Science and the Reformation

Copernicus statue at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium (Credit: skepticalview via Flickr)

The Reformation’s beginning is dated to 1517. Much of what we call science is considerably younger than that, so it might seem that there is little connection between the two. I propose here to explore interactions between the two, however, as a way to sketch how the Reformation challenged enough intellectual habits to foster the independence of thought necessary for science to flourish in subsequent centuries.

Some branches of science had thrived during the Middle Ages, in the sense that people preserved some of the thoughts of the ancient Greeks and also collected data of various kinds.

The Example of Astronomy

An example of data collection in the absence of a coherent scientific basis for understanding is astronomy. Quantities of observational data were collected — some for aids to navigation, some for religious reasons. It was useful for the church to calculate in advance the dates for Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost.

The theoretical framework for stars and planets was provided by the ancient Greeks, featuring the geocentric (earth-centered) arrangement of Ptolemy, along with rotating crystalline spheres for planets and the “fixed” stars.

During all the centuries from classic times to the sixteenth century, there were only seven objects that were seen to move with respect to the stars: sun, moon, and five planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). All else had to await the invention of the telescope. These seven objects are remembered in some Western European languages by the names of the seven days of the week.

Change was on the way. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) constructed a heliocentric (sun-centered) system to re-interpret the planetary data that had been amassed This new system was bound to be controversial, and Copernicus prudently delayed publication.

News of the Copernican model came to Wittenberg, home of a relatively new university where Martin Luther served on the faculty. There it stirred controversy. Martin Luther opposed it on the clear observational ground that the sun moves across the sky every day. Luther’s friend and colleague, Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) was receptive.

A younger colleague at Wittenberg, Joachim Rheticus, Professor of Mathematics, was so attracted to the new model that he went to Poland and became a friend of Copernicus. Rheticus then proceeded to get the book-length version printed, using the new technology of the day; it was entitled On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres.  An advance copy of the printed book was delivered to Copernicus, who died later that same day.

Throughout the Reformation period there was controversy about the new heliocentric model versus the old geocentric concepts. One of most able exponents of the Copernican view was Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), a German Lutheran, who for reasons of scientific politics kept his ideas quiet.

A bolder advocate of Copernicus was Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who was not very diplomatic in his arguments against the geocentric model. His treatment by the Catholic Church (recently admitted to have been unjust) threw a fright into Catholics who were trying to understand nature and its workings.

Signs and omens

All through the Middle Ages nearly everyone — from the common people to the top ranks of society — had believed that God used signs and omens to transmit messages to us people on earth. The birth of a deformed infant — animal or human — was taken to be such a sign. A function of religious leaders was to decode the message. There was also a gnawing worry that the omen might have been sent by the Devil to confuse the faithful. Both Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon were involved in such attempts at interpretation. Luther himself had been called to become a monk while caught in a prodigious thunderstorm; his father raised the possibility that the sign was satanic.

Perhaps the most spectacular signs were comets. Not until the seventeenth century was it recognized that comets are natural objects moving along predictable orbits around the sun. Before Edmund Halley, the general belief was that comets were portents of good or evil. Three examples are quite famous: a comet appeared before the defeat of the Huns at the battle of Chalons; a comet appeared in 1066 (C.E.) before the battle at Hastings in England; in the 1300s, a comet appeared in the sky inspiring the artist Giotto to include it over a scene of the birth of Jesus, implying that the star of Bethlehem was really a comet.


One of the most venerable and enduring signs to be taken as a form of message is astrology. It seems to have spread westward from ancient Persia, gaining popularity in the Roman Empire. Saint Augustine spoke out against it. He knew that it had come from Persia through Egypt into northwest Africa along with other quasi-religious ideas, such as Manichaeism, which Augustine had once followed and then repudiated. He used a rationalistic argument against astrology based on a pair of twins, born under the same zodiacal sign, whose subsequent lives diverged, in contradiction to the tenets of astrology.

Astrology has maintained itself with great tenacity. In the 1300s, Geoffrey Chaucer made reference to it in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.

Martin Luther was aware of the subject. He followed the lead of Saint Augustine (as you might expect from an Augustinian friar) and rejected astrology on the grounds that it has no validity. His colleague and friend, Philip Melanchthon, was known not to be so sure — perhaps it had some validity.

After the Reformation, astrology certainly did not die. People continued to pay good money for horoscopes. The legitimate astronomer Johannes Kepler augmented his income by casting horoscopes.

I have a German Lutheran Bible that has been in my family since the late 1700s. Inside the back cover is pasted a printed sheet of paper with the name, date of birth, and the astrological sign of the parents and their children. There is no indication of their level of belief in the system to which they allude.

Astrology still survives. You can read your horoscope in the daily newspaper.


In the late Middle Ages, the Catholic Church had come to accept the intellectual methods written by Aristotle and passed on through Greek manuscripts, Arabic translations, and on into Latin. Saint Thomas Aquinas built the essence of this scholastic technique into his monumental work on systematic theology. It is often said that Aquinas baptized Aristotle. Certainly, the Dominicans (Thomas’s order) became strong advocates of scholasticism.

At the outset of the Reformation, many of Luther’s opponents were Dominicans (who were already known as Domini canes, the Lord’s hounds). They used both Aquinas and Aristotle as weapons against the Reform, and Luther quite naturally rejected all such arguments.

It is significant that in the early months of the Reformation, Pope Leo X misjudged the seriousness of Luther’s program, dismissing the whole affair as a jealous quarrel between the Dominicans and the Augustinians in Germany.

Age of the Earth

How old is the Universe? How old is the sun? How old is the earth? These questions have been considered by serious thinkers for a long time. Only in the twentieth century have scientists achieved basic agreement on the answers to these queries. So, it is no disgrace to hear that in the age of Reform there was no agreement. The real question at issue in the sixteenth century was whether the earth was infinitely old or whether it began at a time long ago. In the latter case, there was no real basis for claiming one number rather than another.

The issue of the age of the earth was one place where Aristotle and Aquinas disagreed. Aristotle taught that the earth is infinitely old — it has always existed, and it will exist into the future forever. Aquinas followed the Bible and taught that God created everything from nothing (ex nihilo), and that there will be an eschaton (final event), after which the earth as we know it will pass away and be replaced.

Luther and his colleagues held to the finite age, also on the basis of the Bible.

The famous chronology of Anglican Bishop James Ussher (1650) used the account in Genesis to set the creation of the earth at 4004 BC; this version is still widely accepted among Biblical literalists.

Evidence from geology including fossils indicates that the earth is much older. The epitome of such studies led to uniformitarianism in which (as in Aristotle) the earth is infinitely old. Such a view was expressed most clearly by Charles Lyell in the 1830s in his three-volume treatise on geology. This work had a powerful influence on Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection.

The scientific view since the twentieth century assigns thirteen or so billion years as the age of the universe and 4.5 billion as the age of the earth.

Mutability of species

In the early years of the Reformation a lively topic of debate in Wittenberg was whether species of animals and plants change over time. Aristotle and Aquinas both taught that they do not change. Martin Luther argued that they could change.  His attitude was mainly based on his distaste for scholasticism.

Ever since Wallace and Darwin, modern biology has been based on evolution. The principal points of argument are not about mutability, but about its mechanisms and its rate of development. None of this was known to the reformers.


For science and philosophy the word determinism refers to the sure prediction of future events, based on the past and recent. The opposite is chance. Adjectival forms are: deterministic, predictable; opposites are random or aleatory.

In the realms of science and theology, the concept is predestination — the view that God has everything planned, and that our wishes and efforts are ineffective. The opposite view is taken to be free will.

The dichotomy between predestination and free will has been around for a long time. The Bible has plenty to say about it, and it is not a firm choice one way or another. Anyone who says that the Bible requires belief in predestination has been proof-texting, that is, choosing only passages that back the idea of predestination. Likewise, anyone who claims exclusive Biblical support for free will has also been proof-texting.

The earliest literary prophets in the Hebrew Bible (Amos, Hosea) taught free will. The people had sinned against God, and they would be punished unless they repented and improved. The clear inference is that they had the freedom to choose to follow the teachings of God.

As late as the reign of King Josiah, the book of Deuteronomy presents Moses addressing the people with the message that they have a choice: follow God and the Torah and thus live; or neglect God and Torah and die.

By the time of Jeremiah, the military and political situation had changed. Jeremiah predicted doom, although he still hoped for deliverance. His description of his call to be a prophet is a clear case for predestination.

During the Babylonian captivity, the prophet who wrote chapters 40-55 of the Book of Isaiah was quite at home with the idea that God determines the future of the people of Israel.

In the Christian Scriptures there is a variety of attitudes about determinism. The Gospels mostly quote Jesus as teaching that humans have the capability of choosing between right and wrong. Paul, by contrast, is strong for predestination. So it is not a simple task to say whether the Bible favors predestination or free will.

The great controversy of about 400 CE between the British monk Pelagius and the North African theologian Augustine centered around this issue. Pelagius favored free will. Augustine followed Paul on predestination. The Church felt the need to take a stand on this topic; the outcome is clear, since history speaks of the Pelagian heresy, while Augustine is styled a saint and doctor of the Church.

At the time of the Reformation, the controversy was still alive. Martin Luther — as was fitting for an Augustinian, who also drew powerful sustenance from Paul’s letters to the Romans and to the Galatians — was a firm believer in predestination. Huldrich Zwingli agreed completely with Luther on this issue. John Calvin quite famously favored predestination.

There were other voices. Philip Melanchthon was much more moderate than Luther on this subject. The Catholic theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote a treatise On the Freedom of the Will, to which Luther responded by publishing his own work, On the Bondage of the Will. In 1530 Melanchthon wrote the Augsburg Confession, which has become a cornerstone document defining Lutheran doctrine. It attempted a compromise between predestination and free will, to an extent that Luther could accept only grudgingly.

After Luther’s death in 1546 the controversy continued. The Catholic Church was in a troubled position: should they follow Augustine or Erasmus? The Council of Trent produced a compromise so as to be as inclusive as possible. The Anglican Church did much the same, as did Lutherans in the Formula of Concord. The Reformed groups were much stricter in adherence to predestination, as expressed in 1620 at the Synod of Dort.

The settlements just listed were intended to lay the problem to rest. It worked for the state churches of Western Europe as well as for their exported organizations in America. Other groups, especially Baptists, did not feel constrained by such dogmatic statements, leading to the formation of both Primitive Baptists (predestinarian) and Free Will Baptists.

The seventeenth century saw a great shift in deterministic ideas away from theology and into natural philosophy, as science was then known. Benedict De Spinoza and Isaac Newton stand out as strong exponents of determinism. Luther would have been very pleased if he had lived to see the triumph of determinism over its rivals. The twentieth century led to a reversal. The development of quantum mechanics and chaos theory have made it unreasonable to claim that science requires a belief in determinism.

Sources of Authority

The Roman Catholic teaching about authority in church and society maintains that the teachings of the Pope, the Bible, and the Traditions define the norms for faith and morals. The Pope at the time of the Reformation was uniquely defined, although there was an earlier period of some seventy years when the Papal Court was in Avignon in France. For some of that time, there was more than one competitor for the papacy. The Bible was viewed as authoritative in the Vulgate, the official Latin version, but only as interpreted by the Church. Tradition meant the teachings of the Fathers and Councils of the Church.

Luther insisted on a modification of this arrangement. He emphasized the Bible, Reason, Conscience, and Observation. He specifically denied the authority of the Pope, citing disagreements in theology and ecclesiology. He accused the councils of disagreements during their history.

Luther placed great emphasis on the Bible as a source of authority. The phrase sola scriptura (by scripture alone) has often been used to describe Luther’s stance, but this is only a slogan. Luther also considered reason and conscience to be valid signposts for the faithful. Furthermore, Luther as Bible translator maintained that each Christian could and should read the Bible with understanding, without any requirement of interpretation by the hierarchy of the Church.

Luther, Melanchthon, and other leaders did not categorically reject the Fathers of the Church in earlier ages. They quoted the Fathers often in their theological writings, as favorable witnesses and not as enemies of straw to be pushed over. The three ecumenical creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian) were included as valid statements of faith despite their post-Biblical origins.

Observation was used by Luther as an argument against Copernicus. In this particular disagreement, he was mistaken, but he certainly believed that what we would call scientific observation needs to be considered in making claims. The importance of observations is part of Luther’s antipathy toward scholasticism in general and Thomas Aquinas in particular. Apart from the Bible, he thought, you do not expect real authority from any book.

Scientifically, rejection of Aquinas meant also rejection of Aristotle. It is not to say to say that these two are always wrong, just that they contain enough mistakes that they cannot be declared infallible. No one claims inerrancy for Luther, either!

In the centuries since the sixteenth, science has grown greatly. Its normative practice is to use theory—rational conjecture—to predict the outcome of observable phenomena; then the observations are made—either controlled (as on a laboratory workbench) or uncontrolled (as in stellar astronomy). When rival theories predict different outcomes, the supreme court consists in observations.

The seventeenth century saw the rise of the kind of philosophy expressed in the preceding paragraph. Such luminaries as Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, Christiaan Huygens, and Isaac Newton achieved great insight in this way. The process continues even in our own day.

The key attitude is the willingness to set aside the received orthodoxy, to try something different, to test it, and to accept the results of competent, correct, and relevant observation. The Reformation was willing to allow and encourage this type of science.

Dr. John R. Albright is Visiting Professor of Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. John retired in 2004 from Purdue University Calumet, where he was Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Physics since 1995. Prior to his position at Purdue, he spent 32 years at Florida State University, where he was Professor of Physics and Associate Chair of the Physics Department, with a special joint appointment in the Humanities Program. In that connection, he taught religion and science courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels, both of which were recognized in international competitions by the John Templeton Foundation. Also at Florida State, John was nominated by his students and was given a major teaching award at commencement. He has published more than ten articles and book chapters in religion and science and more than fifty articles in physics, and also co-authored a textbook, Introduction to Atomic and Nuclear Physics. John and his wife, Carol Rausch Albright, served as regional co-directors for the Science and Religion Course Program funded by the Templeton Foundation, first in the Southeastern United States, and then in the Midwest. He served on several governance committees for the Lutheran Church in America, has been a featured speaker at regional church gatherings, and helped design the Lutheran Book of Worship.