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God's scientists : the renovation of natural theology in England, 1653-1692 Calloway, Katherine

Abstract

“God’s Scientists” contributes to the current understanding of natural theology’s relationship to the so-called scientific revolution. Natural theologies, texts aiming to demonstrate the reasonableness of Christianity, increased rapidly in popularity in England between 1650 and 1700, a curious phenomenon that has often been linked with a wider intellectual shift. In the medieval period, truth was thought to be best acquired by the application of deductive logic to a set of received dicta. During the Renaissance, the objects and phenomena of the natural world came to hold final epistemological authority, and fieldwork and laboratory experimentation replaced the deductive argumentation of earlier generations. Meanwhile, pious Christians adjusted to the new epistemological framework by introducing “physico-theology,” a new kind of natural theology that stipulated that a Designer’s existence could be proven from the great complexity in nature and the cosmos, complexity that neither necessity nor chance could have generated. Considering five natural theologians writing during the late seventeenth century: Henry More, Richard Baxter, John Wilkins, John Ray and Richard Bentley, the present study challenges intellectual historians’ implicit correlation of the New Science with attempts to “prove” Christianity conclusively. Some of these physico-theologies are indeed rationalistic, subjecting religious doctrines to intellectual scrutiny; others are not. Notably, there is no correlation between a natural theologian’s reliance on reason and his interest in the New Science. In fact, the earliest and most “scholastic” of these natural theologians, Henry More, places the highest value on human reason, while the most “empirical,” John Ray, applies the epistemological humility of the new scientist to the Book of Scripture as well as the Book of Nature. To varying degrees, other physico-theologians evince similar humility. This study makes two contributions to our understanding of the textual culture of Early Modern England: first, it provides a valuable resource for those studying these natural theologians in other contexts—More the philosopher, Baxter the Puritan, Wilkins the latitudinarian, Ray the natural historian, Bentley the classicist. Second, it brings to the center of the discussion of Early Modern natural theology what I argue was central for the natural theologians themselves: theology.

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