The Christian Rescue of the Greco-Roman Intellectual Tradition

The Christian Church of the Middle Ages has become somewhat of a boogeyman in the modern popular imagination. It is fairly typical to hear even supposedly educated individuals claim that Christianity quashed out all science, philosophy, and learning, which aspects of civilization would only reemerge from the darkness of the “Dark Ages” with the Renaissance and, still later, with the Enlightenment.1 The destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, supposedly at the hands of a violently anti-intellectual Christian mob, the gruesome murder of the Alexandrian female mathematician Hypatia, supposedly at the hands of a similarly violently anti-intellectual (and anti-woman) mob of Christian monastics, and the supposed stagnation of scientific knowledge, along with other similar examples, are paraded out as evidence for this assertion. However, many of these examples, such as the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, are myths,2 others, such as the murder of Hypatia, are vastly exaggerated and wildly misreported,3 and still others, such as the decline of scientific knowledge, are outright fabrications of Christianity’s Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment detractors such as Edward Gibbon and John William Draper.4 Contrary to the common misconception of history, the advent and eventual triumph of Christianity was a great boon to the intellectual tradition of the Greco-Roman world, as it freed this tradition from superstitious presuppositions and encouraged its proliferation within a more logical worldview.

As much as the pre-Christian scientific tradition of the Greco-Roman world has been hailed and lauded by some in the course of criticizing medieval Christians, if there is anything for which modern people can pass blame on the Christians of the Middle Ages it is that they so long held on to so many of the methods and notions of the Greco-Roman world, a world whose intellectual tradition had been on the decline for many years before the triumph of Christianity.5 As David C. Lindberg, a historian of science, observed, “It is agreed by most historians of ancient science that creative Greek science was on the wane, perhaps as early as 200 B.C., certainly by A.D. 200.”6 The field of cosmology is a notable example.

Aristotle’s model of the universe, based upon his philosophical concepts and not upon anything even remotely resembling modern scientific research, posited that the universe was composed of a series of concentric “celestial spheres” which moved in a perfectly circular motion around a perfectly spherical earth and “that the heaven as a whole neither came into being nor admits of destruction … but is one and eternal.”7 It was only with the advent of Christianity that these assumptions, now shown ridiculous by modern science, of an eternal and perfect symmetry and harmony in the universe, began to be questioned. Importantly, the questioning of these ancient pagan presuppositions was engaged in upon the basis of uniquely Judeo-Christian concepts.

The Judeo-Christian beliefs that only God is inherently eternal, that he created all that exists ex nihilo, and that all things continue to exist only because he sustains them, not because of any inherent immortality on their part, clearly stood in stark contradiction to Aristotelian cosmology. It was upon this uniquely Judeo-Christian basis that the assumptions of Aristotle and the many who had followed him were criticized by philosophers and scientists such as the Byzantine Christian philosopher John Philoponus (490-570 CE).8 Philoponus would be read, admired, and heavily borrowed from by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642 CE), whose theory of a heliocentric universe, in spite of its infamous and habitually misrepresented condemnation by the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church, would be foundational for modern scientific views of cosmology.9

Medieval Islam, by contrast, would never produce such a flowering of scientific thought as did the Christian world in spite of handling the same Greco-Roman texts and observing the same astronomical phenomena as the Christians for a nearly equal period of time. Although Muslims, such as the theologian Ghazali (1058-1111 CE), did question certain aspects of the cosmological models received from the Greco-Roman tradition, they typically did so only by arguing from another aspect of the Greco-Roman tradition.10 For instance, the Muslim polymath Averroës (1126-1198 CE) opposed the Ptolemaic model of the universe primarily by arguing for the superiority of the Aristotelian model.11

In spite of the mythology propagated by Christianity’s fashionable enemies during the Enlightenment and since and still held in the popular consciousness today, Christianity not only is not responsible for any kind of disappearance or weakening of the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition, it is in fact responsible for having saved that intellectual tradition, in many ways from itself. As the modern Christian philosopher and historian David Bentley Hart has pointed out, “despite all our vague talk of ancient or medieval ‘science,’ pagan, Muslim, or Christian, what we mean today by science … came into existence, for whatever reasons, and for better or worse, only within Christendom, and under the hands of believing Christians.”12

Notes

1 A popular recent example of such erroneous thinking can be found in Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise and Fall of Reason (New York: Knopf, 2003).

2 David Bentley Hart, The Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith (London: Quercus, 2007), 47.

3 ibid., 97.

4 David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. To A.D. 1450 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

5 Arnold J. Toynbee, Hellenism: The History of A Civilization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959).

6 David C. Lindberg, “Science and the Early Church,” in God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, eds. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 30.

7 Aristotle, “On the Heavens,” Book II, Chapter 1.

8 Alister E. McGrath, A Scientific Theology: Nature (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001), 95-8.

9 Edward Grant, Science and Religion, 400 B.C. to A.D. 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

10 Eric L. Ormsby, Ghazali: The Revival of Islam (Oxford: Oneworld, 2008).

11 David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Ann Arbor: Sheridan Books, 2009), 59.

12 ibid., 63.