Martin Luther was wrong about Geocentrism

By Steve Webb

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.

As centuries passed and scientific observation grew more sophisticated and accurate, it became increasingly clear that the Church's position was wrong, while Galileo and Copernicus were right. Today there are no educated people, Christian or otherwise, who believe that the sun rotates around the earth. We as a church have tacitly, if not openly, admitted that these scriptural passages were merely descriptive of what appeared to the eye; they were not meant to be taken literally, and were not trying to convey any science. The Church was embarrassed and continues to have a black eye on this subject down to present day. Of course, this is past history; there is nothing we can do to change it. But is there anything we can learn from it that can benefit us today?

As Christians, we are aware that God has written two books. The first book is the Bible, which we evangelicals rightly consider to be inerrant. The second book is God's Creation that we can study through the vehicle of science. In fact, God holds us responsible for recognizing Him in nature (Romans 1:20). Now because God is the author of both books they should be in harmony, so what happens when we encounter a situation where one book disagrees with the other? Should we automatically let science trump the Bible when there is a disagreement between them? Heaven forbid! The reason for not allowing this is two-fold. First, there is an interpretive element to science that can sometimes cause science to be in error; i.e. there is such a thing as good science and bad science. Secondly, nature is no longer present in its original created state; it has fallen, as described in Genesis, therefore our study of the book of nature has to be tempered by understanding that it no longer represents God's perfect Creation.

In addition, we need to understand that our interpretation of Scripture has a human element. Scripture may be inerrant but our interpretation of it is not. A great many of our church doctrines are contentious to varying degrees because we bring a human element to the interpretation: our church background, education, intelligence, personality, knowledge of Scripture, cultural background, and other factors unavoidably impact our interpretation of Scripture. So, in the same way that there is good science and bad science, there is also good theology and bad theology. It is a fact of life. Luther and the church back in the Middle Ages were victims of bad theology.

Realizing these factors, how are we to proceed when there is a striking difference between scientific observations and theology? The answer is that we must carefully consider both areas and decide where the problem lies. On the science side, we must listen to the voices that we trust the most — namely scientists who are committed to the inerrancy of the Bible. If we are hearing differences of opinion in that regard we need to carefully listen to both sides. On the theology side, we must listen to theologians we trust the most — and if we are hearing differences of opinion we must similarly listen to both sides. This may be a difficult exercise requiring considerable depth of knowledge, and perhaps the necessity of holding our judgment in abeyance if the answer is not clear.

Today we are faced with a difference between what an overwhelming amount of science says about the age of the earth and what the Bible says about it. Voices like Ken Ham and his ministry, Answers in Genesis, stridently claim that the earth is 6000 years old based on the clear teaching of Scripture. Other Christian ministries like the John Ankerberg ministry, Discovery Institute,, Hugh Ross's books and videos, etc. claim that the earth is much older and that this does not conflict with Scripture. Both sides claim to honor the inerrancy of Scripture. The internet is increasingly populated by chat rooms, websites and Facebook groups that either favor an old earth (OEC = old earth Christians) or favor a young earth (YEC). The one thing we can conclude from this activity is that the debate is not going away. People are fortifying their positions and standing their ground.

This subject matters for basically the same reasons it mattered back in Luther's time. We Christians who represent the corporate church must make sure we are acting wisely or we give the church (and ourselves) a needless loss of credibility. If the Bible clearly teaches a 60000-year earth we need to stand our ground regardless of pressures to do otherwise. We cannot allow science to determine the veracity of the Bible. On the other hand, if the Bible does not clearly indicate a 6000-year earth, and we insist that it does, we place a serious hurdle to faith in front of at least some people, and ultimately the ignominious stain of acting ignorantly, as did the church at the time of Galileo.

As a career geologist, and someone who has been intimately involved in the study of this subject, I can assure you that this is not a simple issue; if you believe it to be simple you have not fully heard both sides. I encourage my fellow believers to "be wise in the way you act towards outsiders, making the most of every opportunity" (Colossians 4:5).

Steven R. Webb
Sept. 11, 2015

Published 9-14-15