Sunday, September 2, 2018

Didn't We Learn Anything from the Galileo Trial?

Do Christians who believe that the story of creation in the Bible is compatible with the big bang twist, distort, and compromise scripture to hold that view? If you read the writings of those who think the universe is only thousands of years old (a "young earth" position), you might conclude that any other belief is heresy. One organization that holds to a young earth writes on their web site, "One must be an exegetical contortionist to stretch the six days of Genesis into millions and billions of years. Such a twisted hermeneutic undermines the authority of the entire Bible by placing what the interpreter wants the text to say above God's Word." A popular book that tries to refute the idea that the big bang coincides with the biblical record (an "old earth" position) is called Refuting Compromise, implying that anyone who holds to an old earth viewpoint must be compromising what the scripture says.

These statements about a proper understanding of Genesis are not only false, but they are making the same mistakes that were made about 400 year ago when the Catholic Church accused Galileo of also distorting the scripture. Although the reasons for the trial of Galileo were varied and complex, the church definitely accused Galileo of not accepting the plain words of scripture. Multiple times the Bible seems to be saying that the earth is immovable and that the sun and moon move around the earth. In fact, the Bible seems to be much more clear on the motion of the heavenly bodies than it is on the age of the universe. Consider these passages of scripture (showing my emphasis):
  • So the sun stood still and the moon stopped, until the nation avenged themselves on its enemies, as it is written in the book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down for about a full day."(Joshua 10:13)
  • Tremble before him, all the earth! The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved. (1 Chronicles 16:30) 
  • The Lord, He is clothed with majesty; The Lord has clothed and girded Himself with strength; Indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved. (Psalm 93:1) 
  • Say among the nations, "The Lord reigns; Indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved; He will judge the peoples with equity." (Psalm96:10) 
  • He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. (Psalm 104:5) 
  • The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. (Ecclesiastes 1:5)
If you demand that these verses be interpreted in a straightforward way, then the Bible is extremely clear that the earth cannot be moved and that the sun and moon do move around the earth. If you insist that the Bible teaches the universe is only thousands of years old based on the Genesis account, then you should also believe that the earth is immovable since the latter is much more clear than the former. If not, then I could make the claim that you are the one distorting scripture. Of course, I'm only saying this to make a point in a way which is admittedly overly harsh and exaggerated. 

The point is that a naive, unthinking, reading of scripture that always insists that the straightforward reading of the text is the only possible interpretation, will sometimes produce a false understanding of the text. For example, in all of the passages above the point of view of the writer is of paramount importance in understanding the meaning. From the viewpoint of a human observer the heavenly bodies do move across the sky and the earth is fixed and unmovable. We still use that kind of language in our enlightened society today. We don't correct someone's language when they say that they saw a gorgeous sunrise. If my wife were to exclaim, "What a pretty sunset" and I were to reply, "Oh, you naive and ignorant woman. Don't you know the sun is not setting but the earth is rotating?" then it is unlikely that my wife and I would have stayed together and enjoyed marriage for 29 years.

The one who distorts scripture is not the one who carefully interprets scripture using fundamental rules of hermeneutics and exegesis1, but rather the one who refuses to take into consideration things like (1) the author's intent, (2) the literary context, (3) the cultural context, (4) the writer's point of view, and (5) the cultural figures of speech. It is a lack of consideration for such important aspects of the text that led the Catholic Church to misinterpret the passages above. That mistake by the church has ramifications to this day, over 400 years later. For example, my scientific colleagues still think that the Bible is full of myths and that the Christian world-view is not worth considering because of the poor understanding of the Bible that was held so firmly 400 years ago.

Today, those who claim that the only interpretation of the Bible indicates that the universe is only thousands of years old are making the same exegetical mistakes as the church made when it put Galileo on trial. The old-earth creationist does not start with a preconceived notion about what the text should mean based on scientific findings and is not "an exegetical contortionist," but rather a biblical scholar who wants to understand the text by using good rules of biblical exegesis, by carefully considering the context, culture, language, setting, and perspective. Anyone who doesn't do that will misunderstand scripture in the same way that the Catholic Church misunderstood scripture 400 years ago, and the dire consequences may go on for another 400 years. That would be a tragedy. Instead, it would be better to approach the text with an unbiased set of good exegetical rules and let the text speak for itself. We will do that in the next blog post.

1Hermeneutics is the theory and methodology of interpretation and exegesis is a critical explanation and interpretation of the text.


  1. To be fair Dr Strauss the scientists haven't learned anything either, professors Krauss, Coyne and Carroll likewise insist upon a literal interpretation of every scriptural passage with no background knowledge whatsoever.

    I honestly think that even among Christians with a very conservative view of scripture young earthers are a small minority, the problem is with blinkered scientists not young earthers.

    1. You are entirely correct about the atheist scientists, but I would expect them to not understand or care about proper biblical interpretation. I think among evangelical Christians the young earth view is still dominant, though not among Catholics. If we can change the Christian culture, then maybe it will filter into the secular scientific culture as well.

    2. To be very honest Dr Strauss I think you're tackling the problem the wrong way.

      What we need to do as Christians is not to make the mistake of granting the empiricism of the new atheists and try to show that belief in God is consistent with it, but rather to show that science itself is a subset of philosophy and that its rationality depends upon a realist philosophy of nature and metaphysics which in turn rationally lead to God.

      Now the genesis issue……….. Historically speaking young earth creationism is a 20th century American invention in response to those materialists trying to use Darwinian biology to justify their philosophical position. Now Evangelicals are at a disadvantage when compared to Catholics because most of them (like secular scientists) until the past 40 years or so disdained philosophy, St Thomas and St Augustine both opined on the possibility of evolution and were able to separate questions of empirical science and metaphysics.

      As Christians we need a two pronged strategy, the first is showing how YEC is a historical aberration in terms of scriptural interpretation and how evolution is irrelevant in terms of materialism.

      Second (and this is a job for Christian scientists) is to confront the empiricism of the science popularisers’ e.g. Krauss, Lincoln, Nye, Dawkins and show that the philosophical foundations of their worldview are worthless, they and their audiences are so blinded by scientism that will only listen to their fellow scientists.

    3. I agree that YEC as orthodoxy is, indeed, a 20th century idea. I also agree that the possibility of evolution is a separate issue from philosophical naturalism and the latter is not a scientific proposal.

  2. While I agree with Mike as to the consensus views of science on the age and operation of the universe and the governing physical laws, I'm inclined to believe that the acceptance of the Good News and the saving faith offered by Christ is in the ages not for most determined by that argument. Rather the doctrine of sovereign election and enlightenment are determinative. The dynamic tension could be cast clearly by two verses.

    1 Peter 3:15 KJV: But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and [be] ready always to [give] an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:

    Luke 16:31 “Abraham said to him, 'If they will not hear Moses and The Prophets, they will not believe him, even though a man would rise from the dead.'

    Your stated rules of interpretation are helpful, enlightening and undoubtedly lead to the best understanding of scripture and its teaching across the entirety of the record. For that I am personally indebted.

  3. Dr. Strauss, I love your blog and respect your knowledge immensely. But I very respectfully suggest that you might look more deeply into the facts and history of Galileo. Your depiction of the trial of Galileo is the typical one. However, my understanding is that it may be wrong or at least incomplete.

    That is, the criticism of Galileo did not originate from the Church, nor was it originally based on religious reasons. See, e.g., The opposition to Galileo originally arose from within the scientific establishment. Yes, the Church ultimately chose religious words to justify its discipline of Galileo, but the mistake it made was allowing its interpretation and use of Scripture to be influenced, even dictated, by the scientific establishment and scientific consensus.

    Aren't we at risk of doing the same here? That is, allowing the weight of scientific opinion to influence our interpretation of Scripture, rather than using methods of interpretation that are insulated from science to help us understand what God is truly saying to us?

    1. As I say in the post, the reasons for the Galileo trial were complex including politics and Galileo's attitude, but the issues were not mostly scientific. The science was in flux and unsettled. There was no pressure for the church to accept either position, but the church chose to go against Galileo based largely on a misunderstanding of Scripture as I have stated. Even the article you point to doesn't say the church based its stance on science but only that there was a scientific debate. Today, there is no scientific debate. All of the scientific evidence points to a 14 billion year old universe, so in some sense, the church is even in a worse position now than 400 years ago. At least 400 years ago the scientific observation were not yet definitive. They are today.

  4. Why worry about any interpretation when the whole kit n kaboodle is nothing more than a roman propaganda piece?

    I think we would all be much better off if we just treated the bibles like aesops fables... Take the good from anywhere you can, and ignore the rest as a fable because thats all it is.

    1. Would you please back up your accusation with some documented facts? The actual archeological and historical facts show that the Bible is an accurate and reliable historical document and nothing like Aesop's fables. Certainly unsubstantiated accusations are easy to make but those, such as yours, where the facts are in complete opposition to your claim, are simply posturing and bravado with no substance supporting them.

  5. My (small) recollection of the trial from my reading is that the main offense Galileo made was castingng the Pope as "Simplicio" in his writings. I.e. he attacked the Pope and, in effect, called him stupid. Once that domino drops...well we see that both Christianity and science have suffered the consequences since.

    1. Yes, as I said in the article the whole affair was very complex including Galileo's demeanor, which subtly cast the pope as simple minded.