Galileo and the Garden of Eden: The Principle of Accommodation and the Book of Genesis, Part 1

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May 8, 2012 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

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

Galileo and the Garden of Eden: The Principle of Accommodation and the Book of Genesis, Part 1

When I introduced Galileo’s “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” in my last column, I focused on the letter itself and its immediate context. I left some other important aspects of this episode for another day. That day has now come.

What we will do here falls under three headings. First, we will examine what a leading Catholic theologian said about the earth’s motion and the Bible, at almost the same time when Galileo was writing his letter. Next, we will examine the attitude of a modern opponent of Galileo, in order to see why he objects to Galileo’s approach to the Bible. Finally, we will briefly look at how creationists today keep Galileo out of the garden of Eden—how they differentiate between Galileo’s use of accommodation for biblical passages about astronomy (where they generally agree with Galileo) and the adoption of a similar attitude for early Genesis (where they oppose applying Galileo’s strategy).

Robert Bellarmine’s Approach to the Bible and Astronomy

Early in 1615, a few months before Galileo finished his “Letter to Christina,” the Carmelite friar Paolo Foscarini published a letter of his own about the Copernican system, whose title (translated into English) was “Letter concerning the Opinion of the Pythagoreans and Copernicus about the Mobility of the Earth and Stability of the Sun, and about the New Pythagorean System of the World.” Foscarini tried to reconcile the Bible and Copernican astronomy—the same thing Galileo did in his letter. He sent a copy of his letter to a Catholic theologian, Roberto Cardinal Bellarmine, an intellectual who had earned a reputation as a learned defender of the Catholic Church against various Protestant claims. Bellarmine replied both to Foscarini and to Galileo’s earlier letter to Castelli (see my previous column) in a letter he wrote to Foscarini on April 12, 1615.

Please read that letter now, before reading the rest of this column. (Note: The first sentence on this web site is entirely erroneous and should be ignored. Galileo had not yet finished his “Letter to Christina” when Bellarmine wrote to Foscarini.)

Let me highlight the most important parts of Bellarmine’s letter.

  • First paragraph: Bellarmine has no objection to the Copernican hypothesis—provided that it is treated only as a purely mathematical model of the heavens that is useful for calculating where things can be seen on a given night. (This is what he means by “the appearances are saved…”) However, it must not be seen as a valid description of physical reality; that is, the earth does not really go around the sun, rather the sun goes around the earth. There was nothing out of the ordinary with Bellarmine’s suggestion—this is the overall attitude that astronomers had held since antiquity. It was also the attitude suggested by the anonymously written, unauthorized preface to Copernicus’ own book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. For more on that, see the section “Ad lectorem” (“to the reader”).

  • Second paragraph: Bellarmine makes a crucial point that can be understood only in the context of the Reformation. The Council of Trent, in which the Roman Catholic Church responded officially to the Protestants, forbids interpreting the Bible in ways that are not consistent with “the common agreement of the holy Fathers,” that is the Patristic writers. In other words, if the early theologians had all held to a particular interpretation of a given biblical text, that interpretation could not be changed; it was binding on the Church henceforth—provided that it was a matter of faith, that is, a matter of theological importance to Christianity as the Roman Church understood it. That principle was intended for use against Protestant theological claims, which clearly were matters of faith, but in this instance Bellarmine applied it also to astronomy, which is not clearly a matter of faith. Bellarmine anticipated such an objection. His answer is that all statements in the Bible are matters of faith, in effect, because the Bible is the written words of the Holy Spirit. This reflects contemporary views of the inspiration of the Bible, as seen (for example) in Caravaggio’s painting, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602), at right. The issue here—whether the inclusion of erroneous scientific views in the Bible (as we would judge it today) means that the Bible is not divinely inspired—is central to the whole conversation about science and the Bible. I’d like to see what you think.
  • Third paragraph: Bellarmine admits that, if there were “a true demonstration” of the Copernican theory, then we might need to reinterpret some biblical passages; but, if we can’t really prove it, then we are obligated to view it as a hypothetical mathematical model rather than a true description of physical reality. If possible, I’d like to avoid getting into the finer details of what “a true demonstration” meant, in the context of Aristotelian views of knowledge (the relevant category). It’s probably not too much of an oversimplification to say simply that Bellarmine’s view amounts to saying, “Where’s the beef?” This is also a key issue in modern debates about origins—when do we have enough evidence for a scientific conclusion (for example, the great age of the earth or the common descent of humans and other organisms) to say that a re-interpretation of the Bible is warranted? It is precisely on questions of this sort where creationists, theistic evolutionists, and most advocates of ID (those who oppose common descent) find that they disagree.

Tomorrow—after you’ve had a chance to read Bellarmine’s letter and respond to it—we will bring the same issues down into our own day, by comparing how modern creationists (both those who reject Copernicus and those who don’t) view Galileo’s attitude toward science and the Bible.

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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Merv - #69761

May 8th 2012

As usual, Ted, your references and links provide rich scholarship for our diet here—-from primary sources, no less.  Thank you.

Bellarmine seemed in his letter to exhibit a most congenial, respectful, and yet firm manner in speaking with his opponent.  But it is too bad he didn’t elaborate more on the “so what if it was really demonstrated”.  I guess it is no great surprise that he felt no need to elaborate any more than we feel a need to elaborate on “so what if fairies existed…”.   Bellarmine makes it quite clear that he thinks the earth doesn’t move, and so we aren’t privileged to hear how he would react on the matter of Scripture when the day actually did come when it was clearly demonstrated. 


Ted Davis - #69766

May 8th 2012

You’ve nailed Bellarmine’s attitude on the head, Merv.

Let me be quick to add, however, that I would have shared his deep scepticism about the Copernican view, if I’d been alive and alert at that time. In our study of his letter to Foscarini, I don’t want to imply otherwise. Galileo had a great deal to prove; furthermore, Galileo actually accepted the heavy burden of proof that Bellarmine required, b/c he thought he could provide it. Galileo believed that the phases of Venus constituted such evidence, and that the tides could be cause *only* by the earth’s “double motion,” i.e., its diurnal rotation combined with its annual revolution about the Sun. (He dismissed as crazy Kepler’s view that the Moon’s influence was the main cause of the tides, just as he ignored Kepler’s crucial discovery that the orbits of the planets are ellipses. As a mathematician, Kepler was *immensely* more powerful, and perhaps Galileo realized this and resented him; or, perhaps he just didn’t want to credit Kepler for any good idea. Or perhaps something else…)

GJDS - #69768

May 8th 2012

… modern debates about origins—when do we have enough evidence for a scientific conclusion (for example, the great age of the earth or the common descent of humans and other organisms) to say that a re-interpretation of the Bible is warranted?

By re-interpretation of the Bible, I take this to mean we:

(1)   Consider the meaning we attach to various sentences and phrases in the Bible, such as mentioned here about an unmoving (or unmovable world) and the sun moving across the sky, and/or

(2)   Extracting meaning from entire passages, such as is often done from Genesis 1-3 to provide us with a description of events that we also understand through scientific research, and/or

(3)   Using various sections of the Bible for (1) and (2) but also for the purpose of theology – often leading to specific beliefs shown by various denominations.

Bellarmine’s letter seems to include all three; the modern debate also includes atheists who appear to use post-Darwinian evolutionary theory for their atheism and ethics, morality, amongst etc.

We may refer to scientific evidence about the age of the earth or the organic basis for life which confers a commonality in any event. Is the conversation confined to these matters with an innocent attempt to re-interpret the Bible in view of current knowledge?

The various councils by the Church were called because of controversies about many things, including the ‘nature of God’, the ‘place of Christ in an apparent hierarchy’, if Christ was an angel etc.  

There was nothing out of the ordinary with Bellarmine’s suggestion—this is the overall attitude that astronomers had held since antiquity.  

This brings us to the main point in this interesting discussion – do we have a ‘common’ view of Biblical meaning that we can contrast and compare with a ‘common’ or a generally accepted view by any group in society, such as the scientific community?

I suggestion we need to differentiate between knowledge as a result of human curiosity, from that on Faith. The Bible provides us with the understanding regarding our faith. It is written mostly in language considered common for that particular time and this in itself could only encapsulate the meaning that people and their language possessed. I do not believe the Holy Spirit would have forced people of the Faith to use a language that would be suitable for a future age when humans had obtained additional insights into nature.

My overall point is put as a question: how much effort should we put into understanding the Bible as it is written, and how much effort do we need to re-interpret it?

Remember, a re-interpretation is needed after we admit our initial interpretation may have been wrong. If wrong them, why would we be right now?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #69777

May 9th 2012

GJDS wrote,

Remember, a re-interpretation is needed after we admit our initial interpretation may have been wrong. If wrong them, why would we be right now?

GJDS, please do not try to tell me that when reading a familiar Bible passage or maybe after hearing a good sermon on a familiar passage, you have not thought to yourself, “Wow, I never saw that meaning is that passage before.” 

The Bible is not meant to be so superficial that all of its meanings are clear to all.  Isn’t the fact that we are mere mortals mean that our understanding of scripture is more than likely incomplete, rather than complete.  I don’t think the question is whether our understanding is right or wrong, but complete or incomplete, deeper or shallow. 

The other issue is the subject matter of the Bible.  If it was to be a science textbook, then scientific facts would be important.  Also it would have to be updated every few years as science is always changing.  We know that the Bible is about living life and enjoying Eternal Life.  This is what is important. 

As regards to scientific facts, if we believe that “the heavens are telling the Glory of God,” then the more we know about the heavens the better we can appreciate the glory of God.  I do not see any problem with that even though it might disagree somewhat with language in the Bible.  The Bible is not the full and perfect Word of God, Jesus Christ is the full and perfect divine rational Word of God.  (John 1:1 and following)     

GJDS - #69812

May 9th 2012

Hi Roger,

My point is to understand the Bible and be guided by the Holy Spirit in attaining greater understanding on Faith. Controversies about current and dated theories and outlooks on nature seem to me to be often pointless when seeking insights into Biblical teachings. We are told to be honest and sincere, and this I believe, is sufficient for scientific matters.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #69872

May 10th 2012


I think that I am agree with you, but am not certain.  Certainly one does not have to understand and sgree with the scientific view to be a Christian and to understand the Bible. 

On the other hand if we live in this modern world and have the ability and the education to understand science, then I think that we do have a Christian responsibility to do so and this will enrich our spiritual life as well our personal understanding of God’s world.  We are called to be an active participient and to live in this world, but not be subject to it.

This is my experience.  What do you think?  

George Bernard Murphy - #69936

May 13th 2012

Galileo knew this Roger.

 He said the Bible was infallible but recondite.

 There was really no conflict over religion in Galileo’s little dust-up with the pope.

ddejong - #69796

May 9th 2012

“The issue here—whether the inclusion of erroneous scientific views in the Bible (as we would judge it today) means that the Bible is not divinely inspired—is central to the whole conversation about science and the Bible. I’d like to see what you think.”

Biblical inspiration, in Scripture itself, is connected to the Bible’s profitability for training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16), not scientific exactitude.  

ddejong - #69798

May 9th 2012

Has Einstein’s theory of relavity shown that there is some truth to Bellarmine’s view of the Copernican system as merely “saving the appearances” without having ontological force?

Merv - #69814

May 9th 2012

ddejong wrote:  “Biblical inspiration, in Scripture itself, is connected to the Bible’s profitability for training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16), not scientific exactitude.”

I agree with you on that, but Bellarmine sure wouldn’t have.  He made it clear that casting doubt on something so clearly demonstrated in Scripture and so clearly interpreted by the Patristic fathers and various councils is to make it a faith issue by your very rejection of such unimpeachable authority.  This has been very clearly echoed by Genesis 1 defenders in our seemingly parallel issue today.  I say ‘seemingly’ only as a courtesy to those who deny any such similarity, though it seems more exactly parallel to me.

Regarding relativity, it has been defended that you can mathematically choose any reference point you want and make it work to an impressive degree  (indeed that is what they were doing with their geocentric system for all those centuries.)  It will be interesting to continue reading of modern geocentrists in subsequent posts.  Do YECers generally try to distance themselves from a brother who claims to be loyal to Genesis in much the same way and yet wields that to defend geocentrism?  It is understandable if they find such distasteful, but ought to be revealing at the same time.  How practiced are any of us in arguing against recently persistent forms of this ancient view that have had so much time to craft and hone their responses to all the now standard rejections of geocentrism?  All I can say is that, having trained my mind with Newtonian mechanics, it would be a tall order to imagine the forces necessary to accelerate our massive sun (let alone the stars at far above light speed) into orbit around our tiny earth.  The new “simplest” interpretation is firmly ensconced in our minds.  Many such obvious things may yet be blown by bizarre new findings, but who would really believe it any more than they could think the entire world begins whirling rather than that it just appears that way as they themselves spin around?  By thinking of these “oh so obvious” things, we surely have a taste of how Bellarmine and nearly all the world felt about the radical challenges to their geocentrism back then.


GJDS - #69815

May 9th 2012


I think your point is central to this discussion and this area; we may even say that to the person in the street, many of these things are ‘common sense’. Once they have been taught and come to believe that everyone now agrees the earth goes around the sun, this becomes common sense. It is this ability to separate what is commonly believed from that obtained by specialists that I find intriguing regarding Biblical statements. I guess one way to look at it is, “would it be more sensible to use common language when discussion matters that are important for everyday life, instead of seeking to understand the altest theories; and why would a Biblical writer choose the former?” However, discussing the truth and common sense may at times be difficult in this context, since a person may truly believe that whet he is stating as commonly known is also true. Yet a scientist may tell him that his common sense is untrue!?

GJDS - #69874

May 10th 2012

For some reason the reply button does not respond; this is in response to #69872.

Hi Roger,

In the main I agree that a better understanding of science (nature) and other areas, including history, poetry etc. are all good activities and would enrich our lives. Understanding the views of those not of the Faith, I have found, is also valuable in that it enables me to better empathise with my fellow creatures, and to obtain a better understanding of what we as human beings are. The present conversation however, is mainly concerned with the way scientific outloooks concerning the world may impact on our understanding and interpretation of the Bible. As a scientist, I guess I take a more or less layback outlook to science (my view is sckeptical regarding scientific knowledge); I find poetry and literature (inspite of my typo errors) perhaps more informative as it provides insights into how we and other people use language. What do you think?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #69884

May 10th 2012


In terms of understanding the Bible I would agree since the Bible is primarily historical and thus the humanities are best in undserstanding history.

On the other hand history is about change and the Bible is about change from the Creation to Abraham, from Abraham to Jesus, and from Jesus to now.  I am concerned that some philosophical/theological/scientific points of vew emphasize the absence of change and are thus unBiblical.  Natural history lets us know how much the earth and human beings have changed. 

Merv - #69888

May 10th 2012

Roger, your comment provoked a few more thoughts for me as you wrote of “the absence of change” that gets emphasized by some scientific view points.

I think I’ve heard anabaptist flavored complaint that history books tend to jump from war to war and define history by its wars.  Those seem to punctuate time for us.

What if science legitimately emphasizes Lyell’s uniformity because that is what science can work with?  I know some do turn that into an ideology, in turn provoking the objection that all uniformitarian assumptions must be anti-God ideologies.  But if what science has is a hammer, is it such a bad thing that it delights in seeking out nails?  And couldn’t its practitioners do this without buying into some ideology that the world has never been anything but nails? (echoes of our MN discussions anyone?)

I like your comparisons observing how Scriptures are about change.  They are also about stability (or uniformity, if you will) ... i.e.  God is eternal and unchanging in many respects. 


Roger A. Sawtelle - #69902

May 10th 2012


You are right.  One can easily overgeneralize one way or the other concerning God and humanity.  I think that is the problem with Western dualism, which is the reason I prefer a relational point of view. 

Yes, God is eternal, although I prefer the Hebrew “everlasting” and “without end” to the Greek.  God is unchanging in that God Is Who God Is, which means the core of God is Love, God’s concern for humanity and Creation, which never changes.  AMEN      

GJDS - #69904

May 10th 2012

Hi Roger,

Overall I agree with you; my emphasis on change is perhaps best summarised “from the first Adam to the last Adam, who is Christ”. Thus change is central to this. On science within this context, it is primarily able to provide us with a deeper understanding of the world and all objects within it. This is important as we should increase in knowledge and thereby perhaps gain wisdom. However, I emphasis again that my overall view of science is skeptical because the history of science is richly filled with changes in theory and in understanding of the phenomina studied; to than glibly say this proves the scientific method has great virtue is hubris. I cannot see such changes in science that should change my view. On evolution, I agree that recent advances in the biomolecular areas have made impressive advances; however the overall view, in my humble opinion, is that it is an ‘umbrella’ that people have used to cover all manner of specualtion and somethimes things that were just plainly in error. This too, I say, is a brute fact. So the stance of science should be lower than it is. Our Biblical understanding is there to make our faith stronger, and knowledge, and a desire for what is correct instead of error, applies to everything, including science.

Natural history points to change, and all of science is understood as sense derive phenomina (which relies on movement and change based on real things). Natural history covers millions and billions of years - I have read that people are enaged in great controversy about events 40,000 years ago - surely they have not provided all of the brute facts about events billions of years ago.

Nice having these discussions.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #69913

May 11th 2012


I agree.  It is good to have these discussion.

I hope that we agree also that it is sad when people on both sides get all bent out of shape over the discussion as to whether there was 1 Adam or maybe a whole group or tribe of Adams. 

The Doctrine of the Fall is what it is.  Certainly we can and should try to understand it more fully, but the Faith is not going to fall based on some scientific projection we make in this century.

GJDS - #69924

May 12th 2012


Correct me if I am mistaken, but from your comment I understand that Genesis 1-3 is used as part of a discussion regarding the Bible and evolutionary outlooks. I have just re-read these sections and also Augustine’s comments and am unable to see how scientific outlooks may be considered important for interpretation nor doctrine. I understand that some may take the view that God physically constructed an Aam, but even if taken to its simplest interpretation, it would still imply that ‘earth’ was used in this construction/creation (made from the earth).

In my opinion, it is difficult to find a conflict with science in these passages; however it may be easier to construct both scientific and biblical views that could be used to generate conflict. I make comments about Faith, but I would prefer to leave comments about what God can and cannot do out of these discussions - by definition (I say with a grin) God can do anything we may imagine, and then some we cannot imagine (then again we cannot define God, so on it goes with this futile exercise). On sceintific projections, I am sufficiently weary with coping with scientific theories and experiments, and cannot find the energy to project and/or speculate on a grander scale covering billions of years and then combine these with theological matters profound. I think science can be very humbling to its practitioners. 

George Bernard Murphy - #69935

May 13th 2012

When 2 objects in space move with reference to each other it is quite possiblr to assume either to be stationary with the other moving.


 Both systems are therefore correct.

Merv - #69942

May 13th 2012

This relativity is true and easy to accept for linear motion.  And it [the relativity] can even be extended to rotational motion in a mathematical sense—just to compute referential locations of things such as stars.  But it seems that it can’t be extended to rotational motion in the physical sense (accelerations no longer being arbitrary about which system is correct.)   Would you agree with that?


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April 9th 2013

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