"Men of Galilee, Why Stand Gazing Up into Heaven": Revisiting Galileo, Astronomy, and the Authority of the Bible

By Lee, H. J. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2010 | Go to article overview

"Men of Galilee, Why Stand Gazing Up into Heaven": Revisiting Galileo, Astronomy, and the Authority of the Bible


Lee, H. J., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Four hundred years after Galileo Galilei's (1564-1642) first observation through a telescope, the 62nd General Assembly of the United Nations and the International Astronomical Union dedicated 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy. The year's commemoration brought together over 140 countries in an effort to promote worldwide recognition of the discovery of the telescope and the ongoing work in the field of astronomy. This international collaboration aspired to initiate a process that can potentially be as revolutionary as the discovery of the telescope itself.

While the year's main objectives may have been scientific and pediological, it is equally important to reexamine the relationship between Galileo's work and Christianity because the Church has not always celebrated his achievements like the General Assembly. In 1633, the Roman Catholic Church found Galileo holding views that contradicted Scripture and banned the scientist from conducting any work in astronomy. It was not until Pope John Paul IFs 1979 commemorative speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that the papacy addressed grievances against Galileo. The actions of the pope spurred various efforts to vindicate Galileo and to rectify the condemnation of his work.

Despite subsequent scholarship since 1979, at least one aspect of Galileo has unfortunately been inadequately addressed. In the years following the invention of the telescope, Galileo found himself needing to defend his Copernican cosmology. His defense came in the form of the essay Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615; published in 1636). In this piece, Galileo challenged the exegetical practice of his accusers and upheld his own views as biblical. Specifically, his opponents lacked the principle of accommodation, which was the key to the harmonization of astronomy and the Bible in the view of the astronomer's view. Relying heavily on Augustine (354-430), Galileo attempted to establish a hermeneutic that brought together Scripture and his own scientific discoveries. This study asks on the four hundredth anniversary of Galileo's invention of the telescope whether his understanding of accommodation compromised scriptural inerrancy.

I. RECOUNTING THE EVENTS OF THE GALILEO AFFAIR

The events surrounding the Galileo affair help to set up a clear picture of Galileo's understanding of accommodation. It must be noted that Galileo was not unique among Catholics in adhering to the Copernican position. His most prominent allies were the Dominican Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639) and the Carmelite Paolo Antonio Foscarini (1562-1616). In 1611, Campenella recounted the "prophecies" of John Chrysostom (347-407), Theodore of Tarsus (602-690), Origen (185-254), and Augustine who understood the language of Scripture to exceed a literal hermeneutic. Despite Campanella's efforts, it would seem he did little to stem the actions of the Catholic Church, especially since his work was not received until March 1616 when the Copernican position had just been forbidden.1

Foscarini's efforts made a greater impact especially in his interactions with Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621). When responding to biblical texts such as Ps 92:1 and 103:5, where the geocentric theory is apparently supported, Foscarini replied similarly as Campanella. Again, appealing to the Church fathers and the language of Scripture, he states that the passage should be interpreted "in respect to us, in relation only to us, and according to the appearances."2

In A Letter to Fr. Sebastiano, Foscarini defended the notion that a heliocentric universe can be harmonized with Scripture's description of the world. He writes, "it is said according to the vulgar opinion and the common way of speaking; the Holy Spirit frequently and deliberately adopts the vulgar and common way of speaking."3 For Foscarini, Scripture's language as accommodated to mankind cannot be understood literally. He goes on to explain himself when he states, "words are to be interpreted 'according to the vulgar meaning and the common mode of speaking,' which is the same as saying, 'according to appearances and in relation to us or in respect to us.

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