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Theology and the Scientific Imagination: From the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century, Second Edition

Theology and the Scientific Imagination: From the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century, Second Edition

by Amos Funkenstein, Jonathan Sheehan

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Theology and the Scientific Imagination is a pioneering work of intellectual history that transformed our understanding of the relationship between Christian theology and the development of science. Distinguished scholar Amos Funkenstein explores the metaphysical foundations of modern science and shows how, by the 1600s, theological and scientific thinking had become almost one. Major figures like Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, and others developed an unprecedented secular theology whose debt to medieval and scholastic thought shaped the trajectory of the scientific revolution. The book ends with Funkenstein’s influential analysis of the seventeenth century’s “unprecedented fusion” of scientific and religious language. Featuring a new foreword, Theology and the Scientific Imagination is a pathbreaking and classic work that remains a fundamental resource for historians and philosophers of science.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691184265
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 11/13/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 464
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Amos Funkenstein (1937–95) was the Koret Professor of Jewish History and University Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Mazer Chair in the History and Philosophy of Science at Tel Aviv University. He authored seven books and more than fifty scholarly articles in four languages, and received the Israel Prize in History, the highest honor bestowed by the State of Israel. Jonathan Sheehan is professor of history and director of the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion at the University of California, Berkeley.

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A new and unique approach to matters divine, a secular theology of sorts, emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to a short career. It was secular in that it was conceived by laymen for laymen. Galileo and Descartes, Leibniz and Newton, Hobbes and Vico were either not clergymen at all or did not acquire an advanced degree in divinity. They were not professional theologians, and yet they treated theological issues at length. Their theology was secular also in the sense that it was oriented toward the world, ad seculum. The new sciences and scholarship, they believed, made the traditional modes of theologizing obsolete; a good many professional theologians agreed with them about that. Never before or after were science, philosophy, and theology seen as almost one and the same occupation. True, secular theologians seldom composed systematic theological treatises for the use of theological faculties; some of them, mainly the Catholic, pretended to abstain from issues of sacred doctrine; but they dealt with most classical theological issues — God, the Trinity, spirits, demons, salvation, the Eucharist. Their discussions constituted theology inasmuch as they were not confined to the few truths that the "natural light" of reason can establish unaided by revelation — God's existence perhaps, or the immortality of the soul. Secular theology was much more than just a theologia naturalis. Leibniz, the secular theologian par excellence, planned a comprehensive and sympathetic study on "Catholic demonstrations" of dogmas. Not only was he a layman, but also a Protestant.

The secularization of theology — even in the simplest, first sense: that theological discussions were carried on by laymen — is a fact of fundamental social and cultural importance. It can be accounted for only by a variety of complementary explanations.

During the thirteenth century theology became both a distinct discipline and a protected profession; neither was the case earlier. Prior to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the term "theology" was ambiguous; it stood both for the word of God (the Scriptures) and for words about God, that is, any kind of discourse on matters divine. Soon after the beginnings of its systematization, theology was established as a protected profession in the nascent universities. It was, in fact, doubly protected from the incursions of laymen. By and large, every science except medicine and sometimes law was taught by clergymen, regular and secular. But ordination and even the right to teach the arts (philosophy) did not suffice to teach theology, that is, commence with lectures on Lombard's Book of Sentences, without acquiring the proper degree.

Even though medieval philosophers could not avoid discussing matters divine, they were careful not to call by the name of theology those truths about God and the heavens accessible to mere reason. It is significant that, unlike the classical tradition, they avoided the term theologia naturalis and were careful not to call the ancient pagan philosophers "theologians," even while admiring their monotheism as praeparatio evangelica. Theology became a term reserved for supernatural knowledge. When, in the fourteenth century, Buridan suggested elimination of separate intelligences from the explanation of the motion of heavenly bodies — he favored an initial impetus instead, which keeps the heavenly bodies moving in perpetuity — he hastened to add: "But this I do not say assertively, but rather so that I might seek from the theological masters what they may teach me in these matters." Buridan was only an artist (that is, a teacher of philosophy).

The first protective belt around theology eroded slowly, almost imperceptibly, in the sixteenth century, when ever more disciplines in the universities ceased to be taught by clergymen. Nor did the university remain the only center of research and scientific communication: courts, academies, and printers became places of meeting and sources of sustenance. The rising number of educated laymen, as a reading public, as authors, and as teachers, was bound to increase instances of trespassing into the domain of theology; the case of Galileo was not unique, only the most scandalous.

The second protective belt around theology as a profession eroded with the spread of religious movements in the later Middle Ages, and collapsed with the spread of Protestantism. Of the authority of the Holy Church, Augustine once said that, unless moved by it, he would not even believe the Sacred Scriptures. The counterclaim of the Reformation — sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide — secured knowledge of God and access to him without the mediation of a priestly hierarchy. Protestants were encouraged, in various degrees, to read the Scriptures for themselves and to be for themselves ministers of grace. Theology became "secularized" in many parts of Europe in the original sense of the word: appropriated by laymen.

Again under the impact of Protestantism, theology became secularized in yet a deeper sense. To various degrees, it encouraged the sacralization of the world, even of "everyday life." Human labor in hoc seculo was not perceived anymore as a mere preparation for the future life; it acquired its own religious value in that, if well done, it increases God's honor. So also does the study of this world, by exposing the ingenuity of its creator. The world, too, was not perceived as a transitory stage. It became in and of itself, as indeed attested to by the Scriptures, "very good" (Gen. 1:31), if not outright sacred. The world turned into God's temple, and the layman into its priests.

Finally, the barriers separating various scientific disciplines were fundamental to the peripatetic program of systematic knowledge. Within the Aristotelian and Scholastic tradition, it was forbidden to transplant methods and models from one area of knowledge to another, because it would lead to a category-mistake. This injunction suited the social reality of medieval universities well, separating theology from philosophy to the benefit of both; but it eroded considerably from the fourteenth century, when mathematical consideration started to be heavily introduced into physics, and even into ethics and theology. What was a methodological sin to Aristotle became a recommended virtue in the seventeenth century. Since then we have been urged to transport models from mathematics to physics and from physics to psychology or social theory. The ideal of a system of our entire knowledge founded on one method was born. Aristotle never entertained it; neither did Scholasticism. Indeed, the very word "system" stood, until the seventeenth century, not for a set of interdependent propositions but for a set of things — for example, systema mundi or systema corporis. The ideal of one, unified system of knowledge could hardly exclude theological matters, down to Spinoza's treatment of God more geometrico. These are some of the reasons why God ceased to be the monopoly of theologians even in Catholic quarters.

The Catholic response to the secularization of the divine seldom restored the fine medieval balance between philosophy and theology. To the contrary, whenever skeptical or fideistic arguments were invoked to undermine the faith in unaided reason, the medieval understanding of theology as a rational endeavor (albeit proceeding from premises inaccessible to the lumen naturale) was also undermined. Montaigne's "Apology for Raymond Sebund" is an excellent example of these opposing trends — the defense of the theologian's reserve as well as (against the theologian's wishes) the secularization of theological issues. Sebund's extreme claims for the evidence of natural theology (this name was given to the book later) were censured by the Church. Montaigne believed he would be even better able to defend the Church if he were to destroy (as did Hume later) the notion that there exists an innate, self-evident core of theological truths. Man, by no means superior to brutes either emotionally or intellectually, needs a supernatural source of guidance even in daily, mundane affairs. The value of Sebund's natural theology can at best be relative: sometimes it may serve polemics. The only plausible proof for the veracity of Christianity that Montaigne elaborates at length is taken from the irrational rather than rational domain, and may be called an ethnographic proof: "I have often marveled to see, at a very great distance in time and place, the coincidence between a great number of fabulous popular opinions and savage customs and beliefs, which do not yet seem from any angle to be connected with our natural reason" — such as circumcision, the cross as sacred symbol, stories of primordial mankind, of an original sin, of a flood. "These empty shadows of our religion that are seen in some of these examples testify to its dignity and divinity," and they do so precisely because they are not accountable by reason. Montaigne turned natural theology on its head while using some if its own ancient arguments. Previously, some of these "coincidences" were invoked to show that polytheism and fetishism were just historical perversions of man's original, natural monotheism. Montaigne denies it, denies that anima naturaliter Christiana. He believes that the "light of reason" only leads to confusion, to a Babel of creeds.

Yet Montaigne himself was a layman. Moreover, he unwillingly shared with Sebund the urge to abolish the demarcation line between natural and supernatural knowledge — although with opposite intents. Throughout the following century, the zeal for the defense of the doctrinal authority of the Church created critical arguments more dangerous than their target. Richard Simon promoted biblical criticism to refute the claim that the Bible can be understood by itself alone, sine glossa. Jean Astruc, wishing to defend (against Spinoza) Moses' authorship of the Pentateuch, invented the most destructive tool of biblical criticism yet: the philological distinction among the various original documents from which the Masoretic text was composed, by Moses, as he believed, or by others later (as we do). How much more deadly to theology were such helpers than its enemies! Yet, without being exposed to these and other dangers, theology would never have contributed as much as it did to the sciences and letters in the seventeenth century.

Finally, the secular theology of the seventeenth century was also a distinct phenomenon inasmuch as it was not so universally accepted as to be beyond challenge and identification. Not all who had a share or interest in the advancement of the new sciences approved of it. Fellows of the Royal Society, said Sprat, "meddle no otherwise with divine Things, than only as the Power, and Wisdom, and Goodness of the creator is displayed in the admirable Order and Workmanship of the creatures. It cannot be deny'd, but it lies in the natural Philosopher's Hands, best to advance that part of Divinity; which, though it fills not the Mind with such tender and powerfull Contemplations, as that which shews us Man's Redemption by a Mediator; yet it is by no means to be pass'd by unregarded, but is an excellent Ground to establish the other. ... These two subjects, God and the Soul, being the only forborn, in all the rest they wander at their Pleasure." The separation of science from religion may have been as often demanded as it was violated; yet even those who demanded it with sincerity (rather than as a matter of prudent tactics) did not do so on medieval grounds. If previous generations distinguished between "natural" and "sacred" theology, Sprat and others distinguished between science (or philosophy) and religion: religious contemplation, albeit more "powerfull," was placed outside the boundaries of scientific discourse. Deists were soon to recognize in "natural religion" the only true religion.

My aim in the present study is not to describe the secular theology of the seventeenth century in its breadth and in its manifold manifestations; I rather chose from it a few significant themes. When Christian Oetinger, the Pietist theologian, came to deal with God's attributes, the traditions he discussed were not those of Scholastic theology — Catholic or Protestant — but those of secular theology. "The attributes of God are ordered in one way by Leibnizians, in another by Newtonians; it is not irrelevant to compare their methods." Some divine attributes and their relevance to natural science, political theory, and historical reasoning form the topic of my study. The secular theology in which these and other themes were embedded still awaits a detailed and comprehensive description as a new cultural phenomenon. My treatment of these themes is not even construed to prove the existence of a secular theology (if proof is needed) but to call to the attention of the reader the changes of connotation that some divine attributes underwent in a new intellectual climate.


Whether or not God is immutable, our perceptions of God are not. In the following three chapters I wish to examine the changes in the meaning and usage of three divine attributes between the Middle Ages and the seventeenth century. It will serve as a convenient way to describe the changes in the nature of theological speculations vis-à-vis other disciplines — physics, history, political thought. It is also a convenient way to gauge changes in these disciplines themselves.

The divine predicates to be discussed are the omnipresence, the omnipotence, and the providence of God. They were not chosen at random. Divine predicates pose general as well as particular problems. Common to all is the problem of legitimacy of every positive mode of locution about God, or conversely, the efficiency of merely negative predicates. Of the particular problems, some are more time-bound than others. God's goodness and justice are hard to defend at all times from the vantage point of our painful world, which is the only vantage point we have. Such are not the problems I shall deal with here. I am rather concerned with those predicates that posed time-specific difficulties in the seventeenth century, and along with the difficulties opened up new opportunities of thought.

Because the seventeenth century wished language to become precise and thoroughly transparent, God's omnipresence became a problem. If it could no longer be given a symbolic or metaphorical meaning, how else could the ubiquity of God be understood, God's being "everywhere"? The problem was compounded by the new commitment of the seventeenth century to a view of nature as thoroughly homogeneous and therefore nonhierarchical. God's omnipresence became an almost physical problem for some. Never before nor after were theological and physical arguments so intimately fused together as in that century. Why this was so and how it came about is the subject of the second chapter.

Medieval theologians engaged in a new and unique genre of hypothetical reasoning. In order to expand the logical horizon of God's omnipotence as far as could be, they distinguished between that which is possible or impossible de potentia Dei absoluta as against that which is so de potentia Dei ordinata. This distinction was fleshed out with an incessant search for orders of nature different from ours which are nonetheless logically possible. Leibniz's contraposition of the nécessité logique (founded on the law of noncontradiction) and the nécessité physique (founded on the principle of sufficient reason) has its roots in these Scholastic discussions, and with it the questions about the status of laws of nature in modern philosophies of science. But medieval hypothetical reasoning did not serve future meta-theoretical discussions alone. The considerations of counterfactual orders of nature in the Middle Ages actually paved the way for the formulation of laws of nature since Galileo in the following sense: seventeenth-century science articulated some basic laws of nature as counterfactual conditionals that do not descirbe any natural state but function as heuristic limiting cases to a series of phenomena, for example, the principle of inertia. Medieval schoolmen never did so; their counterfactual yet possible orders of nature were conceived as incommensurable with the actual structure of the universe, incommensurable either in principle or because none of their entities can be given a concrete measure. But in considering them vigorously, the theological imagination prepared for the scientific. This is the theme of my third chapter.


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Table of Contents

A. A Secular Theology, 3,
B. The Themes, 10,
C. A Differential History, 12,
D. Ideas and Ideals of Science, 18,
A. The Body of God, 23,
B. The Original Setting of the Ideals, 31,
C. A Short History of God's Corporeality and Presence, 42,
D. Late Medieval Nominalism and Renaissance Philosophy, 57,
E. Descartes and More, 72,
F. Hobbes, Spinoza, and Malebranche, 80,
G. Newton, 89,
H. Leibniz, 97,
A. Omnipotence and Nature, 117,
B. Potentia Dei Absoluta et Ordinata, 124,
C. Ideal Experiments and the Laws of Motion, 152,
D. Descartes, Eternal Truths, and Divine Omnipotence, 179,
E. Newton and Leibniz, 192,
A. The Invisible Hand and the Concept of History, 202,
B. "Scripture Speaks the Language of Man": The Exegetical Principle of Accommodation, 213,
C. Accommodation and the Divine Law, 222,
D. Accommodation and the Course of Universal History, 243,
E. History, Counter-History, and Secularization, 271,
F. Vico's Secularized Providence and His "New Science", 279,
A. A New Ideal of Knowing, 290,
B. Construction and Metabasis, Mathematization and Mechanization, 299,
C. The Construction of Nature and the Construction of Society, 327,
A. Kant and the De-Theologization of Science, 346,
B. Enlightenment and Education, 357,
C. Theology and Science, 360,
INDEX, 401,

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"Theology and the Scientific Imagination should be read by every historian of science. I can also hardly imagine a philosopher of science who would remain indifferent to the roots of modern thinking. The reading of this book gives one a deep intellectual pleasure: to follow adventures in ideas is like experiencing the adventures themselves." —Michael Heller, Review of Metaphysics

"A bold study of ideas . . . bristling with insight and perceptive reinterpretation of familiar episodes in the history of natural philosophy." —David C. Lindberg, Journal of the History of Medicine

"Powerful. . . . Liberation from naive conceptions of historical continuity gives Funkenstein leave to concentrate on a finely nuanced exegesis of those philosophers who fall within his purview. The result is a work of discernment and distinction." —J. H. Brooke, Times Higher Education Supplement

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