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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 - #69333

April 17th 2012

Let me clarify one point right away: I will be following your comments closely, and I’ll probably add several of my own here. The topic of my next column depends partly on what you say in response to Galileo. Perhaps we’ll go next to “Scientific Creationism,” or perhaps we’ll say more about how Galileo was received at the time. So, please read the “Letter to Christina,” comment on it, and we’ll see what happens.

nickmatzke.ncse - #69342

April 17th 2012

Thanks, Ted for the detailed background on Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess. I had read the letter before, but had seen little of the background.  I wish every undergraduate got a chance to read his Starry Messenger and the Letter, it’s hard to see how a western education is complete without those.

Jonathon Berry - #69353

April 18th 2012

I don’t think the term science can be invoked whenever you already have reached your conclusion from  firm and unchanging premises, which you will not change in light of further evidence. That is what “looking for science in the Bible” entails. Faith is obviously a matter of belief, which is present in every single component of human interaction, but don’t confuse that with faith in religion. It’s untestable, unseeable, etc. And that’s fine. 

But don’t attempt to find some sort of equivalence between science and faith. We have capacities for science and we have capacities for faith. At times, they do mingle, but they certainly lead to contradictions whenever they are held out to the light and compared and contrasted. There’s no reason that these two must be synthesized, and any attempt to do so will end in a horrible regress that leaves us questioning whether anything at all even exists. 


I’m writing this from roughly 20 or so miles away from Dayton, Tennessee; the site of Scopes. I think it’s perfectly possible to exercise our abilities for science and our abilities for belief in a higher power without one or the other overpowering the other. I find your attempts to let your faith overpower your science to be a dangerous conception. It also cripples your attempts to spread your message, which is the entire reason I’m writing this to you.


But despite all my reservations, I did enjoy the article. 


Ted Davis - #69354

April 18th 2012


Your points are clearly stated, but I don’t see a clear connection between them and what I wrote in this column. Please make that connection for us: what exactly did I say that led you to say these things? Which specific statements of mine are related to specific statements of yours? Another way to say this: which specific statements of mine lead you to have reservations?

If you meant only to offer an opinion on the general topic (science and the Bible), that’s fine—and thank you for taking time to do so. When I read your comments, however, the use of the second person (“you” and “your”) implies that you (Jonathan) are addressing specific things that I (Ted) said. I’m failing to see the connection; hence my request for a clarification.

Ted Davis - #69355

April 18th 2012

Jonathan—it’s interesting that you live near Dayton, TN, where the Scopes trial took place in 1925. I visited Dayton a few years ago, when I spoke at a symposium at Bryan College. The details, including an audio recording of my talk, are at http://toddcwood.blogspot.com/2009/09/war-and-peace-audio.html. Unfortunately, that talk depends heavily on images that aren’t available there, but you can still follow the flow of ideas. I gather that you weren’t able to attend that event, Jonathan? (otherwise perhaps you would have said so)

If anyone decides to listen to this lecture, please put some comments—or questions for me—here, under this comment. The topic is not germane to Galileo, but it does relate to some of the things we might talk about down the road.

Ted Davis - #69356

April 18th 2012

I mis-spelled your name thrice, Jonathon. Mea cupla.

Jon Garvey - #69358

April 18th 2012


Though the thrust of Galileo’s argument relates to rigid physical interpretations of the Bible being used to negate observation, I’m interested that he also denies the right of science to impinge on the spiritual doctrines of Scripture (and in his case the RC Church), though both may be helpful in interpreting each other.

Both faults seem to me to be evident in the science-faith discussions of our time. The argument from Creationists that if Scripture is right science must be wrong has its counterpart in the Scientists (even amongst Christians) whose reasoning seems to run: “Science shows Scripture factually wrong. Therefore Scripture unreliable. Therefore we’re free to reformulate doctrine based on science rather than Scripture.” Somehow I think Galileo wouldn’t agree, at least if his vanity didn’t get the better of him.

(BTW, just to confuse you I’m Jonathan with an “a”)

George Bernard Murphy - #69366

April 18th 2012

Well speaking of Galileo I loved his thought that the Bible was inerrant but “recondite”.

 [Of course I first had to go to the dictionary to learn what recondite meant.]

The story of the 4th day of creation week is recondite UNTIL YOU VIEW THE COMPUTER SIMULATION OF EARTH’S COLLISION [as worked out by Robin Canup from data obtained fro the Apollo moon landings.]



 It showed that the Day 4 story was correct but recondite.

After having spent all of tht money on moon landings you would think the scientific yeild would be more widely understood and appreciated than it is.

George Bernard Murphy - #69406

April 19th 2012

Here is Galileo’s statement about a recondite Bible.


“With regard to this argument, I think in the first place that it is very pious to say and prudent to affirm that the holy Bible can never speak untruth—whenever its true meaning is understood. But I believe nobody will deny that it is often very abstruse, and may say things which are quite different from what its bare words signify.”


I don’t think you can find “mistakes” in the Bible’s astronomy statements. I realize that is a minority view. 

Ted Davis - #69419

April 20th 2012


It all depends on what constitutes a “mistake,” doesn’t it?

Galileo’s view (as far as I can tell) was as follows: the Holy Ghost (who inspires and in effect directly pens the Bible) knows “true truth” (if I can use that expression, which Galileo doesn’t use) about astronomy; the Holy Ghost knows that in reality the earth moves around the sun. But, the ordinary person “knows” that the sun goes around the earth, and the Holy Ghost doesn’t want to confuse that person—especially since astronomy (for Galileo) is not a matter of faith; it’s unrelated to salvation. Thus, the Holy Ghost employs both the verbal and conceptual vocabulary of the ordinary person, in order to be understood.

Does that constitute a “mistake,” in your view, George?

Or, is it rather a necessary accommodation to the rude and unlearned?

Ted Davis - #69420

April 20th 2012

Let me put to you a different case, George, not involving astronomy and not involving Galileo. Here is a length excerpt from John Calvin’s commentary on the Psalms, specifically what he says about Psalm 58:4-5 (“They are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear; which will not hearken to the voice of the charmers, charming never so wisely.”)

4. Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder. He prosecutes his description; and, though he might have insisted on the fierceness which characterised their opposition, he charges them more particularly, here as elsewhere, with the malicious virulence of their disposition. Some read, their fury;  but this does not suit the figure, by which they are here compared to serpents. No objection can be drawn to the translation we have adopted from the etymology of the word, which is derived from heat. It is well known, that while some poisons kill by cold, others consume the vital parts by a burning heat. David then asserts of his enemies, in this passage, that they were as full of deadly malice as serpents are full of poison. The more emphatically to express their consummate subtlety, he compares them to deaf serpents, which shut their ears against the voice of the charmer — not the common kind of serpents, but such as are famed for their cunning, and are upon their guard against every artifice of that description. But is there such a thing, it may be asked, as enchantment? If there were not, it might seem absurd and childish to draw a comparison from it, unless we suppose David to speak in mere accommodation to mistaken, though generally received opinion.  He would certainly seem, however, to insinuate that serpents can be fascinated by enchantment; and I can see no harm in granting it. The Marsi in Italy were believed by the ancients to excel in the art. Had there been no enchantments practiced, where was the necessity of their being forbidden and condemned under the Law? (De 18:11.) I do not mean to say that there is an actual method or art by which fascination can be effected. It was doubtless done by a mere sleight of Satan,   whom God has suffered to practice his delusions upon unbelieving and ignorant men, although he prevents him from deceiving those who have been enlightened by his word and Spirit. But we may avoid all occasion for such curious inquiry, by adopting the view already referred to, that David here borrows his comparison from a popular and prevailing error, and is to be merely supposed as saying, that no kind of serpent was imbued with greater craft than his enemies, not even the species (if such there were) which guards itself against enchantment.

Calvin did not believe in the efficacy of snake charming. Furthermore, snakes don’t have external ears (they do have internal ears, but I doubt that David or Cavlin knew about those); and, when snakes respond to charmers it’s the motion, not the sound, that they are responding to (according to my sources).

What do you think of this one, George? Is there a “mistake” in Psalm 58?

Ted Davis - #69421

April 20th 2012

As for the word “recondite,” the English translation of Calvin’s commentary on Genesis has that word, in a context that is a propos our discussion here:

“For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.” Calvin said this concerning the “waters above the firmament” in Gen 1:6 (http://www.ewordtoday.com/comments/genesis/calvin/genesis1.htm). Indeed, the whole passage linked here is a terrific example of “accommodation” as it was actually used by Calvin, in the century prior to Galileo. As I’ve pointed out, however, Galileo almost certainly did not read Calvin, but they both drew on common earlier sources, especially Augustine.

It is very common in contemporary discussions for Christians to uphold biblical “inerrancy” (with or without citing a specific definition of that term), but in most cases nothing is also explicitly said about “accommondation” as part of that conversation. I find that a glaring omission. Indeed, a few weeks ago I responded to one of the essays in the BioLogos series “Southern Baptist Voices” by raising this very issue, in the form of a question for Baptist theologian Kenneth Keathley that has not been answered. See this thread: http://biologos.org/blog/southern-baptist-voices-expressing-our-concerns-part-2.

Merv - #69427

April 20th 2012

Thanks, Ted for challenging us to read this.

Galileo definitely had the attitude that the language of Scripture was chosen so as to accomodate to the common man.  He writes in elistist terms (and justifiably so) regarding the things he believes he scientifically understands that “the masses” do not. 

Despite Galileo’s overtly accomodationist approach, he is quick to take all the rest of Scripture that doesn’t confict with the Copernican model, and assume a more concordist approach as his default.  He does reflect favorably on Augustine’s wise prudence of witholding judgment on matters that could yet be determined by future observations, but this doesn’t stop Galileo from speculating on Joshua’s long day and how such an event may have happened in a Copernican system. 


GJDS - #69430

April 20th 2012

Perhaps I am taking a risk here, but I have asked this in other plaxes without a response, so here goes. I can as yet not find a reference in the Bible that says (and since some insist that it does) the sun revolves about the earth, not anything that can be taken in this way. All that I can find are verses that testify to the glory of God and as the Creator.

My understanding has been that a great deal of debate took place in ancient Greece, and later in Alexandria during Roman times, concerning the sun going around the earth. I still remember some poetry from Greece that spoke of a chariot with the sun moving and so on, and even references to some gods of theirs.

Is it not the case that Galileo would have been castigated for denying this ancient pagan teaching? Why are we, even now, confusing the teachings of the Bible with notions carried on from ancient Greece and Rome into Medieval times?

I guess I just do not get it. 

Ted Davis - #69433

April 21st 2012

GJDS—Your first point is that the Bible does not say that the Sun goes round the earth; it only testifies to the glory of God. There are a handful of texts that either mention the Sun’s motion or assign a stationary state to the Earth; I identified a few above: Joshua 10:12-14, Psalm 19:4-6, Psalm 93:1, Psalm 104:5, Isaiah 38:8, or Ecclesiastes 1:5. These texts were nearly always, in Galileo’s day, interpreted quite literally, even though a modern exegete would surely say that most or all of them are poetical texts that (as you say) simply testify to the glory of God. This sort of distinction (poetry vs actual fact) was not usually made then. Partly, it was the Galileo affair that led to changes in how such texts are seen. Luther (for example) took the Joshua text as a literal reference to the Sun moving around the Earth, and Roberto, Cardinal Bellarmine, who led the Roman Catholic inquiry into the Copernican system around the time that Galileo wrote his “Letter to Christina,” noted that both the church fathers (i.e., Christian writers from the first few centuries) and “modern” commentators (i.e., writers from the Renaissance) all agreed that such texts taught geocentrism. We’ll probably come back to this in my next column on May 1.

Thus—I realize that you don’t see it this way, but they did. I suspect you would have also, if you were in their shoes.

Your second point asks whether Galileo was “castigated” for deyining ancient pagan teaching about the sun god (Apollo) moving through the heavens. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helios#Helios_and_Apollo). Not as far as I can tell. Nor can I think of any reason why we should think so. Renaissance leaders (both secular and sacred) certainly didn’t hesitate to talk about classical mythology; they often paid large sums for artistic renderings of Greek and Roman myths. They used those myths in a variety of ways, but they didn’t treat them as if they were biblical teachings. Opposition to Galileo came about for several reasons, none by itself sufficient to explain his difficulties with Roman officials: common sense shows decisively that the Earth is stationary and that the Sun goes around it daily; astronomical theory (ultimately derived from Greek and Hellenistic science) accounted very well for the intricate motions of the Sun and planets, without the need to put the Earth into motion; if the Earth were to move, then we should be able to see subtle effects on the annual motions of the stars, and those effects could not be seen before the 19th century (long after Galileo’s time); if the Earth were to move, then it’s very hard to understand why bodies fall straight down and why cannonballs fired east go just as far as they do when fired west; and, the Bible speaks plainly of the Sun’s motion across the sky, while also speaking of the Earth as being “fixed” or “established” forever.

Galileo realized that the burden of proof was on anyone making the crazy claim that the Earth is spinning at hundreds of miles/hour on its axis while moving at thousdands of miles an hour around the Sun. Indeed, at one point he expressed his admiration for those who “have through sheer force of intellect done such violence to their own senses as to prefer what reason told them over that which sensible experience plainly showed to the contrary.” He meant those who accepted Copernican astronomy.

So, GJDS, here’s what I suggest as an exercise: put yourself in their shoes. See the world as they saw it—and I use the verb “saw” deliberately, for that is what their own eyes showed them. Isn’t it plainly obvious, then, that the Bible teaches that the Sun goes around the Earth?

Merv - #69434

April 21st 2012

Galileo wrote: “St. Thomas Aquinas notes that the Bible calls “void” or “nothing” that space which we know to be not empty, but filled with air. Nevertheless the Bible, he says, in order to accommodate itself to the beliefs of the common people (who think there is nothing in that space), calls it “void” and “nothing.”

I’ve been under the impression that ancients thought of all the celestial objects as being “in the air”.  But Galileo seems to imply that only the enlightened of his day held this view while the masses considered the “void” as being nothing.  This is rather confusing.  Why should the commoners of the day have assumed anything (apart from a literal reading of Scripture) that would so plainly contradict their direct senses—which would have indicated that air filled the heavens?   It leads to the irony of the commoners accidentally holding a more enlightened view than the erudite of their day.  And of course we hear rumors now of advanced physics exploring the very “non-emptiness” of our now traditional void as they explore dark energies or further dimensions.  But aside from the ability of science over generations to equivocate on what is considered to be the “enlightened” view, what piece of history am I missing on the story of air?  I do know that one of the common arguments for the earth not moving was that obviously birds and flying objects would all be left behind in the rush of wind as the earth moved through the air.  Of course if there is only a void then this wouldn’t have been a problem.  It’s strange that Galileo wouldn’t have picked up on this as yet another removed hindrance against his beloved Copernican system?  Was he afraid to be seen in agreement with the masses?  I’m having trouble getting into their minds on this one.




PNG - #69462

April 22nd 2012

I don’t know if it’s relevant, but the Medieval-Aristotelean view of the 4 elements may be germane. The elements were believed to seek their “natural place” according to their density, with air above water and fire above air. I think the limit of air was supposed to be near the moon and fire rises to a level just above air. There was speculation about whether there was a thin shell of a fifth element (the quintessence) near the moon. Dante comments on it went he passes that level in the Paradiso. I am remembering this stuff mostly from C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, in which he tells the reader what one needs to know to understand Medieval literature. I think it was assumed that the 4 (or 5) elements were the changeable stuff and everything from the moon up (including the moon) was celestial and unchanging, existing in a void between the crystalling spheres that held the heavenly bodies.

PNG - #69463

April 22nd 2012

My eyes are just barely good enough to see my typos in this editor. That should have been “when he passes” and “crystalline.”

Merv - #69527

April 24th 2012

Thanks, PNG.  I’ll have to reread those parts of Galileo’s letter with that mindset and see if it makes more sense.  It seems that the Copernican system would really fit nicely with the “air up to the moon” (and yet traveling along with the now moving earth-moon system) as it all goes around the sun.  But it doesn’t seem clear to me now just what Galileo’s view of air was or that he saw this particular advantage of the Copernican model.


PNG - #69715

May 6th 2012

Merv, since the posting above I have been reading Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution, which has refreshed me some on Aristotelean physics. One of the principles of the old “science” was that a vacuum is impossible. Hence the celestial spaces were filled with aether, in which the planets moved to complete their epicycles and cycles. Below the moon the space was filled with fire, then air. Hence the educated would have “known” that a void was impossible - hence the Biblical void had to be accommodation. He also points out that in Aristotelean physics movement required an immediate push. Thus the motion of the primum mobile (outer sphere with the stars) was the fastest because it was closest to God and its motion was the source of the motion of the inner spheres containing the planets and the moon, even though it moves in the opposite direction. The movement of the celestial spheres was transmitted down to lower spheres and, rather vaguely, to the earth somehow. This provided an explanation for the direct action of the heavens on earth and thus “accounted” for the influence that was tracked in astrology. Thus, to accept the Coperican view was to overthrow all this perceived mechanism of causation. It wasn’t just astronomy that was affected - it was the whole Aristotelean-common sense view of causation that was threatened. If Ted wants to take issue with any of this, I’d be interested to know what he thinks if this account.

PNG - #69716

May 6th 2012

I meant to say too that using “PNG” was only the result of momentary laziness when I signed up at Biologos. Ted knows me by my name (Preston Garrison) from the old ASA e-mail list.

GJDS - #69438

April 21st 2012

Ted - thanks for your detailed response. I do not doubt the view in Galileo’s time was the one you state, and puting myself (or ourselves) in their shoes would lead us to probably do the same thing.

My point on scripture however, is that this case could also point to the error in believing the Bible supports some view held by people. We are prone to assuming the Bible makes us right on matters when it may not be the case. Thus people believing the sun went around the earth does not negate (but perhaps re-enforces) the point that this view was held mainly because of what was taken as true from Roman/Greek pagan teachings, and from acceptance of these by the current intellectuals/clergy. I take literal in the Bible to mean as it is written - what we read into it often differs because of our own view on matters and not because of what is written. Coming to a view that it is poetry simply changes the stance.

To make my view clear, I would read the Bible as it is written on most matters - but I would not seek Biblical authority over, say, the chemistry of enzymes, or the carbon cycle, the Greenhouse effect, and so on, simply because the Bible literalily does not make statements on these matters.

I take this point seriously; acknowledging the Glory of God is a good thing; this includes that He is our creator. Using God’s word as a technical manual for laboratory work, is not a good thing. Showing that Galileo was given a hard time for being scientific is good; making it appear that because people missunderstood both the Bible and natural science of that day, than turning this into an argument (as they did in that day) about scripture, is a mistake. We as human beings err, but we are not willing to admit this to ourselves, and instead seek to hide this by claiming Biblical and/or scientific insights for our error.

The case of Galileo shows this.

Jon Garvey - #69441

April 22nd 2012


On another thread I posted a quote from William Tyndale which might be of relevance to the question of how the literalness of the Bible was viewed by the Reformers, at least. Cut and paste annoyingly doesn’t seem to work on this editor, so I’ve hyperlinked it - it’s not often quoted, but seems key to me. It maybe adds to the discussion about what was meant by “literal” at least by the Reformers, if not the Catholic world.

If Tyndale’s attitude was general, it would suggest that the opposition of, say, Luther to geocentrism on Biblical grounds was not simply, “the Bible says it, so it’s true”, but a judgement that the Scripture, at these points, was speaking at a factual level. In his case, that was well-justified by the poor empirical support for geocentrism pre-Galilieo.

There seems to be a world of difference, for our own time, between an culturally-insulated reading of the Bible in always-grammatically-literal terms, and the considered judgement that any one passage has such a meaning. It doesn’t solve all disputes, because that’s an inevitably subjective assessment based on the states of academic and personal knowledge. But it might avoid treating such disputes at an over-simplistic level of old/ignorant/stupid v new/enlightened/intelligent.

Ted Davis - #69447

April 22nd 2012

Please keep the comments and questions coming. I’ll be paying attention. On May 1, we’ll explore more fully Galileo, the principle of accommodation, biblical “inerrancy” and authority, and creationism of two forms—both geocentric (outliers) and heliocentric (mainstream creationism). Stay tuned, but please do try to read Galileo’s “Letter” in part or in whole in the meantime.

PNG - #69465

April 22nd 2012

This is a question for the expert (Ted). In reading a little bit of Augustine and the essay on Wikipedia on Flat Earth, which I think is pretty good - it looks like it was written by one of the people who has written a book on the history the flat earth conception - I have a half-formed idea that there was some dispute in the early centuries of the church over the question of a flat vs. spherical earth. It seems that a few of the Fathers, seeing the ancient near Eastern view implied in the Old Testament, defended a flat earth against the newer Greek view. I’m guessing that this was the controversy that Augustine was thinking of when he said that it was a bad thing for a Christian to take an uninformed view on a technical subject, asserting that this was what the Bible said, since the knowledgeable person would then assume that if the Bible was wrong about that that it would likely be wrong about more important things (I am of course paraphrasing.) If I’m correct in this guess, it would seem that Augustine was an early advocate of a concordist view in which the Biblical account could be seen as supporting the Greek science of Augustine’s day, when in fact it requires eisegesis to get that out of the text. What think ye?

Ted Davis - #69530

April 24th 2012

I just read the wiki article on the flat earth. It’s actually very good. One major flaw: the claim that ” there is no record of a globe as a representation of the Earth since ancient times in the west till that of Martin Behaim in 1492” is plainly false. Numerous statues (3D) and paintings (2D) from before 1492 depict the earth as round. For example, look for images related to “Christ in majesty,” a standard motif; Fra Angelica’s version from several decades before Columbus is a perfect example: http://www.cgfaonlineartmuseum.com/angelico/angeli25.jpg. Indeed, it’s quite amazing tome that so many historians were convinced of the flat earth myth in the 19th century (when Draper and White made it commonplace), since the 19th century was a big period for art history—and no one who knows art history would ever think that medieval Europeans believed in a flat earth!

I know the book by Jeff Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth, pretty well, but I’m out of the office this week and so I can’t give specifics. Any reader interested in this topic should borrow a copy—it can be read entirely in less than 3 or 4 hours. The more recent studies cited in the wiki article are new to me, but (apparently) still somewhat controversial in their conclusions. Russell found hardly any Christian adherents of the flat earth prior to the 15th century (Columbus’ period), and none at all in the 15th century itself—giving a lie to the old myth about Columbus having to “prove” that the earth is round, when in fact all of his learned opponents knew full well that it is. The argument had to do with how large the earth is (Columbus thought it considerably smaller than the actual size) and how large Asia is (Columbus overestimated that), leading to sharply different conclusions about how far it is due west from Spain to Japan. Columbus concluded roughly 3000 miles, a state of the art voyage but possible; his critics, who were right, though it was several times further. Luckily, he ran into a new continent or his men would have perished, but of course he believed he’d reached the Indies as he said he would…

I don’t remember the exact number of Christian geocentrists Russell found, but I’m pretty sure it was a single digit number. Lactantius is always the stock example, with Cosmas not far behind. A century ago J.L.E. Dreyer made much of this in his history of planetary theories—frankly, far too much. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Louis_Emil_Dreyer).

As for the fathers, the recent work suggests that rather more of them than previously thought believed in a flat earth. I can’t speak to that, since I haven’t studied these studies myself, but I will point out this: there were no Christian natural philosophers—i.e., no “scientists” (the word “scientist was invented in the 1830s, so technically one shouldn’t speak about “scientists” before then)—prior to John Philoponus in the 6th century. At least, if there were, I can’t give you any names. In other words: any Christian reflection on nature prior to that time was being done second hand, not by the practiioners themselves but by people who had read about stuff without (in many cases) understanding it very well. I don’t want to minimize what the Fathers (either individually or collectively) thought about science, but we always need to keep that in mind.



GJDS - #69466

April 23rd 2012


I have read (quickly) the letter by Galileo and will read it again - it is a gem, as he considers many isssues, including understanding the Bible, authority from it, and how enemies of his would twist both Biblical statements and current religious outlooks to further their stand (probably, asn he states, knowing that he may have been right). I am especially interested in his view on Faith and the purpose of the Bible is our salvation, while the study of nature (science) is to enable us to progress in reason and appreciation of the natural order.

Jon Garvey - #69467

April 23rd 2012


You’ve reminded me of one thought I had whilst reading Galileo’s piece. The usual formulation of the “Two Book” theory is, like his, the division between things required for practical/scientific purposes and things required for faith. The danger in this seems to be that it often gets reduced to “objective” v “subjective” (like S J Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria.) Science is real - Scripture is fiction.

To me it’s more helpful thinking of the Book of Scripture as teaching what God needs to reveal verbally because it’s spiritual and therefore not part of the created order (which is open to investigation by our senses). Salvation’s included in that, because it’s from heaven, but the nature of God, the origin of creation itself, the spiritual nature of mankind - these are all things beyond physics and the remit of science. God cannot be investigated - only self-revealed.

But where Scripture is dealing with the mundane, it has no problem using metaphor, or visionary language, or accommodating to popular ideas and so on because God’s given us the means to investigate these (including science, but also every applicatiion of the human mind)  and in any case they are, as Galileo and others said, of no spiritual significance. Whether one follows Copernicus or Ptolemy makes not a scrap of difference to one’s salvation or one’s spiritual life, though it affects your navigation and astronomy.

Neither, actually, does believing in common descent rather than special creation - but as soon as you talk about these things as blind processes or as self-creation, or say that God would not create in certain ways, you’re arrogating to the Book of Nature what can only be rightly learned from the Book of Scripture.

GJDS - #69469

April 23rd 2012


Texts such as that by Galileo are interesting to me partly because I have not had the time to systematically look through past writings on the subject regarding science as it may fit within the current cultural and religious climate. I therefore find this is a ‘gem’. My comments are usually directed towards ‘what science does’, but on Faith in Christ - this means that God has revealed Himself in Christ. All previous accounts in the Bible are those of people who had faith, and looked forward to the revelation that is Christ.

Within this context, I take accounts in the OT to show me how people thought, behaved, believed, as teachings on what Faith is all about, and also how we human beings often err even when we think and hope we would not. Since scientific matters do not seem to have occupied the minds of the writers of the OT, I try to understand it as ‘people of faith talking to us who are in the present day’.

The attributes of God are shown to us by the law and we are guided by the Holy Spirit. This is the spirit of truth, and it is necessary that this is so in science. Thus I find the scientific method a means to achieve a good and truthful outcome in research on Nature; I have found it teaches me just how little I know, and the extraodinary elegance that is in nature. I think poets probably have a better handle on this than scientists. Nonetheless, God is creator, but we were not there to tell God what to do and how to do it. I think the NT says that a day to God is like a 1000 years and so on. Today we use terms like God is not limited by time and space, and in the future other terms may be used (God is not bould by quantum states nor entanglement?!)

Science and biology have progressed over the past decades - I took a dim view of biology as a student because so much seemed speculative and more of a laboratory excercise compared to the exact sciences. With genetics, things have moved somewhat. All organic life forms have commonality - we should be surprised if it were not so. The entire planetary system is wonderfully interelated, and it is needed for life. These are generalities that do not impinge on who created what or if we have a final understanding on life and what human beings are. I do not think such specualtions are to instruct us on the Faith in Christ. It seesm Galileo may have had s similar outlook. Certainly nature is full of things of beauty and wonder.

Jon Garvey - #69470

April 23rd 2012

GJDS - I broadly agree with you. I was only trying to refine (helpfully, I hope) Galileo’s description of the “proper” content of the Bible.

Just one caveat - I accept totally that God has revealed himself in Christ. But that revelation did not begin only with the Incarnation. As 1 Peter 1.10-12, the means by which the Old Testament prophets spoke was “the SPirit of Christ in them.” This precludes us from regarding the OT scriptures only as accounts of people who had faith in the coming Christ.

But that does not alter either Galileo’s argument, or mine above - or yours, come to that.

GJDS - #69488

April 23rd 2012

Jon, There is no ONLY in the OT, as this is also the word of God brought to use by His prophets. My comments are as to how I would try to understand what is written and recorded by people who lived thousand of years ago, and translated; this is the way I see as ‘literal’. Galileo refers to scholars and theologans who spend much more time than most of us on these matters - nonetheless, I too take the view that matters of Faith and spiritual matters are for those who ‘have the mind of Christ’, while matters of science are otherwise, and I guess best left to scientists.

Jon Garvey - #69515

April 23rd 2012


No argument with that clarification: clearly understanding ancient language, culture, literature etc are essential aspects - as is the interpreting help of the Spirit, of course.

Unfortunately many in the TE camp have a tendency drift into dichotomising the role of the writers and the role of the Spirit in the Old (and New) Testaments, leaving the latter as a kind of vague and benign influence on what is otherwise purely human. Cue re-writing doctrine.

PNG - #69482

April 23rd 2012

Another question for Ted. What do think of Thomas Kuhn’s The Coperican Revolution?

Ted Davis - #69529

April 24th 2012

In short, I’m a fan of Kuhn. It’s an amazing book. Written originally as a highbrow academic monograph for a very narrow audience, it’s sold more than one million copies in 50 years. Very few novels even get close to that total, let alone a book like Kuhn’s. There’s so much food for thought in it that I couldn’t do it justice by singling out something that I like. Like any great book, there’s a lot to like and also some things to differ with. Sorry to give a very general reply. Did you have a more specific question?

Ted Davis - #69554

April 25th 2012

WOW—I just realized what a big mistake I made in post 69529. PNG asked me about Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution, and I gave my answer based on Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. That’s the 1962 book that has sold a million copies.

The Copernican Revolution is not that book. What do I think of it? It’s pretty dated, not reliable on some important details (such as Kuhn’s inclusion of the completely false tradition that John Calvin invoked the 93rd Psalm against Copernicus), and some of his interpretations are implausible. It’s well written and fun to read, and well worth reading even today, but if you want the lay of the land be sure to read much more widely. If you want a detailed accounting of the factual errors in Kuhn, look for the review by Edward Rosen, a top Copernicus expert. It won’t be pretty.

I apologize for the erroneous reply. I was heavily jet lagged, but that’s not a very good excuse. My CPU wasn’t operating normally.

dtollefsen21 - #69525

April 24th 2012

I really liked Galileo’s remark concerning salvation: “Can an opinion be heretical and yet have no concern with the salvation of souls? Can the Holy Ghost be asserted not to have intended teaching us something that does concern our salvation?”


He makes a valid point, and it’s that point that I have recently come across in the Bible Study I attend on Romans. Specifically we talked about Romans 14 and opinions in the church, and how to handle those with differing opinions. There was much talk on what “the essentials” are to Christian faith, and what consitutes as an opinion. He addresses this many ways, but specifically in that quote. What is required to get into heaven? Certainly not a specific belief on how the heavens work. Certainly not a belief in the correct age of the Earth. 

The real amazing thing in reading this letter, however, was the idea that nothing is new under the Sun. He talked about St. Augustine’s day and how many were arguing if the sky overhead moved or the Earth moved under the sky. Both could be argued from Scripture purely. And He made the point, does it really matter when it concerns one’s salvation? To quote: “The Bible is not meant to tell us how the heavens go, but how to go to heaven.”


It happened again in Galileo’s day and he argues the same idea, just in a different concept. And here we stand, facing the same idea, arguing a separate concept. This is nothing that is truly “new.” The science may very well be, but the argument comes down to essentially the same idea. I respect Galileo all the more for reading this letter. His arguments speak to today’s world in perfect analogy it seems, even down to the issue of prideful theologians cementing themselves in one interpretation, and forcing everyone else to reorganize. 


I thank you for pointing me to his letter. I can see it being useful in many future discussions.

GJDS - #69532

April 24th 2012

This web seems to not respond in a reply mode; I am using a larger font because I cannot see my typing errors with the smaller font. 

I note essays that comment on T Kuhn include his view on “Revolution Against Scientific Realism.” I plan to read both of his works - scientific realism with its idea of science ariving at “truth” is opposed, and a view put that scientists work within a paradigm which guides them in solving puzzles in nature. While these matters are often debated within ‘induction’ and ‘deduction’, it is apparent that a sceptical view of science, and the importance of rigorous examination of any theory, is central to good science. We are left now with an attempt to seek the truth by reading the Bible within the “spirit of truth” rather than our own vanity, and also able to consdier science as an attempt to understand nature based on a method and our own outlook (or paradigm). One commentator even suggests Khun mentions faith (I think he may have meant belief in the paradigm within which a scientist works) as a necessary aspect of conceptualising the scientific thing in question. It is within the view of scepticism, and methodological care needing before accepting, instead of questioning, measurements that to an uncritical observer appear to provide as fact, that large theoretical frameworks like biological evolution need to be viewed. I plan to read both of these works; I think we should realise that we have lived through two revolutions in our lifetimes - that of devising technologies that enable scientists to measure and analyse almost any material with astonishing accuracy, and the other, our ability to use mathematics with computers that allow us to model systems of incredible complexity.


Ted Davis - #69555

April 25th 2012

Be sure to see my revised comment in #69554. However, I still encourage you to read as much of Kuhn as you can get your hands on.

GJDS - #69556

April 25th 2012

Ted Davis - #69554.

I think you had it right the first time. N. M. SWERDLOW in his essay states: “The COPERNICAN REVOLUTION, Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought, to give its complete title, Thomas Kuhn’s first book, may be the second best selling book ever written on the history of science. As I write this essay, the Harvard University Press edition is in its nineteenth printing, and that does not include its many years as a Vintage Book.

This essay is worth a look as it gives a good deal of background to the book and Khun.

The other book I referred to casues controversy and is probably more interesting to science chaps like myself - but still worth a read.

Ted Davis - #69612

April 29th 2012

I doubt that The Copernican Revolution has surpassed Structure in total sales. I don’t know for sure that Structure is number one among books about HPS (the history and philosophy of science), but if it’s not I don’t know what is. Here is what should be a reliable report about total sales: http://libraries.mit.edu/sites/150books/2011/04/18/1962/.

Ted Davis - #69638

May 1st 2012

Prof Swerdlow’s lively review is http://www.amphilsoc.org/sites/default/files/480106.pdf. Swerdlow knows the technical astronomical history as well as anyone alive, but I don’t agree with his view that “the foundation of the strongest opposition was religion, and was always religion…” (93). Swerdlow admits that Copernicanism posed enormous problems for physical theory that weren’t fully solved until Newton; that the inability to observe parallax was a problem; that the biggest names in his story could be “right” for the “wrong reason.” He also surely knows that, prior to the publication of Galileo’s Dialogue in 1610, the number of known Copernicans did not exceed one dozen—a powerful fact that suggests that some of the strongest opposition had something to do with the absence of any positive observational evidence for the new system. None of that, apparently, is enough for him to grant that something other than religion may have been the basis for opposition. Also, note Swerdlow’s hostile tone toward religion, expressed especially in several places. A pertinent example is the final sentence on p. 119, where his sarcasm about religion comes to us through a loudspeaker.

Read Prof Swerdlow, but read him with your critical aparatus turned on.

GJDS - #69641

May 1st 2012

Hi Ted,

I find the comments on pages 92-94 by Swerdlow intriguing; he correctly states that the revolution was in overturning Aristotelian physics. The question I would ask is why these were so embedded into the then Christian teaching? The conflicts Hellenic teachings and philosophy posed to Christianity go back to the first two centuries, and include neo-platonic teachings; I think Aristotelian teachings may have entered Europe later on, especially when Islam began to invade Europe. My remarks are very general and not meant to be specific historical remarks here.

These Hellenic teachings were correctly ‘world views’ based mainly on Plato and Aristotle. I find this intriguing, since European education was set up mainly by Clerics. I have formed the view that the established Religious hierarchy had accepted much of the Hellenic world view by the time Copernicus made his observations. On page 92, Swerdlow  states, “..the opponents of Copernicus, the followers of Aristotle and Ptolemy…”  He then goes on with his remarks about religion, and on page 93, ..  “Nor was the most important reason entrenched Aristotelianism itself, but that Aristotelianism was entrenched in Christianity.”

Instead of using the phrase “entrenched in Christianity” I would suggest he should have said, accepted by the Religious hierarchy of the time. I am still puzzled why even today we do not see debates and discussions on why Christians would appear to be aligned, or the same as, followers of Aristotle and other pagans? Part of the answer may be that the hierarchy of the time did not come to the understanding shown by Galileo, in that understanding the physical is not such an integral part of the Christian Faith, and both are compatible. Today the natural world is used by many in an attempt to challenge and ridicule the Faith. It seems as if the tension between those who base their beliefs on the physical, and those of Faith, has continued over a very long time.

Ted Davis - #69645

May 2nd 2012

This calls for a long answer, much longer than I can really place here. In general, I recommend this book as a fairly accessible treatment of the interaction between Christianity and Greek philosophy down to the Scientific Revolution: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/science-and-religion-400-b-c-to-a-d-1550-edward-grant/1102237950.

A short answer is that, except for a few of his works on logic, Aristotle was not read by Western (non-Byzantine) Christians until the twelfth century, when the influx of Aristotelian and other Greek works (such as those by Galen and Ptolemy) into the Latin West resulted in the formation of groups of scholars who studied them, followed in short order by the formal legal establishment of universities. Aristotelian natural philosophy and Ptolemaic astronomy were not taught in Western Christendom until that point.

There were indeed aspects of Aristotelianism that became “entrenched in Christianity,” as Swerdlow puts it, but it’s a very complicated story. IMO, you can’t just connect the dots and conclude that the acceptance of certain Aristotelian views (I say “certain views” b/c some of Aristotle’s core teachings were utterly denied by the Church) *by the Church* was the bottom line problem, relative to Copernicus and Galileo. Aristotle and Ptolemy would have been widely accepted anyway—the West had nothing of comparable explanatory power to compete with them—except for the parts that directly conflicted with theology (such as Arisotle’s doctrine that the world is eternal and uncreated, or his view that there is no immortal soul). 

Aristotle was not simply “entrenched in Christianity”; his views were widely accepted by Jews and Muslims also—in short, by essentially all scholars who came into contact with them. Had there been (say) a substantial population of people who were not religious at all at that time in the West (a counterfactual), it is likely that they, too, would have accepted Aristotle. Thus, the Church interpreted the Bible in light of what it already “knew,” namely, that Aristotle’s physics and Ptolemy’s astronomy accurately described the universe. I dare say that Prof Swerdlow would have accepted it as well.

GJDS - #69652

May 3rd 2012


Thanks for another interesting book to add to my reading list. It is indeed a complicated story, but I feel that it is relevant to the way science and religion have come to be regarded - I guess so much emphasis may be given to the age of enlightenment and the various schools of philosophy that have developed since then, that we may forget that the educational system of the West was built during the earlier times.

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