Science Ch.7 - The Problem with Galileo

The church rejected Galileo because he contradicted the Bible – though actually he only rejected its interpretation of the Bible. How can we tell when the Bible is speaking metaphorically and when it is trying to teach us scientific facts?

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was the Richard Dawkins of his time. Like Dawkins, he produced extremely well-written books based on his acknowledged expertise in a specific area. And in the same way as Dawkins, he used his communication skills to write on subjects outside his area of expertise in order to attack the established teaching of the church in a derogatory and condescending manner. Both men did this in a way designed to amuse their readers and exasperate their critics. As a result, we remember Galileo for his disputes with the Inquisition and forget the intricate mathematics that earned him a professorship in Pisa and Padua. Similarly, we tend to forget Dawkins’ revolutionary work on gene-pool selection because of the shadow cast by works such as The God Delusion.

       Looking back at Galileo’s discoveries, everyone agrees that the church could have reacted better. But how were they to know that he was right and their interpretation of the Bible was wrong?

       The idea that the earth and other planets revolve round the sun was proved by Nicolaus Copernicus, who (sensibly!) published his work just before he died in 1543. Fifty years later, Galileo was appointed to teach mathematics in Padua and was studying Copernicus’ work.1 The church hadn’t minded too much when Copernicus proved by complex mathematics that the sun and planets didn’t all revolve around the earth. But Galileo was a populist and a showman – and, worse still, he invented a telescope by which anyone could see that he was right.

       In 1610 Galileo published a book with drawings of what he could see through his telescope, including pictures of the moons of Jupiter disappearing behind the planet and then appearing again.2 He invited famous and influential people to come see this for themselves, so even those who had no interest in astronomy shared what they had seen at social gatherings. Copernicus had contradicted the accepted theory that everything revolves around the earth, but Galileo transformed this into an observable fact – a fact that was deemed heretical.

       These new ideas sounded wild and unbelievable, as well as heretical. They claimed that rather than being stationary, the earth is traveling at 67,000 miles per hour around the sun, along with the other planets. Later we discovered that the band of stars called the Milky Way is our local galaxy and that some of the faint stars that we can see are actually distant galaxies made up of millions of stars. The planet Earth isn’t at the center of anything.

       This was a terrible moment from which the church hasn’t really recovered. Instead of using scientific observations to help interpret the Bible, the church simply decided that its traditional understanding was correct – even if calculations and their own eyes disagreed.

5-minute summary

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Interpreting the Bible

In the church’s defense, the Bible clearly does say that the Earth stands still: “The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved”; “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved” (Pss 96:10; 104:5). It also says that the Earth stands on pillars: “He shakes the earth from its place and makes its pillars tremble”; “When the earth and all its people quake, it is I who hold its pillars firm” (Job 9:6; Ps 75:3). It also says that the sun moves: “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises”; “It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other” (Eccl 1:5; Ps 19:6).

       We could approach these texts in a number of different ways:

1. We could say that they are true from a particular perspective, in that relative to us the Earth stands still and the sun moves around us.

2. We could regard them as merely figures of speech, so we shouldn’t infer anything literal from them. After all, we still speak about “sunrise” without meaning that the sun is below the horizon and actually rises above it.

3. We could agree that the ancient authors were reflecting their own beliefs about the sun moving around the Earth and that they were merely using this as an illustration of God’s greatness; neither they, nor God, who inspired them, expected us to infer anything about astronomy from this imagery.

4. We could declare that anything stated in Scripture is literally true, whatever the subject matter or genre. So if other facts indicate something different, it is those facts that we need to question, not the Bible.

       I like the second option – that this was simply a figure of speech. I also have a lot of sympathy for the third option – that the Bible shouldn’t be expected to make revelations about matters outside its message. The first option is what I normally look for first when interpreting or translating a text – that is, to assume that the words mean what they say, but that they are not the way we would put it if we were saying it today. In other words, the Bible speaks about the sun moving around the Earth because that was how everyone described it – and how we ourselves speak about it when we aren’t attempting to be scientifically accurate. Even the concept of pillars under the earth can be understood in this way. At first it appears to be utterly at odds with the reality of a sphere moving through space. However, these passages are not speaking about the planet being shaken and quaking – they are speaking about earthquakes and about the assurance that the ground won’t totally topple because the foundations are sufficiently secure (see the context at Job 9:6; Ps 75:3).

The church’s mistake

As you can see, I have stated the options in the order I regard the most useful. The fourth isn’t an option at all – it is a mistake. And it is the mistake that the church made with regard to Galileo’s discovery. They assumed that their interpretation was the only possible interpretation. However, I don’t think we can blame them because this is something we all do from time to time. We need to distinguish between what the text tells us and what we impose on the text. When the Bible appears to teach us facts about the sciences, we have to allow that this may be metaphorical. Like any good scientist, we have to investigate to find out whether something agrees with reality before we can decide which interpretation is correct.

       The church declared that anything except its own interpretation of these texts was heresy. Cardinal Bellarmine (whose views defined the official position) at first took a sensible stance, arguing that there was not yet any physical evidence that the Earth moved around the sun. Galileo responded to this by publishing his work on the tides, which showed they were physical evidence that the moon moves around the Earth. If he had stopped there, he might have been left alone, but he published other works in which he made fun of several influential people, including Pope Urban VIII, whose words he put into the mouth of a fictional character called Simplicio (“simpleton”).3

       Catholics were not the only ones to reject these ideas out of hand. Calvin said that those who asserted that “the earth moves and turns” were motivated by “a spirit of bitterness, contradiction, and faultfinding … to pervert the order of nature.”4 And Luther said, commenting on Genesis 1:6, “We Christians must, therefore, be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of these things. And if some are beyond our comprehension (like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens), we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding.” Later, commenting on Genesis 1:14, he added, “The stars … are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night.”5 Of course, Luther was writing before Copernicus, and Calvin was writing between the time of Copernicus and Galileo, so neither of them knew there could be actual evidence that supports these ideas. However, what they said implies that they considered physical sciences to be inferior to Scripture and that any evidence that might be found should be suspected as mere “faultfinding” or “wicked denials” of the truth.

       Nevertheless, I have great sympathy for preachers such as Calvin and Luther, even though they made statements we might regard as laughable today. You have to scour their voluminous writings to find comments on scientific or mathematical matters such as these because they didn’t spend time writing about things they didn’t understand. They weren’t really interested in such topics – they were far more concerned with the overarching message of Scripture. In addition, there was very little information at the time about these subjects, and books were expensive and rare. For Calvin to make comments about Copernican thinking is as surprising as a modern preacher having an opinion on epigenetic inheritance. In other words, I am amazed that Calvin was as well informed as he was about this recent and abstruse area of mathematical research, and I’m not too surprised that he didn’t understand it.

Flat Earth

Surprisingly, some people still reject the idea that the Earth orbits the sun, that the Earth spins, or that the Earth is round. They assert that the truth of the Bible should always triumph over scientific theories. In their view, the Bible clearly speaks of the sun traveling across the surface of the Earth, so this must be accepted as correct, and all other facts must fall into place around this truth. They reject what they call the “Copernican Deception” and point out that we should “question everything.”6 I like the policy of questioning every theory, but it requires a lot more work to do this properly than that employed by such believers. Questioning theories is what all scientists do, because they all long to discover something new that will overturn the accepted consensus and make themselves famous. But I doubt that anyone will overturn the theory of gravity in the near future.

       Church leaders who examined Galileo should also have examined their beliefs. They should have asked: “Are we defending the Bible, or are we defending our interpretation of the Bible?” However, no one likes to admit they are wrong, and most people like to carry on thinking and teaching the same way they have always done. What the Inquisition lacked wasn’t knowledge (we can never know everything) but humility and a thirst for knowledge. We can assert that the Bible is unassailably true, but we should never claim that our interpretation of the Bible is unassailable too.


• Mathematics and astronomy proved the earth moves around the sun.
• Catholic and Protestant theologians rejected this too hastily.
• All Christians now agree that the Bible supports this scientific finding.
• Proposal: When a text has more than one possible interpretation, science can help us decide between them.

1^ In 1597 Galileo wrote to Johannes Kepler that he had agreed with Copernicus’ views for some years. See “Brief Biography of Johannes Kepler” (
2^ See Wikipedia, “Sidereus Nuncius” (
3^ In his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. See Wikipedia, “Galileo Galilei” (
4^ John Calvin, Sermon 8 on 1 Corinthians, 677, cited in William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 72.
5^ Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 1, Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia, 1999), 30, 42.
6^ See Fair Education Foundation, “Exposing the Copernican Deception,” Fixed Earth (; Nicklas Arthur, “Flat Earth or Spherical Earth, What Does the Bible Say,” Cross the Border (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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