Nicolaus Copernicus and the Copernican Revolution in Cosmology

Changes coming in science led by Nicolaus Copernicus at the dawn of the modern era cause the church to retreat from the modern world. What historians describe as the Copernican Revolution in Cosmology gave rise to the question are science and faith allies or enemies?

…a question that is still hotly debated today.

The Enlightenment

From the dawn of time human beings have gazed up at the heavens and wondered what answers to life’s questions might lie among the stars? For 2,000 years the Christian answer to the big questions of existence was faith in God as revealed in Jesus Christ. It made sense of life and death. It taught right from wrong.

We can trace this skepticism back to the period known as The Enlightenment. Nicolaus Copernicus and other "renaissance men" in western European began posing questions about the power of monarchs, the power of clergy, and above all, the power of God.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543)

Just 20 years after Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) protest and the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, an astronomer in Poland and contemporary of the Reformer makes an extraordinary claim. It is not the sun that moves around the Earth, but the Earth that moves around the sun. The astronomer’s name is Nicolaus Copernicus.

Copernicus' On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres is the seminal work on the heliocentric theory, first published in 1543.  At first the Catholic Church supports Copernicus but scientific progress also seems to perplex the Church.

In 1615, barely 70 years after Copernicus first announced his startling discovery the Church completely reverses its position and places the writings of Copernicus on its index of prohibited books. In making this abrupt turnaround the Church appears to be retreating into dogma in the face of scientific advance.

The question is why is Copernicus initially patronized by the Pope and by local bishops, but condemned long after he is dead? I think it has a lot less to do with Nicolaus Copernicus than with the fact that the world itself had changed. A changing world that causes the Church to move fitfully backward and forward as it responds to scientific progress and the growth of Protestantism.

Galileo and the Legacy of the Copernican Revolution

Right: Heliocentric model of the solar system in Copernicus' manuscript

By the 17th century, the Catholic Church is sharply resisting any challenge to its authority. And thus, the stage is set for one of the most famous conflicts between science and religion. At its center is another brilliant and headstrong astronomer named Galileo Galilei (1564-1642).

Having built a powerful telescope, Galileo sees the planets with unprecedented clarity. He concludes that Nicolaus Copernicus was right—the Earth does indeed revolve around the sun. Galileo’s publications immediately attract the attention of the Inquisition.

Despite being a practicing Catholic and a friend of the Pope, he is tried for heresy in 1632. Although his life is spared, Galileo is forced to recant his theory and remain silent on the subject for the remainder of his days.

Below Left: Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition, by  Cristiano Banti, 1857

At his trial before the Roman Inquisition Galileo defended the heliocentric cosmology of Nicolaus Copernicus, but also issued a prophetic warning: “Take note, theologians, that in your desire to make matters of faith out of propositions relating to the fixity of sun and Earth you run the risk of eventually having to condemn as heretics those who would declare the Earth to stand still and the sun to change position.”

The Church continues to struggle with scientific advance, seemingly unable to reconcile empirical knowledge with Church doctrine, or even scripture itself. But new advances in human knowledge prove unstoppable. Just as the best young minds once turned to theology, they now turn to science and technology.

Dr. Don Cupitt, emeritus professor of Cambridge University and popular theologian, has described the recent history of Christianity as a sea of faith ebbing away before the relentless advance of science, reason, and progress. Actually it's a much more surprising story. The tide of faith also flows back in. For Christianity has a remarkable resilience. In crisis it’s rediscovers deep and enduring truths about itself.

History of Christianity Library

The views expressed in any of these resources do not reflect the opinions of Free-Online-Bible-Study.Org and Teach the Nations, Inc.

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