It has been my experience that materialist proponents of the natural sciences become rather irritated when someone brings up the fact that most of the great fathers of modern science were Christian theists. Typically, I will raise this point whenever someone claims that a theistic worldview is irrational or that the idea of a Maker of all things is anti-science. The response I receive is almost always something along the lines of: “Yes, those were brilliant men of science, but there was so much they did not know—that we now know—about the natural world. If they lived today, it’s likely that none of them would be religious. It’s pointless to bring them up in defense of the compatibility of science and faith.”
There are several problems with this response, but the one that I find most glaring is the unfounded presumption that scientific and mathematical thinkers such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Boyle believed in a creator God based upon a lack of scientific knowledge. This betrays an ignorance about the actual writings of these great thinkers, writings which clearly show that it was their discoveries—an increase in understanding—that incited their expressions of praise and reverence for an ingenious, omnipotent Maker. During their time, it increasingly appeared that the cosmos was crafted in a manner that allowed it to operate according to a preordained set of universal mathematical laws. The pursuit of knowledge about the workings of the natural world was seen as deciphering God’s “book of nature”—both its language and its content.
The huge leaps made in natural philosophy (what we now refer to as the natural sciences) during the Scientific Revolution served to heighten wonder and scholarly appreciation for the rationality of creation and mankind’s exclusive ability to understand it. None of the reasons for faith cited by the heroes of the Revolution have in any way been undermined by subsequent scientific advancement. In fact, they have been strengthened immensely!
In this series, I will be discussing the scholarly and personal writings of several key figures of the Scientific Revolution in order to make my case.
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was a German mathematician and astronomer who formulated a new mathematical theory of heliocentric (sun-centered) planetary motion that, unlike Copernicus’, harmonized exceedingly well with the astronomer Tycho Brahe’s extensive compilation of stargazing records. Kepler, who was Brahe’s protégé, found that by representing the planetary orbits as ellipses rather than perfect circles, the observational data could be mathematically represented more simply and with greatly improved predictive accuracy. Kepler’s laws of planetary motion (published in his 1609 New Astronomy and his 1618 Harmonies of the World) transformed the field of astronomy into a sophisticated theoretical science.
Kepler was convinced that the universe operated according to laws put in place by its Maker, much like a clock is fabricated by a clockmaker. This went against an ancient Greek idea bout nature having some kind of active “soul” in it producing its motions:
My aim is to say that the machinery of the heavens is not like a divine animal but like a clock (and anyone who believes a clock has a soul give the work the honour due to its maker) and that in it almost all the variety of motions is from one very simple magnetic force acting on bodies, as in the clock all motions are from a very simple weight. [i]
Yet, the idea of a clockwork universe that ran with autonomy, according to laws of nature, only strengthened Kepler’s theistic convictions.
Both a brilliant natural philosopher and a devout Christian of the Lutheran tradition, Kepler was thoroughly convinced that God had intentionally ordered the universe in a way that could be comprehended by the human intellect. This belief is particularly evident in his private correspondence with fellow scholars and other associates. In a letter to the Baron von Herberstein dated May 15, 1596, Kepler declared that
God, like a human architect, approached the founding of the world according to order and rule and measured everything in such a manner, that one might think not art took nature for an example but God Himself, in the course of His creation took the art of man as an example. [ii]
There are two notable things about this statement; first, that Kepler expresses his belief that God created the cosmos according to a rational, mathematical plan, and second, that the mind of God and the mind of man must be somehow analogous. He states this idea more plainly in what are perhaps his most famous words:
To God there are, in the whole material world, material laws, figures and relations of special excellency and of the most appropriate order…Those laws are within the grasp of the human mind; God wanted us to recognize them by creating us after his own image so that we could share in his own thoughts. [iii]
Later in the same passage, he chastises those who would say it is very presumptuous to imagine that God’s mind is anything like man’s:
Only fools fear that we make man godlike in doing so; for the divine counsels are impenetrable, but not his material creation. [iv]
We see that Kepler’s idea of God’s natural revelation is centered upon the fact that the natural world is governed by rational laws that are discoverable by man, who, by investigating nature can think God’s thoughts after him. Kepler made these kinds of statements often. In a letter to his former astronomy professor, Michael Maestlin, he wrote,
God, who founded everything in the world according to the norm of quantity, also has endowed man with a mind which can comprehend these norms. For as the eye for color, the ear for musical sounds, so is the mind of man created for the perception…of quantities. [v]
He connects this idea with the Christian doctrine of man in a passage from his work, Conversations with Galileo’s Sidereal Messenger, where he says that geometry “shines in the mind of God” and that a “share of it which has been granted to man is one of the reasons why he is in the image of God.”[vi]
Kepler considered his life’s work—unlocking the mysteries of planetary motion—as an act of worship. He said,
I had the intention of becoming a theologian…but now see how God is, by my endeavors, also glorified in astronomy. [x]
By investigating God’s natural revelation, the natural philosopher, who is made in God’s image, illuminates some of the divine wisdom made manifest in the creation. He said,
The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God, and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics. [xi]
Kepler called the universe “our bright Temple of God” and described astronomers as “priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature.”[xii] Even Kepler’s self-written epitaph reflects his conviction that mind, with its mathematical aptitude, bears the image of the divine:
Once I measured the skies,
Now I measure the earth’s shadow.
Of heavenly birth was the measuring mind,
In the shadow remains only the body. [xiii]
Since Kepler’s time, our understanding of the deep mathematical structure of the cosmos has exploded. Moreover, based upon the intellectual rigor of fields such as theoretical physics, it is more amazing than ever that mankind possesses the higher cognitive aptitude to illuminate the fundamental nature of the universe.
[i] Letter to J. G. Herwart von Hohenburg, 16 February 1605, Johannes Kepler Gesammelte Werke, ed. M Caspar et al., Munich, 1937, vol. 15, 146.
[ii] Carola Baumgardt, Johannes Kepler: Life and Letters (New York: Philosophical Library, 1951), 33-34.
[iii] Baumgardt, 50.
[iv] Baumgardt, 50.
[v] Gerald Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 68.
[vi] Johannes Kepler, Conversation with Galileo’s Sidereal Messenger (New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1965), 43.
[vii] Baumgardt, 41.
[viii] Johannes Kepler, Harmonies of the World, trans. by Charles Glenn Wallis (Annapolis: St. John’s Bookstore, 1939), Kindle loc. 259.
[ix] Alister McGrath, Re-Imagining Nature, 82.
[x] Morris Kline, Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 31.
[xi] Quoted in Morris Kline, Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 31.
[xii] Baumgardt, 44.
[xiii] James Voelkel, Johannes Kepler and the New Astronomy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 130.