History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
« Prev Calvin and the Astrologers Next »

§ 135. Calvin and the Astrologers.

Calvin: Advertissement contre l’astrologie qu’on appelle justiciaire: et autres curiosités qui régnent aujourdhuis dans le monde. Genève, 1549 (56 pp.). The French text is reprinted in Opera, vol. VII. 509–542. Admonitio adversus astrologiam quam judiciariam vocant; aliasque praeterea curiositates nonnullas, quae hodie in universam fere orbem grassantur, 1549. The Latin translation is by Fr. Hottman, sieur de Villiers, at that time secretary of Calvin, who dictated to him the work in French. The Latin text is reprinted in the Amsterdam ed., vol. IX. 500–509. An English translation: An Admonition against Astrology, Judiciall and other curiosities that reigne now in the world, by Goddred Gylby, appeared in London without date, and is mentioned by Henry, III. Beil. 212. Comp. Henry, II. 391 sq.

Calvin’s clear, acute, and independent intellect was in advance of the crude superstitions of his age. He wrote a warning against judicial astrology980980    Astrologia judiciaria as distinct from astrologia naturalis, or simply astrologia. or divination, which presumes to pronounce judgment upon a man’s character or destiny as written in the stars. This spurious science, which had wandered from Babylon981981    Hence "Chaldaei," "mathematici," "astrologi," were identical terms. to ancient Rome and from heathen Rome to the Christian Church, flourished especially in Italy and France at the very time when other superstitions were shaken to the base. Several popes of the Renaissance—Sixtus IV., Julius II., Leo X., Paul III. were addicted to it, but Pico della Mirandola wrote a book against it. King Francis I. dismissed his physician because he was not sufficiently skilled in this science. The Duchess Renata of Ferrara consulted, even in her later years, the astrologer Luc Guaric. The court of Catherine de Medici made extensive use of this and other black arts, so that the Church and the State had to interfere.

But more remarkable is the fact that such an enlightened scholar as Melanchthon should have anxiously watched the constellations for their supposed bearing upon human events. Lelio Sozini was at a loss to know whether Melanchthon depended most on the stars, or on their Maker and Ruler.982982    He wrote to Bullinger from Wittenberg, Aug. 20, 1550: "Omnes ab uno Melanchthone [pendent], qui Astrologiae judiciariae fuit addictus, et unus ille ab astrisne magis, an ab astrorum conditore ac domino pendeat, ignoro." Quoted by, Trechsel, Antitrin. II. 164, note 4. In this respect Luther, notwithstanding his strong belief in witchcraft and personal encounters with the devil, was in advance of his more learned friend, and refuted his astrological calculation of the nativity of Cicero with the Scripture fact of Esau’s and Jacob’s birth in the same hour. Yet he regarded the comets, or "harlot stars," as he called them, as tokens of God’s wrath, or as works of the devil. Zwingli saw in Halley’s comet, which appeared a few weeks before the disaster of Cappel, a sign of war and of his own death. The independent and heretical Servetus believed and practised astrology and wrote a defence of it (Apologetica Disceptatio pro Astrologia).

Nothing of this kind is found in Calvin. He denounced the attempt to reveal what God has hidden, and to seek him outside of his revealed will, as an impious presumption and a satanic delusion. It is right and proper, he maintains, to study the laws and motions of the heavenly bodies.983983    Comp. Inst. I. ch. V. §§ 2 and 5, where he speaks highly of astronomy. True astronomy leads to the praise of God’s wisdom and majesty; but astrology upsets the moral order. God is sovereign in his gifts and not bound to any necessity of nature. He has foreordained all things by his eternal decree. Sometimes sixty thousand men fall in one battle; are they therefore born under the same star? It is true the sun works upon the earth, and heat and dearth, rain and storm come down from the skies, but the wickedness of man proceeds from his will. The astrologers appealed to the first chapter of Genesis and to the prophet Jeremiah, who calls the stars signs, but Calvin met them by quoting Isa. 44:25: "who frustrateth the tokens of the liars and maketh diviners mad." In conclusion he rejects the whole theory and practice of astrology as not only superfluous and useless, but even pernicious.984984    "Curiositas non modo supervacanea et ad nullam rem utilis, verum etiam exitiosa."

In the same tract he ridicules the alchemists, and incidentally exhibits a considerable amount of secular learning.

Calvin discredited also the ingenious speculations of Pseudo-Dionysius on the Celestial Hierarchy, as "mere babbling," adding that the author of that book, which was sanctioned by Thomas Aquinas and Dante, spoke like a man descended from heaven and giving an account of things he had seen with his own eyes; while Paul, who was caught up to the third heaven, did not deem it lawful for man to utter the secret things he had seen and heard.985985    Inst. Bk. I. ch. XIV. § 4.

Calvin might have made his task easier if he had accepted the heliocentric theory of Copernicus, which was known in his time, though only as a hypothesis.986986    Copernicus finished his work De Orbium colestium Revolutionibus in 1530, and dedicated it to the pope; but it was not published till 1543, by Osiander of Nürnberg, to whom he had given the manuscript, and who announced the discovery in the preface as a mere hypothesis. He received a copy on his death-bed at Frauenburg on the borders of Prussia and Poland. He was probably a devout man, and is often credited with the prayer graven on his tombstone: "I ask not the grace accorded to Paul; not that given to Peter; give me only the favor which thou didst show to the thief on the cross" ("non parem Pauli gratiam requiro," etc.); but this inscription is taken from a poem of Aeneas Sylvius De Passione Domini, and was put upon the monument of Copernicus at Thorn by Dr. Melchior Pyrnesius (1589). Copernicus is there represented with folded hands before a crucifix. See Prowe’s work on Coper-nicus, and Luthardt in the "Theol. Literaturblatt" for April 22, 1892 (p. 188).

But in this matter Calvin was no more in advance of his age than any other divine. He believed that "the whole heaven moves around the earth," and declared it preposterous to set the conjecture of a man against the authority of God, who in the first chapter of Genesis had pointed out the relation of the sun and moon to the earth. Luther speaks with contempt of that upstart astronomer who wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy and the sacred Scripture, which tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth. Melanchthon condemned the system in his treatise on the "Elements of Physics," published six years after the death of Copernicus, and cited against it the witness of the eyes, which inform us that the heavens revolve in the space of twenty-four hours; and passages from the Psalms and Ecclesiastes, which assert that the earth stands fast and that the sun moves around it. He suggests severe measures to restrain such impious teaching as that of Copernicus.

But we must remember that the Copernican theory was opposed by philosophers as well as theologians of all creeds for nearly a hundred years, under the notion that it contradicts the testimony of the senses and the geocentric teaching of the Bible. When towards the close of the sixteenth century Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) became a convert to the Copernican theory, and with his rude telescope discovered the satellites of Jupiter and the phases of Venus, he was denounced as a heretic, summoned before the Inquisition at Rome and commanded by Bellarmin, the standard theologian of the papacy, to abandon his error, and to teach that the earth is the immovable centre of the universe (Feb. 26, 1616). The Congregation of the Index, moved by Pope Paul V., rendered the decree that "the doctrine of the double motion of the earth about its axis and about the sun is false, and entirely contrary to the Holy Scripture," and condemned the works of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, which affirm the motion of the earth. They remained on the Index Purgatorius till the time of Benedict XIV. Even after the triumph of the Copernican system in the scientific world, there were respectable theologians, like John Owen and John Wesley, who found it inconsistent with their theory of inspiration, and rejected it as a delusive and arbitrary hypothesis tending towards infidelity. "E pur si muove," the earth does move for all that!

There can be no contradiction between the Bible and science; for the Bible is not a book of astronomy or geology or science; but a book of religion, teaching the relation of the world and man to God; and when it touches upon the heavenly bodies, it uses the phenomenal popular language without pronouncing judgment for or against any scientific theory.

« Prev Calvin and the Astrologers Next »


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |