Did the Reformers Reject Copernicus?

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.

There the matter stood until 1971, when a French scholar noticed that in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, Calvin denounced those “who will say that the sun does not move and that it is the earth that shifts and turns.” Here, however, Calvin neither mentioned Copernicus by name, nor did he invoke any Scripture against heliocentrism itself. In fact, it has been cogently argued that Calvin was alluding to a quotation in Cicero brought on by a debate with one of his understudies who had fallen out of his good favor. So the jury is still out on Calvin’s opinion, if any, on Copernicus and his book.

Given the wide distribution of De revolutionibus, it seems likely that John Calvin saw the book. But he probably also joined many of his devout contemporaries in viewing it as a mathematical device for calculation rather than a real description of nature. Indeed, a notice to readers had been added to the back of the book’s title page that insisted on just this point.

When Copernicus’s friend Bishop Tiedemann Giese saw the unauthorized addition, however, he angrily fired off a letter to the Nuremberg City Council demanding that the front matter be printed again. Giese then asked Copernicus’s first and only disciple, the Lutheran scholar Georg Joachim Rheticus, to insert in the copies not yet sold a short apologia “by which you have so skillfully defended the idea that the motion of the earth is not contrary to the Holy Scriptures.”

What was it that young Rheticus might have said to introduce Copernicus’s work to a flock of readers with their varying Protestant or Catholic orientations? Neither most of his contemporaries nor Andrew Dickson White ever knew. Only in the flurry of research associated with the 1973 celebration of Copernicus’s birthday did Rheticus’s treatise surface. It had indeed been printed, but anonymously, in a booklet published in Utrecht in 1651. It languished in obscurity until it was identified by the Dutch historian of science Reijer Hooykaas.

Rheticus listed many places where the Bible could not be read literally. He then cited a series of passages commonly used to condemn the reality of the heliocentric plan, including Joshua and the battle of Gibeon, and concluded by remarking that common speech mostly follows the judgment of the senses. “As persons who seek the truth about things,” he wrote, “we distinguish in our minds between appearance and reality.”

The future of Protestant response to Copernicus clearly lay with Rheticus, rather than with the off-hand remarks attributed to Luther.

Contrary to the polemics of Andrew Dickson White and others in his secularizing tradition, many Christians—Protestant and Catholic alike—who valued the authority of the Scriptures nevertheless saw that they had not intended to provide literal scientific information. In the famous words quoted by Galileo in his “Letter to the Grand Duchess,” the Holy Spirit intended the Scriptures to show not “how heaven goes,” but “how one goes to heaven.” CH

By Owen Gingerich

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #76 in 2002]

Owen Gingerich is Research Professor of Astronomy and History of Science at the Harvard—Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. This article is adapted from his upcoming book about his search for all possible sixteenth-century copies of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus, entitled The Book Nobody Read (Walker & Co., New York).
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