Science and the Reformation in Europe

550454a-i1On 31 October 1517, as legend has it, renegade monk Martin Luther nailed a document to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The Ninety-five Theses marked the beginning of the Reformation, the first major break in the unity of Christianity since 1054. Luther proclaimed a radical new theology: salvation by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, the ultimate authority not of the Church, but of the Bible. By 1520, he had rejected the authority of the pope. Lutherans and followers of French reformer John Calvin found themselves engaged in bitter wars against Catholicism that lasted for a century and a half.

This age of religious warfare was also the age of the scientific revolution: Nicolaus Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres (1543), Tycho Brahe’s Introduction to the New Astronomy (1588), Johannes Kepler’s New Astronomy (1609), Galileo Galilei’s telescopic discoveries (1610), the experiments with air pressure and the vacuum by Blaise Pascal (1648) and Robert Boyle (1660), and Isaac Newton’s Principia (1687).

Were the Reformation and this revolution merely coincident, or did the Reformation somehow facilitate or foster the new science, which rejected traditional authorities such as Aristotle and relied on experiments and empirical information? Suppose Martin Luther had never existed; suppose the Reformation had never taken place. Would the history of science have been fundamentally different? Would there have been no scientific revolution? Would we still be living in the world of the horse and cart, the quill pen and the matchlock firearm? Can we imagine a Catholic Newton, or is Newton’s Protestantism somehow fundamental to his science?

Read the full article in Nature