A note on Calvin and geocentrism

“Here are some more details on Calvin’s condemnation of the arrogance of scientists who proposed heliocentrism.” Davis Young, in his book John Calvin and the Natural World, makes a quite convincing case that Calvin was not condemning the arrogance of scientists who proposed heliocentrism. The examples of calling black white, insisting that the earth moves, etc. derive from Cicero rather than from Copernicus, as proverbially ridiculous views, and seem to be aimed at the excessive religious tolerance of Castellio, not at science at all. Calvin probably had heard of Copernicus’s ideas, yet never seems to have commented either way about them.

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His often quoted statement on 1 Cor 10 explicitly lays bare his views and thoughts (also one from a psalm). If you thought the earth moved and not the sun you were possessed by the devil and we’re a raving lunatic. That is what Calvin thought.

The biologos article makes the opposite suggestion as you, Calvin did hear of Copernicus. His quotation makes it likely and several of his “dialog partners” and disciples are known to have. But it also says that based on his other work they imagine he wouldn’t be a conservative flouting science convention today based on a concession he did elsewhere make. Of course whether Calvin would be a YEC or not is pure conjecture. In my mind I could easily see his high view on the sovereignty of God pull him from “randomness” in evolution. But imagining “what if’s” about ancient authors if they lived today is a fruitless exercise devoid of objectivity.

Does inspiration or inerrancy extend to Calvin now? Do we need to apologize for his geocentrism when he lived in the 1500s? Calvin lived long ago and he thought the earth didn’t move and God held it in place. The newer theories were lunacy to him. What else is their to say about the matter? He lived in a time when there was little reason to deny the plain reading of what scripture says on scientific matters. It was conventional knowledge to people back then until it wasn’t. Calvin had a hermeneutic that many of us don’t today. So did Luther. That is why I generally don’t subscribe to a lot of the doctrines of either one. Based on too much literalism and force-fitting. I’m reading a different genre in many places.



“Trying to peer down deep wells, and in the end seeing a reflection of yourself” is one colorful way I’ve heard it put.


A great saying! Simple yet profound. I’ve also seen that in regards to peering through the well of historical Jesus research where, if I am permitted a hyperbole, there are almost as many portraits as there are exegetes. Scholars often end up seeing themselves in the reflection.

I think this even holds true to a degree for scripture interpretation. In one sense we obviously view the world and read everything through our own goggles and life-long experiences. We understand words based on our experiences. It’s very hard to try to understand something from antiquity because we can’t read their minds. Even when we read the gospels and Paul we are already reading them with 2000 years of Christian baggage shaping our ideology. I’m reading them in my culture and life experiences. Calvin was a product of his times as we are products of our own. There is no vacuum. At best we can hope to fight the current or at least swim sideways.


Will have to add this one to the reading list.

Two things worth bearing in mind when it comes to Calvin and YECism:

  1. His view of 6-day creation was large polemic. It was a response to Catholic thinkers who believed that the creation came into existence instantaneously. As @Vinnie rightly pointed out who knows what he would have thought today? So many social and cultural factors would be different in his education and upbringing, were he born today that he would likely be John Calvin in name and DNA only.

  2. Calvin, in his commentary on Genesis, believed that Adam and Eve were created mortal and in time would likely have died and passed directly into heaven. That, often overlooked, fact would probably put him out of the fold as far as the AiG crew are concerned.


There is indeed not much point in wondering what someone from the 16th century would think about current issues. However, claiming that the passage from Calvin’s sermon on 1 Cor 10 was anti-Copernician may in fact be an example of importing modern issues into Calvin’s thinking. Calvin endorses a stationary earth alongside affirming that hot isn’t cold and black isn’t white. All of those echo Cicero’s Academica. Conversely, Copernicus argued that the data supported a moving earth; a counterargument that heliocentrism was ignoring plain evidence seems rather off-target. The critique instead seems to be aimed at those whose idea of reform included an excessively high degree of tolerance for divergent views, in Calvin’s assessment. In the mid-1500’s, it was far from evident that heliocentrism versus geocentrism would become a significant scientific and theological issue over the next century; we should not assume that Calvin would be as quick as modern young-earthers to criticize a scientific idea.

Certainly, Calvin endorsed a variety of incorrect scientific ideas of his day, but he characteristically treats them as common knowledge rather than theologically critical.

The critical issue is that we must assess past writers in terms of their historical and cultural context in order to correctly understand what they are saying. Neglect of that principle is a major root of the young-earth error, among many others.

The fraudulent Calvin “quote” may go back to White’s “History of the Warfare…”, if I remember correctly.


This ALL DAY LONG. I get so frustrated when people condemn and make monsters out of historical figures for their failure to measure up to western, post-enlightenment standards. Now, obviously, evil and injustice should be called out irregardless of the age it appears in. However, trying to understand historical persons in context should also make us more compassionate to those who came before who often (but not always) did not know better. Especially, when that injustice is part of the cultural fabric. That does not make their actions permissible, but it does make their actions more understandable. It also allows us to strain those views from their larger bodies of work and avoid the error of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

If we throw out of the church every theologian who fails to measure up 21st C western standards of morality will have little left to draw from… no matter where one falls on the theological spectrum.

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