Portraits of Christians – Nicolas Copernicus

Astronomer Copernicus - Conversation with God, by Jan Matejko, 1871.
Astronomer Copernicus – Conversation with God, by Jan Matejko, 1871.

Today I’d like to add to my previous series looking at examples of great scientists, mathematicians, and engineers who were Christians. We seem to have this stubborn notion in our modern minds that  science and religion are mortal enemies. The atheist mantra is that religion equals primitive, backwards superstition, while science is gradually replacing it in an ever onward and upward march to a rational utopia. Or so I hear… And yet I read the writings of many of the “fathers” of science, and I see a very different picture. Today, let’s look at Nicholas Copernicus, often called the “father of modern astronomy.”

Copernicus lived from 1473 to 1543, and was a canon (a church administrator/lawyer) at the Frombork Cathedral in East Prussia (modern Poland). He also wrote a memorable treatise on currency devaluation [1], and oversaw the defense of Olsztyn during an attempted invasion by the Teutonic Knights in 1520. However, Copernicus’ name would be nothing more than a footnote in the history books had not a young protestant math professor name Rheticus convinced Copernicus the Catholic to publish his life’s work. And so the 6 volumes of On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres was published shortly before Copernicus died in 1543. This proposed the idea that the earth moved and was not the center of the known universe. This is commonly known as the heliocentric view, although geokinetic might be more appropriate, as Copernicus focused more on the earth’s movement than on the sun’s centrality in his magnum opus. While the warning on the title page  of “Let no one untrained in geometry enter here,”  is certainly justified, there are a few passages relevant to our purposes amidst all of the spherical geometry.

Speaking in the introduction about the worth of pursuing astronomy, he states, “For when a man is occupied with things which he sees established in the finest order and directed by divine management, will not the unremitting contemplation of them and a certain familiarity with them stimulate him to the best and to admiration for the Maker of everything, in whom are all happiness and good? For would not the godly Psalmist [Ps 92:4] in vain declare that he was made glad through the work of the Lord and rejoiced in the works of His hands, were we not drawn to the contemplation of the highest good by this means, as though by a chariot?” [2]

I’ve come across several atheist memes that try to lay claim to Copernicus and treat his book (which includes the quote above) as the beginning of the end for belief in God. But, I ask you, does the above quote from the man himself sound like anyone opposing God? On the contrary, Copernicus argues that astronomy draws us to worship God all the more. In fact, talking about things “established in the finest order and directed by divine management” sounds like a taste of intelligent design and the fine-tuning argument a few centuries early.

What made Copernicus pursue this lifelong quest? He tells the Pope in his book’s dedication to him, “I began to be annoyed that the movements of the world machine, created for our sake by the best and most systematic Artisan of all, were not understood with greater certainty by the philosophers, who otherwise examined so precisely the most insignificant trifles of this world.” [3]He then did a literature review, found some precedence for an orbiting earth, and proceeded with an investigation, open to that possibility in spite of what the great astronomer Ptolemy had said 1,400 years before.

It proved to be a long, tedious, detailed investigation crammed between his normal daily duties. He really was “moonlighting”. Not giving up, he wrote, speaking of the difficulties he encountered in his investigations, “Nevertheless, to avoid giving the impression that this difficulty is an excuse for indolence, by the grace of God, without whom we can accomplish nothing, I shall attempt a broader inquiry into these matters.”[4] Spoken like a true Christian.

“But wait!” the skeptic will say. “The church banned his book because of their narrow-minded opposition to the truth.” Let’s look at that. It is true that the Roman Catholic church put On the Revolutions on the Forbidden Books list, pending “correction”, although that was not until 73 years after it’s publication. During his lifetime, Nicholas was encouraged – no, prodded – to write his book by his good friend Tiedemann Giese, bishop of Chelmno. Nicholas Schönberg, the Cardinal of Capua, had written to Copernicus as early as 1536, recapping the salient points of Copernicus’ “new cosmology” and encouraging him, “with the utmost earnestness” to “communicate this discovery of yours to scholars”.[5] Cardinal Schönberg did not see heliocentrism as contrary to Scripture. Who might see Copernicus’ views as a threat to the church? Copernicus tells us in his dedication (again, to the Pope) that “Perhaps there will be babblers who claim to be judges of astronomy although completely ignorant of the subject and, badly distorting some passage of Scripture to their purpose, will dare to find fault with my undertaking and censure it.” [6] Hmmm… it seems that Copernicus thought, and was willing to say directly to the Pope, that only those distorting Scripture would see any fault in his work. He continues, “Astronomy is written for astronomers. To them my work too will seem, unless I am mistaken, to make some contribution also to the Church, at the head of which Your Holiness now stands.” [6] This should come as no surprise that Copernicus would believe his theory to be a contribution, rather than an overthrow, of the church. All truth is God’s truth, both the special revelation of the Bible and the general revelation of the world around us.  Therefore, true knowledge of the world around us contributes to our understanding of its Creator.

In July 1543, 2 months after Copernicus’ death, his friend Bishop Giese wrote to Copernicus’ young disciple Rheticus and mentioned a “little tract” Rheticus had written, regarding which, Giese said, “you entirely correctly defended the earth’s motion from being in conflict with the Holy Scriptures.” [7] Bishop Giese also wrote a treatise (now lost) called Hyperaspisticon,  “upholding the compatibility of Copernicanism with the Bible, if read properly.” [8] But, as Copernican historian Edward Rosen laments, both works failed to survive [their] passage into the clutches of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.[9] What’s interesting here is that in the heat of the Protestant Reformation, this Catholic bishop and Protestant professor could both agree that Copernicus’ theory did not conflict with Scripture.

What can we say about this alleged dispute with the church? Simply that Copernicus’ disagreement was with Ptolemy, the 2nd century Greek astronomer, not the church. Many in the church, along with most scientists in the world, both before Copernicus, and for 2 centuries after him, rejected Copernicus’ theory and accorded to Ptolemy infallibility that is simply not the domain of any man. That is always a recipe for disaster, particularly for the church, who should know better than anybody that no one is perfect but God alone. But as for Copernicus, he was a indeed a Christian, a faithful servant of his church, and a model scientist.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monetae_cudendae_ratio, accessed 2016-10-30. His premise was basically that bad money (i.e. devalued, or inflated) drives good money (with intrinsic worth, like bullion coins) out of circulation, either abroad or through  hoarding by the citizenry. This is actually still a very timely work almost 500 years later.
[2] Nicholas Copernicus On the Revolutions: Complete Works, Volume I, translated by Edward Rosen, 1992, Book 1 Introduction, p. 7.
[3] p. 4.
[4] ibid, p.8.
[5] ibid, p. xxi.
[6] ibid, p. 5.
[7] ibid, p. 339, notes for page 3, Line 38.
[8] ibid, p. 342, notes for page 5, Line36.
[9] ibid, p. 343, notes for page 5, Line 38.