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From the July/August, 2001 issue of Touchstone


Secular Hermeneutics by James Altena

Secular Hermeneutics

The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science
by Peter Harrison
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998
(313 pages; $64.95, cloth)

reviewed by James Altena

As a whole, Peter Harrison’s The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science will likely attract only a few academic specialists among Touchstone readers. However, its central thesis and specific insights are of much more general interest because of their implications for current controversies involving science and religion, such as the critique of evolution by proponents of Intelligent Design featured in the July/August 1999 issue.

As Harrison emphasizes, his book is a study in the history of biblical hermeneutics, not the history of science. Inverting commonly received academic wisdom, he argues that the rise of modern science did not lead to new critical methods of scriptural interpretation, but the reverse. Instead, new methods of reading Scripture, advocated by the Protestant Reformers, implicitly entailed a novel approach to the interpretation of natural phenomena, which in turn made possible and facilitated the development of modern science. While the new hermeneutic did not create that science, it exercised a critical formative influence in defining and shaping scientific methodology.

Harrison’s study falls broadly into two sections of three chapters each. The first explains how methods of textual interpretation applied by Christians to the Scriptures shaped their conceptions of the natural order, and how changes in hermeneutical methodologies altered these conceptions; the second shows how these altered conceptions found expression and application by particular Protestant writers to specific topics.

Patristic & Medieval Exegesis: Referential Words & Signifying Objects

Patristic and early medieval Christianity originally adhered to a primarily analogical (allegorical) and symbolical method of reading texts and viewing objects, in which words initially refer to objects, and the objects in turn are signs that refer to and have essential, intrinsic relations with other objects. This process establishes a unitary, interconnected network of multi-layered references, significations, and cross-referential meanings. The entire universe is thus not just a set of autonomous objects, but a spiritually, morally, and teleologically oriented system of mystical relations. Origen initially developed a three-fold system of biblical interpretation, with literal, moral, and allegorical levels of meaning, which Augustine modified into the fourfold method of literal/historical, moral/tropological, allegorical/analogical, and etiological/anagogical exegesis adopted and elaborated by the medieval Scholastics.

This hermeneutical methodology had three important results. First, the ability to read a text simultaneously at several levels of meaning allowed sense to be made of texts that would otherwise appear to be nonsensical or offensive, and also prevented them from being refuted or falsified in any straightforward fashion.

Second, Augustine’s other shift away from Origen—a restriction of the referential function of words but not objects, that made words univocal in reference and objects rather than words the bearers of multiple meanings—established a middle ground in biblical interpretation between rigid literalism and unchecked allegorization. It made the spiritual sense of Scripture superior to the literal sense, but also restricted proper symbolical interpretation of natural objects to analogies suggested by Scripture and thus protected the importance of the literal sense as well. In contrast to modern science, however, this method directed attention primarily toward the ultimate meaning and spiritual significance of objects, not to the objects themselves.

Third, such an approach was at best indifferent to modern scientific methods of systematic observation and experimentation, and may even have inhibited their development, by regarding them as overly literal ways of “reading” natural objects conducive to idolatry—a “literalism” also at the heart of the Eastern iconoclastic controversies.

However, beginning with the twelfth-century renaissance and recovery of the Aristotelian literary corpus, medieval exegesis made a major shift away from the patristic approach. By investing the natural world with patterns of order between natural objects themselves, rather than only between natural objects and higher spiritual verities, “horizontal” relations were added to existing “vertical” ones.

This effectively constituted a conceptual discovery of nature as an autonomous realm or “book” of physical revelation, whose contents could be read and harmonized into a seamless whole, by using the same hermeneutical methods already applied to the scriptural book of written revelation. While natural objects were thus still studied primarily for their ultimate spiritual signification, the way was thereby opened to the systematic study of nature, and the ground prepared for the development of modern science.

Reformation Protestantism: Literal Words versus Designified Objects

The sixteenth century brought two profound shocks that resulted in the dissolution of this venerable system of interrelated textual and natural interpretations. One was the discovery of thousands of novel species of flora and fauna in the newly encountered Americas. Rapid dissemination of this knowledge throughout Europe by the newly invented printing press, in the form of natural encyclopedias, fundamentally disordered accepted natural categories and disrupted the network of essential symbolic relations.

The other was the Protestant Reformation, at the heart of which, Harrison argues, lay a new textual hermeneutic. Opposing what they considered to be the abuse of Scripture by rampant allegorization, the Reformers rejected the ideas that scriptural passages had more than one primary level of meaning and that objects served as referential signs or had intrinsic relations to other objects. Instead, the “literal” or “plain” meaning of a text, not a supposed underlying “spiritual” meaning inferred by analogy, was its primary one, while words made univocal references to particular objects as autonomous, concrete entities and ends in themselves.

Almost the entire patristic and medieval network of referential relations and spiritual meanings was accordingly also rejected. This outlook likewise fueled Protestant anti-sacramentalism and iconoclasm, since material objects thus could not essentially signify and incarnate spiritual verities; at most, they could merely recall such verities to mind by purely mental associations, established by the plain word of Scripture. In Harrison’s forceful summary:

“The Protestant insistence on the literal sense of canonical texts had far-reaching, if unintended, consequences. . . . The assertion of the primacy of literal reading, in other words, entailed a new, non-symbolic conception of the nature of things. No longer were objects in the natural world linked to each other by sets of resemblances. As an inevitable consequence of this way of reading texts nature would lose its meaning, and the vacuum created by this loss of intelligibility was gradually to be occupied by alternative accounts of the significance of natural things—those explanations which we regard as scientific. In the new scheme of things, objects were related mathematically, mechanically, causally, or ordered and classified according to categories other than those of resemblance. . . . The Protestant Reformation, by promoting the culture of the literal word, effected a dramatic contraction of the sphere of the sacred, forcibly stripping objects, natural and artificial, of the roles they had once played as bearers of meaning.” (pp. 114–115, 117)

In their attempts to fill this vacuum of meaning, Protestant authors worked out a new basis for relating the two books of Scripture and nature, based on historical relations through time rather than natural ones in time and space. Typology was redefined to denote only literal or figurative historical correspondences between persons and events, in opposition to allegory as intrinsic natural relations between objects. Thus, the creation accounts in Genesis were early historical cosmologies, not spiritual allegories, and any factual discrepancy with contemporary historical or scientific knowledge was explained as being an “accommodation” by Moses to the limited capacities of the unlearned Israelites.

Likewise, the purpose of nature was no longer to be sought in any signification of spiritual verities, but in its utility in providing for man’s earthly welfare. Science came to be seen as the providentially provided means toward that end, granting man the capacity to mitigate and reverse the effects of the Fall and of Babel, and to restore Eden to Earth.

The Rise of Modern Science & the Desacralization of Nature

Thus, in place of the previous symbolic comprehension of nature, there arose a new mechanical view of its relations and utilitarian approach to its study. This outlook sought to understand objects and their interactions in purely descriptive and mathematical terms—i.e., of observable and measurable characteristics of matter and motion—and to endow these with meaning according to pragmatic criteria of their usefulness in increasing human knowledge and capacities. The basis of natural science came to rest on the development of a new and entirely secular set of purely horizontal relations between natural objects, devoid of vertical spiritual referents or meanings. In short, nature was desacralized. Both the new hermeneutic for reading nature, and the new system of relations thereby constructed, were independent of rather than subservient to Scripture.

This new natural hermeneutic, in which objects were apprehended and studied as ends in themselves, also entailed profound shifts in scientific reasoning and methods. One, suggested by Harrison, was the rejection of analogical argument as a method of scientific proof. Natural objects ceased to have intrinsic “natures,” and therefore could no longer be read for essential correspondences.

Another, which I believe to be equally crucial, was the increasing exclusion from science of ontological and teleological metaphysics, or attempts to ascertain ultimate origins and purposes in natural objects and events. Such problems were disentangled from science as being inherently insoluble by scientific means; the latter were henceforth limited to classificatory description and mathematical analysis of physical properties and motions, and to determination of proximate efficient principles of causation. In layman’s terms, science renounced “why?” questions of ultimate meanings, and instead restricted itself to “how?” questions of immediate processes.

Thus, as part of a larger break from Aristotelian philosophy, the dividing line between metaphysics and physics was redefined, as following not just different levels of causality (ultimate versus proximate), but also different types of causality (formal, material, and final versus efficient). The distinction between natural and unnatural types of change was also abandoned, and the teleological concept of impetus was replaced by the non-teleological one of inertia. This shift was intimately tied to a new methodology of objective verification of theories and empirical data by systematic observation and controlled experiment as the new standard for certifiable scientific knowledge, and efficient causality as the only proper type of scientific causality.

The cumulative result was the sundering of natural science from theology, neatly encapsulated a century later in the famous reply of Laplace to Napoleon as to why the renowned physicist’s theory of the universe did not mention God: “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.”

Reaping the Whirlwind: Science Turned Against Scripture

Harrison also argues for yet another consequence of the new Protestant textual hermeneutic, equally unforeseen and unintended by its originators: The restriction of biblical exegesis to determination of a single, literal meaning laid scriptural texts open to the real possibility of being proven false, through evidence provided by a now autonomous natural science. In line with Enlightenment rationalism, a scientific methodology of empirical observation, quantitative measurement, and objective verification replaced prayerful contemplation of Scripture and natural signs as the procedural key to true knowledge of the world, and even made Scripture itself an object of “scientific” examination by analogous methods of historical-critical and textual analysis. As reason supplanted faith, “salvation” likewise became redefined from restoration of the spiritual image of God within man to the mastery and exploitation of nature for man’s material benefit. Thus, in crafting a new hermeneutic for rightly dividing the word of truth, the Reformers unwittingly forged a methodological sword that in hostile hands could be turned against Scripture and faith itself.

Finally, Harrison suggests that, whereas previously “religion” denoted primarily particular practices, and “science” sets of metaphysical doctrines, the Reformation effectively reversed this. “Religion” came to denote primarily systems of doctrine (e.g., the Protestant notion of “faith” as “saving knowledge”), and “science” the set of activities involving observation and measurement of, and experimentation with, natural objects and events. While true in part, this point fails to grasp that for the Reformers as well as the patristic fathers, “saving knowledge” denoted not merely abstract intellectual gnosis about God, but personal spiritual intimacy with him.

Is Harrison’s argument sound? In the main, yes, and its several particular insights are highly illuminating. Doubtless its most debatable point is its subsuming of a phenomenon so varied as Reformation exegesis within a single general hermeneutical model. Obviously, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anglicanism, and the various “radical” Protestant sects varied widely in the degree to which they rejected allegorical methods of interpretation, sacramental theology, and the use of imagery, liturgy, and ritual as their concrete, visible analogies.

By the same token, Roman Catholic scientists were not far behind their Protestant counterparts in adopting new experimental methodologies, even though Aristotelian philosophy remained entrenched as educational orthodoxy within Catholic universities for a century or so more. On a different note, Harrison’s sympathetic attitude toward aspects of postmodernist textual analysis in his postscript raises a cautionary flag, though this does not discredit his overall argument.

Mystery versus Miracle, Purpose versus Process

I wish to suggest two further points as fruitful implications of Harrison’s thesis. One concerns the continuing theological division between Catholicism and Protestantism, the other persistent tensions between modern science and orthodox Christianity.

First, the cleavage between Western Catholicism and Protestantism has a single root, more fundamental than specific disagreements over imputed versus imparted justification, sola scriptura versus Scripture and Tradition, or the institution and authority of the papacy. Rather, it rests upon the distinction between the mysterious and the miraculous. Catholicism apprehends and accepts both, whereas Protestantism either fails to distinguish them or else rejects the latter altogether. In Catholicism, miracles are discernible by the senses, but mysteries are not, and mysteries are by nature not fully comprehensible by human reason, even when fully revealed. In Protestantism, however, both miracles and mysteries are sensibly discernible, and mysteries are not rationally incomprehensible in principle, only incompletely revealed. Thus, Protestants accept the miraculous because it is sensibly discernible (e.g., raising the dead), but reject the mysterious as “superstition” wherever it is not discernible in a miracle or rationally comprehensible (e.g., transubstantiation).

Harrison clarifies and amplifies this point by showing how and why Protestant hermeneutics cannot accommodate either a mystical method of scriptural exegesis or mystical sacramental theology. A primary “plain” meaning of Scripture, univocal reference of words to objects, and denial that objects can essentially signify other objects mean that explicit scriptural texts, rational comprehension, and sensory apprehension act as limiting epistemic criteria for acceptance of the supernatural. In this respect, Protestantism is as rationalist and reductionist in its mentality as modern secular science and philosophy.

Second, tensions between Christianity and modern science extend not just to disagreement over certain specific theories such as evolution, but to the very concept of scientific explanation. Several proponents of Intelligent Design have argued that exclusion of ontological and teleological factors—formal, material, and final causes—from scientific explanations of causality in favor of efficient causes alone was a metaphysical, not scientific, move made by mid-nineteenth-century scientific positivists who saw in Darwinism a plausible justification for strict methodological naturalism.

In fact, however, the systematic exclusion of ontological and teleological causes from scientific explanations was integral to the Scientific Revolution’s rejection of Aristotelianism, as exemplified by Galileo’s purely mathematical account of the motion of falling bodies. Already by the time of Newton, while God might be invoked as an ultimate cause, and often was, such explanations were no longer regarded as scientific, because they could not be observed experimentally or formulated mathematically. A century later, shortly after Laplace’s remark, the Bridgewater treatises were considered to be examples of natural theology—i.e., of theology appropriating scientific evidence for religious apologetics—not of scientific research. In short, exclusion of such causes was well underway two centuries before Darwinism, which merely set the seal by extending it from the exact to the descriptive sciences.

Harrison’s thesis buttresses this historical interpretation in several ways. It suggests how Protestant exegesis lent substantial theological and hermeneutical support to the overthrow of Aristotelianism, and implicitly supports the controversial “Merton thesis” regarding the ascendancy of Calvinism in early modern British science. Moreover, it supplies further evidence that the exclusion of ontological and teleological causes from science did not originate in a positivistic bias against religion. The new Protestant hermeneutic contributed significantly to it by rejecting essential symbolic relations between objects and by reducing signs to mental associations.

But the rationale was scientific as well as metaphysical. By restricting scientific methodology to considering only those efficient causes amenable to systematic observation and mathematical formulation, scientists hoped to obviate what had become unresolvable disputes over a priori ontological and teleological principles, and offer what they believed to be objective criteria for universally acceptable standards of verification and guidelines for investigation. The problem of positivist bias only entered later, when the original concession that the new methodology could not successfully address such causes was lubriciously turned into an assertion that it disproved their importance and even their very existence.

Christianity & the Resacralization of Science

This problematic methodological shift is central to the question of how Christianity should address the persistent tension between theology as the “queen of the sciences” and natural science as one of her sometimes fractious subjects. For Christians, truth is an objective, multi-faceted unity, originating in, sustained by, and fulfilled in the triune God as its source, definition, and end. Yet at the same time, as Aquinas and the other Scholastics emphasized, the complementary books of Scripture and nature must be investigated by methods distinctively appropriate to each, which are not always transferable from one to the other.

This means granting to natural science a certain degree of autonomy, since scientific methodology is primarily what defines it. The fact that up until the seventeenth century formal and final causes were included in scientific accounts of natural phenomena does not prove these were properly scientific, rather than theological, methodological principles. Indeed, the extraordinary progress that the sciences have made since their exclusion, and the historical evidence that this move was not inherently atheistic, present prima facie evidence to the contrary.

The problem of whether reintroduction of formal and final causes, so contentious in the past, would prove as disruptive to science as the acceptance of personal experience as a valid criterion of divine revelation has exerted in modern theology has not yet been adequately addressed. An intuitive sense of such a danger, not simply a bias toward atheism, may be the primary reason why many scientists presently oppose Intelligent Design theory. Whether scientific methodology truly requires the fundamental alteration Intelligent Design advocates demand, or only needs to be rid of a parasitic naturalistic bias for science to be restored to its original, proper, and more modest limitations, remains an unresolved question. The solution, however, may be inextricably linked to a parallel recovery by all of Christendom of a common hermeneutic for the mystical reading of Scripture, and hence for reading nature and re-sacralizing her mysteries as well.  

James Altena has almost completed a Ph.D. dissertation in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Chicago. He lives in Philadelphia, where he is a communicant and sometime vestryman at the Church of St. James the Less, a traditional Anglican Missal parish.

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“Secular Hermeneutics” first appeared in the July/August 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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