The Galileo Incident

Russell  Maatman

Dordt College
Sioux Center, IA 51250

[From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 46 (September 1994):179]
1994 Americian Scientific Affiliation


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Is the conventional evaluation of the "Galileo incident" correct? Many people buttress their claim that religion and natural science cannot mix by citing a single historical horror story: the tragic error made by the Roman Catholic Church when it interfered with the work of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) in the seventeenth century. In my view, however, a different story emerges from recent studies.1

The Prevailing Attitude

Colin A. Ronan, in his biography of Galileo, states:

Galileo does stand as a classic example of the evils of a totalitarian regime. He was persecuted [by men who] were afraid of the power of independent thought. Galileo...cut right across the religious authority of the Church...[His persecutors] took the one course they could: they stifled the dissension at its source.2

  A.G. Fraser, an English geologist, says:

[W]e need to be careful, in case, in the name of biblical orthodoxy, we again place greater limits on science than are proper. The falsely based hostility of the church to Galileo's acceptance of the Copernican system of astronomy is a very unhappy historical precedent.3

Paul Liben recently claimed:

In centuries past, science's boundaries were continually threatened with invasion by the forces of institutionalized religion. One of the most egregious examples of this was the persecution of Galileo at the hands of the seventeenth-century Roman Catholic Church...[This is] an example of the bullying of science by those having an apparent stake in the upholding of a particular religious world view.4

Clearly, what many people are saying, then, is that we should not repeat the mistake the church made when it condemned Galileo's work.

Background of the Controversy

Charles Hummel's analysis suggests an accurate attitude might be somewhat different:

The real authoritarianism that engineered Galileo's downfall was that of the Aristotelian scientific outlook in the universities. Only after Galileo had attacked that establishment for decades did his enemies turn their controversy into a theological issue.5

What about the Aristotelian scientific outlook in the universities to which Hummel refers? I believe that historical studies, particularly those concerning the role of Aristotelianism, lead us to a conclusion different from the conventional one.

During the early centuries of the New Testament era, Christians began to provide answers to pagan Greek philosophers. Augustine (354-430), who wanted to Christianize philosophy, emphasized that Christianity is a religion not only of redemption but also of creation. In the centuries after Augustine, the source of much natural scientific learning in the West continued to be Greek natural science, transmitted by the church fathers. Christian thinking was incorporated and eventually there was a synthesis, which, however, did not lead to a crisis before the twelfth century. Christian theologians could emphasize the creation aspect of this teaching, while insisting that matter and God were not co-eternal.

Later, beginning in the twelfth century, scholars translated many more ancient Greek works, including those of Aristotle, into Latin. Translation was completed by about 1225. The situation was then, as Edward Grant says, "truly menacing" for the church: scholars like Honorius of Autun (fl. 1122) and Thierry of Chartres (d. ca. 1155) advocated study of "nature for its own sake" and resented ecclesiastical authority looking over their shoulders. They wanted reasons for physical phenomena, not, as Grant says, a "mere appeal to God's omnipotence or a biblical passage..." Instead of using the Bible to understand nature, natural science would encroach upon theology. Grant continues: "Thus were the seeds of science-theology confrontation planted, the bitter fruits of which would grow to maturity in the thirteenth century following upon the introduction of Aristotle's scientific works.6

There were several unsuccessful attempts early in the thirteenth century to ban Aristotle. But from about the mid-13th century to 1650 his works were an important part of the arts curriculum.

Evidently some scholars were saying that God, because of the very nature of creation, was limited. But some thinkers wished to adhere to traditional Christian doctrines; others were affected by Aristotelian natural philosophy, a philosophy that limited God. The traditionalists questioned the teachings of Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274), who held that Aristotle was a great philosopher-scientist who had reached a very high level without the benefit of revelation. According to Gary Deason, Aquinas held that Aristotle's principles of nature were put there by God and used by him in his providential work. Deason adds, "God cooperated with natural powers in a way that respected their integrity while accomplishing his purposes.7 Eugene Klaaren states that this synthesis led to serious difficulty:

[S]iger of Brabant's fusion of the classical Greek view of the natural world and a thoroughly ontological orientation to creation was read as a dangerous sign. Such a complete union of Christian belief in creation and Aristotelian natural philosophy called into question the basic direction of Thomas' achievement.8

Eventually traditional theologians realized that it was not enough to warn of the dangers of applying Aristotelian philosophy to theology. At their urging, the Bishop of Paris condemned thirteen propositions in 1270, and in 1277 expanded the list to 219 articles. This was the Condemnation of 1277.9 It is a landmark in the interaction between theology and natural science, even though its articles are diverse, repetitious, and sometimes internally contradictory. Certain articles were directed at specific people, such as Siger of Brabant and Thomas; some of those were nullified in 1325. Even so, the effect of the articles was very great throughout the fourteenth century.

The Condemnation insisted that God has absolute power and opposed Aristotelian natural philosophy where it compromised this absolute power. Thus, some articles maintained that the world has not existed from eternity, that God did create the world from nothing, that he could move the world in a straight line and leave empty space behind, that he could create more than one world, and that species have not existed eternally.10 Grant summarizes: "God could produce actions that were naturally impossible in the Aristotelian world view. It was thus Aristotelian natural philosophy on which the Condemnation of 1277 pressed most heavily.11

The Condemnation did not inhibit scientists. It was actually positive. It said that God can create other worlds; God, not creation, is eternal; God can move our world and create a vacuum; God can bring about events we cannot explain. Contrary to the natural and perpetual motion in the heavens postulated by Aristotle, God can counteract heavenly motion: he, not the natural world, is in control. The declarations of the Condemnation condemned those who would limit God, those who said in effect, "If my net [my natural science] cannot catch [explain] it, it isn't a fish [a fact]." The opponents of Aristotle emphasized God's free will; creation is completely dependent on God.

From the fourteenth century to Galileo, there was a compromise. The church permitted Aristotelians to deny the existence of other worlds...providing they allowed that God could create them. They were even allowed to hypothesize that the world has existed from eternity. Thus one was allowed to consider the ideas rejected in the Condemnation, but not teach them.

The Condemnation was probably responsible for people considering ideas that would otherwise not have been taken up...a first step away from Aristotelianism. Insistence that God can do anything opened the way to new possibilities. Since God could make many worlds, what would things then be like? Near the end of the thirteenth century, Richard of Middleton (d. ca. 1300) claimed that such other worlds would be like ours; then there would be no one "center" of creation.12 During the fourteenth century others, including William of Ockham (ca. 1300-1350) and Nicole Oresme (ca. 1320-1382), made similar claims. Emphasizing God's absolute power, they concluded that it was not necessary to hold with Aristotle that the earth is at the center of the universe. Some natural philosophers went beyond consideration of hypothetical situations: for them, certain new models reflected reality. For example, God's immensity suggests infinite space.

Biblical exegesis was less literal concerning physical phenomena in the latter part of the Middle Ages. A great deal of allegorical interpretation of Scripture was acceptable. Even though allegory was not allowed to account for descriptions of the motion of the sun, Nicole of Oresme developed an interesting idea. He assumed the biblical account of the sun standing still for Joshua (Josh. 10:12-14) is based on the smallest possible change in the normal order. The observed effect could be obtained if the relatively small earth, not the sun and the rest of the heavens, stood still; then night and day occur because the earth rotates daily. But he did not suggest that the earth moves around the sun. Eventually he made his statement about daily rotation only hypothetical; he succumbed to the compromise concerning the actual and the hypothetical.13

Thus, people like Nicole of Oresme compromised when they said their deductions did not correspond to reality: yes, the earth can rotate, but no, it actually does not. Their compromise was an unstable situation. When Copernican data influenced Galileo, the inevitable occurred: the yes-it-can but no-it-doesn't situation had to end. Marinus Stafleu explains that the practice of "double truth" could not continue:

The practice of the "double truth" provided the medieval scholars with a certain margin, within which they were free to investigate and discuss anything, if only they ultimately submitted themselves to the authority of the church...[When this authority waned] the practice of double truth became discredited.14

The Condemnation had positive effects. The general acceptance of the ideas that God was free to act was one good result. Thus, God freely decided to create, and acts from outside of history. Those who stressed the freedom of God's will presaged the new science. They disagreed with the church that persecuted Galileo, whose openness toward creation was in line with the spirit of the Condemnation and many pre-thirteenth-century theologians, not with certain ideas preeminent in parts of the Roman Catholic Church by Galileo's time. Klaaren lists specific beneficial consequences of the realization that God created freely. First, humility enhanced empirical respect for fact. Second, reason was nurtured. Third, emphasis on asking questions of creation...with the discovery that it is ordered...encouraged law-like explanations. Fourth, people had a "more liberated exercise" of reason in judging "probable opinions.15

"Conservative" can mean one thing in one context, the opposite in another context: in the Soviet Union it referred to hard-line Communists, while in the West, to hard-line anti-Communists. Similarly, pre-Condemnation theologians were conservative. But contemporary liberals, who advocated fusing Aristotle and Christian doctrine, prevailed. By the seventeenth century the earlier liberal position had become the conservative, orthodox position. On the other hand, examining possibilities (Can other worlds exist? Is the earth at the center?) allowed by the orthodox of the thirteenth century, blossomed into Galileo's liberal position. The conservatives' possibilities of the thirteenth century became the liberals' realities of the seventeenth century.

Had the church heeded the warnings of the Condemnation of 1277, Galileo could have said, "You know that Aristotle was wrong in limiting God. You know we may contemplate the existence of other worlds; that the earth might not be the center of creation; and that the earth might rotate. You also know that parts of the Bible may be interpreted allegorically. If allegorical interpretation is possible, might not some of those contemplations correspond to reality? Will you please look through this telescope?" If the church had not linked Aristotle's limitations on God to the interpretation of the Bible, might not the Galileo incident been something other than a confrontation?  

Analysis of the Galileo incident often rests on a false premise. The false premise is not the assumption that the church unjustly persecuted was unjust...but that the incident is an example of persecution of a natural scientist by untaught nonscientists. Rather, natural scientists who disagreed with the Condemnation of 1277...and insisted on Aristotle...taught the nonscientists. The church should have adhered to the spirit of the Condemnation. Instead, those who led the church away from that spirit said that God is limited.

Today many churches and theologians have great respect for natural scientific conclusions. Sometimes they suppress ideas they would espouse in the absence of those conclusions. Of course, it is wrong to take the opposite approach and reject all natural scientific conclusions related to cosmological questions, such as those concerning origins and order. Not many take that approach. But holding unwarranted respect for all things scientific is dangerous. It was ever so: when Greek science became widely available in the West in the thirteenth century, it eventually helped to provide theologically dogmatic answers to the great cosmological questions. Will modern theologians and churches adopt uncritically modern natural scientific ideas concerning origins and order and convert those ideas to theological dogma today?


1See, for example: David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (eds.), God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); Charles E. Hummel, The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts Between Science and the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986); Eugene M. Klaaren, Religious Origins of Modern Science: Belief in Creation in Seventeenth-Century Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977); and Marinus Dirk Stafleu, Theories at Work: On the Structure and Functioning of Theories in Science, in Particular During the Copernican Revolution (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987).

2Colin A. Ronan, Galileo (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1974), p. 253. Quotation taken from Hummel, p. 13.

3A.G. Fraser, "The Age of the Earth," in Creation and Evolution: When Christians Disagree, Derek Burke (ed.) (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1985), p. 40.

4Paul H. Liben, "Science Within the Limits of Truth," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 44 (1992), 163-68.

5Hummel, p. 123.

6Edward Grant, "Science and Theology in the Middle Ages," in God and Nature, pp. 51-52.

7Gary B. Deason, "Reformation Theology and the Mechanistic Conception of Nature," in God and Nature, p. 169.

8Klaaren, p. 34.

9Grant, pp. 53-54 and n. 17, pp. 71-72; Deason, p. 170; Klaaren, p. 33.

10Grant, pp. 54-59; Klaaren, pp. 34-35.

11Grant, pp. 54-55.

12This analysis is found in Richard of Middleton's commentary on the Sentences of Peter of Lombard (ca. 1100-ca. 1160), a collection of opinions of the church fathers.

13Grant, pp. 65-67. Besides Nicole of Oresme, others who considered the possibility of the daily rotation of the earth were Jean Buridan (ca. 1295-ca. 1358) and Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464); see Stafleu, pp. 35-36.

14Stafleu, p. 36.

15Klaaren, p. 38.

*ASA Fellow