NICOLAUS COPERNICUS

Copernicus is the father of modern astronomy because of his theory that the earth revolves around the sun, not vice-versa. His work is per- haps the more amazing because it came before the invention of the telescope. Before Copernicus earth and man were at the center of the solar system and of God’s attention. After him man is just a tiny cog in a cosmic machine. God also is superfluous in a mechanistic universe

Who was Copernicus? Copernicus (1473-1543) was a Polish doctor and astronomer.  He came up with the heliocentric theory of planetary motion. This was published in On the Revolutions of the Celestial Bodies in 1543.  “Finally we shall place the Sun himself at the center of the Universe,” declared Copernicus, “All this is suggested by the systematic procession of events and the harmony of the whole Universe, if only we face the facts, as they say, ‘with both eyes open.’”  Rome and the Reformers both denounced Copernicus.  They declared his theory that the earth revolves around the sun opposed to the Bible.  “Our eyes bear witness declaring his theory that the earth revolves around the sun opposed to Scripture.” Galileo took up Copernicus’ cause less than a century later.  He was dragged before the Inquisition in 1633. He was forced to recant under threat of torture.  But as he left the court he was heard to mutter under his breath, “And yet it does move.” He too died apostate and in disgrace.

Historical context.  Before Copernicus, science was governed by a Ptolemaic outlook. The earlier scientists, going back as far as the Greek Ptolemy, were fixated on abstractions.  These included time, space and motion. The modern scientists took these things for granted.  Newton, for instance, could not define gravity.  He “simply” came up with laws describing its effects.  Plus, “The Aristotelian theory of nature was teleological and organic rather than mathematical and mechanistic. The causes of change were sought in the qualities rather than in the quantities of body” (16).

inductive, scientific method.  Descartes worked on the deductive side.  Both paved the road to Newton.  The inductive method begins with a study of specific events and leads to conclusions.  The deductive method starts with an existing conclusion applied to a single case.  Newton’s work has been called mechanistic because it portrays the universe as a great machine.  Once put in motion it was governed by set laws.

Summary of Copernicus’ teaching. Astronomy stood at the pinnacle of ancient science.  It was based on complex geometric thinking.  Ptolemy had calculated the movements of the planets with great precision.  This, in spite of his geocentric worldview.  The entire universe was thought to revolve around the earth in concentric spheres.  Though wrong, this view tended to support the Bible worldview.  That, of course, made the earth and man the focus of God’s concern.  The Bible itself uses anthropomorphic, or geocentric language.  God  stoops to the weakness of man and speaks from the human viewpoint.

Copernicus changed all that when he found that the solar system moves around the sun.  The solar system itself was only one of countless others in endless space.  This is called the “Copernican Revolution”, a major scientific paradigm shift. A paradigm is a governing model.  Plato and Aristarchus had proposed the heliocentric idea much earlier.  But it lay dormant until Copernicus.   

Implications for subsequent history. Copernicus set in motion a movement toward a mechanistic worldview.  Prior to this man was at the center of God’s concern.  Now man was seen simply as a tiny cog  in an unbounded cosmic machine.   Copernicus shattered the old paradigm, which allowed Descartes and Bacon to construct a new one.  In their new theory, knowledge was derived apart from God.  However, true knowledge is not possible apart from the Bible.  Man forgets that even knowledge gained by the scientific method is rarely definitive (decisively final).  The new model for science lasted until the 20th Century.  Then science finally gave way to the irrationality of Kantian idealism.  The mechanistic model was discarded for quantum theory.

We’ll study Kant in a later lesson.  He came up with the idea that truth is defined by forms in the mind. This idea opened the floodgate of subjectivity, which deluged every field of study in the 20th Century.  Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was taken by mistake to bolster this outlook.

Biblical analysis.  The Roman church oppressed Copernicus and Galileo.  Thus there arose the popular  belief that science and theology are opposed.  Ironically, it was Copernicus and Galileo who were defending the Bible position.  The Catholic Church had adopted the Greek view as truth.  This naive notion has persisted to the present.  It was made worse by the habit of many scientists to ignore what is clear:  “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth His handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). Instead, they have “changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever” (Rom. 1:25)

Corrective or prescriptive actions. Man’s outlook on science is subject to sudden change.  Such a  change is known as a paradigm shift: Ptolemaic, Copernican, Newtonian, Einsteinian.  It is the task of the Christian as scientist and as prophet of God to assign meaning to  this change for the world.  Solomon did this in I Kings 4:33,34.  The 16th Century Reformers lived at the same time as Copernicus, but did not accept this task.  They left science to grow without a solid basis in the Bible.