Modern Day Lessons from Galileo and the Copernican Conflict

The modern debate in Christianity regarding a young or old earth has many similarities to the Copernican Conflict of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At the heart of that debate was not the age of the earth but the concepts of geocentrism (the sun revolves around the earth) and heliocentrism (the earth revolves around the sun.) While most of us don’t see this as an issue today, in those days it was a major struggle.

Prior to this time, very few people, believers and nonbelievers, thought that heliocentrism was possible. It went against basic perception and it seemed to contradict God’s word in passages like Psalm 93:1 and Joshua 10:12-13.1 Yet, following Nicolaus Copernicus’s publication of On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in 1543 many minds started to rethink what was possible.2 Han Lipperhey invented the telescope in 1608 and Galileo Galilei, who already was a heliocentric Copernican, quickly upgraded it and discovered that Jupiter had several moons orbiting the planet.3 This might not seem like a big deal to us now, but it was the first definite proof that not all heavenly bodies orbited around the earth.4 Soon after, he discovered that Venus had a set of phases that proved that the planet orbited the sun.5 Issac Newton would go on to use the works of Copernicus and Galileo to publish The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy in 1687,5 which is considered to have put the final nail in the geocentric coffin.

Surprisingly, the initial Christian response to these findings saw much acceptance (at least to the hypothesis) among Catholics and several publications were even made possible by the assistance of Protestants. However, things began to heat up around the heliocentric debate just as things were heating up in the Catholic Church as they sought to counter the Reformation in full force.6 Much of the heat would be put on Galileo as he published his new evidence defending helocentrism. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) had made formal decree that private interpretation of Scripture was forbidden.7 This would become very problematic for Galileo, who was a strong defender of Biblical Inerrancy, but was challenging traditional interpretations that did not align with his scientific findings. Pope Paul V went so far as to to even condemn Copernicanism as heretically false.8 Galileo was eventually convicted of being “vehemently suspected of heresy” and was forbidden from speaking on the topic, put on house arrest and forced to publicly proclaim his error.9

Unfortunately for Galileo, the Catholic Church was in full defensive mode and his controversy was most likely met with more force than it would have had the anti-Reformation movement not been in full swing. Galileo himself was devoted to the Word of God and stated that “the Holy Scripture can never lie, as long as its true meaning has been grasped.”10 Yet he believed (rightfully so) that interpretations could be wrong and stressed that there are many passages in Scripture which were already not taken literally. He even put up a strong defense pertaining to the passage in Joshua saying that his scientific interpretation actually makes the lengthening of the day possible.11

Essentially, Galileo made two primary assumptions about Scripture and then had two interpretive steps that followed. The two assumptions are to “assume Biblical inerrancy, not inerrant interpretation” and that “nature and Scripture cannot disagree.”12 The interpretive steps were first that “traditional Biblical interpretations govern unproven science” and second that “proven scientific theory requires Biblical reinterpretation.”13 Galileo understood that science could be very imperfect and proposed that caution should be used before trying to reinterpret Scripture (although he jumped the gun himself). Furthermore, he expressed a genuine concern that unbelievers would have a more difficult time believing in the Bible if interpretations were still held that were clearly false and not important to the nature of God or salvation. He understood that scientific interpretations from Scripture were not nearly as important as the central truths of Christianity.14

We all know the final result of the conflict, nearly all Christians hold to interpretations that allow for heliocentrism with little thought regarding those interpretations that were so zealously fought for and against several hundred years ago. We should learn from this conflict in church history that many times our current debates are not seen in the proper light. This does not mean that there are not times to fight hard for interpretations, especially those that support key doctrines, but as history shows some of these debates have a way of sorting themselves out in time. Wisdom should be sought in where to draw boundary lines in the current debate of the age of the earth. Grace should be extended as far as wisdom and faithfulness will allow. Too many times those who are seeking to reinterpret certain passages of Scripture are immediately accused of putting science above God’s Word. Likewise, many who are unwilling to reinterpret are accused of burying their heads in the sand and rejecting reason. Whereas the heart of the former very well may be to seek to be faithful to the Word and to seek the truth of God’s creation, whereas the later may not find a Scriptural argument sufficient to allow for a reinterpretation. We would all do well to seek to do all things in love and to believe the best of our brothers and sisters in Christ and be very slow to accuse their motives. There is a time for rebuke, but may we seek to be as “shrewd as serpents” in knowing when critical lines have been crossed and as “innocent as doves” when we engage with our brothers and sisters in love and truth (Matthew 10:16).

  1. Controversy of the Ages: Why Christians Should not Divide Over the Age of the Earth, Theodor J. Cabal and Peter J. Rasor II, (Weaver Book Company, Wooster, OH, 2017), 29
  2. Ibid. 30-31
  3. Ibid. 32
  4. Ibid. 32
  5. Ibid. 32
  6. Ibid. 35
  7. Ibid. 35-36
  8. Ibid. 37
  9. Ibid. 39
  10. Ibid. 44; quoted from David C. Lindberg, “Galileo, the Church, and the Cosmos,” in When Science and Christianity Meet, ed. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 38
  11. Ibid. 44-45
  12. Ibid. 44-45
  13. Ibid. 45-46
  14. Ibid. 46

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