Thursday, August 8, 2013

Calvin and Copernicus: On Faithful Reasoning and Reasoning Faith

 Photo © Cenk E. Tezel and Tunç Tezel. Used by permission.

I was reading a good book by a Christian writer whom I thoroughly admire. The author was writing about church opposition to the heliocentric theory of Nicolaus Copernicus. As an illustration of this opposition she quoted John Calvin in this sentence:
"Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?" John Calvin howled out loud....
Now I love John Calvin, though heaven knows we have our quarrels. Reading this sentence, I shook my head in disbelief that Calvin would ever have written (let alone howled out loud) the words that were being attributed to him. Calvin was a brilliant humanist, skilled in Greek and Latin, a student in Paris of the liberal arts—grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.

I checked the author’s footnote at the Calvin quotation and found that she was quoting from an award-winning writer of popular science. I checked the science writer’s footnote and found that he was quoting from Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy—a work almost entirely without footnotes. I began to see that my search was not going to be easy.

Then, mercifully, I came upon a 1960 article written by Professor Edward Rosen of The City College of New York titled “Calvin’s Attitude toward Copernicus.” To make a long article short, Rosen traces the quotation attributed to Calvin back to Frederic William Farrar, Dean of Canterbury Cathedral and personal chaplain to Queen Victoria. In an Oxford University lecture of 1885 Farrar declared:
"Who," asks Calvin, "will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?"
Farrar’s lecture does not indicate where he found the exclamation he attributes to Calvin, and Rosen was unable to trace the quotation further.

Rosen reports that in subsequent decades the words Farrar attributed to Calvin were, with variations, published again and again: by the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, by the first President of Cornell University, by a Director of the Lick Astronomical Observatory in California, and I would add by a 20th-century scholar who wrote an otherwise superb study of the Copernican revolution in astronomy.

So far as I have been able to discover, in all his writings Calvin never mentions Copernicus. But Calvin is not silent about astronomers and their discoveries, nor about the liberal arts more generally. Of the latter he writes:
Then follow the arts, both liberal and manual. ...Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God's excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.... (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.2.14–15, tr. Ford Lewis Battle)
Calvin goes on in this passage to commend pagan figures who contributed to law, philosophy, rhetoric, medicine, and mathematics. Thus Calvin recommends reasoning faith for his Christian flock, and he commends the faithful reasoning of pagan thinkers.

As for astronomers, Calvin praises their work. In his commentary on the biblical account of creation he quotes Genesis 1:16:
And God made two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; he made the stars also.
Then Calvin comments in these three paragraphs:
I have already said that Moses is not analyzing acutely, like the philosophers, the secrets of nature; and these words show it. First he [Moses] sets the planets and stars in the expanse of the heavens. Astronomers distinguish a number of spheres in the firmament and teach that the fixed stars have their own place in it. Moses mentions two great luminaries. The astronomers prove with strong arguments that the star Saturn, which seems small because of its distance, is larger than the moon.
All this shows that Moses described in popular style what all ordinary men without training and education perceive with their ordinary senses. Astronomers, on the other hand, investigate with great labor whatever the keenness of man's intellect is able to discover. Such study is certainly not to be disapproved, nor science condemned with the insolence of some fanatics who habitually reject whatever is unknown to them. The study of astronomy not only gives pleasure but is also extremely useful. And no one can deny that it admirably reveals the wisdom of God. Therefore, clever men who expend their labor upon it are to be praised and those who have ability and leisure ought not to neglect work of that kind....
God has stretched out his hand to us to give us the splendor of the sun and moon to enjoy. Great would be our ingratitude if we shut our eyes to this experience of beauty! There is no reason why clever men should jeer at Moses' ignorance. He is not explaining the heavens to us but describing what is before our eyes. Let the astronomers possess their own deeper knowledge.  Meanwhile, those who see the nightly splendor of the moon are possessed by perverse ingratitude if they do not recognize the goodness of God. (Commentaries 23, p.356, tr. Joseph Haroutunian)
July 2009 marked the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth. A question for thought: How might half a millennium of debates between faith and reason concerning creation of the world have been different if Calvinists had read their Calvin? Not to do so seems to me unreasoning faith. And how might those debates have been different if scholars had checked their sources? Not to do so seems to me unfaithful reasoning.


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