Commentary

Cliff Goldstein

is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His next book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity is set to be released this fall by Pacific Press.

Galileo’s Heresies

The dangers of incorporating the whims of science into religion.

Most everyone has heard of the heresy trial of Galileo Galilei by the Roman Inquisition in the seventeenth century, an event universally portrayed as the paradigmatic illustration of ignorant and dogmatic religionists versus the rational progress of science. Thus, theistic evolutionists gleefully use the Galileo account against those who defend the six-day creation, arguing that these literal creationists are repeating the error of Rome’s religious dogmatism.

However, far from an example of ignorant religionists battling scientific progress, the Galileo trial exposes the dangers of what happens when Christians too readily incorporate the whims of science into their religion. Contrary to the popular myth, it’s the evolutionists, not the creationists, who are repeating Rome’s error. If smart, theistic evolutionists would shun the Galileo controversy, not parade it as the archetypal example of why Christians must meld evolution with the Bible.

Galileo’s Abjuration

Though about as many versions of the Galileo saga exist as tellers of it, the gist is that Galileo promoted Copernicanism, which argued for the earth orbiting the sun instead of the sun orbiting the earth. When faced with the threat of torture for promoting this idea, Galileo uttered his famous adjuration: “I must altogether abandon the false opinion that the sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center of the world, and moves . . .. I abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid errors and heresies.”

The points that Galileo abjured were: first, that the sun is the center of the universe; second, that the sun is immovable; third, that the earth is not the center of the universe; and, fourth, that the earth moves.

These were Galileo’s four heresies, as they appeared in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,[1] the book that brought Rome’s wrath on his head. However, as we will see, these were heresies, not against the Scriptures but against centuries of accepted scientific dogma.

The Darwin of the Era

The following are quotes from Galileo’s book:

“I might add that neither Aristotle nor you can ever prove that the earth is de facto the center of the universe . . ..”[2]

“But seeing on the other hand the great authority that Aristotle has gained universally; considering the number of famous interpreters who have toiled to explain his meanings; and observing that all other sciences, so useful and necessary to mankind, base a large part of their value and reputation upon Aristotle’s credit.”[3]

“Who would be there to settle our controversies were Aristotle deposed? What other author should we follow in the schools, the academies, the universities?”[4]

Who was the focus on? On Moses, Jesus, Paul? No, the focus was on the Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose teachings, and Galileo’s refutation of those teachings, is central to the Dialogue. Moses, Jesus, Paul are never mentioned. The phrase “Holy Scriptures” appears only twice in Galileo’s book, in contrast to “Aristotle,” which appears about 100 times there.

Galileo’s “heresies” weren’t contrary to Scripture; they were contrary to an interpretation of Scripture dominated by a pagan Greek who lived more than 300 years before Christ, Aristotle—the Darwin of that era.

This point cannot be overestimated.Galileo wasn’t fighting against the Bible, but against an interpretation of the Bible dominated by the prevailing scientific dogma, which for centuries had been Aristotelianism. This view taught that the earth stood immobile at the center of the universe, and that stars and planets, including the sun, moved in perfect circular orbits around it.

And, just as almost everything in life sciences today is interpreted through the dogma and authority of Charles Darwin, back then so much science (or “natural philosophy” as it was called), including the nature of the cosmos, was interpreted through the dogma and authority of Aristotle (384 B.C. -322 B. C.). The influence that he exerted was tremendous, especially after theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.) worked so painstakingly to interpret Christianity through the lens of Aristotle. “But with the Church’s gradual acceptance of that work [Aquinas’],” wrote Richard Tarnas, “the Aristotelian corpus was elevated virtually to the status of Christian dogma.”[5]

Hence, the crucial point: Galileo’s “heresies” weren’t contrary to Scripture; they were contrary to an interpretation of Scripture dominated by a pagan Greek who lived more than 300 years before Christ, Aristotle—the Darwin of that era.

The First Heresy

The first charge against Galileo was that he taught that the sun, not the earth, was at the center of the universe.

Technically, Galileo was wrong.The sun is not the center of the universe, but only of our solar system, which itself hovers in the outer burbs of the Milky Way, one of billions of galaxies careening across what’s (probably) infinity. Yet where does Scripture locate the sun in relation to the cosmos? What inspired words say that it is, or is not, the center of the universe? How could Galileo be charged with heresy on a topic the Bible never addressed?

The answer is easy: Galileo’s heresy wasn’t against the Bible but against an interpretation of the Bible based on science—a scary parallel to what theistic evolutionists are doing today. It didn’t matter that the Bible never said that the sun at the center of the universe. Aristotle did, and because the Bible was interpreted through this, the prevailing scientific theory, an astronomical point never addressed in Scripture had become a theological position of such centrality that the Inquisition threatened to torture an old man for teaching contrary to it.

The Second Heresy

What about Galileo’s claim that the sun is “immovable?”

Here, at least, the church had some texts. Nevertheless, do these texts teach what natural philosophers for centuries insisted that they did, which is that the sun orbits the earth?

For instance, Psalm 19:4-6, talking about the sun, says:

In them [the heavens] He has set a tabernacle for the sun,

Which is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,

And rejoices like a strong man to run its race.

Its rising is from one end of heaven,

And its circuit to the other end;

And there is nothing hidden from its heat.

Don’t these verses prove the motion of the sun across the sky, similar to a bridegroom coming “out of his chamber,” or to a strong man ready to “run a race”? These metaphors mean nothing if not motion. Thus, doesn’t the Bible here teaches that the sun, not the earth, is moving?

Does it?

For starters, these are metaphors in a poem, and so how literally does one press metaphors in poetry? The psalmist also wrote in the same song about the works of God’s hand, and that “there is no speech nor language/Where their voice is not heard,” (Psalm 19: 2-3). Celestial phenomena speak in every human language? And so we hear that heavenly speech in our own tongue? Either the world in King David’s time was radically different than it is today, or the poet was using poetic imagery to express truths deeper than the imagery itself.

Psalm 19 is a poetical expression of the power of God as revealed in the heavens. The Psalm is no more cosmology than Jesus’ words—“Why are you thinking these things in your hearts?” (Luke 5:22)[6]—were physiology.

What about texts like these? “The sun also rises, and the sun goes down,/ And hastens to the place where it arose” (Ecclesiastes 1:5)? Or, “The sun had risen upon the earth when Lot entered Zoar,” (Genesis 19:23)?

What about them? Does our present use of the terms “sunrise” and “sunset” reflect what is really taking place: the earth’s rotation on its axis, causing the sun to appear in the sky in the morning, then look as if it’s moving across the sky all day, and finally to disappear behind the horizon later? That’s certainly not what’s implied by the two words, which express not what is happening but what appears to be instead. Otherwise, how should a sunrise or sunset be expressed? “What a spin of the earth on its axis that makes the sun appear to dip behind the horizon in such a beautiful way”?

The language of “sunrise” and “sunset” took on the importance that they did only because of the incorporation of false science into theology, exactly what’s happening today, but with Darwin, not Aristotle. Had the church not adopted Aristotle’s cosmology, and not made a theological issue out of what the Bible never addressed, Roman Catholicism might have been spared the embarrassment of the Galileo affair.

The Third Heresy

How ironic that, supposedly defending the faith, the church accused a man of heresy for opposing a long established scientific theory, a theory not only never revealed in Scripture but that turned out to be wrong.

Besides the motion and position of the sun, Galileo’s condemnation included the charge that he taught the earth was not the center of the universe.

Yet where does the Bible ever plop earth into the center of the cosmos? This view is Aristotle’s, not Scriptures’. How ironic that, supposedly defending the faith, the church accused a man of heresy for opposing a long established scientific theory, a theory not only never revealed in Scripture but that turned out to be wrong.

The Fourth Heresy

What about the motion of the earth?Don’t the following texts show that it is, indeed, not moving?

The LORD reigns, He is clothed with majesty;

The LORD is clothed,

He has girded Himself with strength.

Surely the world is established, so that it cannot be moved.

(Psalm 93:1)

They seem clear enough.Even Protestant Reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, saw such verses as evidence of an immovable earth.

Yet what does one do with these following verses?

And the foundations of the earth are shaken.

The earth is violently broken,

The earth is split open,

The earth is shaken exceedingly.

The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard,

And shall totter like a hut;

(Isaiah 24:19-20)

Therefore, I will shake the heavens,

And the earth will move out of her place,

(Isaiah 13:13)

The LORD also will roar from Zion,

And utter His voice from Jerusalem;

The heavens and earth will shake;

(Joel 3:16)

“For in My jealousy and in the fire of My wrath I have spoken:Surely in that day there shall be a great earthquake in the land of Israel . . . .’”

(Ezekiel 38:19)

The earth is, obviously, not immovable. Earthquakes, which existed in the time of the Bible writers, alone prove that point.So whatever these texts mean, it can’t be that the earth doesn’t move at all.

The motion in the texts about the earth reeling “to and fro like a drunkard” and the like isn’t dealing with the earth’s orbits or axis. Neither was the non-motion in the texts about God establishing the earth so that “it cannot be moved” describing its orbit or axis, either. These verses were about the power and majesty of God as Creator and Judge; they weren’t about cosmology any more than Peter’s word to Ananias, “why hath Satan filled thy heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?” (Acts 5:3) were about anatomy and physiology.

Again, these things would have never been issues were it not for the church seeking to incorporate the latest and greatest science in the faith.

Aristotle and Darwin

In short, Galileo’s story, contrary to the common view, is an example of the church in antiquity doing what the church today is doing: interpreting the Bible through prevailing scientific dogma.In Galileo’s day, that dogma was Aristotelianism; in ours, it’s Darwinism, or the whatever the latest version happens to be.

Aristotle could have been right; it would have made no difference. But if Darwin is right, Jesus is wrong.

One major difference, however, exists between what the church did then, with the Aristotelian view of the cosmos, and what theistic evolutionists do today, with the Darwinian one. While the earth-centered view of the cosmos isn’t addressed in the Bible, (that model could have been correct without contradicting Scripture) evolution contradicts the Bible in every way possible. Aristotle could have been right; it would have made no difference. But if Darwin is right, Jesus is wrong.

In the introduction to the twentieth century translation of the Dialogue Concerning Two World Systems, Albert Einstein wrote the following: “The leitmotif which I recognize in Galileo’s work is the passionate fight against any kind of dogma based on authority.”

Einstein was correct.The trial of Galileo was an example of what can happen when someone fights against “any kind of dogma based on authority.”But the dogma was based on the authority of science, a dogma as unrelenting and intolerant in the seventeenth century as it is today.Far from revealing the dangers of religion battling science, the Galileo trial reveals the dangers of religion capitulating to it.

Clifford Goldstein is the editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide. The article was adapted from a manuscript in progress tentatively titled: Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity.



[1] Galileo, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (Berkeley:University of California Press, 1967).

[2] Ibid. p. 33

[3] Ibid. p. 56.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tarnas, Richard, The Passion of the Western Mind (New York: Ballantine Books: 1991). p. 193.

[6] Italic supplied.

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