Lutheran roots intersect with the dawn of the scientific revolution

Lutheran roots intersect with the dawn of the scientific revolution

The Badab-e Surt formations that has been created over thousands of years as flowing water from two mineral hot springs cooled and deposited carbonate minerals. Credit: cc by Phil Camill via Flickr

The Lutheran church is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and while modern science arose just after the Reformation there seems to have been little attention paid to what the reformers thought about science.

The leader of the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther is often quoted as saying, “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” But what knowledge, if any, did Luther have of the emergence of science?

The publication in 1543 of Nicolaus Copernicus‘s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) is often cited as the starting point for the scientific revolution. And historically, Luther is often said to have been a critic of Copernicus. According to Roger Timm, who published an essay available in Covalence earlier this year on the topic of Luther and Copernicus, people often quote a portion of Luther’s Table Talk as recorded by Anthony Lauterbach in 1539 that may itself be misleading.

In Lauterbach’s account Luther supposedly said: “Whoever wants to be clever must agree with nothing that others esteem. He must do something of his own. This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. Even in these things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth.” According to Timm, Luther’s Table Talk is not considered to be a reliable source for Luther’s opinions. Secondly the quote, if correct, would have preceded Copernicus’ book by a number of years.

Again Timm writes that Luther’s supposed criticism of Copernicus has been used to support a claim that the Luther was anti-science, but that is a simplistic reading.  Yes, Luther seems critical of the heliocentric system (the idea that the sun was at the center of the universe) proposed by Copernicus but we must remember that so were many scientists of the day who were supporters of the Ptolemaic system.  The Ptolemaic system was the “science” of the day and assumed that the earth was stationary and at the center of the universe. Proof of Copernicus’ theory had to wait until a century later and for Johannes Kepler and Galileo.

At the same time, Timm points out that two professors associated with Luther in Wittenberg are believed to have been instrumental in encouraging Copernicus to publish and even arranged for the printing of his now famous book.

But besides this snapshot of the early days of the Reformation, what can we say of Lutheran theology and its interaction with science? Did the Reformation and the rise of science go hand-in-hand?

There are a number of connections between faith and science and Lutheran theology, according to a discussion piece (also available on the  Alliance website) drafted a few years ago by George Murphy, physicist and retired pastor in collaboration with Lea Schweitz, theologian and professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and Director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science and Roger Willer, Director for Theological Ethics who serves as liaison between the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology and the ELCA Churchwide Office.

One is evident in that earlier quote of Luther’s about God writing the gospel in nature. According to Murphy, Schweitz and Willer, Lutheran tradition is “a positive evaluation of, and rejoicing in, the natural world recognized as God’s creation.” In Luther’s Small Catechism, God is continually at work in the world and the phrase “the finite is capable of the infinite,” sums up the belief that God is present “in, with and under” the sacramental elements. This same idea can also help promote scientific study of the material world as a vocational calling.

The trio also looked at the Lutheran concept of justification. Justification is the idea that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, and for Christ’s sake alone or in other words there is no way one can “earn” salvation based on merit or works. In scientific terms, this principle is important in that we are not justified by simply making the right decisions about applying science correctly. This, they say, means that we are able to make ethical decisions about the use of new technologies without being “100% certain” that they will indeed work out “flawlessly.”

Lastly here, but just as important, is Luther’s theology of the cross. The theology of the cross presses the point, among other things, that we are brought to know the true God only from God’s historical self-revelation centered on Christ crucified. Here Murphy, Schweitz and Willer say that we cannot truly know who God is, how God acts, and we cannot discover “the mind of God” by a study of natural phenomena or the laws of physics.  We cannot be certain of the deep nature of God independent of the historical revelation of the Christ crucified. This is an important distinction since some in the disciplines dedicated to evolution or neurobiology, for example, believe with those theories and data they completely can explain religion or can answer the question about whether God exists and what God is.  They have faith that science alone has or will have knowledge to explain everything.

In contrast to the supposed anti-science bias among Lutheran reformers, there are theologians and philosophers eager to maintain an active dialogue with biologists and neuroscientists. Looking at a wider scope of this dialogue, a number of prominent Protestant and Lutheran theologians have also made distinctive contributions over the years. Theologians Joseph Sittler, Ted Peters and Philip Hefner are just a few who have become prominent in the twentieth century alone and each of them draw significantly from the Lutheran theological heritage.

It is also worth noting that there are a fair number of Lutheran scientists today, who feel an obligation to discuss why their faith is not separate from their daily work. Then there are also a number of groups, such as the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology, devoted to the further study of religion-and-science and its role in the modern world.

Lutheran institutions and colleges have historically been supportive as well. Headquartered within one ELCA seminary, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, there is the Zygon Center for Religion and Science. This group grew out of early efforts by theologians and other scholars to engage directly with the sciences on a myriad of new levels and was historically located conveniently near the University of Chicago. Numerous pastors in training, theologians and members of the public have engaged in public dialogue on religion and science for decades at the center.

This past month a former director of the Zygon Center and now the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden Antje Jackelén participated in the commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in Sweden.  The event brought Pope Francis to Sweden on October 31 in a historic visit that brought Catholics and Lutherans together. It was the first papal visit to Sweden since John Paul II was there in 1989.

Prior to her move to Sweden, Jackelén served as professor of Systematic Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and prior to that served as the President of European Society for the Study of Science and Theology (ESSSAT). Key theological contributions of Jackelén range from published works on physics to human uniqueness and hermeneutics related to religion and science.

In Archbishop Jackelén’s installation homily a few years ago, she identified the strength of the Church as a “global network of prayer threads.” Of the meeting in Lund with Pope Francis, she said, “It is a step forward in the churches’ work. In a time of major global challenges we have a joint mandate to proclaim the Gospels in words and actions.”

The meeting in Lund stems from a process of dialogue spanning five decades. A milestone in this process consists of the document called “From Conflict to Communion.” In this document Lutherans and Catholics express sorrow and regret at the pain that they have caused each other, but also gratitude for the theological insights that both parties have contributed. At the same time, there is an emphasis on the joint responsibility to talk about Christian faith.

In reflecting on the rift caused by the Reformation, it is evident that a Lutheran approach in engaging with science has emerged over the years as has a unique Catholic approach—recently encompassed in the Laudato si encyclical of Pope Francis on the topic of climate change.

When it comes to change it seems it is in their air. It is also undeniable that the idea that the church is always to be reformed or Ecclesia semper reformanda est in Latin can be applied in many ways with respect to the way Christians embrace their faith within a modern scientific and technology-driven world.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) supports the role of science in approving ‘Affirmation of Creation’ at its General Assembly

The Presbyterian Church (USA) supports the role of science in approving 'Affirmation of Creation' at its General Assembly

A Chandra X-ray Observatory image of Messier 82, or M82, shows the result of star formation on overdrive. Credit: cc by
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
via Flickr

Editor’s note: What follows is the text from the Affirmation of Creation that was read and approved at the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) earlier this year (June 22) with a vote of 305 to 264. Following the Affirmation is a rationale for its approval as drafted by the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith (PASTCF), which called on the church to approve the overture. A full copy of the document can also be downloaded here.

Affirmation of Creation

From early in its life the Christian church has affirmed metaphorically that God is the author of two books of revelation: the Book of Scripture (the Old and New Testaments) and the Book of Nature. Because God is the author of both and God neither deceives nor is incoherent, these books cannot in principle be in conflict even though they are expressed through fallible creatures.

However, over the centuries some Christians have sought to deny observations of Nature by reference to Scripture. In the 5th century CE, Augustine warned that claims about Nature, contrary to human reason and experience but supposedly derived from Scripture, should be avoided, lest they make Christians seem ignorant and objects of scornful laughter. Yet, we recognize that God has called forth in Homo sapiens an exploratory curiosity and a critical intellect. A fruit of these gifts is our capacity for scientific inquiry.

The results of this inquiry are provisional because they are open to new discoveries and revision. Yet these results are also highly reliable because the Creation itself, through observation and experimentation, attests to them. Scientific inquiry to date has provided descriptions and ever more profound understandings of the scope of God’s creation in space and time of the myriad of creatures which inhabit and have inhabited this Earth and of the means by which the Creation itself has shared in the work of creation.

In light of these discoveries, today with confidence we can affirm:

  • That God has been calling this universe into being for at least 13.8 billion years and continues calling upon the Creation to bring forth new creatures;
  • That God’s creative call has resulted in virtually countless stars and planetary systems, and new stars and planetary systems are continuing to be created;
  • That, in response to God’s creative call, the Earth took form at least 4.6 billion years ago;
  • That, in response to God’s call, living creatures emerged on the Earth at least 3.6 billion years ago;
  • That God has connected all life on Earth in a network of kinship by virtue of biological evolution from common ancestors;
  • That, in response to God’s call, we Homo sapiens (modern humans) emerged, in our wide diversity and different cultures, as a species over more than 6 million years of hominin development;
  • That, since our line of descent split from the line that resulted in our contemporaries, the chimpanzees and bonobos, we Homo sapiens were preceded by at least eighteen already identified hominin species, all of which are now extinct;1
  • That, in the providence of God, we Homo sapiens have come to exercise extraordinary power over other creatures and their habitats, the Earth’s geological structures, and the meteorological systems of the Earth;
  • That, by virtue of the powers of intellect and creativity called forth in us by God, we bear exceptional responsibility for the future of the Earth and all its constitutive creatures.

This affirmation provides a framework in which we are called to worship God, are called to proclaim the Gospel of Grace, and are called to live as faithful expressions of God’s love for the whole Creation.


The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
– Psalm 19:1-4

With these words the Psalmist declares that the Creation gives witness to its Creator. This theological sense of nature spurred Christians to study nature as a way of honoring God.

At the beginning of the western scientific revolution in the 16th century Nicolas Copernicus captured this sense when he wrote,

To know the mighty works of God, comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power, to appreciate in degree the wonderful working of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High to whom ignorance can not be more grateful than knowledge.2

In the 20th century Albert Einstein expressed the mutuality between inquiries about nature and religious life when he wrote: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” 3

This is not to say that religion is obligated to tie its theological cart irrevocably to any particular scientific horse. As Presbyterian teaching elder, ethicist, and philosopher Holmes Rolston III notes, “The religion that is married to science today will be a widow tomorrow.” 4 Yet he goes on to add this caution, “But the religion that is divorced from science today will leave no offspring tomorrow.” 5

Evidence for this latter effect can be found in the results of the 2011 Barna Group Study that reported that among the reasons given by teens and young adults for their disassociation from churches were that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%) and “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). 6

Yet the idea is not new that a Christian faith, uninformed by a credible understanding of nature, is compromised in its ability to faithfully proclaim the Gospel. Augustine of Hippo perhaps most eloquently expressed this concern in the 5th century when he wrote,

Often a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances, … and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all that we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, which people see as ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn.… 7

All Christians affirm that God is Creator. Many, perhaps most Presbyterians value science as a means to gain appreciation of God’s creation. Scientific inquiry also makes possible insights into nature that enable more effective service to God through service to neighbor. Yet these same scientific discoveries also challenge traditional ways of thinking about God, God’s creation, and God’s creative ctivity. In 1947 the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described this challenge.

When we speak of a ‘theology of modern science,’ it obviously does not mean that by itself science can determine an image of God and a religion. But what it does mean, if I am not mistaken, is that, given a certain development of science, certain representations of God and certain forms of worship are ruled out, as not being homogeneous with the dimensions of the universe known to our experience. (Emphasis in the original.)

He went on to expand on the importance of homogeneity for the relationship of science and the Christian faith.

This notion of homogeneity is without doubt of central importance in intellectual, moral and mystical life. Even though the various stages of our interior life cannot be expressed strictly in terms of one another, on the other hand they must agree in scale, in nature and tonality. Otherwise it would be impossible to develop a true spiritual unity in ourselves — and that is perhaps the most legitimate, the most imperative and most definitive of the demands made by man of today and man of tomorrow. 8

Yet the Christian churches, and specifically Presbyterians, virtually never publicly acknowledge the significance of even the most basic discoveries that humanity has made through science about the history, structure and processes of creation for Christian faith and life, and often speak theologically as though they lived in a pre-Copernican cosmos.

Over the past 500 years humankind has gained more depth and breadth of understanding of creation than in all the preceding millennia of human history. Even within those five centuries there have been several revolutions in our understanding of creation. Though the findings of the sciences do not determine the Gospel message, as Augustine noted they do influence how that message can be credibly declared and persuasively received. The first task of an effective contemporary evangelism must begin with an assent to the Creation that God has indeed been calling and is calling into existence. It is for this purpose that the affirmation above has been developed.

The age of the world

The age of the world

Some of the most iconic views of our planet returned by both living astronauts and robotic spacecraft in orbit throughout the space age. Credit: cc by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr

Editor’s note: This essay was originally published in “Lutheran Partners” as a Handiwork column in 2006. The article is still timely though as many seek to downplay the attempts to publicly reaffirm the tenets of young earth creationism.

Before the rise of modern science there was no reason not to use Old Testament genealogies and other texts as straightforward historical data to get a date around 4000 B.C. for the world’s creation. Biblical criticism has since shown that we needn’t read the texts that way and science has found several methods for estimating ages. The earth is now thought to be about 4.6 billion years old.

How do we know this? One way of getting at the question not only involves fascinating science but gives insights into how scientists and science itself — including its mathematical dimension — work.

The phenomenon of radioactive decay was discovered at the end of the nineteenth century.  Some types of atomic nuclei are unstable and disintegrate into other types.  Half of any sample, large or small, of a given type of atom will decay in a time characteristic of that atom, called its half-life. The longer that half-life, the more slowly any given sample will decay. This is the basis for a number of techniques of radioactive dating, and I’ll sketch just one here.

The element uranium has several isotopes, atoms which have the same chemical properties but different nuclear masses. The most important are U238 and U235.  U238 is by far the most common form on earth today, with 138 atoms of it to 1 atom of U235.  This is of considerable political and economic importance because naturally occurring uranium must be enriched in the rarer form for nuclear weapons and many reactors.

Why is one form of uranium much rarer than the other? Both are radioactive (decaying through series of intermediates to stable isotopes of lead), and U235 disintegrates more rapidly than U238. The possibility suggests itself that there’s less U235 today because most of what was present initially has decayed while more of the U238 is still around.

The half-life of U235 is .7 billion years while that of U238 is over six times longer, 4.5 billion years. For a first estimate let’s assume that when uranium was first formed there were equal amounts of the two isotopes. Since U238 decays more slowly, let’s first ignore its decomposition. Then we note that after seven half-lives of U235 its abundance will have been diminished by a factor of ½ to the seventh power, or 1/128. This is close to the current U235/U238 ratio, 1/138. Thus if our hypotheses are correct, the earth’s uranium was made something more than 7 x .7 billion years ago. This gives an estimate of 4.9 billion years for the age of the earth’s uranium.

Careful readers will be critical of several things I’ve done here. U238 does decay and 128 isn’t equal to 138! But scientists often begin to attack a problem with a crude “back of the envelope” calculation. It can give an idea of the size of the effect that we’re looking for and tell us if it’s worth pursuing an idea further. Those who remember logarithms from algebra class can remedy the two deficiencies in my estimate and show that the correct result is close to 5.9, rather than 4.9, billion years.

But there’s a more fundamental concern. How do we know that there were equal amounts of the two isotopes to begin with? The answer is that we don’t. In fact there probably was more U235. We now think that the heavy elements like uranium are formed in stars which explode as supernovas, distributing the elements that have been built up by fusion reactions into the interstellar medium to become part of the next generation of stars and planetary systems. Nuclear theory indicates that about 65% more U235 than U238 would be formed in this way. Our estimate of age then works out to around 6.5 billion years if only one supernova event contributed. This is the age of the interstellar material from which the solar system eventually formed. The solar system itself, including the earth, is somewhat younger.

That result can still be challenged however. Maybe our theories of formation of the elements are wrong. Perhaps uranium was created at some point in the past with a quite different isotopic ratio.

Ah, but there’s another intriguing piece of information to consider. I said that the current U235/U238 ratio is 1/138, a value fairly uniform over the earth. But at Oklo, in the West African nation of Gabon, the proportion of U235 to U238 is lower by a small but significant amount. Investigations of conditions at Oklo and the discovery there of types of atoms that would result from nuclear fission have led to the conclusion that at some time in the past there were naturally occurring nuclear reactors! They would have functioned in a start and stop fashion: Groundwater served as a moderator for neutrons, allowing chain reactions to build up, and operation would have ceased when heat that was generated boiled the water off. Cooling and accumulation of more water would allow the cycle to start again. The fission of some U235 explains why the abundance of that isotope is lower today.

I said that this happened “at some time in the past” but we can be more precise. A reactor of this type would require uranium to contain something like 3% U235, and we can calculate how long ago the earth’s uranium would have had this composition. The result is that the Oklo reactors were in operation something more than 1.7 billion years in the past.

It’s remarkable that such natural reactors existed, as is the fact that at this remove we can understand their workings. I wish I could simply present this as an example of neat science but not everyone sees it that way. Some conservative Christians, “young earth creationists,” are deeply committed to the belief that the earth is only a few thousand years old and reject the billions of years that radioactive dating gives. They may claim that decay rates were much higher in the past, but there is no evidence for this.

Or they may fall back on the “apparent age” argument that God created the world only a few thousand years ago with isotopic abundances adjusted to make it look billions of years old. However, the Oklo data shows that God would also have had to tweak the isotopic abundances a bit at one site in Africa to make it look as if that place had some intermediate, though long, age. There is no strictly scientific or philosophical way of refuting that argument.  (Bertrand Russell pointed out that the world could have come into existence five minutes ago with all our memories and other records intact.)  But this makes God a deceiver, the fabricator of a world full of illusions. Belief in the goodness of creation, on the other hand, holds that God is the maker of a world that tells the truth about itself to honest investigators.

George Murphy received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins for work on general relativity in 1972.  He taught at Westminster College (PA), The University of Western Australia and Luther College and did research for eleven years before entering Wartburg seminary. Ordained in 1983, he has served as a pastor in Lutheran and Episcopal congregations. His first article on theology and science was published in 1977 and he has since published six books and numerous articles and continues to speak and lead workshops in this area. His most recent book, Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World (Lutheran University Press, 2013), discusses ways of understanding the saving work of Christ in an evolving world.

Further Reading

Cherry Lewis, The Dating Game (Cambridge, 2000), uses a biography of Arthur Holmes, a pioneer in the field, to tell the story of radioactive dating of the earth.
Alex P. Meshik, “The Workings of an Ancient Nuclear Reactor,” Scientific American, November 2005, deals with Oklo.

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