Christian History Home > Issue 76 > Did the Reformers Reject Copernicus?
Did the Reformers Reject Copernicus?
Some defenders of secular science say they did. What's the real story?
From the start, Nicolaus Copernicus's heliocentric system, described in his De Revolutionibus, met opposition from Catholics and Protestants alike. Critics attacked his new cosmology with a number of Scripture passages:
Psalm 19: "He set the tabernacle for the sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race. His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it."
Psalm 93: "Thou hast fixed the earth immovable and firm, thy throne firm from of old."
Ecclesiastes 1: "But the earth abideth forever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goes down, and hastens to his place where he arose."
In 1539, even before Copernicus's book was printed, Martin Luther had already heard about the astronomer's theories—and commented against them in the course of a dinner conversation. An eager young student copied down the critique and reported it:
"There was mention of a certain new astrologer who wanted to prove that the earth moves and not the sky, the sun and the moon. This would be as if somebody were riding on a cart or in a ship and imagined that he was standing still while the earth and trees were moving. Luther remarked, 'So it goes now. Whoever wants to be clever … must do something of his own. This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. … I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.'"
Another student recorded it a little differently: "That fool would upset the whole art of astronomy." A punchier "sound bite," this version has been widely quoted, though scholars generally believe it to be apocryphal.
These off-the-cuff remarks might have been forgotten, though they were printed in the Tischreden or "Table Talk" series, first published in Wittenberg in 1566. But Luther's comments gained notoriety when Andrew Dickson White, first president of Cornell University, polished them up in 1896 as part of his History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.
A liberal Christian, White's announced goal was to let "the light of historical truth into that decaying mass of outworn thought which attaches the modern world to medieval conceptions of Christianity—a most serious barrier to religion and morals." He was eager to discredit what he believed was religion's antipathy toward the march of science, so he got his graduate students to dig up as many cases as they could find.
The former Cornell president was not about to stop with Luther. Despite the fact that Copernicus's book was essentially published under Lutheran auspices, White continued, "While Lutheranism was thus condemning the theory of the earth's movement, other branches of the Protestant Church did not remain behind. Calvin took the lead, in his commentary of Genesis, by condemning all who asserted that the earth is not at the center of the universe. He clinched the matter by the usual reference to the first verse of the ninety-third Psalm, and asked, 'Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?'"
White's quotation set historians off on a frustrated search to find where the Genevan reformer mentioned Copernicus. Copernican scholar Edward Rosen, a master of minutiae, tracked down a flock of authors who simply parroted White's account, but traced the comment itself back to Rev. F. W. Farrar, an Anglican canon who was at one time chaplain to Queen Victoria, and who over-confidently relied on his capacious memory of quotations to generate out of whole cloth Calvin's comment on Psalm 93. Rosen concluded that Calvin had never heard of Copernicus, let alone critiqued him.
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