Sunday, February 03, 2013

Luther on Copernicus

A friend's blog entry made me aware of this, from the Skeptical Lutheran blog:

Martin Luther on Copernicus

1 Votes

I have run across this quote in several places attributed to Martin Luther, although I have been unable to find the original source.
People give ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon… Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is of course the very best. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but the sacred scripture tells us [Joshua 10:13] that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.

If someone knows the original, or conversely, disputes the authenticity of the quote, please post in the comment section. No doubt a Lutheran in the early sixteenth century would have found himself excommunicated for insisting that the evidence supports a rotating earth. Of course, Lutherans now insist that God was being metaphorical when he wrote the book of Joshua. I find this astonishing, since Luther himself found the language so clear he was ready to call anyone who insisted otherwise a fool.

If you visit this blog entry, a comment left states:

The quote was attributed to one of Luther’s “Table Talks” by Andrew Dickinson White in his work, “HISTORY OF THE WARFARE OF SCIENCE WITH THEOLOGY IN CHRISTENDOM,” available online at There, White references the Walsch 1743 edition of Luther’s Works. I’ve similarly looked and failed to find the exact quote in the “Table Talks.” Similarly with White’s quote from Calvin. I saw where Calvin said “We indeed are not ignorant, that the circuit of the heavens is finite, and that the earth, like a little globe, is placed in the centre” in volume 1 of his commentary on Genesis, but not the rejection of Copernicus that White quoted. Both of White’s quotes are found in Thomas Kuhn’s work, “The Copernican Revolution.” But it seems to me, that White misquoted his sources.

I looked over the reference in White's book: Walch 22:2260. As far as I can discern, there's no page 2260 in the edition I checked (White used a 1743 edition, the one online is from 1887, so there could certainly be page number discrepancies between the editions). It is though, Luther's Table Talk, as White mentions. I don't believe the page number is a fabrication, but rather a different numbering. Consider the following Table Talk comment from LW 54:
No. 4638: Luther Rejects the Copernican Cosmology June 4, 1539 There was mention of a certain new astrologer who wanted to prove that the earth moves and not the sky, the sun, and the moon. This would be as if somebody were riding on a cart or in a ship and imagined that he was standing still while the earth and the trees were moving. [Luther remarked,] “So it goes now. 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 [Josh. 10:12].” Luther, M. (1999, c1967). Vol. 54: Luther's works, vol. 54 : Table Talk (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald and H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (54:358). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
This seems to me to be very similar to that quoted by White. Keep in mind, sometimes there are multiple Table Talks referring to the same alleged statement from Luther. They usually say the same sort of thing, but can be longer or shorter. LW an English translation, often isn't a word for word translation, but thought for thought. Older translations can be very rigid.  I've found that older citations of Luther are a lot looser than modern citations. White's book is from a period in which that was certainly the case. I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover that White conflated the longer Table Talk statement into the form he presents it in.


Martin Yee said...


So looks like this quote is actually plausible. There goes my first feeble attempt at Luther apologetics. Need to practice more I guess.



James Swan said...

I appreciate the effort!

What's really helpful, as compared to say, 10 years ago, is many of the old German primary texts are online.

Also, I'm not sure if you have this, but a great investment is the CDROM version of Luther's Works (from either Concordia or Logos). The search engine makes things a lot easier to figure out.