Nicolas Copernicus

1473 - 1543
by David F. Coppedge

Perhaps no revolution in science has been more far-reaching than the Copernican Revolution. It led to the modern Copernican Principle, the idea that the earth occupies no preferred place in the cosmos (though the cosmos of Copernicus was very different from that revealed since the invention of the telescope). Revisionist history has portrayed Copernicus as a secretive scientist hiding his views from the church for fear of being condemned as a heretic. We are told also that Protestants of the Reformation scorned his views. In recent years, however, that revisionism itself is being revised, thanks largely to the research of historian and astronomer Owen Gingerich of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

What did Gingerich find about Copernicus the man, his views, his readers and the church’s reaction? And what new discoveries are calling into question the central claim of the Copernican Principle, that Earth occupies no special status in the grand scheme of the cosmos?

Collegiate Church of the Holy Cross and St. Bartholomew in central Wroclaw, Kingdom of Bohemia (modern Poland), where Copernicus obtained a sinecure as a canon which he held for for 35 years (1503-1538). It is not clear if he obtained orders to act as a priest. After education in Italy, he returned to Wrocklaw for the last 40 years of his life. Copernicus began devising his heliocentric theory during this period.

It’s time for myths about Copernicus to be corrected. He did not set out to revolutionize all of astronomy and science. He did not seek to cast doubt on the Scriptures, or attack the church. He was not fearful of being persecuted as a heretic. And his writings were not uniformly condemned by Catholics or Protestants; in fact, many embraced the new idea that the earth moved around the sun, and it was Lutherans especially who enabled the publication of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. Finally, Copernicus is not responsible for what has become known as “The Copernican Principle.”

Family and Education

Copernicus was born into a wealthy family, and studied astronomy, mathematics and philosophy at the University of Krakow in Poland. He was appointed a canon, but never took orders to become a priest, preferring instead to continue his studies in Italy, where he learned literature and medicine. On return to Poland, he became personal physician to his uncle, a bishop, a comfortable job that left him time to pursue astronomy as a hobby. Later, he worked for the church in an official capacity in matters regarding war and reform of the currency.

Source of His Heliocentricity

Astronomy was never one of his official duties, but Copernicus became renowned as an astronomer. He measured the positions of the six known planets. One of the chief duties of an astronomer in those days was to devise and improve calendars. As a calendar-maker and mathematician, Copernicus noted the complexity of the Ptolemaic (earth-centered) system and its numerous epicycles (circles on circles to “save the appearances” of the planetary motions). In 1506 he began privately developing a heliocentric (sun-centered) model of the solar system, primarily as a tool to make the calculations easier, although he still kept the epicycles and circular orbits. It is probable he grew to believe that the earth really did move. The view was not entirely original. Aristarchus of Samos had suggested it in the third century B.C., and several medieval philosophers considered it, but no one had worked out the mathematics of such a system in detail. Copernicus did not reveal his model in writing until 1530, and then only in outline form. “It immediately attracted great attention,” says the biographical note to the Britannica Great Books edition (compiled by Mortimer Adler). “At Rome, Johann Albrecht Widmanstadt lectured upon the new doctrine; Pope Clement VII gave his approval; Cardinal Schonberg entreated the author to make public his full thought on the subject.”

Copernicus preferred the heliocentric model for its simplicity. Nevertheless, it needed elaboration by Kepler and Newton.

Protestant Help

The Protestant Reformation began in 1517, but Copernicus never became directly involved. In fact, Protestants became his greatest allies. Georg Joachim Rheticus, a Protestant mathematician at Luther’s Wittenberg University, was so intrigued by the new model that he took a leave of absence and traveled to meet Copernicus. He spent two years with the Polish astronomer, and published his own general account of the heliocentric model with Copernicus’ approval. Another Lutheran, Andreas Osiander, joined Rheticus in urging publication of the complete book, and a Lutheran prince, Duke Albrecht, subsidized the printing in 1543. Copernicus became ill and lived only long enough to see a copy of the first edition. He never had occasion to suffer any persecution for his ideas; it was not till many years later during Galileo’s time (see Galileo biography in this series) that the Catholic Church put it on the list of forbidden books, and that was largely over issues of politics, academics and personality.

Why the Delayed Publication?

It is true that Copernicus hesitated to publish, but probably less from fear of heresy than from fear of ridicule by his peers. Aristotle’s world view was so entrenched in the sixteenth century that to question it was asking for trouble. It cannot be claimed that Copernicus feared censure by the church, since he dedicated his book to the pope. Nor can it be claimed he sought to cast doubt on the Scriptures, since medieval theologians had already taught that statements in the Bible about natural phenomena, such as those about the earth moving, could be interpreted in the language of appearance to the observer. It was only later, as conflicts between Catholics and Protestants raised tensions over interpretation of Scripture, that some church leaders insisted that passages about the sun moving and the earth standing still were taken to mean that the Copernican model must be heretical. Certainly that was never the view of Galileo, the Catholic, nor Kepler, the Protestant, both who eagerly embraced the heliocentric system.

Copernicus Was Widely Read

Gingerich searched the world for every extant copy of Copernicus’ book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), and found that it was widely read, contrary to a common myth that Revolutions was “the book nobody read” in his day. Gingerich found that most copies were highly annotated, indicating keen interest in the theory. There were supporters and naysayers on both sides of the Reformation divide. It must be remembered that Copernicus had supplied no observational proof for his view, and at the time, it seemed counterintuitive; by all appearances, the Earth is terra firma—it is the sun that rises and sets. Before Kepler refined the model to correct for errors made by Copernicus (the orbits are ellipses, not circles), the heliocentric model was primarily a thought experiment lacking empirical evidence. We cannot misjudge some contemporaries who considered it a speculative scientific hypothesis, whether or not they felt it agreed with Scripture; they had good reasons for doubting the earth’s motion. It certainly did not comport with experience. Furthermore, they predicted that the stars would shift back and forth during the year if the earth moved around the sun, and no shift was seen. It was not till 1838 that stellar parallax was detected. This not only provided the needed evidence for heliocentricity, it demonstrated that the stars were much farther away than the contemporaries of Copernicus had thought.

Anti-Christian Revisionism

In the Cosmos TV series in the 1980s, Carl Sagan took glee in pointing out that Luther apparently called Copernicus a fool. That is an urban myth that was propagated by Andrew Dickson White, first president of Cornell University (where Sagan later was astronomy professor), in an 1896 book, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. White’s motive was to describe Christianity as perennially antagonistic to science. Once again, Owen Gingerich has examined the evidence to set the record straight. In Issue 76 of Christian History magazine (November, 2002), Gingerich said that the statement attributed to Luther, “That fool would upset the whole art of astronomy” is generally believed by scholars to be apocryphal. It was published as hearsay in 1566, twenty years after Luther had died. It is hard to say what both Luther and Calvin thought of the Copernican model; we must be fair to history to remember that it was a radical idea to most people of the day, Christian or not. It took time to gain acceptance. The record does show, however, that Protestants like Rheticus, Melanchthon and Kepler were the most eager to embrace it. Alvin J. Schmidt, in his book Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization (Zondervan, 2001, pp. 226-227), gives six reasons why the Luther quote is unhistorical. Agreeing that the statement was late-recollection hearsay and ambiguous, he quotes Melanchthon as early as 1549 (six years after publication of Copernicus’ book), saying “We have begun to admire and love Copernicus more.” And Luther himself had taught that certain passages of Scripture could be understood in the language of appearance. It can hardly be claimed that Biblical Christianity is inimical to science when the greatest explosion in scientific knowledge occurred in Protestant countries after the Reformation.

Graphics commissioned for this bio by J. Beverly Greene. All rights reserved.

Was Copernicus a Copernican?

Historians also generally agree that Copernicus was a faithful son of the Catholic church and never felt his model was contrary to Scripture. The book The Privileged Planet makes two things clear about Copernicus (see also the film based on the book).

First, the so-called Copernican Principle—the idea that earth occupies no privileged position in the cosmos—was the invention of later naturalistic scientists, not the view of Nicolas Copernicus himself. The insinuation that Copernicus had somehow “demoted” mankind from the center of the universe is another myth that Dennis Danielson, editor of The Book of the Cosmos, explodes in the question-and-answer section of the film. Carl Sagan treated the Copernican Revolution as a series of “demotions” of man from being the center of the universe. But in medieval cosmology, Danielson points out, the center of the cosmos was the sump, where the dregs and filth descended; the celestial sphere, the abode of God, was far exalted above the world of fallen man. So for Copernicus to raise earth to the status of a planet orbiting the sun was a promotion, not a demotion.

Second, Copernicus felt that his study of the heavens glorified God, and he viewed God as a supreme and wise Creator of the elegant system of the heavens. Dava Sobel, in her book Galileo’s Daughter, quotes Copernicus from the introduction to his book referring to the system of the heavens as being derived from “the best and most systematic Artist of all.” From the Great Books edition, Copernicus says:

For who, after applying himself to things which he sees established in the best order and directed by divine ruling, would not through diligent contemplation of them and through a certain habituation be awakened to that which is best and would not wonder at the Artificer of all things, in Whom is all happiness and every good? For the divine Psalmist* surely did not say gratuitously that he took pleasure in the workings of God and rejoiced in the works of His hands, unless by means of these things as by some sort of vehicle we are transported to the contemplation of the highest Good.

*Praise ye the Lord. I will praise the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, and in the congregation.

The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein.

His work is honourable and glorious: and his righteousness endureth for ever.

He hath made his wonderful works to be remembered: the Lord is gracious and full of compassion. (Psalm 111:1-4, KJV)

So we see that Psalm 111 has reflected a common motivation for believers of all ages, that the pursuit of understanding of God’s works is an act of worship in which we draw nearer to God. Later in his introduction, after Copernicus has deduced from his model that the fixed stars must be at “an immense height away,” his praise rises to a crescendo and erupts into a doxology: “How exceedingly fine is the godlike work of the Best and Greatest Artist!”

Postscript: To answer the pessimistic philosophy of Carl Sagan, we recommend the short film Pale Blue Dot from Illustra Media (July 2018), available free on The John 10:10 Project website.

In response to this biography, a reader in Maryland wrote to Creation-Evolution Headlines:

“Thanks so much for the detailed overview of Copernicus and the many modern inaccuracies that are ‘common knowledge’ about him. I’m usually pretty well versed in the false religion vs. science dichotomy, but I’m pleased to tell you that more than 80% of your article about Copernicus was news to me—and as a result, destroyed much of my concepts of who this man was, what he stood for, and what he went through. Again, a great service — and a great eye-opener. Please never abandon this wonderful work!”