After 359 Years, Rome Finally Got It

The Galileo affair was not a controversy between science and the Bible, or faith versus reason. It was a controversy rooted in the huge difference between the Roman Catholic and Reformation principles of Biblical interpretation.



As I was browsing a book called This Day in Christian History, the first date I turned to was October 31. Obviously, the featured story was about Martin Luther’s post, the “95 Theses,” on that 16th century Facebook, the door of the Wittenburg Cathedral. But at the bottom were four other events on this date, and lo and behold, on this date in 1992, Pope John Paul II formally “recanted” Rome’s condemnation of Galileo as a heretic for teaching heliocentricity.

In reading a few things said through the centuries about this controversy, I realized that this was not a controversy between science and the Bible, or faith versus reason. It was a controversy rooted in the huge difference between the Roman Catholic and Reformation principles of Biblical interpretation.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), two of the best minds ever produced by mankind, both disagreed with the geocentric view that the earth was the center of the universe, with the sun, planets and stars revolving around it. Beginning in 1592, as a professor at the University of Padua, Galileo taught the opposite, that the sun was the center of the universe. But in 1615, a formal accusation of heresy against him was filed before the Catholic Inquisition. Galileo argued long and hard for heliocentricity, but in 1633, the Inquisition finally forced him to recant his teachings under the threat of excommunication and even death.

Was Galileo influenced by the Reformers’ teaching on Biblical interpretation? John Calvin was already teaching the doctrine of “accommodation,” that God revealed himself in terms that man would understand, just as nurses “lisp” in talking to infants:

The Anthropomorphites, also, who imagined a corporeal God from the fact that Scripture often ascribes to him a mouth, ears, eyes, hands, and feet, are easily refuted. For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to “lisp” in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.[ref]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.13.1.[/ref]

So when Scripture says, “from the rising of the sun to its setting” (Psa 50:1), or “the sun stood still”
(Josh 10:13), it was not teaching bad science, but rather “accommodating” to human experience. Galileo had no quarrel with the Bible, but with the Aristotleanism of the Catholic Church’s geocentricism.

In Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought, Alister E. McGrath wrote,

The impact of these ideas upon scientific theorizing … was considerable. For example, the English writer Edward Wright defended Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the solar system against the Catholic Church by arguing, in the first place, that Scripture was not concerned with physics, and in the second, that its manner of speaking was “accommodated to the understanding and way of speech of the common people, like nurses to children.” Both these arguments derive directly from Calvin, who may be argued to have made a fundamental contribution to the emergence of the natural sciences in this respect … Although the controversy centering on Galileo is often portrayed as science versus religion, or libertarianism versus authoritarianism, the real issue concerned the correct interpretation of the Bible.[ref]Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 179-80.[/ref]

McGrath quotes Carmelite friar Paolo Antonio Foscarini, who in 1615 agreed with Calvin:

When Holy Scripture attributes something to God or to any other creature which would otherwise be improper and incommensurate, then it should be interpreted and explained in one or more of the following ways. First, it is said to pertain metaphorically and proportionally, or by similitude. Second, it is said … according to our mode of consideration, apprehension, understanding, knowing etc. Thirdly, it is said according to vulgar opinion and the common way of speaking.[ref]McGrath, Historical Theology, 179.[/ref]

Forscarini adds,

Scripture speaks according to our mode of understanding, and according to appearances, and in respect to us. For thus it is that these bodies appear to be related to us and are described by the common and vulgar mode of human thinking, namely, the earth seems to stand still and to be immobile, and the sun seems to rotate around it. And hence Scripture serves us by speaking in the vulgar and common manner; for from our point of view it does seem that the earth stands firmly in the center and the sun revolves around it, rather than the contrary.[ref]McGrath, Historical Theology, 180.[/ref]

Commenting on Foscarini’s words, McGrath says,

The second and third ways which Foscarini identifies are generally regarded as types of “accommodation, … [T]his approach can be traced back to the first Christian centuries, and was not regarded as controversial.[ref]McGrath, Historical Theology, 179-80.[/ref]

Galileo, who remained faithful to Rome until his death, therefore was merely using the interpretive principles of the early church fathers, Calvin, and even the Roman Catholic Foscarini! McGrath then concludes that the Catholic Church was opposed to heliocentricism because they rejected the Reformation’s principles of Biblical interpretation which undermined Roman Catholic teaching,

To concede Galileo’s interpretation would seriously undermine the Catholic Church’s criticism of Protestantism … [It] introduced new (and therefore erroneous) interpretations of certain biblical passages.[ref]McGrath, Historical Theology, 181.[/ref]

Almost four centuries later, not much has changed in the Christian world. Roman Catholics still elevate extra-Biblical tradition over sound interpretation of Scripture. Many evangelicals do the same, professing “no doctrine” as “sound doctrine” as an excuse for Biblical illiteracy. Others, on the pretext of modern enlightenment, apply Calvin’s “accommodation” to most Biblical texts in order to read their liberal worldview—feminism, evolution, gay movement, women pastors, etc.—into Scripture, as if there is nothing literal and historical in it. And evangelicals of all stripes—Open Theists, millennialists, dispensationalists, Pentecostals, fundamentalists—confuse the symbolic with the literal, principle with culture.



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