Physico-theology: Religion and Science in Europe, 1650-1750

The drive to reconcile religion and science has a long history that extends to this day. It was especially pressing in the period 1650-1750, when religion was a matter of strong commitment and science was being radically transformed by new mathematical, experimental methods, and mechanistic notions about the functioning of nature and the universe. Even the human body was seen as a ‘machine’ by many who followed the mechanical philosophy of Descartes and others. Physico-theology was a genre of writing that aimed to show how the new science could be harmonized with longstanding Christian beliefs in the providence and benevolence of God. The argument from design is the best known of these arguments, but there were several others that variously offered physical explanations of events described in the Bible or overlaid divine providence onto features of the natural world, from the lives of insects to the movements of the planets, and even to the physical possibility of resurrection.

Physico-theology praised God for the regularities and laws of nature rather than the suspension of them in miraculous occurrences. At the same time, physico-theologians defended the role of God in nature against the emerging threats of deism or atheism that would deny it. God’s creation was admirable precisely because it was rule-bound so as to support life for so many species including humans. But those rules also brought about catastrophes, like floods or earthquakes, which were necessary for continued regulation of nature. These arguments were deployed in endless variations that interpreted the many new observations of the period (e.g. from the use of microscopes and telescopes) with an optimistic natural theological sensibility. 

Physico-theology was easily adapted to multiple religious, national, and linguistic contexts. At a time when science was increasingly published in the vernacular rather than Latin (in treatises and the new genre of the periodical), Physico-theology followed suit, aiming to reach a broad educated public. For this reason, physico-theologians have at times been interpreted as early proponents of the Enlightenment; on the other hand they have also been portrayed as apologists of Christianity in an age of secularization. Our volume, Physico-theology: Religion and Science in Europe, 1650-1750, seeks to restore the complexity of their positions and motivations by examining the terms and texts of Physico-theology in the several contexts in which they were produced and circulated.


In English John Ray and William Derham popularized the term in their often-reprinted books; in Dutch Bernard Nieuwentijt was equally influential. In the German lands Physico-theology inspired not only works of science and history, for example by Johann Christoph Sturm and Johann Albert Fabricius, but also poets like Barthold Heinrich Brockes and painters like Catharina Treu and a new appreciation of the mountains as admirable and sublime rather than forbidding. Although Physico-theology has mostly been studied in Protestant contexts, Catholic examples are well worth studying, as authors in this volume focused on French and Italian writers (Blaise Pascal, Noël-Antoine Pluche, and Antonio Vallisneri) have shown.

As editors we have each learned a great deal about the many facets of this intellectual and cultural movement, thanks to the wide range of sources, languages, and disciplines represented by the sixteen expert contributors to the volume. They were also able to hone their positions by sharing them with one another in person at a conference in Wolfenbüttel (Germany) in 2016. We are all grateful to JHU Press for publishing this first book-length study of the topic and look forward to continued exchange and debate.

We hope that our work spawns continued interest in the history of the interactions of Christianity and science. These interactions, complex and constantly shifting, were long central to European culture and remain so today in Europe and throughout the world. Their longevity and many forms belie the simplistic notion, still often repeated after its coining in the late 19th century, that religion and science are inevitably hostile to one another. The flourishing of Physico-theology in reaction to the new science is just one of many historical counterarguments to that claim. The arguments of physico-theologians of 1650-1750 are at once strange—imbued as they are with scientific and religious ideas characteristic of their time—and also familiar as we continue to grapple with how to understand the place of humans in nature on many levels, from the physical to the spiritual.

Order Physico-theology: Religion and Science in Europe, 1650-1750 – published on August 25, 2020 – at the following link:

Ann Blair is the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor at Harvard University. She is the author of Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age. Kaspar von Greyerz is professor emeritus in the Department of History at the University of Basel. He is the author of Religion and Culture in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1800. Together, Blair and von Greyerz are the editors of Physico-theology: Religion and Science in Europe, 1650-1750.


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