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Galileo and Other Good Books about Science and the Bible

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April 17, 2012 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now
Galileo and Other Good Books about Science and the Bible

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. You can read more about what we believe here.

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

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Ted Davis - #69613

April 29th 2012

CHANGE OF PLANS TO ANNOUNCE: My next column, which will delve more deeply into the issues raised by Galileo’s “Letter,” will not appear as planned on 1 May. A family wedding and final exams necessitate the postponement. Look for it on 8 May instead.

Bozzie61 - #69646

May 2nd 2012


I have some issues with Stillman Drake’s English translation.  He uses the word science, first used as a description of a field of study or studies in the 1830s, over 200 years after Galileo wrote this letter.  It might be different Galileo’s era, but letters rarely I have received had margin notes in a letter.  According to the first footnote, this letter had margin note with reference material.  This leads to the conclusion to a twenty first century scholar that this is a draft of the letter Galileo sent, not the final letter, if that is so, it an example of a work in progress.  I presume the final draft is now not existent.

  1. 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?

Galileo rejects any notion that the Bible has any relevance to matters of science.  He believes description of the physical structure of the world conform to an ancient cosmology.  However, Galileo puts it more arrogantly, describing this conforming to the knowledge of the “common people, who are rude and unlearned”.  To the modern ear, this sounds like an adaptation of Calvin’s accommodation.  However, Galileo distances himself from the protestant reformation by focusing of Copernicus relationship with the Catholic Church, quoting Augustine understanding of the relationship of science and scripture, the use of Ecclesiastes 3:11 and other sources. 

One of those other sources is Cardinal Baronius (1538-1607) who wrote “the intention of the Holy Ghost [in dictating the Bible] is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven go”. This quote is often attributed to Galileo himself.  This is the hermeneutical principle Galileo adopts.  The Bible is not about the physical problems but is the Holy Ghost telling us the means of salvation.

A modern setting to a similar idea is provided by John H Walton in The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and Origins Debate (IVP).  Walton wrote, “The Old Testament does communicate to us and it was written for us and all humankind. But it was not written to us” (the emphasis was Walton’s; p.9).

  1. 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?

Galileo sees science as a superior form of knowledge in the matters of the physical world.  It superiority stems for two points.  First, it does not suffer from the problem of scripture.  It is not tied to the cosmological understanding of rude and unlearned common people.  The other related point is that it tied to reason derived from experience.  Galileo writes, “I think that discussions of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages, but form sense-experiences and necessary demonstrations”.

Ted Davis - #69649

May 2nd 2012


Scholars have indeed questioned whether Drake’s translation is the best one, but I don’t know Italian so I can’t sort that out. An alternative is the famous translation by Thomas Salusbury from the 1660s. There might be an electronic version of that somewhere—I didn’t bother to look—but I know there are digital images of the whole book (it appeared as part of a 2-volume set of translations). For example: http://archimedes2.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/archimedes_templates/biography.html?-table=archimedes_authors&author=Salusbury, Thomas&-find

or  http://hos.ou.edu/galleries/17thCentury/Salusbury/1661/Salusbury-1661-a432-image/5in/.

Nearly all copies of part of the Salusbury collection were destroyed in the great fire of London, and I understand that no copies can presently be located.

I’m very familiar with Drake, which happens to be available on the internet, so I didn’t hesitate to use it. For our purposes I think it’s just fine.

As for marginalia, they are commonplace in early modern texts. An author or amanuensis (copyist or secretary) would take a full sheet of paper and usually leave margins on all sides. The left and right edges often contain either a full note—often a citation equivalent to a modern footnote—or a symbol, such as * or #, to show where an additional few sentences (or even more) were to be inserted; the additions were usually given on a separate sheet, marked correspondingly. I have never worked with any of Galileo’s manuscripts, although I’ve seen a number of them in digital form. Nevertheless I have no reason to doubt that Galileo added the reference to Baronio in the margin, as Drake says.

As for Baronio, as you note here, there is an irony: the most frequently quoted sentence in all of Galileo’s works was not actually in Galileo’s own words. It was quoted from Baronio, though apparently from a conversation he had with Galileo at some point. He died nearly ten years before Galileo wrote it down, so who knows exactly how accurately Galileo quoted him? In any event, he was an important Cardinal, indeed the librarian of the Vatican: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesar_Baronius and http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Venerable_Cesare_Baronius.

As for differences between the books of nature and scripture, for Galileo the most fundamental difference was that they are written in very different languages: the Bible in ordinary human language, with all of its richness (= ambiguity); nature in the language of mathematics, with all of its ridigity (= unambiguity). Galileo hints at the latter in his “Letter to Christina,” but he spelled it out forcefully a few years later in The Assayer: “Philosophy [i.e. physics] is written in this grand book — I mean the universe — which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.” For more, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Assayer. Thus, we must use the clear meaning of nature to help us interpret the more ambigous text of the Bible. Next week, we will contrast this approach to that of modern creationists: they basically reverse it.

Ted Davis - #69650

May 2nd 2012

I forgot to say: Galileo’s letter was published in both Italian and Latin in Strasbourg (1636), then later in English (as above). You are reading the final version, not a draft.

As for “science,” the English word has been used in various senses since Chaucer’s time. It derives ultimately from the Latin “sciens,” the present participle of the verb “to know.” The Italian equivalent is “scienzia,” which is (I assume, but cannot confirm) also an old word and is probably the word that Drake translated as “science.” The Latin word, “scientia,” was also used commonly in the early modern period, and “science” is the best equivalent for that.

The word “scientist,” however, was not used before 1833 (verbally) or 1834 (in print). It was coined by William Whewell at a scientific meeting. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientist.

Bozzie61 - #69671

May 4th 2012

Thanks for that ,,, I might put in a longer contribution ,,, but I realise I needed to focus on your questions .... I suppose the margin notes are like our links in texts,

Ted Davis - #69674

May 4th 2012

The margin notes in early modern manuscripts are sometimes like links in internet texts, but often they don’t closely correspond to links. If they are simply footnotes (as in Galileo’s reference to Baronio), they would; but, they are often notes by the author to him/herself, about the composition of the essay itself. I don’t know Galileo’s manuscripts (as I said), but I’m intimately familiar with those of Robert Boyle, a few of which have been digitized and are available in the internet. I’ll show you a few of them that have marginalia, even though sometimes the digital image doesn’t make the marginalia as clear as they are in the original they are sometimes added rather faintly in pencil, in which case the original must still be consulted if you want to be sure you can read it clearly.

As a general rule, apart from a few early manuscripts, almost nothing in the Boyle archive is in his own handwriting. He employed several amanuenses at any one time, which is nice for us b/c we can usually date a given manuscript pretty closely from the handwriting.

Here’s a few examples of how the margins were used. Originally these would have been all separate sheets of paper, but in the 19th century they were bound into large notebooks. Sometimes it’s a mess—part of document A bound into the middle of document B, sometimes part of document A is in volume X and the rest in volume Y, etc. But, here’s what they actually look like:




http://www.bbk.ac.uk/boyle/boyle_papers/bp08_docs/bp08_189v-190r_2.htm (the left page is the back side, or “verso,” of a folio sheet from document A; the right side is the front side, or “recto,” of the first page of document B)

From the little I’ve seen of them, I’d say that Galileo’s manuscripts are similar—except that he has a lot more of them that are mathematical.

GJDS - #69651

May 2nd 2012

I refer to the knowledge of that day as ‘non-Christian’ not because it may contradict anything, but rather in how people’s beliefs are effected as a consequence of this knowledge. The point is that people’s beliefs are the result of many aspects of their being and life experiences, and one is authority. We have belief on whom, as well as what, we tend to believe.

On Galileo’s letter: Galileo sees enemies using the Bible to discredit and/or destroy him:

……. “ that such propositions in general are contrary to the Bible and are consequently damnable and heretical. ……. finding men who would preach the damnability and heresy of the new doctrine from their very pulpits … …. but to all mathematics and mathematicians in general., ……. before long this doctrine would be condemned by the supreme authority. …. render damnable all other astronomical and physical statements and observations” ………

Galileo links the bad intentions by his enemies, with their use of the Bible. He again says, ….. “those persons proceed who in physical disputes arrange scriptural passages (and often those ill­ understood by them) in the front rank of their arguments” 

Galileo also speaks of the Bible, ….” holy Scripture which teach us that the glory and greatness of Almighty God are marvellously discerned … in the open book of heaven…. reading the lofty concepts written in that book ”…

The Bible is for salvation, but he is at the cutting edge of science, and thus .. the “book of Copernicus” and other scholars can authoritatively state matters on science.

An aspect of this letter is of authority that supports or suppresses scientific knowledge. It seems to me that the truth about salvation, or indeed of science, is obscured, and it is for one party to claim superior authority for all matters. This would lead to endless conflict because: (1) these are enemies and want conflict, and (2) authority is sought from any and every source, thus ancient philosophies etc.

Perhaps a pertinent question is, “what use do we see in the Bible?” Or indeed is it a source material for our salvation.

On reading scientific text, it is universally accepted that terms, symbols and definitions are required, otherwise scientists is all disciplines would be in endless confusion and discord as they endeavour to communicate matters that are often new or differ from previous understanding. Biblical text, being sacred, is treasured and every effort is made to ensure the text is not altered. Translations are thus taken very seriously, and I understand scholars may spend many years in mastering the language differences. I think the ‘two book’ hypothesis is grounded in important human attributes that go to how and what we understand.  

jitsevandermeer - #69677

May 4th 2012

In the second to last paragraph there is a link to the principle of accommodation by Kenton Sparks. He wrote in his 4th to last paragraph:

“Calvin similarly argued that accommodation was at work in the chronological system used to enumerate the various creation days of Genesis 1. Because the text reflects an acceptance of the ancient view of time, says Calvin, “It is useless to dispute whether this is the best and legitimate order or not.”6 In other words, accommodation was for Calvin what allegory was for Augustine … a useful interpretive tool because it made the Bible’s apparent scientific “errors” irrelevant. God does not err in Scripture … but Scripture does reflect the errant views of the ancient biblical audience.”

Please note that Calvin’s discussion was about the sequence of dark and light within a day, not about the sequence of days within a week.A Freudian slip?

Jitse van der Meer

PNG - #69728

May 7th 2012

Ted suggested the review of Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution by Rosen. Was this a review in a periodical or Rosen’s book which was published after Kuhn’s? I did see reference to the fact that Rosen in his own book was very critical of Kuhn, but I couldn’t find a review by him from a journal. I did find the article by Swerdlow informative, taking into account Ted’s caveats.

GJDS - #69729

May 7th 2012

A critical reviews of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is given by  Dudley Shapere, in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 73, No. 3 (Jul., 1964), pp. 383-394 and can be found at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2183664  An outline that is useful for study is found atwww.des.emory.edu/mfp/Kuhn.html  From these:

Scientificr evolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense . .. that an existing paradigmh as ceased to functiona dequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way.


Now, historical study does bear out the existence of guiding factors which are held in more or less similar form, to greater or less extent, by a multitude of scientists working in an area over a number of years. What must be asked is whether anything is gained by referring to such common factors as “paradigms,” and whether such gains, if any, are offset by confusions that ensue because of such a way of speaking.


Pavel Label - #73090

September 26th 2012

Please note that Calvin’s discussion was about the sequence of dark and light within a day, not about the sequence of days within a week.A Freudian slip? 

Christy Hemphill - #75706

December 27th 2012

I just wanted to let you know that the ASA website that was supposed to recommend home school resources has not had any content added to it for the whole time I have been subscribed to it (about six months) and I recently got an e-mail from Dr. Hayworth saying the whole project was being indefinitely put on the back burner because of lack of funds, time, personnel, etc. So it is not really the gold mine we had been hoping for. There is really nothing out there for parents who want evolutionary creationism materials for children. Maybe it is good for us, because we are forced to read up ourselves and modify secular resources, but it sure would be nice to have some glossy kid-friendly resources like the other perspectives have in abundance to use with our kids.

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