The Archives: Timothy J. Burbery

Squaring God's Books

Did Protestant biblical exegesis play a vital role in the formation of modern science?

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Some of the collection's strongest essays complicate Harrison's treatment of the literal. Among these is Peter Forshaw's discussion of the Lutheran alchemist Heinrich Khunrath (1560-1605). In a sense Khunrath was the ultimate literalist, offering radically material readings of the Genesis creation account. For instance, he figures God as a proto-alchemist, working in a kind of cosmic laboratory, and creating heavens which presage "the spirit of the alchemical quintessence … the Spirit, Water and Fire that the [alchemists] reveal in their laboratories." Paradoxically, however, Khunrath's exegesis is also highly symbolic, and teems with references to Hermes Trismegistus, Moses (who is for him the ultimate kabbalist), the ancient philosophers, and other alchemical discourse. Furthermore, he presents a lengthy argument on how Jesus parallels the Philosopher's Stone. Reading Khunrath's multi-layered, arcane texts is thus a dizzying affair, and suggests that the understanding of the literal in early modernity was quite multi-faceted.

James Fleming challenges Harrison's characterization of the literal as a trans-historical category that functions as a pre-condition for science. In a dense but rewarding account,Fleming contends that the very notion of literalism is itself a hermeneutical construct, one that arose simultaneously with the new science. Fundamental to his essay is the concept of "intensional literalism," a method that allows one to interpret not merely according to the meaning of the words of an utterance, but also by the speaker's intent—which may sometimes be the opposite of the utterance's grammatical and syntactical meaning. This sort of exegesis allowed Galileo and other early modern Copernicans to account for biblical texts that would seem to contradict their claims. Fleming shows that early modern theologians also practiced this kind of literalism. The rub, of course, was how to determine intent. One solution to potential hermeneutic anarchy was the formation of what Stanley Fish calls interpretive communities, that is, authoritative bodies that adjudicated conflicting readings. For centuries, the Catholic Church had functioned as such a community, yet strikingly, even though Galileo ran afoul of this body, he and other Copernicans nonetheless invoked interpretive communities when presenting their work to the public: Copernicus himself, along with Kepler, situated his findings in a Pythagorean tradition, while Galileo adduced speculations on geomotivity by Augustine, the Bishop of Avila, and other church authorities.

Other essays in The Word and The World engage similar themes. Paul Muller considers the role interpretive communities played in relation to the new science, particularly the scholarly community that dealt with manuscripts of ancient texts, and offers an intriguing analogy: Many of the practices utilized by 17th-century natural philosophers to decide between conflicting experimental results were based on very similar techniques deployed by textual critics to deal with divergent manuscripts of the Bible and other incunabulae. Also noteworthy is the essay by Hakan Hakansson, which surveys the surprisingly large role biblical prophecy and astrology played in the career of famed astronomer Tycho Brahe, generally regarded as a paragon of clear-sighted empiricism, and Jonathan Sawday's absorbing study of how the Babel narrative persisted well into the 18th century, a narrative that functioned not as we might expect, as a cautionary tale, but rather, as a story that frequently inspired technological innovation.

While reading The Word and the World, I found myself wondering how Peter Harrison would reply to some of his critics, though I realize that including his response would have enlarged an already sizeable book. I also question one of the claims in the book's introduction: "Literal interpretation of the Bible is an affront to any modern scientific procedure." I suspect that what's being referred to here are strict creationist readings of the Genesis account. However, while most modern scientists would dismiss the notion of a young Earth, and many would reject the claim that God created the world, don't they agree, at least implicitly, with the Bible's frequent—and frequently literal—statements about the order, regularity, and stability of nature? Indeed, absent such a belief science would seem to be impossible. These quibbles aside, The Word and the World more than succeeds in its stated goal: To show that in the early modern period "natural philosophy [was] characterized by its willingness and desire to marry scripturalism with its study of the natural world."

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