Monday, January 20, 2014

Wrong Again!

That is to say, Fr. A. has cruelly misjudged somebody, and hopes to rectify the mistake.  A few hours ago, we lumped together three accomplished scientists who were also amateur theologians -- Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, and Christoph Rothmann.  Although brilliant, we proposed that all three were, theologically speaking, crackpots.

The Egg's Department of Overreaching Claims has asked us to issue a formal apology.

Based on this paper by Miguel A. Granada, it appears that Christoph Rothmann, who had studied both theology and mathematics at Luther's own university in the 1570s, was not a crackpot at all.  In his correspondence with Tycho Brahe (also a Lutheran, of course), Rothmann defended the heliocentrism of Copernicus against Brahe's hybrid geo-heliocentric theory.  But beyond that, both men, along with Melanchthon's son-in-law Caspar Peucer, attempted a task that occupied many of the finest minds of the 17th century:  to reconcile the newly powerful (because newly available) Christian Scriptures with the emerging conclusions of the natural sciences.

Both Brahe and Rothmann took for granted the reliability of the Bible.  But they differed in their understanding of just what its "reliability" entailed.  Rothmann argued for what is sometimes called God's "accomodation" of the Bible to human understanding:

Authority of Sacred Scripture is no obstacle [to heliocentrism]. It is not written solely for me and for you, but for all men; and it speaks after their capacity of understanding, as all Theologians declare in the exposition of the first chapter of Genesis. Otherwise the moon would be, against all demonstrations of geometry, greater than all other stars.... God speaks accommodating Himself to the capacity of the Hebrews.

This does not mean that God dumbed it down for us mere mortals -- well, not exactly.  It means that the Bible isn't a science textbook, and was never meant to be one.  As Granada says:

Sustained by a long line of scholars stretching from Augustine to Rheticus and Calvin in the sixteenth century, the notion of divine accommodation to common knowledge also employed by Rothmann implied that the intention of the Bible was to teach mankind in matters pertaining to God’s will and his promise of human salvation, not to impart scientific knowledge on cosmological matters irrelevant to its principal end.

This seems obvious, really, to everyone except the Creationist whackjobs in Texas (and, as it happens, to Caspar Peucer -- but that's another story).  Brahe himself embraced a limited accomodationism.  But
... Rothmann went much further [than these other scholars] in conceiving of accommodation in the most absolute of terms; he therefore excluded the possibility of any relevance of Scripture whatsoever to cosmological matters. 
Now, this is indeed a radical stance by theological standards -- certainly by 17th-century standards, and to some degree even today.  It needs to be qualified somewhat; as Granada says, for Rothmann Scripture did speak to "metascientific [and] metatheoretical questions, such as the encouragement or promotion of the quest for a scientific cosmology." In plain words, the Bible teaches us to love all truth, even when the truths it teaches are not scientific ones.

Rothmann, it seems, offers a reconciliation of the natural and theological sciences (or, if you must, of nature and revelation) which would make sense to many thoughtful readers even in the present day.  He and his collocutors defy the popular caricature of Renaissance scientists struggling under the yoke of a superstitious religious establishment which denounced them all as witches.  On the contrary, they appear to have embraced their religious faith with zeal -- even if it was sometimes, as befits not only scientists but all Christians -- a critical zeal.

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