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.”