Tuesday, June 19, 2012
June 22, 1633 was not a day from which the western world will recover soon. For on that fateful day the famous scientist, Galileo Galilei, was forced by the Inquisition to recant. We have been living with the aftermath ever since.
What was Galileo's great offence? He had advocated the view of Nicolaus Copernicus that the earth revolves around the sun. This, of course, means that the earth moves. The problem is that several passages of Scripture, when taken literally, seem to say something quite different. The earth stands still (Ps. 93:1; 96:10; 104:5) and the sun moves across the sky (Ps. 19:4-6; cf. Josh 10:13). There was an apparent clash between science and Scripture.
The problem has vexed the western mind ever since. Does Scripture really contradict science? And if so, which is to be believed? Galileo's own view of the matter was stated in a letter he had written in 1615 "Methinks that in the discussion of natural problems, we ought not to begin at the authority of places of Scripture, but at sensible experiments and necessary demonstrations . . ." God does not "less admirably discover himself to us in Nature's actions, than in the Scripture's sacred dictions." (Concerning the Use of Biblical Quotations in Science). What Galileo did, in effect, was to assert the autonomy of human reason in the study of the natural sciences, although he was, in fact, following Thomas Aquinas' distinction between nature and grace.
But is there a real clash between science and Scripture? Much of it depends on how one interprets Scripture. It must be borne in mind that when the Bible describes natural phenomena, it usually does so in terms of the common sense perception of the ordinary observer on the ground. As a general rule it is the aim of Scripture to make a statement about our relationship with God, and not to give a detailed technical explanation of how nature works. Thus a bit of hermeneutical sensitivity could have spared Galileo his ordeal. We perceive the earth to stand still and the sun to move across the sky, and for the purposes of Scripture that is perfectly adequate. The Bibl is indeed infallible – in all that it asserts. But is it really asserting that the earth is the center of the universe? The concern of Scripture is to demonstrate that God is the Creator of the universe, and that His wisdom and power are displayed in all that He has made.
The Bible does purport, however, to teach real history. From the opening words of Genesis ("In the beginning . . .") to the closing verses of Revelation ("Truly I am coming quickly . . ." – Rev. 22:20), the biblical narrative is an account of what God has done in history. The history of redemption moves in a chronological sequence from creation to fall to incarnation to crucifixion to resurrection and finally to the Second Coming. All of these events occur in real history, in space and time. The Bible is not mythology. Real history is an essential part of Christian theism.
The Christian is not obliged to ignore the proven facts of science. Galileo is right. If God is the author of nature, there can be no real conflict between science and Scripture. We must be careful, however, to interpret both aright. The error is with our interpretation, not with the facts of either nature or Scripture.