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Brandon Withrow
 on October 28, 2010

Copernicus, Interrupted

Resistance to Copernicus among Christians, continued well into the 18th century, a good 200 years since the publication of his work on heliocentrism. What can we learn from this?


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 we will see, 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.

As we’ve seen, from the time of Copernicus, Protestants deemed theology the “queen of the sciences,” with Scripture alone setting the parameters for all scientific inquiry. This was intended to curb the influence of human ideas, as the Reformers saw it, and for most, like Luther, this included Copernicus. This relationship between theology and science helped to set the stage for the delay in receiving Copernicus in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries.

Today, Protestant students in the classroom may not know Copernicus’ name or even what he is known for, but they generally assume the truth of his assertions. So how do we get a sense for the pulse of the intellectual world of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries and account for the gradual changes in the public perception of Copernicus?

Not only does a farmer’s almanac help in figuring when to plant crops, but it also helps historians pinpoint when new ideas were in vogue. Two years after he graduated from Harvard, Zechariah Brigden wrote his An Almanack of the Coelestial Motions (1659). Up until this point it was common for farmers and students to use almanacs based entirely on the Ptolemaic (geocentric) system in which the planets and sun revolve around the earth. Brigden’s Almanack was different in that his was founded entirely on the heliocentrism of Copernicus.

Brigden recognizes the potential controversy immediately and includes a short theological defense of his position at the end of the Almanack. He notes that there are those who object according to “Divine authority,” but says they need to remember that Scripture is “fitted” to the “capacity” of human beings, whether it be the “rudest mechanick” or “philosopher,” and is not intended “so much propriety and exactness, as playness & perspicuity.”1 In other words, Scripture is not written to explain science, but to communicate a message clearly. Brigden’s work represents some of the first signs of Harvard’s push away from the older, medieval system.

There was a reaction to Brigden’s bold insistence upon using Copernicus, however, as most of his colleagues were still operating on an outdated astronomy. John Winthrop Jr., Governor of Connecticut, sent a copy of Brigden’s work to Puritan John Davenport, a founder of New Haven, who did not share the Governor’s or Brigden’s enthusiasm for the new science. Davenport thanked Winthrop for his gift, but responded specifically to Brigden’s statement on Scripture. “However it be, let him [Brigden] enjoy his opinion; and I shall rest in what I have learned, till more cogent arguments be produced than I have hitherto met with.”2 Despite resistant theologians like Davenport, Brigden’s work helped open up the way for a change in opinion in the academy and eventually on the farm.

The academic world, especially in New England, had to face the resistance of the populist opinion. But ministers had to walk an even tougher line than the professional academics, particularly as their paychecks came only with the approval of their congregations. The Boston minister and evangelical forerunner, Cotton Mather, was convinced by the new science, though theology was still queen. He initially held back on expressing a public opinion, but eventually he raised the issues from his pulpit. As the central figure in the Salem Witch Trials, he was no stranger to controversy. His first mention of Copernicus, however, was seen then as one of poor timing. On December 23, 1714, Judge Samuel Sewall wrote that Mather “spake of the Sun being in the centre of our System” in a sermon. Sewall thought it “inconvenient to assert such Problems.”3 It appears that the speculation of academia was not yet welcomed in the world of the church layperson.

Similarly, Jonathan Edwards, an evangelical minister in Northampton and an avid amateur scientist, says little about his view. We know he read and appreciated Newton’s work, but his only public comments are strictly geocentric. Edwards scholar Kenneth P. Minkema notes a historical connection to Mather’s situation. “If the (relatively) cosmopolitan community of Boston had trouble accepting Copernicus,” writes Minkema, “then it is possible that Northampton too would object to hearing his view from their pulpit.”4

Brigden’s farmer’s almanac and daring ministers like Cotton were the slow, initial steps that eventually made Copernicus practical and assessable for both the academic and layperson. By the nineteenth century, speaking openly of Copernicus was no longer controversial. Fast forward to the 1999 Gallup poll that showed that 18% of Americans were still geocentric; while this number still seems rather high, it is obvious that change can and has occurred.

The nineteenth-century, however, found a new scientific controversy with Darwin. Like Copernicus, Darwin was initially rejected by Christians. Despite this, some theologians discovered evolution’s practical side. The Princeton theologian Benjamin Warfield (1851-1921), for example, saw some common sense to evolution as a result of his experience as a cattle breeder. It seems that until new scientific ideas become imminently practical—helping farmers improve their crops or assisting a theologian/cattle breeder in raising better beef—they find only a narrow audience. But once there are ready connections to daily life, the questions about faith and how it relates to those new scientific ideas eventually follow.

In 2009, the Pew Research Center showed that 6 in 10 Americans believe evolution to have occurred, with 22% connecting it to a divine being. However, as in the time of Mather and Edwards, the evangelical pulpit today is one of the last places a receptive understanding of evolution is welcomed. Evangelical Protestants show the greatest resistance with 55% rejecting evolution. Evangelical leaders like Albert Mohler are representative of this large segment, arguing that evolution is incompatible with the gospel of Christ.

Perhaps like my Copernicus-ignorant students, future students of religion will, too, sit in a classroom, forgetting Darwin’s name but assuming he got it right. But if history and the polls are any indication, it could be a long time in coming.

About the author

Brandon Withrow Headshot

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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