Most of us would surely agree that it is important to distinguish between matters that belong to the core message of the Bible and issues that are less central, where there is room for variation in opinion.1 We also need to be prepared to distinguish between what Scripture actually says and what we think it means. It is Scripture that has the final authority, not our understanding of it. It is a sad spectacle, and one that brings discredit on the Christian message, when those who profess to believe that message belie their profession by fighting among themselves or caricaturing others, rather than engaging in respectful discussion through which all sides might just learn something.
In connection with the motion of the earth, we accept Augustine’s advice because we can now see that, although the Bible texts could be understood to support a fixed earth, there is a reasonable alternative interpretation of those texts that makes far more sense in light of our greater understanding of how the solar system operates.
We know now that the earth does not rest on literal foundations or pillars made of stone, concrete, or steel. We can therefore see that the words “foundations” and “pillars” are used in a metaphorical sense. However, it needs to be emphasized once more that the metaphors stand for realities. God the Creator has built certain very real stabilities into the planetary system that will guarantee its existence so long as is necessary to fulfill his purposes. Science has been able to show us that the earth is stable in its orbit over long periods of time, thanks in part to the obedience of gravity to an inverse square law, to the presence of the moon, which stabilizes the tilt of earth’s axis, and to the existence of the giant planet Jupiter, which helps keep the other planets in the same orbital plane.2 Earth’s stability, therefore, is very real. It is, if you wish, a literal or true stability, even though it does not now make sense to understand the word stability literalistically, as referring to motionlessness.
But there is something more. We accept the metaphorical interpretation because we can see that it is a perfectly sensible and informed understanding of the biblical text. The earth does not have to be at the center of the physical universe in order to be a center of God’s attention. Even though our interpretation relies on scientific knowledge, it does not compromise the authority of Scripture. And this is the important point. Scripture has the primary authority. Experience and science have helped decide between the possible interpretations that Scripture allows.
The vast majority of Christians are therefore perfectly happy with a metaphorical interpretation of the foundations and pillars of the earth. They do not regard it as contrived or subservient to science, even though science has helped them refine and adjust their interpretation.
What, then, should we think of the believers of earlier generations who, for hundreds of years, interpreted the biblical record in terms of a fixed earth? Would we accuse them of not believing the gospel and Scripture, just because they did not know what we now know? Of course not. For them that interpretation made sense of Scripture and fitted in with the best science of the day. Indeed, no one in the ancient world had evidence that the earth moved (although some, like Aristarchus of Samos, had guessed it).
Regarding the attitude of Luther and Calvin, John Hedley Brooke is insightful: “The important point is not whether Luther and Calvin happened to make peremptory remarks, exuding a lifetime’s confidence in a pre-Copernican cosmology, but whether their exegetical principles implied an inevitable clash as the new system gained in plausibility.”3 And Brooke suggests they did not.
Interestingly, the first hard evidence that the earth moved was not found until 1725, when James Bradley, Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford and later Astronomer Royal, deduced it from his observation of the aberration of the star Gamma Draconis.4 The earlier Christian interpretation of Scripture in terms of a fixed earth did not attract the ridicule of nonbelievers, since fixed earth was the dominant view in society as a whole at the time. For many centuries most people never even bothered to question it, simply because there was no reason to do so.
However, once it became generally evident and accepted that the earth did move, and that the Scriptures could be interpreted consistently with that fact without compromising their integrity or authority, thereafter to maintain that Scripture insisted that the earth was fixed in the sky would leave one open to justifiable ridicule, and would bring Scripture into disrepute.
Final Lessons from Galileo
The Galileo incident teaches us that we should be humble enough to distinguish between what the Bible says and our interpretations of it. The biblical text might just be more sophisticated than we first imagined, and we might therefore be in danger of using it to support ideas that it never intended to teach. The Bible could be understood to teach that the earth was fixed. But it does not have to be understood that way. At least, Galileo thought so in his day, and history has subsequently proved him right.
Another lesson in a different direction, but one not often drawn, is that it was Galileo (who believed in the Bible) who was advancing a better scientific understanding of the universe. He was doing so, as we have seen, not only against the obscurantism of some churchmen, but (and first of all) against the resistance (and obscurantism) of the secular philosophers of his time, who, like the churchmen, were convinced disciples of Aristotle. Philosophers and scientists today also have need of humility in light of facts, even if those facts are being pointed out by a believer in God! Lack of belief in God is no more a guarantee of scientific orthodoxy than is belief in God. What is clear, concerning both Galileo’s time and ours, is that criticism of a reigning scientific paradigm5 is fraught with risk, no matter who engages in it.
Finally we see that there are two extremes to be avoided. The first is the danger of tying interpretation of Scripture too closely to the science of the day, as the fixed-earthers did—even though, as we have seen, it is hard to blame them in light of the fact that this view was then the reigning scientific paradigm. Indeed, it is for this reason that I prefer to speak of the convergence between interpretations of Scripture and science at a particular time—for example, the current convergence that there was a beginning, which we shall consider in due course.
The opposite danger is to ignore science. This, as Augustine warned, brings the gospel into disrepute. It is also an obscurantist attitude that finds no support in Scripture. In Romans 1:20, Paul, speaking about God, writes, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” If, therefore, we can learn things about God as Creator from the visible universe, it is surely incumbent upon us to use our God-given minds to think about what these things are, and thus to relate God’s general revelation in nature to his special revelation in his Word so that we can rejoice in both. After all, it was God who put the universe there, and it would be very strange if we had no interest in it.
Finding a balance is not always easy—but we seem to have managed it over the issue of the motion of the earth, even though it only took about seventeen hundred years to get there! I sincerely hope that this means there is hope for us on other controversies. We are about to consider one right now.
1. Of course there will often be difference of opinion as to what is central and what is peripheral.
2. From a mathematical point of view there are some chaotic elements in the dynamics of the planets. We cannot predict accurately where they will be situated in 100 million years’ time, because we cannot measure them accurately enough now. However, these chaotic elements appear to be bounded.
3. John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 96.
4. A star that passes directly overhead in London. Bradley detected an annual variation in the apparent position of stars that was due to changes in the earth’s velocity. Such calculations lead to an estimate for earth’s orbital velocity of 30 km/sec.
5. A paradigm is a big picture or framework within which science is done.