Book Review: The Bible, Protestantism and the rise of natural science by Peter Harrison

 By Peter Harrison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), xii + 313pp., A$105

This review by Rowland S. Ward appeared in the Reformed Theological Review, December 1999.


Peter Harrison is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bond University, Qld. He has authored a volume that is well-written and rsearched and which is very valuable in understanding the origins of the natural sciences.

A common view since the 1930s has been that the Puritans were the key to the rise of the sciences since so many of them were involved in the founding of the Royal Society. They were also over-represented in the sciences compared to their proportion in the total population. However key elements of the scientific approach lie before the Puritan influence (Galileo, Descartes), and so a modified view has been proposed which claims that the spirit of enquiry promoted by Protestantism generally, and the breaking of clerical censorship, is a better way of explaining the rise of the natural sciences. However, Harrison suggests a more refined thesis. To him the key is the approach to the interpretation of texts fostered by the early reformers and their successors, and he makes a convincing case.

Biblical texts had early been subjected to non-literal exegesis in the interest of giving difficult parts moral or figurative value. In the same way, nature was seen as intended to illustrate moral and spiritual matters, and was not viewed in its own terms. It was a vast lexicon of meanings. With the return to a literal reading of Scripture, that is, to the meaning the author intended to convey by his words, we not only had a reformation in the church, we also had nature now viewed in terms of its usefulness at a practical rather than a symbolic level.

Dr Harrison provides a quite fascinating survey of early approaches to biblical hermeneutics and the understanding of nature. He does not overlook the emphasis, not only in Calvin, on ‘accommodation’ to the capacity of the unlearned in the narratives of Scripture so that simplified, observational ways of speaking are found in Scripture rather than strictly scientific statements.

It will not have escaped the attentive reader that this thesis is saying that the recovery of the literal meaning (as defined above) was the key to unlocking the world of nature, yet today it is the literalists who are considered the great opponents of scientific enquiry. Of course, modern literalists, operating in a developed scientific age, are not really in the same category as those who took a literal meaning of Scripture when the natural sciences were in their infancy.

Harrison provides copious interesting, instructive and sometimes amusing references from the 17th century which illustrate the struggles of early scientists who assumed the scientific nature of certain parts of Scripture. Approaches to the creation, fall and Flood narratives receive attention. Harrison concludes by noting the way in which the scientific impulse was increasingly secularised from the beginning of the 18th century leaving Christians with only a body of doctrines with which to concern themselves. The Western quest for redemption was now focused on a secular salvation. So there is a very relevant message here. This is an excellent book although unhappily expensive. It would be very valuable to any tertiary student of the humanities and the sciences.

Note: A paperback edition is now in print.