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

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

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.


About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.