Science, religion, and evolution… in the 12th century

Many deeply religious people have concerns about subordinating religion to science, the tail wagging the dog as it were. I see it a LOT in LDS history. There’s certainly some legitimacy to that fear, but also a lot of misunderstandings. Ideas of progressive or developmental creation are not necessarily a response to Darwin.

I’ve written before about how “science” and “religion” as commonly understood today are not well-defined categories, and can’t simply be retrojected into the past; Galileo wasn’t a “scientist” because such a thing didn’t exist yet, nor did he think he was doing “science.” Indeed, most of those famous figures in the history of Western science were deeply religious (usually Christian) people who thought they were doing a kind of theology. This is summed up in the famous phrase “science is the handmaid of theology.” That is, if you want to study God directly, study theology. This was largely the point of universities, the reason why they came into being, and theology was the most difficult degree to achieve. It required languages and philosophy, but also what we would think of as mathematics, geometry, physics, etc. To study God directly, you did theology; but since God created the universe, and given passages like Psalm 19

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork

these Christians thought that studying God’s creations (i.e. natural philosophy, or as we would call it today, “science”) was also studying God at one remove; studying animals or rocks or clouds or astronomy was a secondary way of understanding God, since he created it, and it spoke of him. Kepler’s laws of planetary motion are embedded in his attempt to discover the divine music of creation, for example.  But all of this deeply religious context is missing from the way kids and teenagers learn about the history of science in high school and even college; we retroject our ideas of “science” and “scientists” as lab-coated professionals doing their well-defined jobs far away from religious ideas.

This all leads to something called the hexameral tradition.

The hexameral tradition draws its name from Greek hex “six” and hēmera “day,” referring to the six day creation account found in Genesis 1. The “hexameral tradition” refers to a broad body of literature expounding on natural philosophy (or “science”) through the structure of a commentary on the six days of Genesis 1.

That is, because scripture (like Psalm 19) referred to the earth and heavens and all in them as God’s creation, and the creation of all these things was described in Genesis 1, it seemed logical to write about heavens, earth, and all in them through the organizational structure of a commentary on the elements of the six days. Genesis 1 thus served as an organizational guide for natural philosophy writings. The structure is generally the same, although the focus can vary; sometimes the Genesis aspects are merely trappings for natural philosophy discussion, and other times it’s more of an exegetical commentary. Summarized in modern terms, the hexameral literature is scientific content organized by a Genesis 1 order and structured within a deeply religious worldview.

Jews too wrote commentaries on Genesis (e.g. Philo in 60 CE), and the Christian tradition goes back almost as early, to the first centuries after the New Testament. One of the first such, Basil left record of his hexameral homilies in Greek. Addressed to workers and craftsmen, Basil portrayed God as a craftsman in creation, relating scripture to his audience. In the Latin west, Ambrose and Augustine both wrote hexameral treatise. Augustine’s 4th century multi-volume Literal Commentary on Genesis was particularly important in arguing that proper interpretation of Genesis had to take account of human knowledge. This was in contrast to Tertullian (and some conservative believers today), who thought the Bible should be interpreted alone, without external human knowledge, i.e. “what has Athens [ human knowledge/philosophy] to do with Jerusalem [revelation/scripture/divine knowledge]?”
Augustine’s view seems to have won, and carried important ramifications for later interpretations.

For example, beyond the historically influential principle of the Two Books— that God had provided both the Book of Scripture and the Book of nature, which taught compatible truths— Augustine argued that God had created things with potentiality, “seeds” as it were, to develop. Later interpreters would develop this in important ways. (In LDS history, it was influential on geologist and Apostle James E. Talmage, who titled his first book The First Book of Nature, 1888.)

By the 12th century, Christians continue to write hexameral literature, although they had shifted. Instead of Christianized Platonism, they had shifted to Christianized Aristotelianism, thanks to the translation movement of the 12-13th centuries which “recovered” much ancient philosophy from Islamic sources.
Among these medieval interpreters, Augustine’s developmental ideas had themselves developed in ways which would surprise the average reader today. Three Christian interpreters are relevant here: Adelard of Bath, Thierry of Chartres, and William of Conch. They exemplify how medieval Christian scholars were thinking about creation, natural philosophy and Genesis. They distinguished between a primary cause (which was, of course, God) and secondary causes, i.e. the identifiable “natural” means through which God worked. To simply say “well, God did it,” they thought, would be an intellectual and theological copout. (In this, they were far more rigorous and sophisticated than many Christians today.)

Adelard wrote that one could not legitimately attribute something directly to God, the primary cause, unless it were impossible otherwise, and one was bound to seek out the secondary, or natural cause, which God had used. In this vein, Thierry argued, for example, that the only direct creative act of God in Genesis was the initial creation of the four elements, which he imbued with their “natural qualities” (i.e. Augustine’s potentialities), which then developed naturally. He carried this throughout Genesis, so that even the bodies of Adam and Eve were the result of these elements developing naturally, and not through direct special creative acts of deity! The evolutionary echoes of such are fascinating, and perhaps contributed to later interpreters.

Were these 12th century Catholic theologians subordinating Genesis to Darwin, to science? Compromising their principles? Refusing to read Genesis “literally“? Not at all. Rather, beyond some initial creative input from God, they operated with what we would call a methodological naturalism, explaining things through “natural” causes as much as possible, because that is the way God works. The hexameral tradition thus developed in what we would think of as very “naturalistic” ways, acknowledging deity, but not relying on him as a mechanism for explaining the functioning of the world around them.

In this sense, Augustine’s Two Books doctrine— the Book of Scripture and Book of Nature— served a positive function, leading to creative and fruitful natural philosophy, even if expressed through the structure of Genesis’ six days of creation. It also illustrates how pre-Darwinian interpreters with deep theological commitments to scripture and theism reasoned in ways many moderns do not.

You can see why I’ve found history of science to be so useful to my studies of Genesis.

Related resources:

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