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Apr 26 2005

The role of Protestant opposition to Copernicus

For many years after the publication of Copernicus’ book De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium in 1543, his ideas remained within the mathematical astronomy community. The more popular books on astronomy and cosmology either were unaware of his work or chose to ignore them. But there were a few non-astronomers such as poets who were aware of his work and they ridiculed it for advocating a moving Earth, not because of any ideas of heresy. It was though the poets and other popularizing writers of that time that Copernicus’ ideas became more widely known.

It is interesting that the earliest objections to Copernican ideas on religious grounds came from Protestant groups, who are usually missing in the popular folk history which features the dispute as being between Copernicus and the Catholic Church. Thomas Kuhn in his book The Copernican Revolution suggests that this was because the people of the Reformation (led by Martin Luther in his break with the Catholic Church) were emphasizing Biblical authority, viewing “the Bible as the single fundamental source of Christian knowledge” as opposed to the Catholic Church which focused more on doctrinal issues that allowed it more flexibility in dealing with science. And there were clear contradictions between the Bible and Copernicus.

Martin Luther spoke out against Copernican ideas in 1539 saying that the idea of a moving Earth going around a stationary Sun clearly went against the book of Joshua [10:13] that said that Joshua commanded the Sun to stand still. Luther’s main lieutenant Melanchthon followed up by finding other Biblical versus that suggested that the Earth was stationary. This was followed up by other Protestant leaders such as Calvin (Kuhn 191-193).

Pretty soon the Bible became the main weapon used against Copernican ideas and clergymen in the seventeenth century started going through the Bible line by line, looking for arguments.

The conflicts between the Bible and Copernicanism did not stop just with verses that dealt with the Earth’s motion. Recall that acceptance of Copernicanism implied acceptance of a whole range of associated physics ideas and these raised profound theological issues. As Kuhn points out (p. 193):

When it was taken seriously, Copernicus’ proposal raised many gigantic problems for the believing Christian. If, for example, the earth were merely one of six planets, how were the stories of the Fall and of the Salvation, with their immense bearing on Christian life, to be preserved? If there were other bodies essentially like the earth, God’s goodness would surely necessitate that they, too, be inhabited. But if there were men on other planets, how could they be descendents of Adam and Eve, and how could they have inherited the original sin, which explains man’s otherwise incomprehensible travail on an earth made for him by a good and omnipotent deity? Again, how could men on other planets know of the Savior who opened to them the possibility of eternal life? Or, if the earth is a planet and therefore a celestial body located away from the center of the universe, what becomes of man’s intermediate but focal position between the devils and the angels? If the earth, as a planet, participates in the nature of celestial bodies, it cannot be a sink of iniquity from which man will long to escape to the divine purity of the heavens. Nor can the heavens be a suitable abode for God if they participate in the evils and imperfections so clearly visible on a planetary earth. Worst of all, if the universe is infinite, as many of the later Copernicans thought, where can God’s Throne be located? In an infinite universe, how is man to find God or God man?

It was clear that Copernicus’s ideas were seriously discomfiting for Christians, especially the Biblical literalists that were dominant in the new Protestant movement, which provided the first institutionalized opposition. People started calling the Copernicans ‘infidels’ and ‘atheists’ and urging their repression. But the Protestant churches did not have the powers of enforcement that the Catholics had.

Kuhn argues that it was probably due to the pressure from the burgeoning Protestant church that caused the Catholic Church in 1616 to abruptly switch its policy from tolerance of Copernican ideas to repression. “Copernican doctrines were, in fact, condemned during the Counter Reformation, just when the Church was most convulsed by internal reforms designed to meet Protestant criticism. Anti-Copernicanism seems, at least in part, one of these reforms, Another cause of the Church’s increased sensitivity to Copernicanism after 1610 may well have been a delayed awakening to the fuller theological implications of the earth’s motions. In the sixteenth century those implications had rarely been made explicit.” (p. 198)

In an earlier posting we showed that the idea of a moving Earth being considered a demotion for human beings is something that arose only in the late 17th century. It may be that this idea was developed from around 1650 onwards when religious bodies were fighting what was essentially a propaganda war against heliocentric ideas, the scientific battle being essentially already lost. It may have served as part of the effort to rally non-scientific (but religious) people to turn against Copernican ideas by appealing to their pride.

What is ironic is that after being the possible impetus for the Catholic Church turning against Copernicanism, the Protestant churches fairly quickly abandoned their opposition to these ideas when it became clear that the evidence in favor of a Sun-centered system was overwhelming. But the Catholic Church, being a much larger and more tradition-bound and bureaucratic operation, was left clinging to its anti-Copernican views for a long time afterwards. The Church ban on Copernican ideas remained until 1822 and his book remained on the list of forbidden books until 1835. In fact it was only as recently as 1992 that Pope John Paul II lifted its edict of Inquisition against Galileo. Thus the Catholic Church is now the religious institution identified with perhaps the most notorious anti-science episode in history.

This ends the series of postings on the myths surrounding the Copernican revolution. Another interesting feature about the whole Copernican story is the parallel with Darwinian evolution and the opposition to it, right up to the present so-called intelligent design movement. These questions will be examined in a later posting.

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