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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Copernicus and the Church, Lutherans and the Missouri Synod

Ptolemaic System (Earth Centered) vs Copernican System (Sun Centered)

In a recent blog post titled, "The Bible Is A Library, Not a Book" by Dr. Karl Giberson, The Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod specifically is mentioned as an example of the church getting egg on its face for using literalistic interpretations of the Bible to oppose scientific fact. In this case, the scientific fact is Galileo's discovery that the earth orbits the sun. Dr. Giberson holds a Ph.D. in physics, taught at East Nazarene College and is known for specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He is known both as a friend to science and to Christianity, although he argues against Fundamentalism. Contrary to Atheists, he professes hope in the resurrection (See his blog post, "My Dead Relatives In The Sky.") He also wrote a thought provoking piece titled, "What's Wrong With Science As Religion," where he shows that some scientists are as fundamentalist in regards to professing certain scientific hypotheses and theories as fact, as the so-called Fundamentalists are about some religious teachings. In Dr. Giberson one finds a person that cannot be dismissed immediately as either a scientific or a religious hack. So where does this leave the Lutheran church and the Missouri Synod in particular in regards to Copernicus and the earth orbiting the sun?

The main point of Dr. Giberson's piece is about Biblical interpretation and how literally it should be interpreted. His example is that Christians today are facing a challenge much like the Church did in the 17th century when science showed the earth orbited the sun in regards to human evolution. Copernicus' theory that the earth orbited the sun seemed to challenges the literal (or literalistic) reading of Joshua 10:13, "the sun stood still." This passage had been used to argue that the sun goes around the earth. The larger question, "Did the Bible describe what in fact happens in nature, namely, that the sun orbits the earth?" Or "Did the Bible describe phenomenologically what appeared to the observer to happen that the sun stopped moving?" Most Christians today would probably say that the Bible described how the phenomenon appeared rather than what physically happened. While in the 17th century, Copernicus' treatise was seen by many in the church as going against the Word of God, few today would take that position. Giberson, while not entirely addressing this matter in his essay, "The Bible Is A Library, Not a Book," suggests that a similar interpretative move is necessary in regards to the literal existence of Adam and Eve and Christ as the Second Adam. 

Adam and Eve, Albrecht Dürer, 1504
Dr. Giberson quoted in NPR's "Evangelicals Question The Existence of Adam and Eve" said, that unless the church can get past a literalistic interpretation of a historical Adam and Eve, it will once again end up with egg on its face. He seems to hold that the questioning or denial of a historical Adam and Eve, really does not affect the confession of Christ, or Saint Paul's teaching that Christ is the Second Adam. The parallel for him is the Copernican Revolution where initially religion (the Church) opposed the science that earth orbits the sun, but later was able to interpret Joshua 10:13 that the "sun stopped" in a phenomenological way (or a non-literal way) without loosing faith. He seems to suggest that in a similar way evolution and the non-historical existence of Adam and Eve ultimately will not affect the faith.

In this context, Dr. Giberson mentions the Missouri Synod and its denial of Copernicus in the early 20th century. He writes:
"Reluctantly, and with much egg on its face, the Church eventually made peace with Galileo and the motion of the earth. The last holdout was the ultraconservative Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, which finally capitulated just over a century ago, almost three centuries after Galileo's infamous trial."
What is Dr. Giberson referring to regarding the views of the Missouri Synod? Francis Pieper, President of Concordia Seminary Saint Louis and of the Missouri Synod, wrote in Christian Dogmatics, Volume 1 on page 473:
"It is unworthy of a Christian to interpret Scripture, which he knows to be God’s own Word, according to human opinions (hypotheses), and that includes the Copernican cosmic system, or to have others thus to interpret Scripture to him."
Pieper's Christian Dogmatics
This quotation from Francis Pieper has caused embarrassment to many Lutheran pastors and even to seminary professors who argued that it is time to update the chief dogmatics textbook of the Missouri Synod. Yet it seems that many people miss the chief concern of Pieper, and misunderstand both Pieper's view and that of the Missouri Synod. Pieper primarily was concerned with the placing of science and philosophy over Scripture, rather than using science and philosophy in service to theology. He also was concerned with maintaining human beings as the special creation of God. His position was not much different from that of Lutherans beginning with Martin Luther who is quoted in 1539 in Table Talk (AE 54, 358-359):
"There was mention of a certain new 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.'"
Notice that Luther did not explicitly mention Copernicus by name, but referred to him as "a certain new astrologer." It should be noted that Luther's comments about the "new astrologer" came four years before Copernicus' work was published in Nürnberg. Clearly, Copernicus' ideas were circulating in universities before the formal presentation became publicly available. Luther was far from alone in questioning Copernicus' theory. Most people trained in Aristotle questioned the theory. However, although Lutherans questioned the validity of the theory, as a group they were not threatened by the new theory. In fact, while Rome condemned it, the Lutherans published the scientific works and even expanded upon them.

Nicolaus Copernicus, "On The Rotation Of The Heavenly Spheres," 1543
Nicolaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus was first published in Nürnberg, Germany, with a Preface by Andreas Osiander, who wrote:
"For it is the duty of an astronomer to compose the history of the celestial motions through careful and expert study. Then he must conceive and devise the causes of these motions or hypotheses about them. Since he cannot in any way attain to the true causes, he will adopt whatever suppositions enable the motions to be computed correctly from the principles of geometry for the future as well as for the past. The present author has performed both these duties excellently. For these hypotheses need not be true nor even probable."
Note the attitude of Osiander. While he considered the theory that the earth orbited the sun to be unlikely, he recognized that Copernicus' mathematical predictions regarding the motion of the planets were more accurate than the dominate predictions in his day. His faith was not threatened by the new scientific discovery.

Scholars have observed how the Reformation and the scientific revolution are connected. As Patrick Ferry noted, "This transitional time, therefore, ought not be depicted as either a pro-Copernican or anti-Copernican period, for each description says too much." (Ferry, Patrick T. “The Guiding Lights of the University of Wittenberg and the Emergence of Copernican Astronomy.” Concordia Theological Quarterly 57, no. 4 (1993): 267.) Instead, the new ideas were evaluated, reacted to, and debated in the typical university fashion.

Hermann Sasse remarked, "Unbelievable as it may seem to many of our contemporaries, it is a fact that in the last analysis Christianity has saved the freedom of science to search for truth." (Sasse, Herman. “Hexaemeron: Theology and Science with the Church Fathers.” THE REFORMED THEOLOGICAL REVIEW XVII, no. 3 (October 1958): 65.) Christianity and the Gospel give Christians the freedom from philosophy and science that tells us how things must necessarily be so, allowing the person to consider other alternatives. Even Francis Pieper in his apparent rejection of Copernicus was free not to be bound to any particular scientific theory. In fact, Francis Pieper wrote, "Our human knowledge of astronomical matters is naturally limited much by our inability to view them from a position outside this globe and the universe." (Christian Dogmatics, Vol 1, 473.) Pieper even noted how Einstein's Theory of Relativity would finally undo the Copernican system, since everything now is relative to an observer's position -- who could argue against that from God's perspective the earth was the center of the universe?

Several Cosmologists have arrived at a similar position to Pieper when considering what happened before the Big Bang. Human beings are limited by what they can observe. Brian Clegg in Before The Big Bang, wrote, "Questions in principle have answers, but in practice are never satisfactorily answered... Physicists have come up with theoretical solutions to these problems (they're linked) but they may well never be real. Similarly we may never have a definitive answer to the question, What came before the Big Bang?" Ultimately, it comes down to faith... faith that confesses the "maker of heaven and earth," or faith that confesses the universe brought itself into being.

The Hexaemeron (Creation in Six Days) always has presented challenges to reason of man. The church always has confessed this as an article of faith. Augustine's preferred way of interpreting the six days of creation was that creation happened instantaneously. After all, if the Lord God "willed" the Universe into existence, it must happen instantaneously after He willed it as God is outside of time. This stands in sharp contrast to people today who prefer to understand the "days" of Genesis in terms of thousands, millions, or billions of years -- once again it must necessarily be so... to match up science and the Bible. The Lord God is not limited by anything we consider necessarily so -- be it a creation that must occur instantaneously or one that must take billions of years.

While Dr. Giberson considers the debate of whether Adam and Eve were historical people on par with the Reformation era debate over whether or not the earth orbited the sun, it is not an apple to apple comparison. The Copernican Revolution did not challenge Christology or diminish Christ unlike the denial of the historicity of Adam and Eve. Like Pieper, we must resist any theory or philosophy that tells the Lord God how He must necessarily do something. Perhaps, the Missouri Synod and Francis Pieper do not end up with quite as much egg on the face as would appear at first glance.


  1. "In this context, Dr. Giberson mentions the Missouri Synod and its denial of Copernicus in the early 20th century.... What is Dr. Giberson referring to regarding the views of the Missouri Synod?"

    Since Giberson didn't name a specific person in the Missouri Synod, perhaps he may have been referring to the Rev. F. E. Pasche, a Missouri Synod pastor in Webster, S.D., who published Bibel und Astronomie (Milwaukee: Germania Publishing Co., 1906, 419 pages) in which he attacked the Copernican theory. The book's subtitle reads "Proof that none of approximately sixty verses in which the Earth stands still and the sun and all the heavenly bodies are assigned to move, can be given an interpretation so that the reverse would be the case."

    Pasche's opening sentences are: "Nach der Bibel steht die Erde in der Mitte des Weltalls ruhig und fest. Um sie bewegen sich von Ost gen West Sonne, Mond und Planeten samt dem zahllosen Heer der Fixsterne in 24-stündigem Lauf." ("According to the Bible the earth is at the center of the universe, restfully and firmly. The sun, moon and planets, along with the countless host of fixed stars, move orderly east to west in a 24-hour course.")

    Rev. A. F. Breihan, then president of the South Dakota District of the Missouri Synod wrote in the Foreword: "Astronomy is an exact science and is based on actual observation and research. All respect it. Copernican astronomy is not astronomy, but a 'higher' computational artificiality (Rechenkunstelei). Astronomy does not argue against the author of this book."

  2. Perhaps Dr. Giberson may also have looked at a book by a former LCMS pastor, Wallace H. McLaughlin. In 1964 McLaughlin helped organize the Lutheran Churches of the Reformation (LCR) with a group of churches that broke away from the Missouri Synod. McLaughlin became a pastor at an LCR church in Minnesota. Later he also served as the dean and theological professor at the Martin Luther Institute of Sacred Studies in Michigan until his death in 1976.

    In his 1963 book, We All Believe In One True God McLaughlin talks about geocentrism:

    "All human theories, therefore, which regard the earth’s existence as a part of the “solar system” as dependent upon the sun, especially the absurd fable which represents the earth as a particle thrown off from the sun and gradually cooling through countless aeons into the terrestrial globe upon which we dwell, are discredited as having no ground in fact and entirely unacceptable to Christian faith. Those who imagine that the Scripture passages, approximately sixty in number, in which the earth is said to stand still, and the sun and all stars are said to move, may be “interpreted” in such a way as if really the reverse were the case, we may leave to pursue their fruitless endeavors alone. The Christian way is simply to accept Holy Scripture as it reads."

  3. "Nicolaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus was first published in Nürnberg, Germany, with a Preface by Andreas Osiander"

    In 1514 Copernicus published a short summary of his work called Commentariolus. Joachim Rheticus, a young Lutheran professor of mathematics and astronomy at Wittenberg became aware of Copernicus' writing and in 1539 visited Copernicus in Poland, urging him to publish all of his work. In 1540 Rheticus wrote a brief, and popular, book of his own, Narratio Prima ("First Report"), describing the Copernican model. Eventually, Rheticus persuaded Copernicus to publish his entire work in De revolutionibus and was entrusted with the manuscript to give to Johann Petrius, a scientific publisher in Nuremberg. Before leaving to become a professor at the University of Liepzig, Rheticus left the final oversight to a Lutheran theologian and amateur astronomer, Andreas Osiander, who added the unauthorized Preface indicating the book merely proposed a convenient mathematical tool for astronomy, rather than proposing a heliocentric reality of the earth and other planets orbiting the sun.

    While Osiander wanted to emphasize the mathematics of Copernicus, it was Copernicus' intention to present his work as mathematically describing the heliocentric reality. Ironically, Osiander's dishonest insertion may have allowed the widespead distribution of De revolutionibus without ruffling the feathers of the Roman Church, as Galileo Galilei did in the early 17th century. In 1633 before the Inquisition Galileo was forced to recant that the earth moves around the sun and, according to legend, muttered under his breath, "Eppur si muove" ("And yet it moves").

    In his paper, “The Astronomer’s Role in the Sixteenth Century: A Preliminary Study” (History of Science, 18, 1980, pp. 105–147), Robert S. Westman claimed he could find no more than ten people (including four Lutherans) who, between 1543 and 1600, accepted the heliocentric reality of the Copernican model. This list includes:

    1. Joachim Rheticus, in Germany (prior to 1543)
    2. Christopher Rothmann, in Germany
    3. Michael Maestlin, in Germany
    4. Johannes Kepler, in Germany
    5. Thomas Digges in England
    6. Thomas Harriot in England
    7. Giordano Bruno, in Italy
    8. Galileo Galilei, in Italy
    9. Simon Stevin, in the Netherlands
    10. Diego de Zuniga, in Spain

    Two events that contributed to the 16th century investigation of astronomy and looking into the implications of the Copernican model were the appearance of a supernova in 1572 and the Great Comet of 1577.

  4. My friends, could you inform me of the source of the first image, opposing the heliocentric and the geocentric views?

  5. The Ptolemaic system (left side) is an illustration of the geocentric celestial spheres in Peter Apian's Cosmographia (Antwerp, 1539), which can also be seen in the 1564 edition of Cosmographia.

    The Copernican system (right side) is from Nicolas Copernicus' De revolutionibus, between pages 9 and 10.