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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 302-304
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God's Two Books: Copernican Cosmology and Biblical Interpretation in Early Modern Science. By Kenneth J. Howell. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. 2002. Pp. viii, 319. $39.95.)
Both Copernicans and anti-Copernicans employed similar approaches in interpreting the Bible. According to this wonderfully nuanced study of exegetical strategy, the view that scriptural interpretation was a tool primarily utilized by those opposed to Copernican cosmology is far from the truth. Neither was the scriptural debate solely a matter of literal vs. figurative hermeneutics where those opposed to terrestrial motion argued for a sensus litteralis in biblical interpretation while those supporting the earth's motion argued for interpretations based upon an accommodated speech (i.e., a biblical language suited to human capacities). Howell is adept at describing the rich diversity of biblical interpretation bearing upon cosmological themes that existed long before the Copernican debate, and is especially insightful when illustrating different meanings given to the notion of sensus litteralis. On the one hand, literal meaning could be an explicit statement of physical or cosmological reality. However, the sensus litteralis of scriptural language was also commonly understood contextually, conveying the historical, cultural, and physical situation which provided the original setting for biblical terms. In this regard, Augustine was able to argue against those who, basing themselves in scriptural authority (Isa. 40:22), denied the spherical nature of the celestial region by insisting that a literal interpretation of the heaven's sphericity was not contradicted by biblical language once one understood the constrained physical position of the observer on earth. In other words, there was only one correct interpretation, but the literal meaning of Scripture was itself dependent upon context. [End Page 302]
Where some, like the German astronomer Christoph Rothmann, viewed biblical language in strict accommodationist terms, others, like Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo, maintained perspectives similar to that of Augustine. For Tycho, the Bible meant what it said when it referred to the heavens as hard, like steel (Job 37:18). But this language, Tycho argued, referred not to the material constituents of the heavens but to its constancy and perpetual nature. The Bible was to be understood literally and its words were to be taken seriously. However, given the flexibility of a language situated within particular cultural circumstances, proper understanding of that literal meaning depended upon an awareness of relative conditions. Where parts of Scripture remained unclear, Augustine recommended comparing one part of the Bible to another. Kepler also embraced this view, especially since he understood the Bible to be a collection of books written within various ancient historical venues. If, Kepler reasoned, one could show that the composition of Psalm 104, for instance, showed structural similarities to other scriptural texts, the literal meaning of the Psalm might follow from the further reading of those texts and indicate that the psalmist had some intention other than commenting on the operation of the physical universe.
Kepler, of course, was a realist astronomer. The motions he described for the planets were not mathematical fictions on paper solely serving purposes of prediction, and Howell makes it clear that biblical interpretation only really became relevant to the question of heliocentricism when astronomers began to treat their systems as making claims to reality. Yet, in claims to astronomical realism as in pronouncements of biblical literalism there were degrees of commitment, and Howell's treatment of both helps to sort out the various kinds of truth claims made in reference to the book of Scripture and the book of Nature.
Catholics and Protestants shared much in common when it came to using Scripture to argue for and against terrestrial motion. In the Catholic environment, however, there was also the need to submit to institutional authority. The person who stands out most in confronting institutionally mediated scriptural interpretation in reference to the question of a moving earth is, of course, Galileo. Howell offers us a picture of Galileo's attempt to reconcile Copernicanism and Scripture that is based...