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Objections to Copernicus

As the great Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe, would say in the next generation, Copernicus’ theory nowhere offends mathematics, yet it throws the earth, a lazy, sluggish body unfit for motion, into a motion as fast as the ethereal stars themselves. And when laying out the specifics, he repeatedly said that Copernicus’ theory goes against physics and against Holy Scripture - always in that order.

The scriptural objections to a moving earth were quick to emerge. Georg Joachim Rheticus, the young Lutheran who came to visit the Catholic Copernicus at the cathedral in Frauenburg, who in 1540 published a “first report” on the new cosmology, and who persuaded Copernicus to let him take a copy of the manuscript back to Germany for publication, was reputed to have written a “second report” dealing with additional questions about the new system. His report was long believed to be lost, but two decades ago it was brilliantly rediscovered by the Dutch historian of science Reijer Hooykaas. In it Rheticus examines five scriptural passages that seem to speak against the mobility of the earth and several against the immobility of the sun. For example, Psalm 104 says that the Lord God laid the foundation of the earth that it not be moved forever. What the Psalmist means, Rheticus declares, is that the earth maintains its established course and attains its prescribed positions. “Therefore, he who assumes its mobility in order to bring about a reliable calculation of times and motions is not acting against Holy Scripture.” The book of Joshua describes how, at the battle of Gibeon, Joshua commanded the sun, not the earth, to stand still. As for this battle in the valley of Ajalon, Rheticus asks his reader to distinguish between appearance and reality. “When right reason concludes that the sun is immobile, even though our eyes lead us to think it moves, we do not abandon the accepted way of speaking. We say that the sun rises and sets, even though we hold this to be true only in appearance.”Reijer Hooykaas, G. J. Rheticus’ Treatise on Holy Scripture and the Motion of the Earth (Amsterdam, 1984), p. 98.

It is interesting that Johannes Kepler, without knowing of Rheticus’ still-unpublished report, picked up on the same two scriptural objections. Concerning Joshua, he wrote, “If someone had suggested that the sun was not really moving toward the valley of Ajalon, would not Joshua have exclaimed that he was seeking to extend the daylight by any means whatsoever? He would have reacted the same way, therefore, if anyone had taken issue with him over the sun’s permanent immobility and the earth’s motion.”Johannes Kepler, "Introduction" to Astronomia nova (Prague, 1609), translated by Owen Gingerich in The Great Ideas Today 1983, ed. by M. J. Adler and J. Van Doren, (Encyclopaedia Britannica,... Concerning Psalm 104, Kepler wrote, “The Psalmist is very far from speculating on physical causes. He rejoices entirely in the greatness of God who has made all things. If you pay close attention, this is actually a commentary on the first six days of creation of Genesis.” After an extensive analysis of the Psalm, Kepler urges his reader to “extol the bounty of God in the preservation of living creatures of all kinds by the strength and stability of the earth,” and also to “acknowledge the wisdom of the creator in its motion, so abstruse, so admirable.”Johannes Kepler, "Introduction" to Astronomia nova (Prague, 1609), translated by Owen Gingerich in The Great Ideas Today 1983, ed. by M. J. Adler and J. Van Doren, (Encyclopaedia Britannica,...

Contributed by: Dr. Owen Gingerich

Cosmic Questions

Did the Universe Have a Beginning? Topic Index
Scientific Cosmology Meets Western Theology: A Historical Perspective

Objections to Copernicus

The Challenge of Copernicus
Two Mythological Arguments
Osiander's Introduction
Hubble's Expanding Universe and Lemaître's Primeval Atom
The Steady-State, Big Bang and Religion
Too Easy an Answer?


Owen Gingerich

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