Church & Astrology

Nicole Oresme writing at his desk.
Miniature of 14th centuryphilosopher Nicole Oresme from Traité de l’espere. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France, fonds français 565, fol. 1r. Thought it more efficient if the Earth moved and the heavens were still, but deferred to belief that it was the other way around
For as long as we have been looking up at the stars, there has been a sacred personal connection between each one of us and the night sky. The night sky astounded and overwhelmed us. The stars told us the way to travel at night, and when the seasons would change. It is easy to imagine that religions evolved out of our relationship with the Sun and the stars and that humans first communed with the gods through the night sky. But what were the gods saying?

Truth Revealed

For Christians, with astrology surely it would be possible to become closer to God and to gain greater knowledge of Him. By understanding the use of astrology in ancient civilizations and by understanding the things which God would newly reveal to us through astrology, then we might restore old secrets and discover more.

In Christianity, some argued, God rules and astrology shows how.1 From the sky came the weather and welfare, health and disease. The bodies in the sky modulated alchemical reactions and husbandry. Understanding and tracing their motions, one could even divine the future. Divining the future using astrology is judicial astrology.

But others like Oresme (c.1320–5 – 1382) said that using astrology to predict the future or to tell fortunes was meddling in God’s plans.2 Furthermore, claiming to see the future when you can’t is either false prophecy or simple fraud.

“Come, Mephistophilis, let us dispute again, And argue of divine astrology.”

The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, , by
Christoper Marlowe, at The Project Gutenberg

Rome and Christianity

Whether or not astrology is permitted among Christians has varied with the times and sects. Astrology is not explicitly prohibited in the Bible and it’s been variously allowed and prohibited.

When Christianity became the Roman state religion in the fourth century, there were competing pagan (folk) religions that practised magic. The pagan religions were soon prohibited, and the prohibitions extended to divination and magic, which meant the end of sanctioned astrology in Christianized Roman Empire by the fifth century, but with the rediscovery of ancient writings, it was back in vogue again around the thirteenth century.

Over the years astrology has suffered many Christian doctrinal wranglings over things like free will and predestination.

Free Will or Destiny?

Astrology was incompatible with the Roman Catholic concept of free will.

One thing was clear to Catholics: God was master of everything… except, perhaps, Man’s free will. It was apparently God’s idea, because he wanted to be loved for who He was, not because He said so.

Free will means that humans are free to chose what they want to do – that nobody, including God or the Devil, has control over his spirit or mind (his body, being matter, being another matter). This sounds great, but to the Roman Catholic Church it meant that humans freely choose or reject God, and are thus responsible for that act.

Free will was essential to the Church and to spiritual perfection: without free will, if God was master and director of everything, including human destiny, then whether humans were faithful or not depended completely on God’s will. So if a human didn’t happen to believe in God, then it wasn’t his or her fault – it was because it was God’s choice. Consequently aetheists and other heretics would be doing exactly what God wanted, which would make them equally good Christians.

The bad thing about traditional astrology was that it suggested a method through which God imposed his will on humans.3 The stars were a conduit of God’s intent: God intended, and his intent was generated through the stars which compelled humans to act.

The Stars Incline

In 1632 Sir Francis Bacon concluded that the stars didn’t compel, but that they only inclined.

“The last rule (which has always been held by the wiser astrologers) is that there is no fatal necessity in the stars; but that they rather incline than compel.”

The Works of Francis Bacon, Vol. 4, edition of 1857.. p. 351.

If this was so – that the stars compelled – then humans didn’t entirely have free will; they had destinies, and faith was irrelevant. Humans could do anything they wanted because their desires were directed by God. The loss of free will would be catastrophic for salvation because according to the Bible, you had to choose Jesus to be saved.

But the stars can’t influence the soul, Plotinus argued in the third century. Since the human soul is a spiritual thing, and not a physical one, then the stars have no direct influence over humans in spiritual matters. While they could have influence over the physical body and over nature, the human soul is free to make choices.

Of course God has free will, too. Astrology or no, God has the final say in what happens. He can bypass the celestial mechanics if He wants to, which could explain why astrology is unreliable at times.

Whether it’s free will or fate is still unknown. Determinism (fate) was pulling ahead when quantum (or particle) physics suggested an answer may soon be available, possibly “neither.”

The Cosmos. The Classical Perception of the Universe

The ancient Greeks had the idea that the Earth was the centre of the universe. The cosmos was perfect and harmonious and unchanging. The stars and planets were embedded in a series of concentric spheres.

All of this made sense to the Christian mind. Naturally the Earth was at the centre of the cosmos, and naturally, God’s omnipresent Self was centred on His special orb, Earth. We really did have a special relationship.

The Church accepted the value of many of the ancient texts, and incorporated many of the ancient Greek concepts of the cosmos into their own dogma. The Greek model of the cosmos was an epiphany for Christians. To the Greek version of the cosmos, the Church knew what to add: God and his angels at the outermost sphere, guiding and watching over the celestial clockwork.

The celestial spheres surmounted by God, they radiate around Him.
The Cosmos. An illustration from Le livre du Ciel et du Monde (1377) by Nicole Oresme, Paris, BnF, Manuscrits, Fr. 565, fo 69.
The model of the cosmos extended to heaven itself. Heaven was above. It was invisible, but it was there: we were enveloped in God’s hands, and it was beautiful to conceive and logical: we were at the centre of God’s love, and we were special.

Unfortunately, the Greeks were wrong, and the Roman Catholic Church couldn’t contain the truth, although it tried. They were skeptical and nervous.

Copernicus, Kepler, Bruno, Brahe, Galileo and finally Newton (in the 18th century) among others in succession over a period of a few hundred years went from observation and theory to undeniable proof that the Church’s model of the cosmos was wrong and the evidence was irrefutable.

When Renaissance astronomers came to understand that the Universe was actually always changing, that the moon was cratered like a pox victim, and that very little revolved around the Earth, it meant that the cosmos was not perfect, nor was the Earth the centre of it.

The Earth was not stationary, the Sun didn’t go around it, it wasn’t at the center of anything, and the heavenly bodies weren’t perfect at all – and it soon became clear that there were a lot of them: very, very far away, and very, very big.

In fact, nothing is stationary, not even the Sun, and all movement is relative. That being the case, what was special about Earth? Seemingly nothing. What was our basis, then, for thinking we were special?

We not only found we were not at the centre of the Universe, we were lost; and we were not only not special, we were possibly just meat; and not only was God not measurably present, He might not be there at all.

It was all unpleasant – and all ultimately in writing and with formulas that really worked – and it was consistent; it wasn’t just an argument or a position or even a conventional “theory,” frankly. You could just sit there and stare at it, and it didn’t go away whether you burned it at the stake, stuck it in prison, or chased it out of the kingdom.

These new discoveries prompted a review of what had previously been accepted as true.

Astrology seemed a quaintly obsolete diversion. For some, the Church authorities looked particularly foolish in retrospect, as these were things that God’s representative of Earth should already have known. In fairness to the Church, they weren’t necessarily against truth, they were guarding against “error.”

Soon, astrologers would know more about the heavens than the Church, and they could prove it, but they were no longer astrologers – they were astronomers and physicists. Most importantly, God didn’t appear in their their formulas, and they still worked. This also provided a jolt to disparate unhappy individuals who concluded that the universe was a very vast and cold and empty place.

The Aftermath

But ultimately, as far as religion went, if this was the way God worked, then so be it.

None of this meant there was no God, in fact, most of these discoveries had been made by people trying to understand Him better. These discoveries didn’t mean God wasn’t out there, it meant we didn’t know much, but we now had a pretty good tool for finding out.

Some, called Deists, developed the religious theory that God was only directly involved with the creation of the Universe, and subsequently things have been going on on their own by cause and effect. This was determinism. For their reward, the rest of society called them atheists, which they really weren’t, at least not by modern standards. But determinism was not something one brought up in polite society because it meant we didn’t have the free will to love God, and so weren’t really able to.

It would have been a shock to some, undoubtedly, these grimly material fruits of highly spiritual men. Their search for God had simply pushed Him further away, and everybody had to re-rationalize.

According to Leibnitz (Germany, 1646–1716), God is perfect and benevolent and everything that is, has resulted from cause and effect since the beginning. Liebniz said that God – the ultimate good guy – created this, the best of all worlds from an infinite supply.4

The Protestants could understand God might be distant, especially the magical Roman one. The Protestants didn’t necessarily believe in free will anyway.

The English, along with the Germans and many others, were already exhausted by the bigotry, hatred and bloodshed that resulted from interminable warfare and power struggles between Christians supposedly over nothing but unprovable beliefs. If God wasn’t looming over them all the time, and if reason would prevail, maybe everybody could relax and stop getting so upset, and people might finally live in peace (although it would help if the nobility would shove off).

Church & Despots

“Though Guizot’s [François Guizot (1787–1874)] affirmation that the Church has always sided with despotism is only too true, it must be remembered that in the policy she follows there is much of political necessity. She is urged on by the pressure of nineteen centuries. But, if the irresistible indicates itself in her action, the inevitable manifests itself in her life. For it is with the papacy as with a man. It has passed through the struggles of infancy, it has displayed the energies of maturity, and, its work completed, it must sink into the feebleness and querulousness of old age. Its youth can never be renewed. The influence of its souvenirs alone will remain. As pagan Rome threw her departing shadow over the empire and tinctured all its thoughts, so Christian Rome casts her parting shadow over Europe. “

History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. By John William Draper. Published 1875 by D. Appleton and company, New York.. Ch. XI.

God hadn’t been the poor-man’s friend particularly in France or the other Catholic countries, either. God traditionally sided with the Pope and the King, and according to the Pope and King, God didn’t want things to change. God was the friend of the tyrant.

Where the King was still King and the Pope was still Pope neither were inclined to declare that this was the dawn of a brave new world and embrace it. Reality would have to wait because their society wasn’t plastic enough to adapt. The status quo was just fine. Sure, the Roman Catholic Church had to make some changes, especially in distancing itself from magic, but they were at least that adaptable.

The English, for one, could adjust. In England, the foreign Pope was on his way out around the mid-sixteenth century as England set up its own church, and the King himself would soon be just a figurehead in the seventeenth.

For the English it wasn’t such a shock to go from a theoretical holistic cosmos of harmonious spheres ruled by God to a practical deterministic one suited to their times that submitted to reductive analysis. They embraced the new world, having left the old one behind already – they had their revolutions in bloody little steps – the new Anglican Church shed some of its magical acts and at the time of Newton, the monarchy was reduced to a constitutional lease agreement under the government of Parliament.

The people were free to take advantage of the new economic opportunities rationalism offered. The English Church tended toward a healthy middle road that tolerated and accommodated a range of people’s different beliefs – though not to the extent of tolerating those with none.

The Royal Society was formed to advance free science. With nets and pails, British citizenry advanced on Britain’s forests, fields and shores to catalogue shells and pin butterflies to cork boards and wax plates. The emergence of science wasn’t another tool to oppress the people there – on the contrary – it was a gift thrown in the lap of a people ready for an opportunity. For the new British entrepreneur, science was God’s gift to the new society, and they embraced it with industry to build an Empire.

They had reformed to fit the new social and economic realities of the day, but other European Catholic countries were frozen in time by the spell of a magical religion with a God-appointed King and dogged by denial. The Ancien Regime was still in power and unable to drop the old world-view. There was too much at stake for the established institutions.

Consequently, when the French system broke at the end of the eighteenth century, it shattered into brutal revolution against the ruling class and the rejection of the Church. The British with their tiresome pedantry and the boorish single-minded Germans soon surpassed the violently passionate Latin Catholic countries with simple reasonableness, industry, and economic growth. Having shed the magic, the more Protestant and reformed states were already living in a material world.

It was odd how God had failed to communicate any of this to the Roman Catholic Church. Had they never spoken?

The Church

Before the Roman Catholic Church became dominant, there had been other versions of Christianity that had been as acceptable in earlier times. The Church explained that God saw to it that their “true” Christianity would prevail – but what about now that God didn’t seem to be so directly involved? Why hadn’t God told them about the true nature of the cosmos?

By the sixteenth century the Roman Catholic Church was losing control. Secular education was spreading and there was a growing merchant class. People were losing their superstition, their ignorance, their docility, and their patience. There had long been questions about the legitimacy of the Church – their claim of literal descent from the Apostle Peter, and their claim to represent true Christianity. To many observers the Church in Rome had perverted traditional Christianity, and was oppressive and corrupt.

Their claim to embody the Holy Spirit as passed down through succession from the Apostles – long debated – and their incorporation of much of the old pagan mysticism led to charges that they themselves were practising witchcraft.

In accommodating ancient customs like astrology, the Church had accepted many of those communities whose Christianity was a pastiche of regional folk beliefs and religious teachings – not always the pure Christianity the Church had hoped for. It left the Church open to charges of practising magic itself when it came to accommodations to traditions like blessing the spring lambs in the fields.

The Protestant Reformation formed out of this and the Roman Catholic counter-reformation sought to correct it.

At first the Church had been able to suppress, intimidate, imprison, and murder opponents and other doctrinal deviants into silence, but with less and less conviction, perhaps, and finally, Newton, being English was untouchable.

Protestant Response to Newton

In the century preceding the epoch of Newton, a great religious and political revolution had taken place—the Reformation. Though its effect had not been the securing of complete liberty for thought, it had weakened many of the old ecclesiastical bonds. In the reformed countries there was no power to express a condemnation of Newton’s works, and among the clergy there was no disposition to give themselves any concern about the matter. At first the attention of the Protestant was engrossed by the movements of his great enemy the Catholic, and when that source of disquietude ceased, and the inevitable partitions of the Reformation arose, that attention was fastened upon the rival and antagonistic Churches. The Lutheran, the Calvinist, the Episcopalian, the Presbyterian, had something more urgent on hand than Newton’s mathematical demonstrations.

So, uncondemned, and indeed unobserved, in this clamor of fighting sects, Newton’s grand theory solidly established itself. Its philosophical significance was infinitely more momentous than the dogmas that these persons were quarreling about. It not only accepted the heliocentric theory and the laws discovered by Kepler, but it proved that, no matter what might be the weight of opposing ecclesiastical authority, the sun MUST be the centre of our system, and that Kepler’s laws are the result of a mathematical necessity. It is impossible that they should be other than they are.

History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. By John William Draper. Published 1875 by D. Appleton and company, New York.. Ch. IX.

Reform and Counter-Reformation

With the rise of the Protestant Reformation movement in the sixteenth century, Christian views about astrology varied across Europe according to the prevailing doctrines of regions. Neither Reformers Zwingli and Calvin supported astrology, although the Protestants didn’t necessarily embrace free will, either.

Martin Luther, was a prominent Protestant Reformer in northern Germany and a contemporary of the historical Faust (along with his colleague Philip Melanchthon, one of the primary sources for any knowledge of Faust). Luther, tremendously influential in that region, objected to astrology because he associated it with spirits and precisely, demons. In Luther and Faust’s part of Germany, the prevailing religious fervour cast it in a demonic light along with magic.5

In the mid 16th century, as part of the reforms of its own counter-reformation, the Catholic Church also began to clamp down on, and dissassociate from, magical acts such as divination, including astrology, and also supplication to saints and the sale of masses and forgivenesses of sin (indulgences).6

In 1586 Pope Sixtus V issued a Papal Bull Coeli et terrae which condemmed astrology as false and even demonic.

In 1633 Pope Urban VIII’s Contra astrologos iudiciarios warned against predicting the fortunes of heads of state and Church, a practise which the same heads resented when it gave their enemies confidence.

In the Catholic regions, the Papal Bulls had the effect of making astrology a heresy, and interest, or at least public interest, fell sharply.

Yet elsewhere, throughout Europe, interest in astrology actually increased. Renaissance curiosity was piqued by the re-discovery of the Hermetic collection, and perhaps, by the abandonment of the occult by the church which left things magical and demonic free for the taking, just as the mechanism of how it all worked was beginning to be explained….

Notes and references

  • Jacobi, M. (1907). Astrology. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 3, 2011 from New Advent:
  • Whitfield, Peter. Astrology: A History. Published by Harry N. Abrams. 2001.
  1. Whitfield, p.130. []
  2. Whitfield, p.132. []
  3. This wasn’t necessarily the ancient view of astrology. Classical astrology was based on the idea that there was a special relationship between the stars and goings-on on Earth, but it wasn’t necessarily a cause and effect relationship. []
  4. “This is the best of all possible worlds” helpfully choruses Doctor Pangloss in Voltaire’s 1759 Candide as his hero suffers growing disillusion. []
  5. p. 4. []
  6. Whitfield, p. 163. []