Science & The Bible: The Galileo Controversy (S+R in Conflict)

Hello, and happy weekend! Last week we talked about Science & The Bible: Transhumanists, Bioconservatives, and the Role of the Bible, but why is there so much mistrust between the scientific and religious communities? To answer this, we look back at a particular era in history, which eventually led to the trial and condemnation of the astronomer and philosopher Galileo Galilei.


This week’s readings include Joshua 10, Psalm 19, Gary B. Ferngren’s “Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction” (pp. 93-176), Galileo’s “Letter to Castelli”, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina”, and some selections from the Inquisition Proceedings.

Here are some of the questions that we will be discussing this week:

  1. On what evidentiary basis was the official doctrine of a geocentric cosmos maintained in the period prior to Galileo? What was the relationship between this orthodoxy and the biblical evidence?
  2. From what did Galileo derive his vision of a heliocentric cosmos? Does this cosmology directly conflict with the biblical evidence? How?
  3. What principles govern Galileo’s interpretation of the Bible? How do these differ from the principles of allegoresis apparent in the writings of Philo and Origen?

The idea of a geocentric cosmos was founded on a few passages in scripture, for example in Joshua 10, God commanded the sun to stand still while Israel gained victory over Gibeon, or in Psalm 104, “Thou disdst set set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be shaken”.

For a long time, this was the common belief, that the earth was a sphere which didn’t turn and where the universe revolved around it. Galileo was a Copernican, which meant that he believed that the cosmos was heliocentric – which meant that yes, the moon revolved around the earth, but the earth revolved around the sun. Before and during Galileo’s life, nobody was ever able to come up with conclusive evidence, and Copernicanism was only a recent theory.

In those times, scientific inquiry was satisfied by rereading Aristotle’s teachings. However, Galileo actually conducted experiments in the natural world and was able to disprove that the speed of a free falling object was not proportional to its weight, unlike what Aristotle taught. Eventually, he heard of the invention of the telescope, and adapted the device so that he could observe sunspots, craters on the moon, and the moons of other planets.

To explain retrograde motion (the motion of the planets moving back and forth rather than in one direction) the rotation of the sun, and other phenomena, Galileo hypothesized a model where the sun was in the center of the universe. Perhaps if it had happened a century earlier or a century later in history, this finding would have been acceptable. However, the Catholic Church was in a defensive state of mind due to the Reformation and the Counter Reformation with the Protestants, and was not ready to be challenged with such a new idea.

Copernicanism was condemned, but Galileo was given permission to write about his theory hypothetically when there was a new Pope. When he published a series of dialogues discussing the truth of the theory, he was put on trial and sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his days.

Ironically, while he was convicted for heresy, Galileo lamented that he put up with his hardships with the patience of a saint when his opponents used holy scripture for less than holy purposes, and had not refrained from machination and calumny.

If we take the bible literally and interpret that the earth does not move, then what Galileo proposed does conflicts with scripture.

Galileo himself didn’t believe that the evidence conflicted with the existence or authority of God, because he believed in allegoresis – the non-literal exegesis of scripture. He said that scripture doesn’t lie or err, but the interpretations of it can. Scripture and nature are both derived from God’s divine word, and while scripture is there to be understood by the common people, nature simply exists, both inexorable and immutable. Therefore, the bible doesn’t describe everything in the universe (he pointed out that the stars were not named even though the apostles probably knew some astronomy), but only teaches the things useful for salvation, or “how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes”.

In this interpretation Galileo was actually exhibiting some Protestantism. They believed that God could be accessible not only through the clergy, but to every person through prayer and study of scripture, and therefore that individuals could come to their own interpretations of the Word.

Philo and Origen were philosophers who read the bible allegorically. For example, Philo was a Jew who tried to show that biblical commands had a second meaning – eating differently points to a pure or moral lifestyle – so that the literal meaning of the bible was its body, but the allegory was its soul. Origen liked exploring all the possible meanings of the text, and believed that this opened up the mysteries of God’s divinity.

These philosophers treated the bible as a starting point for the discovery of many spiritual significances of morals, theology, mysticism, etc. While Galileo certainly saw certain parts of the bible as allegory as well, first and foremost, he believed that scripture and nature came from the same source, and that one didn’t literally or completely explain the other. Galileo’s use of allegory seems to be more like a form of accommodationism with science than a searching for deeper truths in the text itself.

Thoughts? Questions? Leave it all in the comments below!


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