Engaging with a Young Earth Creationist at BioLogos recently, Chris Falter raised the examples of Calvin, Luther and other Reformers opposing Copernican cosmology on the basis of biblical literalism. His aim was to show that this is a dangerous pursuit, and likely to pit theology unnecessarily against science, since nobody now thinks that modern astronomy contradicts the intent of Scripture.
In strictly factual terms this is correct: Calvin and Luther were certainly geocentrists, certainly took scriptures like Psalm 93:1 (“the earth is firmly established/ it shall not be moved”) as support for that position, and may have been familiar enough with what Copernicus proposed to make some kind of informed, and ultimately wrong, judgement. But I suggested there that this is an oversimplified view of the history, citing a few internet sources, not because I think the Reformers infallible (after all, I largely blame them for what I consider the erroneous but now prevalent view of a fallen natural creation), but because it reinforces, and partly depends on, the discredited and dicreditable “warfare hypothesis” presented as fact by nineteenth century authors, and still often assumed true both by skeptics and believers. But like other untruths it leads to many other unforeseen evils as well.
My purpose here isn’t to knock Chris – who has not only made a complimentary comment on a thread here, but has also been very supportive of my posts at BioLogos – but to explore things further and draw some unrelated conclusions. And so I’m happy to record that Chris and I agreed on the “minimalist” interpretation above, when he wrote:
My point is that Calvin’s literalistic hermeneutical approach to Psalm 93:1 and Psalm 104:5 led him to vigorously support geocentrism and to vituperate heliocentrism. If he had thought that Psalm 93:1 supported heliocentrism, he would have accepted heliocentrism as the real nature of things without a moment’s hesitation.
In fact, BioLogos had already carried an essay nuancing the Copernicus-Calvin “interaction”, in which Wyatt Houtz concludes:
The conclusion is that Calvin was opposed to the Heliocentrical model and firmly seated in the Geocentric model of his day. However, Calvin has certainly not laid down the ultimatum of the pseudo-Calvin quote that demands us choose between the Word of God and Copernicus. It is quite natural and appropriate to understand Calvin as accepting the prevailing cosmology of his day, rather than chasing (from his perspective in history), a novelty that is against the scientific consensus of the experts of his era.
This I agree with, and will expand on the “scientific consensus” theme below. However, I think Houtz’s further conclusion doesn’t at all follow from what he presents, and is worth disputing. He says:
In conclusion, it would be a great error to use John Calvin’s 16th century mind to oppose the accepted scientific consensus of today. He was not a biblicist or fundamentalist that opposed scientific knowledge to vet the Word of God against the world (which is the Theatre of God’s Glory). It would be appropriate to believe that if John Calvin lived today, over 500 years after his birth, that he would not support the scientific conspiracies of factional groups, in the same way that he did not accept Copernicus, but we would think of him as embracing the Science of our day. If anything, Calvin’s rejection of Copernicus teaches us to be cautious when rejecting the established scientific theories of today.
It is that last sentence that troubles me. If anything, the rejection of Copernicus by the Reformers (which itself needs qualifying) surely teaches us more to be cautious when accepting scientific theories of today, lest we end up as object lessons like them in the future – always given, as of first importance, that we have taken the trouble to study and understand the science. Sadly (because I like it!) that caution must include promoting, as in accord with Christian doctrine, congenial science like the Big Bang, of which Ted Davis, in another carefully balanced article at BioLogos, quotes Ted Peters thus:
What we can say is this: the universe as we know it has not always existed in the past. It has come to be. Discussions of creatio ex nihilo make sense.
That statement does not appear overblown, and yet it still depends on the belief that current science possesses the general truth. In this case the science has been established just a few decades – in the case of geocentrism, it had been settled for a thousand years or more. Imagine that Calvin had, equally cautiously, said: “What we can say is this: the earth does not move. Discussions about God establishing it firmly in Scripture therefore make sense.” It was the truth of the first, scientifically secure, premise that was eventually overturned.
At this point let me, nevertheless, defend the Reformers against the suggestion that, in any way, they put the Bible and science in opposition to one another. The first thing to say is that none of them was unqualified to make an informed judgement on astronomy, unlike the specialised theologian – or even biologist – of today. For they had all learned astronomy at University level:
A medieval University’s curriculum was generally broken down into the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and the quadrivium of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy…
The study of the trivium and quadrivium enjoyed preeminence at the three great northern universities – Oxford, Cambridge, and, especially, Paris.
Luther’s university, Erfurt, was both rather traditional and (according to him) disorderly. Calvin, however, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, a centre of excellence. Melanchthon did his astronomy at Heidelberg, and another, later, theologian often cited as a superstitious geocentrist in warfare-hypothesis literature, John Owen, studied at Oxford. (Incidentally, just as the Calvin case was originally built on an invented citation euphemistically dignified as “pseudo-Calvin”, Owen’s words are wrenched out of context and made to apply to a rejection of Newton’s science, though Owen died well before Newton even published! Never underestimate the sheer dishonesty of the purveyors of “science-religion” mythology.)
The paper by Copernicus scholar Robert S Westman, to which I linked at BioLogos, shows that it was Melanchthon’s Wittenberg University which, even before Copernicus was published, had adopted its maths whilst being skeptical of its cosmology. Melanchthon was a geocentrist, but it was his sending of Rheticus (subsequently Copernicus’s only real disciple) to research the new theory that resulted in De Revolutionibus being published at all. Rheticus was, of course, disappointed that Melanchthon was not persuaded, but the latter was not unqualified, nor unscientific, in his dissent:
Rheticus’ hopes were dashed when six years after the publication of De Revolutionibus Melanchthon published his Initia Doctrinae Physicae presenting three grounds to reject Copernicanism. These were “the evidence of the senses, the thousand-year consensus of men of science, and the authority of the Bible”.
Westman’s monumental tome (700 pages!) on Copernicus in his setting, The Copernican Question, also shows how we are no less selective than the Wittenbergers in embracing Copernicus, even if we disregard his error about circular orbits, only corrected much later by Kepler (whose work Galileo rejected!). For “the book recounts Copernicus’s unseen plan, which was to fortify the ‘science of the stars’, i.e., astrology mixed with astronomy, by buttressing its astronomy, including its computation and measurement foundation, commencing with planetary arrangement.” Westman shows how the astrological motive (probably not popular with the Reformers on biblical grounds!) was only gradually purged from heliocentrism, until the time of Newton. It must be added that others deny that Copernicus was interested in astrology, but most of his early scientific followers certainly were, including Galileo.
Another good article shows how science, even sixty years after the theory was published, found good reasons to reject it (and empirical support for the Ptolemaic model, including the telescopic confirmation of epicycles!). Indeed, for Calvin et al to have accepted heliocentrism in the 1540s would have earned them the reproof of most scientists even in the following century. As one source says:
Despite the near universal acceptance later of the heliocentric idea (though not the epicycles or the circular orbits), Copernicus’s theory was originally slow to catch on. Scholars hold that sixty years after the publication of The Revolutions there were only around 15 astronomers espousing Copernicanism in all of Europe: “Thomas Digges and Thomas Harriot in England; Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei in Italy; Diego Zuniga in Spain; Simon Stevin in the Low Countries; and in Germany, the largest group – Georg Joachim Rheticus, Michael Maestlin, Christoph Rothmann (who may have later recanted), and Johannes Kepler.” Additional possibilities are Englishman William Gilbert, along with Achilles Gasser, Georg Vogelin, Valentin Otto, and Tiedemann Giese.
That is an astonishing statistic, whether you regard it as showing the admirable caution of science, or its blinkered conservatism. It certainly shows that it was not Protestant or Catholic theologians who were holding up the race:
The intellectual climate of the time “remained dominated by Aristotelian philosophy and the corresponding Ptolemaic astronomy. At that time there was no reason to accept the Copernican theory, except for its mathematical simplicity [by avoiding using the equant in determining planetary positions].” Tycho Brahe’s system (“that the earth is stationary, the sun revolves about the earth, and the other planets revolve about the sun”) also directly competed with Copernicus’s. It was only a half century later with the work of Kepler and Galileo that any substantial evidence defending Copernicanism appeared, starting “from the time when Galileo formulated the principle of inertia…[which] helped to explain why everything would not fall off the earth if it were in motion.” “[Not until] after Isaac Newton formulated the universal law of gravitation and the laws of mechanics [in his 1687 Principia], which unified terrestrial and celestial mechanics, was the heliocentric view generally accepted.”
Another Copernicus scholar, Edward Rosen, painstakingly catalogues some of the academic opponents of Copernicanism to show that Galileo was engaged in wishful thinking when he wrote that nobody had disputed the idea:
The foregoing array of published pronouncements by such leading luminaries of the sixteenth century as the religious reformers Luther, Melanchthon and Peucer, the critic J. C. Scaliger, the poet Buchanan, the philosopher Bodin, the mathematicians Maurolico and Barozzi, the astronomers Brahe, Magini and Clavius, and the peripatetic LaGalla, shows how utterly mistaken was Galileo’s statement that Copernicus’ Revolutions “has been read and studied by everyone without the faintest hint of any objection ever being conceived against its doctrines.”
I would be cautious in including Luther here, in that his opposition is inferred only from one reported dinner-table remark about self-promoting innovators, long before Copernicus was published. But generally such critics were quite willing to cite reasons (other than Scripture) for their rejection. Christopher Clavius for example:
Among Galileo’s contemporaries in Italy the most renowned for his knowledge of astronomy was Christopher Clavius (1538-1612), to whom Galileo, like Maurolico, turned for help. In the first edition of a work which passed through half a dozen editions (plus a dozen re-impressions) Clavius said that Copernicus’ “idea conflicts with many aspects of experience and the common opinion of all philosophers and astronomers.” In the second edition Clavius inserted the additional condemnation that “many absurdities and errors are contained in Copernicus’ position.” Finally, in the fourth edition, Clavius supplemented his previous criticisms by asserting that Copernicus…“assumes hypotheses which are quite unsound, absurd and out of line with the commonsense of mankind, not to say foolish, when he deprives the sun of all motion and stations it in the center of the universe, but endows the earth with a multiple motion and places it, together with the other elements and the sphere of the moon in the third heaven, between Venus and Mars.”
Tycho was a pretty nominal Lutheran, but a great astronomer (whose theory was, in his time, dominant). He wrote, at various times:
“What need is there without any justification to imagine the earth, a dark, dense and inert mass, to be a heavenly body undergoing even more numerous revolutions than the others, that is to say, subject to a triple motion, in violation not only of all physical truth [or “the principles of physics”, as he writes elsewhere] but also of the authority of Holy Scripture, which ought to be paramount?”
“By ordaining a triple motion of the earth, Copernicus introduced no trivial physical absurdities.” Brahe emphatically denied that the “physical absurdities which accompany the Copernican hypothesis were adequately refuted by him.” A letter in which Brahe, the foremost astronomer of the second half of the sixteenth century, referred to the “absurdities introduced by Copernicus” was published by the recipient, Giovanni Antonio Magini (1555-1617). Long before receiving Brahe’s letter, Magini himself had publicly referred to “absurd hypotheses, such as Copernicus imagined.” …His hypotheses “are attacked by nearly everybody for being too far away from the truth and absurd.” These condemnations of Copernicus came from Magini’s pen shortly after he was appointed to fill the vacant professorship of mathematics at the university of Bologna. An unsuccessful rival for the same appointment had been none other than Galileo himself.
What does all this mean, given that Copernicanism, or actually Keplerism, eventually prevailed … or has, at least, for the last 350 years? Certainly, that criticising churchmen of Copernicus’s own time for rejecting his theory, when professional astronomers of sixty years later mostly still rejected it too, is pernicious. Even to blame them for taking Scripture too literally is unjust: remember, Melanchthon put commonsense and long-established science before Scripture in his list of objections, and the astronomer Tycho Brahe employed exactly the same triad of arguments, in the same order. If religion resisted Copernicus, professional astronomy did, and for exactly the same reasons.
But perhaps we should excuse science, as so often skeptics do, on the basis that it is self-correcting, and eventually accepted Copernicanism? If so, then exactly the same must be said of theology, which was no slower to adapt its hermeneutic of Scripture than science was to overcome its objections of violation of the laws of physics.
But in fact, the truth is that Copernicus was never adopted at all, but adapted. We now reject his circular orbits, his epicycles (of which there were more than Ptolemy’s), his astrology (if he held to it as most astronomers then did), his Pythagorean philosophy and his more than aesthetic reverence for the sun:
Truly in the middle of everything the sun is at rest. For in this most beautiful temple, who would place this lamp in another or better position than that from which it can light up the whole thing at the same time? In fact, the sun is not inappropriately called by some people the lantern of the universe, its mind by others, and its ruler by still others. Hermes Trismegistus labels it a visible god, and Sophocles’ Electra, the all-seeing. Thus indeed, as though seated on a royal throne, the sun governs the family of planets revolving around it.
The only part that eventually became “settled science” was the heliocentrism – and probably as importantly, the peripheral suggestion that the stars were other worlds rather than points on an outer sphere. In other words, knowledge staggered forward in the usual sporadic human manner, with Copernicus gaining one insight, to be corrected in a rather Hegelian way by the valid objections of his many critics – including, in fact, those of theologians like Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon and Owen.
However, I don’t think it was intrinsically correct for them to stick with their established science as a matter of principle: why should it ever be correct to be wrong? Had the theory been more persuasive, or had particular aspects appeared convincing to their mindsets, or even to their understanding of Scripture, then it would have been quite in order for them to opt individually to bat for one team or the other, so long as they didn’t use scientific opinion to establish their public doctrine, or to break their Christian unity. After all, the passage in John Owen, though it actually predates the conclusive work of Newton, can actually be interpreted in context as confirming heliocentrism as the fact, yet not overturning the validity of ancient phenomenology – a postmodern position, in the healthy sense.
With reference to origins science, and how Christians whether inside or outside science should position themselves, I think the only guidance the Copernicus episode gives us is that even science that has been settled for a thousand years may be flat wrong. There may be reasons for believing the consensus, or supporting it whilst witholding judgement. But equally there may be reasons to dispute it – including that one is not intellectually persuaded it is true. The Modern Synthesis is less than a century old, and is being challenged by far more alternatives, and many more scientific dissidents, than geocentrism ever was: geocentrism never had a Third Way Movement within astronomy. Darwinian evolution itself is less than 160 years old – and even evolution in its broadest, most uncontroversial understanding of “descent with modification” is just a century older, and no more empirically confirmed than was the Ptolemaic system.
If we are inclined to commit ourselves to the idea that the latest consensus must be supported, then we should remember that Tycho Brahe’s system, for a while, was the successful consensus that had replaced the failed anti-science of Copernicanism and its stubbornly reactionary (and dangerous) modern proponent, Galileo.