The Copernicus "science v. church" story is wrong

I think there’s a danger of reading the current unhealthy polarisation of “Scientists v Fundamentalists” back into the Copernican story - especially given the fog blown over it by Andrew Dickson White, etc, in the last century. The repetition of the Warfare Hypothesis only goes to hide just how untypical the US Church’s situation over evolution is.

The fact is many “scientists” rejected Copernicus’ theory because of what it failed to solve, or because it overturned “settled science” and a host of other reasons: and many theologians rejected it because of accepted interpretations of the Bible, or because it seemed arrogantly to cock a snoot at settled science (remembering they’d all done compulsory science at university), and a host of other reasons.

Meanwhile others both in science and theology accepted it, or bits of it, for reasons good and bad. What’s interesting is that Lutheran Wittenberg was one of the first universities to discuss it, accomodate it in its own teaching program - and that here, objections to it were seldom theological, but scientific.

Owen Gingerich, a respected historian of science, points out how little we actually know of either Luther’s or Calvin’s views here.

A very readable blog takes a wider look at the mythology surrounding Copernicus and the Lutherans here, making the very important point that it was Phillip Melanchthon’s initiative that sent Wittenberg’s Rheticus to Copernicus, and enabled his publication.

Finally, a scholarly article here looks at the matter in more detail, pointing out how easily we mythologise the actual complexities of those times, and the mixed and nuanced responses to an incomplete new theory like Copernicus’. The article will repay those willing to take time to read it, but a couple of points are worth drawing out here.

First, the author points out that Lutheran Wittenberg did not see Copernicanism as a threatening new paradigm, but as a new theory whose good points could be absorbed within the old paradigm:

If we were to look at the early reception of Copernican astronomy at Wittenberg
through Kuhnian spectacles, therefore, we should have to make the paradoxical
statement that it had been welcomed respectfully into the fold of Ptolemaic
normal science-a situation which should never occur by Kuhn’s reckoning.

In other words, Lutherans were in the “Extended synthesis” camp, rather than amongst the the “Third Way” revolutionaries (to put it in current evoliutoionary theory terms).

Secondly, the paper examines just why Rheticus became what can only be called a “zealous convert” to the new theory, and concludes that it had as much to do with resolving inner psychological conflicts as with intellectual persuasion. That shouldn’t surprise us, because it’s true to life, which is more complicated than any version of the “hidebound tradition versus openminded innovation” myth.

So my word to “grog” is that Chris is quite right to draw the parallel between the fact that heliocentrism was widely seen to oppose faithful biblical Christianity, but actually didn’t, and that the same is true of any scientific work.

But to see how that works, serious thinking is required to avoid falling into simplistic answers that do threaten biblical faith. Fundamentalism is one (by refusing to engage with science in the understanding of Scripture and resorting to simplistic literalism). Scientism is another (by failing to see how many complex human factors are involved in the business of science and resorting to simplistic ideas of “science as progessive truth”).


Hi Jon,

I agree with you about the twin dangers of scientism and fundamentalism. You can fall off a horse on either side.

Your link to Gingerich’s article failed because it’s behind a paywall. However, I found an almost identical article by Gingerich here.

Gingerich’s view of Calvin’s geocentrism is almost comically wrong. When you actually read Calvin’s sermon in I Corinthians 10/11 in its entirety, his geocentrism and his hot anger toward the heretical twisters of Scripture (who would dare to challenge its crystal-clear statements on the earth and sun) are abundantly clear. Since Gingerich opines erroneously on a passage he does not bother to quote, I will provide the relevant text from Geneva’s favorite reformer:

“[The Christian is not to compromise so as to obscure the distinction between good and evil, and is to avoid the errors of] those dreamers who have a spirit of bitterness and contradiction, who reprove everything and pervert the order of nature. We will see some who are so deranged, not only in religion but who in all things reveal their monstrous nature, that they will say that the sun does not move, and that it is the earth which shifts and turns. When we see such minds we must indeed confess that the devil possesses them, and that God sets them before us as mirrors, in order to keep us in his fear. So it is with all who argue out of pure malice, and who happily make a show of their imprudence. When they are told: ‘That is hot,’ they will reply: ‘No, it is plainly cold.’ When they are shown an object that is black, they will say that it is white, or vice versa. Just like the man who said that snow is black; for although it is perceived and known by all to be white, yet he clearly wished to contradict the fact. And so it is that they are madmen who would try to change the natural order, and even to dazzle eyes and benumb their senses.” [emphasis mine]

One of the wonderful things about reading Calvin is that he is never ambiguous. His stance on the scientific controversy of the day is certainly not reticent: those who advocate heliocentrism are possessed by the Devil!

Moreover, Calvin’s view clearly emerged from his hermeneutical approach to Scripture. Calvin’s copious commentaries tie many specific Biblical passages to geocentrism. I will only mention two in this comment. The first is Psalm 93:1, about which Calvin comments:

"The heavens revolve daily, and immense as is their fabric, and inconceivable the rapidity of their revolutions, we experience no concussion–nod disturbance in the harmony of their motion. The sun, though varying its course every diurnal revolution, returns annually to the same point. The planets, in all their wanderings, maintain their respective positions. How could the earth hang suspended in the air if not upheld by God’s hand? By what means could it maintain itself unmoved, while the heavens above are in constant rapid motion, did not its Divine Maker fix and establish it?" [Emphasis mine]

In modern English, Psalm 93:1 states:

The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty;
the Lord is robed; he has put on strength as his belt.
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved.

  • English Standard Version

One can understand how Calvin would read this verse in a geocentric fashion; does it not state that the world shall never be moved?

Calvin also saw geocentrism in Psalm 104:5, as demonstrated by this commentary:

“Here the prophet celebrates the glory of God, as manifested in the stability of the earth. Since it is suspended in the midst of the air, and is supported only by pillars of water, how does it keep its place so stedfastly that it cannot be moved? This I indeed grant may be explained on natural principles; for the earth, as it occupies the lowest place, being the center of the world, naturally settles down there.”

Again, a glance at the verse shows how Calvin could draw the conclusion that the Scripture supported geocentrism:

He set the earth on its foundations,
so that it should never be moved.

  • English Standard Version

Here’s the bottom line: Gingerich is not wrong about Calvin; he is spectacularly wrong. I am baffled that a fine scholar like Gingerich could reach such a counterfactual conclusion about Calvin.


Hi Jon: Now the issue is becoming too complex and I may be causing you to miss the forest for the trees-of the thought that I desire to be stressing anyway. When I read The Bible and the author of a particular passage says “unto the ends of the earth” I absolutely do not conclude that the subject matter that this author is writing about that gets adorned with the phrase “ends of the earth” for clarification of the importance of the main point must be thereby be unacceptable because the earth has no ends. I don’t assume that any Christian scientist thinks this either. However, nor do I believe that we need to place our focus on this clarification statement itself either that is suggestive that the author was incorrect in their thinking about the form of the earth.

The reason I even bring this up is to beg us to ask, what is the BIG point in all of the Scripture as symbolized by the suggestion above? Is it argument over our view of the earth and how it came to be or is it GOD!.. who is so outstanding, and brilliant, and timeless and omnipresent, and beyond the laws of physics and beyond the theories of quantum physics, and outside of our understanding…the wisest of the wise human beings is to be seen as foolishness in the eyes of God, the Scripture say. And if He is the One alone who created everything and I am a betting man, I will side with the one in a trillionth chance that what I am viewing as to be logical with my earthly goggles about how we came to be is more likely 90 to maybe 100% incorrect relative to how God really made it. This is NOT to say that science is bad. This is to say that how a Christian with spiritual goggles should practice it using those earthly goggles.

To put it a different way, there seems to be a tendency to take this BIG point which is God and somehow displace Him for pleasure instead surrounding human arguments over the form of the earth being flat or round or the earth young or old etc…and there becomes DIVISION and STRIFE.

Missing the forest for the trees.

I am very pro science in its proper boundaries. In Gonzalez and Richards book “The Privileged Planet” they declare that God not only made the universe but made it in such a way that it could be studied. I agree, but to an extent because God gives us not only physical eyes to observe but spiritual ones too that should give reserve and humility. Based on what I am viewing with my spiritual eyes in Scriptures as a whole for 30 plus years of reading is that God also made the universe to be viewed as so beyond amazing and miraculous…and beyond the scope of understanding of how it really came to be what we view today that those Christian scientists who study it declare more faith statements of awe towards our very God who designed in the universe on a timescale He only knows…with our opinions on how species of living things came to be to take a back seat…way in the back. Where the scientist is good to help develop medicines and methods to help benefit our humanity, they take a whole new leap to then suppose and declare that they have the right to tell us what happened 100 thousand years ago let alone millions-read the average text book and this is what you see boldly printed over and over again to the acceptance of too many “Christian” scientists.

I would say the same thing to the young earth creationist scientist who is trying to use science to bolster his interpretation of Genesis to a point that the science that attempts to prove his point takes precedence even over God who, judging by the fact that He did indeed create the physical universe out of nothing which in and of itself defies logic in our finite minds, could have indeed created everything by which our science would not be able to view correctly because creation is so outside of the realm of our understanding.

That’s all. I am not trying to debunk good proper scientific thought nor am I trying to question a person’s brilliance as a scholar. I am attempting to enunciate the fact that Biblically, God describes Himself as I AM and so beyond us that our study of what He created should be handled with much more care and humility. And this God cautions all of those humans who happen to be in the upper tiers of intelligence compared to the rest of us to be additionally cautious in how they think about Him and His creation because in our natures, it is really easy to make the inch of having more intelligence than average and turn it into a mile of self-righteous, self dependent terms of understanding and thus declaration of what actually occurred thousands, let alone millions of years ago. That is the topic of this discussion is it not? It is not the practice of science (scientific method) in and of itself, but rather a lack of true human honesty about conclusions we make about what occurred in a period of time that we even want to declare of either thousands of years let alone millions where we were not even conscious.

I will conclude with a scripture and my personal position in all of this that is concerned with both those in the young earth creationist camp with big organizations with big money flows and everyone else with the same starting with this Scripture out of Job ch 38 where God says, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements-surely you know!..on what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God (angels) shouted for joy.” Based on this passage from the oldest text of all of Scripture, and for those curious about my position about early Genesis and my viewpoint of what the geology relays to us as far as timeframes of the earth…It is exactly this: If God is true which I know He is, and the God who sent His Son to die for us while we were still dead in sin…is true which I additionally know to be the case without a doubt based on historical and experiential reasons that would take a book to write… that if such a God is capable of creating us from nothing which is, by definition in an earth bound perspective is a miracle, then I will be more of an agnostic about my perceptions of what the rocks seem to say, and more of a follower of God and the revelation of positions and precepts about Himself that brought to light His existence and faith in Him in the first ;place. If He is capable of making life out of nothing, then He is capable of making what we see today in a split second and make it appear to be old. He could have done this. If He can do this, and I was a Christian scientist, young earth or old, I would use caution in defining our terms based on observations and more on what God says. At the same time, I have to say to myself, does this mean that God created exactly the way many young earth creation groups declare based on their interpretations of early Genesis to which I would also say, “no” as well because I was STILL not there when God created and I am humbled.

For many this may sound fluffy on both sides of the creation mindset, but I don’t see any other choice after viewing all of Scripture and considering the finiteness of man and thus frail ability to not only define correctly what God seems to say in early Genesis or what is being relayed to us in our interpretations of the rocks. God help us have discerning eyes.

Hi Chris

I see from your link that you engaged in considerable discussion when that article came out - but also that Ted Davis (in the penultimate comment) defended Gingerich’s position! Perhaps Ted is lurking somewhere nearby to comment…

Hi Jon,

Ted simply stated that Calvin’s polemic was addressed to Cicero rather than to Copernicus. Whether the foe was Cicero or Copernicus has no bearing on whether Calvin clung ferociously to a geocentric view based on his hermeneutical approach to several Biblical passages. Calvin clearly and stridently opposed any who would dispute the principle of geocentrism so firmly established (in his view) by Scripture.


Hi Jon (@Jon_Garvey) ,

It seems the Luther and Melanchthon story is a bit more nuanced than Calvin’s, as you note. I had not been aware of your references, and I thank you for bringing them to my attention.

I’m not sure how to regard the contention that Luther did not utter what was later attributed to him by a man who sat at his table. In any case, the question of geocentrism vs. heliocentrism does not seem to have captured very much of his attention. Unlike Calvin, Luther never called heliocentrists devil-possessed, nor did he (AFAIK) insist on a geocentric hermeneutical approach.

Melanchthon, however, insisted strongly in 1549 that Scripture required geocentrism. As your source (Westman) notes,

“His earliest reference to Copernicus, in a well-known letter to Mithobius, on October 16, 1541, is merely an incidental one and treats the new theory as a disturbance rather than a threat. Later statements, however, take a harder line. In his published lectures of 1549 he perceives the new theory as an old and absurd “paradox” which Aristarchus had once defended and which young students ought to stay away from since it conflicted with Scripture.”

Melanchthon in fact accused heliocentrists of dishonesty and indecency:

“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; and they maintain that neither the eighth sphere nor the sun revolves . . . 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.”

To his credit, Melanchthon’s rhetoric later became much more irenic and open to heliocentrism (as Westman notes). Would that Ken Ham’s views on science and Scripture evolve as Melanchthon’s did.

I agree, Jon. Here is something one of my STEM education students wrote about Copernicus (grade 8):

Copernicus was a Christian who lived a quiet life. He was hesitant to publish his revolutionary views. Yet Copernicus changed how Europeans came to think about the cosmos. He believed that truth directs our hearts and minds to the Creator. He wrote, “[It is my] loving duty to seek the truth in all things, in so far as God has granted that to human reason.”

Copernicus died on May 24, 1543 and was buried in an unmarked grave in the floor of the cathedral of Frombork in Northern Poland. Copernicus was never declared a heretic for his astronomical views because he spoke to few about them. So why did Copernicus have such a humble burial? Jack Repcheck, the author of Copernicus’ Secret: How the Scientific Revolution Began, explains that Copernicus was buried in the same way as any other canon in Frombork because at that time, “He was not the iconic hero that he has become."

Copernicus’s death at the age of 70 is not the end of the story, however. In 1992 Pope John Paul II said the church was wrong to condemn Galileo who based his work on that of Copernicus.

In 2004 scientists began searching for the astronomer’s remains and discovered his bones. The identity was confirmed through DNA testing. The DNA of the teeth and bones matched that of hairs found in one of Copernicus’s books.

Six years later, on May 21, 2010, the Roman Catholic Church gave permission to polish priests to rebury Copernicus in a tomb in the cathedral where he once served as a canon.


I note with interest that all three of the “critiques” by Luther,Melancthon and Calvin, to whomever they were addressed, and regarding which doctrine, major on the criticism of novelty for its own sake. Maybe there was a lot of that around, but it also reminds me of something I gleaned reading about mediaeval thought.

I understand that the important concept of “saving the appearances” was based on the principle that one judged “science” only on its utility, because to pretend to have a thorough understanding of the true nature of reality was presumptuous. That’s not a bad idea in the light of quantum theory and so on, when our “particles”, waves", “fields” and so on are just placeholders for incomprehensible things. Nevertheless, it was “appearances”, not “actualities”, that were the business of natural philosophy then.

Anyway, for someone like Copernicus to come up with a neater way of calculating celestial movements, in a way that matched observable phenomena (ie it “saved the appearances”) was good science - which is why the Jesuits used it in navigation and (it seems from the links above) Wittenberg was happy also to incorporate the methodology.

But if Copernicus or anyone else, at that time, pretended to be able to provide a truer understanding of reality, then it was actually seen as bad science, since it went beyond what the pre-Baconian methodology of science permitted. Of course, in that context also to deny the apparently clear meaning of Scripture was doubly heinous - arrogant speculation and denial of Scripture both.

That view of science was (apart from his personailty) what got Galileo into trouble: indeed, Galileo seems to mark the watershed after which scientific observation was held to measure what is, rather than merely what works. That, though, was over half a century later.

Regarding Calvin, I’m sure you’re aware that elsewhere he allows science its own proper sphere, saying that Scripture speaks of common experience, so that the astronomers’ discovery that Jupiter is larger than the moon should not be thought either erroneous itself, nor to overturn the Scripture about the moon ruling the night.

The fact that both instances are about the interpretation of biblical astronomy makes me think that one needs to dig for the exact context of the issue - which of course isn’t always easily available after 500 years.

Hi Jon,

My point is that Calvin’s literalistic hermeneutical approach to Psalm 93:1 and Psalm 104:5 led him to vigorously support geocentrism and to vituperate heliocentrism.

If he had thought that Psalm 93:1 supported heliocentrism, he would have accepted heliocentrism as the real nature of things without a moment’s hesitation.

Therefore I continue to insist that a faulty hermeneutic can result in the rejection of valid scientific insights, as Calvin’s sermon on I Corinthians 10/11 illustrates…and as Ken Ham’s current writings illustrate.

I am not saying this to cast Calvin into disrepute. He was, like me and you and anyone else who writes today, a person of his times. There were many reasons, as you cite, for him to feel reluctant to reverse long-held positions.

Chris Falter


Yup - I buy that.

Still, it’s part of a broader picture than literal hermeneutics and bull-headedness, involving the question of what evidence was available (eg had Calvin read Copernicus, or just heard rumours of him or some other as per Gingerich?), the provisionality of the science (Copernicus had little empirical evidence and was flat wrong about circular orbits - as of course was Galileo in supporting Copernicus and rejecting Kepler), existing scientific consensus and so on, as we’ve discussed.

I think there are comparable, but individually different, contexts for the current debate too - though that doesn’t negate your point that simplistic understanding of both science and Scripture lead to unnecsessary rejection of either.

Considering Calvin was dead by 1564, long before the famous rise of Galileo, it would seem that the Ultra-Protestant Calvin fired the “loudest and firstest” salvo in Religion vs. Science!

I cannot speak for the Calvinistic side of history, but I am familiar with the Lutheran voices surrounding the paradigm shifts in astronomy. I say paradigm shifts because the Lutheran (and therefore Christian) engagement with the astronomical sciences cannot be limited to Copernicus (and George Rheticus and Osiander and Melanchthon). Rather, you must include the post-Reformation Lutheran theologians, the majority of which were mum in their writings on the subject, and post-Reformation Lutheran scientists, the most famous of which are renowned for their confessions of faith. The majority of Lutheran theologians were apathetic to the whole controversy and one is hard-pressed to find comments in their books. The exceptions are best exemplified by advocates of Copernicus in the form of Cort Aslaksson (1564-1624) and Melchior Nikolai (1578-1659) - who saw potential for consonance between the burgeoning astronomical science and theology - and opponents in the form of Abraham Calov (1612-1686) - who spurned the heliocentric universe as anti-scriptural and hazardous to the faith. I repeat, however, the majority of post-Reformation Lutheran theologians were apathetic (likely enthralled with other controversies). Lutheran scientists, however, were pivotal for furthering the heliocentric worldview. For example: Tycho Brahe (1564-1642), whilst himself opposed to the Copernicus-Galileo ordering of the universe, laid the groundwork for Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). Kepler, a German-born Lutheran (and assistant of Brahe) deserves the title of perfecter and verifier of the heliocentric understanding of the solar system.

I offer two resources for those interested in secondary sources on the engagement of the Lutherans and astronomy: The second volume of The Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism: God and His Creation by Robert Preus and Werner Elert’s The Structure of Lutheranism.

It’s interesting when one tracks the reaction of later confessional Lutherans to the heliocentric renderings of the solar system, up to an including into the first quarter of the twentieth century. (I can write more on that if you’d like.)


Because they were astronomers, not theologians. Who was the first Lutheran theologian to accept and teach heliocentrism? We already know which of them rejected it and taught it was false. The lesson for the Lutherans is the same as the lesson for all the other groups whose theologians opposed heliocentrism; stop letting your bad theology get in the way of good science. That’s the number one lesson we must all learn from the Galileo business.


Not true. They were both ;). The first theologian to shine favorable light toward the heliocentric view was Melanchthon. He was exceedingly fond of Rheticus, did not scold him when he left his position, and after On the Revolutions was published, after the world knew of the Copernican theory and the hand Rheticus played in its propagation, Melanchthon welcomed Rheticus back with open arms to the faculty at Wittenburg. Some of the first to accept it were the post-Reformation names listed above.

It was not “bad” theology that kept Calov in his camp. It was well grounded concern worthy of investigation. If there is a lesson to be learned from the Lutheran side, it is to not remain apathetic to the happenings of science (as the majority of post-Ref. Luth. theologians were). Their apathy is part of what lead to a major faux pas in the 1920’s by one of the more excellent Lutheran theologians of the time: Francis Pieper. The relationship of theology to astronomy (and really any academic subject) is, in a way, much like the common relationship between two individuals: a more likely reason for the dissolving of conversation and fruitful dialogue/friendship is the presence of apathy (e.g. the silent majority), not conflict (e.g. Calov).

Hello Just,

Welcome to the forum, I’m glad you’re here!

In my original post, I overgeneralized Melanchthon’s hostility towards heliocentrism. I think you have committed the opposite error: you have overgeneralized his later acceptance. The truth seems to be in the middle: he was initially skeptical but interested; then he opposed it quite vehemently; then he finally accepted it.

Does that make sense?

Warm Advent wishes,


Quite! I’m in agreement. Melanchthon warmed up to the idea over time. Thanks for acknowledging a corrective.

And thank you for the welcome. Very curious where the discussions will lead!

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