Jun 1, 2012

Luther, Calvin, and Copernicus

7 Min Read

After stating that the church’s understanding of special revelation had been corrected by students of natural revelation, Dr. Sproul illustrated his point with a reference to the introduction of new astronomical ideas in the sixteenth century.

Both Calvin and Luther rejected Copernicus as a heretic in the 16th century. I don’t know anybody in orthodox Christianity today who’s pleading for geocentricity. Do you? Do you know anybody? In that case the church has said, “Look, we misinterpreted the teaching of the Bible with respect to the solar system, and thank you scientists for correcting our misunderstanding.”

And so I think that we can learn from nonbelieving scientists who are studying natural revelation. They may get a better sense of the truth from their study of natural revelation than I get from ignoring natural revelation. So I have a high view of natural revelation is what I’m saying.

In this section of his response, Dr. Sproul is reminding us that Christians in the past have believed erroneous ideas about the nature of God’s creation because they believed those views were taught in Scripture. He specifically mentions geocentricity–the idea that the sun, moon, and stars all revolve around a stationary earth.

This understanding of the universe had been articulated most thoroughly by Ptolemy (ca. AD 90–ca. AD 168) and had been accepted by Christians for fifteen hundred years because they believed it was taught in passages such as Joshua 10:12–14 and the many passages that refer to the sun's rising or setting. Like most Christians (and scientists) of their day, Martin Luther and John Calvin believed geocentrism to be a true description of God’s creation.

The heliocentric views of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) began to circulate in scholarly circles in the 1530s, although his book was not published until 1543. His views took many years to be accepted–even among other astronomers. As Young observes in his recent book on Calvin’s views of the created order,

Widespread acceptance of the Copernican universe came only after discoveries made by Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), who held positions in mathematics at the Universities of Pisa and Padua; formulation of the laws of planetary motion by Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), who taught mathematics in Graz, Prague, and Linz; and the physical explanation of planetary motion in terms of inertia and gravitation by Isaac Newton (1642–1727), professor of mathematics at Cambridge.1

In short, the ideas of Copernicus were not accepted overnight, and they were certainly not widely accepted during the lifetimes of Luther and Calvin.

But did Luther and Calvin know of Copernicus’s theory, and if so, how did the Reformers respond? There is some dispute regarding the answer to these questions. The answer seems somewhat clearer with Luther. In the Table Talk (collections of Luther’s comments on a variety of topics), we read of the following discussion (dated June 4, 1539) regarding these new ideas:

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 the trees were moving. [Luther remarked]

So it goes now. Whoever wants to be clever must agree with nothing that others esteem. He must do something of his own. This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. Even in these things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth [Josh. 10:12].2

There is some dispute as to whether Luther’s words were quoted exactly as he said them, but this version of the Table Talk is generally considered to be the most accurate.3 Regardless of whether his student recorded his words precisely, it is still clear from his lectures on Genesis that Luther held to the geocentric view that was the prevailing view of his day.4 Furthermore, while some scholars deny that Luther placed his interpretation of Scripture over and against the theory of Copernicus, this statement in the Table Talk is not the only place where a conflict between Luther's views and the views of scientists occurred.

In his Lectures on Genesis, for example, Luther wrote the following regarding the sun and stars:

Indeed, it is more likely that the bodies of the stars, like that of the sun, are round, and that they are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night, each according to its endowment and its creation.5

This too was not an uncommon view during the early sixteenth century. Luther added the observation that there were waters above this firmament where the sun and stars are fastened. Regarding the waters above the firmament, Luther wrote:

We Christians must be different from the philosophers [i.e. scientists] in the way we think about the causes of these things. And if some are beyond our comprehension (like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens), we must believe them and admit our lack of knowledge rather than either wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding.6

Here, Luther suggests that it is wicked to deny that there are literal waters above the firmament to which the sun and stars are fastened. Why did he believe this was an undeniable fact? Because he believed Scripture taught it clearly in Genesis 1. The problem arose when it was discovered over time that the sun and stars are not fastened to a firmament and that there are no waters being held back by this firmament. If Scripture did actually teach the existence of such things, that would leave two options: either the new discoveries were misinterpretations of general revelation or else Scripture was wrong. Since Luther believed Scripture clearly taught the existence of waters above the firmament, he believed the scientists were proposing an idea that would require him to say that the Scriptures are in error. Luther apparently believed that was the only choice, and if that was the only choice, it was one he had to reject. It did not seem to occur to him that the Scripture might not actually teach that view. It did not occur to him that the conflict could be a conflict between a correct interpretation of God’s creation and his fallible interpretation of Scripture.

John Calvin’s precise view of Copernicus is more difficult to determine and has long been debated. Part of the difficulty involved with discerning his view is due to a quotation that has been wrongly attributed to him by scholars, ranging from Bertrand Russell to Thomas Kuhn. Numerous scholars, including Russell and Kuhn, assert that Calvin condemned Copernicus with the words: “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?” The problem is that those words are found nowhere in Calvin's writings.7 Unfortunately, the statement has been repeated so often that it is accepted as a matter of historical fact.

However, even though Calvin did not make the oft-quoted statement about Copernicus cited above, there is a statement he made in a sermon on 1 Corinthians that is relevant. There, Calvin warns against those who say, “that the sun does not move and that it is the earth that moves.”8 He describes those who hold this view as “stark raving mad” and as “possessed” by the devil.9 It is not clear that he is basing this warning on his interpretation of any particular passage of Scripture, and there is ongoing debate about how this statement coincides with Calvin’s other statements regarding general and special revelation, but the statement does at the very least indicate that geocentricity was firmly established in Calvin’s mind as the true explanation of the nature of God's creation.

Dr. Sproul indicated that he has not run across anyone within orthodox Christianity today who is pleading for geocentricity. There are not many, but they do still exist. There are entire websites, books, and articles written by contemporary proponents of geocentricity. They argue that other Christians, including young-earth creationists, have compromised and capitulated to non-believing scientists instead of holding to what they believe to be the clear teaching of Scripture in passages such as Joshua 10.

Geocentricity, however, is not the main point. The main point Dr. Sproul is making by pointing out these past mistakes Christians have made in the interpretation of general and special revelation is to remind us of the possibility of contemporary mistakes. Theologians and biblical scholars have not developed the attribute of infallibility since the time of Luther and Calvin.

Dr. Sproul also reminds us that students of special revelation can learn from students of general revelation. But this reminder raises even more important questions regarding matters such as the impact of the fall on man’s ability to understand God’s general and special revelation, the distinction between human understanding of earthly things and of heavenly things, and the so-called “wisdom of the world.” In our next post, we will begin to examine these issues.

This article is part of the Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture collection.

  1. Davis A. Young, John Calvin and the Natural World (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2007), 28.
  2. Martin Luther, Luther's Works. Vol 54. Table Talk, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 358–9.
  3. B.A. Gerrish, The Old Protestantism and the New (London: T&T Clark, 1982), 168.
  4. Martin Luther, Luther's Works. Vol 1. Lectures on Genesis, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 44.
  5. Ibid., 42.
  6. Ibid., 30.
  7. For an overview of how this quote found its way into the scholarly literature, see Young, Calvin and the Natural World, 43–9.
  8. Cited in Herman Selderhuis, ed., The Calvin Handbook (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 452.
  9. Young, Calvin and the Natural World, 47.