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The War Between Religion and Science

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The Perceived war between religion and science has been going on for some time but is mostly a nineteenth-century phenomenon. Much of the history behind this battle is mythological, and centers on a misstatement of the Copernican Revolution. This is most evident in the works of John William Draper (History of the Conflict between Religion and Science) and Andrew Dickson White (History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom). The sixteenth-century Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus (1473–1543) put forth an explanation of the solar system that turned the then known cosmological and astronomical theories upside down. As later Christian scientists would show, Copernicus was mostly wrong about his speculations. Elements of a stationary earth and geocentric (earth-centered) solar system, advocated by Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), advanced by the Egyptian Mathematician/Astronomer Ptolemy (A.D. 100–170), and unquestioned for nearly 1400 years, was being questioned by a number of scientists before Copernicus but without empirical evidence.[1]

In a statement recorded in Martin Luther’s Table Talk, he implies that the heliocentric view was a threat to biblical authority because, as he put it, “as Holy Writ declares, it was the Sun not the Earth which Joshua commanded to stand still.”[2] Luther’s view of the heliocentric theory was not unusual for his day since there was no empirical evidence for it. Others had questioned the theory as well. Edwin Burtt (1892–1989) puts the debate over cosmology into perspective:

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.[3]



The Copernican system would not be vindicated empirically until the works of Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) and Galileo Galilei (1564–1642).

Some Reformers were more cautious than Luther in making dogmatic scientific assertions based on Scripture about a heliocentric solar system. John Calvin is reported to have written, based on Psalm 93:1 (“The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved”), “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?” There is no reference to this statement in any of Calvin’s many writings. His comments on Psalm 93:1 make no mention of Copernicus and neither does his commentary on Genesis. White, in his A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, perpetuates[4] the myth of Calvin’s anti-Copernican views.[5]

It was never Copernicus’ purpose to disprove the Bible. He was a devout Christian who believed that “the universe has been wrought for us by a supremely good and orderly Creator.”[6] The humanists of our day, however, have been using the Copernican revolution to dislodge “man and the earth from the centre of the universe,”[7] kick God out altogether, and make the church look foolish.

Endnotes:

[1] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 135–140.
[2] “The language that Joshua uses in addressing the sun and moon is the language of ordinary observation still used in the scientific age.” (Marten H. Woudstra, The Book of Joshua [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981], 175). For interesting discussions of “the sun standing still,” see Dale Ralph Davis, No Falling Words: Expositions of the Book of Joshua (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 84–86 and Ralph Edward Woodrow, Noah’s Flood, Joshua’s Long Day, and Lucifer’s Fall: What Really Happened? (Riverside, CA: Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association, 1984), 77–98.
[3] Edwin A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954), 38.
[4] The Calvin reference is found in Frederic William Farrar’sHistory of Interpretation (1885) where he wrote the following: “‘Who,’ asks Calvin, ‘will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?’”
[5] Calvin did write that those who “assert that ‘the earth moves and turns’... [are] motivated by ‘a spirit of bitterness, contradiction, and faultfinding;’ possessed by the devil, they aimed ‘to pervert the order of nature.’” ( Quoted in William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988], 72). Once again, a heliocentric view was considered to be speculation not backed by empirical evidence. There’s even some indication that the theory was based more on “neo-Platonic sun mysticism” than science. (Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994], 64).
[6] Charles E. Hummel, The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts between Science and the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 39.
[7] Colin A. Ronan, Science: Its History and Development Among the World’s Cultures (New York: Facts on File Publications, 1982), 330.

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