The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Questioning History: Part 1

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I received an email from a professor at a Bible college that got me thinking about how bogus, or revisionist, history: (1) is used to make points of fact, (2) exposes how we naively accept a point of historical assertion when referenced by an “expert” or a person of noted authority, (3) shows how immune we are to the impact that events and statements about the past have been used to fool millions of people to make life-changing worldview decisions, and finally, (4) when we are confronted with the actual facts of history will the reality that trumps the myth make a difference in the way we have been evaluating the world? Tomorrow’s article will deal with the actual email and my response, but I want to use today’s article to make the point that historical mythology dies hard.
Appealing to history to make a point can be precarious these days. The Internet has made information about everything easy to access. Unfortunately, not all of it is reliable. One of the most frustrating things about locating a quoted line or paragraph is that a reliable source reference is not often supplied. Don’t think this is unique to the Internet Age. For example (I could cite numerous examples), French Reformer John Calvin (1509–1564) gets a bum rap when it comes to science and the Bible. Calvin is mocked for something he never wrote. In his History of Western Philosophy, atheist Betrand Russell’s argues that Calvin “demolished Copernicus with the text: ‘The world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved’ (Psa. xciii), and exclaimed: ‘Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?’”1

Russell’s dogmatic assertions to the contrary, there is no reference to the anti-Copernicus statement in any of Calvin’s many writings. Psalm 93:1 reads as follows: “The LORD reigns, He is clothed with majesty; the LORD has clothed and girded Himself with strength; indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved.” Calvin understands “it will not be moved” to mean “that God will not neglect or abandon the world, from the fact that he created it. A simple survey of the world should of itself suffice to attest to Divine Providence.”2 Calvin did not use this Psalm to make a point about astronomy. (There are multiple lessons in this method of interpretation.) His heremeneutical methodology is ably expounded in his comments on Genesis 1:16:

“Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them. For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. . . . [S]ince the Spirit of God here opens a common school for all, it is not surprising that he should chiefly choose those subjects which would be intelligible to all. If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently. Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage. For since the Lord stretches forth, as it were, his hand to us in causing us to enjoy the brightness of the sun and moon, how great would be our ingratitude were we to close our eyes against our own experience? There is therefore no reason why janglers should deride the unskillfulness of Moses in making the moon the second luminary; for he does not call us up into heaven, he only proposes things which lie open before our eyes.”3

The bogus anti-Copernicus reference attributed to John Calvin can be found in Frederic William Farrar’s History of Interpretation (1885): “‘Who,’ asks Calvin, ‘will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?’”4 There is no source reference for Farrar’s. It seems obvious that he is using a secondary source and has not surveyed Calvin’s voluminous writings. Dan J. Bye thinks he has found the source in The Protestant Theological and Ecclesiastical Encyclopedia, edited by J. H. A. Bomberger (1860):

This orthodox theology had, since Gerhard, taught an equal inspiration of the O. and N. Testaments, so that the H. Spirit is author in an equal measure of every part of the Scriptures, of the book of Esther, as of the gosp. of St. John. If others had explained differences of style and language by an accommodation of the H. Spirit to human calami, C. utterly discards this refuge: the differences of subjects alone is sufficient to explain the form: or, the divine oracle shows itself in all its contents, astronomical and geographical. “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the H. Spirit?”5

It seems that the “C.” in “C. utterly discards” was taken as a reference to John Calvin when in reality it was probably a reference “to the Lutheran theologian Abraham Calovius (1612–1696).”

 Andrew White, in his widely read and embarrassingly inaccurate A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896), perpetuates the myth of Calvin’s supposed anti-Copernican views, and others have picked it up and repeated it countless times.

“While Lutheranism was thus condemning the theory of the earth's movement, other branches of the Protestant Church did not remain behind. Calvin took the lead, in his Commentary on Genesis, by condemning all who asserted that the earth is not at the centre of the universe. He clinched the matter by the usual reference to the first verse of the ninety-third Psalm, and asked, ‘Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?’”6

There are more than 200 references to Calvin’s supposed anti-Copernicus statement on the Internet. Like H. L. Mencken's bathtub history hoax story, who knows if Calvin's false attribution will ever go away.

Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, 2nd ed. (London: George Allen & Unwin, [1945] 1961), 515. Quoted in Alister McGrath, Christinity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (New York: Harper One, 2007), 378.
[2] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), 4:6.

[3] John Calvin's Bible Commentary - Genesis 1

[4] Frederic William Farrar, History of Interpretation (London: Macmillan and Co., 1885), xviii.

[5] Quoted in Dan J. Bye, “McGrath vs Russell on Calvin vs Copernicus: A Case of the Pot Calling the Kettle Black?,” The Free Thinker 127(June 2007), 8–10.
[6] Andrew Dickson White, History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896)

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