Early Protestant Hostility Towards (and Ignorance of) Science

Early Protestant Hostility Towards (and Ignorance of) Science July 9, 2004
Philipp Melanchthon, engraving (1526) by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


* * * * *

[I have incorporated some remarks I originally made in the comments, and removed a supposed remark by Calvin which could not be verified.]

Accustomed as we are to hearing about the Catholic Church and Galileo, it isn’t often realized or recognized that classical “Reformational” Protestantism, generally speaking, was out and out hostile to the burgeoning scientific discoveries and endeavors of its time. No thoughtful and honest Catholic denies that the Catholic Church, too, had a less than perfect record of positive regard for modern science in its infancy in the 16th and 17th centuries (most notably with the Galileo case — which Pope John Paul II has recently acknowledged). The point of this essay, however, is to show that Protestantism has often, if not always, been guilty of the same shortcomings for which the Catholic Church is constantly harangued. In other words, one should not notice the speck in another’s eye while neglecting the “log” in one’s own eye! It’s high time to balance the “historical scales” a bit on this topic. With that intention, and no malice, the following historical information is offered for reflection:

Will Durant, the noted (non-Catholic) historian, summarized: “Luther rejected the Copernican astronomy . . . Calvin had little use for science; Knox none.” (1)

Luther vs. Copernicus

Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), a devout Catholic (one of his degrees was in Church canon law), originated the heliocentric theory in astronomy, in which the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa. This new theory in particular provides fascinating insight into Protestantism’s view of science, since it arrived roughly simultaneously with the Protestant Revolution. Thomas Kuhn, in his important book, The Copernican Revolution, notes Luther’s reaction to Copernicus:

People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon . . . This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy, but sacred Scripture tells us (Joshua 10:13) that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.(2)

Luther’s Cohort Philip Melanchthon Rejects Copernicus, Accepts Astrology

Some think it a distinguished achievement to construct such a crazy thing as that Prussian astronomer who moves the earth and fixes the sun. Verily, wise rulers should tame the unrestraint of men’s minds. (3)

Certain men, either from the love of novelty, or to make a display of ingenuity, have concluded that the earth moves . . . Now, it is a want of honesty and decency to assert such notions publicly and the example is pernicious. It is the part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it . . . The earth can be nowhere if not in the centre of the universe. (4)

Meanwhile, Melanchthon (considered the father of German liberal arts education and one of the more “humanist” and rational-minded Reformers) thought superstition and astrology more worthwhile:

One of the most curious features of Melanchthon’s character . . . was his morbid tendency to superstition. For example, at the time of the Diet of Augsburg he wrote that several prodigious portents seemed to favour the success of Lutheranism: the bursting of the Tiber’s banks, the prolonged labour of a mule, the birth of a two-headed calf were all signs which suggested Rome’s ruin. By contrast, when his daughter fell ill, Melanchthon was filled with terror by the unfavourable aspect of Mars. He never did anything without consulting astrologers. (5)

Melanchthon changed the date of Luther’s birth to give him a more propitious horoscope, and begged him not to travel under a new moon. (6)

Calvin’s Hostility to Copernicus and Science

There is not a single indication that the reformer was at all interested in the scientific discoveries . . . for example, the findings of Copernicus in 1530 . . . of which Calvin was still ignorant in 1560. (7)

Calvin’s Academy of Geneva, which he founded in 1559, provided:

. . . a most thorough education . . . but not the natural sciences, “diabolica scientia,” whose study Calvin regarded with fear as “imprudent curiosity and rashness.” (8)

Calvin answered Copernicus with a line from Psalm 93:1: “The world also is stabilized, that it cannot be moved.” (9)

Examples of Catholic Acceptance & Protestant Dismissal, of Science

Protestant leaders like Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon led in citing Scripture against Copernicus and in urging the repression of Copernicans . . . Protestants . . . provided the first effective institutionalized opposition . . . For sixty years after Copernicus’ death there was little Catholic counterpart for the Protestant opposition to Copernicanism . . . The Church itself was silent . . . Copernicus himself had been a cleric and a reputable one . . . His book was dedicated to the Pope (10), and among the friends who urged him to publish it were a Catholic bishop and a Cardinal. During the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries the Church had not imposed cosmological conformity on its members . . .

Before the De Revolutionibus the Church had spawned even more revolutionary cosmological concepts without theological convulsions. In the fifteenth century the eminent cardinal and papal legate Nicholas of Cusa had propounded a radical Neoplatonic cosmology . . . Though he portrayed the earth as a moving star, like the sun and the other stars, and though his works were widely read and had great influence, he was not condemned or even criticized by his Church. (11)

A young Lutheran scholar, Rheticus, left his chair of mathematics at Wittenberg . . . to work with Copernicus . . . A summary of Copernicus’ findings was released and it met with tremendous hostility from Protestant theologians; there was no such general hostility from Catholics. Rheticus was barred from returning to his post at Wittenberg. At the insistence of Clement VII (12), the material was expanded into the great work of Copernicus’ career, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres . . . . Copernicus’ work on the heliocentric theory would not have been completed had not Churchmen urged him on. (13)

Johann Kepler (1571-1630), a German Protestant astronomer, was, in 1607, prevented from printing an article on comets by the Saxon theologians (14). Perhaps this type of antipathy to science was one reason why Kepler, two years earlier, “praised ‘the wisdom and prudence of the Roman Church’ for its public encouragement of scientific research.” (15)

The Encyclopedia Britannnica reiterates the above:

Lectures on the principles [of the Heliocentric theory] . . . were given [by Copernicus] in Rome in 1533 before Pope Clement VII, who approved, and a formal request to publish was made to Copernicus in 1536 . . . His pupil and disciple Georg Joachim Rhaticus . . . was permitted [in 1540] to take the completed manuscript to Nurnberg, Germany, for printing. Because of opposition from Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and other reformers, Rhaticus left Nurnberg and went to Leipzig . . . (16)

Andrew D. White, in a massively-researched two-volume work on the relationship of science and Christianity (17), makes several shocking observations with regard to the outlook of Protestantism in this respect:

Eminent authorities . . . like Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, and Vincent of Beauvais, felt obliged to accept the doctrine of the earth’s sphericity, and as we approach the modern period we find its truth acknowledged by the vast majority of thinking men. The Reformation did not at first yield fully to this better theory . . . Even Zwingli . . . held to the opinion . . . that a great firmament, or floor, separated the heavens from the earth; that above it were the waters and angels, and below it the earth and man . . .

[the author also states that Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon rejected the sphericity of the earth]

All branches of the Protestant Church – Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican – vied with each other in denouncing the Copernican doctrine as contrary to Scripture; and, at a later period, the Puritans showed the same tendency . . . Turretin, Calvin’s famous successor, even after Kepler and Newton had virtually completed the theory of Copernicus and Galileo, put forth his compendium of theology, in which he proved, from a multitude of scriptural texts, that the heavens, sun, and moon move about the earth, which stands still in the centre. In England we see similar theological efforts, even after they had become evidently futile . . . Dr. John Owen [1616-83], so famous in the annals of Puritanism, declared the Copernican system a “delusive and arbitrary hypothesis, contrary to Scripture”; and even John Wesley [who also – like Melanchthon – indulged in superstition] declared the new ideas to “tend toward infidelity” . . . The people of Nuremburg, a Protestant stronghold, caused a medal to be struck with inscriptions ridiculing the philosopher with his theory . . .

John Owen declared that Newton’s discoveries were “built on fallible phenomena and advanced by many arbitrary presumptions against evident testimonies of Scripture” . . . John Wesley . . . while giving up the Ptolemaic theory and accepting in a general way the Copernican, . . . suspect[ed] the demonstrations of Newton . . . In Germany even Leibnitz [Lutheran philosopher, 1646-1716] attacked the Newtonian theory of gravitation on theological grounds . . . In Germany, especially in the Protestant part of it, the war was even more bitter, and it lasted through the first half of the eighteenth century. Eminent Lutheran doctors of divinity flooded the country with treatises to prove that the Copernican theory could not be reconciled with Scripture. In the theological seminaries and in many of the universities where clerical influence was strong they seemed to sweep all before them . . .

Luther . . . in one of his Advent sermons . . . said, “The heathen write that the comet may arise from natural causes, but God creates not one that does not foretoken a sure calamity.” Again he said, “Whatever moves in the heaven in an unusual way is certainly a sign of God’s wrath.” And sometimes, . . . he declared them works of the devil, and declaimed against them as “harlot stars.” Melanchthon, too, in various letters refers to comets as heralds of Heaven’s wrath, classing them, with evil conjunctions of the planets and abortive births, amongst the “signs” referred to in Scripture. Zwingli, boldest of the greater Reformers in shaking off traditional beliefs, could not shake off this, and insisted that the comet of 1531 betokened calamity . . .

In 1873 was published in St. Louis, at the publishing house of the Lutheran Synod of Missouri, a work entitled Astronomische Unterredung, the author being well known as a late president of a Lutheran Teachers’ Seminary. No attack on the whole system of astronomy could be more bitter . . .: “The entire Holy Scripture settles the question that the earth is the principal body of the universe, that it stands fixed” . . . The author then goes on to show from Scripture the folly, not only of Copernicus and Newton, but of a long line of great astronomers in more recent times . . .

Nothing is more unjust than to cast especial blame for all this resistance to science upon the Roman Church. The Protestant Church . . . has been more blameworthy . . . The direct influence of the Reformation was at first unfavourable to scientific progress . . . There is much reason to believe that the fetters upon scientific thought were closer under the strict interpretation of Scripture by the early Protestants than they had been under the older Church.

Non-Catholics Whitehead and Harnack Praise Catholic Scientific Thought

Professor Whitehead . . . insists that the Middle Ages “formed one long training of the intellect of Europe in the sense of order.” It was the medieval theologians, he tells us, who were responsible for “the faith in the possibility of science.” . . . Harnack (18), the Liberal Protestant, was no friend of Catholicism, and yet Harnack writes:

Scholasticism is simply nothing else but scientific thought . . . The science of the Middle Ages gives practical proof of eagerness in thinking and exhibits an energy in subjecting all that is real and valuable to thought to which we can perhaps find no parallel in any other age. (19)

Additional Material

Steve Jackson, a Lutheran (LCMS) wrote:

I don’t think most experts consider Will Durant to be a particularly serious historian & many have questioned his use of sources. Also, A.D. White was anti-Christian and his book was used by, among others, [Bertrand] Russell in his inaccurate history of philosophy . . . Here is a more balanced discussion of the Luther, Calvin & Copernicus issue.

Interesting article. Thanks, Steve. Here is a portion:

. . . 1971, when a French scholar noticed that in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, Calvin denounced those “who will say that the sun does not move and that it is the earth that shifts and turns.” Here, however, Calvin neither mentioned Copernicus by name, nor did he invoke any Scripture against heliocentrism itself.

I see; so Calvin denounces heliocentrism and the rotation and movement of the earth and speaks out of ignorance, but he gets off the hook to some extent, according to this guy and Christianity Today, because he didn’t use Scripture to support his ignorance and failed to mention Copernicus.

But the latter might be explained by Copernican scholar Edward Rosen, who — so the article informs us —, “concluded that Calvin had never heard of Copernicus, let alone critiqued him.”

This is highly impressive, too. Calvin had never heard of Copernicus? Doesn’t that establish almost beyond doubt that he had a less-than-adequate knowledge of science (and might correctly be deemed to be opposed to science?)? Yet he deigns (in his usual self-appointed dogmatism) to denounce those who do . . . I find all this highly instructive and more evidence of my overall thesis, so I heartily thank Steve for the additional information.

One must see Calvin’s wider remarks about heliocentrists, to get the full effect (the CT article conveniently clipped out much of this). Calvin maintained 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.”

(See: Sermon no. 8 on 1st Corinthians, 677, cited in John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait by William J. Bouwsma; Oxford Univ. Press, 1988; A. 72)

Fortunately, this major (Protestant) biography of Calvin didn’t try to hide (or inadvertently overlook) any of these highly embarrassing facts. Calvin, typically, cannot stop with mere disagreement; he has to pontificate on the motivations of such wicked people (heliocentrists) and imply that the devil is behind all such idle speculation. Of course, it is not unusual at all for the “Reformers” to dogmatize about that which they know little or nothing about.

In his Dedicatory to his commentary on Genesis, Calvin writes:

We indeed are not ignorant, that the circuit of the heavens is finite, and that the earth, like a little globe, is placed in the center.

The translator’s footnote 30 for this passage informs us:

The erroneous system of natural philosophy which had prevailed for ages was but just giving way to sounder views, at the time when Calvin wrote. Copernicus, in the close of the preceding century, had begun to suspect the current opinions on the subject; but the fear of being misunderstood and ridiculed caused him to withhold for some time the discoveries he was making; and it was not till 1543, a few hours before his death, that he himself saw a copy of his own published work. Up to that period, the earth had been regarded as the center of the system, and the whole heavens were supposed to revolve around it.

Calvin wrote his commentary here in 1554.

In his commentary on Genesis 8:22, he states:

. . . Peter speaks of the old world as having perished in the deluge, [2 Peter 3:6.] Moreover, the deluge had been an interruption of the order of nature. For the revolutions of the sun and moon had ceased . . .

Calvin is even more explicit elsewhere:

The heavens revolve daily, and, immense as is their fabric, and inconceivable the rapidity of their revolutions, we experience no concussion — no disturbance in the harmony of their motion. The sun, though varying its course every diurnal revolution, returns annually to the same point. The planets, in all their wandering, maintain their respective positions. How could the earth hang suspended in the air were it not upheld by God’s hand? By what means could it [i.e., the earth] maintain itself unmoved, while the heavens above are in constant rapid motion, did not its Divine Maker fix and establish it? Accordingly the particle, aph, denoting emphasis, is introduced — YEA, he hath established it.

(Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Psalm 93, verse 1, translated by James Anderson; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949, Vol. 4, p. 7)

The case of Martin Luther is (also as usual) more fun and humorous than that of Calvin. In the Internet article, “Luther and Science,” by Donald H. Kobe, a professor of physics, the author utilizing astonishing obscurantism, in trying to minimize the embarrassment by Luther’s remarks about Copernicus and astronomy. First he provides background to one of the notorious Luther statements:

The famous (or infamous) remark of Luther was made in 1539. In the spring of that year, Georg Joachim Rheticus, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wittenberg, was granted a leave to visit Nicolaus Copernicus in Frauenberg, Poland to learn more about his new theory that the earth and planets revolve about the sun. At that time not very much was known about the new theory, except from hearsay. The purpose of Rheticus’s trip must have prompted discussion among the faculty and students of Wittenberg, especially in Luther’s home.

Anthony Lauterbach, who dined with the Luthers, quotes the conversation pertaining to Copernicus as follows:

There was mention of a certain 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 [Jos. 10:12].”

To put this remark in perspective, it was made four years before the publication of Copernicus’s book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.

Thus, if Luther is to be excused because of the earliness of the date of his silly remark, what of Calvin, who spoke his nonsense in 1554, eleven years after the publication of Copernicus’ work?

Kobe then attempts to minimize Luther’s name-calling:

Even if Luther had called Copernicus, who was not mentioned by name, a fool, that would have been a rather mild epithet coming from Luther.

One can only smile at that! He also contradicts himself, giving two disparate accounts of how Luther views on astrology relative to astronomy. First:

Luther accepted astronomy as a science, but rejected astrology as a superstition because it cannot be confirmed by demonstration. Astrology, according to Luther, is idolatry and violates the first commandment. He was both amused and distressed by Melanchthon’s interest in astrology, a belief system that was widely accepted at the time.

But then in his interpretation of the Luther utterance above, he writes:

The use of the word “astrologer” in the introductory remarks should not necessarily be interpreted as disparaging, since at that time the terms “astrologer” and “astronomer” were often used more or less synonymously.

So Luther thinks astrology is idolatry, superstition, and a violation of the first commandment, yet when he applies it to heliocentrists (particularly, by strong implication, Copernicus), it is likely merely a synonym for astronomy. I submit that this is an incoherent and implausible explanation.

This is classic Protestant polemical sophistry (I dealt with a lot of that in the area of biblical commentary and exegesis, in my latest book, The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants, to be released later this month by Sophia Institute Press). Protestants too often do the same with regard to unfortunate events in their own history. But despite the obfuscation and spin present, the author commendably admits outright:

Luther saw that Copernicus’s view was indeed a revolutionary one. He could not accept it because it was contrary to his common sense and his interpretation of the Bible.

Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s associate and successor, was equally hostile to Copernicus:

It is true that in the first edition of his Elements of Physics published in 1549, Melanchthon wrote [43]

But some dare say, either because of the love of novelties or in order to appear ingenious, that the earth moves, and contend that neither the eighth sphere nor the sun moves while they assign other movement to the celestial spheres and place the earth among the stars. The joke is not new. There is a book by Archimedes … in which he reports that Aristarchus of Samos defended this paradox, that the sun remains fixed and the earth turns around the sun. And although clever workers investigate many questions to give expression to their ingenuity, the young should know it is not decent to defend such absurd opinions publicly, nor is it honest or a good example.

This passage was most likely first written in 1545. After the publication of his book, Melanchthon had ameliorated his views on Copernicus. Thus in the 1550 edition, he omitted such phrases as “the love of novelties” and “the joke is not new,” and showed a more favorable attitude towards heliocentrism as a mathematical hypothesis [44].

Notes for Kobe article:

43] Quoted by Moran, loc. cit.[Bruce T. Moran, “The Universe of Philip Melanchthon: Criticism and Use of the Copernican Theory,” Comitatus 4 (1973): 1-23], pp. 13-14.
[44] Moran, loc. cit., p. 14.

So Melanchthon must be understood and we must have compassion on his fathomless imbecility on this issue because, well, he removed his gratuitous phrases of “love of novelties” and “joke” in later editions. This coming from a man enthralled with astrology!: something even Luther could readily see the folly and wickedness of; and from one considered one of the more enlightened and humanistic of the “Reformers.”


1. Durant, Will, The Reformation, (vol.6 of 10-vol. The Story of Civilization, 1967), New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957, 849.
2. Kuhn, Thomas, The Copernican Revolution, New York: Vintage Books, 1959, l91 / Luther quote from Table Talk (ed. William Hazlitt, London, 1884), 69 (June 4, 1539).

3. In Kesten, Hermann, Copernicus and His World, New York: 1945, 309 / Letter of October 16, 1541. From Durant, ibid., 859.
4. Kuhn, ibid., l91 / Melanchthon quote from Initia Doctrinae Physicae, (Elements of Physics), 1549.
5. Daniel-Rops, Henri, The Protestant Reformation, vol. 2, tr. Audrey Butler, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1961, 315.
6. Durant, ibid., 851.
7. Daniel-Rops, ibid., 163.
8. Ibid., 199.
9. Durant, ibid., 858.
10. Pope Paul III (1534-49), who urged him to publish his new findings, and accepted the dedication.
11. Kuhn, ibid., l96-197.
12. Pope Clement VII reigned from 1523 to 1534.
13. Wheeler, Mark, “Nicolaus Copernicus,” This Rock, January, 1991, 20-21.
14. Janssen, Johannes, History of the German People From the Close of the Middle Ages, 16 vols., tr. A.M. Christie, St. Louis: B. Herder, 1910 (orig. 1891), vol. 14, 506-507.
15. Conway, Bertrand L., The Question Box, New York: All Saints Press, rev. ed., 1962, 223.
16. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1985 ed., vol. 16, 815.
17. White, Andrew D., A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology, New York: George Brazilier, 1955 (orig. 1895), vol. I: 97, 126-128, 148-149, 155, 182, 150-151, 168, 212.
18. Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was a philosopher and Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) a theologian and Church historian.
19. Lunn, Arnold, Now I See, London: Sheed & Ward, 1944, 127.


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