Science, Religion, and the Protestant Tradition: Talk at Covenant Presbyterian Church

I recently had the privilege to speak about the history of Christianity and science and my own interpretation of the origins of the “conflict thesis” with the folks at Covenant Presbyterian Church here in Madison, Wisconsin. I had a great time and very much appreciated the comments and questions after each lecture. Below you’ll find Parts 1 and 2.

“Rethinking the Conflict Thesis”: Interview with Shoaib Ahmed Malik

I recently had the chance to talk about my book and research with Shoaib Ahmed Malik at Academic Access. He has a great collection of other videos on his YouTube page. Take a look and let me know what you think.

“One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy”

Albert Camus attempted to “transcend the nihilism” through literature, which he believed could more powerfully depict and analyze existence than any philosophical treatise. He had lived through the travesty of two Great Wars and, like many of the time, felt that such bloodshed was absurd and meaningless. The silence of God—which was a constant theme throughout his writings—was deafening. Indeed, it was only five years after his tragic death that Time magazine, on 22 October 1965, highlighted a small group of theologians who all agreed that “God is dead.” This “death of God theology” is essential background for understanding Camus’ Plague.

Is God Dead?: TIME's Iconic Cover at 50

In the late nineteenth century Friedrich Nietzsche had already proclaimed that God was dead. Camus had in fact clarified that Nietzsche had not tried to “kill God,” but rather that he had “found him dead in the soul of his contemporaries.” By the turn of the century, God had simply fell out of fashion. As Nietzsche observed:

“What is now decisive against Christianity is our taste, no longer our reasons.”

Nietzsche recognized the simple fact that God had gradually been eliminated from modern Western culture. But what are the implications? In his Joyful Science (1882), where he first declared that God is dead, Nietzsche argued that humankind must learn to live without him. This meant the reevaluation of all values, particularly those association with the Christian religion. He writes:

“When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth—it stands and falls with faith in God.”

In place of Christianity, Nietzsche proclaimed the “superman” (Übermensch), someone without fear of others, self, or death. This Übermensch was compatible with scientific naturalism, but for Nietzsche he also transcended science, for life has no meaning other than what individuals give it. If one is ever to rise above meaningless existence, they must choose a way of life that has dignity for them, though it might bring suffering to themselves and others.

This revolt against God was also aptly described in the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky, particularly in his The Brothers Karamazov (1880). Dostoevsky observed the Russian bourgeois liberals and their revolutionary optimism and argued that it could open the door to unprecedented brutality and oppression, precisely because it removes any divine limitation to human actions. Whereas Nietzsche claims scientific justification for his views, Dostoevsky attacked the pretensions of scientific humanism and urged the necessity of God as the basis of human freedom. He rejected the idea that humans were bound by scientific laws and thus totally determined by physical factors. He also rejected the idea that everything is governed by reason.

The rise of the naturalistic worldview and its consequent nihilism, in short, led many to become increasingly concerned with problems of human life in modern, secular mass societies. Many were beginning to question accepted values and philosophies and noted the absurdity of life and the quest for meaning in death. These questions are central to philosophical existentialism at the beginning of the twentieth century.

It should be noted that most scholars trace the origins of existentialism to Christian thinker Søren Kierkegaard, who responded to what he perceived as the dead orthodoxy of Danish Lutheranism. Kierkegaard presented faith as a purely personal endeavor, and that institutionalized Christianity had become confused and irrelevant. Underlying all his writings is the conviction that God exists, and that God had become incarnate in Christ. Yet for Kierkegaard God remained wholly other, and could never be identified with anything finite. Even in revelation God remains hidden. When people saw Jesus on earth, they saw only a man. The infinite cannot be changed into something finite. In the incarnation, God remained incognito. Only from faith can one get a true view of God. But this requires the commitment of one’s whole being to discipleship, for the truth of existence is grasped only in total faith, according to Kierkegaard.

By Camus’ day, belief in God seemed to many intellectuals simply impossible. This is somewhat surprisingly confirmed also in the writings of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, writing to a friend from his prison cell in 1944, that humanity is now accustomed to living with God. Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God.’ In questions of science, art, and ethics this has become an understood thing on which one now hardly dares touch. But for the last hundred years or so it has also become incresingly true of religious questions; it is becoming evident that everything also gets along without ‘God’—and, in fact, just as well as before. As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, ‘God’ is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.”

Whatever our views of naturalism and modern science, to Camus and many others science had eliminated God. As an older contemporary of Camus puts it, historian Carl Becker,

“Edit and interpret the conclusions of modern science as tenderly as we like, it is still quite impossible for us to regard man as the child of God for whom the earth was created as a temporary habitation. Rather must we regard him as little more than a chance deposit on the surface of the world, carelessly thrown up between two ice ages by the same forces that rust iron and ripen corn, a sentient organism endowed by some happy or unhappy accident with intelligence indeed, but with an intelligence conditioned by the very forces that it seeks to understand and to control.”

Happy Sisyphus

So the only question that remains is what to do about it. Since naturalism leads to nihilism and the absurdity of life, how then should we live? Atheistic existentialism accepted most of the conclusions of philosophical naturalism. Matter exists and God does not. Death is extinction. History is linear, linked by cause and effect, but without an overarching purpose. Though human reason can understand the cosmos, what does that matter? This highly organized world stands over against humanity and appears absurd. The ultimate absurdity is death. But according to Camus, we must live in the face of the absurd. This is how existentialism goes beyond nihilism—how it attempts to transcend the absurdity of death. We must create value in a world where there is no objective value. According to Camus, the “authentic life” is the one recognizes fully the absurdity of the cosmos and yet rebels against it and creates her own meaning. That is, for Camus the most authentic person must revolt against the absurdity of death and create his own values.

Painting of Sisyphus by Titian

Sisyphus (1548–49) by TitianPrado MuseumMadridSpain

In his Myth of Sisyphus (1942), for instance, Camus used the story of Sisyphus, the mythical king of Corinth, as a metaphor for the absurdity of human existence. Having insulted the gods, Sisyphus was condemned by them to spend eternity in the underworld repeatedly rolling a rock to the topic of a mountain, at which point the stone would roll back down and Sisyphus was then obliged to begin the endless and pointless cycle all over again.

But for Camus, Sisyphus was a hero—he was the hero in our absurd reality. Condemned by the contingencies of history to a futile and meaningless existence, he sets out to make the best of it. His situation cannot be changed. He must accept his lot. There is no ed in sight, no respite from the absurdity of existence. This is the metaphor Camus chooses to illuminate the human condition. When naturalism eliminated the notion of God, we are left with this meaningless struggle. Moreover, death is the ultimate absurdity. For Camus, any philosophy that believes it is possible to make sense of things is deluded, whether in the form of religion (vertical) or Marxism (horizontal). Indeed, in his The Rebel (1951), Camus completely rejects what he calls the “horizontal religions of our time.” Political systems such as Marxism, a sort of messianic utopianism, elevates humanity to the position of a deity, according to Camus.

“I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I cannot know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms . . . I do not want to found anything on the incomprehensible. I want to know whether I can live with what I know and with that alone.”

There is no God to give meaning to events. The only way to be happy is by acknowledging the absurdity of the situation. As Camus observes:

“You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.”

At the conclusion of Myth of Sisyphus, Camus leaves the reader with these final thoughts:

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile, nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. Sisyphus is happy. I feel alive. I breathe in and out and I am happy.”

Camus and the Silence of God

Before WWII, Camus viewed Christianity as “absurd.” Belief in God amounted to a betrayal of reason, and Christians in particular are people who commit “philosophical suicide.” Camus does not know that God does not exist; he chooses to believe it. How could there be a God? If there is a God, he is silent, offering no justification of himself. For Camus, the idea of the death of God is best expressed in terms of his silence rather than his absence.

At the same time, those who have read Camus have often been struck by the essential role which Christianity plays in his novels and other writings. At some point elements of the Christian faith emerges. In fact, it readily becomes apparent that in all his literary pieces Camus is centrally concerned with religious-moral themes and that these constitute much of the force and attractiveness of his works. In this sense, Camus was a “religious thinker” who took a unique position in the battle of ideologies during his lifetime. As I will outline in another post, Camus’ most intense treatment of religion—and Christianity in particular—occurs in The Plague. Indeed, some commentators have even argued that Camus became more open to Christianity near the end of his life, and this transformation is apparent in this novel.

Camus’ Plague

The Plague by Albert CamusA colleague and friend has recently suggested starting a reading group on Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague. Perhaps the timing is a little too obvious, but the Plague still speaks to us today.

I read the book a long time ago—probably in my early twenties. It was actually one of the first books I read when I switched from being an architectural drafter to enrolling in a philosophy program at the University of California-Davis. I remember reading it out loud to myself, perhaps because I was so captivated by it. The copy I owned was published by Vintage International, and it had this memorable cover illustration of a pool of blood draining in what appears to be a shower stall.

“Matter in Spontaneous Motion” : Naturalism

But before one reads Camus, there are several preliminary questions one must keep in mind. There are deep and complicated layers of naturalism and nihilism in Camus’ existential thought. Indeed, Camus was responding to the problems posed by naturalism and nihilism. In naturalism, for instance, the basic idea is that prime reality is nothing more than matter in motion. Matter is all there is. The cosmos exists as a uniformity of cause and effect. In this way the system is closed. An older version looked at humanity as “machines.” Today we might simply called ourselves complex “organisms,” subject to chemical and physical laws. While we are still learning about these laws, the “naturalist” is certain at least about one thing: death is extinction. The Humanist Manifesto, for example, states it plainly:

“As far as we know, the total personality is a function of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context. There is no credible evidence that life survives the death of the body.”

Similarly, British philosopher Bertrand Russell claimed that

“man is the produce of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving ; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.”

Perhaps more positively, naturalism does encourage us examine the universe through the methods of science. We have indeed made great technological progress. But science, some naturalists maintain, can also help us better understand morality and the human experience. As French naturalist Baron D’Holbach put it in the eighteenth century,

“To discover the true principles of morality, men have no need of theology, of revelation, or of gods; they need only common sense. They have only to commune with themselves, to reflect upon their own nature, to consult their visible interests, to consider the objects of society and the individuals who compose it, and they will easily perceive that virtue is advantageous, and vice disadvantageous, to such beings as themselves. Let us persuade them to be just, beneficent, moderate, sociable, not because such conduct is demanded by the gods, but because it is a pleasure to men. Let us advise them to abstain from vice and crime, not because they will be punished in the other world, but because they will suffer for it in this.”

But with naturalism, history has no overarching purpose. There is no goal. There is no end.

“42” : Nihilism

As a consequence of these views, another view emerged that Camus was particularly concerned about. The rise of naturalism left many in despair and anxiety. If there is no overarching purpose, what is the point? Samuel Beckett’s play Breath perfectly illustrates the hopelessness of a life without purpose. Another example, perhaps more amusing (but not really) is Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The enormous computer “Deep Thought,” after seven and a half million years of calculation, provides an answer to the “Ultimate Question of Life.” The answer is 42. The most rational object in the universe has given an absurd answer to an absurd question.

Beckett, Adams, and others (like Franz Kafka, Joseph Heller, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr., e.g.) reveal (and perhaps revel in) a life without purpose and without meaning. For them, the rationalism of the enlightenment was a ruse. The results of reason did not bring assurance or comfort. The closed universe was confining, and the notion of death as extinction psychologically disturbing. We are but a mere speck in a seemingly endless and meaningless universe. Freedom was an illusion. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “the acting man is caught in his illusion of volition.” He adds, “the acting man’s delusion about himself, his assumption that free will exists, is also part of the calculating mechanism.” In short, all activity is predetermined. In such a closed system, freedom is simply a determinacy unrecognized. The notion of chance doesn’t help. In fact it may be even more terrifyingly absurd. Chance, after all, is causeless, purposeless, directionless. In this sense, consciousness itself is capricious. Charles Darwin himself once said:

“The horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust the conviction of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

The biologist J. B. S. Haldane similarly wondered:

“If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms”

In short, I cannot even trust my own thoughts. Thus morality itself is on shaky grounds. To quote Nietzsche again:

“Morality is only an interpretation of certain phenomena, more precisely a misinterpretation. Moral judgement belongs, as does religious judgement, to a level of ignorance at which even the concept of the real, the distinction between the real and the imaginary, is lacking: so that at such a level “truth” denotes nothing but things which we today call “imaginings.” To this extent moral judgement is never to be taken literally: as such it never contains anything but nonsense.”

There is a great scene in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963) in which he seems to parody religion. “In the beginning” he wrote,

God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness. And God said, “Let Us make creatures out of mud, so mud can see what We have done ” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man Mud as man alone could speak God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around and spoke Man blinked “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely “Everything must have a purpose?” asked God “Certainly,” said man “Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God And he went away.

But this is not a parody on religion so much as a satirical account of naturalism. We have been thrown up by an impersonal universe. With a cosmos that has no meaning, we must manufacture it for ourselves.

Camus’ Escape

And here is where Camus comes into play. In 1950 he wrote that “I have sought only for the means to transcend nihilism.” His novel, The Plague, is one such attempt to escape or transcend the absurd. His was an atheistic existentialism, though. There is a theistic variety which I will mention in a following post. As our reading group meets to discuss each part of The Plague, I will jot down the main ideas and share them here.


Thinking about Theological Anthropology

Humanity has forever been asking and defining what it means to be human. But today answering the “human question” crosses scientific, philosophical, theological, moral, and social (or a combination thereof) boundaries. Some have emphasized a theological anthropology “from below,” using human experience as the source and criterion to determine divine reality.

Christian anthropology, however, does not start with the phenomenon of being human as a societal, individual, or even a theological construct. It begins with God. So it seems like the best starting point for a “Christian” theological anthropology is the biblical narrative, then moving on to emphasizing certain doctrinal and ethical considerations. The biblical text, of course, in all its richness and variety, narrates this grand story of creation in relation to God: good, fallen, reconciled, and eschatologically restored in the New Creation. So from that biblical narrative, one needs to look at the human condition: the soul, freedom, rationality, and love. But one must also consider the hard issue of “original sin.” And then what comes next is the question of grace and regeneration as a consequence of the process of redemption. This “new life” is grounded in faith, hope, and love.

All of this has a long and complex history. In fact, I would argue that the whole history of science and religion has been dealing, directly or indirectly, with issues of theological anthropology. The interest lies in the possibility of deepening and/or “updating” some traditional Christian doctrine about human nature and meaning in light of the advances in science. But this comes at a cost. Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), James George Frazer (1854-1941), Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), and others, of course, constructed an anthropology devoid of the faith of their fathers and mothers.

At the same time, as most ethnologists know, most everything has a prehistory. Tylor, for instance, the so-called “father” of anthropology, credited not himself but James Cowles Prichard (1768-1848) as the “founder of modern anthropology.” Interestingly enough, Prichard was raised as a devout Quaker and became a earnest evangelical Anglican in adulthood. Tylor himself was raised a Quaker before shedding his Christian faith later.

Chasing footnotes, I’ve come across several works that may serve as helpful guides to the topic, including Marc Cortez, Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010) and more recently the edited collection by Celia Deane-Drummon and Agustín Fuentes, Theology and Evolutionary Anthropology: Dialogues in Wisdom, Humility, and Grace (2020).  I have also discovered the work of Joshua R. Farris, including his co-edited volume The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology (2017) and his own An Introduction to Theological Anthropology (2020). As I read through these and other works, I will jot down some observations here.

W. E. H. Lecky and the Progress of the Reformation

William E. H. Lecky (1838-1903) at any early age published a survey of the Religious Tendencies of the Ages (1860), which examined the contending religious parties in England—Roman Catholic, High Church, Evangelical, and Latitudinarian or Broad Church.[1] His aim was to “solve that great problem of theology, the legitimate province of private judgement.”[2] In other words, he sought to test each party against what he believed was the founding principle of the Reformation. He believed that Catholicism had suppressed private judgement, whereas Protestantism had encouraged it. Lecky himself subscribed most closely to the latitudinarian position. As Jeffrey Paul von Arx puts it, for Lecky latitudinarianism “was the latest expression of the traditional Protestant revolt against spiritual authority,” the very “culmination of the development of religious thought,” and the “basis for social and political unity and progress.”[3] The real religious force in England, according to Lecky, was latitudinarianism.[4]

While Lecky did not deny the existence of God, he did argue that the contending religious strife brought Christianity into doubt. But skepticism was not the answer. He wrote, “Truly there is no credulity like the credulity of unbelief.” The solution was what he believed was the moderation displayed in the latitudinarian position. Latitudinarians offered the “spirit of charity and of tolerance towards those with whom they disagree.” He insisted that “Protestantism and dogmatism are logically incompatible.” Systematic theology had “been the parent of almost all the errors and of a very large proportion of the crimes that have disfigured the history of Christianity.” Such a system was both “pernicious and irrational,” and thus had corrupted the simple message of early Christianity. Indeed, Lecky strongly believed that “primitive Christianity” was the very essence of the latitudinarian position. Thus, according to Lecky, latitudinarianism was not only the fulfillment of the Reformation, but the continuation of the primitive Christianity.[5]

These statements anticipated central features of Lecky’s more well-known work, History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe (1865), which was an extended attack against dogmatic theology.[6] For Lecky, a liberal and nondogmatic Protestantism was essential for moral and religious progress. Thus like so many of his contemporaries, Lecky did not wish to eradicate religion, or even “true Christianity,” as he put it. A “true and healthy Christianity,” he wrote, cultivates “a love of truth for its own sake,” and inculcates a “spirit of candour and of tolerance towards those with whom we differ.” In other words, the decline of dogmatic theology and clerical influence was not inimical to religion at all—rather, it called on people to return to the “days of the Apostles,” and thus is a “measure if not a cause of its advance.”[7]

The history of rationalism, Lecky contended, revealed a general trend towards liberalism. In describing the triumphal advance of reason over superstition, rationalism had made extraordinary strides in Protestant countries. In short, by “rationalism” Lecky meant “Protestant Rationalism,” which was, he wrote:

the elevation of conscience into a position of supreme authority as the religious organ, a verifying faculty discriminating between truth and error. It regards Christianity as designed to preside over the moral development of mankind, as a conception which was to become more and more sublimated and spiritualised as the human mind passed into new phases, and was able to bear the splendour of a more unclouded light. Religion it believes to be no exception to the general law of progress, but rather the highest form of its manifestation, and its earlier systems but the necessary steps of an imperfect development.[8]

Lecky believed that “religion in its proofs as in its essence is deemed a thing belonging rather to the moral than the intellectual portion of human nature. Faith and not reason is its basis; and this faith is a species of moral perception.”[9] In the final analysis, Lecky believed that the decline of dogmatism and the waning of clerical influence was a measure of the advance of “true Christianity.”

[1] W. E. H. Lecky, The Religious Tendencies of the Age (London: Saunders, Otley, and Co., 1860).

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Von Arx, Progress and Pessimism, 71, 78.

[4] Lecky, The Religious Tendencies of the Age, 137-38.

[5] Ibid., 27, 148, 192-93, 196-97.

[6] W. E. H. Lecky, History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, 2 vols. (New York: Appleton and Co., 1872).

[7] Ibid., 1.200-01.

[8] Ibid., 1.181-82.

[9] Ibid., 1.191.

Reflecting on the Reformation

Related image

Tuesday is Reformation Day. It is a particularly important day as it also marks the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Readers have been inundated with books, essays, articles, and surveys on the Reformation this year. Below is some I have particularly enjoyed reading. Hope you enjoy them too. And don’t forget to do the Reformation Polka!


Michael Reeves and Tim Chester write on Why the Reformation Still Matters.

Eamon Duffy examines the Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants, and the Conversion of England.

Geographically, Tim Dowley’s Atlas of the European Reformations provides good orientation.

Matthew Levering and Kevin J. Vanhoozer ask the provocative question, Was the Reformation a Mistake?: Why Catholic Doctrine is Not Unbiblical. Of course you have Brad S. Gregory writing about Luther as the Rebel in the Ranks. Similarly, Lyndal Roper refers to Luther as Renegade and Prophet. Another controversial book is Alec Ryrie’s Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World.

Reformation historian Peter Marshall has published a number of interesting books on the Reformation. Older but still enjoyable is his The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction. More recent is his Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation and 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation. See also his excellent edited collection of essays in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation.

Thomas Albert Howard and Mark A. Noll have made a significant mark in Reformation studies with their edited collection Protestant after 500 YearsSee also Tal Howard’s own Remembering the Reformation: An Inquiry into the Meanings of Protestantism.

Carlos M. N. Eire has produced a definitive work on the Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650.

Sociologist Rodney Stark is at it again with his Reformation Myths: Five Centuries of Misconceptions and (Some) Misfortunes.

Diarmaid MacCulloch discusses All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy.

As a student at TEDS, I read Roland H. Bainton’s classic Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, which I still recommend to students. More controversial but still essential reading, one should add Heiko A. Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil and Erik H. Erikson’s Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History.

I also read Calros Eire’s excellent book on the War against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin.

More recently, there is the terrific series by Fortress Press on the Annotated Luther. It is truly a beautiful collection of books.

There are a few other books on Calvin that I can recommend. William J. Bouwsma’s John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait made for some heavy reading. Also important is Francois Wendel’s classic Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought. A helpful collection of essays on Calvin can be found in Herman J. Selderhuis’s (et. al.) The Calvin Handbook. Two other books on Calvin’s thinking worth checking out is Charles Partee’s Calvin and Classic Philosophy and T. H. L. Parker’s Calvin: An Introduction to His Thought.

Essays and Articles

Historian of science and religion Peter Harrison writes about the relationship between the Reformation and the Rise of Science.

Church historian Mark Noll follows this line in his post at BioLogos on How Did the Reformation Reform the Study of Nature?

Fred Sanders at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University gives us reasons Why the Reformation Should Make You More catholic.

Another recent entry at ABC: Religion & Ethics blog is John Milbank’s excellent question, The Reformation at 500: Is There Any Cause for Celebration?

Theologian Alister McGrath has written several pieces on the importance of the Reformation. See here for his discussion on The State of the Church Before the Reformation.

See also McGrath’s short essay on Protestantism’s Dangerous Idea: How the Reformation Redefined the Church.

The White Horse Inn has a few pieces on the topic as well at Reformation 500.

Steve Fuller thinks it’s time for a New Reformation? This Time, the University is the Target.

The Conversation discusses Martin Luther’s spiritual practice was key to the success of the Reformation, with other pieces here, here, and here.

Over at the “Anxious Bench,” one of the many good columns at Patheos, Philip Jenkins discusses Stealing Luther, and Chris Gehrz uses a Reformation board game to discuss Sola Fide. Tal Howard also gives a brief statement about forgetting the Reformation in The Upside of Historical Amnesia as the Reformation turns 500.

Emma Green at the Atlantic wonders Why can’t Christian Get Along, 500 years After the Reformation.

Here is a short post by the “Benedict Option’s” Rod Dreher The Reformation & An Ecumenism of Indifference.

Over at CNN, Alec Ryrie talks about Three surprising ways the Protestant Reformation shaped our world.

Candida Moss at the Daily Beast also discusses the Biggest Myth about the Protestant Reformation.

Then there is Peter J. Leithart at Fox News boldly proclaiming that The Reformation, led by Luther, failed. Here’s how we could finally reunite the Christian church.

Even the National Geographic has something to say about the Reformation, particularly by Joseph Loconte on Martin Luther and the Long March to Freedom of Conscience.

A great review essay by Ingrid D. Rowland appeared in the New Yorker earlier this year as Martin Luther’s Burning Questions.

Nina Martyris over at NPR provides a very insightful article on The Other Reformation: How Martin Luther Changed Our Beer, TooAmen!

Over at the Hedgehog Review, Eugene McCarraher discusses the “most compelling and revolutionary legacy of the Protestant Reformation” in The People Republic of Heaven: From the Protestant Reformation to the Russian Revolution, 1517-1917.

Ross Douthat at the New York Times wonders Who Won the Reformation?

Yet another good piece from ABC, this one by Stanley Hauerwas on After the Reformation: How to be Neither Catholic Nor Protestant.

Dominic Erdozain also discusses The Cult of Certitude: Martin Luther and the Myth of ‘Sola Scriptura.’

Earlier this year Charlotte Methuen considered whether the Reformation was A Reformation by Martin Luther alone?

Peter J. Leithart has another interesting article at First Things where he corrects Reformation “What Might Have Beens.”

Over at Marginalia, some really good articles have appeared in their The Protestant Reformation: A Forum.


A number of other bloggers have provided surveys of books and required reading.

The Gospel Coalition offers The Best Books to Read for the Reformation 2017. They also have The One Must-Read Book for Reformation 500 and The Best One-Volume Book on the Reformation.

Earlier this year Christianity Today dedicated a whole issue to Martin Luther.

Historian Chris Gehrz also has some good suggestions in The Best Book to Read for Reformation 500.

Emily McFarlan Miller and Kimberly Winston at Religion News Service give us a nice collection at Study-Up: A Reformation Anniversary Reading List.

Reading Religion, a publication of the American Academy of Religion, has published a Cornucopia of Quincentennial Books on the Reformation.

Charlotte Metheun at TLS reviews a number of books on Luther in Defender of the faith?

Oxford University Press is offering 30% off selected books related to the Reformation in Remembering the Reformation.

I have, no doubt, missed many other good books and articles on the Reformation. Please share in the comments so others can add to their wish-lists!

And without further ado, The Reformation Polka.


The 2017 History of Science Society Annual Meeting

The History of Science Society will meet this year in Toronto, Canada. A preliminary program was recently published with some really fascinating panels and papers. I’m particularly excited about attending a panel on “Astronomical Phenomena in the Nineteenth Century: From the Global to the Provincial,” which includes papers by Jim Secord and Bernie Lightman. That same day, in the evening, Adam Shapiro will be presenting recent work on “Voices of Science Activism in the Age of Trump,” which is based on interviews he conducted during the March for Science rallies back in April. Participants, as Shapiro interestingly points out, reveal a “wide range of answers and anxieties concerning whether the Science March has a unifying message, whether science itself can (or should) avoid being ‘political,’ and whether ‘science’ can serve as a basis for organizing and resisting the knowledge politics of the Trumpian state and its allies.”

I also organized a panel for this conference on the “The Production and Reception of Science and Religion Narratives in the Anglo-American Periodical Press, 1860 – 1900,” which will take place on Friday, November 10, starting at 3:45 PM. Distinguished historian of science, Australian Laureate Fellow and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH), Peter Harrison, will chair the session. Most historians of science agree that stories about the “conflict” or “warfare” between religion and science were first fully articulated in the late-nineteenth century, specifically among Anglo-American writers. But since the late 1970s, scholars from various disciplines have systematically dismantled almost every facet of these narratives, many now labeling them “myths about science and religion.” Yet for all this work in “demythologizing” the relationship between science and religion, there is still much work to be done in charting the production, diffusion, and reception of such narratives. Historians have been so concerned with debunking myths about science and religion, that they have perhaps ignored the important task of uncovering and scrutinizing the cultural functions such narratives performed. My panel seeks to address this problem by exploring the production and reception of science and religion narratives in the late-nineteenth century periodical press. Indeed, the question of science-and-religion relations science permeated the content of most nineteenth-century Anglo-American periodicals, appearing not only in dedicated scientific journals, but also in other forms, including fiction, poetry, political reports, and comical allusions. My panel will examine science and religion narratives across a range of periodical genres, and consider the way readers responded to those narratives. This approach will shed further light on how such narratives were produced and diffused, and how readers reacted to those narratives that later historians of science have so strongly condemned.

The first paper will be presented by Sylvia M. Nickerson, a postdoctoral research fellow at the York University and currently co-writing a book with Bernie Lightman on Science, Religion and Victorian Print Culture: Constructing New Public Spaces, 1860-1890. Sylvia’s conference paper, entitled “A Seat at the Table: Publishers, Periodicals, and the Agendas of Science and Religion,” will examine how two British publishers—Alexander Macmillan (1818-96) and John Murray (1808-92)—either opened up or closed down debates on topics intersecting science and religion in the periodicals they published. In both the politically conservative Quarterly Review (1809) as well as the liberal monthly The Academy (1869), publisher John Murray attempted to limit debate on the question of Christianity, evolution and their reconciliation. While the Quarterly negatively reviewed authors whose science challenged traditional Christian world-views, The Academy aspired to cover both science and theology while representing “no party in Religion or Politics”. Edited by Charles Appleton, The Academy broke convention from the Quarterly in several ways, and the diversity of views Appleton sought to represent proved too controversial for Murray, who dumped it in 1870 after refusing to publish a review of the anonymous book, The Jesus of History (1869). Alexander Macmillan, by contrast, encouraged heterogeneous perspectives within his periodicals Macmillan’s Magazine (1859) and later, Nature (1869). Developed out of Macmillan’s social scene in London, Macmillan’s Magazine, edited by Charles Masson (and closely managed by Macmillan), translated the debate and discussion around the publisher’s table into print. On the pressing topics of liberalizing Anglicanism and modernizing British society, Macmillan gave science a seat at the table, with Macmillan’s Magazine and Nature representing a range of perspectives from scientific authors who advocated atheistic to religious views of evolution in book and periodical form.

My own paper follows, which will discuss the Failed Reconciliation: J. W. Draper, A. D. White, and the Reception of their Historical Narratives in the Periodical Press. Historians of science usually trace the origins of the “conflict thesis,” the notion that science and religion have been in a constant state of “conflict” or “warfare,” to two nineteenth-century works—John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). While these two works have been designated by historians as founding the conflict thesis, there has been little research on how contemporaries responded to these historical narratives. My paper examines the early reception of these narratives by considering the extensive commentary they received in British and American periodicals from 1875 to 1900. Examining a selection of this material reveals three key aspects of this reception. First, more religiously liberal readers welcomed these narratives as genuine attempts at reconciling science and religion. Second, the more religiously orthodox, while also recognizing their conciliatory intentions, nevertheless accused Draper and White of instigating conflict. Finally, a younger generation, who were further removed from the kind of religious upbringing Draper and White enjoyed, appropriated their narratives to demonstrate that religion had always been in conflict with science. In short, I aim to show that while Draper and White had more nuanced views about the history of science and religion than has been contended by the secondary literature, their religiously liberal views had the unintended consequence of creating in the minds of their contemporaries and later generations the belief that science and religion have been and are at war.

The third paper will be delivered by IASH Senior Research Fellow Ian Hesketh, on Debating the Deeper Harmonies of Science and Religion in the Victorian Periodical Press: The Reception of J. R. Seeley’s Natural Religion (1882). Ian contends that while much has been written about late nineteenth-century narratives that promoted an inevitable clash between science and religion, less well known is the fact that these narratives competed directly with studies that promoted a theme of harmony and reconciliation. One such narrative was the anonymous Natural Religion (1882), the long-awaited sequel to the sensational Ecce Homo (1865), written by the Cambridge historian John Robert Seeley. Whereas in the earlier controversial study, Seeley sought to modernize Christianity through an historical analysis of Jesus Christ’s humanity, in Natural Religion he sought to make apparent what he called the “deeper harmonies of science and religion.” He did so by situating Christianity within a larger history of religious and scientific thought, one that presented a naturalized Christianity as the necessary next stage in the progressive development of English civilization. Natural Religion is, therefore, a wonderful illustration of how some liberal religious thinkers sought to engender a reconciliation between science and religion at a time when the conflict thesis was just emerging. At the same time, the reception of the book in the periodical press shows just how difficult it was to establish any sort of consensus concerning the construction of a modernized and scientific Christianity. Moreover, while Natural Religion gained a large readership because it was written “by the author of Ecce Homo,” its connection to its much more enthusiastic and orthodox predecessor meant that it could only fail to meet the high expectations of its many readers.

The panel will close with a fascinating paper by Anne DeWitt, Clinical Assistant Professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study of New York University, on Religion and Evolution in Victorian Periodical Poetry. According to Anne, in recent years scholars seeking to understand the reception of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century have turned to the study of popular forms. Work by Janet Browne and Constance Areson Clark on cartoons, by Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis on music, and by Bernard Lightman on popular science have shown that evolutionary ideas were taken up and transformed in the widest reaches of Victorian culture. In her paper, Anne builds on this work by analyzing a form that has received relatively little attention: poetry about evolution that circulated in Victorian periodicals. She focuses in particular on poems from the 1880s that deal with evolution in relation to religion. Their treatment tends to be open-ended and unresolved: for instance, Robert Buchanan’s long narrative poem “Justinian,” from the Contemporary Review of 1880, explores, but does not reconcile, the conflict between religious faith and materialism. Charles F. Johnson’s “Evolution,” from the May 1889 number of Temple Bar, modifies the usual sonnet form with a sestet that, instead of providing resolution, presents a series of unanswered questions. The open-ended quality of these poems should, she argues, be understood in relation to the dialogism of the Victorian periodical. This quality, moreover, challenges the thesis of a conflict between Victorian science and religion, revealing a more nuanced and complicated relationship.

For those of you attending the conference, please join us for what will no doubt be a very interesting discussion.

George Sarton’s Appeal to Andrew D. White

In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, Belgian historian of science, founder of the review journal Isis, and secular humanist George Sarton (1884-1956), emigrated to the United States. One of his earliest publications on the discipline of history of science appeared in the philosophical journal Monist, which was an English translation of his opening article in Isis. Sarton openly admitted that his work adhered to the positivist school of Auguste Comte. Indeed, he considered Comte to be the “founder of the history of science.” Unsurprisingly, then, he argued that “the interaction between science and religion have often had an aggressive character,” and that “most of the time a real warfare” had existed between them. Sarton found much heuristic value in his conception of the historical relationship between science and religion. The history of science, he argued, revealed not only the “progress” of the human mind, but also its “regressions,” “sudden halts,” “mishaps,” and “superstitions,” thus providing us with a “history of errors.” The “progress of mankind,” Sarton asserted, was an “intellectual unfolding.”[1]

In the English translation of this article, Sarton recommends to his readers Andrew Dickson White’s (1832-1918) two-volume masterpiece, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1894). White, who Sarton called a “very godly man,” was indeed an important source for his understanding of science and religion. Sarton would later recommend White to his students at Harvard University.

In 16 January, 1918, White wrote Sarton to praise him for his work in the history of science. Sarton replied on 31 March, telling White that his word of praise “is as precious to me as an honorary degree!” He also informed him that he was giving two courses at Harvard on the “History of Physics” and on “Science and Civilization in the XVth and XVIth Centuries,” and that for both of these courses “I have been repeatedly obliged to refer to your admirable ‘Warfare between Science and Theology.’” But in addition to thanking White for his work, Sarton reported to him his difficulty in finding a professorship in the history of science. It is an interesting and curious exchange of letters, from a young historian pleading his case to an older, established scholar. It reveals something of the hardships of emigrant scholars during the war, and the early formative beginnings of what is still a much contested scholarly discipline. The remainder of the letter follows thus:

But I do not write this letter simply to thank you,—rather to appeal to you, being now—for no fault of mine, in the most critical position. I was appointed “lecturer on the history and philosophy of science” at Harvard in 1916 for two years. I have done well and worked considerably but war conditions make it impossible to appoint me (This appointment was an artificial one anyhow—the necessary funds having been provided by a special subscription. I did not wish such a subscription to be started again in these times). As all the universities are now husbanding their resources to the limit, and as there is not a single university president having a genuine interest in the history of science. I have absolutely no chance of being appointed anywhere.

Now you likely know my position: I have but, at best temporarily, all my belongings through the German invasion of Belgium. When I came to this country in April 1915, I had—all counted—a hundred dollars. During the last two years, I have worked every day from 9 A.M. to 10 P.M., often on Sundays as well. I have not taken a real holiday since 1914. I have prepared and delivered more than 250 different lectures on all possible topics in my own field—from Babylonia to Henri Poincaré, and from the history of medicine to the history of calculus. I lecture are the Lowell Institute in Boston, and gave five long courses on the history of mathematics, physics, general science…in Harvard, Columbia, Illinois… (No wonder I could not publish much!)—Besides, my Harvard salary being only a nominal one, I lectured in about twenty other universities. You perhaps remember that I once lectured at Cornell University; I then had the honour and pleasure of being your guest.

I have set in foot a very intense movement towards the recognition of the history of science as an essential part of higher education, and but for the war, it is likely that something would have been started in at least one university. Of course, now it is out of question until the war is over.

I have tried to show that the history of science—i.e. the history of the real foundations of human progress—is not simply of immense interest in itself, but is even of greater importance in that it affords the best means of humanizing science and reconciling positive knowledge and idealism. I firmly believe that there is no other way to solve the great education problem: “science vs. the humanities” than to introduce a little of the disinterested and historical spirit of the humanities into the scientific studies. Moreover, I have shown that to be true, the history of civilization should be focused on the history of science. As a result of my work since 1911, I now am a recognized leader and authority in the history of science not simply in America, but abroad.

Yet all this labour is in danger of being lost. I have been paid so little for all that I have done—that I now am just at the same point as I was when I landed here in 1915. As soon as my appointment in Harvard ceases I will have to choose between stopping my life’s work or starving. Both alternatives are equally miserable.

My only hope is in the “Carnegie Institution,” whose very purpose is to make disinterested studies possible. I have just written to Dr. [Richard Simpson] Woodward, explaining the whole case and asking him to intervene. The “Carnegie Institution” could help me either directly by paying me a salary for the work I am doing or indirectly by giving a subsidy to a university to employ me.

I do not forget that this is war-time, but the war will not last for ever [Sarton includes a footnote: “The University of Berlin was founded in the year 1809—the year of Prussia’s greatest misery—after the defeat of Wagram. Should we have less faith than the Germans?…”], and it would be a stupid waste—to now make me lose all the benefits of my propaganda and stop studies for which I have gathered more material than anybody else.

There are thousands of people in this country earning this living by studying and teaching general history, or the history of philosophy, in fact the history of everything except the history of science. Would it be an extravagance to give one man the possibility of earning his by such research work?…There is not a single college that has not at least a professorship for the history of philosophy or the history of education…Is it believable that there is not in America a single chair devoted to the history of science? This in the XXth century?

I appeal to you as to one who did pioneer work in the same field long time ago. I think that if you would have the kindness to write a word in my behalf to Dr. R. S. Woodward, or to Mr. Andrew Carnegie, or to both—it would do a great deal of good. No man can speak to them with more authority than you, and in this case your recommendation would carry the more weight in that you would be speaking for a fellow-worker in your own line.

From all that I know of him, I am convinced that Mr. Carnegie himself would have been deeply interested in the history of science, and would have approved my way of understanding the history of civilization, if it had been possible to place the matter before him. He might even have been interested to the extent of endeavoring the “Institute for the history of science and civilization” which I planned and which was in endorsed by the elite of the American philosophers, scientists and historians,—or at least of funding a chair devoted to the these studies.

I beg to apologize, my dear Dr. White, for intruding upon you and interrupting the peace which you have so richly deserved, with the recital of my sad plight. I will only say for my defense that I would not have disturbed you if I had not been actually driven to it—this being almost my last step and last hope.

If I do not succeed now, I will simply have to give up these studies and to try to make a living for my wife and daughter by struggle in another field. This would mean an enormous waste of human energy, of course.

If you would help me by writing to Dr. Wooward and Mr. Carnegie in my behalf or in any other way, I would be grateful to you, and you would have rendered a new service to the history of science.

Believe me, my dear Dr. White,

Yours faithfully

George Sarton

P.S. It is necessary to add, that if I had been given any opportunity of military service, I would have been only too glad to take it? I even tried to be employed by the U.S. government, being personally recommended by Mr. Woodrow Wilson.[2]

While White’s reply is missing, we do now that he tried to offer Sarton some aid.[3] Sarton subsequently reported to White that he was able to secure a meeting with the Executive Committee of the Carnegie Institution on 18 April.[4] In 15 May, Sarton told White that his “troubles are at an end,” for he was appointed “Research associate of the Carnegie Institution” for two years to pursue his own studies. “This is splendid,” he wrote, “I feel as a free man again as before the war.”[5]

[1] George Sarton, “The History of Science,” Monist, vol. 26, no. 3 (1916): 321-65; George Sarton, “L’Histoire de la Science,” Isis, vol. 1, no. 1 (1913): 3-46.

[2] George Sarton to Andrew Dickson White, Mar 31, 1918, Andrew Dickson White Papers, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University Library (hereafter cited as: White Collection, and reel number), reel 124.

[3] George Sarton to Andrew Dickson White, Apr 5, 1918, White Collection, reel 124.

[4] George Sarton to Andrew Dickson White, Apr 10, 1918, White Collection, reel 124.

[5] George Sarton to Andrew Dickson White, May 15, 1918, White Collection, reel 124.