Early Protestant Hostility Towards Science
Accustomed as we are to hearing about the Catholic Church and Galileo, it isn't often realized or recognized that classical "Reformational" Protestantism, generally speaking, was out and out hostile to the burgeoning scientific discoveries and endeavors of its time. No thoughtful and honest Catholic denies that the Catholic Church, too, had a less than perfect record of positive regard for modern science in its infancy in the 16th and 17th centuries (most notably with the Galileo case - which Pope John Paul II has recently acknowledged). The point of this essay, however, is to show that Protestantism has often, if not always, been guilty of the same shortcomings for which the Catholic Church is constantly harangued. In other words, one should not notice the speck in another's eye while neglecting the "log" in one's own eye! It's high time to balance the "historical scales" a bit on this topic. With that intention, and no malice, the following historical information is offered for reflection:
Will Durant, the noted (non-Catholic) historian, summarized: "Luther rejected the Copernican astronomy . . . Calvin had little use for science; Knox none." (1)
Luther vs. Copernicus
Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), a devout Catholic (one of his degrees was in Church canon law), originated the heliocentric theory in astronomy, in which the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa. This new theory in particular provides fascinating insight into Protestantism's view of science, since it arrived roughly simultaneously with the Protestant Revolution. Thomas Kuhn, in his important book, The Copernican Revolution, notes Luther's reaction to Copernicus:
People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon . . . This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy, but sacred Scripture tells us (Joshua l0:l3) that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth. (2)
Luther's Cohort Philip Melanchthon Rejects Copernicus, Accepts Astrology
Some think it a distinguished achievement to construct such a crazy thing as that Prussian astronomer who moves the earth and fixes the sun. Verily, wise rulers should tame the unrestraint of men's minds. (3)
Certain men, either from the love of novelty, or to make a display of ingenuity, have concluded that the earth moves . . . 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 . . . The earth can be nowhere if not in the centre of the universe. (4)
Meanwhile, Melanchthon (considered the father of German liberal arts education and one of the more "humanist" and rational-minded Reformers) thought superstition and astrology more worthwhile:
One of the most curious features of Melanchthon's character . . . was his morbid tendency to superstition. For example, at the time of the Diet of Augsburg he wrote that several prodigious portents seemed to favour the success of Lutheranism: the bursting of the Tiber's banks, the prolonged labour of a mule, the birth of a two-headed calf were all signs which suggested Rome's ruin. By contrast, when his daughter fell ill, Melanchthon was filled with terror by the unfavourable aspect of Mars. He never did anything without consulting astrologers. (5)
Melanchthon changed the date of Luther's birth to give him a more propitious horoscope, and begged him not to travel under a new moon. (6)
Calvin's Hostility to Copernicus and Science
There is not a single indication that the reformer was at all interested in the scientific discoveries . . . for example, the findings of Copernicus in 1530 . . . of which Calvin was still ignorant in 1560. (7)
Calvin's Academy of Geneva, which he founded in 1559, provided:
. . . a most thorough education . . . but not the natural sciences, "diabolica scientia," whose study Calvin regarded with fear as "imprudent curiosity and rashness." (8)
Calvin answered Copernicus with a line from Psalm 93:1: "The world also is stabilized, that it cannot be moved" - and asked, "who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?" (9)
Examples of Catholic Acceptance & Protestant Dismissal, of Science
Protestant leaders like Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon led in citing Scripture against Copernicus and in urging the repression of Copernicans . . . Protestants . . . provided the first effective institutionalized opposition . . . For sixty years after Copernicus' death there was little Catholic counterpart for the Protestant opposition to Copernicanism . . . The Church itself was silent . . . Copernicus himself had been a cleric and a reputable one . . . His book was dedicated to the Pope (10), and among the friends who urged him to publish it were a Catholic bishop and a Cardinal. During the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries the Church had not imposed cosmological conformity on its members . . .
Before the De Revolutionibus the Church had spawned even more revolutionary cosmological concepts without theological convulsions. (11)
A young Lutheran scholar, Rheticus, left his chair of mathematics at Wittenberg . . . to work with Copernicus . . . A summary of Copernicus' findings was released and it met with tremendous hostility from Protestant theologians; there was no such general hostility from Catholics. Rheticus was barred from returning to his post at Wittenberg. At the insistence of Clement VII (12), the material was expanded into the great work of Copernicus' career, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres . . . . Copernicus' work on the heliocentric theory would not have been completed had not Churchmen urged him on. (13)
Johann Kepler (1571-1630), a German Protestant astronomer, was, in 1607, prevented from printing an article on comets by the Saxon theologians (14). Perhaps this type of antipathy to science was one reason why Kepler, two years earlier, "praised 'the wisdom and prudence of the Roman Church' for its public encouragement of scientific research." (15)
The Encyclopedia Britannnica reiterates the above:
Lectures on the principles [of the Heliocentric theory] . . . were given [by Copernicus] in Rome in 1533 before Pope Clement VII, who approved, and a formal request to publish was made to Copernicus in 1536 . . . His pupil and disciple Georg Joachim Rhaticus . . . was permitted [in 1540] to take the completed manuscript to Nurnberg, Germany, for printing. Because of opposition from Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and other reformers, Rhaticus left Nurnberg and went to Leipzig . . . (16)
Andrew D. White, in a massively-researched two-volume work on the relationship of science and Christianity (17), makes several shocking observations with regard to the outlook of Protestantism in this respect:
Eminent authorities . . . like Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, and Vincent of Beauvais, felt obliged to accept the doctrine of the earth's sphericity, and as we approach the modern period we find its truth acknowledged by the vast majority of thinking men. The Reformation did not at first yield fully to this better theory . . . Even Zwingli . . . held to the opinion . . . that a great firmament, or floor, separated the heavens from the earth; that above it were the waters and angels, and below it the earth and man . . .
[the author also states that Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon rejected the sphericity of the earth]
All branches of the Protestant Church - Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican - vied with each other in denouncing the Copernican doctrine as contrary to Scripture; and, at a later period, the Puritans showed the same tendency . . . Turretin, Calvin's famous successor, even after Kepler and Newton had virtually completed the theory of Copernicus and Galileo, put forth his compendium of theology, in which he proved, from a multitude of scriptural texts, that the heavens, sun, and moon move about the earth, which stands still in the centre. In England we see similar theological efforts, even after they had become evidently futile . . . Dr. John Owen [1616-83], so famous in the annals of Puritanism, declared the Copernican system a "delusive and arbitrary hypothesis, contrary to Scripture"; and even John Wesley [who also - like Melanchthon - indulged in superstition] declared the new ideas to "tend toward infidelity" . . . The people of Nuremburg, a Protestant stronghold, caused a medal to be struck with inscriptions ridiculing the philosopher with his theory . . .
John Owen declared that Newton's discoveries were "built on fallible phenomena and advanced by many arbitrary presumptions against evident testimonies of Scripture" . . . John Wesley . . . while giving up the Ptolemaic theory and accepting in a general way the Copernican, . . . suspect[ed] the demonstrations of Newton . . . In Germany even Leibnitz [Lutheran philosopher, 1646-1716] attacked the Newtonian theory of gravitation on theological grounds . . . In Germany, especially in the Protestant part of it, the war was even more bitter, and it lasted through the first half of the eighteenth century. Eminent Lutheran doctors of divinity flooded the country with treatises to prove that the Copernican theory could not be reconciled with Scripture. In the theological seminaries and in many of the universities where clerical influence was strong they seemed to sweep all before them . . .
Luther . . . in one of his Advent sermons . . . said, "The heathen write that the comet may arise from natural causes, but God creates not one that does not foretoken a sure calamity." Again he said, "Whatever moves in the heaven in an unusual way is certainly a sign of God's wrath." And sometimes, . . . he declared them works of the devil, and declaimed against them as "harlot stars." Melanchthon, too, in various letters refers to comets as heralds of Heaven's wrath, classing them, with evil conjunctions of the planets and abortive births, amongst the "signs" referred to in Scripture. Zwingli, boldest of the greater Reformers in shaking off traditional beliefs, could not shake off this, and insisted that the comet of 1531 betokened calamity . . .
In 1873 was published in St. Louis, at the publishing house of the Lutheran Synod of Missouri, a work entitled Astronomische Unterredung, the author being well known as a late president of a Lutheran Teachers' Seminary. No attack on the whole system of astronomy could be more bitter . . .: "The entire Holy Scripture settles the question that the earth is the principal body of the universe, that it stands fixed" . . . The author then goes on to show from Scripture the folly, not only of Copernicus and Newton, but of a long line of great astronomers in more recent times . . .
Nothing is more unjust than to cast especial blame for all this resistance to science upon the Roman Church. The Protestant Church . . . has been more blameworthy . . . The direct influence of the Reformation was at first unfavourable to scientific progress . . . There is much reason to believe that the fetters upon scientific thought were closer under the strict interpretation of Scripture by the early Protestants than they had been under the older Church.
Non-Catholics Whitehead and Harnack Praise Catholic Scientific Thought
Professor Whitehead . . . insists that the Middle Ages "formed one long training of the intellect of Europe in the sense of order." It was the medieval theologians, he tells us, who were responsible for "the faith in the possibility of science." . . . Harnack (18), the Liberal Protestant, was no friend of Catholicism, and yet Harnack writes:
"Scholasticism is simply nothing else but scientific thought . . . The science of the Middle Ages gives practical proof of eagerness in thinking and exhibits an energy in subjecting all that is real and valuable to thought to which we can perhaps find no parallel in any other age." (19)
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Edited by Dave Armstrong in 1991.