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Copernicus, Interrupted (Part 1)

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October 28, 2010 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now
Copernicus, Interrupted (Part 1)

Today's entry was written by Brandon Withrow. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Every semester I ask my students certain questions that begin, “How many of you have heard of…?” When the name “Copernicus” was attached to the end of that question this term, and several students had either not heard of him, or only knew his name but not what he had done for science, I was shocked. I immediately asked a different question: “Does the earth go around the sun or does the sun go around the earth?” Thankfully, they all got that answer correct.

I realized that Copernicus’ (1473-1543) heliocentric view is not so much discussed today as it is assumed. Few teachers would consider giving geocentrism equal time in schools, though there is always someone willing to go medieval on a subject. For example, a 1999 Gallup poll showed 18% of Americans were still geocentric, and the upcoming First Annual Catholic Conference on Geocentrism argues that geocentrism is true, but being covered up by a heliocentric conspiracy.

What is interesting to me are the kinds of parallels I find in the evangelical world over the discussion of evolution. Biologists may be frustrated that 150 years after Darwin’s Origin of the Species so many people resist it, especially evangelicals. The popular reaction against Darwin is still so strong that a feature film about his life was drummed out of the theaters last year and polarizing personalities like Glenn Beck feel the need to shout from the radio that evolution cannot be true since he has never seen an “half-monkey half-person” creature. (He also apparently has not read even half a book on the subject.)

The current evangelical foot-dragging to accept scientific discovery is not a unique situation. Historically speaking, human beings are always slow to change when it comes to any idea that appears to be both cosmologically and ontologically threatening. Just ask Copernicus.

History Repeating Itself

Copernicus’s basic conclusion may be accepted today, but it was a long time in coming. Resistance to Copernicus among Christians, particularly evangelicals, appears to have continued well into the 18th century, a good two-hundred years since the publication of his work on heliocentrism. This resistance comes from at least three theological conclusions.

Firstly, for centuries, theology was dubbed the “queen of the sciences,” leaving the nature of the material universe a question to be resolved by theology and Scripture. This was especially true by the time of the Protestant Reformation. It is not surprising that Martin Luther (1483-1546)— the fiery German Reformer and contemporary of Copernicus—resisted the new idea based on his reading of Joshua 10:13, where the sun is said to go around the earth.1 Scripture alone set the parameters for all scientific inquiry.

Secondly, Scripture was to be read literally. Protestants rejected the allegorical readings applied to Scripture by the medieval church and insisted more on the literal reading of the Bible. In such an intellectual environment, Copernicus’ heliocentric conclusion was theologically impossible for those who accepted the ancient and literal geocentric reading of Scripture.

Thirdly, when there was no Scriptural answer for a question of how the natural world worked, the solution was to generally leave it to the being of God. For example, sixteenth-century reformer John Calvin, wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that “the variations” of the seasons “are so great and so unequal as to make it very apparent that every single year, month, and day, is regulated by a new and special providence of God” (Institutes 1:16.2). In other words, an unusually cold summer or hot winter is just a matter of divine will.

More than century later, many theologians still saw the same relationship between God and the natural world. Scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1727) provided the world with a concept of natural laws in his De Principia (1687), but even for Newton, space and time were produced by the divine being. God’s “duration reaches from eternity to eternity; his presence from infinity to infinity,” writes Newton, “…and by existing always and everywhere, he constitutes duration and space.3

In the eighteenth century, evangelical forerunner and Boston minister Cotton Mather (1663-1728) read Newton and echoed his underlying divine being. “The Gravitation of Bodies is One of them; For which No Cause can be assigned but the Will of the Glorious GOD, who is the First Cause of all,” concludes Mather. If the cause is God, then one should see evidence of God even in gravitation. “Child,” urged Mather, “See GOD in every Thing!”2

Likewise, Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), the well-known New England minister and founder of Reformed evangelicalism, read Mather and Newton and maintained this relationship between God and science. Creation, for Edwards, is an emanation of the divine being. As will be seen, however, these points may have helped delay Copernicus, but they did not necessitate that delay. For example, Newton and Mather were heliocentrists, while Edwards was a geocentrist.

In these centuries, ideas like Stephen J. Gould’s NOMA (Non-overlapping magisteria) were far from consideration. Theology and science did not have their separate spheres (or magisteria). With theology being the queen of the sciences and Scripture being the only real authority, the stage was set for the delay in receiving Copernicus in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries.

As will be seen in part 2, the Protestant theological world of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries experienced a rift over Copernicus’ ideas. This rift was, in part, due to conclusions about how to read Scripture and its authority over science, but it is also partly driven by popular opinion of Copernicus. It also provides an interesting parallel for discussions of evangelical resistance to scientific discoveries today.


1. Oberman, Heiko, A. The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 184.

2. Cotton Mather, Manuductio ad Ministerium: Directions for a Candidate of the Ministry (New York: The Facsimile Text Society, Columbia University Press, 1938), 52. The archaic spelling reflects the original.

3. Isaac Newton, The Principia (trans. Andrew Motte; Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995), 441.

Brandon G. Withrow (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Historical and Theological Studies and Director of the Master of Arts (Theological Studies) program at Winebrenner Theological Seminary (Findlay, OH). He also teaches courses for a joint Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies program with the University of Findlay. His specialization is the history of Christianity, with research interests in ancient and early-modern Christianity. He is the author most-recently of Katherine Parr: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Reformation Queen. His blog, The Discarded Image, focuses on "living ontologically" by exploring the intersection of faith, philosophy, and science through literature.

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Papalinton - #37301

October 29th 2010

Hi Janet
Ryan G says,  “You need to teach from Genesis Who did What and Why.. God is responsible for everything we see, humans are God’s special creation, with a special purpose, created in God’s image. Our great-great-great grandparents sinned, there were consequences, etc. Don’t be afraid to teach your child that it’s okay to say “I don’t know” yet, they need to learn the METHOD of finding things out (theological AND scientific).”

This advice will generate confusion and uncertainty for your son, as surely as you can read of the level of incertitude throughout the range of comments in this thread. 
I would strongly suggest you keep both aspects [i.e. theology and science] separate until such time he is old enough, with a level of maturity capable of approaching these complex issues and with a goodly body of life skill and experiences to support his musings on such matters.  I would suggest the theology aspect should focus on the moral,  ethical and emotional elements of what it is to live a good, caring, and compassionate Christian life.  Science should be approached under your guidance with due diligence and allowed to develop as his inquisitiveness dictates.  He’ll get the best of both worlds then.

Ryan G - #37304

October 29th 2010

Are you suggesting not to teach Genesis 1-3 to a child, then?

I’m suggesting that it should be taught largely as it stands, but without fleshing out literalistic agendas. It should ALSO not be taught with speculation about what is literal or figurative, as yes, that is bound to be confusing for a child. But there is clear teaching there, anyway, that should be taught.

Headless Unicorn Guy - #37362

October 29th 2010

When the name “Copernicus” was attached to the end of that question…

You mean Father Kopernik?

Protestants rejected the allegorical readings applied to Scripture by the medieval church and insisted more on the literal reading of the Bible. In such an intellectual environment, Copernicus’ heliocentric conclusion was theologically impossible for those who accepted the ancient and literal geocentric reading of Scripture.

i.e. “God Said It; I Believe It; THAT SETTLES IT!”

As a Catholic, it’s refreshing to find someone else who knows the above was the PROTESTANT reaction to heliocentrism, not repeat not the Catholic.  (We Romish Papists just made Galileo take arsenic for teaching the Earth was round instead of flat—have you ever had a student give that answer?)

Thirdly, when there was no Scriptural answer for a question of how the natural world worked, the solution was to generally leave it to the being of God. ... In other words, an unusually cold summer or hot winter is just a matter of divine will.

Mohammed abu-Hamid al-Ghazali would be proud of Calvin.  Monotheistic animism, just like al-Ghazali’s Incoherence of the Philosopers.


Headless Unicorn Guy - #37372

October 29th 2010

“Was Adam a caveman?” - well, what does that mean? (I’m curious where he got the word caveman from…—Ryan G #32784

Bad GEICO Commercials?

Brandon Withrow - #37373

October 29th 2010

I’ve been in and out of meetings and I’ve got a couple seconds to respond to a few questions. 

@Kevin 37137 It is hard to compare scientific disagreement in the medieval period with today, since what fell under “science” then was very theological-metaphysical in discussion.  Today standards are based on whether an idea is falsifiable and these ideas are subject to peer review.  Scientists, as I see it, should be willing to change a position when the data demands it.  (This, of course, takes into consideration that all scientists are human.) Discovering when one is wrong can be just as exciting as when proving one is right.  Theologians should also have the same attitude toward science. 

What I tend to see, however, is that some hide behind a minority agreement in order to satisfy a particular reading of Scripture.  Theologians, I would have it, should be willing to use their theological imaginations when it comes to understanding how the evidence and consensus may affect their reading of Scripture. All truth is God’s truth is the better approach. 

If I read him correctly, I would agree with Mike Smuts @37151

Brandon Withrow - #37374

October 29th 2010

@Ryan 37152
I agree with your point that the central concern of the church is elsewhere. These discussion are unavoidable, however, since they figure into how we read certain parts of Scripture. And unfortunately, as you’ll see in part 2, some evangelicals have now tied an acceptance of evolution with a rejection of the gospel. 

@Sawtelle #37176 Yes, popular views of Aristotle did play a role in Copernicus’s hesitation to publish.  This did not, however, eliminate the theological and interpretative concerns that were often wedded to Aristotle (at least as Aquinas presents him).  The main focus of my article is Protestant rejection and Aristotle figures in far less here, particularly as Luther, at least as I understand him, was not a fan (though I believe specialist challenge whether Luther really understood Aristotle to begin with).

Brandon Withrow - #37375

October 29th 2010

@Rock #37299
Not sure what you mean.  Yes, my students were the subject of that and yes, though we’ve tinkered with Copernicus (Kepler and orbits, etc.), the central idea, practical heliocentrism (along with its adjustments) is standard. Our knowledge of evolution has grown, but that it changes doesn’t displace the central concept.  There is a reason the name didn’t change. I assume that I can still talk about you 10 years from and mean you as the subject when I talk about you, even if you’ve changed in some way?

As for Westminster, the idea of an old earth is accepted there, evolution not so much.  At Winebrenner, there is no official policy because we are not a confessionally-driven school.  We express a particular Christian diversity and while the subject comes up in classes, we do not have a program on science and faith explicitly.  Not sure why that was relevant?

Brandon Withrow - #37376

October 29th 2010

As an aside to the post: I would add that geocentrism is a general term I’m using for a system that itself has diversity.  It did not always mean that the earth was the most important place, as some take it.  I’d recommend reading C.S. Lewis’s Discarded Image for a good look at various medieval takes on geocentrism and whether the earth was understood to be flat or a sphere.  Maybe that is for another post.

merv - #37390

October 29th 2010

I have heard at least one reaction to the “religious opposition to Galileo” that didn’t neatly fall into either the “big bad religion” or the “We’re not treating religion fairly” categories.  It was essentially this:  Geocentricism crept into Christianity because Christianity had been taking science (or pagan sources) too seriously way back then already, since it came from Aristotle (imported by Aquinas) and not from the Bible. 

While he is right that everybody was geocentric then (including Bible authors—though perhaps he disputed that), I disagree with the apparent conclusion that attempts to thus diffuse the parallel drawn between that and more recent issues like evolution.  But it is one vein of thought out there.

Thanks, Brandon.  I look forward to the next part.


pds - #37405

October 29th 2010


I think your citation of “belief” in geocentrism is a bit misleading.  From the Gallup page, it looks like it has nothing to do with American Christian fundamentalism, but is more a factor of general public ignorance.  The numbers were similar in Germany and England.  I would chalk it up to bad (secular) public education.  Have you seen the film “Waiting for Superman”?


pds - #37406

October 29th 2010


Quote from Gallup:

>>>>Probing a more universal measure of knowledge, Gallup also asked the following basic science question, which has been used to indicate the level of public knowledge in two European countries in recent years: “As far as you know, does the earth revolve around the sun or does the sun revolve around the earth?” In the new poll, about four out of five Americans (79%) correctly respond that the earth revolves around the sun, while 18% say it is the other way around. These results are comparable to those found in Germany when a similar question was asked there in 1996; in response to that poll, 74% of Germans gave the correct answer, while 16% thought the sun revolved around the earth, and 10% said they didn’t know. When the question was asked in Great Britain that same year, 67% answered correctly, 19% answered incorrectly, and 14% didn’t know.<<<<



Janet W - #37484

October 30th 2010


You wrote “...the theology aspect should focus on the moral, ethical and emotional elements of what it is to live a good, caring, and compassionate Christian life”.  I agree with that, but when our son raises questions we want to acknowledge them and let him know he can discuss these sorts of things with us.  So far our daughter hasn’t shown as much interest in this area, so with her we’re doing more what you recommend.  But when she does ask questions, we’ll discuss them with her too.

I know I’ve gotten off-topic - my original point was in response to Ryan that I think it’s good for the church to reflect on the science and faith relationship because there are many young people like my son who are curious and want to put it all together.

Janet W - #37485

October 30th 2010


Thanks for your comments.  The approach we have taken with our son is similar to what you describe.  You asked where he got the term cavemen - I think he got it from the book Ook and Gluk, Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future - currently a very popular book with 3rd grade boys.

You wrote, “you seem to think that he’s going to be running into conflict after conflict between science and faith”.  No, that’s not how we see it at all.  It’s just that he’s very inquisitive, and wants to relate his understanding of God and scripture to what he learns about God’s creation.

The peanut butter book you mentioned sounds interesting!

Headless Unicorn Guy - #37571

October 30th 2010

I think he got it from the book Ook and Gluk, Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future - currently a very popular book with 3rd grade boys.

That is one of the WEIRDEST book titles I have ever heard.

(And this is coming from the guy with the weird comment handle.)

Peter Lake - #37666

October 30th 2010

Having come late to the party, I apologize if someone’s already made the point I shall offer, but I proceed nonetheless, with especial consideration of the questions put forth by Kevin and Janet above.

Being myself a long-time teacher of science and, occasionally, Sunday school, I find myself confronted by this sort of thing quite often.  In my younger years, I often counseled an approach of careful evaluation, including study within the area of concern deep enough to allow one to intelligently choose.  Looking now at my own ignorance about so many things, I find my prior approach laughable.  A more general one, and more congenial to those with lives to lead that don’t allow for post-graduate work in the field, is to make a basic determination of what’s likely to be right based on the preponderance of evidence as presented, but be willing to see that position altered by later facts.  Just as a good scientist would, be ready to concede that one’s previous position was wrong.  That’s how one should properly study anything, I’d think.  I’ve certainly had to alter my ideas on Scripture a time or two—I see no reason my science should be any better.

Ted Davis - #38025

November 1st 2010

For Headless Unicorn Guy - #37362:

I comment on this point, as follows:

i.e. “God Said It; I Believe It; THAT SETTLES IT!”

As a Catholic, it’s refreshing to find someone else who knows the above was the PROTESTANT reaction to heliocentrism, not repeat not the Catholic.>

Actually, Headless, in this case both Protestants and Catholics responded in quite similar ways to Copernicus—who was not “Father Kopernik,” since he was never ordained a priest.  Most Protestants, like most Catholics, thought Copernicus was wrong about the earth’s motion, and for both groups the Bible was a key factor.  A few Protestants and a few Catholics supported Copernicus, and those who did tended to invoke Augustine’s principle of accommodation.

to be continued…

Ted Davis - #38028

November 1st 2010


We can identify only about a dozen Copernicans in the period between 1543 (when Copernicus’ book was published) and 1610 (when Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius), and we find both Protestants and Catholics among them.  The two most important, Johannes Kepler (Lutheran) and Galileo (Catholic) made virtually identical theological and hermeneutical arguments in favor of Copernicus; both used accommodation to argue for figurative interpretations of those (few) biblical texts bearing on either the earth’s motion or the sun’s motion.

Opponents of the new astronomy also took similar attitudes, whether they were Catholic or Protestant.  The most famous objection is probably that of Roberto, Cardinal Bellarmine, who wrote a letter to a pro-Copernican Catholic priest, Paolo Foscarini, in which he cautioned sharply that accepting a non-literal view of those texts constituted a very dangerous “slippery slope,” leading one to deny the virgin birth (for example), since (as he put it) if astronomy is not a matter of faith “with regard to the subject matter, it is with regard to those who have spoken [the words of the Bible].”

Ted Davis - #38030

November 1st 2010


Bellarmine may have been more well informed about astronomy than Luther, but he was no less literal in his hermeneutic.

For Bellarmine’s letter, go to http://www.myeport.com/published/u/hs/uhse003/collection/18/2/upload.c-uhse003-18n2.PDF

Modern geocentrists hold views quite similar to those of Bellarmine, whether they are Catholic or Protestant.  The speakers at the “Galileo was Wrong” conference mentioned in this column are a mixture of both.  The leading contemporary advocates of geocentrism are also creationists of the “young earth” variety, though most creationists accept Copernicus.  I did a study of this a couple of years ago:

“Galileo and the Garden of Eden: Historical Reflections on Creationist Hermeneutics.” In Nature and Scripture in the Abrahamic Religions: 1700-Present, ed. Jitse M. van der Meer and Scott H. Mandelbrote, 2 vols. (Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2008), vol. 2, pp. 437-64.  Information about the book at http://www.brill.nl/Default.aspx?partid=75&pid=31539

Ask me privately if this interests you.

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