Roger Bacon (c.1214-1294)

Christians Who Changed Their World

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.

In the previous articles on the Naumburg Master and Robert Grosseteste, we saw how a shift in worldview toward “Platonic humanism” revolutionized the arts and began to change the way scholars studied the natural world.

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.

But this raised a problem: given that there was already a developed worldview in place in the European schools, how did one go about incorporating the New Aristotle into it? The answer came from the Cathedral School of Laon in the form of a method of study known as the Quaestio (question) method.

The Quaestio method had four steps:

  1. Ask a question.
  2. List authorities who had addressed the question organized into two categories, those who answered the question yes, and those who answered it no.
  3. Since it was assumed that authorities wouldn’t contradict each other, the next step was to analyze the two lists using logical and linguistic analysis to reconcile the statements with each other as much as possible.
  4. Present the solution to the question which best resolves the different opinions of the authorities.

As time went on, two additional steps were added that could be repeated as necessary:

  1. Raise objections to the solution.
  2. Resolve the objections.

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.

Scholastic methodology also violated one of the fundamental precepts of Platonic humanism, that studying the world as it is rather than as we think it should be (or as other people think it is) can lead us to knowledge of God. Roger Bacon (c.1214-1294) understood this far better than most people in his era.

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.

In terms of methodology, like other medieval thinkers, Bacon was open to the possibility of miracles, but rejected them as an explanation for normal events. To him, reliance on supernatural explanations was a mark of intellectual laziness. Instead, Bacon believed that natural events have natural causes, and though God may intervene to interrupt the natural flow of events, that was a special, rare 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:

  • He was the first European to discuss gunpowder, which came to him in the form of firecrackers brought from China by his fellow Franciscans. He even knew the chemical makeup, though he may not have been correct about the proportions.
  • He anticipated microscopes, telescopes, and eyeglasses, the last of which was invented shortly after his death.
  • He also anticipated the development of hydraulics, automobiles, steamships, submarines, and flying machines.

But Bacon wasn’t only involved in natural philosophy. He recognized that his methodology focused on direct observation could apply to other areas of study. In particular, he was very upset with the theologians at the University of Paris who relied primarily on Peter Lombard’s Sentences to teach theology, and only turned to Scripture after their ideas had been formed by their study of the Sentences. To make matters worse, they refused to learn the biblical languages and instead relied on what Bacon saw as obviously defective copies of the Latin translation of the Bible.

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).

Bacon wasn’t a modern scientist; he saw the natural world as a source of revelation about God, and thus studying it as a branch of theology. He still relied on and respected ancient authorities, though he had a methodology in place to correct them. And the same method could be used for the study of Scripture. In short, Bacon is another example of a man with an integrated worldview, based on biblical ideas about the nature of humanity and of the universe, and who understood and applied the ideas within that worldview far more systematically than most of his contemporaries.


Dr. Glenn Sunshine is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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