Long Ago Galileo Sought Truth on Science & Scripture

It is well-known that Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was a giant of modern astronomy and physics. Less well-known is the fact that he wrote thoughtfully both about principles of biblical interpretation and about the relationship of science to theology. His ideas on both subjects are worthy of attention, and his discussion of the latter is particularly important for current debates.

The Copernican view of the cosmos gave the earth a double motion, rotation on its own axis and revolution about the sun. In addition, it stripped the sun of its own daily revolution around the earth, giving it instead a fixed position in the center of the world. In defending this heliocentric model against the traditional, geocentric view, Galileo found himself up against not only scientific but also theological opposition. To many Christians of the day, lay or clerical, the Bible plainly taught that the earth did not move and that the sun circled the earth; therefore, to affirm the Copernican system (as Galileo did) was to deny the truth of Holy Scripture and to open oneself to the charge of heresy.

Galileo undertook to show that the Bible and heliocentrism were not in conflict. In doing so, he set forth some general principles of scriptural interpretation and science-theology relations. He expressed these principles in his letters to the monk and mathematician Benedetto Castelli (1613) and to the Florentine Grand Duchess Christina (1615).

Galileo concedes to his opponents that the biblical teaching is never false: "The Holy Scripture can never lie or err . . . its declarations are absolutely and inviolably true." However, he adds, "though Scripture cannot err, nevertheless some of its interpreters . . . can . . . err in various ways" (letter to Castelli).

Galileo's Principles

A common error of interpreters is uncritical literalism:

[T]o limit oneself always to the literal meaning of the words . . . [can lead to] not only various contradictions but also serious heresies and blasphemies . . . it would be necessary to attribute to God feet, hands, and eyes, as well as bodily and human feelings like anger, regret, hate, and sometimes even forgetfulness of things past and ignorance of future ones. (letter to Castelli)

For Galileo, such anthropomorphic language about God indicates that the biblical writers practiced "accommodation"—the eschewing of philosophically accurate language in favor of popular language, in order to reach the minds of the uneducated. The average reader is no philosopher and cannot grasp the real nature of God, so the Bible condescends to human weakness.

What applies to discussions of God applies also to discussions of nature. The average person cannot follow the technical reasoning needed to establish the actual structure of the universe, and can grasp only models that accord with everyday perception. Since the earth appears to remain still (Ps. 93:1, Ps. 104:5) and the sun appears to rise and set daily (Eccl. 1:5, Ps. 113:3, Josh. 10:12), the biblical authors use the language of geocentrism, but this does not imply their endorsement of that system:

[Because] of the aim of adapting itself to the capacity of unrefined and undisciplined peoples, Scripture has not abstained from somewhat concealing its most basic dogmas, thus attributing to God himself properties contrary to and very far from his essence; so who will categorically maintain that, in speaking . . . of the earth or the sun or other creatures, it abandoned this aim and chose to restrict itself rigorously . . . [to the] narrow meanings of the words? (letter to Castelli)

The second important principle invoked by Galileo is the division of intellectual labor between science and theology. For Galileo, the purpose of science is to investigate nature, whereas the purpose of theology is to teach the knowledge necessary for salvation:

[T]he authority of Holy Scripture aims chiefly at persuading men about those articles and propositions which, surpassing all human reason, could not be discovered by scientific research or by any other means than through the mouth of the Holy Spirit himself. (letter to the Grand Duchess)

Put another way, "the intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how one goes to heaven and not how heaven goes" (letter to the Grand Duchess). Thus, when Scripture is read properly, there can be no conflict between its teachings and those of natural science.

Gould's NOMA

Ideas found in old books may have long careers. Nearly four centuries later, Galileo's principles of "accommodation" and of the "distinction between science and theology" are very much alive in discussions of faith and science (figuring frequently, for example, in the literature of theistic evolution). Notably, the latter principle was championed by Stephen Jay Gould:

No . . . conflict should exist, because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority, and these magisteria do not overlap (the principle that I would like to designate as NOMA, or "nonoverlapping magisteria"). The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap . . . we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven. ("Nonoverlapping Magisteria," Natural History, March 1997).

Not Easily Separable

Here we see not only Galileo's basic idea but even a bit of Galileo's phrasing. However, Gould concedes a potential problem:

This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man's land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. . . . [T]he sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult.

To Galileo, it seemed obvious that the Bible's subject was human salvation and not cosmography; therefore, he could use a NOMA-like argument for the compatibility of Copernicus with Scripture. Gould, however, lived in our time, when the theory of evolution has "bumped right up against" theology, because both the Bible and evolution give an account of the origin of man, and the Bible's discussion of man is not, like its discussion of the motions of the earth and sun, incidental to its message, but at the very heart of it.

Gould seems aware that from the Christian point of view, what man is (a question of "moral meaning and value" in Gould's phrase) and how man came to be (a question about "the empirical universe" in Gould's phrase) are not easily separable. Thus, Galileo's generic solution to the problem of science/faith conflict, which seemed so suitable when the science in question was astronomy, is not so clearly applicable when the science in question is evolutionary biology.

Despite this insight, Gould does not waver, and concludes that NOMA is a fundamentally sound principle. Having alerted us to the possibility that Galileo's principle might be insufficient, he backs away from a full critical analysis of it. This is unfortunate, at a time when such an analysis would be most helpful. •

received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He writes on education, politics, religion, and culture.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #41, Summer 2017 Copyright © 2019 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo41/departed-harmony