Repeating the Catholics’ Galileo Error
John A. McIntyre*
Texas A&M UniversityCollege Station,
From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 42 (December 2000): 255-259.
Big Bang cosmology presents a challenge to the interpretation of Scripture. This new science describes a universe with an age of at least ten billion years in contrast to the six days of creation in Genesis. A similar challenge was presented in 1633 when the Catholic Church condemned Galileo for supporting the new science of a fixed sun and a moving earth because it disagreed with Scripture. The error of the church was to introduce Scripture into a scientific controversy. Today, however, some evangelicals are opposing the Big Bang because it apparently disagrees with Scripture.
The story of the condemnation of Galileo by the Catholic Church in 1633 is
part of the folklore of modern opponents of the Christian Church. The story is
used to imply that Christians, even today, are anti-intellectual and
superstitious and have yet to come to terms with the scientific age.
Unfortunately, there is truth in this observation. For, in a fundamental sense, some evangelicals today are repeating the steps of the Catholic Church when it was faced with the new science of Galileo. The issue for the Catholic Church was the reinterpretation of Scripture in light of the new scientific discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo. The error of the Catholic Church was to use the authority of Scripture to oppose the new science; today, some evangelicals are repeating the same error by using a literal interpretation of Genesis to oppose Big Bang cosmology.
To make clear the parallels between the present situation and that of Galileo in 1633, we first consider the problem for evangelicals of reconciling the scientific Big Bang with the scriptural six days of creation. We then recall the "traditional" procedure for interpreting Scripture used by the Christian Church from the time of Augustine (400), through Aquinas (1250) and John Calvin (1550), to the present day. We next review the story of Galileo and the Catholic Church and learn how the church misused the "traditional" procedure in condemning Galileo. Finally, we will find that evangelicals today are interpreting Scripture in the same flawed manner as the Catholic Church when confronting the problem of the Big Bang and the six days of Genesis.
The Six Days of Genesis and the Ten Billion Years of Science
In the first edition of his influential book, The First Three Minutes, Steven Weinberg wrote:
The present book is concerned with the early universe, and in particular with the new understanding of the early universe that has grown out of the discovery of the cosmic microwave radiation background in 1965.1In the Afterword to the second edition, Weinberg continued:
Nothing has happened since the book was written in 1976 to change the broad outline of the story. It is still believed that the universe is expanding in the sense that the galaxies are rushing apart from each other.2
And from this picture of an expanding universe, Weinberg concluded:
Our calculations allow us to extrapolate the expansion of the universe backward in time, and reveal that the expansion must have begun between 10,000 and 20,000 million years ago.3
This picture of a universe older than ten billion years is generally accepted by the scientists active in the field of cosmology, as dozens of books written since Weinberg’s will testify. Also, it should be noted, the age of the universe found by cosmologists has nothing to do with biological evolution and all of the controversy surrounding it. Standard physics is used to obtain the ten-billion-year age for the universe. The age is calculated from the cosmic background radiation and from the "red shifts" of light collected each night by telescopes. Unlike the early stages of evolution, the Big Bang can literally be "seen" today in the sky.
In contrast to the ten billion years of science, the simplest reading of the first chapter of Genesis has the creation of the heavens and the earth occurring during a period of six days. Here, there is a vast difference between a literal reading of Genesis and science. Fortunately for Christians today, the Christian Church encountered this same situation when the church moved out of Israel, the land of Scripture, and into the skeptical Greek world of science and philosophy. At that time, the church developed a procedure for dealing with disagreements between Scripture and secular knowledge. We now review this "traditional" procedure that has been used from the time of Augustine to the present day.
The "Traditional" Procedure for Interpreting Scripture
In 1657, Blaise Pascal summarized the "traditional" procedure in his Eighteenth Provincial Letter in the following terms:
According to St. Augustine and St. Thomas, when we meet with a passage even in the Scripture, the literal meaning of which, at first sight, appears contrary to what the senses or reason are certainly persuaded of, we must not attempt to reject their testimony in this case, and yield them up to the authority of that apparent sense of the Scripture, but we must interpret the Scripture, and seek out therein another sense agreeable to that sensible truth … And as Scripture may be interpreted in different ways, whereas the testimony of the senses is uniform, we must in these matters adopt as the true interpretation of Scripture that view which corresponds with the faithful report of the senses (Italics added).
St. Thomas explains his meaning by the example of a passage in Genesis, where it is written that "God created two great lights, the sun and the moon, and also the stars," in which the Scriptures appear to say that the moon is greater than all the stars; but as it is evident, from unquestionable demonstration that this is false, it is not our duty, says that saint, obstinately to defend the literal sense of that passage; another meaning must be sought, consistent with the truth of the fact, such as the following, "That the phrase great light, as applied to the moon, denotes the greatness of that luminary merely as it appears in our eyes, and not the magnitude of its body considered in itself."
An opposite mode of treatment, so far from procuring respect to the Scripture, would only expose it to the contempt of infidels; because, as St. Augustine says, "when they found that we believed, on the authority of Scripture, in things which they assuredly knew to be false, they would laugh at our credulity with regard to its more recondite truths, such as the resurrection of the dead and eternal life." "And by this means," adds St. Thomas, "we would render our religion contemptible in their eyes, and shut up its entrance into their minds."4
It is interesting that Calvin also uses the example of the magnitude of the moon in his Commentary on Genesis (1554). Thus, the reformers, as well as the mediaeval church, accepted the same procedure for dealing with the problems for interpreting Scripture arising from the discoveries of science.
The controlling statement in the "traditional" interpretation has been placed in italic type. When "the faithful report of the senses" (the content of scientific investigation) disagrees with the literal meaning of Scripture, Scripture must be reinterpreted to agree with "the faithful report of the senses." As Pascal says above: "An opposite mode of treatment, so far from procuring respect to the Scripture, would only expose it to the contempt of infidels."
The church has adhered to this procedure throughout its history. Thus, as St. Thomas says above, if the Scripture speaks of the moon being a light greater than the stars, the Scripture should be interpreted to agree with the scientific evidence. Today the scriptural four corners of the earth are not interpreted to contradict the known spherical shape of the earth nor does the scriptural passage, "the earth shall not be moved," lead Christians to believe that the earth does not move around the sun.
When "the faithful report
of the senses" (the content of scientific investigation)
disagrees with the literal meaning of Scripture, Scripture
must be reinterpreted
to agree with "the faithful report of the senses."
It should also be noted that Augustine anticipates an objection to his rule that "we must in these matters adopt as the true interpretation of Scripture that view which corresponds with the faithful report of the senses." The objection is that if the interpretation of Scripture must always agree with the faithful report of the senses, then Christians cannot believe in such recondite (hidden) truths as the resurrection of the dead, which certainly is not in agreement with the faithful report of the senses. Augustine, however, is distinguishing recondite truths from the public truths of science. He is saying that unbelievers will not believe in the hidden truth of the resurrection unless Christians interpret the Scriptures to agree with what the unbeliever already knows from the public truths of science.
We now turn to the history of the conflict between Galileo and the Catholic Church about whether the earth is moving. One would think that the church would have followed the "traditional" procedure described above for settling such a scientific question. However, the issue was not so simple.
The Catholic Church and Galileo
In 1633, Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church on the following grounds:
Believing and holding the doctrines—false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures—that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and the earth does move and is not the center of the world.5
The scriptural statements used by the church were:
The Lord speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets (Ps. 50:1).
The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved(Ps. 93:1).
Galileo’s scientific source for his belief in a moving earth was the Copernican theory of the solar system where the sun is fixed at the center and the earth revolves around its axis. One wonders, then, why Galileo did not use the "traditional" procedure described above to defend himself from the charge of "holding doctrines—false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures." He could have quoted Augustine: "We must in these matters adopt as the true interpretation of Scripture that view which corresponds with the faithful report of the senses."
However, Copernicus’ 1543 description of the solar system was just a theory; it was not "a faithful report of the senses." And Galileo was unable to demonstrate that the earth was indeed rotating on its axis and not the universe revolving around the earth.6 The mathematics was simpler with the Copernican system, of course, but the church, in agreement with the literal interpretation of Scripture, could still claim that, for an observer on the earth, the earth did not move. In fact, it was not until 1838 that Bessel showed that the earth moved in its orbit with respect to a star,7and not until 1851 that Foucault used his pendulum to demonstrate the rotation of the earth.8
For almost all scientists, however, the correct description of the solar system was settled in 1687, long before these dates. It was then that Newton published his mathematically convincing description of Copernicus’ solar system based on a gravitational force attracting all of the planets to the sun. After 1687, then, almost all scientists accepted a solar system with the sun stationary at the center, just as before 1543, almost all scientists accepted a solar system with the earth stationary at the center. Unfortunately, in 1633 during the period of scientific uncertainty, the Catholic Church condemned Galileo for claiming that the sun was stationary. The grounds for the condemnation was that the Holy Scripture said that the earth was stationary. Thus, the church used the authority of Scripture to answer a scientific question.
To compound the error, the scientific answer obtained by using Scripture was incorrect. And, the prediction of Augustine was confirmed:
When they found that we believed, on the authority of Scripture, in things which they assuredly knew to be false, they would laugh at our credulity with regard to its more recondite truths, such as the resurrection of the dead and eternal life.
Consequently, since this mistake of placing the prestige of Scripture above "the faithful report of the senses," opponents of Christianity have rightly been able to criticize Christians for opposing science.
The mistake of the church was to
interpret the passages
in Scripture about the movement of the earth
before the scientists had agreed on the motion of the earth.
Actually, the Catholic Church did not oppose science directly. The church introduced the authority of Scripture at a time when the scientists were in disagreement about the movement of the earth in the solar system. The mistake of the church was to interpret the passages in Scripture about the movement of the earth before the scientists had agreed on the motion of the earth. The lesson of the condemnation of Galileo is that Christians should not incorporate a controversial scientific conclusion into their interpretation of Scripture. The scientists will eventually clarify the scientific situation. They have the tools to obtain the "faithful report of the senses." Christians should wait for the scientific verdict before interpreting Scripture.
Evangelicals and the Big Bang
Evangelical Christians face a problem with the ten-billion-year age of the universe and the Big Bang. Rather than face the problem of incorporating the ten billion years of the Big Bang into the interpretation of the six days of Genesis, some evangelicals have proposed a "creation science" with the six days of Genesis incorporated into the science.9
This "creation science," then, has become a competitor with the "consensus science" of the Big Bang.
By proposing "creation science," these evangelicals cast the age controversy into a form appropriate for the "traditional" procedure for scriptural interpretation. The age controversy is no longer a question of Scripture (six days) against science (ten billion years). Rather the controversy has shifted to a disagreement between two "reports of the senses": on the one hand, "creation science" (six days); on the other hand, "consensus science" (ten billion years). Today, then, the problem of interpreting Scripture (the six days of Genesis) has been reduced to selecting the correct "faithful report of the senses."
It is at this point that some evangelicals are following the steps of the Catholic Church in its confrontation with Galileo. These evangelicals are insisting that Genesis be interpreted according to "creation science," one of the two competing "faithful reports of the senses." Hugh Ross reports many instances where scientists who believe in the Big Bang are not accepted as Christians by evangelical churches.10
In my own denomination, The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the 1998 General Assembly resolved "that the General Assembly erect an Advisory committee to study the exegetical, hermeneutical, and theological interpretations of Genesis 1–3 and the original intent of the Westminster standards’ phrase ‘in the space of six days.’"11
The Committee has now reported, and in June 1999 the 27th General Assembly of the PCA passed a Resolution on Creation (see Appendix). For its interpretation of Genesis, the Resolution has chosen to follow "creation science" which incorporates a literal six- day interpretation of Genesis and disagrees with the scientific consensus on the faithful report of the senses. However, the Resolution does not specifically reject Big Bang cosmology.
The [age] controversy has shifted to a
two "reports of the senses":
on the one hand, "creation science" (six days);
on the other hand, "consensus science"
(ten billion years).
Just as the Catholic Church did with Galileo, these evangelicals are placing the prestige of Scripture on one side of a scientific controversy. The resolution of a controversy about the "report of the senses" will only be found by using the senses. And, the scientists have the tools to sharpen the senses in the interrogation of nature. Christians must be patient until the scientists come to agreement about "the faithful report of the senses" before interpreting a controversial passage in Scripture.
According to the procedure used by Christians throughout the history of the church, the interpretation of the six days of Genesis must incorporate "the faithful report of the senses." At the present time, two different "reports of the senses" are accepted by evangelical Christians: "consensus science" and "creation science." Until there is an agreement on the "faithful report of the senses," evangelicals should defer their scriptural interpretation of the six days of Genesis. Otherwise, they will be repeating the error of the Catholic Church when it selected as scriptural one of two competing "reports of the senses" to condemn Galileo.
1Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes, 2d ed. (New York: Bantam, 1984), ix.
4Blaise Pascal, Pensees, the Provincial Letters (New York: Random House, 1941), Eighteenth Letter.
5Arthur Berry, A Short History of Astronomy (New York: Dover, 1961), 170.
6See, for example, C. E. Hummel, The Galileo Connection (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1986).
7Berry, A Short History of Astronomy, 360.
8The New Columbia Encyclopedia (New York: Columbia, 1975), 2097.
9See, for example, Henry M. Morris and Gary E. Parker, What is Creation Science (El Cajon: Master Books, 1987).
10Hugh Ross, Creation and Time (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994), chapter 4.
11Minutes of the 26th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America.