One of the more interesting cases is that of John Calvin and Martin Luther, who were unanimous with the Catholic Church — and later the Protestant church — in condemning the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) as a heretic. What was Copernicus’ crime? He asserted that the earth rotates around the sun. However, godly people, and the church, believed that the Bible taught otherwise. The proposition that the earth rotates around the sun was unacceptable to the Christian theologians of that period because there were many biblical passages which seemed to indicate that the earth did not move. Among the texts frequently cited were the following:
– He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. (Psalms 104:5)
– On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel: “O sun, stand still over Gibeon, O moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.” So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. (Joshua 10:12-13)
– Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. (Ecclesiastes. 1:4-5)
– The Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed in majesty and is armed with strength. The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved. (Psalm 93:1)
As far as they were concerned, the Bible’s words used to describe the sun rising and setting and moving across the sky could be interpreted to mean nothing other than that the sun, and not the earth, is the one that moves.
Martin Luther, referring to Joshua 10:13, in his series of “Table Talks” in 1539, said the following:
“People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon… This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.”
Luther’s disciple Melanchthon, in emphasizing Ecclesiastes 1:4-5 said:
“The eyes are witnesses that the heavens revolve in the space of twenty-four hours. But certain men, either from the love of novelty, or to make a display of ingenuity, have concluded that the earth moves; and they maintain that neither the eighth sphere nor the sun revolves… Now, it is a want of honesty and decency to assert such notions publicly, and the example is pernicious. It is the part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it.”
And John Calvin, citing Psalm 93:1 in his Commentary on Genesis said:
“Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit? … the world also is established that it cannot be moved.”
Calvin, Luther, and all believers with them took their stand on what they believed to be the clear teaching of Scripture and went to their graves condemning Copernicus as a heretic. It was many, many years before the church recognized that the descriptions of the sun’s movement were what today any first-year Bible student calls “phenomenological” or merely descriptive. Allowance must be made, they discovered, especially in poetic texts, for the use of metaphorical language. Copernicus is only one such case in which the consensus of opinion about how the Bible should be understood has changed over the years. There are scores of others.
While the Bible does not change, our understanding of how the biblical text should be interpreted has changed considerably. Throughout 2,000 years of church history, Christians of all traditions have used the Bible to support scores of doctrinal positions they believed to be as clear as mineral water but that they later had to confess to be mistaken. Over the years Christians have found biblical “proof” that slavery is God-ordained, that women and blacks should not be allowed to vote, that interracial marriage is wrong, that women should not be allowed to preach, teach or wear jewelry, that anti-Semitism is biblically supported, and on and on. As with the case of Copernicus, a number of biblical texts were cited to give support to each of these and, of course, the Bible verses that once footnoted these notions are all still in the Bible.
As we look back over our 2,000 years of history, we find that oppression of one sort or another against people who are “different” — whether by means of race, color, gender, class, sexual orientation, or as in the case of Copernicus, in the face of scientific or archeological discovery — has always been endemic. And to our great shame, the oppression and injustices are always carried out in the name of someone’s Christianity. One of the lessons we can learn from these experiences is that reading and interpreting Scripture is not quite as simple as some would like to believe. A text does not simply “say what it says” despite the rational good intentions of some readers. For reading Scripture is not only a matter of what is written there, but also what we expect to find there, what we bring to the text, and what we take away from it. Reading Scripture then is by no means a clinical or a neutral affair.
The doctrine of those who read their antigay presuppositions into the biblical texts is believed to be only the most recent doctrinal position well on the way to being generally acknowledged as a mistake of this kind. What would it take for those who still cling to their antigay doctrine to admit that they, like many well-intentioned Christians before them, have made a mistake? We’d do well to remember that while it may seem evident to us that others did terrible things in the past, it isn’t always so easy to see that we ourselves may be doing terrible things today.