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Another Look at Galileo by John Byl
(from "Christian Renewal," May 13, 1993)

Almost every book dealing with science and Christianity discusses the Roman Catholic Church's17th century condemnation of scientist Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642). As is well known, Galileo promoted the Copernican theory that the earth was moving about a fixed sun. The Roman Church held this to be contrary to the Bible, which spoke of a fixed earth.

Nowadays most people are convinced that the church was wrong, that the earth is in actual motion. The church's treatment of Galileo has caused endless embarrassment to Christians. Many Christian apologists have resorted to various ways to reinterpret the troublesome passages in Scripture that were once used against Galileo. After have suffered centuries of ridicule, the Roman Church, in October 1992, reversed its judgment on Galileo.

In a recent series of three articles in Christian Renewal, Johan Tangelder writes on these matters. While he presents an excellent review of the historical aspects of the case, his comments regarding the relation of science to Scripture raise a number of far reaching questions. The main problem is that Tangelder, along with most Christians, has missed the point: Galileo was wrong.

The Question of Motion

Is the earth really moving about a fixed Sun, as Galileo claimed? First, a minor matter: it is no longer accepted by modern science that the sun is fixed. Nowadays the sun itself is thought to move within our Galaxy, which in turn is moving with regards to other nearby galaxies, and so on.

What about the major issue: the supposed motion of the earth? Everyone "knows" that the earth is moving. Yet if you ask anyone for proofs, all the response you are likely to get is: science has proven it.

The scientific situation is, however, not quite so simple.

Of course, it is clear that the earth and the stars are moving with respect to each other. But this could be explained in different ways. We could take earth as moving with respect to the fixed stars. Or we could take the stars as moving with respect to a fixed earth. Or we could take both to be in motion with respect to some other fixed point. Observationally these are all the same since all we can ever observe is relative motion, not absolute motion.

Thus to make the claim that it is "really" the earth, rather than the rest of the physical universe that is moving is to go beyond the observational evidence.

Moreover, think of it, what can it possibly mean to say that, for example, the physical universe beyond the earth is at rest? At rest with respect to what? The implication is that there exists some larger aspect of reality with respect to which the motion of the physical universe can be measured.

Even if this were so this still leaves the further question as to whether this larger universe is "at rest" and with respect to what.

To see whether the earth is "really" moving we must step outside the physical universe onto a fixed resting point. This only God can do. Hence, ultimately, it is only God who can adequately answer the question of absolute motion. In short, the question as to whether it is really the earth or the sun that moves cannot be answered through scientific investigation. There are no direct proofs of the earth's motion; there can't b e. At its deepest level the question is not even scientifically meaningful.

This limitation of scientific knowledge has been stressed by many great scientists and philosophers. It is nowadays generally granted by scientists that the question of absolute motion is not a scientific one. To quote the famous British philosopher Bertrand Russell:

Before Copernicus, people thought that the earth stood still and that the heavens revolved about it once a day. Copernicus taught that "really" the earth revolves once a day, and the daily rotation of sun and stars is only "apparent." But in the modern theory the question between Copernicus and his predecessors is merely one of convenience; all motion is relative, and there is no difference between the two... Astronomy is easier if we take the sun as fixed than if we take the earth... But to say more for Copernicus is to assume absolute motion, which is a fiction. It is a mere convention to take one body as at rest. All such conventions are equally legitimate, though not all are equally convenient. [Russell "The ABC of Relativity (London: Allen & Unwin, 1958, p.13).

It is amusing to note that in scientific circles there has been some discomfort over Galileo's stance. After the Vatican's recent rehabilitation of Galileo an editorial in Nature, a British science magazine, admonished the Vatican for doing it so belatedly and grudgingly. But then the editor goes on to wonder whether the Earth goes about the Sun in any but a relative sense, adding

Galileo was probably too good a scientist to commit himself to an absolute view. [Nature 360 (5 November, 1992),p.2.]

Here the Nature editor is wrong: it was precisely Galileo's insistence on an absolute view of the earth's motion that got him into trouble.

Thus we conclude that Galileo was scientifically unjustified in claiming the absolute motion of the earth.

It may well be that we favour a particular reference point (e.g., the earth, the sun, or the centre of the galaxy) so highly that we may wish to consider it as fixed in some real, absolute sense. We may then define that as the standard by which "absolute" motion is to be measured.

Our choice of what we shall define to be the absolute standard of rest will clearly be grounded upon philosophical rather than observational considerations. We note in passing that Galileo never clearly defined what he actually meant by "absolute" motion.

The Bible and Geocentricity

How should we view the Biblical references to a fixed earth?

We could take this as merely giving a definition of absolute motion. The frame of reference of the Bible is clearly geocentric: positions and motions are measured relative to the earth. Consider, for example, Joshua's command for the Sun and Moon, rather than the earth, to stand still. As we have seen, there can be no scientific objection to such a definition of absolute motion; the choice of absolutes is a philosophical matter. One may prefer another choice but one cannot fault the Bible for applying a geocentric point of view.

Yet Biblical geocentricity is more than a mere arbitrary definition. It is also of great theological importance: man, the crown of creation, is placed on the specially prepared earth; the sun, moon, and stars are created primarily to serve as lights for earth-bound man; the earth is the unique place where the battle between good and evil is fought, where Christ was born and will return to reign.

Consider also the creation account of Genesis 1, where the earth is created before the Sun and stars. It is of interest to note Prof. N.H. Ridderbos's treatment of Genesis 1. Ridderbos was convinced that, on purely exegetical grounds, the creation days should be taken as literal days. But he felt that this reading implied a geocentric universe, which he (erroneously) considered to have been scientifically falsified. Hence, on the basis of Copernicanism, he rejected a literal reading of Genesis. [N.H. Ridderbos, Is There a Conflict Between Genesis 1 and Natural Science? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957, pp.42_44.] It is clear, then, that more is at stake here than may first meet the eye.

Finally, there is the question of heaven. The Biblical evidence (e.g., the ascension of Christ)implies that heaven has a spatial aspect. Perhaps the earth's rest is ultimately to be defined in terms of God's heavenly throne (see, for example, such texts as Gen. 28:12_13; Is.66:1; Acts 1:911; Acts 7:5; Rev. 21, etc.). It must be stressed here that modern science can deal only with the physical universe of our observations. It can tell us nothing regarding the spiritual world. Yet it is this latter realm that is of far greater ultimate significance.

While Biblical geocentricity has obvious theological meaning, it is not clear to me that it has any physical consequences. The Biblical evidence does not demand that the earth is in the exact geometric centre of the universe nor that a fixed earth leads to more convenient scientific theories. It has no direct observational implications. But it does point to a deeper reality beyond our physical world.

Science and Scripture

Although Galileo had no valid proofs, he presented the Copernican theory as a truth before which Scripture - or at least its interpretation - had to bow. This brings us to the crucial issue in the Galileo case: scientific theorizing versus Biblical authority. Which is to have the final say?

With Galileo the scientific interpretation of nature came to be considered to be of such great reliability that it could dictate the content of Scripture.

This exalted view of scientific speculation is precisely the same as that of the theistic evolutionists of today. Thus one must be extremely careful here: modifying our Bible to suit Copernicus, innocent as this may seem, leaves us very much open to the similar claims of the evolutionists.

Galileo used various devices to get around the Biblical texts concerning geocentricity. For example, the purpose of the Bible was held to be to teach theology, not science; the Bible used non-scientific language; the Bible accommodated itself to common beliefs. I am disappointed that Tangelder does not clearly refute these faulty arguments. Indeed Tangelder seems rather sympathetic to them. He goes so far as to accuse Martin Luther, who (correctly in my opinion) opposed Copernicus on Biblical grounds, of misunderstanding the relation of science to Scripture. Tangelder, too, tries to save the Bible from Copernicanism by claiming that the Bible merely uses the language of appearances.

Tangelder's position involves a reduction in Biblical authority. By limiting the Biblical language to appearances it implies that science somehow has access to deeper truths that go beyond the appearances. Yet this has things upside down. It is, on the contrary, science that should be limited to appearances: only the basic observations are reliable. Once we try to explain these in terms of scientific theory we enter the realm of speculation.


To sum up, my main point is that Galileo erred in his claim that the earth was in absolute motion. The question of absolute motion is not a scientific one; science can deal only with relative motion.

Hence it is not necessary for Christians to resort to questionable limitations of Biblical authority or dubious hermeneutical schemes. Let us, on the contrary continue to uphold a high view of God's inerrant word, interpreting it according to sound hermeneutical principles, and accepting its full authority on all that it speaks.

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