Rheticus, 1514-1574

by Jindan Chen*

Following the study in my spring course of Science and Religion, I spent part of my summer researching how the Copernican theory was first read by the Lutheran scholars at the University of Wittenberg (the University of Martin Luther) during the sixteenth century. Robert Westman’s 1973 article captures the nature of this reading which he terms “the Wittenberg interpretation”. The hallmark of the interpretation is the divided treatment of the mathematical model and the cosmological claim of the Copernican theory. The mathematical part is diligently studied and genuinely admired by Lutherans and applied to produce a number of greatly-improved astronomical tables, whereas the cosmological part, which says the sun lies in the center of the universe, is almost completely neglected. The question here that engages my attention is why the first reading of the Copernican theory fails to be a realistic interpretation.  In other words, does the fact that a full acceptance is delayed mean the religious values are preventing science from moving forward, which is an unambiguously claimed view in Andrew White’s well-known doctoral thesis? 

Led by the question, I am struck by two things while examining historians’ analysis of the factors that shape this reading. For one thing, I am surprised by how much astronomical study is virtually promoted by the passion of religious pursuit. One important reason why the Wittenberg interpretation is of a utilitarian kind is that Copernicus is read more as a mathematician than as a philosopher. This is possible because there are a group of scholars well-grounded in mathematics at Wittenberg due to the heightened training of mathematics in the university as a result of Philip Melanchthon’s education reformation. What is striking is that the rationale backing up the reformation is deeply religious.

Melanchthon uses the teaching of mathematics as an effective tool to combat with the authority of clergymen in Catholic churches. Prior to Martin Luther’s church reform, the public are required to turn to the clergymen for judgment when a matter needs to be arbitrated. After the removal of authority, the urgent problem facing the Lutherans is how the public can decide which is right without recourse to clergymen. The solution prescribed by Melanchthon is to equip the public with the basic knowledge of mathematics which is necessary for decision-making, since at that time, mathematics including astronomy is considered a practical knowledge which teaches people how to calculate so that they can well plan and take down the daily business.

More importantly, Melanchthon believes that astronomy reveals the heavenly order which is the perfect design of God. In this sense, astronomy is a study of divine intent and helping lift the souls to the goodness. The constancy and harmony reflected by the motion of planets can arouse the fondness of good behavior in individuals. By learning how God arranges the order of heavenly bodies, people are able to come up with a better idea of how to organize our own society.

For another, I am impressed by how far historians can go as to reconstructing the psychological dimension of the story and how far the emotional factor can play into a mainly rational picture of theory reception. In 1539, after hearing traces of Copernicus’ astronomical ideas, Melanchthon’s disciple Georg Rheticus (1514-1574) sets on his pilgrimage to Frauenburg (a town in northern Poland), where he meets Copernicus in person and becomes his sole student. He spends two years and a half there studying astronomy under the guidance of Copernicus. In 1540, he writes Narratio Prima (First Report), a passionate introduction of his mentor’s theory. Then, he persuades his mentor to publish his theory and helps with publication through the assistance of his friends in Nuremberg. It is stunning to me that the information Westman digs up on this key figure is about why Copernicus appears to be so charismatic to Rheticus in terms of the so-called psychodynamic impetus.

Based upon the only fact known to modern historians that Rheticus’s father beheaded due to sorcery when Rheticus was ten years old, Westman makes a bold, specific estimate of psychological activities of Rheticus when he is confronted by Copernicus and his theory. According to Westman, the main result of the childhood misfortune is Rheticus’s ambivalent attitude to authority. On one hand, there is a deep horror of losing authority in his mind because he has to abandon his family name after the death of his father. On the other, there is an excitement of getting rid of authority as he is liberated from the supervision of his father. He respects authority, afraid of losing identity, but he also has a sense of rebellion. This ambivalence leads him to a remarkable admiration of Copernicus, because Copernicus is the perfect father to Rheticus. As a Catholic bishop, Copernicus is a kind old man with authority, and as an enthusiastic astronomer, he is strong in a way that he has the capacity to challenge the authority and the wisdom to protect him from being sabotaged.

*Jindan Chen is pursuing a Master’s degree in History of Science at Oregon State University.  She was the recipient of a University Graduate Laurels Block Grant, 2011-2012.


  1. Robert S Westman, “The Melanchthon Circle, Rheticus, and the Wittenberg Interpretation of the Copernican Theory,” Isis 66, no. 2 (June 1, 1975): 165–193.
  2. Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 1914



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3 thoughts on “Reflection: Lutherans’ Reading of Copernicus

  1. Nice post but some of your details are wrong!

    Melanchthon’s interest and propagation of the study of mathematics was driven by his obsession with astrology and not astronomy.

    Rheticus’ father was beheaded for fraud and theft and not sorcery. See Dennis Danielson “The First Copernican”.

  2. Thank you very much, Thony, for pointing out the errors!

    I’m aware that astrology was studied a lot at Wittenberg at that time. Melanchthon opposed to view astrology as something that used observations to predict particulars of the future, and tried hard to develop astrology as a science. I’m sure his pedagogical passion for the teaching of mathematics has a lot to do with his intense interests in astrology.

    Maybe I didn’t make it clear enough. I think what I was trying to say is his great interests in promoting mathematics originate from his passions in religion. This generally refers to the eagerness to unlock the divine design, which I think is also included in his motivation to develop astrology.

    For the second one, I simply used the details provided in Westman’s article (see P187). I think Danielson’s version is much more convincing. Again, thank you for pointing it out!

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