Then the churches began to build schools, first at the elementary and then at the secondary level. Eventually these became more advanced until, in the twelfth century, the first universities were founded in Bologna and Paris. Oxford and Cambridge were founded in the early thirteenth century, followed by universities in Rome, Naples, Salamanca, Seville, Prague, Vienna, Cologne, and Heidelberg. These institutions might be affiliated with the church, but they were independently governed and operated. The curriculum was both theological and secular, so that the new scientific knowledge of early modern times could be accommodated. As Alvin Schmidt points out, many of America’s earliest colleges and universities—Harvard, the College of William and Mary, Yale, Northwestern, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown—began as Christian institutions.”
Robert Grosseteste, a Franciscan bishop who was the first chancellor of Oxford University, proposed that knowledge be accumulated through an inductive, experimental method. A couple of centuries later Francis Bacon—a devoutly religious man who wrote treatises on the Psalms and on prayer—used the inductive method to record experimental outcomes. Bacon argued that through the God-given power of discovery man could fulfill the divine mandate to establish dominion over creation and even restore a new kind of Eden. Today Bacon is considered the founder of the scientific method, the “inventor of invention.” It was under the auspices of the church that the first medical research institutions and the first observatories were built and supported. From the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, a period of several centuries, the church did more for Western science than any other institution.
We often hear that science was founded in the seventeenth century in revolt against religious dogma. In reality, science was founded between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries through a dispute between two kinds of religious dogma. The first kind held that scholastic debate, operating according to the strict principles of deductive reason, was the best way to discover God’s hand in the universe. The other held that inductive experience, including the use of experiments to “interrogate nature,” was the preferred approach. Science benefited from both methods, using experiments to test propositions and then rigorous criticism and argumentation to establish their significance.
Historian Lynn White shows how the new scientific method launched an explosion of innovations and inventions starting in the thirteenth century. The fourteenth century was, according to Jean Gimpel, “one of the great inventive eras of mankind.” The technological revolution described by White and Gimpel was unlike anything known in classical times. Between the trial-and-error agricultural techniques of the monasteries and the new theoretical and experimental study of the universities, Europe developed a new way of understanding nature and making it work to human purposes. A continent once desolate was soon dotted with schools, farms, and workshops, all taking learning and agricultural production and trade to a new level. Inventions of the period included the waterwheel, the windmill, the chimney, eyeglasses, and the mechanical clock. Humble these may seem, but they are responsible for launching a civilization that would soon, in learning, affluence, and power, dwarf the other cultures of the world.
The first professional scientists can be traced to the late Middle Ages, and since this period the overwhelming majority of them have not only been Christians, but have also viewed their work as a fulfillment of Christian objectives. Morris Kline writes that “the Renaissance scientist was a theologian with nature instead of God as his subject.” This does not mean the Renaissance scientist was on a secular path. On the contrary, he saw himself as achieving God’s purpose in a new and better way, by going beyond God’s holy book and exploring His creation.