It is no longer revolutionary (no pun intended) to hold that the earth revolves around the sun, but it was not always so. The observation of Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), that the universe is heliocentric (sun-centered) and not geocentric (earth-centered) was met with initial skepticism. The great Protestant theologian Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) resisted at first and then accepted his conclusions.
Copernicus managed to keep a low profile, but when Galileo (1546-1642) began to criticize Aristotle while advocating the new astronomy, the Roman church placed Copernicus’ book on the index of forbidden books (1616) and later arrested Galileo and forced him to recant his views.
Unlike Rome, John Calvin (1509-1564), was more open minded toward the new theory because he knew that because Scripture is adapted to our creaturely weakness. He also knew that Scripture often uses observational language. Following Augustine’s commentary on Genesis, he argued that, Scripture “proceeds at the pace of a mother stooping to her child, so to speak, so as not to leave us behind in our weakness” (Institutes 3.21.4). In Scripture, God speaks us as a nursemaid speaks baby-talk to children (Institutes 1.13.1). Even the six-days of creation themselves are an accommodation to our weakness (Commentary on Genesis 1.5).
Not all the Reformed theologians agreed. Some (e.g., Lambert Daneau [1530-95]) attempted to continue to use the Scriptures as a science text. Gisbert Voetius (1589-1676) not only opposed the radical new philosophy of Rene Descartes, but he also opposed the introduction of the Copernican astronomy to the University of Utrecht. At the turn of the 18th century, the respected Reformed theologian Wilhelmus A’ Brakel, acknowledged Calvin’s principle of accommodation, but held nevertheless that Scripture requires us to hold to a geocentric universe.
In the succeeding three centuries we have given up geocentrism. Have we slipped into unbelief? In brief: no. We should be honest enough, however, to admit to ourselves that it was not Biblical exegesis primarily which drove us to a heliocentric cosmology. We abandoned geocentrism because the evidence gradually became overwhelming and we were forced to reconsider our interpretation of Scripture. This fact does not shock us anymore because the process began more than four hundred-fifty years ago. We have grown up in a world which takes a heliocentric universe for granted.
Not everyone accepts the status quo, however. Some are advocating a method of interpreting the Scriptures which says that we cannot pay attention to the claims and discoveries of natural science. Indeed some of these same brothers have repudiated Copernicus and Galileo in favor of an earth-centered cosmology.
It is noteworthy that the views of Copernicus were known when our Confession (1561) and Catechism (1563) were published. Neither of them spoke to Copernicus’ theory, even though they may have been disturbed by his conclusions. They left us free to wrestle with the hermeneutical implications of the new science. In our relative silence we pursued a different course from our Lutheran brothers who made certain scientific claims in their confessions (e.g., garlic ruins the power of magnets) which provoke smiles of embarrassment now.
We are not, therefore, the first to face what some are calling “slippery slope” issues. One can easily imagine folk in the 16th and 17th centuries arguing, “if we change our interpretation of Scripture because of Copernicus’, then science is controlling our understanding of Scripture.”
Then as now, wise pastors and elders doubtless argued that when we say that the earth revolves around the sun (and not the reverse) astronomy is not controlling the interpretation of Scripture, but rather, Copernicus has given us an opportunity to reconsider an accepted interpretation of Scripture.
When Scripture uses observational language, such as describing the sun as “rising” (James 1.11) it or the earth as “fixed” (Ps 96.10) it does not intend to teach us the actual physical relations between the sun and the earth, rather it intends to teach us about God’s faithfulness and sovereignty. In fact, geocentrism rested upon deductions from Scripture which were not “good and necessary” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.6).
If, however, a scientist attempts to tell us “we know that dead men do not rise” or that “something cannot come from nothing”, then we must assume a different posture. We must reply “Dear sir, you have exceeded your authority. You are authorized to study God’s creation, to give the best account possible, but you have no authority to say what God can and cannot do. Recognize it or not, you work for our Father, he does not work for you.”
It is the clear teaching of Scripture and a matter of catholic (universal) Christian truth that God spoke everything into being from and into nothing. Hence we confess that our God is “Creator of heaven and earth.” Likewise, we confess that on the third day, our Lord Jesus was raised from the dead. No one has authority to contradict these fundamental truths. When it comes to such, then with Paul, we say “Let God be true, and every man a liar.”
Some years ago, a friend discussing a hotly controversial matter said “I’m not willing to die on that hill.” As it happens, we disagreed whether on that issue, but the metaphor has stayed with me. The inerrancy of Scripture, our doctrines of God, man, Christ, salvation, the church and last things are the seven hills on which I am prepared to die. Geocentrism is not one of those hills. I am grateful that our forefathers made this important distinction. Let us also continue in that tradition and thereby save our churches from a disastrous course into fundamentalist obscurantism.