Saintly scientists
Monument to Nicolaus Copernicus in Turun, Poland. Photo by Jason Riedy, [CC BY-NC 2.0] via Flickr

This spring (May 24) the church once again honored the memories of Nicolaus Copernicus and Leonhard Euler. 

That may provoke readers to wonder several things, such as:

Where did you get that?

Who was Leonhard Euler?

Should Christians be honoring dead saints?

And why is this in a newsletter about faith and science?

I got that from the listing of “Lesser Festivals and Commemorations” on pages 15-17 of Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006).  (See also the earlier Lutheran Book of Worship [Augsburg, 1978], pp.10-12.)  

I’ll say more about Euler (pronounced like “Oiler”) soon. 

The New Testament uses the word “saints” to mean all believers in Christ.  If and how prominent saints of the past should be honored was a contentious issue at the time of the Reformation.  There was a long tradition of praying to saints who had died and asking them to intercede with God for the living. Many protestants rejected those practices and any special honoring of saints.  As with some other debated matters, Lutherans took a middle way. Article 21 of the Augsburg Confession says that saints should be remembered as reminders of God’s grace and the importance of faith, as well as examples of how Christians can pursue their callings in the world.

The Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions of honoring the saints can keep alive a sense of the scope and continuity of the church catholic through the ages. For many Christians of other communions which have rejected such traditions, there’s a gap in historical understanding of the church between the close of the New Testament and the start of the Reformation.  Lutherans should have a more adequate picture, but often don’t. The commemorations suggested in their hymnals are often ignored. 

Scientists who were Christians should be commemorated because they provide examples of how Christians have pursued such calling in that area in the past and can do so today. Copernicus and Euler were scientists (though that word wasn’t used in its modern sense until the nineteenth century).  Science — and I use the word in a broad sense here, including technological and applications of science — is an important way in which some Christians of the past have lived out their faith in the world.

It’s important to emphasize that for a couple of reasons. Even though claims of perpetual “warfare” between the church and science have been shown to be false, the positive role that Christians have played in the development of the sciences often isn’t recognized. This wasn’t just a matter of accepting scientific discoveries, but often of being the ones to make the discoveries.

And Christians who themselves are scientists should be encouraged to understand the theological significance of what they do.  The idea that all Christians, and not just those called to religious service, have a “vocation” in the world was emphasized by Luther and has been important in the Lutheran tradition.

So, what “saintly scientists” of the past might be remembered? Before making some suggestions, I emphasize that they are indeed my suggestions. This is in no way a list of commemorations “authorized” for use in churches. It certainly is not an exhaustive listing of all Christians who have contributed to the scientific enterprise.

And we should remember that saints who are honored were not perfect people.  Christians are, in Luther’s phrase, “at the same time justified and sinner.”

We can start with a couple of forerunners of science, for of course people were studying and learning things about the natural world before what is called “the scientific revolution.” Robert Grosseteste, who dies in A.D. 1253, was a bishop of Lincoln who wrote a number of works on natural philosophy, especially astronomy and light, and had some practical interest in optics. 

In the previous century, the abbess Hildegard of Bingen in the Rhineland had a wide range of interests, including natural history and medicine.

I began with the mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. (He was a canon of Frauenburg cathedral in what is now Poland but, contrary to what is sometimes said, was not ordained.)  The proposal of a heliocentric rather than a geocentric picture of the world in his 1543 book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres can be seen as a major impetus of the scientific revolution.

At the beginning of the 17th century, Johannes Kepler’s laws describing planetary motion and the telescopic observations of Galileo Galilei provided strong support for a heliocentric view.  Though Kepler was a slightly unorthodox Lutheran and Galileo got in trouble with Roman Catholic authorities, both were committed Christians. Later in that century Robert Boyle would provide some of the materials for the modern science of chemistry, such as the gas law named for him, and in his will endowed a series of lectures arguing for Christianity.   

In the 18th century Leonhard Euler (finally!), the son of a Swiss Reformed pastor, was one of the greatest, and the most prolific, scholars of pure and applied mathematicians. Numerous equations are named for him, as well as theorems and various concepts in mathematics, physics, astronomy and engineering. Not just an ivory tower thinker, he also wrote an elementary algebra text.

One of the great scientific advances of the 19th century was the development of electromagnetic theory, largely through the work of the Michael Faraday, who was active in a small offshoot of the Church of Scotland, and the Scottish James Clerk Maxwell, the first professor of physics at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge. In addition to their studies of electricity and magnetism, Faraday did important work in chemistry and Maxwell helped to develop the kinetic theory of gases.

Around the same time, discoveries which would contribute to our understanding of biological evolution were taking place. As a woman from a poor background and a member of a dissenting church, Mary Anning was outside the scientific establishment of 19th century England.  Nevertheless, she became a well-known collector of fossils and one of the important paleontologists of the period.

The Moravian monk Gregor Mendel published the results of his experiments with the crossing of garden peas, work that would provide the beginning of a science of genetics, in the same year that Maxwell published his electromagnetic field equations. Unfortunately, Mendel’s work lay dormant for 35 years before its significance was realized.

In the 20th century, two figures who helped to get scientific cosmology started are worthy of mention. Henrietta Leavitt, from the Puritan tradition, was one of several American women who made significant contributions to astronomy in this period. She found a relationship between the luminosity of Cepheid variable stars and their periods. This made it possible to determine the distances to such stars, which are bright enough to be distinguished in galaxies outside our own.  A few years after Leavitt’s death, this result was used to find the relationship between the distances to galaxies and their recessional speeds, revealing the expansion of the universe.

At about the same time, the Belgian priest and mathematician Georges Lemaître used the equations of general relativity to find a theoretical description of an expanding universe, a forerunner of the modern big bang model.

Another Catholic priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a paleontologist who, while in China, was involved in study of the remains of Peking Man. Unfortunately, those fossils disappeared during World War II. Teilhard is best known, however, for his controversial theological views in which evolution plays a major role. 

Another important figure in the development of evolutionary theory was the Eastern Orthodox geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky.  Toward the end of his life he wrote an essay whose title is frequently quoted: “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in Light of Evolution.”

The saints whose contributions have been sketched very briefly here came from very different backgrounds and Christian traditions. But all of them could have seen their work in the light of the inscription with Psalm 111:2 (in Latin) that was placed, probably at Maxwell’s suggestion, over the entrance of the Cavendish Laboratory: “Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.”

George Murphy

Theological Editor

George Murphy received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins for work on general relativity in 1972.   He taught at Westminster College (PA), The University of Western Australia and Luther College and did research for eleven years before entering Wartburg seminary.  Ordained in 1983, he has served as a pastor in Lutheran and Episcopal congregations.  His first article on theology and science was published in 1977 and he has since published six books and numerous articles and continues to speak and lead workshops in this area. His most recent book, Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World (Lutheran University Press, 2013), discusses ways of understanding the saving work of Christ in an evolving world.

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