Martin Luther, Geocentrism, and the Bible vs. Science

By Steve Webb

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The theological history of geocentrism versus heliocentrism is an interesting one, and in my view has application to current thinking among us Christians as to how we might view certain scientific issues. At least as far back as Aristrarchus in the third century BC, there have been proposals that the earth rotated around the sun rather than vice-versa. There were no telescopes that amounted to anything at that time so this thinking was based almost entirely on mathematics. A mathematical case did, in fact, show that the sun (and stars and planets) could rotate around the earth but it was a very complicated model. It was tremendously easier, mathematically speaking, to show that the earth rotated around the sun. This issue simmered in relative obscurity for centuries until the rise in power of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. One of the important duties of the Catholic Church was to interpret Scripture for the common people. While we now view some of the abuses to which this led with antipathy, we need to remember that the vast majority of people at that time did not own a copy of the Bible, and even if they did, they likely couldn't read it due to high illiteracy rate, and because the Bible had not been translated into their common vernacular. Thus, to the extent that the Catholic Church was accurately interpreting Scripture they were performing a legitimate important need.

Of course this meant that the Church needed to provide clear cut scriptural interpretations to keep the people from falling into heresy and harmful doctrines. This was a job the church took seriously for generally noble reasons, but with outcomes that were sometimes less than noble. One of the issues that arose came from the work of a Catholic cleric by the name of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) in the early 1500's. His work, based on a mathematical model, postulated that the earth rotated around the sun similar to what Aristarchus and others had earlier proposed. This presented a direct public challenge to the authority of the Church because it had already ruled that the sun rotated around the earth. So, we can ask, why the big deal? Why was this more than a minor doctrinal bump in the road to be quickly resolved and dismissed?

The reason that the Church took this so seriously is because they believed that the Bible had spoken definitively on the subject. First, there was the matter of logic. The earth was created before the sun according to Genesis 1. In fact the sun was not even created until the fourth day (Genesis 1:16-19). It would therefore be nonsense to have the earth rotating around an object that had not been created until later.

Secondly, there was the important matter of principle in that the earth had to be preeminent among the heavenly bodies in the opinion of the Church because it was the place where God had placed mankind, the apex of His creation, and particularly where He had sent His beloved Son Jesus. It would be unthinkable for this to have occurred on just some ordinary planet that had no significant place in the solar system, as if the earth was just part of the Greek pantheon of planets with their individual gods.

But most important were the words of Scripture, and on this matter Scripture appeared to be quite clear and specific. For example, 1 Chronicles 16:30 says, "Indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved." Ecclesiastes 1:5 says, "Also, the sun rises and the sun sets; and hastening to its place where it rises there again." Isaiah 38:8 says, "Behold I will cause the shadow on the stairway, which has gone down with the sun of the stairway of Ahaz, to go back ten steps..." In Joshua 10:13 we read, "So the sun stood still and the moon stopped until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies." All told, there are 51 places in the Bible where the sun is said to be setting or rising. There are no references to the earth moving in relationship to the sun.

Not to be overlooked was the observational evidence. To even the most uneducated peasant, the sun appeared to actively move across the sky. If the earth was moving instead of the sun, surely one should be able to feel it in their thinking. The thought of the earth moving rather than the sun thus appeared ludicrous. In summary, the church had logic, principle, Scripture, and observational evidence upon which to stand. It could even point to a mathematical model that supported its position. The Church saw no need to reconsider its doctrinal stance on this matter.

Martin Luther (1483-1546), who was a contemporary with Copernicus, took this issue seriously when the theories of Copernicus began to have broad circulation and increasing acceptance. By this time, Luther had posted his 95 theses and had separated himself from the Catholic Church, but on this subject Luther stood firm with the Church, thoroughly denouncing Copernicus in 1539 with the following words:
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.
Yet, despite the strong words of Luther, and the unyielding stand of the Church, this issue did not go away, rearing its head again nearly a century later with Galileo's telescope-based observations that backed Copernicus. As most of us will recall, Galileo ended up having to officially recant his theory to save his life.

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Published 9-14-15