Part 3: The Church and Science: Learning Lessons from History
The theological debates surrounding the Copernican revolution are fascinating for anyone interested in the perennial problem of faith and science. When Copernicus (1473-1543) proffered his heliocentric theory in the 16th century, it met with sharp resistance both within the Catholic Church and among the Reformers.
The responses of Luther and Melanchthon are good examples. Luther (1483-1546) referred to Copernicus as an “upstart astrologer” and as a “fool [who] wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.”1
Luther’s associate, Melanchthon (1497-1560), added these words of criticism:
The eyes are witnesses that the heavens revolve in the space of twenty-four hours. But certain men, either from the love of novelty, or to make a display of ingenuity, have concluded that the earth moves … Now, it is a want of honesty and decency to assert such notions publicly, and the example is pernicious. It is the part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it.8
Melanchthon believed that wise governments ought to “repress” the views of Copernicus because “public proclamation of absurd opinions is indecent and sets a harmful example.”3 In support of this opinion, he could cite biblical texts such as Ecclesiastes 1:4-5: “The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and quickly moves to its place where it rises.” Luther and Melanchthon are merely representative of general trends in the sixteenth century, in which clergymen feverishly searched the Bible line by line for new passages that would confirm the traditional Ptolemaic view.
It is easy to see why the Catholic Church and Reformers took this hard-line position against the Copernicus. First, the Ptolemaic view was matched step for step by the long-standing traditions of the Church. Second, the Ptolemaic view corresponded rather precisely to the usual experiences of human life—that the Sun is moving and we are not. And third, as we have just seen, the geocentric view had Scripture on its side. Tradition, common sense, and the voice of Scripture joined together to create a coherent understanding of the world against which the Copernican viewpoint seemed senseless, even heretical.
Ultimately, however, the Copernican viewpoint would win the day. The reason, of course, was that the scientific evidence finally coalesced into a consensus against which tradition, Scripture, and common sense could no longer prevail. For once one understood the arguments of Copernicus, it was rather easy to “experience” the new cosmology with one’s own eyes.
The Copernicus situation (and the closely related issues surrounding Galileo’s work) was an embarrassment to the Church and created a kind of breach between faith and science that has not been totally mended since. As a result, regardless of the stripe of Christian, all Christians agree that we should work to avoid repeating the error and to repair the breach between faith and science.
Our present scientific problem is evolution, but the situation is somewhat different from the days of Copernicus for one very important reason: the evidence for evolution is not readily “visible.” Rather, evolutionists tell us that it is only through well-informed familiarity with the details of the evidence—the fossils, the distribution and variety of living species, the biochemistry, the ecological issues, the genetic evidence, etc.—that one can see how convincing the evidence for evolution actually is.
Because most of us will never be able to “see” this evidence for ourselves, we are forced to decide whose testimony to believe. On one side we have practically all scientists, and also many confessing Christians—including even many Evangelical Christians—who attest to the cogency of evolution as an explanation of the evidence. On the other side we have the testimony of fundamentalist science, which represents a very small minority of the scientific community.
How do we prudently weigh out this testimony? Shall we assume that Christian evolutionists have compromised the faith and celebrate the fundamentalists as prophetic heroes of faith, or shall we interpret the situation as “Copernicus revisited” … in which case, the Christian evolutionists are our scholarly heroes and the fundamentalists should be understood as insular, uninformed protectionists?
In my opinion, there are three reasons to side with the progressive viewpoint.
First, the general arguments that support evolution are clear enough and have been driven home relentlessly to the satisfaction of an overwhelming majority of trained scientists. Although I am not trained in the sciences, I can discern good arguments from bad ones. The persistent claim of fundamentalist scientists that modern science is filled with misinformation and falsehood is rhetoric rather than substance. The evidence in our hands is now quite sufficient to warrant the conclusion that the cosmos is very old and that life on our planet originated through a long and complex evolutionary process.
Secondly, Fundamentalism stands in unconscious complicity with atheistic naturalism. Though Scripture and tradition plainly tell us that the created order itself is evidence for God’s existence, Fundamentalism accepts the atheistic premise that such a naturalistic explanation as evolution would disprove God’s existence. Fundamentalism has unwittingly accepted the idea that, if we find a natural explanation for the emergence of life on earth, then this would demonstrate that we are studying a world without God. But if nature really is God’s creation, then there is no reason at all to deny that nature has the creative capacity to give rise to life. In fact, evolution might actually turn out to be impressive evidence for God’s creativity and existence.
Third, Fundamentalism’s resistance to evolutionary theory is largely the result of its faulty view of the Bible. It understands the early chapters of Genesis as essentially scientific in that they must be compatible with what we learn from modern science. I have already pointed out that some of the best minds of Christian antiquity, such as Augustine and Calvin, saw very quickly how precarious it was to accept this view of Scripture. Many modern Christians have made the same observations. If Genesis is not a science book, what is it? In our next discussion, I should like to look more closely at the genre of Genesis … at the kind of text that it is.
1. Luther, Tischreden, I.419. English quotation from A. D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (2 vols.; New York; London: Appleton and Co., 1920), 1.126.
2. Melanchthon, Initia Doctrinae Physicae. English quotation from White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 1.126-7.
3. See Corpus reformatum, IV, 679; XIII, 217.