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Copernicus

In the 16th century, the world went through a radical reorienting of our place in the universe.

For centuries, astronomers tried to make sense of the strange motion of celestial bodies across the sky we now know are planets. While the stars traveled a predictable path across the sky, the planets danced in strange patterns. Renaissance astronomers built elaborate models to try and predict the motion of the planets in the sky. But because they believed the sun, moon and stars revolved around the earth, they could never get their models quite right.

Model of the Copernican (Heliocentric – Sun centered) and Tychonian (Geocentric – Earth centered) orbital systems.  In the lower right, you can toggle between them. Other controls allow you to speed up or slow down the rotations, show the moon phase, show the zodiac and set the date. 

The idea that the heavens revolved around the Earth was no insignificant belief; it was founded on what religious authorities believed to be the clear teaching of the Bible. Any model astronomers proposed had to be consistent with this geocentric worldview. This limited their ability to see possibilities contradictory to biblical and clerical authority.

All of this changed in 1543 when Nicolaus Copernicus published “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.” In it, he demonstrated the motion of the heavens can only be explained without the Earth being the geometric center of the system. In fact, rather then stationary, the Earth revolved around the sun. Conceptualizing this heliocentric model required a wholesale reorienting of the relationship of the earth to the heavenly bodies. Worldview quite literally meant a different view of our world.

Some historians mark the publication of Copernicus’ “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” as the starting point for the Scientific Revolution of the 16th century. But it did not come without resistance. It took 200 years for this new heliocentric model of the solar system to replace the geocentric model.

The Copernican revolution seems insignificant to most people today. The revolution of the earth around the sun is such a broadly held conviction it seems irrelevant. But the shift in worldview caused by the revolution was far-reaching, especially for Christianity.

Hans Kuhn wrote: “To describe the innovation initiated by Copernicus as the simple interchange of the position of the earth and sun is to make a molehill out of a mountain… If Copernicus’ proposal had no consequences outside astronomy, it would have been neither so long delayed, nor so strenuously resisted.” 1

The Copernican Revolution began a slippery slope for the church in which science examined evidence, proposed a hypothesis, and come to a conclusion that sometimes interfered with the Bible. It forced religion to reassess the relationship of the Bible and clerical authority to the physical world, a conflict that goes on today.

Astronomy would not be the last area to come under the microscope of scientific study. Physical sciences such as biology and geology challenged what was thought the biblical teaching about creation. But It didn’t end there.

Today, DNA research threatens the existence of a historical Adam and Eve. Archaeological research has raised important challenges to the biblical account of the Israelites exodus from Egypt and their national establishment in the land of Canaan. The discovery of additional gospels at Nag Hammadi give us a far more complex picture of the early centuries of the Christian movement.

Science has also enlightened our understanding of illnesses and categorizations of people based on what we thought the Bible taught. We know that blindness and leprosy are medical conditions, and not punishment for sin. Epilepsy, and mental illness have replaced demon possession as explanations for… We know that all races are equal and that slavery is unacceptable. We know that women are neither ethnically nor genetically weaker than men and in need of their guidance and protection.

Copernicus showed us the universe does not revolve around the earth. We soon learned, it doesn’t revolve around the church either.

1 (Kuhn, Thomas, The Copernican Revolution. Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought.)

Published in Science