Galileo and Other Good Books about Science and the Bible
I’m often asked to recommend a book or two about science and the Bible. Not everyone’s needs and interests are the same, but in most cases I suggest some of the titles that BioLogos has already identified as potentially helpful to many Christians. I usually begin by suggesting a book called Origins, written by two scientists from Calvin College, astronomer Deborah B. Haarsma and her husband, biophysicist Loren D. Haarsma. Although it is published by the Christian Reformed Church, a strongly Calvinist body, there is no reason why Christians from other traditions would not find much food for thought here. Indeed, the current edition was recently revised by the authors to widen its appeal outside Reformed circles. An accompanying web site provides extensive additional resources of very high quality. I’ve used this book with Messiah College students (most of whom are not Reformed) since it first came out, with excellent results, and several friends have told me how helpful it has been to them. This is simply the best book about Genesis and science for most Christian readers.
For those who want something more academic than Haarsma & Haarsma, I almost always recommend Species of Origins, by physicist Karl W. Giberson (formerly Vice-President of BioLogos) and historian Donald A. Yerxa. Accurate, thoughtful, and comprehensive in scope, this is where to go for a clear introduction to the philosophical, cultural, and theological dimensions of the current debate over origins. They do not argue for any particular view; they simply explain views held by others. In addition to analyzing three views that are popular among Christians—scientific creationism, theistic evolution, and intelligent design—the authors also present those of six leading agnostics and atheists, including Richard Dawkins and the late Carl Sagan. Giberson develops the material on religious skeptics much more fully in another book, Oracles of Science, which he wrote with the late Mariano Artigas, a Roman Catholic priest and philosopher. I recommend that for anyone who wants a good primer on that group of authors.
I might recommend other general books (those that look at the conversation broadly) later, but let’s stop with these three for now. If anyone wants to add comments about any of them, it would be great to have them!
Shortly after my first column appeared, a friend who home-schools his children expressed interest in my involvement with BioLogos. He made a point of telling me that it is hard for him to find materials about science that do not push the YEC view—a view that he once held himself, and a view that is very popular among home-schoolers. I told him about a new web site designed for the needs of his family. It’s really a one-person operation at the moment. Douglas Hayworth, the biologist responsible for the content, would be glad to have good material he can use, especially detailed reviews of textbooks and other curriculum materials. If you think you could help him, please don’t hesitate to visit that site and drop him a line. Tell him I sent you.
Galileo’s “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina”
At the end of my last column, I said that I was about to introduce you to the most important book that has ever been written about science and the Bible. Were you able to guess which book I had in mind? It’s none other than the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, Concerning the Use of Biblical Quotations in Matters of Science, written in 1615 by the great mathematician Galileo Galilei (1564-1642).
Hold the phone, you might be saying to yourself—isn’t Galileo the guy who got in trouble for trying to prove that the earth goes around the sun? Didn’t we settle that issue a long time ago? Why is his Letter to Christina such a crucial text? What possible relevance—let alone importance—could it possibly have for us today?
Actually, there are still a few folks who haven’t accepted a moving earth. Perhaps we’ll have to say more about that at some point, but let’s not get into that right now. I’ll just mention two of several web sites where you can investigate if you wish: http://galileowaswrong.blogspot.com/ and http://www.geocentricity.com/. For most of us, this really is a dead issue. What’s the last time you heard a sermon or read an editorial arguing against Copernicus? Precisely because the motion of the earth does not concern us today, we are better able to evaluate his views with impartiality, taking what is helpful and applying it to other issues that may concern us more today—such as origins. Whether or not we like his answers, Galileo asked many of the right questions about the Bible and science:
- What is the primary purpose of the Bible?
- Who is the audience for the Bible?
- How does an infinite creator communicate with finite creatures?
- Is the Bible a science book? In other words, can we learn scientific facts and/or theories from the Bible?
- What is the difference between inspiration and interpretation?
- How (if at all) can science help us interpret the Bible?
- How are science and theology related?
Questions like these are still very important. Just as Machiavelli still has a lot to say about politics and human nature, so Galileo still has a lot to say about science and the Bible. Therefore, the first “assignment” in our “course” is to read Galileo’s Letter to Christina, in light of some specific questions I will provide below, and to bring your questions and comments here. We’ll wait a couple of weeks for people get started on this, before I come back with replies and further comments. I’d like to have your thoughts about this text before offering any more of mine.
Stillman Drake’s classic translation of the letter is available at online. Although some readers may choose to skim over several parts, it’s well worth reading in full—but probably not in a single sitting. The following questions will guide our discussion:
- What does Galileo believe in general concerning the language of scripture? What does he believe specifically about the use of the Bible in matters of science? What principle(s) of interpretation does he endorse, and why?
- What does Galileo believe about the nature, scope, and relative certainty or ambiguity of scientific knowledge? What limitations (if any) does he place on science?
- What does Galileo believe about the nature, scope, and relative certainty or ambiguity of theological knowledge? What limitations (if any) does he place on theology?
- Galileo employs at least three different metaphorical models to describe the relation between science and faith: the “two books” or “harmony” model (theology and science in agreement), the “separation” model (theology and science as dealing with different things), and the “handmaiden” model (theology as “queen” and science as “handmaiden”). What is his attitude toward each of these models?
- How do you respond to Galileo: What do you like about his position (and why)? What do you have reservations about (and why)?
Finally, I should give a little background about the historical context in which the letter was written. Nicolaus Copernicus, a minor official of the Catholic Church in what is now part of Poland, published his famous book about the solar system, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs, in the year 1543. It was a highly mathematical book—not for casual readers—and his conclusion that the earth is hurtling around the sun at thousands of miles an hour while spinning on its axis once a day stands in clear opposition to ordinary experience. If we’re really going that fast, why can’t we tell? Why don’t we fly off the earth, as mud flies off a rotating wheel? Why aren’t clouds and flying birds left behind by the rapid motion of the earth's surface? Consequently, most readers found the radical ideas of Copernicus impossible to take seriously, let alone accept.
Readers also raised theological objections. In a number of places the Bible seems to speak of the motion of the sun or the immobility of the earth. (For example, take a look at Joshua 10:12-14, Psalm 19:4-6, Psalm 93:1, Psalm 104:5, Isaiah 38:8, or Ecclesiastes 1:5.) When they interpreted texts like these, most Protestant and Catholic theologians quite naturally assumed that the Scriptures bore witness to the plain and obvious fact (as they regarded it at the time) that the sun goes around the earth, not vice versa.
For several decades after the publication of Copernicus’ book, hardly anyone really believed in the earth’s motion around the sun. Indeed, historians can identify only about a dozen people in this category prior to 1610, when Galileo published the first scientific treatise based on observations made with a telescope. Some of the things that Galileo saw in the space of a few short years with his new instrument—the phases of Venus, the moons of Jupiter, spots on the sun and mountains on the moon—were difficult or impossible to reconcile with the scientific picture of the universe that had been almost universally accepted since the time of Aristotle (who worked in the fourth century before Christ).
Although Galileo had not discussed theology in any way, he was soon attacked by certain conservative priests who saw his views as contrary to Scripture. In order to defend the new ideas, Galileo penned a long position paper, in the form of an open letter to Christina of Lorraine, the mother of his patron Cosimo II de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Ordinarily, Galileo would not have been interested in this topic (science and the Bible), but he knew that the Duchess was skeptical of the Copernican theory and concerned that it might contradict Scripture. Galileo heard about this from his friend and former student, a Benedictine monk named Benedetto Castelli who taught mathematics at the University of Pisa. The Duchess had been talking to Castelli and some others about this, and Galileo thought it was time to weigh in. He first formulated his thoughts in a letter to Castelli from December 1613. About eighteen months later, he wrote an expanded version for Christina.
In the Letter to Christina, Galileo relied heavily on ideas taken from St. Augustine, who had cautioned Christians not to take literally those portions of the Bible that dealt with astronomy: wishing to convey spiritual truths to the faithful—who were usually unlearned—the Holy Spirit had employed popular language that was not meant to be scientifically correct. This notion is called “accommodation” (if you follow that link keep in mind that Galileo was almost certainly not reading Calvin), and Galileo used it to argue that Copernicanism is not heretical merely because it goes against the unadorned meaning of certain Scriptural passages. He also pointed out that heliocentrism had been proposed by a good Catholic (Copernicus), who had published his views at the encouragement of important Church officials.
Incidentally, Galileo’s description of Copernicus as a “priest” is erroneous. Although Copernicus was responsible for an altar in the Cathedral at Frombork, where his uncle was the Bishop, he was never ordained a priest; that is a persistent myth for which there is no evidence. A great Copernicus expert, the late Edward Rosen, investigated this with great care many years ago. If you really want the details (Rosen lays them all out in his customary manner), you can see them here.
Happy reading! I look forward to following your responses. I’ll be back in two weeks.
Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.