In a recent offhand remark, George Selgin criticized certain Austrians’ thinking on banking as being akin to “theologians bungling their cosmology” six centuries ago. I asked if George actually had particular theologians in mind.
George sent me this link, which does indeed have quotes from heavy-hitting theologians (including Martin Luther and John Calvin) that are embarrassingly confident in their denunciations of the Copernican theory. I have just two remarks on this link:
(1) It was interesting to see the scriptural evidence people used to defend the geocentric (i.e. Earth at the center) model. For example, in a famous scene Joshua commands the sun to stand still. In retrospect, this really doesn’t clinch the geocentric case, since even today we say things like, “The sun rises in the east and sets in the west,” even though presumably everyone nowadays understands what’s actually going on.
According to the author, one of the most popular scriptural references is Psalm 93:
93 The Lord reigns, He is clothed with majesty;
The Lord is clothed,
He has girded Himself with strength.
Surely the world is established, so that it cannot be moved.
2 Your throne is established from of old;
You are from everlasting.
Again, I still have no problem saying I “believe in the Bible as the Word of God,” even though I endorse the heliocentric model of the solar system.
Selgin et al.’s point is well taken, of course: These theological thinkers were sure that the earth wasn’t moving around the sun–I mean, how could it be? Just use your senses!–and then, regrettably for those who believe secularist science misses a lot of important truths, these theologians then latched onto portions of scripture to “prove” their case which really didn’t prove it at all.
(2) Another interesting feature of this history is how Copernicus himself seems to have been a humble man of faith. On his tombstone he didn’t list any of his scientific achievements:
[O]n his tombstone was placed no record of his lifelong labours, no mention of his great discovery; but there was graven upon it simply a prayer: “I ask not the grace accorded to Paul; not that given to Peter; give me only the favour which Thou didst show to the thief on the cross.” Not till thirty years after did a friend dare write on his tombstone a memorial of his discovery.
Andrew White, the author of this account–which is hardly neutral in its stance, as the title is A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom–thinks the above is evidence that Copernicus feared desecration of his corpse by Church officials. I would think it rather reflects the fact that he is humble. He might not even have appreciated what his friend did.
Then, in an extra twist of irony for those trying to cast this as a battle of religion versus science, notice this interesting anecdote:
Herein was fulfilled one of the most touching of prophecies. Years before, the opponents of Copernicus had said to him, “If your doctrines were true, Venus would show phases like the moon.” Copernicus answered: “You are right; I know not what to say; but God is good, and will in time find an answer to this objection.” The God-given answer came when, in 1611, the rude telescope of Galileo showed the phases of Venus.
Look, I don’t want to make too much of this; I’m not trying to excuse the heavy-handedness, let alone literal persecutions, carried out in the name of Christ over the centuries. But look at that “most touching of prophecies” again. The critics of Copernicus had come up with a perfectly reasonable objection: They were saying that if his heliocentric theory were true, then it made falsifiable predictions that–according to the tools they had at the time–were wrong.
Copernicus didn’t say, “Well, our observations fall within the bounds of my 95% confidence interval, and I think with improvements in our instruments I will eventually be vindicated.”
Nope, he said he believed this objection would be answered because “God is good.”
So this is not quite the tale of secular science versus rigid theologians that Andrew White (and George Selgin) want to make it. Alas, the medieval Church did some things that horrify me, and alas, there are plenty of first-rate scientists throughout the ages who believed in God. The truth is complicated.