Month: June 2016

Spong’s Spin On Copernicus

By Kyle Larson

Spong On Copernicus (1473—1543)

Throughout his writings and on his website, Spong lists several specific early modern scientists whom he believes sounded the death knell of orthodox Christianity. The scientists that Spong mentions are Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Darwin, Freud and Einstein. As Spong goes through each of these scientists, he highlights a specific scientific accomplishment of each one and then concludes that this is a scientific argument against Judeo-Christian theism.

In this series, we will take a brief look at the life of each early modern scientists, Spong’s spin for that particular scientist and a historical, scientific and theological refutation for each of Spong’s false assertions.

Life Of Copernicus

Nikolaus KopernikusThe first early modern scientist that Spong uses to debunk theism and Christianity is Nicolas Copernicus. Copernicus born in 1473 in Torun, Poland to parents both from wealthy merchant families. Unfortunately, his father died while he was still young, so his uncle took him under his wing.

Coperncicus started his education at St. John’s school in Torun. From there, he went on to attend the Cathedral School at a nearby town. This school prepared Copernicus to enter the University of Krakow. It was at the University that he began studying the Arts.

Later, he focused on various branches of astronomy and mathematics. He became fascinated with astronomy and collected a large number of books on the subject. Copernicus left the University of Krakow and later enrolled at the University of Bologna from 1496-1501. It was here that he became the student of one of the greatest astronomers of his time. It is also here that his interest in astronomy began to sour.

In 1497, Copernicus made his first astronomical calculations about the moon. In 1500, he traveled to Rome where he began another apprenticeship in astronomy. This led to him become a professor of astronomy. During this time, Copernicus also obtained a medical degree at the University of Padua from 1501-1503. In close connection with obtaining a medical degree, he also studied astrology. Both medicine and astrology were considered interconnected disciplines at this period of time.

Kopernikus status in KrakowCopernicus first began developing his heliocentric theory with his short book The Commentaries (sometime before 1514). He later published On The Revolutions in 1543. In 1533, the Pope’s personal secretary heard about the heliocentric theory and passed on the information to Pope Clement VII. At the time, the Pope had no problem with the theory.

Spong’s Conclusions About Copernicus

Spong states concerning Copernicus:

“There was a Polish monk named Nicolaus Copernicus, whose studies shattered the image of the earth as the center of a three-tiered universe, which also assumed that God who dwelled just above the sky, always looking down, always recording in the book of life the good deeds and the misdeeds of each person. The promise of reward with God in heaven or punishment from God in hell after this life constituted the central linchpin of a well-ordered human society” –

“His calculations led him to a startling conclusion. The earth is not the center of a three-tiered universe! This insight, an incredibly great breakthrough in knowledge, also had severe religious consequences. The Bible, for example, was written from the perspective of a three-tiered universe and claims had been regularly made by the church that the Bible is “the inerrant word of God.” With the discovery of Copernicus, however, the inevitable conclusion was that the Bible was wrong! Copernicus did not publish his thinking widely so the hierarchy of the church just ignored his work, hoping that no one else would notice.” –

Spong also states a further consequences of following of Copernicus: “ … the earth could no longer be envisioned as the center of the Universe. God might not be so quite involved in the day to day affairs of human beings.” (Why Christianity Must Change or Die)

Where did Spong get the idea that if the earth is not at the center of the universe, then God has no special interest in humanity? This specific myth about Copernicus began about 100 years after his death. There was a concerted effort to show that man is no special creation by God, but simply a “power play” by humanity to show a self specialness to God that never existed. Cyrano de Bergerac asserted this very notion when he said, “The insupportable arrogance of mankind, which fancies, that Nature was only created to serve it.”

Plurality of WorldsAnother writer, Fontenelle, in his book Discourse of the Plurality of Worlds (1686) said that Copernicus had taken “the earth and throws it out of the center of the world … for his design was to abate the vanity of men who had thrust themselves into the chief place of the Universe”. (Danielson 57,58 in Galileo Goes to Jail)

Many things could be said in refutation of Bishop Spong’s statements on Copernicus:

  1. Spong fails to mention that Copernicus dedicated his book to the Pope Paul The Third because Copernicus wanted to make sure that he was not misunderstood as challenging the authority and legitimacy of the Papacy.
  2. Copernicus received the official approval of Pope The Third as well as the financial support of two top Cardinals for his book On The Revolutions. 1
  3. In addition to Pope Paul The Third, after he died, the next 9 Popes following him saw no heresy in what Copernicus was saying with his heliocentric theory.
  4. Spong has a twisted understanding of what the Bible says about humanity and its place in the cosmos. The Bible teaches the vastness of the cosmos and yet God cares for humanity. (Psalms 8:3,4)
  5. Some of the great thinkers of the ages saw earth’s centrality as a negative and not a positive. a
    1. Moses Mainonides: “in the case of the Universe … the nearer the parts are to the center, the greater their turbidness, their solidarity, their inertness, their dimness and darkness, because they are further away from their loftiness element, from the source of light and brightness.”
    2. Thomas Acquinas: In the Universe, earth – that all the spheres encircle and that, as for place, lies in the center, is the most material and coarsest of all bodies.

Many more quotes could be produced that directly refute Bishop Spong’s assertion that people during middle ages believed that because earth was in the center of the universe that that meant it had God’s special care over it. In fact, the opposite was true. Copernicus believed that because the earth revolved around the sun, this gave earth a “specialness to God”

Galileo, when commenting on how sun’s light upon the earth makes the moon shine brighter states: “The earth, with fair and grateful exchange, pays back to the moon an illumination like that which it receives from the moon … those who assert, principally on the grounds that it [the earth] has neither motion nor light, that the earth must be excluded from the dance of the stars. For … the earth does have motion … it surpasses the moon in brightness and … it is not the sump where the universe’s filth and ephemera.”

Johannes Kepler
Johannes Kepler

Even Johannes Kepler, whom Spong highly respects, states concerning man’s ability to contemplate says, “he [man] could not remain at rest in the center … he [man] must make an annual journey on this boat, which is our earth, to perform his observations … There is no globe nobler or more suitable for man than the earth. For, in the first place, it is exactly in the middle of the principles globes … Above it are Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Within the embrace of its orbit run Venus and Mercury, while at the center the sun rotates.”

Copernicus would find Spong’s assessment of himself strange because Copernicus was an ardent Christian theist as the following quotes from him show 1 To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful workings of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge.2

“Not the Grace received by Paul do I desire, Nor the good will with which Thou forgavest Peter, Only that which Thou didst grant the thief on the cross, That mercy I ask of Thee.”3

“For who, after applying himself to things which he sees established in the best order and directed by Divine ruling, would not through diligent contemplation of them and through a certain habituation be awakened to that which is best and would not admire the Artificer of all things, in Whom is all happiness and every good? For the divine Psalmist surely did not say gratuitously that he took pleasure in the workings of God and rejoiced in the works of His hands, unless by means of these things as by some sort of vehicle we are transported to the contemplation of the highest good.”4

In conclusion, the example of Copernicus as well as the remaining early modern scientists that we will look at show highly selective Bishop Spong is in what historical and theological conclusions that he is willing to draw for the benefit of his readers. Much of his readership comprises those who have already rejected the Christian Gospel and Bishop Spong wants to supply more reasons they can use to justify their rejection of the Gospel. No serious student of history, science or theology would be hoodwinked by Spong’s deceptive use of the facts.

Resources Consulted on Copernicus



3 That Copernicanism Demoted Human From The Center of The Cosmos—Myth 6 Dennis R. Danielson found in Galileo Goes To Jail And Other Myths About Science and Religion. Edited by Ronald L. Numbers Harvard University Press 2009

Bishop Spong’s Imaginary Conflict Between Science and Christianity

By Kyle Larson

Internet atheists and agnostics are well-known for pitting science against religion. They argue that science gives us facts while religion offers only fairy tales. Therefore anyone who believes in religion is denying science. They are rejecting the thing that gave us airplanes, mobile phones, and vaccines. Is this really how it works? Do Christians reject science?

Bishop Spong thinks so.

Before going into Bishop Spong’s post-modern version of Christianity as encapsulated in the twelve theses for his version of a new Christianity for a new world, it is important to look at the false scientific presuppositions Spong uses when recounting the scientific Revolution from the 1400’s through the 1700’s. To build his case for a non-theistic and anti-supernaturalistic Christianity, Bishop Spong relies on a series of specific scientific presuppositions which create a false impression of what happened in Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries during what is known as The Scientific Revolution:

“In the 16th century, the authority of the church could no longer hold the minds of men and women in positions of obedience, so a rigorous challenge to this religious system arose for the first time. It was called “the Reformation.” During this time, the peace and security of Europe were shattered. The unifying truth by which its people and its institutions had lived was broken. Ancient claims of authority were overturned. Wars were fought seeking to restore the old order. It was a time of enormous upheaval Following that Reformation, the years rolled on and human knowledge exploded, cracking assumption after assumption made in the pre-modern world. Following that Reformation, the years rolled on and human knowledge exploded, cracking assumption after assumption made in the pre-modern world.”

Despite all the questions and the upheaval caused by the Reformation, there was no real conflict between science and Christianity. Most scientists were Christians. There were questions, certainly, but Christianity is a built on the ideas of truth and honesty. So, over the centuries, the ideas of Ptolemy and Aristotle were slowly abandoned in favor of new discoveries made by early scientists like Newton and Pascal.

The modern idea of a “conflict” between science and religion began in the mid 19th century. It was created by two authors: Andrew White (1832-1918) and William Draper (1811—1882).

Andrew Dickson White (1885)Andrew White was President of Cornell. He believed early on in the fundamental conflict between science and Christianity. Many Christians in his day called him an “infidel” for establishing Ithaca College where science would be taught as supreme over Christianity.

In December 1869, White gave a speech entitled “The Battle-Fields of Science”. In it, he tried to use historical anecdotes to prove that Christianity has been an impediment to the advancement of science. White used two famous examples of where the Church of Rome supposedly opposed the advancement of science.

The first was the burning at stake of Dominican friar Giordano Bruno. White claims Friar Bruno was burned at the stake by the Church because of his scientific views rather than because of his unfortunately timed denial of  basic Catholic doctrines during the height of the inquisition.

The second had to do with the torture and jailing of Galileo before being forced to recant his “heresies”. White claimed his persecution by the inquisition was for promoting the heliocentric theory of Copernicus rather than for publishing a book insulting the Pope and alienating his Jesuit allies with infighting.

White took his initial speech and expanded into a book entitled “A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom” (1896). This book forms the basis for much of what Bishop Spong says about the conflict between science and orthodox Christianity, though Spong does not openly acknowledge White’s contribution to his thinking.

John William DraperIn the same vein as White, William Draper was especially antagonistic towards Roman Catholicism for what he believed was its opposition to the advancement of science. It began when one of Draper’s children was very sick and close to death. His sister Elizabeth, who had converted to Roman Catholicism from Protestantism, hid his son’s Protestant prayer book until he died. This infuriated Draper. He asked his sister to leave the house immediately for her “unchristian behavior” towards his son. (Numbers 2,3) This led Draper on to his crusade of denigrating the Catholic Church for its opposition to the advancement of scientific knowledge.

This internal conflict that Draper had with Roman Catholicism led him to write his book “History of The Conflict between Religion and Science” (1874). Later reviews of Draper’s book showed the shallow historical scholarship behind it. (Numbers 3)

To put this in context, before the 1800’s historical records don’t show much conflict between the discoveries of scientists and the philosophy of theologians. As the 19th century wore on, however, battle lines between scientific theory and Christian theology began to form. Darwin offered evolution as an alternative creation account. The history of the Bible, and even Jesus, was called into question by historians. Archaeology began to question the accuracy of the places and events as read in the Bible. It was during this time that White and Draper made their arguments the Christianity had a history of holding back scientific advancement.

Abd al-Ra?m?n I (Umayyad Caliph of Spain)Historians today, of course, realize how historically inaccurate White and Draper were in their assessment of the relationship between the discoveries of science and Christian theology. Yet we can go much further than this and state that the Catholic Church had no part in stifling either innovation or scientific discovery during the Middle Ages. Instead, it was Islamic pirates and warring caliphates that kept Europe in darkness. And it was the Mongol hordes crushing the caliphate that freed them to enter the Renaissance.

So Bishop Spong has not given a fair and accurate retelling of the facts of history when it comes to Christianity’s historic relationship to science, especially during the Middle Ages. Below are some facts that Bishop Spong might want to consider. First, consider the following quote by John Helibon, a historian of science, in his book The Sun in The Church:

“The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and probably all, other institutions.” (Shrank 21)

Second, Bishop Spong needs to come to grips with the fact that the Catholic Church was responsible for the creation of the University. At the time, thirty percent of the average University curriculum concerned the study of the natural world. This includes the study of rediscovered Greek writings and ancient knowledge reclaimed from Arabic sources. So a University education, far from being anti-science, involved many branches of both ancient and current knowledge. (Shrank 22)

Katholieke Universiteit LeuvenThirdly, the vast majority of these Cathoic Church sponsored Universities never taught on theological or biblical subjects. Instead, they focused on secular areas of learning such as logic, natural philosophy, mathematical science as well as similar subjects. (Shrank 22)

Fourthly, the Catholic Church never issued a blanket condemnation for its Universities teaching the natural sciences. Any ecclesiastical condemnation we have record of was given by a local bishop towards a local University. If the condemnation held, that particular University would no longer teach one of the natural sciences. This was usually because of an apparent conflict between faith and science.

Even when this happened, both students and professors still had many other options when it came to Church sponsored Universities that taught any one of the number of natural sciences that both students and professors might be interested in learning. For example, Toulouse University was one such Church sponsored University. It drew students from the University of Paris because the University of Paris forbade the teaching of the life and works of Aristotle.

Based on these four key historical facts, along with the unveiling of how the myth of the conflict between science and faith as embodied in the writings of White and Draper, Bishop Spong is simply mistaken in his imaginary conflict between science and Christianity

Resources consulted:

Galileo Goes To Jail And Other Myths About Science And Religion Edited by Ronald Numbers Introduction by Ronald Numbers

Myth #2—That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science by Michael H. Shrank Harvard University Press 2009