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  • Galileo the Theologian
  • Peter E. Hodgson (bio)

1 . Theology and Science

Galileo was first and foremost a scientist, intent on discovering more about the natural world. Like everyone else at that time, he accepted the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology of a stationary earth at the center of the world with the sun, planets, and stars revolving around it. This cosmology was naturally accepted by contemporary theologians as the best available, and formed the implicit background to their theological work. Thus, for example, heaven was situated beyond the outermost stellar sphere. Furthermore, it is in full accord with many passages in the Bible, such as the one in Joshua where the sun is commanded to stand still, implying that normally it is moving.1

As a result of his studies of the work of Copernicus, followed by his own astronomical discoveries, Galileo became convinced that the Aristotelian cosmology is false, and the heliocentric cosmology of Copernicus is correct. He realized that the theologians would see this as a serious threat to Aristotelian philosophy in general and would raise difficulties for biblical interpretation and indeed for the [End Page 28] whole of Catholic theology. As a devout Catholic he was anxious to prevent the Church from rashly condemning a scientific theory that might eventually be shown to be true.2 "In the front of his own copy of his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems Galileo wrote: 'Take care, theologians, that in wishing to make matters of faith of the propositions attendant on the motion and stillness of the Sun and the Earth, in time you probably risk the danger of condemning for heresy those who assert the Earth stands firm and the Sun moves; in time, I say, when sensately or necessarily it will be demonstrated that the Earth moves and the Sun stands still.'"3 This distinction between being convinced that something is true and being able to prove that it is true by a series of logical steps is crucial to the understanding of the Galileo affair.

Galileo is frequently portrayed as an enthusiastic promoter and defender of science opposed by ignorant and authoritarian churchmen. However, Stillman Drake, who has written several books on Galileo, has translated many of his writings and is familiar with his correspondence, suddenly realized that Galileo's frequent avowals of zeal for the Church were not just conventional phrases but actually expressed his heartfelt convictions. In this perspective, Galileo is seen to be an enthusiastic promoter and defender of the Catholic Church opposed by ignorant and authoritarian philosophers.4 Thus Galileo's primary aim was not to advocate heliocentrism but to establish that science is a way of knowing distinct from theology that can neither be proved nor disproved by evidence from the Bible. This personal testimony of Drake provides not only a vital insight into the Galileo case but is also an illustration of the way of knowing used by Galileo himself.

The central questions, then and now, are how to interpret the Bible, who has the authority to do so, and how the interpretation is related to the conclusions of contemporary science. In Galileo's time, these were of great importance and delicacy due to the Protestant Reformation. We may well be astonished that theologians were so [End Page 29] paranoid as to make such a fuss about a few incidental references to the sun's motion in the thousands of pages of the Bible, but they realized that a vital principle was at stake: once they let the authority to interpret the Bible slip from the divinely guaranteed hands of the Church to any individual, there was no knowing where it would lead.

Augustine, Aquinas, and other theologians laid down several rules governing biblical interpretation. First, because God is the author of the Bible and also the creator of the natural world, there can be no contradiction between the interpretation of the Bible and established scientific knowledge. From this it follows that if there appears to be some disagreement, it must be due to a misunderstanding or to inadequate knowledge. St. Augustine was quite clear that if a truth about the natural world was definitely established, then the Bible could...


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