By Dr. Kenneth Boa, Crosswalk.com
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The first scientific revolution to challenge the Christian faith is now a part of the worldview of virtually every Christian (and every non-Christian as well). At first, though, this new idea seemed to undermine the Christian view of the place of human beings in God’s world.
At the center — if a pun may be allowed! — of this revolution was the idea that the earth is not fixed at the center of the universe, but instead revolves around the sun along with other heavenly bodies. We take the idea for granted now, but at first, the idea was hailed with scorn and evidently some fear.
The medieval view that the earth was the unmoving center of the universe, known as geocentrism, was inherited from the ancient Greeks and systematized in the second century AD by the pagan astronomer Ptolemy.
Although the Ptolemaic system was not actually taught in the Bible, it was easy for the medieval Christian world to read the idea into various biblical texts.
The Scripture most commonly cited to prove the geocentric position was Joshua 10:13, which states that in answer to Joshua’s prayer “the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.”
Today, we think this would make humanity the most important thing in the universe since everything literally revolves around us. That’s not how the medieval saw it, however. To them, the most important thing was God, and he resided in the heavens beyond the fixed stars.
Earth was at the bottom of what amounted to being a deep hole, and we were thus the furthest thing from God. Of course, as beings made in the image of God, we were uniquely related to him as his representatives in the material universe, an example of God using the small to humble the proud.
Further, the physics of the day was based on Aristotle’s work, and this depended on the Earth being a stationary sphere at the center of the universe. Apart from that assumption, nothing in his understanding of physics worked.
This, combined with the obvious fact that the earth feels stationary, and the heavenly bodies look like they are revolving around the earth, made any suggestion to the contrary seem both foolish.
Nonetheless, the idea of the sun being the center of the universe was broached by two medieval thinkers.
Nicholas of Oresme in the 14th century noted that if the sun were the center of the universe and the earth moved, it would solve a lot of problems in astronomy, though he concluded that this was not the case.
Nicholas of Cusa in the 15th century argued that rest and motion were relative, and thus that it was equally correct to say the sun was the center of the universe as that the earth is. Significantly, neither suggestion generated any opposition from the church.
Copernicus: A Mathematical Challenge
The first serious challenge to geocentrism came in the next century. Nicholas Copernicus, a Polish church official and physician, spent much of his life studying astronomy and working out an alternative to the Ptolemaic system.
He had been influenced by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, a sun worshipper, and believed that in the heavens, everything should move with uniform circular motion, which did not occur in the Ptolemaic system.
He wrote a brief treatise outlining his theory as early as 1514 and circulated it privately to a few close friends. He finished his complete book and agreed to its publication only in 1543 shortly before his death.
The book, “On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres” (De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium), did not cause much of a stir.
For one thing, the argument is almost purely mathematical, showing that the paths followed by the planets in the night sky are more simply described in mathematical terms on the assumption that the sun rather than the Earth is at the center of the universe. (Even Copernicus did not realize that the sun was only one of billions of similar stars in the universe).
Further, the editor, the Lutheran scholar Osiander, had included a preface suggesting that the book was intended as a mathematical model, not a description of how the universe actually worked — a bald-faced lie, as those who could follow Copernicus’s arguments realized. As a result, historians have found only ten committed Copernicans prior to 1600.
Galileo: Look for Yourself!
What has come to be known as the Copernican Revolution was fully set into motion by another astronomer about 70 years after Copernicus’s death.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), an Italian professor of mathematics, in 1609 constructed a telescope (a device he had heard had recently been invented in the Netherlands) and used it to look at the heavenly bodies.
What Galileo saw “through the looking-glass” was no less strange to his contemporaries than what Alice encountered in her fictional travels: mountains and craters on the Moon, with shadows cast by the light of the sun (proving that the Moon was composed of ordinary material and not an immutable, heavenly “quintessence”); and four moons orbiting Jupiter (proving that not all heavenly bodies were orbiting the earth).
Galileo published his findings in 1609 in The Starry Messenger, a short, popularly written book that immediately provoked a storm of controversy that in some respects has not yet completely dissipated.
In trying to verify Galileo’s observations, some people could not see the moons of Jupiter through his telescope; others saw similar small “stars” around other heavenly bodies and concluded that there was a problem with Galileo’s optics. Some, however, verified Galileo’s findings and treated him as a hero.
The main objections to Galileo’s claims early on were twofold. First, his observations did raise questions about Aristotle’s and Ptolemy's understanding of the universe, they did not amount to proof of heliocentrism; historians of scientists today agree that this was the case.
Second, accepting heliocentrism would dismantle the only system of physics known at the time, rendering the entire field unintelligible. Given that, the standard of proof had to be very high, and skepticism was thus warranted.
Unfortunately, Galileo had a penchant in his writings for a popular audience to make people who disagreed with him look like buffoons. This infuriated most of the scientists of the day, many of whom were also members of the clergy.
Thus, for the first time, attacks on heliocentrism began to feature the passages from the Bible. One priest, Caccini, reportedly preached a sermon against Galileo using a slightly twisted version of Acts 1:11, “Ye men of Galileo, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?”
The main text used against Galileo, though, was the reference to the sun standing still (Joshua 10:13), mentioned earlier. The argument thus moved from astronomy to theology.
Galileo responded to these theological criticisms in the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615), one of the classic writings on the relationship between science and theology.
Galileo argued in this letter that biblical passages such as Joshua 10:13 spoke in ordinary language and described physical events as they appeared to human observers.
That the event in Joshua occurred and was a miracle, Galileo did not doubt; but that the Bible meant to specify precisely how the event occurred, and to teach a particular system of astronomy, Galileo pointedly denied.
In his view “the holy Bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the divine Word,” so that God is no less “excellently revealed in Nature’s actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible.”
Galileo pleaded eloquently for the freedom to study the facts of nature unhindered by theological interpretations of the Bible.
To disallow such inquiry, Galileo warned, “it would be necessary to forbid men to look at the heavens,” and would implicitly impugn the many Scriptures that teach that God is revealed “in the open book of heaven.” Throughout his life, Galileo upheld the complete truth of the Bible and its authority.
The religious aspect of the debate soon led to the Catholic church authorities ordering Galileo not to defend Copernicus’s views as scientific fact (though he was allowed to discuss the issue hypothetically).
One of Galileo’s friends had been elected Pope Urban VIII, and Galileo got his permission to write a book on geocentrism and heliocentrism provided he did not advocate heliocentrism. Urban even offered his own ideas about how to resolve the question.
Galileo published Dialogue on the Two Principal World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican in 1632. The Dialoguepresented three characters — one defending the Ptolemaic system, one defending the Copernican system, and a third neutral participant named Simplicius (simplico means simpleton in Italian) who is trying to understand the issues.
Of course, the Copernican system emerges triumphant, and worse, Galileo the Pope’s ideas in the mouth of Simplicus the simpleton. Urban naturally felt betrayed, and so the book was banned by the Catholic church and Galileo was forced to confess that he had taught error.
It would be over 300 years before the Catholic church would officially admit that it had erred in condemning Galileo’s opinion.
The Galileo controversy has become the poster child of a conflict between science and religion, yet this interpretation relies on a serious distortion of the events. Nonetheless, it is often seen by non-Christians as having undermined the very foundation of the Christian worldview.
Robert Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar (a society of radical scholars who publicize an extremely skeptical rejection of the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings), speaks for many critics of biblical Christianity:
“The Christ of creed and dogma, who had been firmly in place in the Middle Ages, can no longer command the assent of those who have seen the heavens through Galileo’s telescope. The old deities and demons were swept from the sky by that remarkable glass. Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo have dismantled the mythological abodes of the gods and Satan, and bequeathed us secular heavens.”
This opinion of the significance of the Copernican revolution would have come as a surprise to Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler (another astronomer working out significant details of the Copernican system at the same time as Galileo).
All three were devout Christians who fervently believed in the Bible and in Jesus Christ. Copernicus was a Roman Catholic church official who saw himself as fulfilling his duty to seek the truth.
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was a German Protestant who retained his pious faith in Christ despite a very difficult life and rejection from all sides.
As we have seen, Galileo was a faithful Catholic who was very knowledgeable about the Bible and Christian theology as well as mathematics and astronomy.
Funk’s assertion, though, does have some truth in it. Before the revolution in astronomy that began with Copernicus, the physical heavens were viewed in essentially supernatural terms.
Comets, shooting stars, and other celestial phenomena were regarded as miraculous signs from God. Absolute unchanging perfection — in effect, divine qualities — was attributed to the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies.
The new science resulted in a humbler view of the physical universe, but it did not diminish the glory of God, and certainly did not imply his nonexistence.
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Kenneth Boa equips people to love well (being), learn well (knowing), and live well (doing). He is a writer, teacher, speaker, and mentor and is the President of Reflections Ministries, The Museum of Created Beauty, and Trinity House Publishers.
Publications by Dr. Boa include Conformed to His Image, Handbook to Prayer, Handbook to Leadership, Faith Has Its Reasons, Rewriting Your Broken Story, Life in the Presence of God, Leverage, and Recalibrate Your Life.
Dr. Boa holds a B.S. from Case Institute of Technology, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, a Ph.D. from New York University, and a D.Phil. from the University of Oxford in England.