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.