Ted Davis
 on April 17, 2012

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

Inspired by Augustine, Galileo cautioned Christians against reading the Bible as a science book, since it employs popular language to communicate to its audiences, a notion known as “accommodation."

Part 7 of 7 in Science and the Bible

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: and 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 specificallyabout 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.

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).

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.

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 Wrong and 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.

This was the last document in the series "Science and the Bible".

About the author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is 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.

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