and through the Middle Ages it was widely reported that the pelican possessed all kinds of fabulous traits that paralleled the work of Christ. But as Augustine wrote, what was important in these accounts was not their factual accuracy, but their spiritual significance. As a matter of fact, many of the early church writers were antagonistic toward curiosity about natural phenomena, since they held that natural knowledge was inferior to supernatural knowledge.
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Professor Harrison gives an organized and well documented argument to support his thesis: Protestant emphasis on a literal interpretation of Scripture had the effect of prying the eyes of scholars not only away from medieval, allegorical interpretations of nature, but also away from the Renaissance practice of interpreting nature through a study of texts written about nature. The same minds that became accustomed to dealing with Scripture in a direct and literal way were moved to deal directly with the 'text' of nature, eventually examining it in detail and for its own sake. In doing so they learned to explore and report on nature in a manner that has given us the approach of modern science to the laws and facts of the universe. His conclusion, that this trajectory of literalism ironically spelled the doom of the supremacy of the Bible in western society, is easy to see at the present time. But history has not reached its conclusion and what remains to be seen, is whether this result will endure. The difficulties of a strictly literal interpretation of Scripture itself have generated a response in Protestant circles that steers clear of ancient allegory and strives to embrace the approach used by the late Old Testament and New Testament authors in handling the earlier inspired writings. This school of historical-redemptive interpretation and its effect, when it more thoroughly turns its attention to a synthesis of God's voice in Nature and Scripture, is one thing that remains to be seen.[ASIN:0851514588 Biblical Theology]]
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In 1500 China's science and technology was way ahead of Europe. By 1800 Europe was way ahead of China. What happened? Why?

The change happened in the second decade of the 16th century, All Saints Eve to be exact, in the year 1517. Luther never realized the full impact of what he did. By starting the Reformation, he set in motion not only the religious movement of Protestantism, but the Reformation had secondary effects spread out throughout society. What this book emphasizes is how that change influenced how natural scientists viewed nature. Many of the early scientists openly cited Luther as their inspiration to study nature instead of relying on previous experts.

This is not a short book, it covers quite a swath of material including examples, documenting the first tentative steps in the development of the scientific method to where it was fully operational, and how that development was guided by the Reformation with its return to the Bible as the sole authoritative source of theological teachings.
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Why did science arise in Europe only? Why at that time only? These questions have produced scores of books. This one adds another explanation that is persuasive.

The ancient "fathers" of the church, Origin, Augustine, etc, were platonists first and Christians a distant second. The mosaic influence almost disappeared from their Christianity. Plato taught physical existence is just a poor copy of the spiritual. The function of our world is to prepare for the next. The cosmos, earth and everything in it is here to give clues to the afterlife. This was called "realism" (interesting that realism today indicates the opposite). This is not a Bible teaching.

Harrison's idea is - that when Plato was abandoned and Moses was accepted - science could start. "It is commonly supposed that when in the early modern period individuals began to look at the world in a different way, they could no longer believe what they read in the Bible. In this book I shall suggest that the reverse is the case: that when in the sixteenth century people began reading the bible in a different way, they found themselves forced to jettison traditional conceptions of the world. The Bible - its contents, the controversies it generated, it's varying fortunes as an authority, and most importantly, the new way in which it was read by Protestants - played a central role in the emergence of natural science in the seventeenth century." (5)

The most important change was the method used to sift knowledge, biblical or natural. The switch from reading the Bible as ahistorical (like a geometry book) to reading it in its context, and grasping what a reader would understand when written, was profound. It requires the reader to draw from the text, not insert into the text.
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