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Pope Francis Repeats Church’s Error Concerning Galileo

Wait a minute! How could the Pope be repeating the church’s error concerning Galileo? The news media is celebrating an end to the conflict between the Catholic Church and the advancement of science. At a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican Pope Francis affirmed his belief that the theories of the “big bang” and evolution are compatible with Catholic teaching.

Supposedly, the church conflicted with science in 1633 when it forced Galileo to recant of his agreement with Copernicus that the Earth revolves around the Sun. The popular notion is that the church suppressed scientific knowledge to defend the Bible’s teaching. The Pope’s agreement with the current consensus of scientific opinion concerning the origin of the universe and life seems to indicate that he has successfully harmonized the teachings of the Bible and modern science. History tells a different story. The conflict in 1633 was not between the Bible and science. The conflict was between firmly entrenched scientific theory and new discoveries that challenged it. The church had aligned itself with the old science and defended it against Galileo’s discoveries. They tried to use the Bible as their authority, but had to misinterpret it because it did not in fact support the scientific theory they were defending.

History Revisited

Let’s go back and take a closer look at what actually happened in the summer of 1633. Pope Urban VIII summoned Galileo to Rome because he had published a book titled Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. The Pope had agreed to its publication with the stipulation that Galileo would present his and Copernicus’ ideas as theory. Because of his advanced age, his pioneering observations through the telescope, and his eagerness to submit his life’s crowning achievement to the scientific community Galileo chose to present his findings as proof of Copernicus’ theory that the earth revolves around the sun. That decision was his undoing. The church accused him of heresy and threatened him with torture if he did not recant. Galileo wanted to be remembered as a great scientist, not as a heretic or martyr. He considered himself a devoted member of the church and a firm believer in the Bible; so he recanted.

Misinterpretations of the Bible

The church forced Galileo’s recantation because the theologians apparently believed his idea contradicted the Bible. Let’s probe deeper into the issue. Where did the church scholars get the idea that the Bible teaches a geocentric universe? Nowhere does the Bible explicitly teach that the sun revolves around the earth. One passage they used as a proof text was Isaiah 40:22:

“It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.” (NAS)

The context of the verse centers on God, not the earth. It describes God as the transcendent sovereign ruler, above His creation in general and the earth in particular. He rules because He is the Creator, Who created the heavens by stretching them out. The text clearly connects the existence of the heavens with God’s activity, not with any spacial relationship to the earth. To find here the teaching of a geocentric universe requires  reading into the text an idea that is foreign to it.

Another verse the scholars used was Joshua 10:12-13:

“‘…O sun, stand still at Gibeon, and O moon in the valley of Aijalon. So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies.’ Is it not written in the book of Jashar? And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.” (NAS)

Conceivably one could infer a geocentric world view from a cursory reading of the text, but that would be a grievous misinterpretation. Any Bible scholar worth his salt, even in the Middle Ages, should recognize that this is a poetic passage. The sun and moon are personified and addressed as intelligent beings. Old Testament scholars Jamieson,  Fausset and Brown note that the Book of Jashar was “an anthology, or collection of national songs, in honor of renowned and eminently pious heroes.” It is a fundamental rule of interpretation that no poetic or figurative language should be understood literally, except as to the meaning to which the figure points or illustrates.

Joshua had no choice but to use figurative language to describe what he experienced. In the 14th century BC the only knowledge of the motions of heavenly bodies was from observations made with unaided eyes. He saw the same things we still see today:

  • The sun appears in the eastern sky in the morning.
  • It seems to move across the sky during the course of the day.
  • It disappears below the horizon in the evening.

Even though we understand today that the earth revolves around the sun, we still use figurative language to describe it: “sunrise” and “sunset”. We know that the sun isn’t literally rising or setting down, but the figures of speech are useful to describe what we see with our eyes. When Joshuah wrote that the sun stopped, he literally meant that a miracle had occurred which altered the normal appearance in time relationships of heavenly bodies, namely the sun and the moon, to the earth. That is why this passage is commonly referred to as “Joshua’s long day”. He never intended to make an astronomical statement that the sun revolves around the earth. Again, to see a teaching about a geocentric universe in this passage is reading a meaning into it that the original author obviously never intended.

The Real Reason

Why were church scholars so determined to find a geocentric world view in the Bible that they would violate the rules of scholarship, wrest verses out of their contexts, and read in meanings that were not intended by the original author? A likely explanation is that they were attempting to harmonize the Bible with the generally accepted beliefs held by scientists of their day.

The church was not the only organization that opposed Galileo. Most of the scientists in universities were firm believers in Ptolemy’s geocentric world view. They had almost unanimously rejected Copernicus’ heliocentric theory. Ptolemy had worked out an ingenious mathematical model that predicted the motions of heavenly bodies. Even though it was based on the erroneous presupposition that the sun revolves around the earth, the model actually worked. It worked so well that Ptolemy’s assumption that the sun revolves around the Earth was accepted as proven fact by the scientific community for 1,400 years.

No wonder they rejected out of hand the suggestion by Copernicus that Ptolemy could be wrong, and that the earth revolves around the sun. No wonder they were incredulous when Galileo claimed that he had observed, through the novel invention of the telescope, evidence  that Copernicus was right.

The real reason the church forced Galileo to recant was not that he had contradicted the Bible. Even though they tried to make him admit that he had, he steadfastly refused to make such an admission. The real reason the church forced Galileo to recant was because the church had aligned its world view with the teachings of Ptolemy and the consensus of scientists. The church was defending the status quo of science against the latest scientific discovery. Galileo evidently understood the real issue. This is what he said in his final statement in the process of his recantation:

“I held as I still hold, as most true and indisputable, the opinion of Ptolemy, that is to say, the stability of the Earth and the motion of the Sun.”

Pope Urban VIII accepted Galileo’s recantation. He never admitted contradicting the Bible. His recantation was not to affirm the teaching of the Bible, but the “opinion of Ptolemy”. That is evidently what the church leaders actually wanted, and were satisfied when Galileo gave it to them.

The Real Conflict

Pope Francis’ assertion that the “big bang” and evolution as explanations of the origins of the universe and life are compatible with the Catholic Church’s understanding of creation is being hailed as a reconciliation between the church and the teachings of modern science. The assumption is that the church and science have been at odds and now Pope Francis is finally putting the conflict to rest by agreeing with the consensus of modern scientists. That is a popular misconception. The Catholic Church has been open to the concept of evolution as an explanation of origins since the 13th century when Thomas Aquinas became an advocate for the teachings of Aristotle, who was an early proponent of a theory of evolution in Western thought and philosophy. The previous five popes have made statements about evolution similar to what Francis said.

The real conflict is not between the church and scientific discovery. It is between the church and a consistent literal interpretation of the Bible. Francis repudiated and caricatured a literal interpretation of the account of creation in Genesis. He said, “When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so.”

New scientific discoveries are raising serious questions about the validity of both the “big bang” and evolution theories. The new evidence supports the model of creation described in the Book of Genesis. The Pope’s affirmation of these theories that are being challenged in the scientific community is the same error that Pope Urban VIII made concerning Galileo. He is aligning himself with the scientific status quo and resisting the new discoveries that question it.

Unfortunately, the Catholic Church is not the only group involved in this conflict with biblical creationism. The majority of main stream Protestant leaders and institutions have taken a similar position. They are resorting to non-literal methods of interpretation to harmonize Biblical teachings about the origin of the universe and life on this planet with the “big bang” and evolution theories. Sadly, many evangelical leaders are also following their lead by agreeing with theistic evolution. They  misinterpret the clearly prose sections of Genesis and call them poetry, allegory, or even myth. They are misinterpreting the Bible to make it compatible with the status quo of erroneous scientific theories. Things haven’t changed much since Galileo’s trial in 1633.

J. Ray Smith, President, Fair Havens Publications www.fairhavensmedia.com


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