Feasting a guy Luther thought was wrong
You probably won’t hear a sermon about this, but in May Lutherans honor
two scientists — Nicolaus Copernicus and Leonhard Euler, both on the
anniversary of Copernicus’ death May 24. It’s an opportunity to recall that
Martin Luther thought his contemporary, Copernicus, was a crock. On some
points, Luther was old school — way old.
More about that in a moment. First, who are these guys?
Copernicus was born in 1483, the same year as Luther. The Polish
astronomer realized by 1507 — a decade before Luther hammered home his
95 theses — that planets orbit the sun, not the Earth. Copernicus hesitated to
publish his findings, fearing that a conservative Roman Catholic Church
would object to the idea of a moving Earth. In fact a Lutheran minister,
Andreas Osiander, supervised the long-delayed publication of Copernicus’
On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres and wrote a protective preface
suggesting that the sun-centered idea was merely a device.
Nevertheless, credit the cautious Copernicus with launching the scientific
revolution that has come to play an overwhelming role in our lives.
Notwithstanding his religious worries, Copernicus was right. Scientists before
and since have often declined to accept conventional wisdom about anything.
One such was Euler (1707-1783), a Swiss mathematician famous for
developing new ideas in calculus, geometry, algebra, number theory, and
probability — the science that keeps casinos and insurance companies
solvent. Euler was a lifelong Christian, a Calvinist, although buried in a
Lutheran cemetery in St. Petersburg. He stayed faithful in an age of mounting
doubt among intellectuals, a staunch defender of the Bible as God’s inspired
word — interesting for a scientist then and now.
Let’s focus on Copernicus and Luther. They were a match, in a way. Both saw
through conventional wisdom to the essential truth. Copernicus knew planets
orbit the sun. Luther knew a far greater truth: justification by faith.
Alan Padgett, professor of systematic theology and chair of the history and
theology division at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, says Luther’s disparaging
remarks about Copernicus came during informal “table talk” with Luther’s
students, and may be overstated. In any case, adds Padgett, Luther was
wrong. “He’s a human being,” says Padgett. “He’s a sinner.”
Yet Luther’s instincts may have been on target. Scientific discovery haunts us
still, its drawbacks sometimes offsetting its great benefits. Most recently,
some have claimed that politics influence science. President Barack Obama, in
March reversing an earlier executive order on federal funding for stem-cell
research, assured us this won’t happen in his administration.
Even so, as Christians we must be alert to try to keep scientific investigation
“within broad moral and ethical constraints,” says Padgett. We have had, he
says, “too many problems with illegal and immoral science.”
We do indeed want science free of politics, Padgett agrees — “but we don’t
want science to be free from all religious and moral guidance and wisdom.”
Meanwhile, preaching on science risks rocking the nave, which is one reason
you won’t hear much about it. Pastors’ instincts may also be good. How dare
we set out to square human inquiry with God’s authority?
Yet science matters more now than ever. It bears on decisions of life and
death. Dare we create life? Dare we end it? And how shall we decide?
At its best, science is disinterested. It only wants the truth. Nagging
discrepancies in planets’ positions bothered Copernicus. He threw out the old
system and started over with an idea from antiquity that planets orbit the
sun, not Earth. It worked. Yet he kept quiet, fearing the reaction of Rome,
which held an official doctrine of an Earth-centered universe.
Luther, who outlived his fellow revolutionary by three years, felt the same
nagging doubts about an entirely different matter: salvation. Luther didn’t
keep it quiet. He was certain of grace in Christ and spoke out boldly.
Yet at other times when he spoke out, Luther foundered, as we all do. He
doubted Copernicus. Far worse, he criticized Jews. Four centuries later,
Hitler’s minions mouthed Luther while inflicting terrible, terrible evils.
As Lutherans, we count on Luther for one great truth: justification by faith in
Christ. Beyond that, dare we count on more? He was only a man.
So what shall we Lutherans take away from May’s feast day for Copernicus,
the cautious revolutionary, and Euler, the faithful, meticulous genius? Maybe
this: God does indeed work in mysterious and marvelous ways, and certainly
reserves the right to surprise us. Beyond grace in Christ, can we assume
And maybe we should ask this as well: Is it another great gift of Luther’s
legacy that he was wrong sometimes? That should put us all on alert. We
must watch and pray.
Copernicus was right and Luther’s snap judgment was wrong. The conclusion
is inescapable: Think. God seems to encourage it — even demand it.