Influence of medieval Christian theology and philosophy upon the birth of modern learning and modern societies

Bp Stanislaw Wielgus

Reflection on the keeping of a reference to Christianity
out of the preamble to the European Constitution
(the text of the paper delivered in German
at the International Theological Symposium in Warsaw in May 2004)

A big number of Europeans are aware that this is Christianity which, on the basis on the Gospel - and drawing on the achievements of the Greek, Roman, Jewish and Muslim culture and the cultures of the christened peoples - created a Euro-Atlantic culture and civilization that are unique in the whole world. This is why with an even deeper sadness and disappointment they have met the fact that the leaders of the European Union, whose 85 per cent of inhabitants are Christian, have given way to laicism, born of the atheist philosophy of the Enlightenment and of the bloody French Revolution, by keeping a reference to Christianity out of the preamble to the European Constitution. In this way - ignoring the obvious truth saying that whoever digs below the foundations of a house, is to blame for its ruin - they rejected the basic principles that had given rise to the European phenomenon.
The present reflection on the importance of the medieval Christian philosophy and theology for the rise of modern learning, which has formed the civilization that we live in, is supposed to be a small contribution to the discussion of whether in the Constitution which should determine the life of Europeans one should find a reference to the Christian roots of all their culture and thought.
The influence of philosophy and theology upon the social life of humans, their mentality, outlooks, moral attitudes and whole life style - varied depending on the epoch; however, it was unquestionable. Opposite to the quite wide-spread, though false, opinions regarding philosophy as a realm of entirely theoretical and abstract considerations, it had an enormous impact upon the development of culture, learning, technology, political, social and even economic life of nations in the course of their history. Was it not Plato's vision of a perfect state - where the individual is just a small object, and not subject of law - that the fathers of diverse political totalitarianisms referred to? Was it not the philosophical views of European thinkers of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, as e.g. the French encyclopedists, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Comte, Heidegger, Sartre, the Frankfort School, representatives of postmodernism and many others, that have stirred up extremely important - often revolutionary - mental, political, social and economic changes in Europe?
Also quite an especial role in the life of European societies was played by Christian theology, which drew upon the reflection and findings of Christian philosophy. Here it should be noted that this role was not limited to influence on philosophical views, morality, customs and life style of European societies. The impact was much deeper. There is evidence allowing for a thesis that Christian theology and philosophy brought about the birth of modern science.
The rise of modern natural science in Europe was of so basic importance for the history of the contemporary civilization and societies that this seems reasonable to focus here on this very issue.
The man of today, who got used to the presence of science in his life and to its innumerable technological applications, is often not aware that what he understands as modern science is quite a unique feature only of our European civilization. We do not find anything comparable to it in any of the past, whether big or small, civilizations. Naturally, in other civilizations we can come across highly developed social structures, great states, people of a very high culture, various religions, considerable craftsman's skills, splendid works of architecture, metal and ceramic art, and also philosophy, literature, medicine, astronomy, mathematics and law - but nothing similar to the science that was born in Europe a few centuries ago.
Modern science - conceived as a precise, quantitative explanation of the material world expressed in the form of mathematical equations - actually appeared only with Newton (+1727) formulating his three laws and noticing that they could be applied for expounding some aspects of the whole material world, from the movements of planets to the phenomenon of the "apple falling down". Similarly, the laws discovered by Maxwell (+1879) in the 19th c. allowed for understanding of all electric and magnetic phenomena, whereas the equations of the 20th c. scholar, Schrdinger (+1961), allowed for understanding of the quantum mechanics.
The enormous significance of modern science - explaining the material world in a quantitative way - for the contemporary life of the human race is so obvious that it needs no thorough discussion here. No doubt, modern science is source and starting point for all modern technology, for technical inventions and the whole development of modern civilization. At our times, numerous complains are often raised against the dynamic progress of technology and the consequent production because of the growing pollution of the natural environment combined with it and also because of the humanity being threatened by weapons of mass destruction. Many of these reproaches are right. In recent years, Christians and, in general, people who see a human being as something more than an animal are very concerned about scientific research made by scholars who disregard ethical principles, e.g. making genetic research on human embryos. Abuses of some of the scientists and also of the big concerns using the achievements of the contemporary science only for profit, and abuses of the politicians who, with the help of scientific inventions, put into life their political aims detached from morality - should not lead to the conclusion that science in itself is evil. This is not so by any means. Science is good and splendid. The scientist's basic aim should always be to discover truth, share it with others and apply it for the human benefit. Unfortunately, people void of conscience may sometimes use scientific truth for evil aims - just as man may do with his freedom given by God - but this does not deny the basic value of that truth. One should keep in mind that without modern science and technology we would perhaps be somewhat better and less endangered (though even this is doubtful since man was threatened in all epochs), but without them also many of us would have not come to the world at all, and those who would have managed to do so, would certainly have lived for a short time only, and this in dirt and poverty.
Apart from a moral evaluation of modern science, its enormous impact on the life of the contemporary societies is an undeniable fact. What seems interesting, however, is the question: why was modern science born in the European civilization - among a number of civilizations in human history? And why did this occur at this particular stage of its development? What was that unique element specific solely to the European civilization, which determined the initiation of modern science by it?
One should realize that all great civilizations were marked by a certain progress concerning social structures, which made some groups of people free from concern about their daily living. Most of the civilizations also had some systems of recording and, subsequently, preserving thought. Besides, they had some acquaintance of mathematics and practical skills to make tools and weapons, to hit a target at see and on land, measure the land and buildings, treat the sick, erect big and sophisticated houses etc. We could say that each of the civilizations, which existed centuries ago, had material conditions for what we understand as modern science to come into existence. Why then was it born right in the late mediaeval Europe? Was it a sheer coincidence? There is little probability of a sheer coincidence here. Modern science came into existence in the European civilization because the latter had a unique feature that was absent in other civilizations and manifest in a certain attitude of mind of Europeans of that time toward the material world - the attitude, by the way, had been formed by the Christian philosophy and theology contemporary to them. This became expressed in the following views:
1. The material world is good or neutral at worst. If the world were regarded as evil in itself, it would not deserve any attention or any detailed research.
2. The material world is rational and orderly. It is ruled by order. Any decision to undertake research on the material world must have been based on the conviction that the researcher's findings would be significant for all phenomena and that his discoveries would be constant to such an extent as to remain true also at some other time and place.
3. The order mentioned above is of a special kind. On the one hand, it is conceived of as stable and, as it were, necessary. This is manifest in the researcher's conviction that a definite natural phenomenon cannot occur in any other way, which makes him cherish the hope that he will find a proper order also in thinking about the world. On the other hand, this order is understood as a relative one, the expression of which is his conviction that the given phenomenon could occur in another way under other conditions bringing it about. And this, subsequently, made the medieval researcher observe the world and undertake experiments. 4. It is not only that there is order in the world, but it can be also discovered. It is accessible to the human mind. Without being convinced that the world can be known, man would not be able to involve in a scientific research, which very often is a task extremely hard and frustrating for it happens by try-and-error method; besides, it is a task that often demands an almost heroic self-denial, perseverance and determination.
5. Scientific knowledge of the material world is not some secret knowledge addressed only to the initiated, but it should be widely accessible to everyone who has been properly prepared to understanding it, concerning theory and methodology. This acceptance of the general accessibility of knowledge (so different from making knowledge hermetic by numerous ancient civilizations, e.g. by Egyptian priests, ancient religious mysteries, Pythagoreans etc.) is bound here with being convinced that what is needed is a common search for truth, and this not only because truth is a common good, but even more because one can know it only by common activity of many people and, moreover, continued for many years.
6. Scientific knowledge of the world can give people some kind of control over it. This conviction resulted in it that a major part of the society, who had no immediate contact with science, did not disdain scientists as a kind of harmless and useless queer people, but saw them as people whose work could bring to all inestimable advantages. This had a practical significance as, thinking exactly in this way, European societies supported their scientists in their research, however, without dictating them what precisely to do: they felt by intuition that such an attitude toward science would be an easiest way of destroying all hope for its fruits.
By the way, this openness of Christianity to scientific research and to free expression of one's views has brought about that this is only in the civilization formed by Christianity - where sacrum has been separated from profanum, but not in other civilizations, where religious law is imposed on all realms of life and people's way of thinking under unusually strict sanctions - that it is possible to critisize Christian views, preach atheism, reject Christian moral law etc. That the European leaders had a possibility to question God and Christianity in the preamble to the European Constitution flows, paradoxically, from the fact that they were born, they live and act in the Christian civilization, which is open to human freedom, even freedom to be wrong, which they use in abundance.
The set of views mentioned above, which occurred together and at one time (this should be emphasized), views expressing the attitude of the medieval Europeans (influenced by Christian philosophy and theology) to the material world, is a unique phenomenon in human history. If we take a closer look at other civilizations, we shall meet with quite different views. In general, most of them consider the material world as evil in itself or totally controlled by capricious (cf. philosophical and religious systems of India and Persia, Pythagoreanism, Platonism, Neoplatonism, Manicheism, etc.). In the ancient civilizations there was a common belief, which also recurred in later epochs, that the universe was cyclical: all that is happening now already happened an incalculable number of times in the past and will happen an incalculable number of times in the future. This conviction, associated with a circular conception of time, permeated all ancient Greek philosophy and literature. Besides, they were dominated by the belief that the whole material world, including people and gods, was ruled by unchanging and merciless fate (Ananke, Moira), which could not be changed by anything and anyone. Given this, what would be the sense of undertaking research on the world so understood and of devoting one's life to attempts at making something new if it were doomed to be a failure in advance?
Thus, the philosophical views mentioned above did not give modern science a chance to be born in any of the ancient civilizations, including the Greek civilizations flawed with necessitarianism, disdain of matter, belief in permanent cycles of the worlds and a conviction that knowledge was only for the elect. Of course, among the ancient civilizations one could find isolated instances of thinkers or philosophical schools separating themselves from one of the views, generally accepted at those times, which were mentioned above - but not from all and not from most of them. (As an example of such an isolated separation from some of commonly accepted views, we could refer to the open cognitive approach of pre-Socratics and their acceptance of the material world or to Orphics and Pythagoreans overcoming necessitarianism.)
It was only the medieval European civilization that made the conditions for modern science to come into existence. To be true, this civilization drew abundantly upon the Greek philosophy, the Roman law, the Jewish Bible and also the medieval Muslim thought, but constituting quite a new quality and differing essentially from them in its view of the material world and the tasks and possibilities of the human mind. This new thinking was based on Christian philosophy and theology dominant in medieval Europe, which never accepted the basic thesis of Platonism and Neoplatonism claiming that matter and the material world were evil in themselves, even if the first were strongly influenced by Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy for the first millennium of its development. Paying respect to the Book of Genesis, in which it is said that after creating the material world God "saw all that he had made, and it was very good" (Gen 1:31) - Christian philosophers and theologians expressed their explicit conviction that the material world was good. They emphasized it even more as they found even more important grounds for their respect for matter in the central Christian truth about God's Incarnation in the human body - "so the Word became flesh; he made his home among us" (St John 1:14).
Following the Wisdom of Solomon, according to which God "has set all things in order by measure and number and weight" (11:20) - Christian thinkers manifested their view that matter was not only good, but also rational and orderly because it was made by rational personal God. Besides, as the medieval scholars believed, the order of the material world was established by God's free choice. So, it was not born out of necessity, as Greek and Muslim philosophers taught. So, there is no ruling, over the world and over the human fate, of a ruthless doom paralyzing attempts at scientific creativity. Moreover, Christians made it explicit that the order of nature was accessible to human mind, that gaining knowledge of the material world was not only possible, but it was also one of the basic obligations of every man if this was the Creator of this world Himself who had commanded him to "subdue the earth" (Gen 1:28) and develop the talents given him (Matt 25:15-30).
Thus, the medieval philosophers' and theologians' views prepared an intellectual atmosphere advantageous for the birth of modern science understood as precise quantitative explanation of the material world.
For 1500 years, philosophy was dominated by the Aristotelian physics, which stopped the development of Pythagorean and Platonic vision of the reality. This was a very serious obstacle to a rise of science that would expound the reality in terms of mathematics.
Aristotle proclaimed that the world was eternal and cyclical. He explained changes and movement teleologically. He professed existence of two kinds of matter differing essentially - i.e. earthly matter that had its start and end in time, and celestial matter that was eternal and not subject to destruction. Besides, he proclaimed qualitative physics (and this had a particularly negative influence on the development of science viewing the world in a quantitative way), where it was important to arrive at the essence of the thing, where what mattered was the form of the thing as a vehicle of its qualitative features, and not an experimental examination and mathematical, quantitative presentation of it.
The enormous authority of Aristotle, comparable only to the authority of the Bible, was first denied by Christian philosophers and theologians, who as early as at the beginning of the reception of his works on natural science, metaphysics, ethics and psychology in Europe (12/13 c.) - started to reject his conception of the material world. As some of his views were obviously at conflict with the Christian doctrine, they were condemned by the Church a number of times (in the years: 1210, 1215, 1231, 1277) - the Church banned studying them and lecturing on them. These bans, in themselves opposite to respecting freedom of scientific research, had beneficial effects in so far that they drew attention of many scholars to another possibility of researching and describing the material world, i.e. to the mathematical conception of the reality that focused not on qualitative, but on quantitative approach to natural phenomena. In this context, we should mention the names of the scholars from Merton College in Oxford such as Thomas Bradwardine (+1349), Richard Swineshead (+ ok.1350) or Wilhelm Heytesbury (+1370). Their influence on the European scholarly centres was enormous. Furthermore, it was remarkable that those so called calculatores from Merton College took up first of all strictly theological issues, considering for example the process of a quantitative increase of theological virtues in a man. In other words, they tried to present in a quantitative, even geometrical, way what was given only in a qualitative way. This method of a quantitative view of the world was soon transferred to research in natural science. This is another argument supporting the thesis that the medieval Christian philosophy and theology underlie modern natural science, which rejects the false Aristotelian physics together with the teleological explanation of movement which was so characteristic of it.
The rejection of Aristotelian physics by medieval theologians was a support for Jan Burydan (+ after 1358), who engaged in the problem of explaining a phenomenon basic in physics, i.e. movement. He did so in his theory of impetus. This theory was proposed already before by Peter Olivia (+1298) and Francis of Marchia (+ after 1344), but Jan Burydan gave it a precise elaboration. The theory rejected the Aristotelian theory of movement and referred directly to Christian theology. Thus Burydan says: "When God created the world, he moved each of the celestial bodies as He wanted, and moving them He gave them impetus which causes them to move independent of the mover" (Johannis Buridani Subtilissimae quaestiones super octo Physicorum libros Aristotelis, Parisiis 1509, lib.VIII, qu.12,f.121ra). The notion of impetus of a body understood as product of its mass and velocity was taken over from Burydan by his direct and indirect followers, especially: Nicholas of Oresme (+1382), Albert the Saxon (+1390), Marsilius of Inghen (+1396), Laurence Londorius, Benedict Hesse of Krakow and further generations of scholars up to 17th and 18th century. Thus we find Burydan's notion of impetus in Galileo's impeto (+1641), in Descartes' quantite du mouvment (+1650), in Leibniz' force vive (+1716) and Newton's momentum (+1727).
Burydan questioned another thesis basic for Aristotel's physics; namely, starting with the premises of Christian theology, which took for granted that God had created the whole universe - i.e. both the world under the moon and the world over the moon - but they rejected the sharp Aristotelian opposition of two kinds of matter: the earthly and the celestial one. Burydan went to the conclusion that both so called celestial matter and the earthly matter were ruled by the same laws of mechanics. In this way, he prepared the grounds for Newton's discovery that the same force which attracts an apple to the earth (if we resort to Newton's example here) keeps the moon in its orbit.
Thus, the birth of the modern natural science was possible owing to the fact that, on the one hand, Christian philosophy and theology had formed specific views on the material world in Europeans, and, on other hand, these views rejected Aristotle's authority in issues concerning the material world. At the same time, further development of the modern science became possible when the scholars dealing with natural science questioned the authority of the Bible as regards issues pertaining to the field of astronomy, biology and other branches of natural science, while supporting the entirely supernatural authority of God's word as regards issues of faith and morality. This process was not easy. Some time had to lapse before people realized how the biblical texts should be treated from the methodological point of view. In the meantime, Galileo's case had to occur - whose misfortunate finale resulted from the fact that the theologians involved in it had too broad a conception of the scientific competence of the Bible for modern natural sciences to be able to start a dynamic development. Anyway, medieval Christian philosophy and theology played an essential role in the rise and progress of modern science, and owing to this - in the making of the modern European civilizations.


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Duhem P., Le systeme du monde. Histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon a Copernic, Paris 1954, vol. 4, p. 135 et seq.;
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Maier A., Zwei Grundprobleme der scholastischen Naturphilosophie. Das Problem der intensiven Groesse. Die Impethustheorie, Roma 1951, p. 218 et seq.;
Markowski M., Burydanizm w Polsce w okresie przedkopernikanskim [Burydanism in Poland at the pre-Copernican period], Wroclaw 1971, p. 112 et seq.;
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Wielgus S., "Chrzescijanska sredniowieczna filozofia i teologia u podstaw nowozytnego przyrodoznawstwa" ["Medieval Christian philosophy and theology as the grounds of modern natural sciences"], in: Problemy wspolczesnego Kosciola [Problems of the Contemporary Church], M. Rusecki (ed.), Lublin 1996, pp. 325-333;
Wielgus S., "Philosophie, Theologie und andere Geisteswissenschaften in der neuzeitlichen und modernen Gesellschaft", in: Im Ringen um die Wahrheit, R. Baeumer, J.H. Benirschke, T. Guz (eds), Weilheim-Bierbronnen: Gustav-Siewerth-Akademie 1997, pp. 163-174.

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