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The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science [Paperback]

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Pages   328
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 8.94" Width: 6.01" Height: 0.69"
Weight:   0.95 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Oct 31, 2006
Publisher   Cambridge University Press
ISBN  0521000963  
EAN  9780521000963  

Availability  0 units.

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Item Description...
Peter 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 that spelled 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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An important contribution to the science-religion discussion  Apr 9, 2007
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.

Similarly, in this tradition the interpretation of the Bible was dominated by expounding the allegorical sense, which came to be the most important of the multiple senses that each text of the Bible possessed. The allegorical method of interpretation is concerned not with the literal meaning of the text, but with its spiritual and symbolic meaning, and it dominated the church from the time of Origin until the Protestant Reformation. Thus both words and things acted as symbols to spiritual realities rather than as significant in themselves.

Around the 12th century, the emergence of interest in the unity of experience meant that objects were interesting not only as symbols of spiritual realities, but also in their relations to one another. However, the renewed interest in nature at first resulted in a renewed study of the ancient authorities such as Aristotle, rather than the first-hand investigation of nature itself. As Harrison puts it, "while it is true to say that nature was discovered in the twelfth century, up until the end of the sixteenth century it was a nature which for the most part was interpreted according to written authorities." This renewed interest in the ancient authorities eventually led in the Renaissance to the recognition of the importance of the original texts.

The dedication to original texts was of course also central to the Reformation. Thus in one of Luther's early classes, he provided for his students a copy of the Psalter which had empty margins, free for the students' own notes, which would usually have been filled with the notes of the church fathers. For the Reformation, the text itself, rather than the opinions of the church fathers, was to be the final authority in questions of interpretation. At the same time, people began to turn to the empirical world itself as the final authority in questions about physical reality. Additionally, the reformers were also dedicated to a single, determinate meaning of each text of Scripture, grounded in the intention of the author, which led to the rejection of the allegorical method of interpretation. Since this method in hermeneutics was derived from the symbolic view of the world, its rejection also entailed that only words, rather than physical objects, have meaning. Furthermore, Calvin's emphasis on the will of God rather than the reason of God led to a conception of natural law by which laws could only be discovered by experimentation. The idea of two reformations, one in religion, and one in natural philosophy, was well recognized and acknowledged by many of the important figures of that time. Kepler, for instance, called himself "the Luther of astrology."

The final chapters of the book deal extensively with specific details of how the new approach to the Bible affected interpretations of nature. An important idea was belief in the creation and flood accounts in Genesis as literal rather than allegorical, and therefore having empirical consequences which could be investigated. These final chapters slow down quite a bit, but there is still some interesting material. This book is thorough and scholarly, with almost 40 of its 312 pages devoted to an extensive bibliography and index. It is not aimed at a popular audience, though it should be accessible to anyone interested in the field. I found it enjoyable to read, and I believe it is an important contribution to the investigation of the relationship between science and Christianity.

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