Martin Luther’s Influence on the Rise of the Natural Sciences
Summary and Keywords
Were Luther to have lived another two decades, he might have been surprised even so early on to be informed that he positively influenced the rise of natural science. One can readily cite many Luther quotes that would cast him as anti-science; decontextualized quoting readily constructs such caricatures. But the truth of the matter is quite otherwise.
Consideration of Luther and Luther’s protégés and their philosophical-historical contexts reveals their positive regard for science. This is explicit in Luther’s immediate heirs like Melanchthon and Andreas Osiander. Though they differed in their opinions about the work of Copernicus, both respected him and the discipline he practiced. Luther’s influence carried beyond his immediate disciples through Johannes Kepler into the 17th century. The Irish-Anglican chemist and theologian Robert Boyle, for example, was significantly influenced by the Reformation principle of God’s sovereignty. In turn, Boyle strongly influenced Isaac Newton. But Lutheran support for the natural sciences had one major qualification. When “freed science” appeared to speculate more on God’s action than describe the visible character of natural phenomena, Luther saw overreaching ambition.
Such are the outlines of a historical approach of Luther’s influence on the beginning of the scientific revolution. Other Lutheran theological themes contributed to natural science’s robustness. In addition to a focus on God’s sovereignty—and so the doctrine of justification by grace through faith—these themes include (1) the nature of biblical authority, (2) the “realistic” epistemology of the theology of the cross, and (3) sacramentology.
Changing Worldviews, Changing Science
Historians generally agree that the scientific revolution began in 1543 with the publication of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems marked the era’s first phase in 1632. The era found its “summa scientiae” in 1687 with Isaac Newton’s Principia. In this span of little more than one century science exploded with new discoveries in chemistry and biology, in addition to the pioneering agenda set by mathematics and astronomy. This was the age of the rise of natural science.
The scientific revolution was no insular period. “Revolution” is an apt term for the era’s radical changes in religion and politics too. The term is apt also for the change of worldview signaled in the Reformation along with the sciences. But, as Thomas Kuhn recognized, those who are ensconced in the first moments of a shift from one worldview to another are not and cannot be the first to recognize the change. So it was with the leaders of the Reformation.
Theologians of the 21st century who are acquainted with the philosophy of science understand that academics who are at ease with their contexts of thought are likely, without realizing it, on the cusp of what Thomas Kuhn labeled a “paradigm shift,” or, as Imre Lakatos phrases it, a shifting “research programme.” First-generation Lutherans were in such a moment when a devolving research program was supplanted by an emerging program.1 At the hinge where the medieval era met the nascent Reformation, the accepted cosmology still was the Ptolemaic geocentric model. Cast still in Aristotelian terms, the inherited worldview was challenged after 1492 only at its assertions of a flat earth and lack of life at the antipodes. Most philosophers, scientists, and theologians thought that the system only needed further mathematical detailing. This agenda privileged the astronomer-mathematician with the penultimate responsibility of conceptually mapping the universe ordering of the day. Final authority lay still with the queen of theology.2
Of course Luther was not fully at ease in his own original theological environment. In that situation he met head-on, as it were, a devolved religious “research programme” and helped found a new one centered on the gospel of justification by grace through faith. This would impact other disciplines, including science, though second-order impacting was not a major concern for Luther, including with regard to science. Luther saw no real need to change his geocentric worldview. Melanchthon was similarly reluctant. Both seminal figures for Lutheranism (and also with Calvin and others) were at that “usual” stage of development when all (but theology) seemed established and only needed detailing. Luther and his companions did not and could not know they were at an “end of history,” nor that such ends mark new beginnings.3
The Reformation’s leaders were firmly located in the first of three phases that would describe the development of Western Europe’s scientific worldview. As Dillenberger describes them, the first is that period from Copernicus to Galileo. The academy’s balance of opinion then was just slightly weighted toward rejecting the new Copernican proposal. Second, in the time from Galileo to Newton it was possible for most academics and church persons to think of alternative positions, though with the weight now on the Copernican side. Finally came the broad acceptance of the Newtonian worldview.4
Writing in that first period of scientific revolution, Luther did not reject science as such. But Luther’s historical location with regard to the changing scientific worldview underscores that it was not new science to which he objected; it was new scientific theory represented in astronomy, particularly Copernican theory, which disturbed Luther and others. Astronomy as such—the primary symbol and topos of natural science in that day—otherwise was regarded most positively.5 Luther’s lectures on Genesis resonate with accepted astronomical and mathematical conclusions as to the ordering of the stars and planets.6 His regard for natural science was almost ebullient. Good new science disclosed the most wonderful gifts of God. Perhaps Luther intuited that the Reformation’s liberation of science meant the latter’s success.
We are just beginning to recapture the knowledge of the creatures which we lost through Adam’s Fall. We have a deeper insight into the created world than we had under the Papacy. Erasmus doesn’t understand how the fruit grows in the womb. He doesn’t know about marriage. But by the grace of God we are beginning to understand God’s great works, and his goodness in the study of a single flower.7
The flowers, trees, and singing birds are the foreground of grace. Nature, for Luther, indeed conveys the gospel.8 The natural world indeed surrounds us as sheer divine gift, Luther preached. It is good for humanity better to know these things and, in so knowing, be more grateful.9
His ringing appeal to the gift of nature notwithstanding, Luther lauded the sciences only insofar as they functioned well at the descriptive level. If the practice of science veered into particular theories that disturbed theological convictions, then Luther was uneasy. But even about the limits of science, it is not wholly clear how delimiting Luther would be. Editor-redactors years later, when compiling Luther’s material on Genesis, for example, took pains to make Luther more consonant with the more conservative and Aristotelian Melanchthon.10 Luther may not have been as restrictive on some matters as he seemed later in print. Still, a general characterization abides: for Luther science was praiseworthy as long as it did not cross theological boundaries with the pretension to explain God’s purposes and revise doctrine. Thus, Luther was never hostile toward science or the new science on principle. He could not be depicted as the inaugurator of a Protestant campaign against science, as several partisan historians and others have done. And where his criticism might seem to be more ad hoc, one should surmise that Luther’s comments were merely that.
It was an en passant dinner table comment that Copernicus was “a fool” that others later used to frame Luther as anti-science.11 He probably never made that remark, at least not so directly about Copernicus. A brief conversation at his famous “table talks” (collected in Tischreden—TR) about a new heliocentric proposal was remembered. But of the several editors who later worked on Tischreden, Johannes Aurifaber and Anthony Lauterbach, recorded the same occasions differently. In Aurifaber’s account12 Luther directly called Copernicus a “fool.” Lauterbach, however, does not include that statement.13 Most Luther scholars consider Lauterbach to be more reliable. Still, even if events are remembered differently in these two redactions, the remark was uttered in 1539, four years before the publication of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus, and the relevant quote itself was not published until 1566, twenty years after Luther’s death. No Protestant campaign against “the new science” could or can be waged on such weak warrant. The fact is that Luther did not align himself with a particular cosmology of the day with any systematic self-consciousness. For that matter, neither did he align with a particular philosophy of science.14
But Melanchthon did align himself. Like Luther, Melanchthon was not against the science and theorizing in principle. But while Luther’s resistance to Copernican theory was based on apparent contravention of biblical texts, Melanchthon differed from him in that he saw it as his vocation to carry forward the truths of Aristotle from which Luther broke, and also to maintain the tradition and unity of the newly humanist academy at Wittenberg. Melanchthon directed his humanistic and irenic disposition both to research and collegiality. Indeed, Melanchthon could be of no greater support to the growth of scientific theory and practice. With the tradition, he believed also that all the sciences were tasked with a theological purpose. In his Physics of 1549, he wrote that nature was to be explored so as to give us “guides for spiritual living.” Against the atheist Epicureans and Stoic determinists, Melanchthon intended his physics textbooks to serve as a posteriori proofs of God from those natural phenomena and laws produced by God. Mathematics was to point to the unity of God. Geography was to illumine God’s ordering of human and natural affairs. Even the study of history had the purpose of teaching ethical and religious truths. All the sciences were to convene and unite in the praise of God, having been inspired to move toward God by their “natural light,” Created by God, nature and nature’s laws called for further study from pious people. And nature would be studied too in coexistence with and submission to divine revelation.15 In all this, Melanchthon was more comfortably Aristotelian than Luther. With such bi-vocational commitment, Melanchthon was effective in parlaying Luther’s influence, as well as filtering it, into the very practice and purpose of science.
Melanchthon personally supported his colleagues at Wittenberg who taught and practiced natural science and, notwithstanding his philosophical disagreement, was personally temperate toward Copernicus.16 Melanchthon’s collegiality, actually helped, if unintentionally, the Copernican program to succeed. Melanchthon supported a two-year leave of absence for the mathematician Georg Joachim Rheticus (1514–1574), for example.17 Rheticus spent those two years as an assistant to Copernicus in Nuremberg, where Rheticus persuaded the reluctant Copernicus to allow him to publish a short summary of Copernicus’s yet-to-be-published work. So Rheticus published the Narratio Prima (The first account) in 1540. This summary received favorable reviews, which, in turn, assuaged Copernicus’s fears enough that he entrusted the manuscript to Rheticus to prepare for publication. By then, however, Rheticus’s leave of absence was over and he had to return to Wittenberg to resume his teaching duties in 1542. He also had applied for the to be chair of mathematics at Leipzig, with Melanchthon’s support, and received the appointment.
It was another Lutheran theologian/pastor, Andreas Osiander, who ensured the publication of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus. This included the interesting preface specifically composed by Osiander further to both protect and amplify Copernicus’s voice. Another Copernican sympathizer and colleague of Melanchthon was the mathematician Erasmus Reinhold, also a follower of Luther. Melanchthon helped Reinhold publish his own mathematics textbook, complete with its Copernican perspective, and admirably eulogized Reinhold at his death. Yet another Lutheran mathematician, not quite contemporary to Melanchthon, was Michael Mästlin (1550–1631). Mästlin taught mathematics at Tübingen, where one of his pupils was Johannes Kepler (1571–1630). Kepler later taught his Protestant colleagues the Augustinian principle of accommodation between the Bible and scientific propositions about nature, rather echoing Luther’s own distinction between the theological “plain sense” of Scripture and natural description, in the preface of his book The New Astronomy (1609).18
Osiander’s preface deserves further attention here. There have been those, including Andrew White and Thomas Kuhn, who interpreted his role with Copernicus, and even Rheticus, as one of utter conflict with the emerging new science.19 The sciences, like most academic publishing, were subject to the power struggles and doctrinal disputes of the day. Osiander was particularly sensitive to this fact. Interpreters considered his anonymous introduction to Copernicus’s controversial De Revolutionibus to be both a piece of “clerical obstruction,” because the introduction underscored the character of the book only as a “hypothesis,” and an intimation that the introduction was written by Copernicus himself.20 But there were better reasons for the Lutheran Osiander to compose the introduction for his Catholic friend. Osiander was infamous for his own screeds against the pope. Even the independence of publication in Nuremberg was threatened by Catholic powers. Osiander desired to persuade a large public to read Copernicus. Osiander’s soft-sell of commending De Revolutionibus as a “hypothesis” and keeping his own infamous name hidden were shrewd diplomatic acts. Thus with shrewd diplomacy Osiander succeeded in garnering the positive attention Copernicus deserved.
As for Melanchthon, his resistance to the particular new science was based on his warranted fear that the new science risked a return to the atomism of Democritus, Lucretius, and Epicurus. Their writings were read with much interest throughout the academy. An atomistic cosmology made all things subject to chance, all distinctions between entities erased, all subject to the fatalism of a dispassionate universe. But in Melanchthon’s preferred Aristotelian synthesis, theology maintained its emphasis on God’s aseity and sovereignty, which was Luther’s primary concern, and theology could maintain its unity with all the sciences. Clearly, the principle of academic freedom was not compromised by Melanchthon. But the implications of the new science disturbed him.
The growing interest in the atomists also posed a larger existential religious threat. The Ptolemaic view of the world had provided the terminology for the Christian iteration of cosmology. Many of those terms were recognized now by the new science to be neither necessary nor biblical. It was no loss to cast aside the philosophical concepts of reality’s composition by the four elements of earth, wind, water, and fire, nor even the challenge to heaven’s immutability and purity.21 The most damaging attack on the Christian geocentric paradigm represented in the Copernican proposal was existential. The newly intuited expansiveness of the universe threatened the loss of the presence of God. With earth and humankind decentered, space itself was no longer sub-central and confined. The firmament was removed. With the firmament’s erasure, God’s heaven was not so near to earth, creation, and humanity as it had been so deeply mapped into the medieval mind. Now the whole universe was to be appreciated anew as at one with God’s creation. God was to be seen anew as the creator of an unimaginable expanse. It would take time for the human pride of place to defer to a new quality of awe-filled respect before an even grander God. But before awe would come fear. With Copernicus, humanity was exposed to “the dread of infinity in spatial terms”; he and his followers of the new science “confronted [humankind] with the anxiety engendered by infinity.”22
How could this anxiety be assuaged if not by a personal appropriation of God in Christ in the individual human being? Already Luther was concerned about this question, apart from the new “cosmological” underscoring of the urgency. Luther’s re-formed dependence on God’s grace in Christ, as the living word of Scripture, would mitigate the cosmological threat of human loneliness and insignificance, even as this metaphysical shift was not the initial impetus behind Luther’s awakening. It would also be the case that by prioritizing the grace of faith above all else, enhanced by a rich, even mystical, sacramentology, Luther thereby set faith free from science and metaphysics, thus allowing science to go robustly on its own proper way. This looks like what philosophers would later note as a Kantian move. Where Kant set faith free from reason to save faith, Luther did so also, with the unintended consequence of saving science as well. Luther’s new accent on the distinction would be mostly beneficial for both faith and science. That accent begins with Luther’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty. Now we return to Luther’s guiding theological stars, in order to chart, if only in broad strokes, their influence on science.
God the Sovereign
The Copernican system’s threat to the Ptolemaic worldview was forceful also because it damaged the Aristotelian argument from design on which the religiously received Ptolemaic system depended. Some of the appeal in maintaining the Ptolemaic worldview was that all entities, per Aristotle, possessed their own internal telos. This accounted for both motion and purpose in the science of that day. The argument from design, reinforced by the teleological argument, maintained its influence here, and God’s sovereignty was thereby honored. With the new humanist interest in Lucretius (c. 99–55 bce) and other atomists, however, philosophers turned toward mathematics and away from teleology in entities themselves to explain natural phenomena. Intelligence and will could only be attributed to human beings, angels, and God. No teloi could be found or supposed to reside in non-rational entities. In this Luther displayed his own “realist” tendencies.23 The rest of nature came to be seen as operating according to external natural laws. Though creation thus looked “dehumanized” and objectified, Luther’s renewed emphasis on the aseity and sovereignty of God was in this way honored. With mechanistic science, notwithstanding its resonances of deism (to flower over 150 years later), one sees “a bold attempt to preserve the transcendence of God, the dignity of humans, and the autonomy of values by placing them all beyond the scope of mechanical explanation.”24 Science was now even freer to pursue its course.
With teleology weakened and nature more mechanized, scientists and philosophers grew more skeptical of the possibility of miracles, including biblical accounts of miracles. It was not a large step for freed science to ask why a rational God would suspend reason by interfering with his own laws of nature. How then might one interpret the doctrine of providence? How could one affirm that God maintained a creative and sustaining activity with God’s creation? One might infer that theology and science already were warring for cultural ascendancy. But their relationship was more nuanced. First, many leading scientists still maintained that God actively supervised the natural world. God’s “will” of supervenience was the issue here. In this manner, Luther’s doctrine of God’s sovereignty was still respected. Second, scientists and philosophers focused on the role of divine reason as the mode of God’s agency in the natural world. God’s will and God’s reason, first theologically adduced, would become resources for the doing of science itself.25
In other words, theological assumptions materially influenced the new science in at least two ways. These ways reflected Luther’s own priorities. First, the relationship between God’s sovereign choice of grace and the utter inability of sinners to “save” themselves provided a pattern for mechanical philosophers to conceive the relation between God and matter. For them, matter was wholly passive; it had no agency of its own. Aristotle’s internal purposes were removed, and matter only moved as the object of God’s agency. The acme of such a passive picture was articulated in the work of the Roman Catholic scientist Nicolas de Malebranche. On this semi-Augustinian theme Catholics and Protestants found agreement. This is also the way Newton understood the natural world. Interpreters of Newton err when they ascribe the clockwork metaphor to him. He was not in the mold of the deist who sends God on vacation away from the creation. The mechanical philosophy of science in its early iteration, rather, posited God as actively supervising the activities of nature in the mode of reason, even if God’s reasons necessarily are at least somewhat opaque to human reason. However, at this very point the new rationalism with its confidence in deduction exceeded Luther’s delimitations of science. Here it seemed to Luther that science trespassed into what could be known only by divine revelation. The rationalist scientists and philosophers construed the image of God in the human (imago dei) as human reason itself. Human reason, as modeled in Descartes, unaided by empirical verification, had the capacity per the rationalists fully to understand the works of God.26
More in line with the Lutheran program, however, were the “theological voluntarists” who, while affirming reason, gave more weight to God’s sovereign will in God’s actions of both original and ongoing creation. Human understanding had to be aided with empirical data. Inductive experience was required as a complement and more to the arguments of rational necessity to know what an active, freely creating God is up to. “And because the world was, at every moment, under the sovereignty of a radically free Creator, the laws of nature were not wholly binding on God’s activity, so miracles could not be ruled out.”27
The pole stars of divine will and divine reason shaped 17th-century debate with regard to the philosophy and exercise of science. Those who sided with divine reason, like Galileo, sought the absolute certainty of mathematics and logic. True knowledge derived from deduction, itself derived from first principles, while experimentation would nevertheless buttress rationalism’s conclusions. On the other hand, a stricter “bottom-up” empiricist like Robert Boyle (1627–1691) did abide by a “first principle” of Christian faith and believed he could only confess that principle by attending to empirical facts. Boyle’s first principle, inspired by and like Luther’s, was faith in God’s sovereignty.28 Boyle believed firmly that the omnipotent God freely created the world with its natural laws. God could have chosen to create something quite different. God’s intentions in so creating, thus, are opaque to human reason. All humans can do is observe and attempt to understand the natural order insofar as it is revealed to rather limited human senses. Human minds alone cannot know the God the creator who is necessarily a se, qualitatively other.29 All we are given are the data. The data, the facts, are the ciphers of God’s freely created world. Therefore the empirical life, the experimental life, is the only way to begin to understand God’s creation.30
Boyle indeed was a happy mechanist. Inspired regularly by his inductive application of the argument from design, Boyle’s science revealed to him the God who gave whatever properties and powers God desired to natural phenomena. These would be the God-given laws of nature, including motion and order. Thus the mechanical scientists saw their work as voluntarist theology—theology that ascribes all phenomena to God’s will and sovereignty.
To “baptize” mechanical philosophy in this way paved the way for more acceptance of new scientific ideas. So Newton stated in his Opticks in 1717 that “the main business of natural philosophy” (aka science) was to provide compelling arguments for God’s existence.31 Isaac Newton shared Boyle’s disposition. Newton was neither an advocate of pure reason nor a mechanical deist, as many have averred. Newton shared Boyle’s sense of the inadequacy of pure reason in both science and theology. When some interpreted Newton as advocating that gravity was an essential property of matter, thus denying mechanical causation, he strongly denied that matter had any innate property. Newton did so because he still believed that matter of itself was passive, a belief that was related to his conviction that God’s radical sovereignty required God’s agency over matter. But Newton was not Malebranchian. Struggling between the Principia of 1687 and the Opticks of 1704 toward a solution to the problem of gravity, Newton finally concluded that nature displays two fundamental principles. A “passive” principle was associated with matter and an “active” one with God. Without God, nature was lifeless. With God, through nature’s “mechanics of divine sufficiency,” nature expresses ferment, motion, and coherence. All this happens because God “is omnipresent not virtually only, but substantially … In him are all things contained and moved.” For Newton, as Gary Deason concludes, God’s sovereignty means God’s presence to all that is.32
The comments above regarding rationalist and voluntarist perspectives circle us back to peculiarly Lutheran and Reformation themes. The rise of both mechanistic and rationalist scientific methods resonates with Lutheran principles, the former more than the latter. Mechanism grew out of the anti-Aristotelian belief that an atomized universe did not allow its components to have internalized motivation, self-ordering, and purpose (teloi). Early mechanistic scientists conceived that the phenomena were not only created by God ex nihilo but guided by external natural laws, themselves also created ex nihilo. Furthermore, the early mechanists as devout Christians believed that God was “close to” all the natural world. God then could be at least somewhat discerned vis à vis investigation and experimentation of the natural facts surrounding all believers. Whether by Newton’s proposal of the divine sensorium or some other means, God’s direct providence as well as sovereign will was thus honored. Rationalists preferred the deductive approach, premising their method on the conviction that the imago dei within humans themselves was the operation of divine reason, thus giving the advantage of greater certainty in scientific claims.
But hereby God did not seem so intimate with the natural order as the early mechanists believed. Indeed, because rationalism and mechanism could never be wholly separate notions, but were and must always be wedded, requiring each other for more fulsome science, the perception of God changed too. God became a god of “ general providence,” a god mindful of the whole of creation, but not first the god of special providence, who cares personally for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, much less every hair on a person’s head. Not even Newton’s god had the intimacy of Luther’s. The god of the early mechanists indeed could in principle suspend the laws of nature, but empirical observation showed God did not. Individual human need was trumped by the utilitarian logic of general providence.33 So Deason writes that mechanistic scientists, on their way to becoming full deists, “employed the sovereignty of God to impose laws of nature on the corpuscles of ancient atomism, making atomism into a viable worldview and laying the conceptual basis for mathematical physics. In the process, however, God changed character. The sovereign Redeemer of Luther and Calvin became the sovereign Ruler of the world machine. The Reformers’ search for assurance of salvation gave way to the assurance of scientific explanation.”34 The human searches for the assurance of faith and knowledge are mutually reinforcing and anxiety-provoking still.
Natural science grew strongly on Luther’s diet of divine sovereignty. His influence is perhaps most clearly seen on this mark. But however ambivalent the results might have been for him, there are other matters worth noting of a distinctly Luther sort that at least correlate with the philosophy of science subsequent to him. Perhaps these correlations may be found in later research to have some causal influence. They certainly influenced the British form of natural theology and Scandinavian mediating theology several centuries later.
Apposite to Luther’s emphasis on the freedom of God is Luther’s concomitant insistence on the bondage of human will to sin. The Augustinian maxim of non posse non peccare (not able not to sin) is fulsome in Luther’s theology. There is nothing in the human horizon that is not affected by sin. Though humans do have some control over matters “under them”—what to eat, wear, how to create art, how to conduct an experiment—not only can there be no purely free will for the human; there can be no absolute certainty about anything but by the grace of God.35 The full grace of God will be known eschatologically, however, when all is revealed in glory. Until that time, the “lights of nature and grace,” while sufficient for human pursuits, will not be complete until all are bathed in the light of glory.36 So sin leaves all human acts and judgment short of purity; truth is incomplete. And at this point, Luther clinches the case against Erasmus, the brilliant humanist in whom Luther otherwise finds so much to honor, by referencing again the necessarily idiosyncratic sovereignty of God “Therefore, we maintain, as even nature teaches, that human power, strength, wisdom, knowledge, substance, and everything we have, is utterly nothing at all when compared to divine power, strength, wisdom, knowledge, and substance.”37
All human knowledge, given the fact of sin and apart from divine revelation, therefore must be held humbly. Luther of course sticks with the authority of divine revelation as he understands its conveyance by the Spirit with the biblical text to create faith in Christ. This authority, this clarity of revelation, belongs to the horizon of God, faith, and salvation, and not similarly with things said about the world. But it is of interest that Luther’s method—or, better, his epistemology of salvation—is of an empirical kind that correlates with emerging natural science. When Luther rails against the theological speculation of his Catholic opponents—particularly that speculation by analogy that takes interpreters so far away from Scripture’s “plain sense,” that sort of thought process that revels in the proud excellence of human logic and imagination, all of which Luther labeled the “theology of glory”—he bemoans the willful ignorance of what he saw to be the plain facts. The plain facts clearly called for a full-scale theological reconstruction of the nature and character of God received from Hellenic philosophy, which had evoked Christian accommodation by compromising the biblical witness. Thus we turn first to Luther’s understanding of biblical authority, then to the theological method required by the sovereign God’s manner of self-disclosure.
The Nature of Biblical Authority: Christ the Center
Luther was a person of his world and confident that the Bible did not apply literally to every detail of the world. When Luther called for interpreting the Bible according to its “clear sense,” he meant theologically. And where he appeared to veer closely to advocating literalism, Luther would immediately resort to analogical or tropological interpretation. His treatment of the Noah narrative in his commentary on Genesis is virtually entertaining on this matter.38 More positively, Luther celebrated and respected the sciences as long as the practitioners stayed within their domains: “It is not an evil thing to investigate the nature and the qualities of things.”39 Would Luther’s exegetical principles, exercised inside the Ptolemaic horizon, then imply a necessary clash with the emerging new Copernican system, as Luther’s own ad hoc disposition has suggested to some? 40 They would not, as a review of Luther’s exegetical principles and conviction that the Bible is the norm and guide for faith and life, but not for “everything,” confirms.
Luther’s biblical hermeneutics were Christocentric. For him and those in his train, the Bible as a whole and biblical texts individually were authoritative insofar (quatenus) as they communicated Christ. Not all biblical passages were equal. Not all passages were about the communication of fact. And passages on their own were not authoritative; they were only so when interpreted according to the principle of “what proclaims Christ.” Only when the Holy Spirit and the text (which implicitly included its community of interpretation through history) merged to create faith in Christ for hearer and reader are scriptural passages authoritative. The Bible does not authorize itself. It is authoritative only insofar as it serves as the mouthpiece for the contemporary hearer/reader of Christ, the Living Word, who is the spoken word of the sovereign God. What Luther would call “the plain sense” of Scripture had no equivalence or relation to the literalism that would arise a generation later with the rise of Protestant orthodoxy. The “plain meaning” of the text for Luther and the first generation Lutherans indeed was its theological meaning.41
Some post-Luther Christian traditions identified him as an authority in support of their antipathy to certain implications of the new sciences.42 Some used Luther’s emphasis on the “word alone” (sola scriptura) to support their hermeneutical preference of biblical literalism. Their argument errs on at least two counts. First, and pointedly, Luther intended the criterion of sola scriptura always to be understood in a “quadrilectical” relationship with what subsequent Lutherans summarized as three other “solas”: sola fide, sola gratia, and solus Christus. Faith alone (in which fide first means “trust”), grace alone, and Christ alone are the four necessary and sufficient formal criteria to guide the task of “being Christian” in a complex world. Interpretation of God’s will and activity is always erroneous if and when any of these four criteria are absent in the hermeneutical process.
Secondly, Luther’s sola scriptura was posed over and against religious and political authority, particularly the pope’s. Luther judged claims to authority over church life and to the definitive interpretation of the Bible to be misplaced precisely because the material principle of the gospel—Christ—to whom the formal principle points was obscured by papal privilege and human opinion. To ignore the context of the situation and the organic character of Luther’s thinking (e.g., per the four “solas”) is to oversimplify Luther’s understanding of the primary intention of Scripture first to bring its readers and hearers counsel and consolation enough to evoke their response of faith. “Was Christum treibet”—what communicates Christ was what was authoritative in and about Scripture. This means further that scriptural authority is derivative. Christ gives Scripture authority insofar as and whenever Scripture communicates him to the reader-hearer.
Where Scripture does not communicate Christ, as with descriptions of the world, nature, and so on, on such points the Bible is not authoritative. This then has a corollary in the inherited Augustinian principle of accommodation. Per Augustine, where “the Book of Revelation” (i.e., Scripture in general) appeared to contradict “the Book of Nature,” the former was to be accommodated to the latter. This protocol recognized that not all biblical passages were equal, nor were they always to be interpreted univocally or literally. When Luther first objected to the new astronomy by citing Joshua’s passage of the sun standing still, again, his concern was that science not be presented as contrary to faith in the gracious God. Where biblical passages otherwise were clearly not about the gospel, Luther could just as easily resort to analogical interpretation and/or simply not be perplexed by a scientific insight to which non-kerygmatic passages might be adjusted. This principle was favored by almost all the Lutheran and other humanist reformers.
So, having learned from his mentor Mästlin, the Lutheran and astronomer Johannes Kepler, in the preface to The New Astronomy (1609), provided a powerful example of Augustine’s principle. Just as Luther praised astronomy finally for its signage of God’s majesty, pointing to biblical stories like Jonah referring to the motion of the sun, Kepler saw them too to reveal lofty theological truths understandable to the common person; the apparent literal sense of texts about nature “should not be mistaken for accurate scientific statements.”43 Shortly thereafter, Galileo made the same argument. As a Catholic, however, he did not have the freedom Protestants had to fly their Copernican colors. Subsequent Catholic scientists too were deprived of any Copernican research while his book was prohibited until 1820. Most Protestant scientists followed both Kepler and Galileo and fully accepted the Augustinian principle. Thus Ferngren and colleagues conclude happily: “The principle of accommodation, which had made heliocentrism theologically acceptable, henceforth was widely used by theologians and scientists alike for understanding scriptural passages about nature, and it helped immensely to clarify the real purpose of biblical revelation.”44
As we’ve just seen, Luther’s relocating of the authority of Scripture and its implicit connectivity with the other “solas” brought a keener focus on biblical revelation’s purpose, to communicate Christ and faith to the reader-hearer. Luther also meant by his relocation to counter the Pope’s claim of authority and the magisterium’s virtually arbitrary use of analogy as scriptural interpretation. Still, Luther’s relocation served an even higher purpose: to honor the sovereign God. The four “solas” further functioned as a shorthand for the highest prioritization of the sovereignty and aseity of God. God depends on no other, and all depend on God’s free choice of grace. There could be no cooperation with God so to achieve one’s own salvation, Luther and the other reformers concluded. For God to be God and human being to be sinful in all respects, including intellect and will, humans can have no stature to make themselves presentable in God’s court. Salvation could depend and happen only on God’s sovereign choice to be gracious. In turn, the emphasis on God’s sovereignty as well as the “delimitation” of Scripture set science free to explore God’s creation on its own terms.
The Cross Is Our Theology … and Correlates with Scientific Method
Though Luther frets about the dependence of theology on philosophy of any kind, the heavy dependence of theology on both Aristotelian philosophy and the Aristotelian-reactive theologians (the nominalists whom Luther called “Sophists”) deeply concerned him. It was Aristotle who conjectured that all phenomena had their hidden meanings which could be deduced. Aristotle posited the teloi of nature. Aristotle also posited that mice were begat from refuse. Luther tired of Aristotle’s legacy in science and philosophy, even as Luther praised him, and no more so than with theology. So Luther famously wrote about correct theological method, believing still that theology belonged to the general sciences. Several theses from the Heidelberg Disputation, with some of their excursa, merit attention here.
(19) That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those which have actually happened [Rom. 1:20] … (20) He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross … Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross … (21) A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it actually is…. (22) That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened … Because men do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on. Therefore they become increasingly blinded and hardened by such love, for desire cannot be satisfied by the acquisition of those things which it desires … Thus also the desire for knowledge is not satisfied by the acquisition of wisdom but is stimulated that much more. (24) Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross man misuses the best in the worst manner.45
Luther’s primary concern here was with theological method. But he drew no sharp final difference between “doing” the theology of the cross and epistemology and method of any discipline. Robert Saler’s essay on the theology of the cross46 makes the point well. Saler references Gerhard Ebeling; “The knowledge of God which is given in Jesus Christ does not therefore constitute a particular item of doctrine which supplements a general knowledge of God, but is the beginning of all true knowledge of God and man.” Finally, it is Luther himself in a postscript to the Heidelberg Disputation.
These theses were discussed and debated by me to show, first, that everywhere the Sophists of all the schools have deviated from Aristotle’s opinion and have clearly introduced their dreams into the works of Aristotle whom they do not understand. Next, if we should hold to his meaning as strong as possible (as I proposed here), nevertheless one gains no aid whatsoever from it, either for theology and sacred letters or even for natural philosophy. For what could be gained with respect to the understanding of material things if you could quibble and trifle with matter, form, motion, measure, and time—words taken over and copied from Aristotle?47
With regard to things divine, Luther prescribed a method that took facts at face value. The biblical words of cross and suffering (and more) were not to be eisegeted by subjective sophistry. Luther’s foundational premise about the character of the sovereign God is that the Bible testifies to the sovereign God’s free choice to disclose himself through the suffering and cross of Jesus Christ.48 Luther intends that this hybrid of deductive (top-down) logic and inductive (bottom-up) observation, with accent on the latter, be the method of all (!) natural philosophy—that is, science. Was Luther indeed prescribing a formal scientific method, and did his natural-science-oriented protégés intentionally follow his lead? To the former question, not in the way we understand method and theory today, and to the latter, we likely have no way to know with certainty. But we do know that Luther insisted first on observation of the facts as they are revealed in nature and as revealed about God’s life with the creation in Scripture. We also know that natural scientific method quickly concluded that induction is a necessary complement to deduction. Copernicus, Kepler, Boyle, Newton and more were heroic examples of this shift, even more perhaps than Galileo, whose methodological preference remained with the rationalist side.
The theology of the cross was Luther’s frame also for positing that God acts both visibly and hidden; visibly in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as “ciphered” by the theologia crucis, God’s hidden acts under “masks” (larvae) in nature. One can never “know” God certainly through God’s masks. But one can begin and expect to discern God’s creative and providential handiwork, as with the flowers and the bees, after one has known God truly in word and sacrament.
This particular theological insight actually moves Luther beyond the simple negation of natural theology he made at the end of the Heidelberg Disputation (and throughout much of his work) to what George Murphy calls a “dependent natural theology;” a natural theology that is grounded beyond nature in God’s cruciform character revealed on the cross of Christ.49 The point is subtle, and likely was more so in Luther’s day than ours. Luther’s theology of the cross serves as more than a method, even a method which models empiricism at that. It suggests that “scientific knowledge of the world can tell us about God and God’s relationship with the universe,” but “only when viewed in the light of revelation.”50 The theology of the cross, then, perhaps gave license of a different sort to those scientists closer in time to Luther who saw their work as testimony to God. How explicitly Luther’s theological method informed science subsequent to him is a matter for further historical research. But that Luther argued a “dependent natural theology” should also remind the faithful in any discipline that what science discovers should not in principle be alien to the one to whom the Bible testifies.
A Universe Charged by God’s Presence
Another topos of Luther’s theology—and personal piety—may also have served as a subtle influence on subsequent science in Luther’s day. In our day it has served clearly as a principle for constructive theology engaged with natural science. This subject is Luther’s sacramentology. Again, we have space here only for suggestive reflection. The shift from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican worldview presented would-be faithful Christians with the prospect of God at a distance. That humans lost their pride of place was not so anxiety-producing as the loss of God’s heaven that had been thought to be so close to earth just above the firmament. The impersonality of a God who demanded Luther’s works and indulgences in the Roman system was exacerbated by the distance assigned to God inadvertantly by Copernicus, whose mechanistic deist heirs would conclude that God was even more distant, if not absent, from what God had created.51 But Luther’s cosmology was defined by God’s promises. If we are to take at face value God’s deep presence in the thick things of life per the theology of the cross, so also God’s words were to be thus accepted. Scholastic metaphysics were not necessary for Luther. Christ’s promise that he would be present as the resurrected crucified one “for us” in body and blood, and at God’s right hand, and thus share in both human corporeality and God’s omnipresence-with-sovereignty meant for Luther that God in Christ was sacramentally present to and with everything, though only first to be discerned in sacramental word, water, bread, and wine.52 That is, God is omnipresent but not sacramentally so everywhere. Luther’s sacramentality reiterates his theology of the cross. From the sacraments we can extrapolate that the finite bears the infinite, finitum capax infiniti. Luther’s famous phrasing of God eucharistically is a virtual confession of panentheism.
Nothing is so small, but God is still smaller, nothing so large but God is still larger, nothing is so short, but God is still shorter, nothing so long, but God is still longer, nothing is so broad but God is still broader, nothing so narrow but God is still narrower, and so on.53
This brings us perhaps to another surprising and suggestive implication. If one links this locus with Luther’s primary emphasis again on the sovereignty of God, one may infer that Luther, unbeknownst to himself, posed a picture of the universe as an open system. This is a term Luther did not know, of course. But the very sentiment, even if and perhaps because it was mystical, has its own force in compromising the deterministic mechanistic universe fairly soon to be argued in science, which by definition was a closed universe, admitting of no transcendent creativity or providence. Luther’s sacramental theology depended on the sovereign God who is “infinite in all directions,”54 who is present to all finitude with an intimacy closer even than the God of Newton’s divine sensorium and with a transcendent will beyond even Leibniz’s “most perfect of all minds.” Surely this consoled those who feared God’s distance in the new universe and added some “background radiation” for scientific philosophical systems that would commend still God’s proximity.
Luther’s influence on the rise of natural science is most evident positively on these points: (1) God is wholly and “otherly” sovereign; (2) the Bible’s authority is recognized in its witness to God in Christ and the bestowal on the reader/interpreter of just such faith in the sovereign God—a posture of biblical literalism that pretends to address matters of nature with equal authority was nowhere in Luther’s imagination; (3) natural science, therefore, is freed from political and ecclesial authorities to investigate nature as long as science played its position, not supposing to compromise the normativity of theological doctrine. As a consequence, scientists devoted themselves to more accurate descriptions of nature, often impelled by and for the purpose of displaying further God’s sovereign handiwork. Further indirect and less clear influence is perhaps implied in (4) the theology of the cross as method and (5) God’s sacramental “non-spatial” omnipresence.
Was Luther’s disposition of faith and theology discretely causal for subsequent science, or simply a minor one of many inseparable parts of the revolutionary matrix of the day? Other than to identify that Osiander’s “faith cosmology” was of the same mystical sort as Luther’s, could one say that Luther’s “mysticism” impacted other scientists’ worldviews within which they worked? Luther’s influence, like the person himself and his recognition of paradox, is both clear and ambiguous. Like other great transformational leaders in history, Luther did not and could not see his place at the center of epochal transformation. He is with “those charismatics who reshape a culture quite as much as they are themselves shaped by it.”55 If “influence” means unilinear causality, Luther is no clear influencer. Abiding by Heisenberg’s principle, different vantages of perception yield different conclusions. A sociopolitical analysis of the Reformation era will conclude that theological argument was sidelined by ecclesial and political powers, leaving philosophy and science to go their nonpartisan and secularizing ways.56 Such argument often ignores and denigrates theological influence. But closer hybrid research concludes that Luther’s theology did influence and help accelerate change. Where he rued what was coming, he nevertheless unintentionally laid the groundwork, as with theological method and his own budding sense for the infinite, to overcome the challenges he feared, like science “beyond its bounds” in mechanism, deism, and the absenting of God.
Lutheran theology’s influence on the rise of natural science has been robustly reciprocated. The scientist who openly admits today that theology should influence his or her discipline is rare.57 Yet the boundaries Luther sought for science were not non-overlapping magisteria, as with the two independent circles of a Venn diagram. Nor would he propose their complementarity, which even itself would be a positive step beyond the conflict relationship model. At the least, Luther imagined science’s circle within the larger of God’s rule. Even more, Luther hyphenated the circle, affirming that the God in whom all things and disciplines have their being has no space and no limit, and is all in all. As the new explosion of theology engaged with science since the early 20th century shows, theology under natural science’s influence has come through another epochal paradigm shift into a postmodern kind. Theology has more to consider and more to contribute again to natural science, most of all on matters of urgent mutual concern like care for the earth, human and trans-human being, and peace-making. In these and more, Luther’s theological convictions should strongly influence natural science’s continued rise.
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(1.) Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1962); Imre Lakatos, “Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes,” in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, ed. Lakatos and Alan Musgrave (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 91–196. Kuhn’s notion of paradigm shift has become so preponderant that its nuance is lost in popular usage. Lakatos’s parsing of a scientific research program as generative or degenerating, influenced by Karl Popper and others, expresses more accurately what Kuhn intended.
(2.) John Dillenberger, Protestant Thought and Natural Science: A Historical Study (Nashville: Abingdon, 1960), 22.
(3.) Contra the latest repetition of the claim in Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), and Fukuyama contra Marx’s use of the same claim.
(4.) Dillenberger, Protestant Thought, 28.
(5.) Thus WA TR 4, no. 4705. “Astronomy is the most ancient of all sciences, and has been the introducer of vast knowledge … I like astronomy and mathematics, which rely on demonstrations and sure proofs … Astronomy deals with the matter, and with what is general, not with the manner or form. God himself will be alone the Master and Creator, Lord and Governor, though he has ordained the stars for signs. And so long as astronomy remains in her circle, whereunto God has ordained her, so is she a fair gift of God.”
(6.) LW 1:22–28.
(7.) WA TR 1, no. 1160, quoted by E. Gordon Rupp, “Luther: The Contemporary Image,” in Kirche, Mystik, Heiligung und das Natürliche bei Luther, Vorträge des dritten Internationalen Kongresses für Lutherforschung, ed. Ivar Asheim (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967) 18.
(8.) WA 32:404, 7–10.
(9.) WA 32:404, 7–10.
(10.) See the introduction to LW 1.
(11.) These others included the opposites of Andrew Dickson White, History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (New York: Appleton, 1930) and Thomas Kuhn.
(12.) WA TR 1:855.
(13.) WA TR 4:4638.
(14.) However, as we shall see, there are suggestive moments with regard to theological method that could, and perhaps most indirectly did, influence the science of hermeneutics, and so eventually too a philosophy of science itself.
(15.) Hans Engelland, “Introduction,” in Melanchthon on Christian Doctrine, Loci Communes 1555, trans. and ed. Clyde L. Manschreck (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 26–31.
(16.) As Dillenberger notes in Protestant Thought, 40ff.; for Melanchthon writing and correspondence re: Copernicus, cf. Corpus Reformatorium 11:839; 13:216–217, 241, 244.
(17.) Arthur Koestler, The Sleep Walkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe (New York: Macmillan, 1959), 153ff.
(18.) Michael P. Winship, “Early-Modern Protestantism,” in The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia, ed. Gary B. Ferngren, Edward J. Larson, Darrel W. Amundsen, and Anne-Marie E. Nakhla (New York: Garland, 2000), 283.
(19.) White used the Osiander case to support his own position that Christianity should oppose science. Kuhn used the same case to argue that Christianity (or religion generally) should have no position for or against science whatsoever.
(20.) John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge, U.K.: University Press, 1991), 95.
(23.) Luther showed his own science cards by ridiculing Aristotle’s argument that mice were generated from refuse. See LW 1:52.
(24.) Edward B. Davis and Michael P. Winship, “Early Modern Protestantism,” in The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia, ed. Gary B. Ferngren, et al. (New York: Garland, 2000), 322.
(26.) Davis and Winship, 323.
(28.) A “genetic” line of influence can be drawn from Luther and Melanchthon through Johann Alsted (1588–1638) and John Comenius (1592–1670) to Boyle. See Jan W. Wojcik, Robert Boyle and the Limits of Reason (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 203. See also John Harwood, ed., The Early Essays and Ethics of Robert Boyle (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), xxiv–xxxi.
(29.) Note the imbalanced irony. Boyle required a rational first principle of God’s aseity to justify a robustly empirical methodology. Galileo required experimental corroboration to justify a robustly rationalist methodology.
(30.) Davis and Winship, 325.
(31.) Ibid. Boyle even construed the purpose of his work as to so emotionally inspire unbelievers “to move them to repentance.” Boyle’s use of science for an evangelical appeal rather than a rational apologetic anticipates Schleiermacher.
(32.) Quoted in Gary B. Deason, “Reformation Theology and the Mechanistic Conception of Nature,” in God and Nature, Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, ed. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Berkeley: University of California, 1986), 183–184. Deason’s summation and references are to the Andrew Motte translation, Sir Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy and His System of the World, ed., Florian Cajori (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1934).
(33.) So perhaps the rationalists won after all, punctuated with an exclamation point by Hume.
(34.) Deason, ““Reformation Theology,” 187.
(35.) The Bondage of the Will, WA 18:757–763.
(36.) WA 18:784–785.
(38.) LW 2. E.g., Luther’s analogical interpretation of the colors of the rainbow after the flood as anticipating the fire of judgment to come (2:149), or that Noah filled the office of bishop (2:165), or that ravens represent papists, priests, and monks (2: 160), etc.
(39.) LW 15:18.
(40.) Brooke, Science and Religion, 96–97.
(42.) See also Jeffrey Stout, The Flight from Authority; Religion, Morality, and the Quest for Autonomy (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).
(43.) Davis and Winship, Early-Modern Protestantism, 283.
(44.) Davis and Winship, 323–324.
(45.) “Heidelberg Disputation,” trans. Harold J. Grimm, LW 31:52–55.
(46.) Robert Saler, "Cross, The, and the Theologia Crucis," in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Martin Luther, ed. Derek R. Nelson and Paul R. Hinlicky (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
(47.) “Heidelberg Disputation,” trans. Harold J. Grimm, LW 31:70.
(48.) Per Saler, referencing Forde on the meaning of the theology of the Cross, it is important to recognize that, for Luther, the “Cross” refers not simply to the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth but to the entire shape of the incarnation: Jesus’ entire life, death, and resurrection, including its prefiguration in God’s dealings with Israel in the Old Testament.” Cf. Gerhard Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1997), esp. 8–9. See also Duane H. Larson, “Confessing Science,” in Preparing for the Future: The Role of Theology in the Science-Religion Dialogue, ed. Niels Henrik Gregersen and Marie Vejrup Nielsen (Aarhus, Denmark: University of Aarhus, 2004), 41–57; and George Murphy, The Cosmos in Light of the Cross (Philadelphia: Trinity, 2003).
(49.) George L. Murphy, The Cosmos in Light of the Cross (Philadelphia: Trinity, 2003).
(51.) Again, this is the trajectory summarized above and charted by Dillenberger, Protestant Thought and Natural Science.
(52.) WA 26:335–336.
(53.) “Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper,” trans. Robert H. Fischer, LW 37:228. For an exemplary constructive reflection on the implications of Luther’s Eucharistic theology for natural science and, particularly, care of the earth, see Nils Henrik Gregersen, “Natural Events as Crystals of God: Luther’s Eucharistic Theology and the question of Nature’s Sacramentality,” in Concern for Creation: Voices on the Theology of Creation, ed. Viggo Mortensen Uppsala, Sweden: Svenska Kyrkans Forskninsråd 1995), 143–158.
(54.) Freeman Dyson, Infinite in All Directions: The Gifford Lectures Given at Aberdeen, Scotland, April–November 1985 (New York: HarperCollins, 1984).
(55.) Holmes Ralston III, Science and Religion: A Critical Survey (New York: Random House, 1987), 222.
(56.) Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2012).
(57.) But for the few scientists who advocate with no responsible Lutheran license something like “creation science” or “intelligent design.”