Galileo and the Garden of Eden: The Principle of Accommodation and the Book of Genesis, Part 2

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

Yesterday I asked you to read a letter penned in April 1615 by Catholic theologian, Roberto, Cardinal Bellarmine. Bellarmine was responding to a letter by the Carmelite friarPaolo Foscarini and also to Galileo’s letter to Castelli, which I mentioned in another column a few weeks ago. If you haven’t yet read Bellarmine’s letter, go back to the previous column so you’ll be up to speed.

Modern Geocentrists Reject Accommodation

In my first column on Galileo, I mentioned that there are still a few folks who haven’t accepted a moving earth, and I identified two websites associated with this view: Galileo Was Wrongand Geocentricity. The latter site features prominently the ideas of Gerardus Bouw, arguably the most influential modern geocentrist. A recent version of his ideas that includes The Geocentric Bible by Gordon Bane was mailed to more than 130,000 Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in the past decade.

The reason why Bouw rejects the motion of the earth pertains directly to our topic. For Bouw the fundamental issues are biblical inerrancy, preservation (he believes that the King James Bible is “the inerrant preserved word of God in English”), and authority—including its authority in scientific matters. In order to understand his approach, let’s examine his comments on the famous passage in Joshua 10:12-13, using Bouw’s beloved King James version.

Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.

According to Bouw, when Joshua asks God to make the Sun stand still, those are his own words, not those of God. Thus, we are free to attribute a false astronomical picture to Joshua: the Bible simply reports what Joshua said. In the next verse, however, the Bible reports what actually happened: the sun stood still in the midst of heaven. Since the author of the Bible is God himself, and since God cannot lie, Bouw concludes that the geocentric view “must be true.” Here he explicitly rejects the use of accommodation, because “accommodation still maintains that God goes along with the accepted story even though he really does not believe it.”

Bouw goes even further with this theme, dismissing John Calvin’s use of accommodation in his commentary on Genesis and even dissing Calvin himself: “if John Calvin were alive today, he would probably be a heliocentric theistic evolutionist.” Ultimately, Bouw endorses his own version of the cosmology of the sixteenth-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who put the planets in motion around the sun while the sun in turn orbited a stationary earth.

How Creationists Keep Galileo Out of the Garden of Eden

Most creationists today don’t agree with Bouw on simple astronomical matters. In their view, Galileo’s approach to those particular biblical verses was perfectly appropriate—they are poetical texts that relate only to the appearances of things and have no bearing on salvation. However, they take strong exception to the use of a similar approach to the creation stories in Genesis. They are obviously anxious to keep Galileo out of the garden of Eden. How is it done?

Creationist astronomer Danny Faulkner does it by drawing a hard and fast line between Galileo and Genesis: “Many evolutionists claim that disbelief in evolution is like disbelief that the Earth goes round the Sun. The obvious flaw is that the latter is repeatable and observable while the former is not.” (see "Geocentrism and Creation"). Faulkner and other creationists like to push the distinction between fields of science that are sometimes called “historical sciences,” and other fields that are sometimes called “experimental sciences.” In short, we can’t directly observe the past history of the earth and the universe—we can’t repeat the Big Bang, we can’t recreate the Cambrian explosion, and we can’t rerun the video of an asteroid hitting the earth and killing the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The best we can do is to draw forensic-type inferences from what we can observe today.

This distinction has some validity. The great Cambridge scholar William Whewell, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, biologist Ernst Mayr, geologist-historian Martin Rudwick, philosopher Elliot Sober, and many others have likewise differentiated between various sciences in a similar manner. What creationists do with this distinction, however, goes far beyond where others have gone. While others affirm the validity of the historical sciences (since they can still be tested by observations even though we can’t directly observe the past), creationists utterly deny the validity of the historical sciences. Thus, one of the most famous creationists of his generation, John C. Whitcomb, Jr., emphasized “the tremendous limitations which inhibit the scientific method when applied to the study of origins” (The Origin of the Solar System, 1963). As creationist historian Terry Mortenson told me, “The Bible is the propositional verbal revelation of God, but the creation is the more-difficult-to-interpret, non-verbal revelation about God. Therefore, it is methodologically mistaken to use fallen men’s interpretations of the cursed creation to reinterpret God’s plain inerrant Word to make it fit sinful men’s fallible theories about the unobserved past” (personal correspondence, which I quoted with permission in the book cited at the end of this column). Mortenson turns Galileo’s approach upside down.


Perhaps the ultimate question is this: When are we justified to reinterpret a biblical text on the basis of science? If we don’t accept the validity of the historical sciences, then we have no scientific reasons (here I ignore other kinds of reasons) to reinterpret early Genesis; that is the position held by scientific creationists. But if we do accept the general validity of the historical sciences, then we cannot avoid asking hard questions about our understanding of the biblical text. The principle of accommodation does not come with an “off” switch. Either we use it, or we don’t. Either God communicates with us in our own verbal and conceptual language, or he doesn’t. If he does, then we need to let Galileo into the garden of Eden.



References & Credits

Readers who want a longer, more detailed, and deeper analysis of the points presented here should borrow a copy of this book. Brill published four volumes in all with the same general title (Nature and Scripture in the Abrahamic Religions), two on the period before 1700 and two more from 1700-present. It’s the final of these four that you need (Brill’s Series in Church History, volume 37, part 2). The ISBN is 9789004171909. If you provide a librarian with that number, it should be possible to locate a copy. If it proves too difficult, contact me privately.

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.