Saturday, November 7, 2009

Reformed theologians contra Copernicus

Dr. F. Oosterhoff at writes:

“…there was a time when believers adopted a more relaxed attitude in dealing with scientific theories that they were uncomfortable with. Both Calvin and Luther were unhappy with the idea of a sun-centred solar system, but they did not in the end reject it. The Roman Catholic Church did. …Reformed theologians have tended to be less dogmatic, then and later. …I have further shown that young-earth creationism was the brainchild of a North-American Seventh-Day Adventist prophetess.”

The implication is that, since in the past Reformed theologians have adapted their reading of Scripture to the science of their day, so we likewise should adapt our reading of Genesis 1-11 to accommodate current secular science.

Does the argument work?

She makes it seem as if Luther (1483-1546) and Calvin (1509-1564) reluctantly gave in to the Copernican Revolution, thereby acknowledging the supremacy of science.

In fact, the Copernican revolution did not occur until long after these Reformers had died. Copernicus (1473 – 1543) had asserted that the sun was the fixed center of the universe—not just the solar system. His work was published in 1543 but had circulated in manuscript form a few years earlier. Yet, before 1600, the reaction to helio-centricity, was overwhelmingly negative, even among astronomers. At Luther’s Wittenberg University Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), and others, acknowledged the Copernican model as a useful calculating device but they rejected helio-centricity as a physical reality. Before 1564 only two scholars are known to have supported helio-centricity: Georg Rheticus (1514–1574) and Gemma Frisius (1508–55). Neither of them wrote extensively on the subject.

There were thus no pressing reasons for Luther & Calvin to address helio-centricity; it was simply not a significant issue during their day. When Luther (e.g., Table Talk June 4, 1539) and Calvin (e.g., 8th sermon on 1 Cor.10-11) do touch on the topic, they are clearly geo-centric.

In sum, there is no question of Luther and Calvin acquiescing to heliocentricity, as Dr Oosterhof implies.

Heliocentricity did become a major issue later, after 1600, particularly after it was coupled with the rationalist philosophy of Descartes (1596-1650), who stressed the supremacy of human reason. By 1656 the debate in the Netherlands raged between theologians who embraced Cartesian philosophy (which included heliocentricity), re-interpreting the Bible accordingly, and orthodox theologians who upheld the authority of the Bible, which they viewed as opposing heliocentricity. The prominent Reformed theologian Gisbert Voet (1589-1676) strongly rejected both Cartesianism and heliocentricity. At that time this issue almost caused a split in the Dutch Reformed Church.

Then, as now, the central issue concerned the nature of biblical authority and interpretation. The Cartesians argued that the Bible was not a source of knowledge in natural philosophy but that the Bible was accommodated to fallible human opinion. The orthodox Reformed theologians, on the other hand, insisted on a fully authoritative, inerrant Bible that must be interpreted in a literal, rather than allegorical, manner.

Upon reading the detailed account by Rienck Vermij The Calvinist Copernicans: The reception of the new astronomy in the Dutch Republic, 1575-1750 [2002, 452pp], one is struck by the remarkable similarity between the view of Scripture of the Cartesian theologians and that of the ReformedAcademic in its current attack on the historicity of Genesis 1-11.

In this regard, it is noteworthy that Luther and Calvin firmly defended the historicity of Gen.1-11, including a young earth and a universal flood, which are most certainly NOT recent inventions of Seventh-Day Adventists.

P.S. But what are we to think of geocentricity? Hasn’t science disproven it? The central issue concerns absolute motion: is the earth at absolute rest or not? Observations give us only relative motion. There are various ways one could define an absolute standard of rest: Newtonian inertial frames, the background radiation of the universe as a whole, an (invisible) Heaven, etc. The choice is ultimately philosophical/religious rather than strictly scientific.


  1. Dear Dr. Byl,
    What do you think is the cosmological reality of creation according to the Scriptures? The late Walter Vanderkamp, Gerry Bouw and others take the Bible as being geocentric. Genesis 1 seems to clearly teach a central earth surrounded by the firmament called heaven which contains all of the celestial bodies. If the creation account is to be taken as recorded history (which it is) when did the earth begin spinning at 1000 miles per hour on an "axis" and whizzing around the sun at 100,000 km per hour? Are the motions of the heavens only relative?

  2. Perhaps you should consider joining this group of Roman Catholics:

    Seriously, should we affirm geocentrism? Should we also affirm a three-story cosmology with the earth resting on pillars over the waters under the earth, and should we affirm a biblical "storehouse meteorology" of storehouses of rain and snow above the firmament which divides the waters above from the waters below?
    Or perhaps should we perhaps consider the possibility that maybe this accommodative language was God the missionary speaking to ancient near eastern people in terms they could understand, as Calvin says, "lisping" to us, to people?

  3. Was creatio ex nihilo "lisping"?

    Was the Red Sea parting "lisping"?

    Was Jonah's E-ticket ride "lisping"?

    Was Christ's resurrection "lisping"?

    ~ Hughuenot ~


Comments are welcome. However, I reserve the right to reject any comment, especially those that —
1. are rude, offensive, or non-edifying
2. are off topic
3. merely repeat points already made.

Please use your real name. If for some reason you must remain incognito, you may use a nickname if you first email me your real name.