Will the real Francis Bacon please stand up?

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Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is considered by many as the founder of the scientific method, which is basically an organized way for us humans to attempt to answer questions about the Created order. A lawyer and a statesman, his greatest passion was in finding ways to improve and extend human knowledge, and this is seen in his written works like The Advancement of Learning.

Francis Bacon wrote many things. He was also accused of many things, and a brief read of Wikipedia’s Francis Bacon Page will leave any reader confused about who Bacon really was, or wasn’t.

Something that naturalists commonly credit Bacon with and creationists accuse Bacon of is encouraging the rejection of the Bible as a tool for informing scientific pursuits. This idea stems mainly from one paragraph he wrote in Novum Organum (1620), which is Latin for “New Instrument”. When describing “idols” that cause problems for proper study of natural philosophy, Bacon lists “superstition and religion” together as two culprits.  Bacon claims that, during his time:

“some moderns….have endeavored to build a system of natural Philosophy on the first chapter of Genesis, the book of Job, and other parts of Scripture; seeking thus the dead amongst the living. And this folly is the more to be prevented and restrained, because not only fantastical Philosophy but heretical Religion spring from the absurd mixing of matters-Divine and Human. It is therefore most wise soberly to render unto faith the things that are faith’s.”

Even though Bacon’s works are in English, I must admit that I feel extremely inadequate when attempting to interpret them.  And if you are anything like me, you may need to read the above passage over several times, and even then, it may still not make any sense. What I think is pretty obvious though is that Bacon is concerned with letting science (philosophy of men) interpret Scripture.  Bacon says it is wise to “render unto faith the things that are faith’s”, and warns against the “absurd mixing of matters Divine and Human.” Notice, he doesn’t say we should never mix Divine (God’s Word) and Human (scientific observations), but rather we should avoid absurd mixtures. This is basically the same thing he said 15 years earlier in Advancement of Learning, Book I:

“A man cannot be too well studied in the book of God’s word or in the book of God’s works, divinity or philosophy…..and again, that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together.” [emphasis mine]

Again, Bacon did not say never mix things divine and human, just don’t unwisely mix them. That is a BIG difference, one statement leading down a shifty, sandy, secular fundamentalist road and the other leading down a solid, Biblically grounded path for interpreting past, present and future events.

So what was Bacon talking about when he mentioned “fantastical philosophy” and “heretic religion” (in Bacon’s day, “religion” meant Christianity) resulting from “absurd mixtures” of God’s word versus man’s word? It is difficult to say, but possibly one event he was referring to was Galileo’s recent problems with Catholic church leaders. In the early 1600’s, Galileo had reported, based on observations, that the Sun was at the center of our solar system. Church leaders said the Earth was at the center. Now, Joshua 10:12-13, Ecclesiastes 1:5, and Isaiah 38:8, all say the Sun “moves”, but make no mention of whether the Earth does or doesn’t. So why did Church leaders support a “geocentric” idea? Interestingly, geocentrism was proposed by Aristotle, and, even though he never made any actual observations of planetary motion like Galileo had, Church leaders accepted his unscientific claims over Galileo’s real observations.

Christian leaders made a big mistake in trying to apply Aristotle’s deductive conclusions to interpret Scriptures. The Scriptures do mention relative motion between Sun and Earth, and Church leaders should have encouraged the study of this relative motion. This would have avoided false conclusions, as well as providing an excuse for us sinful humans to reject God’s word. Church leaders could have simply said “we don’t know, we haven’t measured it, nor have we been to Space to verify either Galileo’s or Aristotle’s claims.”

In my book, The Exchange of Truth, I talk about Francis Bacon and his impact on science. Before I wrote the book, I did quite a bit of research on him. Here is a .pdf file of a 2005 presentation I gave on Bacon:

The Forgotten Message of Francis Bacon

From what I have learned, it is obvious Bacon had some flaws, just like any of us, but I came away with a different conclusion than some as to what Bacon’s agenda was. What I saw was a man who thought it was perfectly reasonable to mix science and religion. One of his foundational verses was Matthew 22:29, where Jesus informed the Sadducees “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” Bacon thought men should know Scripture (God’s Word) and His power (God’s Works).  This idea permeates all of Bacon’s works.

Because I have written favorably of Bacon in Exchange of Truth, while other creationists have not, I thought I should conduct some more study into the man. To do this, I used a creation research search engine developed at Bryan College called CELD.   I typed in “Francis Bacon” and was greeted by several results. I was pleased to find some recent research published by Dr. Stephen A. McKnight from the University of Florida. In the abstract to a 2007 paper, he drew a similar conclusion to mine:

“Bacon’s program for rehabilitating humanity and its relation to nature is not a secular scientific advance through which humanity gains dominion over nature and mastery of its own destiny but rather one guided by divine Providence and achieved through pious human effort.”

McKnight has also published a book, The Religious Foundations of Francis Bacon’s Thoughts, and is a contributor to The New Atlantis, a journal of technology and society titled after one of Bacon’s most famous works.

So what do you think? Should Francis Bacon be labeled the hero of secular fundamentalists and villain of Christian creationists? I say no, but you should read Bacon and decide for yourself. My suggestion is to read Francis Bacon: The Major Works. Unless you are VERY fluent in 1600’s era English, Latin and Greek, you will find yourself flipping to the notes in the back about every other sentence. I think you may conclude, as myself and others have, that Francis Bacon saw the important connection between science and Christianity, a connection that is badly severed in the 21st century, but not impossible to repair. The Bible can inform science, and thinking of it any other way results in an “absurd mixing”.

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2 Comments on “Will the real Francis Bacon please stand up?”

  1. wagnerhomestead Says:

    Hi Dr. Shormann,

    What a timely post! Our 14 year old daughter is studying Francis Bacon for history this week. She will be reading your blog as part of her reading. Thank you!

    We have been researching what to do for biology next year. After studying various curriculum, we feel that DIVE Biology will be the best choice curriculum for us. We look forward to learning more about your work through your blog.

    The Wagner Family

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