Donald H. Kobe

Donald H. Kobe is professor of physics at the University of North Texas.


I. Introduction

The influence of Christianity in providing an appropriate intellectual ethos for a rational understanding of the universe is at least one reason for the development of modern science in Europe about 500 years ago. According to Alfred North Whitehead, the greatest contribution of the medieval period to the scientific movement was the "belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedent in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles” [1]. The origin of the belief was the medieval insistence on the rationality of God. In this view, every detail of the universe was supervised and ordered by God. The search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality because nature had been created by a rational being. Albert Einstein once said that, to him, the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. For the believer in a rational creator, the comprehensibility of nature is a logical consequence.

The first chapter of Genesis teaches that God created the heavens and the earth. Orthodox theologians have taught that this creation is ex nihilo, out of nothing. This mode of creation means that there is a qualitative difference between the creator and his creation. The universe and the creatures in it are not emanations or extensions of God's being and therefore, do not share divinity with God [2]. Nevertheless, humans were created in God's image. Human beings are, therefore, spiritual as well as physical beings who are capable of rational thought. God gave humans dominion over the creatures and authority to name them, which implies a systematic approach to nature. He commanded humans to subdue the earth (i.e., have stewardship over it), which can be interpreted as the Judeo-Christian imperative to engage in what we now call science.

Modern science developed during the Renaissance and the Reformation. The role of the latter on the development of science has sometimes been said to have been negative. In this paper the views of Martin Luther and his followers toward science, especially astronomy, are examined. Although they have been criticized as being negative and obstructionist, this criticism is without justification. Luther's attitude toward science in general is dealt with in Section II. Section III deals with his attitude toward Copernicus. The attitude of some of Luther's followers towards Copernicus is discussed in Section IV. The conclusion is given in Section V.

II. Luther's Attitude Toward Science

Without the Reformation, modern science would probably have developed in any event because of the ethos of rationality and the doctrine of creation conducive to it. The Reformation, however, hastened the development by criticizing scholasticism and by putting emphasis on the direct observation of nature. Luther has been called the Copernicus of theology while, on the other hand, Copernicus has been called the Luther of astronomy. Indeed, Thomas Sprat, an Anglican clergyman and an early member of the Royal Society, emphasized that there was a reformation, some would say revolution, in both philosophy and theology [3]. In natural philosophy or science, questions about nature were no longer answered primarily by quoting Aristotle and the Scholastics, but by turning to observation of and experimentation on nature itself. Similarly, after the Reformation, Protestants no longer answered questions in theology primarily by quoting scholastic philosophers and theologians, but by turning directly to the Bible. Luther interpreted Scripture by asking: what is the clear and straightforward meaning of the text? Scientists interpret nature in the simplest way using the minimum number of hypotheses.

Luther believed that the world was beginning a new age, which would bring not only a reform of religion but a new appreciation of nature. In his informal "Table Talk" he said,

We are at the dawn of a new era, for we are beginning to recover the knowledge of the external world that was lost through the fall of Adam. We now observe creatures properly .... But by the grace of God we already recognize in the most delicate flower the wonders of divine goodness and omnipotence [4].

In the last part of this statement, Luther paraphrased the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 1:20).

Luther was open to the authentic scientific advances of his age [5]. He appreciated the mechanical inventions of his day.

He accepted the use of medicine in treating disease and is quoted as having said [6],

It's our Lord God who created all things and they are good. Wherefore it's permissible to use medicine, for it is a creature of God.

To someone who said that it is not permissible for a Christian to use medicine, Luther replied rhetorically, "Do you eat when you are hungry?" According to Andrew White [7], this attitude of Luther made the Protestant cities of Germany more ready than others to admit anatomical investigation and dissection.

Luther accepted astronomy as a science, but rejected astrology as a superstition because it cannot be confirmed by demonstration. Astrology, according to Luther, is idolatry and violates the first commandment. He was both amused and distressed by Melanchthon's interest in astrology, a belief system that was widely accepted at the time [8]. Instead, for example, Luther was ready to accept the conclusion of the astronomers that the moon is the smallest and lowest of the "stars." He interpreted the Scripture that called both the sun and the moon "great lights" as accommodating itself to the appearance of the phenomena [9]. Had this principle of accommodation based on interpreting the Bible in a phenomenological way been maintained after Luther's death, the tragic conflict in the modern era between science and biblical literalism could probably have been avoided.

III. Luther and Copernicus

Luther has been severely criticized for an offhand remark that he made about Copernicus. For example, Hugh Kearny writes that Luther's attitude toward Copernicus's theory was similar to a savage looking at a watch that he did not understand [10]. Jerzy Neyman says that Luther's remark is the "crudest imaginable piece of dogmatism" [11]. Even the careful historian, Herbert Butterfield, called Luther's remark a "scathing condemnation" [12]. Thomas Kuhn, the respected historian and philosopher of science, says that "Protestant leaders like Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon led in citing Scripture against Copernicus and in urging repression of Copernicans"[l3]. A recent astronomy textbook [l4] states that "Luther attacked Copernicus." Andrew White writes that "all branches of the Protestant Church ... vied with each other in denouncing the Copernican doctrine as contrary to Scripture" [15]. These quotations and others serve to reinforce a common view that Christianity attempts to suppress scientific truth.

The famous (or infamous) remark of Luther was made in 1539. In the spring of that year, Georg Joachim Rheticus, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wittenberg, was granted a leave to visit Nicolaus Copernicus in Frauenberg, Poland to learn more about his new theory that the earth and planets revolve about the sun. At that time not very much was known about the new theory, except from hearsay. The purpose of Rheticus’s trip must have prompted discussion among the faculty and students of Wittenberg, especially in Luther's home [17].

Anthony Lauterbach, who dined with the Luthers, quotes the conversation pertaining to Copernicus as follows [l8]:

There was mention of a certain astrologer who wanted to prove that the earth moves and not the sky, the sun, and the moon. This would be as if somebody were riding on a cart or in a ship and imagined that he was standing still while the earth and the trees were moving. [Luther remarked] "So it goes now. Whoever wants to be clever must agree with nothing that others esteem. He must do something of his own. This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. Even in these things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth [Jos. 10:12]."

To put this remark in perspective, it was made four years before the publication of Copernicus's book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres [18].

Another version of the same conversation by John Aurifaber uses the expression "that fool" (Der Narr) instead of "that fellow" [l9]. It is the expression "that fool" which has led to the intemperate remarks about Luther mentioned earlier. Lauterbach's version of the "Table Talk" is generally more reliable than Aurifaber's version [20, 21]. Even if Luther had called Copernicus, who was not mentioned by name, a fool, that would have been a rather mild epithet coming from Luther. The "Table Talk" was based on notes taken by students of Luther. The notes were compiled and first published in 1566, twenty years after Luther's death [22]. Thus the remark cannot be construed as part of a concerted attack on Copernicus or Copernicans. The use of the word "astrologer" in the introductory remarks should not necessarily be interpreted as disparaging, since at that time the terms "astrologer" and "astronomer" were often used more or less synonymously.

Luther saw that Copernicus's view was indeed a revolutionary one. He could not accept it because it was contrary to his common sense and his interpretation of the Bible. That a person in a cart moving at constant velocity is at rest with respect to the cart, while trees are in motion with respect to him, is an example of what is now called Galilean relativity. By quoting Joshua [23] Luther, of course, did not refute Copernicus [24]. Johannes Kepler later applied Luther's own principle of biblical interpretation to the passage by saying that it only appeared that the sun stood still, but it would actually have been the earth [25].

Luther was a well educated man for his day. He had studied logic, psychology, spherical astronomy, metaphysics, mathematics and arithmetic, and was well acquainted with theories of music, perspective, natural and moral philosophy, politics, and economics, besides his biblical studies [26]. He accepted the geocentric view of the universe; but this was natural since the doctrines of Aristotle and Ptolemy dominated the intellectual climate of his day. He rejected some of the views of some of his professors at Erfurt. He denied that God resided in the outermost sphere, the twelfth heaven, because he believed that God is omnipresent. For the same reason he did not take literally the Scripture that the ascended Christ sat down at the right hand of the Father.

Luther's view of the Copernican theory was certainly not a reactionary one for his day. After all, there was no direct evidence for the Copernican theory in 1539. According to Edwin Burtt [27]

It is safe to say that even had there been no religious scruples whatever against the Copernican astronomy, sensible men all over Europe, especially the most empirically minded, would have pronounced it a wild appeal to accept the premature fruits of an uncontrolled imagination, in preference to the solid inductions, built up gradually through the ages, of men's confirmed sense experience... Contemporary empiricists, had they lived in the 16th century, would have been the first to scoff out of court the new philosophy of the universe.

Genuine evidence for the Copernican system had to wait until the work of Johannes Kepler and Galileo in the early seventeenth century. Acceptance or rejection of the system before that time had to be based on nonscientific grounds, such as mathematical simplicity. Herbert Butterfield [28] dates the breakdown of the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic system from the time when Galileo (circa 1600) formulated the principle of inertia. This principle, which states that a body moving with constant velocity continues to move with constant velocity unless acted on by an external force, helped to explain why everything would not fall off the earth if it were in motion. Of course, the earth does not move with constant velocity around the sun, so the Copernican view was not fully accepted. For most of the seventeenth century, the Copernican system competed with other alternatives, including Tycho Brahe's system which held that the earth is stationary, the sun revolves about the earth, and the other planets revolve about the sun. Only after Isaac Newton formulated the universal law of gravitation and the laws of mechanics, which unified terrestrial and celestial mechanics, was the heliocentric view generally accepted. Newton published his results in the Principia [29] in 1687, almost 150 years after Luther's offhand remark.

IV. Luther's Followers and Copernicus

Luther died in 1546 and the direction of the University of Wittenberg fell to Philipp Melanchthon. The charge that Luther and Melanchthon urged the repression of Copernicans has been made by Thomas Kuhn [30]. Andrew White also claims that the Copernican views of the two mathematicians at the University of Wittenberg, Georg Rheticus and Erasmus Reinhold, were suppressed. He writes that [31]

Rheticus at last gave up his professorship and left Wittenberg, that he might have freedom to seek and tell the truth [about the Copernican view]. Reinhold was even more wretchedly humiliated. Convinced of the truth of the new [Copernican] theory, he was obliged to advocate the old [Ptolemaic].

This statement utterly distorts the historical situation. The atmosphere at the University of Wittenberg was not repressive for the Copernican theory. The Copernican view was accepted as a hypothesis, but not the truth, by all except Rheticus.

Rheticus spent two years as an assistant to Copernicus after he was granted a leave from the University of Wittenberg (a point not even mentioned by White). Copernicus was reluctant to publish his new theory for fear of ridicule, but was persuaded to allow Rheticus to publish a short summary. Ten weeks after arriving Rheticus had written Narratio Prima (The First Account) which was published in 1540. Since it received favorable comments, Copernicus agreed to allow his full manuscript to be published. Rheticus helped him prepare it for publication and Copernicus entrusted the manuscript to his loyal disciple. First Rheticus had to return to Wittenberg to teach in the spring of 1642, but in May of that year he was free to take the manuscript to Protestant Nuremberg for publication. At the same time he had applied to the University of Leipzig for the Chair of Mathematics. Melanchthon supported his application with favorable letters of recommendation. Rheticus was appointed to the new post, so he had to leave Nuremberg for Leipzig. He entrusted the printing of Copernicus's manuscript to a Lutheran theologian and preacher named Andras Osiander.

Osiander was not an arbitrary choice [33]. He had corresponded with Copernicus for two years and was favorably disposed to his theory. When Copernicus had written Osiander about his misgivings in publishing such a radical view, Osiander had advised him to present his hypothesis that the earth moves as only a basis for calculation, not a matter of truth. Since Copernicus had not made that point in his own preface, Osiander now took the opportunity to add a note of his own, which he called To the Reader, Concerning the Hypothesis of This Work. The note, put at the beginning of the book before Copernicus's preface, included the statement:

And if it [astronomy] constructs and thinks up causes... nevertheless it does not think them up in order to persuade anyone of their truth but only in order that they may provide a correct basis for calculation. But since for one and the same movement varying hypotheses are proposed... the astronomer much prefers to take the one which is the easiest to grasp. Maybe the philosopher demands probability instead; but neither of them will grasp anything certain or hand it on, unless it has been divinely revealed to him.... And as far as hypotheses, let no one expect anything in the way of certainty from astronomy, since astronomy can offer nothing certain, lest if anyone take as true that which has been constructed for another use, he go away from this discipline a bigger fool than when he came to it.

Osiander did not sign his note, but he refers to "the author" in the third person, whereas Copernicus's own preface uses the first person. It should thus be clear that the note Concerning the Hypotheses was not written by Copernicus. Yet many scholars have felt that Osiander's intention was dishonorable. Bruce Wrightsman [35] states that it would have been politically unwise for Osiander, a Lutheran theologian, to have added his name to the manuscript. Probably for the same reason Copernicus did not mention Rheticus by name in his preface or in fact anywhere in the book. Rheticus may have been crushed by this apparent lack of appreciation, since he never wrote any more about the Copernican theory. According to Koestler [36], Copernicus probably saw the note by Osiander in the winter of 1543, and was upset by it because he really did believe the earth moved. Nevertheless, he could not object on theoretical grounds to Osiander's note on the formal nature of astronomical hypotheses, a view which was generally accepted at the time. In the winter of 1543 Copernicus was very ill, so he may have postponed writing to protest the note or he may have acquiesced to it. The printed book was presented to Copernicus on the day he died, May 24, 1543.

Whether Osiander's note was a positive or negative influence on the acceptance of Copernicus's book has been greatly debated. By emphasizing the commonly held view that astronomical hypotheses should not be taken as truth, Osiander's note probably made the reception of On the Revolutions more favorable [37]. Osiander's view was accepted at the University of Wittenberg. Not until 1616 when Galileo's discoveries with the telescope gave empirical evidence in support of the heliocentric view, did the Catholic Church move to suppress the Copernican view.

The other professor of mathematics at the University of Wittenberg, Erasmus Reinhold, became familiar with the Copernican view between 1541 and 1542 through Rheticus [38]. He was neutral on the question of geocentrism or heliocentrism, but he appreciated the simplicity of the Copernican view because it eliminated equants. Reinhold systematized and recalculated the motions which Copernicus had discussed in On the Revolutions [39]. He produced the Prutenic Tables, which were named in honor of Albrecht, Duke of Prussia. On the basis of positive letters from Melanchthon, Albrecht had given financial support to Reinhold [40]. The practical success of Copernicus's viewpoint in Reinhold's calculations paved the way for a more complete acceptance of heliocentrism when additional evidence became available [41].

Even though Philipp Melanchthon helped both Rheticus and Reinhold, he has been accused of being antagonistic toward Copernicus's view. Thus Andrew White has written that [42] "Melanchthon, mild as he was, was not behind Luther in condemning Copernicus." It is true that in the first edition of his Elements of Physics published in 1549, Melanchthon wrote [43]

But some dare say, either because of the love of novelties or in order to appear ingenious, that the earth moves, and contend that neither the eighth sphere nor the sun moves while they assign other movement to the celestial spheres and place the earth among the stars. The joke is not new. There is a book by Archimedes ... in which he reports that Aristarchus of Samos defended this paradox, that the sun remains fixed and the earth turns around the sun. And although clever workers investigate many questions to give expression to their ingenuity, the young should know it is not decent to defend such absurd opinions publicly, nor is it honest or a good example.

This passage was most likely first written in 1545. After the publication of his book, Melanchthon had ameliorated his views on Copernicus. Thus in the 1550 edition, he omitted such phrases as "the love of novelties" and "the joke is not new," and showed a more favorable attitude towards heliocentrism as a mathematical hypothesis [44]. In contrast to Luther, Melanchthon was an Aristotelian. Nevertheless, because of the influence of Rheticus and Reinhold, he began to consider the mathematical utility of the Copernican hypothesis, even though he objected to a realistic interpretation.

Thus, there is no evidence that Luther and Melanchthon suppressed Copernicans and the heliocentric hypothesis at the University of Wittenberg. Rheticus and Reinhold received favorable treatment. Even Melanchthon moderated his views when it became clear that the Copernican view could be considered as a useful working hypothesis. This view, which was advocated by Osiander in his note to the reader of On the Revolutions, was the generally accepted view until Newton's time. Then the Copernican view that the sun is the center of the universe was generally accepted as being true. What is scientific truth in one age is not necessarily scientific truth in another. According to Einstein's general theory of relativity, there are no preferred reference systems. Therefore it is merely a matter of convenience to take the sun as the center of the solar system [45]. Osiander's note to the reader has a very modern sound to it.

V. Conclusion

In conclusion, the Lutheran influence on the development of science was generally positive. Luther, and also Calvin, rejected the idea that religious vocations are superior to secular ones. Men and women should serve God by performing honest and useful work with diligence and integrity [46]. Scientific work reveals God's handiwork in a universe which is both rational and orderly. It also gives results that can be used for the benefit of mankind. As Johannes Kepler wrote to Michael Maestlin, his former professor at Tübingen, "I wanted to become a theologian, and for a long time I was restless. Now, however, observe how through my effort God is being celebrated in astronomy" [47]. Kepler considered astronomers to be priests of God in the book of nature.

In the area of biblical studies, Luther formulated a hermeneutic principle that was flexible in its accommodation to scientific theories. To Luther, Christ is the center of the Scripture. The authority of the Bible is derived from the content of its message: the good news of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible becomes the living word of God as the Holy Spirit opens its meaning to the individual believer [48].

Luther was not primarily interested in science. But the Reformation created a climate of openness and acceptance of new ideas, which generally encouraged scientific development. With the development of printing, new scientific as well as religious ideas spread rapidly. After Galileo's trial in 1633, the Protestant areas of Europe dominated scientific discovery [49]. Galileo's words that the "Holy Spirit intended to teach us in the Bible how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go” [50], is as appropriate in our day as it was in his. For a deeper discussion of Luther, Copernicus, and science, see Ref. [51].



I would like to thank Theodore J. Kleinhans for helpful correspondence and Bruce Wrightsman for sending me reprints of his papers. I also thank Christian Galberg for pointing out an error in the original version.

References and notes

[1] Alfred N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1925). Reprinted (New York: Mentor Books, 1948), p. 13.
[2] Lewis W. Spitz, The Renaissance and Reformation Movements, Vol. 2 (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1971), p. 583.
[3] Ibid., p. 582.
[4] Quoted by Spitz, ibid., p. 582.
[5] Ibid., p. 583.
[6] Theodore G. Tappert, editor and translator, "Table Talk," Luther's Works, Vol. 54, general ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), pp. 53-54.
[7] Andrew D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, Vol. 2 (New York: D. Appleton, 1929), p. 46.
[8] John Dillenberger, Protestant Thought and Natural Science (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1960), p. 33.
[9] Spitz, 1oc. cit., pp. 583-584.
[10] Hugh Kearny, Science and Change 1500 - 1700 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), p. 103.
[1l] Jerzy Neyman, The Heritage of Copernicus: Theories "Pleasing to the Mind" (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974), p. 9.
[12] Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science 1300 – 1800, revised ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1965), p. 68.
[13] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 196.
[14] Louis Berman and J. C. Evans, Exploring the Cosmos, 3rd ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1980), p. 27.
[15] White, loc. cit., Vol. 1, p. 126.
[16] Wilhelm Norlind, "Copernicus and Luther: A Critical Study,'' Isis 44 (September 1953): 273-776.
[17] Tappert, loc. cit., pp. 358-359.
[18] Nicolaus Copernicus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (Chicago: Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1939), pp. 499-838.
[19] Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers (New York: Macmillan, 1959), pp. 563-564.
[20] Tappert, loc. cit., pp. xi-xxiii.
[21] Norlind, loc. cit.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Joshua 10: 12-14. Charles C. Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1976), p. 341. Ryrie says that there are two views concerning this phenomenon. The first assumes the slowing down of the rotation of the earth about its axis so that there were more hours in the day. The second assumes that there was no irregularity in the rotation of the earth. The daylight hours could have been prolonged by an unusual refraction of the sun's rays. If the words "stand still" are interpreted as "cease," the phenomenon could be explained by heavy clouds causing unusual semidarkness.
[24] A popular biography of Copernicus was originally titled Sun, Stand Thou Still. Angus Armitage, Sun, Stand Thou Still (New York: H. Schuman, 1947). Reprinted as The World of Copernicus (New York: Signet Science Library Books, 1951).
[25] Dillenberger, loc. cit., p.84.
[26] Norlind, loc. cit., pp. 274-275.
[27] Edwin A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1954), p. 38.
[28] Butterfield, loc. cit., Chap. 4.
[29] Isaac Newton, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (Chicago: Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1934) (Translated by A. Motte and revised by F. Cajori), pp. 1-372.
[30] Kuhn, loc. cit.
[31] White, loc. cit., Vol. 1, pp. 128-129.
[32] For a good historical discussion, see Koestler, loc. cit., pp. 153-174
[33] Bruce Wrightsman, “Andreas Osiander's Contribution to the Copernican Achievement,” The Copernican Achievement, Robert S. Westman, ed. (Los Angeles: UCLA Press, 1975), pp. 213-243.
[34] Copernicus, loc. cit.
[35] Wrightsman, loc. cit.
[36] Koestler, loc. cit., p. 171.
[37] Wrightsman, loc. cit., pp. 233-243.
[38] Robert S. Westman, "The Melanchthon Circle, Rheticus, and the Wittenberg Interpretation of the Copernican Theory," Isis 66 (June 1975): 165-193.
[39] Ibid.
[40] Bruce T. Moran, "The Universe of Philip Melanchthon: Criticism and Use of the Copernican Theory," Comitatus 4 (1973): 1-23.
[41] Westman, loc. cit., pp. 191-193.
[42] White, loc. cit., Vol. 1, p. 126.
[43] Quoted by Moran, loc. cit., pp. 13-14.
[44] Moran, loc. cit., p. 14.
[45] Owen Gingerich, "Astronomy," The Encounter Between Christianity and Science, Richard H. Bube, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1968), pp. 109-133.
[46] Ian G. Barbour, Issues in Science and Religion (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 48.
[47] Quoted in Gerald Holton, "Johannes Kepler's Universe: Its Physics and Metaphysics," American Journal of Physics 24 (May 1956): 340-351.
[48] Dillenberger, loc. cit., pp. 29-30.
[49] Owen Gingerich, "The Galileo Affair," Scientific American 247 (August 1982): 132-143.
[50] "Biographical Note - Galileo, 1564-1642," Gilbert, Galileo, Harvey, Vol.28, editor-in-chief, Robert M. Hutchins (Chicago: Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), p. 126.
[51] Donald H. Kobe, “Copernicus and Martin Luther: an encounter between science and religion,” American Journal of Physics 66 (March 1998): 190-196.