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Martin Luther and Copernicus

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The war between religion and science has mostly been manufactured. The following is attributed to Luther and appears in his Table Talk series and is hardly representative of the scholarship found in 90 volumes of his published works.

There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must . . . invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth [Joshua 10:10–15].[1]

You will notice that Copernicus’ name does not appear in the above Luther quotation, although many commentators of the passage write as if Luther is specifically signally out the Polish astronomer. It is possible that he had someone else in mind who had not offered discernable proof of the proposed heliocentric hypothesis. Luther admitted that the biblical authors “can and do describe physical phenomena from their own observational standpoint and not in absolute terms,”[2] and this is the way the Joshua 10 passage is often interpreted. Luther’s comments on Psalm 24:2 show that he believed that when Scripture says, for example, the earth “was established on the waters . . . it speaks according to what the eyes see.”[3]

Then there’s the question of whether Luther actually said what appears in his Table Talk volume since it was a student named Anton Lauterbach who copied down the conversation. Did he write it down immediately upon hearing it? Did he render Luther’s words accurately? How did Luther say it? Since the citation refers to “a certain new astrologer,” of whom there were many in the sixteenth century, was Luther criticizing someone who was making wild and uncritical speculations based on star gazing rather than science? We don’t know, but we do know that “Luther specifically made a distinction between astronomy and astrology; he affirmed the former and rejected the latter. . . . For Luther, astrology was not a science. It could not be confirmed by demonstration. Moreover, it was nothing less than idolatry, and hence stood in violation of the first commandment.”[4]

Another student, Johannes Aurifaber, reported the citation somewhat differently. ‘That fool would upset the whole art of astronomy,’ Luther supposedly said, in one of his most widely quoted lines, though the experts generally believe this version is apocryphal if for no other reason than that Aurifaber wasn’t actually present at the dinner.”[5] John Dillenberger adds: “In any case, it should be borne in mind that the only reference to Copernicus on the part of Luther came not from his own hand but from notes taken by students who ate with him.”[6] Luther biographer Roland Bainton puts the Table Talk citations in their proper literary context for us:

Luther’s Table Talk would deserve a notice if for no other reason than its sheer volume. There are 6,596 entries, and it is among the better known of his works because his students culled, classified, and produced a handy volume adorned with a woodcut of Luther at the table with his family. The classification obscures the lush profusion and unpredictable variety of the original. Luther ranged from the ineffable majesty of God the Omnipotent to the frogs in the [River] Elbe. Pigs, popes, pregnancies, politics, and proverbs jostle one another.[7]

In a word, the Table Talk entries can hardly be considered scholarly commentary. Many of Luther’s comments are obviously tongue-in-cheek and some are designed to elicit a reaction. In thousands of pages of written text, one is sure to find something that can be turned into a dagger to be used to destroy a reputation and set off a debate of cosmic proportion. This is especially true of someone like Luther who was prone to make some politically incorrect statements. He was famous for them. Bainton writes, “Detractors have sifted from the pitchblende of his ninety tomes a few pages of radioactive vulgarity,”[8] and they have done the same in an attempt to make Luther into an anti-scientific medievalist. Edwin Burtt (1892–1989) puts the historical 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.[9]

The Copernican system would not be vindicated empirically until the works of Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) and Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) were published and debated, but even then, persuasive proof remained the question of the day. Prior to their work, it was a theory looking for persuasive proof. What is obvious today was not so obvious to those living in the sixteenth century. “If the earth is not the stationary hub of the universe,” most rational people argued, “any alternative is both incredible and uncomfortable. It is incredible because it seems obvious to common sense that we are not moving; we have none of the impressions to be expected if we are hurtling through space in a journey round the sun.”[10] Today, we trust the science which tells us that “all our familiar surroundings are travelling with us”[11] as the earth revolves on its axis at just over 1000 miles per hour and hurtles through space in an elliptical orbit around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour. This knowledge is counter intuitive to our daily experiences, and was and still “is in fact quite a sophisticated idea when first encountered.”[12] This is why Robert Cardinal Bellarmine (1542–1621) could insist, “To demonstrate that the [phases of Venus] are saved by assuming that the sun is at the center is not the same thing as to demonstrate that in fact the sun is in the center and the earth in the heavens.”[13]

In terms of the historians who have as their goal to discredit the Christian religion, it is not surprising that they would try “to substantiate the claim that Luther was about to undertake a crusade against the new science, or that he was responsible for Protestant opposition to it, as is implicit in countless books on the history of science.”[14] As the facts of history attest, Luther did not have either in mind.

Footnotes:
[1]
. For the best explanation for understanding “the sun standing still” language, see 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.
[2]
. John Warwick Montgomery, In Defense of Martin Luther (Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House, 1970), 91.
[3]. Quoted in Montgomery, In Defense of Martin Luther, 91, note 11.
[4]. John Dillenberger, Protestant Thought and Natural Science: A Historical Study (London: St. James’s Place, 1961), 33.
[5]
. Owen Gingrich, The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus (New York: Penguin Books, 2004). 136. Also see Dillenberger, Protestant Thought and Natural Science, 37–38.
[6]
. Dillenberger, Protestant Thought and Natural Science, 38.
[7]
. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Cokesbury, 1950), 295.
[8]
. Bainton, Here I Stand, 298.
[9]. Edwin A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954), 38.
[10]. Colin A. Russell, Cross-Currents: Interactions Between Science and Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 37.
[11]
. Russell, Cross-Currents, 37.
[12]. Russell, Cross-Currents, 37–38.
[13]
. Bellarmine to Foscarini, 12 April 1615, Opere, 12, 171–172; abridged from Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, trans. Stillman Drake (Garden City: Doubleday, 1957), 162–164. (The Galileo Opere cited here is the so-called National Edition, ed. Antonio Favaro [1890–1909; reprint, Florence, 1968]). Quoted in Owen Gingrich, “Truth in Science: Proof, Persuasion, and the Galileo Affair,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 55:2 (June 2003), 85.
[14]
. Dillenberger, Protestant Thought and Natural Science, 38.

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