A review of The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science by Peter Harrison

For too long, the history of science and religion has languished, either dominated by caricatures or else ignored completely. Peter Harrison, historian of science at Oxford University, is a leader in reanalyzing the neglected contributions of religion—and especially, the Reformation—to science. Harrison’s earlier work, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge 1998) advanced the arresting thesis that the straightforward reading of the Bible promoted by the Reformation legitimized the study of nature and was thus essential to the emergence of modern science.1 Now, in The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, Harrison’s thesis is that the way people viewed the Fall impacted the way they viewed science. More specifically, he argues that the Augustinian emphasis on the depraved and fallen nature of man, revived by the Protestant Reformation, was instrumental in spurring on the scientific revolution.

Augustine versus Aquinas

Harrison starts by reviewing the various interpretations of the Fall and its effects that were offered from the Patristic era through the Middle Ages. There were essentially two major schools of thought that emerged, positions that came to be associated with Augustine and Aquinas, respectively. On the one hand, Augustine represented a strong view of the Fall’s effects. He believed that the Fall and the curse of God corrupted all aspects of the world. Man was spiritually fallen and lost fellowship with God. Man was mentally fallen and did not have the clearness of mind that God gave in the ‘very good’ creation. Man was physically fallen and subject to degeneration in a way that was not present before the Fall. Finally, the natural world itself was fallen and subject to degeneration in contrast to its good order and condition before the Fall. As a result, Harrison explains, “Adam’s offspring” was entirely dependent on “divine grace, not merely for their salvation (healing), but also for knowledge (illumination)” (p. 39). Augustinian epistemology thus emphasized the dependence of man on God for all knowledge….

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