The Effects of Christianity (Part 4)
April 30, 2019
by Peter Amsterdam
The Effects of Christianity (Part 4)
(Points from this article were taken from How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin J. Schmidt1)
This fourth and final article about some of the effects Christianity has had on the world will touch on three ways in which Christianity and/or individual Christians significantly helped change the world—by changing the way physical labor is viewed, changing the understanding of money-lending, as well as making various scientific discoveries.
The Dignity of Physical Labor
The ancient Romans, along with the Greeks before them, had a very low view of physical labor. The way they saw it was that only the lower classes and slaves did manual labor. Christians, like the Jews, had a much more positive view of work. As a first-century Jewish man, Jesus labored as a carpenter (skilled laborer), and the apostle Paul worked as a tentmaker. In the book of 2 Thessalonians, Paul wrote: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.2 Jesus’ and Paul’s examples of working caused Christians to view labor and work as being honorable and God-pleasing.
In monasteries during the Middle Ages, work was seen as honorable, while slothfulness was considered one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The sixth-century Benedictine monks saw labor as an integral spiritual part of their discipline [that] did much to increase the prestige of labor and the self-respect of the laborer.3 Work was also seen as an antidote to the sin of laziness. St. Basil of Caesarea in the fourth century said: Idleness is a great evil; work preserves us from evil thoughts.4
During the Reformation (1517–1648), the idea of valuing work and manual labor received further support. Martin Luther considered work a calling, a way to serve God. This led to the understanding that there was no low-status or high-status work, nor was there good work and bad work. No matter what type of work a Christian did, it was seen as honorable, something the person did for the glory of God and to serve humanity. It was noble and was considered a Christian duty, a calling, a vocation.
Adjustment of Views on Money-lending
John Calvin (1509–1564), the French theologian and reformer based in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation, and the father of the branch of Christian theology known as Calvinism, played a major role in changing the church’s understanding of usury—the loaning of money with interest.
The Old Testament injunctions regarding lending money stated:
If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him.5
If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit.6
Calvin’s stance regarding interest was in opposition to what Christians from earlier times believed. From the fourth century on, Christian theologians defined lending money for gain as a sin and an evil in itself. In the Middle Ages, lending money at interest for a guaranteed return was illegal for Christians and seen as immoral, unless the one lending the money shared in the risk of the venture.
Calvin knew that there were two Hebrew words which were translated in Scripture as “usury.” One was nashak, which meant “to bite” as well as “to pay interest,” and the other was tarbit, which meant “to take legitimate increase.” Calvin considered that “biting” loans were the only ones forbidden. He felt it was legitimate to lend money with interest to people who would make a profit from the money. To someone who was poor but had some sort of employment, loans could be made without interest, but with the expectation that the money would be repaid. To someone who was destitute, money should be given without expecting repayment. This interpretation was very different from the earlier negative perspective that the church had on usury, and this revision of traditional moral teaching brought about significant and positive change in the economies of Europe and America in the following centuries.
The ancient Greek and Roman polytheistic cultures believed in gods who engaged in jealous, irrational behavior in a world that was nonrational, which made the concept of systematic investigation of the world and how it functions futile. However, Christianity, along with Judaism, teaches that God is a rational being. Because humans are made in His image, we too are rational beings who are able to use rational processes to study and investigate the world in which we live.
For 1,500 years, the concept taught by Aristotle (384–322 BC) that knowledge could only be acquired through using the mind in deductive reasoning was prominent. In the 12th century, some Christian philosophers such as Robert Grosseteste (1168–1253), a Franciscan bishop and the first chancellor of Oxford University, proposed the inductive, experimental method as an approach to gaining scientific knowledge. Grosseteste’s pupil Roger Bacon (1214–1292), another Franciscan monk, asserted that “all things must be verified by experience.”7
Three hundred years later, Francis Bacon (1561–1626), a devout Anglican, propelled the concept of inductive reasoning forward by means of keeping a written account of his experiments and their results. He promoted the concept that science involves careful and methodical observation along with rigorous skepticism about what is observed. As such, he is known as the father of the scientific method.
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) was raised by his uncle, a Catholic priest. He received a doctor’s degree and was trained as a physician. He also studied theology and canon law, and for a time was part of a religious order, but he didn’t become a priest. He introduced the heliostatic theory, which states that the sun is the center of our solar system and that the earth rotates around the sun. Until that time, people thought the earth was the center of our solar system. He was hesitant to publish his theory, because the Catholic Church at the time often considered new scientific discoveries heresies and persecuted their authors as heretics. However, two Lutheran friends persuaded him to do so shortly before his death.
Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) studied for three years to become a Lutheran pastor. When he was assigned to teach mathematics in Austria, he took up astronomy. His mathematical calculations proved that the planets orbit the sun elliptically and that they do not move at a uniform speed. Moments before he died, when asked by a Lutheran pastor where he placed his faith, he responded, “Solely and alone in the work of our redeemer Jesus Christ.”8
Isaac Newton (1642–1727), building on Kepler’s planetary laws, discovered the laws of gravity. Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy is considered “one of the greatest single contributions in the history of science.”9 Although some historians contend that Newton was not a Christian, some of his writings clearly express belief in God.
“God governs the world invisibly, and he has commanded us to worship him, and no other God … he has revived Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who has gone into the heavens to receive and prepare a place for us, and … will at length return and reign over us … till he has raised up and judged all the dead.”10
Alessandro Volta (1745–1827) was a physicist, chemist, and a pioneer of electrical science. He was the inventor of the electric battery. He was raised a Catholic, and throughout his life he continued to believe. It’s from his name that we get the terms volt and voltage. He wrote:
I do not understand how anyone can doubt the sincerity and constancy of my attachment to the religion which I profess, the Roman Catholic and Apostolic religion in which I was born and brought up, and of which I have always made confession, externally and internally.11
Robert Boyle (1627–1691) was a natural philosopher, physicist, and chemist. He is considered to be the “father of chemistry” and is known for “Boyle’s law.” He is also known as one of the pioneers of modern experimental scientific methods. Besides his focus on science, Boyle wrote in defense of the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ. He spent a great deal of money promoting Christianity in the East. He believed people should access the Bible in their own language, and therefore helped to finance translations of the Bible or portions of it into various languages, including the Old and New Testament in Irish for his fellow countrymen.
George Washington Carver (c.1864–1943) was born into American slavery. When he was a week old he, his sister, and mother were kidnapped, taken to another state, and sold as slaves. Their original owner, Moses Carver, hired a detective to find them, but he was only able to find George. When slavery was abolished, Moses and his wife raised George and his brother James (who had not been kidnapped and had remained with the Carvers) as their own children. They encouraged George to pursue his education. After being accepted at one college, they rejected him upon arrival because of his race. Later he attended Iowa State Agricultural College as its first black student. He went on to earn a master of science degree.
He then joined Tuskegee University, a university for African Americans, as a teacher and researcher. He became America’s top authority on peanuts and sweet potatoes. He developed over three hundred byproducts from peanuts, ranging from instant coffee to soap and ink. From the sweet potato, he developed over one hundred byproducts, including flour, shoe polish, and candy. He convinced Southern farmers to grow peanuts, sweet potatoes, and pecans instead of only cotton, which diversified the agriculture of the South. He received numerous awards for his work, and his name is on a variety of buildings, schools, and parks. Carver became a Christian at age ten. Author Henry Morris writes that Carver was “a sincere and humble Christian” who never hesitated “to confess his faith in the God of the Bible and attribute all his success and ability to God.”12
While there have been many notable Christians throughout history whose achievements have greatly influenced our world, there have also been billions of Christians who we know nothing about who have also positively impacted the world. There are the moms and dads who taught their children about Jesus and who, through their example of living their faith, helped their children decide to become Christians. Teachers, caregivers, missionaries, godly employers, Christians in every walk of life, in every profession, who have shared their faith with others have helped to change people’s lives. Each of us, every single day, can positively affect our part of the world through loving others, being kind, fair, understanding, generous, positive, and helpful. We can be inclusive, respectful, forgiving, humble, meek, patient, and kind. As we do our best to live our faith, to emulate Jesus, to love God and others, we too will change our part of the world for the better.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).
2 2 Thessalonians 3:10.
3 Lynn D. White, “The Significance of Medieval Christianity,” in The Vitality of the Christian Tradition, ed. George F. Thomas (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945), 91.
4 Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, 197.
5 Exodus 22:25.
6 Leviticus 25:35–37.
7 Roger Bacon, Opus majus, trans. Robert Belle Burke (New York: Russell and Russell, 1962), 584.
8 Max Caspar, Johannes Kepler (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer Verlag, 1948), 73.
9 Eric Temple Bell, “Newton, Isaac, Sir,” The World Book Encyclopedia (Chicago: Field Enterprises Educational Corporation, 1958), 12:5619.
10 Isaac Newton, “God and Natural Philosophy,” in Newton’s Philosophy of Nature: Selections from His Writings, ed. H. S. Thayer (New York: Hafner Publishing, 1953), 66–67.
11 Alessandro Volta, Epistolario, Volume 5 (Zanichelli, 1955), 29.
12 Henry Morris, Men of Science—Men of God (San Diego: Creation-Life Publishers, 1982), 104–5.