Copernicus Biblical Interpretation And The Solar System

One of the fundamental principles of Protestantism is its insistence that all interpretations of the Bible must be regarded as provisional, not final; part of the task of the church is continually to reexamine previous ways of interpreting scripture to ensure that they have not lapsed into uncritical, unthinking, or simply wrong ways of interpreting this foundational text. During the Middle Ages, the Bible was interpreted on the basis of a set of assumptions that were assumed to be secure and permanent. One of them was that the sun and all other heavenly bodies revolved around the earth. The outcome was inevitable: the Bible was interpreted in the light of this assumption, with the result that the Bible was held to endorse a geocentric model of the solar system.

In the 1540s, this fundamental assumption of the medieval era was called into question by the Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium ("On the revolutions of the heavenly bodies") was published after Copernicus's death in May 1543. The work caused a minor sensation in that it set out a heliocentric model of the solar system. Copernicus argued that the best explanation of a vast body of astronomical evidence was that the planets revolve around the sun and only the moon revolves around the earth. There were some loose ends in his analysis; the final acceptance of the model would have to wait for the detailed work by Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) in the first two decades of the seventeenth century.

Early published defenses of the Copernican theory (such as G. J. Rheticus's Treatise on Holy Scripture and the Motion of the Earth, which is widely regarded as the earliest known work to deal explicitly with the relation of the Bible and the Copernican theory) thus had to deal with two issues. First, they had to set out the observational evidence that led to the conclusion that the earth and other planets rotate around the sun. Second, they had to demonstrate that this viewpoint was consistent with the Bible, which had long been read as endorsing a geocentric view of the world.

There is no doubt that the rise of the heliocentric theory of the solar system caused both Catholic and Protestant theologians to reexamine traditional interpretations of certain biblical passages. It is still widely believed that John Calvin refused to accept the heliocentric model of the solar system because it allegedly contradicted the Bible. The source of this idea is Bertrand Russell's hastily written History of Western Philosophy, in which he declared that Calvin "demolished Copernicus with the text: 'The world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved' (Psa. xciii.i), and exclaimed: 'Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?'"62 This statement has been widely cited ever since, often without acknowledgment and usually without any critical investigation.

Which is a pity. The "quotation" is a complete fabrication whose true source has yet to be identified with certainty. Calvin wrote no such words, which are in any case inconsistent with his approach to theol-ogy.63 Russell appears to have borrowed the passage from Andrew Dickson White's hopelessly inaccurate work History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) without bothering to check White's sources.

In fact, the Copernican controversy largely vindicated Protestantism's theological method as developed by Calvin. Some biblical passages seem to suggest that the sun rotates about the earth. Calvin argued that these passages were "adapted" or "accommodated" to the ways of thinking of primitive people and had to be interpreted in that light. His fundamental point was that divine revelation takes place in culturally and anthropologically conditioned manners and forms, with the result that it needs to be appropriately interpreted. This approach has a long tradition of use within Judaism and subsequently within Christian theology.64

Calvin argued that God adjusts himself to the capacities of the human mind and heart. God paints a portrait of himself that we are capable of understanding. The analogy behind Calvin's thinking at this point is that of a human orator. A good speaker knows the limitations of his audience and adjusts how he speaks accordingly. God, in revealing himself to us, has accommodated himself to our levels of understanding and our innate preference for pictorial means of conceiving him. God reveals himself, not as he is in himself, but in forms adapted to our human capacity. Thus, scripture speaks of God having arms, a mouth, and so on—but these are just vivid and memorable metaphors, ideally suited to our intellectual abilities. The Bible might seem to speak of the sun revolving around the earth—but this is to be interpreted as an "accommodated" way of speaking, adapted to the way of thinking of long ago.

The impact of these ideas upon English scientific theorizing, especially during the seventeenth century, was considerable. For example, Edward Wright defended Copernicus's heliocentric theory of the solar system against biblical literalists by arguing, in the first place, that scripture was not concerned with physics, and in the second, that its manner of speaking was "accommodated to the understanding and way of speech of the common people, like nurses to little children." Both of these arguments derive directly from Calvin.

Yet although the Copernican debates led to a generally positive and helpful outcome, giving the science of Protestant biblical interpretation a much needed stimulus, a much more difficult debate over biblical interpretation lay ahead. This time the question concerned how the early chapters of the Book of Genesis were to be interpreted—a question brought into sharp focus by the Darwinian theory of evolution, to which we now turn.

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