The Condemnations of Paris and the Christian origins of modern science

The natural world operates according to principles inherent in it, principles that ultimately depend upon God for their existence, but principles and causes that have a reality and an efficacy that can be studied independently of theological and religious convictions.

Left: A 16th-c. miniature showing a meeting of doctors at the University of Paris; right: Interior of the Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre. (Images: Wikipedia)

One of the more widely accepted narratives of the modern world locates its origins in the 17th century with the emancipation of the natural sciences both from the antiquated natural philosophy and metaphysics of Aristotle and from domination by theology and ecclesiastical control. This orthodox narrative of science, religion, and the modern world is the context in which historians, philosophers, theologians, and scientists have made competing claims about how to understand the origin and nature not only of the natural sciences but also the very contours of modern Western culture.

An important challenge to the common narrative is the work of the French physicist, historian, and philosopher of science Pierre Duhem (1861-1916). In 1904, Duhem was working in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, searching for material for a book he planned to write on the history of mechanics. He discovered a treasure-trove of medieval manuscripts in the natural sciences and mathematics. Contrary to the popular view that the Middle Ages was scientifically barren, he concluded that just the opposite was the case.

From Impetus to Inertia

Duhem argued that theories in physics in 14th-century Paris anticipated, in important ways, the contributions of Galileo and Newton in the 17th century. These medieval developments that, according to Duhem, rejected tenets of Aristotelian physics, were encouraged by the actions of the Bishop of Paris, Étienne Tempier, who in March 1277 condemned a series of 219 propositions about nature and God, many associated with the philosophy of Aristotle. Duhem claimed that Tempier’s action freed natural philosophers from the straight-jacket of Aristotelian science and encouraged them to examine ways of understanding the world that Aristotle would reject.

Thus, the real Scientific Revolution occurs earlier than the traditional story relates and, contrary to the view that sees a hostility between science and Christianity, it is the Catholic Church, through the action of the Bishop of Paris in 1277, that plays a vital role in the origins of modern science.

For Duhem the work of Jean Buridan (1301-1358) on projectile motion entitles him to be called a precursor of Galileo and Newton. For Aristotle all motion requires a conjoined moving cause. Buridan offered an explanation of the continuing motion of a thrown object only in terms of an impetus imparted to it when it is first put into motion. In 1913, in a lecture in Italy, Duhem summarized his findings in the following way:

“[I]n the Fourteenth Century the masters of Paris, having rebelled against the authority of Aristotle, constructed a dynamics entirely different from that of the Stagirite; that the essential elements of the principles thought to have received mathematical expression and experimental confirmation from Galileo and Descartes were already contained in this dynamics; that at the beginning of the Fifteenth Century these Parisian doctrines spread into Italy, where they encountered a vigorous resistance from the Averroists, jealous guardians of the Aristotelian tradition. . . ; that they were adopted in the course of the Sixteenth Century by the majority of mathematicians; and finally that Galileo, in his youth, read several of the treatises containing these doctrines.”

Since the principle of inertia is the key to Newtonian science and since its acceptance appears to require the denial of the first principle of Aristotelian physics—that all motion requires a mover, Buridan’s anticipation of inertia in the 14th century represents the true scientific revolution. This revolution, as Duhem saw it, is thoroughly Christian in inspiration because it was made possible by the Bishop of Paris’ theological condemnations of claims made in Aristotelian science.

One of the principal defenders of Duhem’s thesis was the Benedictine theologian and physicist, Stanley Jaki. Jaki thought that in all ancient cultures, including the Greek, science “suffered a … monumental stillbirth,” and it is “biblical revelation … that made the only viable birth of science possible.” Jaki argued 1) that modern science rests on Newton’s laws, the most important of which concerns inertial motion, and 2) that the formulation of this law can be found in the work of Jean Buridan. For Duhem and Jaki – and indeed for many historians of science – the principle of inertia rejects the need to find a conjoined cause for continuous motion. Buridan’s theory of an impetus anticipated the principle of inertia.

The relationship between Buridan’s and Aristotle’s physics is a complex question. It seems to me, however, that Buridan is still operating within the broad outlines of Aristotelian physics; he locates a cause (impetus) of continuing motion within the moved body, yet such a cause, although internal, remains extrinsic to the body that is moved.

Regardless of how we come to understand specific developments in physics in the 14th century, Duhem’s emphasis on the action of the Bishop of Paris invites reflection on how we should understand the historical relationship among the sciences, the philosophy of nature, metaphysics, and theology.

The Condemnations of 1277

The 1277 Condemnations were the most important of a series of reactions at Paris throughout the 13th century to what conservative theologians perceived to be the threat of Aristotelian thought to Christian truth. Aristotle claimed that the world is eternal, and argued, so it seemed, against the immortality of the soul. Furthermore, his insistence that science discovers necessary connections between causes and their effects was a necessity in nature that seemed to be a denial of God’s freedom to create whatever kind of universe God wished. The Islamic world had already experienced a similar debate, and some Muslim theologians had also urged the proscription of the texts of Aristotle.

Despite various efforts to keep Aristotle out of the curriculum of the University of Paris, by the middle of the 13th century his texts had come to play an important role not only in the Faculty of Arts, but also in the Faculty of Theology. In the 1277 decree Bishop Tempier explained his concerns in the prologue, noting that certain scholars in the Faculty of Arts of the University of Paris:

are exceeding the boundaries of their own faculty and are presuming to treat and discuss, as though they were debatable in the schools, certain obvious and loathsome errors. . . that are contained in the roll joined to this letter. . . . [I]n support of the aforesaid errors they adduce pagan writings that . . . they assert to be so convincing that they do not know how to answer them.. . . . For they say that these things are true according to philosophy but not according to the Catholic faith, as though there were two contrary truths and as though the truth of Sacred Scripture were contradicted by the truth in the sayings of the accursed pagans…

Tempier forbade scholars in the Faculty of Arts from affirming as true a wide variety of propositions about nature, human nature, and God. Topics of the condemned propositions included: the eternity of the world, the nature and function of angels, the nature of the heavens, whether there is a single active intellect for all human beings, the extent of God’s power, and, in general, what can be known with certainty on the basis of reason and science alone. Bishop Tempier and his supporters sought to affirm the primacy of revealed truth, expressed in theological discourse, over the claims of philosophy, especially the philosophy of Aristotle and his Muslim commentators. The relationship between faith and reason, or, more particularly, between theology and philosophy, was at issue. The Condemnations show the predominance of a theological view that is uncomfortable with many of the new intellectual currents associated with the reception of newly translated texts of Aristotelian philosophy.

Duhem thought that two condemned propositions in particular were of crucial importance for scientific developments in the 14th century: that God could not produce a plurality of worlds, and that God could not move the entire universe in rectilinear motion, since this would result in a void. The first rejected the view that God cannot create more than one world; the second allowed for the development of new views concerning place and the void. For Duhem, these two condemned propositions were the foundation of the “whole edifice of Aristotelian physics and their being declared anathema implicitly demanded the creation of a new physics that would be acceptable to Christian reason.” Although explaining projectile motion was not a consideration of any of the condemnations, Duhem emphasizes the rejection of what he calls the “whole edifice of Aristotelian physics,” a purge that he thinks prepares the ground for Buridan and the theory of impetus.

Divine Omnipotence and Science

One of the 219 propositions, namely the 147th, reveals a principle that informs many of the condemnations of specific claims in the philosophy of nature. Condemned is the view “that the absolutely impossible cannot be done by God or another agent . . . . If impossible is understood according to nature.” Edward Grant, historian of medieval science, thinks that this emphasis on God’s absolute power “encouraged speculation about natural impossibilities in the Aristotelian world system which were often treated as hypothetical possibilities. The supernaturally generated alternatives, which medieval natural philosophers considered in the wake of the condemnation, accustomed them to consider possibilities that were beyond the scope of Aristotle’s natural philosophy, and often in direct conflict with it.”

This broad claim about the significance of the Condemnations finds support in the work of the German philosopher and intellectual historian Hans Blumenberg, who argues that the affirmation of God’s absolute power marks “the exact point in time when the interest in rationality and human intelligibility of creation cedes priority to the speculative fascination exerted by the theological predicates of absolute power and [divine] freedom.”

One danger, however, in invoking the absolute power of God in an approach to nature is a tendency to consider all possible, all conceivable, cases or examples within a problem under investigation without any notable consideration of what is in fact the case. One might well end up with a philosophy or science of nature without nature.

Discussions of God’s absolute power—as distinct from his ordinary power, that is, the power by which He does what He does, as distinct from what, absolutely speaking, He could do—such discussions played an important part in the philosophical movement known as Nominalism. The more one emphasizes the world simply as the product of God’s will, the more one risks the danger of denying an inherent intelligibility in nature—an intelligibility discoverable by human reason. Thus, an emphasis on sheer possibilities—on imagining what could be possible, given the fact that God is omnipotent—may well lead to the questioning of certain claims in Aristotelian natural philosophy, and this questioning can and did result in fruitful new examinations of nature. Nevertheless, an emphasis on God’s absolute power can result in the denial not only of an appropriate autonomy to the created order, but also a denial of an inherent intelligibility of that order.

Hans Blumenberg pointed out that the theological view that celebrates God’s absolute power prepared the way for its replacement by a radical conception of human autonomy that celebrates man’s absolute power.

It seems to me that the Condemnations of Paris of 1277—especially the emphasis on the absolute power of God—provide not so much an occasion for the rise of modern science, as Duhem thought, as they encourage a view of God, human nature, and nature, that is finally an obstacle that must be avoided if the natural sciences are to flourish.

Christianity is certainly not a barrier to the origin and growth of science, but nor is it a necessary prerequisite. Many scientists from the early stages of the Christian era until the present day have been motivated to explore nature because they thought such an exploration was an eminently Christian calling. Nature, after all, contains the “footsteps of God.Rather than emphasizing diviner omnipotence in understanding nature, we would be better served by following the admonition of Albert the Great (1200-1280):

In the natural sciences we do not investigate how God the Creator operates according to His free will and uses miracles to show His power, but rather what may happen in natural things on the ground of the causes inherent in nature.

The natural world operates according to principles inherent in it, principles that ultimately depend upon God for their existence, but principles and causes that have a reality and an efficacy that can be studied independently of theological and religious convictions. The Condemnations of Paris failed to make such a distinction.

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About Prof. William E. Carroll 3 Articles
Prof. William E. Carroll is Visiting Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Zhongnan University of Economics and Law (Wuhan, China).


  1. Nominalism appears to have led to the heresy of legal positivism. If law is whatever God says that it is, then humans can make – as opposed to find/discover – any law that they want.

    But the fact is that law is based on reason. Even if God didn’t exist (He does.), morality with regards to the natural law would be the same. God created human beings, so He did create the natural law (i.e. derived from human nature), but if He didn’t exist (He does.) morality with respect to everything that doesn’t have direct reference to God (e.g. Commandments 4-10) would be the same. This was – AFAIK – what the scholastics taught.

    This is how there can be a REASONABLE common ground between atheists, heretics, schismatics, and Catholics.

    However, it is more likely that non-Catholics are both anti-Catholic and “anti-natural-law.” But this is a result of an evil will, not necessarily faulty reasoning.

    However, those who make what the Catholic Church teaches to be “(arbitrary) impositions” are tacitly assuming the rationality of immoral “teachings” (e.g. abortion isn’t murder) and the irrationality of what the Catholic Church teaches.

    At some point, someone in the media admitted that even President Trump (At the time I believe that he was the president.) could speak the truth. Of course, anti-Catholics would never admit “out loud” that the Catholic Church was correct, even if they knew that She was.

    So long as there isn’t effective action taken against the spreading of false “teachings” regarding morality and religious faith – i.e. heresy – then it will be as if poison is permitted to exist within the political body.

  2. Aquinas was affected by the condemnations, one the issue of prime mover, God, who moves all things including the will. The other is scientific physics as movement from inertia in accordance with its observable laws [Divine Omnipotence and Science].
    Insofar as 1277 and an eternal universe, its perceived threat to the immortality of the soul is actually a non sequitur. For example, when the universe came into existence cannot be measured in a time sequence, since there are no preexisting coordinates to measure a time. Aquinas struggled with the question at times favoring one proposition to the other. In fact, the best we can say is that the universe was created. The issue of time is an irrelevant question.
    When we’re dealing with ancient texts there’s always the question of authenticity of manuscripts, as well as commentaries attributed to an author. An example is St Thomas Aquinas on Lust, and the sinfulness of impure thoughts. Initially St Thomas believed that the pleasure derived from a momentary imaginative visualization was a sin attributed to Lust. He believed he found that in Augustine, but later realized the text was actually from the Sentences of Peter Lombard. He changed his position on Lust, defining it as a willful acceptance, when imagined, of what is immoral and sinful [as one priest said it’s not the temptation that’s sinful rather it’s what you do with it]. So momentary imaginings and stimulation are not sinful when resisted and belong to temptation. Consequently, Aquinas made it clear that sin is in the will.

  3. In this discussion, so important to the reconstruction of Christian society, I think it important to recognize that Newton’s classical Physics is erronenous as science. He confused the idea of mass. and so catalyzed an technological revolution rather than a scientific one. While the medievals made great contributions to science, their efforts were aborted, it seems to me, by technologicial progress. Clearly Aristotle, followed by Aquinas, were foreshadowing Newton so far as confusing technology with science. Nevertheless, Aquinas argues that theology is a science. We are still reeling from the confusion between technology and science as it affects theology.

    Fr. Morello exhibits the kind of mind sorely needed today.

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