Abridged from “The History of Science and Christianity” by Mark A. Noll, in “When God and Science Meet: Surprising Discoveries of Agreement.”

Middle Ages (500-1500)

  • Thomas Aquinas taught that God was separate from the world and that experience was necessary to discover what God had done in creation.
  • The idea of “God’s Two Books” (i.e., knowledge from Scripture and knowledge about the physical world come from God and cannot be contradictory) took root.

The Reformation Period (1517-1648)

  • Martin Luther and John Calvin denounced the theory that planets moved around the sun, which was proposed by Copernicus, a Roman Catholic.

17th Century

  • German Lutheran Johannes Kepler credited God for his understanding of the behavior of planets.
  • Many of the English scientists who founded the Royal Society in 1660 had some connection with the Puritans, whose questing spirit spurred study of nature as well as church reform.
  • Isaac Newton described the universe as functioning like a grand mechanism (i.e., matter in motion is governed by regular mathematical laws). In discriminating appreciation of Newton, a few important Christian thinkers agreed that Newton’s conclusions revealed the world accurately, but only because God at every moment upheld observable relations of cause-and-effect.

Age of Enlightenment (1800s)

  • William Paley wrote that if someone found a watch on an empty heath, it would be necessary to conclude that a watchmaker existed.
  • Charles Darwin published “The Origin of Species.” Most Christian scientists accepted some variety of evolution (though not always natural selection), while affirming that it reflected order and design consistent with a divine creator.

Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy (1920-1940)

  • Modernists criticized fundamentalists for defending literal biblical interpretation in Revelation and Genesis. As a result, loyalty to the Bible for many in the United States moved easily into loyalty to a strictly literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3.

The Present

  • The Christian world contains a diversity of opinion on questions related to evolution and considerable controversy over proposed responses to climate change.
  • Ethical questions about the application of science conclusions to genetics and stem cell research can also be controversial.

This article originally appeared in the NAE Insight.

Mark Noll
Mark Noll is an emeritus professor of history from both Wheaton College and the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of “Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction," "America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln," "God and Race in American Politics: A Short History," and "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind." Noll is also co-editor of "Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective" and "B. B. Warfield: Evolution, Science, and Scripture." He holds degrees from Wheaton College, University of Iowa, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Vanderbilt University.