Science and Religion: Observation and Revelation

St Gregory of Nyssa identified a woman, St Macrina, as his teacher concerning issues of philosophy and science. When he references a point in science, he almost always attributes the knowledge to his older sister. As I’ve pointed out in other posts, some of the Fathers were well trained in the science of their day and they had no reluctance to refer to their scientific knowledge when they could use it to make a point. They generally accepted that there was valuable knowledge which came from sources other than the Scriptures and that the Scriptures did not contain all the truth that could be known about the world. For them science was also based on observation, rather than revelation, however they also accepted ancient wisdom from the great learned men of the past and allowed this ancient wisdom to guide their observations, rather than have their observations determine the value of ancient wisdom. They did not rely on the scientific method of observation and testing to confirm truth but rather tended to allow ancient tradition to guide their science.


Below is a passage from St Gregory revealing his use of the science of his day, which he attributes to his sister and teacher Macrina. Here is some ‘scientific’ knowledge from the 4th Century:

“If you do not admit that this is true, tell me, how is it that, when you look at the sun as you were taught by your teacher to look, you do not say that it is only as large as the circle which appears to the average person, but that it exceeds by many times the size of the whole earth? Isn’t it because when your mind has distinguished through the observed phenomena the particular motion of the sun, the intervals of time and space, and the causes of eclipses, you can confidently declare that it is so?”


[Macrina points out that no learned person assumes the sun is only as large as it appears in the sky, which you can ‘hold’ between your thumb and index finger. Learned people realize that the sun is quite distant in the sky and is thus many times larger than it appears to us. In fact, Macrina rightly teaches that the sun is many times larger than the whole earth. And she points out the observations which can be made which she thinks prove this point.]


“And when you watch the waning and waxing of the moon, you are taught something else by the shape in which the moon appears: namely that it is itself without light according to its own nature, and that it revolves in the closest orbit to earth, but shines from the rays of the sun. . . . “

[Macrina again rightfully points out that through careful observation (science) one is able to determine that the moon does not give off its own light but rather reflects the light of the sun. She also correctly notes that the moon is closer to the earth than the sun is.]


“To those who watch without examining the matter, however, that light seems to be from the moon itself. Here is the proof that it is not so. When the moon comes diametrically opposite the sun, it is illuminated on the whole circle facing us. In its own smaller space, however, as the moon goes more quickly around its circle, before the sun revolves once in its proper course, the moon goes around its own orbit more than twelve times.”

[Macrina’s science is attempting to explain the phases of the moon and what they actually tell us. Remember in her worldview, both the moon and sun are revolving around the earth. She has it that the moon makes 12 orbits for every one orbit of the sun (12 lunar months in one solar year). The ‘phases’ of the moon are explained by where the sun and moon are in their orbits and how much sunlight hits the moon and is reflected by it. She does understand that the full moon occurs when the sun and moon are diametrically opposite of each other. In other comments, she notes that nighttime is nothing more than being in the shadow of the earth when the sun is on the opposite side of the orb which is earth – she did believe the earth is round.]


“Therefore the result is the moon is not always filled with light; for in the frequency of its revolution the body which runs often around its short course does not remain continuously opposite the other body which travels farther around it’s longer orbit. When the moon is in a position directly opposite the sun, the whole side of the moon toward us is illuminated with the rays of the sun. When it comes sideways to the sun, as the hemisphere of the moon which at anytime faces the sun is enveloped by its rays, the side toward us is necessarily shadowed. The brilliance changes places from the part which is not able to look towards the sun so that which is at anytime turned towards it, until going directly under the orbit of the sun the moon receives its rays from behind. Thus when the upper hemisphere is illuminated it makes the side toward us invisible because it is entirely without light and radiance according to its own nature. This is called the new moon. (ON THE SOUL AND THE RESURRECTION, pp 38-40)

25360760266_70bdc3be8f_wMacrina’s science is wrong in that the sun does not orbit the earth but rather the earth orbits the sun. However, based on her best observation and science it appeared that the sun moved around the earth. My point only is that Sts Basil, Gregory and Macrina were all comfortable with knowledge that came to them from studying science/philosophy, and they saw no need to pit this knowledge against Christian beliefs or biblical wisdom. [How many modern people can explain what causes the phases of the moon?] Truth is truth, and so Christians can accept truth no matter what its source is. These saints saw no need to oppose science to faith and rather believed that the two were both dealing with truth and so both were valuable to believers.