|Roger Bacon (ca. 1214-1294)|
Christians Who Changed Their World (14)
This is part of an on-going series of articles about largely unknown Christians who had an enormous impact on society by faithfully living out their biblical worldview in various areas of life.
The “New Aristotle”
Although Platonic humanism was developed in the Cathedral Schools of the twelfth century, the trends that it set in motion were further accelerated by the “New Aristotle” that made its way into the Latin speaking world in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Prior to this, very few works of Aristotle were available to scholars in the West. Contacts with the Muslims in Spain led to the realization that much more of the Aristotelian corpus survived, and the process of translating these “new” works of Aristotle into Latin began.
Aristotle was an amazingly comprehensive thinker. He produced works of philosophy, logic, science, literary criticism, politics, etc. All of these were of very high quality, and together they formed a coherent worldview that answered many of the key philosophical questions that occupied medieval philosophers and theologians.
The Quaestio method
The Quaestio method had four steps:
As time went on, two additional steps were added that could be repeated as necessary:
In its full, six step form, this method became known as scholasticism, which, properly speaking, is a method of study and analysis that can (and was) applied to every subject in the medieval curriculum.
This approach was tailor-made to allow lots of new material to be incorporated into an existing body of knowledge; it had the disadvantage, however, that it assumed that ancient authors (the same word in Latin can be translated as “authorities”) knew the truth about which they wrote, and thus they could be relied upon and reconciled with each other.
Ironically enough, this approach contradicted Aristotle’s own methodology. Instead of looking for truth in ancient authorities, Aristotle advocated direct observation as the foundation for knowledge. As we have seen, Robert Grosseteste understood this and began applying this approach to some extent in his own work.
Bacon came from a well off family. He studied in Oxford, probably under Robert Grosseteste, and became a master at the University, lecturing on Aristotle. He moved from there to the University of Paris, the intellectual center of medieval Europe, for several years before returning to England and joining the Franciscan order.
As a Franciscan, Bacon no longer taught at the University, and the order had a prohibition on publishing books. In 1265, however, Cardinal Guy le Gros de Foulques, a friend of Bacon, became Pope Clement IV. The new Pope requested a book from Bacon on the relationship of philosophy and theology, and Bacon responded with several books covering a range of subjects.
About a decade after the Pope’s death, Bacon apparently was placed under house arrest for a time, but was soon released and resumed his studies at the Franciscan house in Oxford. Although the arrest has been reported as persecution of a proto-scientist by the Church, there is no evidence for this. The first report of his arrest dates from 80 years after his death, so it is not certain that it even happened. If it did, it was far more likely related to his sympathies with radical Franciscans, his interest in apocalyptic speculation or in astrology, or even his personality rather than his scientific studies.
Cause and event
Bacon followed Grosseteste in arguing for first-person observation as the foundation for knowledge. Although he accepted ancient authorities, he also believed that their work should be confirmed through experience and experimentation. He also followed Grosseteste in seeing mathematics as foundational for natural philosophy (i.e. studies of the natural world), and using mathematics to quantify observations.
Bacon applied these methods to a number of fields, including astronomy and optics, where he made some of his most important observations. He studied mirrors, different kinds of lenses, and began developing a theory of refraction. He identified the visible spectrum in light refracted through drops of water, and made observations that would lead to an explanation of rainbows. In conjunction with optics, he also studied the anatomy of eye and brain.
Bacon’s work in the sciences extended far beyond optics, however. He was involved in an astonishing range of activities, and predicted technological breakthroughs that are reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci and Jules Verne. He’s almost too good to be true, which has made him a character in a number of science fiction and fantasy novels as a time traveler or a wizard. For example:
Instead of this, Bacon advocated a text-based approach to theology that relied on studying the Bible first, and only then moving to the Sentences. Further, he believed that the Bible should be studied in the original languages, not just in Latin, since that was the proper way to make first hand observations of the text. This order—Bible, then Sentences—became the standard at Oxford even though his emphasis on the original languages wouldn’t get off the ground for nearly 300 years.
To aid in the study of Scripture, Bacon developed a very sophisticated theory of language and logic that brought together elements of philosophy (drawn from Aristotle) and theology (drawn from Augustine).
An integrated worldview
Bacon can be seen to have been a student of both God’s “books” of revelation – Scripture and creation. Would you describe yourself similarly? Meditate on Psalm 19. How can you see that God “speaks” through both these “books” of revelation? Should you be a little more engaged in these? How might you do that? Talk with a Christian friend about this question
Order Glenn’s book, Why You Think the Way You Do, from our online store. You’ll gain a better understanding of worldview and how they work. You might also read the article, “Introduction to the Christian Worldview,” by David Naugle.