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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

inventing a John Calvin quote

Macht at Prosthesis debunks a virulent myth that has found, like so many others, a life of its own on the Internet. The myth concerns an alleged comment by John Calvin to this effect:

"Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?"

It seems a rather innocuous question but much mileage has been made out of it in order to attack Calvin, Calvinism, Christianity and creationism. According to Macht a quick Google search reveals this exact quote is mentioned at least 200 times on the Internet. When I ran the search I found significantly more than that number. Those who particularly make use of the quote are either atheists/anti-Christians or anti-Calvinists who don't necessarily fall within the first category. Gloating, finger wagging and point-scoring seem to be the chief accompaniments to the revelation of this alleged quote from Calvin.

A few representative samples:

Cliff Walker at Positive Atheism's Big Scary List of Holy Bible Quotations ignoring the fact that it isn't even a "Bible quotation" confidently tells us that the quote comes Calvin, "citing Psalm 93:1 in his Commentary on Genesis"

As does the webmaster at

As does Austin Cline while invoking the word "fundamentalist" to describe a historical situation at least 300 years before such a concept existed at

Paul Tobin on his site Rejection of Pascal's Wager: a skeptic's guide to christianity appears to offer no source for the quote or perhaps refers to page 72 of Kline's Mathematics and the Search for Knowledge - it is a little unclear.

Chaz Bufe, the author of 20 Reasons to Abandon Christianity offers no reasonable explanation for the source of his use of this quote.

At Eugene Y. C. Ho refers to Bertrand Russell in Religion and Science (1935), p. 23. as the source of the quote.

The problem is, as Macht points out, a search of Calvin's commentaries on Genesis reveals that, not only did he not write this, he didn't say anything about Copernicus at all! So where did this popular polemical [mis]quote come from?

Hugo Holbling from Studi Galileiani offers the follwing link to the article The Key to Academic Adventure: Read the Footnotes by Irving Hexham who notes:
A good example of the havoc caused by poor citation is found in Edward Rosen's article "Calvin's Attitude Toward Copernicus" [Rosen 1960:431-441, cf. Ratner and Rosen 1961:382-389]. Rosen begins by drawing attention to Bertrand Russell's remark that "Calvin similarly, demolished Copernicus with the text: 'The world also is established, that it cannot be moved' (Psa. Xciii.I), and exclaimed: 'Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above the Holy Spirit?'" [Russell 1962:515; cf. Rosen 1960:431]. The problem, Rosen points out, is that Russell provides no citation for this remark. But, in another book he uses the same argument which he attributes to Andrew Dickenson White, the first president of Cornell University, in his book A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology [White 1955; cf. Russell 1935:23; Rosen 1960:432]. When the reader checks White, however, he or she quickly discovers that White himself fails to provide a reference to Calvin's works.

Instead, he cites the preface of Canon Frederic William Farrar's (1831-1903) History of Interpretation [White 1955:127-128 note; cf. Farrar 1886:xviii, cited by Rosen 1960:435]. When Farrar is consulted we again find that he provides no reference for his citation. At this point Rosen argues that in fact there are no references to Copernicus in any of Calvin's works...

From this example by one careless scholar we see how an idea which has a certain immediate appeal because it supports certain prejudices easily becomes an accepted truth. The fact is that many people dislike Calvin. Therefore, it is easy for them to accept that he made the type of statement attributed to him by Farrar. But, once accepted this distortion of the truth becomes general knowledge and an accepted fact...

Hexham also writes:
Scholarship demands that claims and sources are continually checked. Of course, no one can check the sources of every book they read. But, it is possible to examine footnotes and to carry out random checks to see if an author is using or misusing their sources. Only if this is done can we be sure that what we read is reliable...

Far too many authors are slipshod in their use of their sources. But, what is really disturbing is that most academic reviewers never comment on such problems. It is the task of academics and students to check sources and to draw attention to their misuse. Otherwise the whole academic enterprise collapses into the writing of fiction...

Many students react to the discussion of citations with a shrug and the questions "what does it matter? Why should anyone get excited just because an author is careless or uses misleading quotations?"... But, when those mistakes are taken up and reproduced by other authors our understanding of an entire field can be distorted...

[W]hen similar mistakes are made in books which influence legal and political decisions the impact of such falsehoods can be very important for society as a whole. For this reason, and because as scholars we are obliged to seek the truth, poor citation must be exposed and the highest standards insisted upon by the reader otherwise the lies of holocaust deniers will soon become accepted truth.

It's all about polemics and scoring points. Atheists, anti-Christians and anti IDers, the self-appointed advocates of "naturalism", "reason" and "science" - those who most frequently denounce anyone who questions their wordview as "Liars! Big fat stupid liars!" - are found in this instance to be the perpetuators of a lie. Anyone can make a mistake, true - but this lie is exposed. Therefore people of goodwill will set about cleaning up their own backyards.

See also: Calvin and the Astronomical Revolution by Matthew F. Dowd

6:09:00 pm