December 2, 2020

Evolution: Scripture and Nature say Yes!  Chapter 7- Galileo and God’s Two Books

Evolution: Scripture and Nature Say Yes!
Chapter 7: Galileo and God’s Two Books

By Denis O. Lamoureux

The story of the Galileo affair has become the primary symbol of the popular understanding of the relationship between science and religion, known as the “conflict” or “warfare” model.  The picture is of ignorant, superstitious religious leaders armed only with their Bible verses versus the lone astronomer equipped with his telescope and scientific evidence.   In this chapter, Denis sets out to show this is too simplistic and not historically accurate.  Of course Denis is pursuing an agenda; that the current origin debate is a recycling of the Galileo affair with only the scientific question being different—evolutionary biology instead of astronomy.  Are the modern Christians who do not accept evolution like the church leaders who rejected the notion that the earth circled the sun?


The theory that the sun was the center of the universe was first proposed by Nicholas Copernicus in his 1543 book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. Galileo accepted Copernicus’ theory and popularized it in the early seventeenth century.  One popular misconception was that the Catholic Church believed that the earth was flat.  That was not true as every astronomer in the seventeenth century realized the earth was a sphere.  The Greeks had, many centuries earlier figured out the earth was a sphere.  They were a sea-faring people and they noted that a masted ship, as it sailed away not only got smaller but appeared to go down.  The only way it could go down was because the sea was curved.  So the sea was curved, and if the sea was curved that could only mean the earth was curved.  Eratosthenes, a Greek philosopher who lived in Alexandria around 250B.C. made a calculation of the circumference that was surprisingly accurate.

Galileo believed the Bible was the inspired Word of God and that God was also revealed in nature.  In his letter to the Grand Duchess, he writes:


“For the Holy Scripture and nature derive equally from the Godhead, the former as the dictation of the Holy Spirit and the latter as the most obedient executrix of God’s orders.”

Galileo upheld the supremacy of scripture over science when dealing with theological issues.

“I have no doubt at all that, where human reason cannot reach, and where consequently one cannot have a science, but only opinion and faith, it is appropriately piously to conform absolutely to the literal meaning of scripture.”

With regard to matters dealing with science and the physical world, Galileo defends the priority of nature over scripture. He writes:

“I think that in disputes about natural phenomena one must begin not with the authority of scriptural passages but with sensory experience and necessary demonstrations.”

Galileo argued that the Creator gave us a mind so we could practice science”

“I do not think one has to believe that the same God who has given us our senses, language, and intellect would want us to set aside the use of these… Indeed, who wants the human mind put to death?”

Galileo had a well-honed insight into how the Book of Nature plays a role in understanding the Book of Scripture.  Twice in his Letters to the Duchess he states that scientific information assists in biblical interpretation:

“Indeed, after becoming certain of some physical conclusions, we should use these as very appropriate aids to the correct interpretation of scripture…” And again, ”It would be proper to ascertain the facts first, so that they could guide us in finding the true meaning of Scripture.”

Although Galileo asserted the inerrancy of scripture, he noted that doesn’t mean our interpretations of scripture are inerrant.

“Though the Scripture was inspired by the Holy Spirit… we cannot assert with certainty that all interpretations speak by divine inspiration”.

Galileo also believed that God never intended to disclose scientific facts in the Bible.  In his letter to Benedetto Castelli, he argues:

“If the first sacred writers had been thinking of persuading the people about the arrangement and the movements of the heavenly bodies, they would not have treated of them so sparsely.”

Even though Galileo firmly rejected the belief that the Bible was a source of scientific information, he recognized that there were “sciences discussed in Scripture” and noted that they were “the current opinion of those times”.  He added that the Bible speaks “incidentally of the earth, water, sun, or other created thing” since these are “not at all pertinent to the primary purpose of the Holy Writ, that is, to the worship of God and the salvation of souls.”  He believed in the principle of accommodation:

“… propositions dictated by the Holy Spirit were expressed by the sacred writers in such a way as to accommodate the capacities of the very unrefined and undisciplined masses.

If you know the actual history of Galileo’s conflict with the church you know that he himself precipitated much of it by his prideful arrogance and insulting manner towards his opponents.  Pope Urban the VIII had been a friend of Galileo and had advised him to be careful and include arguments for and against the idea presumably so a reasonable person could decide for themselves. These arguments should include things the Pope himself had said supporting the dogma so as to lend them weight. In that era such arguments were presented by characters having a dialog representing the sides being argued.  Well one of the characters in Galileo’s book was named Simplicio which has a connotation of simpleton or idiot in Italian. And that is the character that said the Pope’s words. That was a foolish move that threw the weight of church politics against Galileo and towards his enemies.

Nevertheless, those opposing Galileo and Copernicus’ theory were very much “scientific concordists”.  From the trial of Galileo:

 “We pronounce this Our final sentence: We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo . . . have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world; also, that an opinion can be held and supported as probable, after it has been declared and finally decreed contrary to the Holy Scripture…”

So from Denis’ perspective, the modern origins controversy is a recycling of the Galileo affair with the scientific issue being biological evolution instead of astronomy. The conflict in Galileo’s day was not between the facts of science and the foundational beliefs of Christianity.  It was caused by the misguided assumption of the Catholic hierarchy that scientific concordism is a feature of scripture.  Denis says:

The central lesson we should draw from the Galileo affair is that every time the Bible is used as a book of science, the results will be disastrous for both modern science and out faith.  If Christians today continue to read the biblical accounts of origins as scientific records of how God actually created the universe and life, we will only repeat the embarrassing mistakes of the church with Galileo.  And worse, we will become stumbling blocks to those who the evolutionary evidence and are seeking the Lord (2Cor 6:3).

Of course, YECs cannot abide the “Galileo principle” as a critique of concordism, as Denis is advocating.  Answers in Genesis states in their article about the Galileo affair:

The 17th century controversy between Galileo and the Vatican is examined. Fifteen theses are advanced, with supporting evidence, to show that the Galileo affair cannot serve as an argument for any position on the relation of religion and science. Contrary to legend, both Galileo and the Copernican system were well regarded by church officials. Galileo was the victim of his own arrogance, the envy of his colleagues and the politics of Pope Urban VIII. He was not accused of criticizing the Bible, but disobeying a papal decree.

Once again, note how disingenuity is employed.  Galileo was a victim of his own arrogance, true enough.  But he was most certainly accused of not taking the scriptures literally, as the above transcript from his trial shows.  And the idea that scripture contains ancient science, which Galileo most certainly believed and argued for, has to be denied in order to maintain the YEC hermeneutic.  And hermeneutics, that is to say, interpretation, is the main issue that can never be admitted.


  1. Adam Tauno Williams says

    The Galileo story is much better story about Spin and Political-Incompetence than it is about Science-vs-Religion.

    Galileo wanted a fight – and he got one. Which I think has a lot of overlap with modern day YEC – it is not so much about the truth, or scripture, as it is about cultural clout – and YECism is a great way to pick a fight.

  2. Ronald Avra says

    The brevity, or sparseness, as Galileo noted, of the Genesis creation account should automatically prompt questions about the nature and purpose of the text.

  3. Michael Bell says

    I had pointed out in an earlier post that:

    Darwin published his origin of the species in 1859. From Copernicus to Newton was 144 years. From Darwin to the completion of the human genome project in 2003 is 144 years… We are in what I would call the Newtonian age of Evolution. The point at which the streams of evidence have become irrefutable. How long will it take the church to accept this and change their interpretations to fit the science? The change has already started to happen. For most young people, Christian and non Christian alike, the matter has already been decided. Like heliocentrism, it will take a couple of generations for the science to be nearly universally accepted in the church, but its day is coming.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      …or a radical/fundamentalist wing if Christianity will be with us ‘forever’; because it isn’t really about the science.

  4. So Galileo wasn’t circumspect and sufficiently respectful. Some might call that courage. Why suffer fools gladly? Of course in his day that cost you something. Today it doesn’t require any courage to mock YECism.

  5. “The picture is of ignorant, superstitious religious leaders armed only with their Bible verses versus the lone astronomer equipped with his telescope and scientific evidence.

    Mike the G~ Might be in the running for the Galactic Writers Guild Sentence of the Day. That “verses versus” momentarily did a gotcha on me and left me with a smile that even religious squabbling couldn’t erase, a true gem. ~Charley

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  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I’d like to point out that the Galileo Affair went down during the Thirty Years’ War, last and bloodiest of the Reformation Wars. All of Europe was on a war footing, and in wartime you stomp on anything that might weaken your home front. THAT was also a dynamic in play.

    Galileo had also made a lot of enemies in his career, which didn’t help. Including calling Pope Urban an idiot in print in “Dialogue of the Two World Systems”; that REALLY didn’t help.

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