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Jonathan Burke (2014)


Natural Laws and Science in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition
Abstract: An orderly universe operating according to divinely established laws, is a
constant theme throughout Judaeo-Christian cosmological commentary. A well-ordered
cosmos, with multiple natural cycles operating independently of Gods direct intervention,
was introduced in the Hebrew Scriptures and inherited by early Christians, who used it as the
basis of their approach to study of the natural world. The scientific value of this paradigm
became apparent during the medieval era, during which time it stimulated and guided
discovery of natural laws, and was used to suppress superstition and eradicate false views of
the cosmos. This work laid the foundations of the modern scientific method.
Divinely established natural cycles
Unlike the views of their neighbours, for the ancient Hebrews rain was the product of a
natural system, which resulted from the laws God laid down at the foundation of the
universe. They believed God set up the natural creation such that it functions autonomously,
through a coordination of individual systems.
Psalm 74:
16 You established the cycle of day and night; you put the moon and sun in place.
17 You set up all the boundaries of the earth; you created the cycle of summer and
winter.
This is not a description of God repeatedly intervening so things go right, like the
Egyptian scarab beetle god who had to push the sun across the sky. The psalmist knows
nothing of such an idea; he knows only of a self-contained cycle which God set up to run by
itself. Ecclesiastes says the same.
Ecclesiastes 1:
6 The wind goes to the south and circles around to the north; round and round the
wind goes and on its rounds it returns.
7 All the streams flow into the sea, but the sea is not full, and to the place where the
streams flow, there they will flow again.
These are complete cycles, represented as running by themselves without the constant
intervention of God to 'make it work'. The writer of Ecclesiastes knew nothing of a God who
tried to create a wind and water cycle, but wasn't able to do it properly so He has to send
the wind and rain by Himself.

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Jonathan Burke (2014)
For the Hebrews, the fact that God can and does intervene directly in these cycles for
His purposes does not change the fact that He set them up to run by themselves, and that
the Bible describes them in exactly that way.
An all-pervasive system of laws
According to the Hebrew Scriptures, when God created the universe He arranged its
operation according to specific laws which He established in the beginning, so that it would
develop and run according to His will. Those laws established cycles of nature which run
reliably and independently (such as the cycles of day and night, the seasons, the wind, and
the rain), without His intervention.
This organization of the cosmos is in stark contrast to the understanding of Israel's
pagan neighbours. Although the early Sumerian texts speak of an ordered cosmos with
divine laws ordained for the celestial bodies, the critical difference between this and the
Biblical cosmos was the fact that for the Sumerians the celestial bodies were themselves
gods and divine beings.
Consequently, it was possible for the laws of the cosmos to be broken, as the divine
beings disobeyed or fought amongst themselves; the regular continuation of a well
organized cosmos was not assured. No such disruption of the cosmos is possible in the
Biblical view. The celestial bodies are neither divine nor even living; they are inanimate
bodies which follow cosmic laws without deviation.
Additionally, unlike the Sumerian cosmological speculations, the Biblical model
encompassed all of creation; not merely the planets and stars, but every natural element of
the universe was governed by strict divine laws which dictated its operations. Significantly,
this included phenomena which were apparently chaotic and unpredictable.
"Elsewhere, the Hebrew Bible cited every possible aspect of creation as exemplifying
God's law: even the tumultuous elements like the wind and the seas and
meteorological phenomena like rain, lightning, thunder, snow and even hail (for
example Job 28:25-6; Ps. 148:7-8). All of these elements are said to fulfill God's
ordinances in a lawful way."1

Kaiser, 'Toward A Theology of Scientific Endeavour: the Descent of Science', p. 49 (2007).

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Jonathan Burke (2014)
This contrast between the Sumerian and the Biblical cosmology reveals a critical point
of difference. In the Sumerian cosmology the gods are not differentiated from the cosmos;
the divine beings themselves are part of the cosmos, subject to its laws, and many of them
were in fact created from the stuff of the universe itself. In Scripture however, God is
differentiated from, but not distant from, His creation. God is outside the cosmos, and is not
subject to its laws, but He is at the same time always present and close to His creation.
The fact that God established cosmological laws governing the ordering of the universe,
so that He does not need to intervene constantly, reaching quickly into the Solar System to
'fix' an unstable orbit, or occasionally nudging the Earth so the seasons keep working, does
not mean He is separated and distant from us. The very fact that we live in a universe
established and organized by the divine logos uttered in the beginning, the plan and purpose
which the laws of the cosmos obey and fulfill, reminds us that God is ever present in our
lives, and is a dramatic visible witness of the existence, power, wisdom, and care of our
Creator.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, God Himself cites the natural cycles as utterly consistent and
dependable, using them as an analogy for the faithfulness and reliability of His personal
covenant with His people.
Jeremiah 31:
35 The Lord has made a promise to Israel. He promises it as the one who fixed the sun
to give light by day and the moon and stars to give light by night. He promises it as
the one who stirs up the sea so that its waves roll. He promises it as the one who is
known as the Lord who rules over all.
36 The Lord affirms, The descendants of Israel will not cease forever to be a nation in
my sight. That could only happen if the fixed ordering of the heavenly lights were to
cease to operate before me.
This passage appeals explicitly to the laws God set up in the beginning, as an analogy of
God's personal care and presence with His people.
"As shown by the passage cited, [Jeremiah 31:35-36] laws for the motion of the sun,
moon and stars were viewed as expressions of God's providence analogous to God's
covenant faithfulness to Israel. Lawfulness implied the faithfulness and the activity of

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Jonathan Burke (2014)
God through the regularities God had decreed. God is both immanent and personal, at
least by analogy to the covenant with Israel."2
This was recognized by early pre-Christian Jewish commentators, who expressed
explicitly their appreciation of the beauty and reliability of the creation, which they could
see expressed both God's wisdom and His personal care.
Sirach 42:
19 God explains the past to us and tells what lies ahead; he even shows us clues
to the mysteries of creation.
20 Each thought and word are known to him.
21 The laws of nature show his great wisdom. God has never changed and never
will; he has no need of advice.
22 Look at his creation it sparkles with beauty,
23 and year after year, each part fulfills its purpose.
24 Every part has an opposite, and together, they make creation complete,
25 each one contributing something good to the other. Who could ever see
enough of such majestic beauty?
Unlike the pagan theology of Israel's neighbours, this Jewish commentary saw the
entire universe as operating according to divinely established laws, and also saw this as
evidence for a wise and caring God, not a distant and uninvolved creator, or an impersonal
force.
"Sirach's poetry recalls the Babylonian idea that the god Marduk gave tasks and rules
to all creatures. The similarity is an indicator in itself of the persistence of theological
ideas, particularly when they are expressed in such memorable poetry or prose. In
Sirach, however, as in First Enoch, the idea of cosmic law has taken on universal
scope ('his works', 'all generations'). Equally striking is the image of inexorable
regularity - not an impersonal momentum, as we tend to think in a culture of
machinery, but an ordered faithfulness in creation that manifests the intelligence of a
caring God."3

Ibid., p. 48.

Ibid., p. 155.

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Jonathan Burke (2014)
This understanding was preserved in rabbinical writings throughout the early Christian
era, and was formulated in a Jewish prayer.
"The idea of lawfulness in creation as a manifestation of divine providence was not
forgotten in the Jewish community either. The biblical belief that God's cosmic laws
guaranteed God's immediate care for his people was celebrated in Jewish liturgies and
in legal discussions. One example is the benediction attributed to Rab Judah in the
Babylonian Talmud.
Praised [is the LORD our God] who created the heavens with his word and all their
hosts with the breath of his mouth. He appointed to them fixed laws and times, that
they should not change their ordinance. They rejoice and are glad to do the will of
their Creator. They work [alternate reading, 'he works] truthfully for their action is
truth (b. Sanhedrin 42a)"4
Development in the Christian era
This view of a universe guided and commanded by divine laws established in the
beginning, was carried over into the early Christian community, to which several writers are
witness.
Early Jewish and Christian theologians expressed this biblical idea using the Greek
phrase for 'law of nature', nomos physeos. The suspension of the earth, the orbits of
the sun, moon and stars, and the alternation of the seasons were all established in the
beginning by God's word and law.5
One of the earliest Christian commentators to make this argument explicitly, was
Athenagoras in the second century. Following and expanding the same reasoning as Sirach,
Athenagoras differentiated between divine providence (God's direct miraculous intervention
in the world), and what he referred to as the 'providential law of Reason', the natural laws of
the universe which God had established to govern all things.6

Ibid., p. 49.

Kaiser, 'Toward A Theology of Scientific Endeavour: the Descent of Science', p. 49 (2007).

The assimilation of Sirach's idea of laws of nature into Christian theology can be seen as early [sic]

Christian apologists like Athenagoras, who wrote a Plea on Behalf of Christians in the 170s:

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Jonathan Burke (2014)
This was a critical distinction. In Scripture, God's direct divine intervention in the
universe is described explicitly as miraculous, specifically because it disrupts the natural
order which He ordained at creation. Although He typically uses natural processes (such as
the weather, and earthquakes), they appear at His command regardless of the existing
weather.
It is precisely because our universe is an environment of reliable, predictable order,
and precisely because creation follows laws established by God in the beginning without His
direct involvement, that God's miraculous intervention is detectable. He disrupts the
precipitation cycle to cause drought, and brings thunder and hail on sunny days. Additionally,
there are miracles He performs which disrupt the natural order and do not use natural
processes; healing, and the resurrection of the dead.
Two centuries after Athenagoras, Basil of Caesarea made the same argument for a
universe given a divine command at creation, which it follows unerringly ever since.
It is this command which, still at this day, is imposed on the earth and, in the course
of each year, displays all the strength of its power to produce herbs, seeds, and
trees. Like tops, which after the first impulse continue their evolutions, turning upon
themselves, when once fixed in their center; thus nature, receiving the impulse of this
first command, follows without interruption the course of ages until the
consummation of all things.7
Basil's work became highly influential in Christian discussions of the topic.8 The same
theme was followed in the following centuries,9 and was developed further by Christian
writers such as Augustine.
God's particular providence [over heaven and earth] is directed toward the deserving, while
everything else is subject to [God's] providential law of Reason (nomo logou] according to the
common nature of things.... Each part has its origin in Reason [gegonos logo], and hence none of
them violates its appointed order. (Plea 25.2-3, ibid., p. 158.
7

Basil of Caesarea, Hexamaron, 5.10 (370).

One of the most influential of these texts was Basil of Caesarea's treatise 'On the Six Days of

Creation' (In Hexaemeron), which we just discussed in connection with the idea of multiple universes
and will take up again in Chapter 3., ibid., p 49.
9

Writing in the early fourth century, Eusebius of Caesarea (Palestine) compiled a rich variety of

Greek and Jewish sources in his treatise on The Preparation for the Gospel (c. 315 CE). This massive

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Jonathan Burke (2014)
In this passage Augustine makes explicit (as a commentary should) what Basil had
only hinted at. Mathematical instructions ('causal reasons') are embedded in nature in
such a way that their effects occur naturally in their proper time according to a
predetermined sequence. In stating that these laws have a mathematical form,
Augustine was combining the idea of laws in nature with the idea we traced earlier,
that of creation in accordance with quantitative measure (based on Wisdom 11:20).10
The most significant result of this approach was a systematized understanding of the
universe which laid the foundation for the Western scientific tradition. This understanding
was revolutionary, and led directly to scientific breakthroughs of later centuries which
earlier cultures (even the Greeks), had never come even close to. It provided a reliable and
coherent framework within which the natural laws of the universe could be discovered, even
if they were initially hidden.11
Most importantly, it provided clear evidence that even apparently blind, random, and
unguided events, were in fact following faithfully the laws established by God at the creation.
Augustine concluded correctly that phenomena which appeared to happen by chance, were
actually the product of divinely ordained laws which were simply as yet undiscovered.
The point was made most memorable by Augustine in his reflections on a verse of
Psalm 148:8 fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling God's command:
Nothing seems to be so much driven by chance as the turbulence and storms by which
these lower regions of the heavens.... are assaulted and buffeted. But when the
Psalmist added the phrase, fulfilling his command [Ps. 148.8], he made it quite clear
that the plan in these phenomenon subject to God's command is hidden from us
rather than that it is lacking to universal nature. (On Genesis Word for Word V. 42)12

work contains the first instance of the idea of 'laws of universal nature' in Christian
literature., Kaiser, 'Toward A Theology of Scientific Endeavour: the Descent of Science', p. 158
(2007).
10

Ibid., p. 161.

11

The result of this Latin synthesis was a prescientific concept of mathematical law that gave early

modern scientists like Kepler confidence that the phenomena of nature obeyed fixed laws even if
they did not conform to any known laws., ibid., p,. 161.
12

Ibid., p. 161.

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Jonathan Burke (2014)
This conclusion pre-empted the birth of modern science by centuries. It is curiously
similar to a statement by the atheist astronomer Fred Hoyle, who was driven to conclude
that the universe not only operates according to laws rather than blind chance, but also that
this was the product of a 'superintellect'.
A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has
monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no
blind forces worth speaking of in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts
seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.13
Impact in the medieval era
Application of this principle during the medieval era, was both a major contribution to
the development of science, and a powerful correction of superstition. Like other pagan
religions, the religion of Rome was obsessed with fortune telling; numerous signs, portents,
and auguries were perceived in the stars and planets, in sacrifices to the gods, the weather,
and the behaviour of animals. This superstitious attitude also produced credulous reports of
supernatural events, which even some of Rome's most intellectual, objective, and rational
historians felt obligated to record.
For example, the Roman historian Livy (1st century BCE), despite his generally
conservative and factual approach to his work, and despite his personal belief (as a Stoic),
that the gods were distantly removed from human life, still made a point of recording the
supernatural events and signs reported each year,14 without questioning whether or not
they had actually happened.
Livy then describes eight prodigies which had been reported that year, including a
blazing comet, a talking cow, a rain of stones and one of blood, a palm which had
'sprung up' in the temple of Fortuna Primigenia, and a statue of Apollo that began to
shed tears.15

13

Hoyle, 'The Universe: Past and Present Reflections', Engineering & Science, p. 12 (November 1981).

14

Generally speaking, Livy contents himself with recording auguries, portents, and propitiations in a

straightforward and laconic style, making no comment of any kind about them., Colish, 'The Stoic
Tradition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages', volume 1, p. 300 (1985).
15

Given-Wilson, 'Chronicles: The Writing of History in Medieval England', p. 22 (2004).

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Even with the most generous assessment of probability, only two of these events (the
comet and the rain of blood), could be considered remotely historical.16 Livy's record of the
typical Roman response to such reports, illustrates the extent of their superstition.
In view of these public portents, the Sacred [Sybilline] Books were consulted by the
Board of Ten [the decemviri]; they officially announced the names of the gods to whom
the consuls were to offer sacrifices with the greater victims; they also gave out that a
day of public prayer should be observed, that all the magistrates should sacrifice the
greater victims at all the seats of the gods, and that the people should wear
wreaths.[4]
No such superstition is shown in the Hebrew Scriptures, which (in stark contrast to the
religion of Israel's neighbours), condemns astrology as useless and shows no interest in
reporting allegedly supernatural events of this kind, which were supposed to foretell the
future of the ruler and kingdom. Consequently, the Christian community of the first couple
of centuries after Christ was similarly disinterested in such events, except when they were
already influenced heavily by pagan writers or by their own pagan background.
In the medieval era (from the 5th century), Christian leaders throughout the
disintegrated Roman empire experienced great difficulty overcoming the pagan beliefs of
their new converts, beliefs which in many cases were more suppressed than
abandoned. Archbishop Isidore of Seville (6th century), showed great credulity in accepting
the writings of earlier Greek and Roman authors who spoke of mythical animals and
supernatural portents (which Isidore attempted to harmonize with Christianity). Additionally,
even some reasonably educated Christians (such as the literate monks who were the
historians of the era), retained the superstitions of their original culture and
religion. Consequently, they had a tendency to interpret a wide range of natural phenomena
as indicative of supernatural events or signs from God.
Almost any unusual event was capable of a portentous reading. Solar and lunar
phenomena (comets, bloodmoons, meteors, eclipses) and adverse weather
(thunderstorms, gales, floods, droughts) were the most common portents mentioned
by chroniclers.17

16

So called 'blood rain' is red coloured rain typically caused by iron oxide in atmospheric dust,

trapped in raindrops.
17

Watkins, 'History and the Supernatural in Medieval England', p. 48 (2007).

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In particular, certain events were attributed to supernatural evil, such as evil spirits,
demons, and witches.
Thus especially violent storms became associated with the works of demons. The
Lanercost chronicler recounted cautionary tales illustrating that 'it is evil spirits that
stir up tempests' and described how during a storm in the diocese of York people 'had
heard demons yelling in the air'.18
However, Christian theology (in particular the understanding of a universe ordered by
God according to divinely established natural laws), exercised a powerful restraint on these
interpretations. Consequently, the late medieval Christian chroniclers were far less likely
than their earlier Greek and Roman counterparts, to even record such events.19 Although
Livy had recorded eight portents in a single year, the Christian chronicler of the reign of
Henry V (14th century), recorded just two events in three and a half years.
For example, the Gesta Henrici Quinti ('Deeds of Henry V'), which was written by one
of Henry V's household chaplains and covers the first three and a half years of his
reign, includes just two 'auspicious' events in a chronicle running to 180 pages in its
most recent edition.20
In the 15th century, another Christian chronicler recorded a falling star observed on a
battlefield, noting 'concerning its significance, men said many things'. However, considering
such knowledge to belong only to God, the chronicler himself deliberately refrained from
commenting, saying it would be blasphemy to attempt an interpretation of what the event
might signify.
But I who am writing, not wishing to blaspheme, leave what it foretold to God, the
Creator of nature, and to the operation of the elements.21

18

Iid., p. 58.

19

In fact, with a few notable exceptions, late medieval English chroniclers did not record a large

number of preternatural events in their chronicles. However, the way in which they inserted them,
clearly

indicate

the

significance

with

they

attached

to

them,

and

to

their

interpretation., Given-Wilson, 'Chronicles: The Writing of History in Medieval England', p. 23 (2004).


20

Ibid., p. 23.

21

Given-Wilson, 'Chronicles: The Writing of History in Medieval England', p. 23 (2004).

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Jonathan Burke (2014)
The Biblical understanding of the universe governed by natural laws established by God,
also exercised a powerful restraint on belief in supernatural evil, particularly in the form of
witchcraft and magic. In the 9th century, archbishop Abogard of Lyons made a powerful
effort to eliminate belief in 'storm makers', people who supposedly had the ability to conjure
thunderstorms and hail. Abogard viewed such beliefs as both ignorant and contrary to
Scripture,22 arguing that only God had the ability to command the elements He had created,
and that He would never delegate such authority to wicked people for evil purposes.23
Significantly, Agobard quoted Sirach in Ecclesiasticus, using Sirach's argument that God
had established natural laws at the creation, as part of his own argument that disruption of
these laws by merely human agency was impossible.24 For Agobard, the fact that God had
established such laws meant it was impossible for them to be changed by anyone other than
God Himself.
Laying the foundation of the scientific method
With the repeated reinforcement of this understanding of divinely ordained natural
laws, superstitious explanations became discredited, and belief in supernatural wonders and

22

In these regions, nearly all men, noble and common, city and country dwellers, old and

young, believe that hail and thunder can be produced by human will. For as soon as they hear
thunder and see lightning, they say a gale has been raised. When they are asked how the gale is
raised, they answer (some of them ashamedly, with their consciences biting a little, but others
confidently, in a manner customary to the ignorant) that the gale has been raised by the incantations
of men called storm-makers, and it is called a raised gale It is necessary that we examine by the
authority of Holy Scripture whether it is true as the masses believe., Abogard, 'On Hail and Thunder',
Lewis (trans., in 2007), from the Latin text in Van Acker (ed.), 'Agobardi Lugdunensis Opera Omnia'
(1981).
23

Certainly Moses, the servant of God, was good and righteous, but these people do not dare to say

that the so-called storm-makers are good and righteous, but rather evil and unrighteous, deserving
of both temporal and eternal condemnation, nor are they servants of God except perhaps by
circumstance rather than willing service. ibid.
24

'It says that all these things also grow quiet and are calmed at the command of God. Therefore no

human assistant should be sought in such events, because none will be found, except perhaps the
saints of God, who have brought about, and are yet to bring about, many things., ibid.

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portents was seen as a product of ignorance of the natural causes of phenomena.25 During
the twelfth century a number of writers used the principle of natural law to debunk claims
for supernatural events and encourage a rational view of the world. In doing so they laid the
intellectual foundation of what would become the scientific method.
The Christian philosopher Adelard of Bath wrote that superstitious amazement at
observable phenomena was the result of considering an event while being ignorant of its
true cause.26 When his nephew attributed the growth of plants from the earth to the direct
involvement of God, Adelard corrected him and explained it was the result of a divinely
ordained natural process.
In response to his nephew's query about why plants rise from the earth, and the
nephew's conviction that this should be attributed to "the wonderful operation of the
wonderful divine will," Adelard replies that it is certainly "the will of the Creator that
plants should rise from the earth. But this thing is not without a reason," which
prompts Adelard to offer a naturalistic explanation based on the four elements.27
Adelard then taught his nephew that since the universe had been ordered accordingly
to divinely established laws at the creation, phenomena observed in nature should be
understood to have natural causes. Consequently, observers should always assume a natural
cause as the primary cause, instead of attributing everything to God.
Adelard's emphasis on the use of reason is rather remarkable. His message is clear. He
firmly believed that God was the creator of the world, and that God provided the
world with a rational structure and a capacity to operate by its own laws. In this
well-ordered world, natural philosophers must always seek a rational explanation for
phenomena. They must search for a natural cause and not resort to God, the ultimate
cause of all things, unless the secondary cause seems unattainable.28

25

By mid-twelfth century, wonders were thought to be a symptom of ignorance of causes and

superstition;, Stahuljak et al., Thinking through Chr


26

en de Troyes', p. 95 (2011).

According to Adelard of Bath (1116-1142), to marvel was to consider "effects in ignorance of

their natural causes" (Daston and Park, p. 110), ibid., p. 95.


27

Grant, 'God and Reason in the Middle Ages', p. 71 (2001).

28

Ibid., p. 72.

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Archbishop Eustathius of Thessalonica gave an explanation of blood rain (a portent
reported frequently in the medieval era), which, though scientifically inaccurate, still treated
the event as a natural phenomenon. His belief that it was blood which had evaporated from
battlefields and returned to the earth as rain (a view found in early scholarly commentary on
Homer's Illiad), demonstrated a knowledge of the precipitation cycle and a preference for
explaining apparently supernatural phenomena with natural causes.
The scholia on the Homeric passages (Scholia in Modem, ed. Dindorf and Maas, i. 374;
Hi. 457-58; iv. 131; v. 381) suggest that after great battles blood flows into the rivers,
whence it is taken up into the clouds and descends in rain. The twelfth-century
archbishop Eustathius gave much the same explanation (Commentarii, Leipzig, 1829,
III, 336).29
The Christian philosopher poet Bernard of Tours (also known as 'Bernard Silvestris'),
strongly encouraged the investigation of nature, believing that although its laws were
hidden, it was possible for them to be sought out and discovered.
[Humanity] shall behold clearly principles shrouded in darkness, so that Nature may
keep nothing undisclosed. He will survey the aerial realms, the shadowy stillness of Dis
[the underworld], the vault of heaven, the breadth of the earth, [and] the depths of the
sea. He will perceive whence things change, why the summer swelters, autumn blights
the land, spring is balmy, winter cold. He will see why the sun in [sic] radiant, and the
moon, why the earth trembles, and the ocean swells. Why the summer day draws out
its long hours, and night is reduced to a brief interval.... (Cosmographia, Mircosmos [sic]
10)30
Bernard's enthusiastic description of how all the natural laws behind observable
phenomena could be understood through study, brings to mind the passage 'It is the glory of
God to conceal a matter, and it is the glory of a king to search out a matter' (Proverbs 25:2).
Archdeacon Gerald of Wales, made the same application of the principle of natural law,
correcting those who claimed that the leaping of the salmon was a supernatural event, and
debunking claims that groaning sounds coming from a lake in winter, were miraculous.
29

Tatlock, 'Some Mediaeval Cases of Blood-Rain', Classical Philology (9.4.441), October 1914.

30

Kaiser, 'Toward A Theology of Scientific Endeavour: the Descent of Science', p. 175 (2007).

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The spectacle of leaping salmons in the rivers of Wales and Ireland was dissected in
similar fashion, Gerald observing that this behaviour may seem hard to believe but it is
from the nature (ex natura) of this fish to perform such feats. He was also reluctant to
accept the beliefs of Welsh villagers who held that the groaning of a lake in winter was
miraculous. Dismissing their claims, Gerald offered an alternative physical
explanation, ascribing the noises to air trapped beneath its frozen surface and being
violently released.31
For Gerald, the fact that God had established natural laws for the operation of the
universe, meant that those laws should be understood as the most likely cause for
observable phenomena. This led him to consider natural causes for phenomena first, and to
reject supernatural explanations based on superstition and ignorance.
Christian philosopher William of Conches likewise considered it unnecessary (and even
impious), to attribute all observable phenomena directly to God as the primary cause; rather,
they should be attributed to the natural laws established by God at creation.
William thought it improper to invoke God's omnipotence as an explanation
for natural phenomena. Like all natural philosophers in the Middle Ages, William of
Conches believed that God was the ultimate cause of everything, but, like Adelard of
Bath, he believed that God had empowered nature to produce effects and that one
should therefore seek the cause of those effects in nature.32
William experienced some opposition to his views. There were priests who saw no
value in investigation of the natural world, and who believed nothing should be considered
or investigated if it was not taught directly in Scripture.33 William dismissed this, arguing that
Scripture was the wrong tool for investigating natural phenomena.34 Taking the same
approach held by Christians all the way back to Augustine eight hundred years earlier (an
approach which would later be used by Galileo), William argued that the Bible was silent on
scientific matters, because they were not relevant to the Bible's main focus, which was the
gospel.

31

Watkins, 'History and the Supernatural in Medieval England', p. 30 (2007).

32

Grant, 'God and Reason in the Middle Ages', p. 73 (2001).

33

Some priests believed only what they found in the Bible., ibid., p. 74.

34

He also rejected the idea that Scripture was of use in natural philosophy., ibid., p. 74.

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when modern priests hear this, they ridicule it immediately because they do not find
it in the Bible. They don't realise that the authors of truth are silent on matters of
natural philosophy, not because these matters are against the faith, but because they
have little to do with the strengthening of such faith, which is what those authors are
concerned with.35
He also took great exception to the priests who opposed investigation of the natural
world, and objected strongly to their view that people should just hold a simple faith,
believing whatever they were told.
But modern priests do not want us to inquire into anything that isn't in the Scriptures,
only to believe simply, like peasants."36
Eight hundred years later the same protests against studying the natural laws ordained
by God, and the same insistence on believing 'simply, like peasants' can still be heard from
those fearful of where the investigation of the natural creation may lead.

35

Ibid., p. 74.

36

Ibid., p. 74.