Copernicus, Interrupted (Part 1)

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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.


References & Credits

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.

About the Author

Brandon  Withrow

Brandon 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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