Writings of Sebonde




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By Rev. Baden Powell

Writings of Sebonde.

Perhaps the earliest modern writer of a professed treatise on natural theology was Raimond de Sebonde [See Hallam's "Lit. of Europe," 1. 192.], professor of medicine at Barcelona, in the early part of the fifteenth century. In his "Theologia Naturalis, sive Liber Creaturarum," he professes to develop truths latent in nature, which may disclose to man both the perfections of God and the right clue to the understanding of Scripture. He dwells much on the impossibility of misinterpreting the book of nature, while that of revelation is open to every kind of false comment. Hence the certainty with which we may rely on the former as key to the latter. The application of the method proposed is found in a kind of analogy between natural and divine things, followed out in a somewhat fanciful and mystic style. In fact, not only in those ages, but for long afterwards, "natural theology" had but a vague meaning, and, at the best, consisted, in illustrations and confirmations from the works of nature, in support of the belief in the existence and perfections of the Deity already assumed and presupposed: not in the discussion of the question to what legitimate inferences of this kind does the independent examination of nature rightly conduct us? The idea of creation, in particular, was always assumed in the first instance; the argument was solely as to the perfection of the Creator. It was never inquired, what in the evidence of the origin of existing things; unless, indeed, the interminable metaphysical disputations of those ages for and against the thesis of the eternity of the world may come under that designation. 

Aristotelian philosophy adopted by the Church. 

The dominion of the Aristotelian philosophy over the European schools during the middle ages was complete, and was upheld with the full authority of the Church, with the manifest motive, that as it professed to systematise all knowledge, and to confer a deductive power as the sole means of arriving at truth, so by this means all knowledge was restricted within prescribed limits; no additions could be made to a system already perfect and complete; all fresh discovery was impossible, all original remark and inquiry prohibited, and the dominion of the ecclesiastical dogmas (all defensible and deducible on the scholastic principle) was unalterably secured. 

Mediaeval skepticism.

Under the outward profession of submission to the decrees of the Church and devotion to the Aristotelian philosophy in the middle ages, so often vaunted as peculiarly ages of faith, more deeply inquiring writers [See Hallam's "Lit. of Europe," 1. 190.] have, however, traced no slight indications of a very prevalent spirit of skepticism in religion not unnaturally arising out of the disputatious character of the school theology. But it is worthy of remark, that this skepticism was for the most part of a metaphysical cast, and little connected with any physical ideas. Those who might secretly deride the metaphysical mysteries of which they made such a parade in their professed formularies, yet sank in lowest prostration before physical prodigies and supernatural influences. Yet some few instances were not wanting of minds superior even to these prejudices in the darkest periods; among whom Roger Bacon was the most conspicuous. His physical innovations were chiefly those which brought down on him the animosity of the ecclesiastical authorities. 

The Peripatetic doctrine, as embodied in the dogmas of the schoolmen, even to its physical details, was closely mixed up with the mediaeval theology. None of its subtleties could be disregarded without endangering the doctrines of the Church. The theology and the physics of the age formed a closely compacted system. No one point, however apparently insignificant, could be displaced from its position without perilling the stability of the whole [On this point see Bp. Hampden, "Bampton Lectures," Oxford, 1833, pp. 191, 334.].  Hence the tenacity with which the ecclesiastics clung to every proposition of the scholastic physics. Their whole creed was in jeopardy if substance and accident, occult qualities, the essential perfection of celestial phenomena, and the corruption of terrestrial, were called in question. 


We may cite. as a curious illustrative instance, the disputes sometimes raised in those times, as to the figure of the earth, and the existence of antipodes. 

Lactantius argued elaborately on the absurdity of supposing the possibility of human beings so situated; Augustine denied their existence as irreconcilable with Scripture; and Boniface, Archbishop of Metz, placed such beings out of the pale of salvation [Whewell, "Hist. of Ind. Sciences," i. 254. 256.].

Collision of science with theology. 

The consequences of this alliance, or rather misalliance,  of religion with the philosophical system of the day, such as it was, were necessarily the abuse and perversion of both. A false philosophy gave support to a corrupt religion; and the first refutation of the philosophical errors, and the gradual introduction of better views of the natural world, could not but be the occasion of a collision between science and theology; just as the most elementary instruction in geography dispels from the mind of the Hindoo the ideas of the seven oceans and the seven continents surrounding India, and with them discredits the whole authority of the sacred books of the Brahmins.

The Order of Nature






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