5 Points of Intersection Between Postmillennialism and Apologetics – Point 5a

Pelican in her Piety

Pelican in her Piety – Medieval Manuscript Illustration

Point 5:  Postmillennialism was an important influence in the Scientific Revolution.  Postmillennialism supports the argument for the Christian basis for science since postmillennialism was an important influence in the Scientific Revolution.

The influence of the postmillennial eschatology of the Puritan Revolution in England (1626-1660) on the Scientific Revolution requires some discussion of related issues of biblical hermeneutics and belief in a literal Adam and Eve.

Beginning in the Patristic period, with such church leaders like Origen (185-254) and Augustine (354-430), the value of knowledge of the natural world was largely seen in terms of providing spiritual allegories – signs that pointed to spiritual truths.[1]  This was accompanied by an allegorical interpretation of the Bible in various degrees.  They accepted a literal interpretation of Adam and Eve and usually accepted the creation week as six normal-length days, although some like Augustine thought that all creation happened in an instant; but they also often held to an allegorical meaning in addition to a belief in Genesis as a literal, historical account.[2]  The “spiritual” lesson of the allegorical meaning tended to overshadow the importance of the literal account.   Several centuries of Christians were taught, for example, about the “pelican in her piety” – that if a mother pelican could not provide food for her chicks, she would tear open her own breast so that her chicks could feed on her blood.  That served as a powerful sermon illustration about Christ’s vicarious sacrifice, but nobody made an effort to systematically observe pelican behavior to see whether mother pelicans really do that, which they don’t.  The allegorical interpretation of nature was the original meaning of the idea of two books of God’s revelation – the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture.[3]

For the Protestant reformers, the value of the study of nature became less about finding spiritual allegories and more about learning to take dominion over nature in imitation of Adam before the Fall.  The Protestant reformers’ promotion of the historical-grammatical method of interpreting the Bible required a greater emphasis on a detailed knowledge of the material facts of history in order to correctly understand the text of Scripture.  This resulted in taking the teaching of Genesis about creation more seriously as a historical event, and that, in turn, led to taking more seriously the Old Testament predictions of an Eden restored on earth under the Messianic reign, such as that expressed in Isaiah 11:

3 His delight is in the fear of the Lord,
And He shall not judge by the sight of His eyes,
Nor decide by the hearing of His ears;
4 But with righteousness He shall judge the poor,
He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth,
And with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt of His loins,
And faithfulness the belt of His waist.
6 “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze;
Their young ones shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole,
And the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den.
9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.

This is not the Eternal State, after the Last Judgment when all evil is destroyed, because people still die during this time; but people generally will live much longer lives:  “No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed” (Isa. 65:20).

Unlike the type of Millennialism popular among conservative Christians in our day, where a worldwide apocalypse and Christ’s physical return to earth must precede the beginning of the Millennium (the “premillennial” view), the Millennialism (or “Millenarianism”) of the Reformation generally saw the golden age arriving in continuity with our current age, prior to the return of Christ and the Last Judgment.  This view is known as “postmillennialism” (Christ returns after – post – the millennium).  The Puritans were church historicists with regard to their view of the Great Tribulation and the Book of Revelation, meaning that they saw those events as occurring over the course of church history.  They saw the Roman Catholic Church as the Whore of Babylon, whose defeat in their day seemed imminent.  Her defeat was concurrent with the beginning of the Millennium, the last thousand years of earth’s history before the Last Judgment.  During the Millennium all the nations would gradually be converted to Christianity and learn to live out their Christianity, which involves the ethical reform of everybody living by God’s Law and the scientific reform of people working to produce technological advances that improve human life.  Most modern postmillennialists are preterists with regard to the Great Tribulation (it happened in the past, particularly involving the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70) and hold that the Millennium stretches over the entire course of church history.  Postmillennialism was the standard Protestant view of the Bible’s teaching on the end times during the Reformation, and continued to be the standard Protestant view into the nineteenth century in America.  A.S.P. Woodhouse writes that the postmillennial expectation of a near-future golden age was so pervasive during the Puritan Revolution that it “colored the thought of many who could not be described as active adherents, so that one may speak of Millenarian doctrine as in a sense typical.”[4]

Regarding the relationship between historical-grammatical interpretation and science Peter Harrison, a professor of the history of science at Oxford, explains:

The literal approach to texts which became increasingly dominant in the sixteenth century had the consequence that objects in the natural world could no longer be regarded as signs. As a result, those who believed that the Deity had imposed a particular order on the cosmos moved their attention away from the symbolic functions of objects and focused instead on the ways in which the things of nature might play some practical role in human welfare.[5]

Harrison is emphatic about the importance of this in the rise of the Scientific Revolution:

Strange as it may seem, the Bible played a positive role in the development of science. . . .  Had it not been for the rise of the literal interpretation of the Bible and the subsequent appropriation of the biblical narratives by early modern scientists, modern science may not have arisen at all.  In sum, the Bible and its literal interpretation have played a vital role in the development of Wester science.[6]

Another professor of the history of science, Stephen Snobelen, agrees:

Here is a final paradox.  Recent work on early modern science has demonstrated a direct (and positive) relationship between the resurgence of Hebraic, literal exegesis of the Bible in the Protestant Reformation, and the rise of the empirical method in modern science.  I’m not referring to wooden literalism, but the sophisticated literal-historical hermeneutics that Martin Luther and others (including Newton) championed.[7]

The emphasis on the first chapters of Genesis as literal history played an important role in the new, scientific mindset that studying God’s material creation was a valuable task and that the task contributed to fulfilling man’s purpose given to Adam and Eve in Eden to rule the earth:

The recognition that the knowledge enjoyed by our first parents was an historical reality, combined with the acceptance of the command ‘have dominion’ in its full literal sense, provided a vital impetus to the seventeenth-century quest to know and master the world. Only when the story of creation was divested of its symbolic elements could God’s commands to Adam be related to worldly activities.[8]

When the account of Adam in paradise became emphasized as literal history, then the knowledge and attention to the natural world that Adam displayed when he named the animals (Gen. 2:19-20) and worked the garden (Gen. 2:15) became to be seen as a pattern to be imitated by Christians in order restore paradise on earth to a significant degree.  The naming of the animals was seen as more than inventing arbitrary words to name each animal but was thought to involve names that accurately described each animal so that the names were part of a classification system.  The scientists of the Reformation believed that when the human mind is redeemed by Christ, it should lead to 1) submitting to the Creator’s view of His creation in Scripture rather than the vain speculation often promoted by foolish heathen; 2) submitting scientific claims to rigorous empirical testing and examination by other experts to guard against the tendencies toward deception of the human mind, which still suffers the effects of the fall after being redeemed; 3) persistent labor to understand God’s creation for the promotion of  human life, as Adam was commanded to do in the state of perfection (Gen. 2:15) and after the Fall, although hindered then by “thorns and thistles” (Gen. 3:17-19); and 4) confidence that such labor would bear fruit given the promise of a golden age predicted in the Bible under the reign of the Messiah, when there will not be “an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old” (Isa. 65:20).  In short, they had faith that the Christian mind could be renewed to approach what Adam possessed in knowledge before the Fall, so that paradise could be restored to a substantial degree over the whole earth.  As Peter Harrison documents in his book, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, a literal reading of Creation and the Fall of Man was a major rationale behind the development of the scientific method.[9]

A view that had been endorsed by various Christians through the ages prior to the Reformation was that Adam had possessed super-sensitive physical powers that he lost at the Fall when he was subjected to God’s curse.  This view continued among many of the Reformation era.  Martin Luther had asserted that Adam could have seen objects a hundred miles off as well as we can see things a half mile away, and his other senses were degraded to a similar degree at the Fall.[10]  Joseph Hall (1574-1656) asserted that Adam had an X-ray-like vision to see inside creatures.[11]  Many of the Baconian scientists of the Puritan Revolution saw the new scientific instruments, particularly the telescope and microscope, as a means to restore the extraordinary natural powers of Adam as part of the program of re-establishing paradise on earth.  However, other Baconian scientists, while appreciating the value of new scientific instruments for the advancement of human welfare, including Robert Boyle (1627-1691) of the famed Boyle’s Law, doubted Adam’s prelapsarian super powers.[12]

The views of Harrison and Snobelen are built on the scholarship of Charles Webster, whose massive academic tome published in 1975, The Great Instauration:  Science, Medicine and Reform 1626-1660, documents in mind-numbing detail the thesis that postmillennialism was an important factor in the Scientific Revolution.  Webster writes that, even though the period was not characterized by the production of scientific classics or an increase in scientific discoveries, it “was marked by a rapid acceleration in scientific recruitment,” which trailed off after that.[13]  The postmillennial vision of a world renewed by faith in Christ and new discoveries through rigorous empirical science that would improve human life inspired a generation to begin scientific pursuits that would bear fruit in the following generation:  “Consequently the great productivity of science after 1660 . . . is largely attributable to the labours of intellectuals whose initiation into science occurred during the Puritan Revolution.”[14]  In Part 2, I will provide individual statements by leading intellectuals of the era in support of the connection between the rise of the Scientific Revolution and postmillennial eschatology.

[1]  Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the rise of natural science (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 15-33.

[2]  Benno Zuiddam, “Does Genesis allow any scientific theory of origin? – a response to J.P. Dickson,”  Journal of Creation 26(1):106–115, 2012.  Andrew Sibley, “Lessons from Augustine’s De Genesi ad Litteram—Libri Duodecim,http://creation.com/lessons-from-augustine.

[3]  Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the rise of natural science, p. 3.

[4]  Quoted in Charles Webster, The Great Instauration:  Science, Medicine and Reform 1626-1660 (London: Duckworth, 1975), p. 4.

[5]  Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the rise of natural science, p. 205.

[6]  Peter Harrison, “The Bible and the Rise of Science,”  Australasian Science (2002), 23(3):14-15.

[7]  Stephen Snobelen, “Isaac Newton and Apocalypse Now: a response to Tom Harpur’s ‘Newton’s strange bedfellows,’” https://newtonprojectca.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/reply-to-tom-harpur-2-page-full-version.pdf.

[8]  Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the rise of natural science, p. 207.

[9]  Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 51.

[10]  Ibid., p. 175.

[11]  Ibid.

[12]  Ibid., pp. 218-19.

[13]  Webster, The Great Instauration, p. 484.

[14]  Ibid.

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