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The Galileo Incident: A Clash of Faith and Science?

The past few weeks I’ve been teaching an adult Sunday school class on the relationship between the Christian faith and science. We’ve reviewed what the Genesis text says—and what it doesn’t say. We’ve also noted how two twentieth-century discoveries—the universe’s beginning at the Big Bang and the universe’s astonishing fine-tuning for life—offer dramatic support for God’s existence. In the midst of some discussion, Jim spoke up in class: “A friend of mine at work recently gave a lecture on Galileo. He’s been telling us in the office that Galileo disproved the Bible.” One thing led to another, and last week Jim, another work colleague, and I had lunch at the Cheesecake Factory with Al (whom we affectionately call “Alileo”).

Al, a lawyer, has done quite a bit of research on his hero, Galileo (1564-1642). Al told us lots of interesting behind-the-scenes facts about Galileo as well as his historic significance. As the discussion went on, I pointed out that Galileo was no enemy of Scripture. He said that the Scriptures and science, when properly understood, will not conflict with each other. God’s self-revelation in the “books” of nature and Scripture—God’s works and God’s Word—will be harmonious. He wrote of this conviction in a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina in 1615:

I think that in disputes about natural phenomena one must begin not with the authority of scriptural passages but with sensory experience and necessary demonstrations. For the Holy Scripture and nature derive equally from the godhead, the former as the dictation of the Holy Spirit and the latter as the most obedient executrix of God’s orders; moreover, to accommodate the understanding of common people it is appropriate for Scripture to say many things that are different (in appearance and in regard to the literal meaning of the words) from the absolute truth…. I do not think that one has to believe that the same God who has given us senses, language, and intellect would want to set aside the use of these and give us by other means the information we can acquire with them, so that we would deny our senses and reason even in the case of those physical conclusions which are placed before our eyes and intellect by our sensory experiences or by necessary demonstration.

In the same letter he affirmed: “the holy Bible can never speak untruth—whenever its true meaning is understood.”

Incidentally, long before Galileo, Augustine (whom Galileo quotes in this letter) wrote along these lines in The Literal Meaning of Genesis (1.42-43):

it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn….If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

I mentioned how Genesis 1-2, the latter chapters of Job, and Psalm 104 (a creation psalm) doesn’t speak with scientific precision, but often creates certain pictures or images for us without giving the technical details. For example, Genesis 1 speaks of the greater and lesser lights, but this doesn’t mean that there aren’t larger bodies in space. The Scriptures often use phenomenological language—the way things appear to us—just as meteorologists speak of “sunrise” and “sunset.”

Yes, Genesis speaks of an absolute beginning in 1:1—a doctrine that has scientific implications. (On this see William Craig’s and my book Creation Out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration [Baker Academic/Apollos]). (When I mentioned to Al that the Big Bang offers strong support for the existence of a personal Creator, he admitted that this was the strongest available evidence coming out of science that points us to some Cause outside the universe.) Yet the Genesis text goes on to speak of three days in which God creates the “forms” or the “realms” that are then filled or populated in the last three days. The emphasis is more theological and literary than scientific. And the word “day” itself in Genesis 1-2 has at least three distinct meanings in Genesis—the period of daylight, and the length of each of the six “days,” and the “day” in which God made heaven and earth (2:4). So there’s variation within the Genesis text itself concerning what “day” means. And we could add that the seventh “day” is still continuing, as God has rested (and continues to rest) from his initial creation.

In our conversation, I mentioned Stanley Jaki’s book The Savior of Science, which documents how modern science emerged precisely because of the Jewish-Christian worldview: God is the Creator of all the reality outside of himself; humans are made in God’s image and can understand the orderly world God has made; humans aren’t divine, nor are they just animals. The latter are the sorts of beliefs that created “stillbirths” in science in other civilizations. Those who think that God and science are worlds apart fail to remember that theistic assumptions are woven into the very fabric of modern science.

What about the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to Galileo? This is an unfortunate historical fact, but as we’ve seen, Galileo wasn’t opposing Scripture. Rather, he was running up against an Aristotelian worldview (mediated in part by Thomas Aquinas’s influence). Historians of science have pointed out that, as modern science emerged, divergent philosophical assumptions shaped approaches to science. For example, the Aristotelian angle favored a God-as-Architect perspective. This view (1) stressed God’s transcendence, his rationality, and his purposes in nature (“final causes”); (2) emphasized creation as below God in the hierarchy of being; (3) promoted geocentrism (an earth-centered perspective); (4) claimed that planets’ orbits were perfect spheres, and the stars were changeless; (5) emphasized the importance of rationality/logical reasoning as scientific; (6) viewed the universe as an organism; (7) inspired astronomy.

On the other hand, resurgent Platonism took the God-as-Artisan view. This outlook (1) stressed God’s immanence, His indwelling Spirit operating through natural processes; (2) emphasized the creation as “God’s body”; (3) promoted heliocentrism; (4) claimed the planetary orbits were “less-perfect” ellipses; (5) emphasized the importance of mystical insight or spiritual inspiration (which God bestows) as scientific; (6) viewed the universe as being somewhat magical; planets had their own built-in homing devices; (7) inspired chemistry (“spirits”).

At any rate, Galileo and Copernicus opposed certain Aristotelian assumptions (mathematically perfect, earth-centered universe with heavenly bodies moving in perfect circles); they favored a more Platonic view in certain aspects (elliptical orbits, heliocentrism). Interestingly, both men had the support of many churchmen. Any ecclesiastical opposition to Galileo was because Aristotelian scientists and university students pressured church officials to oppose him. From the empirical angle, evidence kept mounting against an Aristotelian perspective favoring the changeless heavens. In 1572, a new star was discovered by European observers. (Some of the Aristotelian-minded called this an optical illusion!) A comet streaking through space in 1577 was another blow to the Aristotelian worldview. Then in October 1604, Galileo observed a supernova explosion through his telescope—further disconfirmation of the Aristotelian view of things. The elliptical orbits of the plants—not the Aristotelian perfect circles—had empirical support as well.

As Alister McGrath points out in his Twilight of Atheism, the notion that God and science are inherently contradictory is a late nineteenth-century invention. Historians of science no longer accept the God-vs.-science mythology as having any historical substance. The Galileo affair actually helps highlight Galileo’s own commitment to the harmony of science and Scripture. As we’ve pointed out, the biblical worldview helped give birth to modern science. Jesus, as Stanley Jaki has put it, is “the Savior of science.”

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8 Responses to “The Galileo Incident: A Clash of Faith and Science?”

  1. So did Al listen to all this and how did he respond?

  2. We disagree on some foundational ideas here so I will restrict myself to mention some minor issues.

    A comet streaking through space in 1577 was another blow to the Aristotelian worldview.

    I am not sure why you think this would be the case. Comets have been known about for millennia prior. There would have been an explanation.

    I will add that the conflict was not particularly scientific at the time, Galileo’s lack of diplomacy to the Pope didn’t help things. This article is useful about the affair.

    The ironic thing is that those who (falsely) claim this is science versus religion (note that Galileo was religious and believed in a young earth) miss the fact that their analogy is better described as an unpopular view (Galileo) pitted against the accepted dogma of the powers (church/state). In modern times the accepted dogma (Darwinism) is that which refuses to be challenged.

  3. Bethyada-

    “In modern times the accepted dogma (Darwinism) is that which refuses to be challenged.”

    As well as some hermeneutical approaches/interpretations found within segments of the church.

  4. While Copernicus was running up against an Aristotelian world view, he was also opposed by the church on scriptural grounds. It wasnt just the Catholic church, but Protestants as well. Luther, Calvin and Melanthon all spoke out against Copernicus by citing the literal interpretation of the scriptures that spoke of the sun traveling around the earth. Luther pointed out the in Joshua, God told the sun to stand still, not the earth.

    The scientific discoveries of Copernicus (and later Galileo) caused the church to eventually change its interpretaton of these scriptures.

  5. It is also helpful and illustrative to examine what happened in the lives of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) and Johann Keppler (1571-1630).

    Brahe was a very diligent observer and tireless worker and accumulated a massive data collection on stellar and planetary positions and movements. He hoped both to reconcile astronomy with Scriptural teaching as commonly understood (geocentric) and to remove the necessity of placing the stars far beyond the outermost planet as was required by the heliocentric scheme. His careful observations revealed significant problems with the geocentric theory and the theory of the closeness of the stars, but he died without changing his beliefs in the standard Church teaching of heliocentrism (there was some acceptance of heliocentricism in some parts of the church, and openness to it in other parts, but it was decidedly the minority view).

    Upon Brahe’s death, Kepler obtained his data and in 1597 published a book (“The Cosmographic Mystery”) defending heliocentrism, and in 1609 published “New Astronomy” in which he rejecting traditional circles and epicycles in favour of their replacement with elliptical orbits. He was attacked by many church leaders. This is how Kepler responded:

    “Astronomy discloses the causes of natural phenomena and takes within its purview the investigation of optical illusions. Much loftier subjects are treated by Holy Writ, which employs popular speech in order to be understood . . . Not even astronomers cultivate astronomy with the intention of altering popular speeds. Yet while it remains unchanged, we seek to open the doors of truth [T]his is all the more reason not to require divinely inspired Scripture to abandon the popular style of speech, weigh its words no the precision balance of natural science, confuse Gods simple people with unfamiliar and inappropriate utterances about matters which are beyond the comprehension of those will) are to he instructed, and thereby block their access to the far more elevated authentic goal of Scripture.

    “In our days all the most outstanding philosophers and astronomers agree with Copernicus . . . Yet the authorities are cast aside by most educated people, whose knowledge is on a level not much higher than the uneducated. Acting by themselves and blinded by ignorance, first they condemn a discordant and unfamilar doctrine as false. After deciding that it must be completely rejected and destroyed, they look around for authorities, with whom they protect and arm themselves. On the other hand they would make an exception of these same authorities, sacred and secular alike … if they found them aligned on the side if the unconventional doctrine. They show this attitude in connection with, the book of Job, chapter 38, when anybody proves by means of it that the earth is flat, stretched to the tautness of a line, and resting on certain foundations, according to the literal meaning. (Epitome of Copernican Astronomy, 1618)

  6. As for the statement… “At any rate, Galileo and Copernicus opposed certain Aristotelian assumptions (mathematically perfect, earth-centered universe with heavenly bodies moving in perfect circles”, Only 1/3 of it is correct. Neither Galileo nor Copernicus could get away from mathematically perfect circular orbits (PLEASE READ Nicolai Copernici Torinensis De revolutionibus orbium coelestium – on the Revolutions of the Heavenly SPHERES), they only moved the center from the earth to the sun (no small feat). On philosophical and religious grounds, both Copernicus and Galileo OPPOSED elliptical orbits. Kepler promoted elliptical orbits, and went to Galileo for support, but did NOT get it, much to his disappointment. This only shows just how hard it was to break away from Aristotelian principles … and for good reason, they hold together so well, and at the same time, were so adaptable. In short, Copernicus was a churchman and mathematical astronomer, Galileo was a physicist (important works almost all in physical dynamics) and Kepler was a 16th/17th C. cosmologist, meaning , he combined alchemy, cosmology, and mathematical astronomy and synthesized them into a new way (truly new in all aspects for the first time) of looking at the heavens. The combined effort of these three great minds could finally pry astronomy and physics away from its Aristotelian moorings. Isaac Newton, well, we’ll save that for another time (in some sense he was the combination of these three , and then some).

  7. By the way, Copernicus did not really discover anything new, certainly not by way of “observation”, he invented/modelled it (the mathematical data) in a new way. There is a difference. Don’t get me wrong, there was significant import to this shift, which however, did not seem to upset Copernicus or other supporters of his day. However, this import is philosophical , not “scientific” in the modern sense… even though Copernicus’ mathematical modelling required no physical belief change, it just made the model simpler, and a (very) little more accurate. Ptolemy’s data (ca 2nd C AD) was enough for Copernicus to do his mathematical gymnastics. Galileo discovered sort of something new.. such as imperfections in the surface fo the moon, which lent evidence against a “unchanging divine heavens”. Kepler discovered elliptical orbits, or rather postulated them, and then, by way of Tycho’s data and some very weird thought patterns (by modern standards only), found a way to support them.

  8. Ad bethyada: The significance of the comet of 1577 was that, at that point, observational data could nail down the fact that it was not a sublunar phenomenon. Hence there was change in the heavens. (The prior view had been that comets were phenomena below the sphere of the moon and hence not really part of the heavens.) The key geometrical ideas to show this from observational data had been worked out by Tycho Brahe in De Nova Stella, a work about the nova of 1572.

    Ad marlin wall: During his own lifetime, Copernicus did not get in trouble with the Church. Cardinal Schoenberg even wrote him a nice letter asking for a copy of his work on the motion of the earth. The Council of Trent was convened just after Copernicus’s death; that is when positions really began to harden.

    Ad everyone: It is generally forgotten that the Inquisition was inclined to release Galileo with the mildest slap on the wrist, but the Pope personally intervened and insisted on a harsher sentence. The indispensable work on this is Maurice Finocchiaro, The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History.

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