Many contemporary historians working within the parameters of science and theology have drawn meaningful connections between the historical Galileo Affair and the modern debate over evolution-creation. The remarkable continuity between these two notorious conflicts is significant because it enables the contemporary church to learn from past mistakes. This is the importance of history in general; it empowers the modern person to not only mimic, or repeat, the correct decisions made and the constructive actions taken in previous eras, but it also helps one avoid the many miscues and errors that so often riddle and trivialize our past.
The Historical Galileo Affair
The Galileo Affair, as it has come to be known, revolved around Copernican astronomy. A century before Galileo, Copernicus had proposed that the earth and the planets in our solar system revolve around the sun. This is called the heliocentric, or sun-centered, system—as opposed to the geocentric, or earth-centered, system held by the medieval church. During the time of both Copernicus and Galileo, the Roman Catholic Church was inextricably tied to what is known as the “Thomistic synthesis,” which combined classical Christian theology with Aristotelian philosophy. The medieval European worldview, which had been heavily influenced by Thomistic and Aristotelian thought, was characterized by an anthropocentric, or human-centered, cosmology. In this cosmological system, the earth—and human beings in particular—was viewed as the very center of God’s creation. On top of this, at times, the medieval church clung to a literal, scientific interpretation of Scripture, which was unfriendly to a heliocentric worldview since, in this interpretative paradigm, certain biblical passages appeared to conflict with such an outlook. For these reasons, the Roman Catholic Church of Galileo’s day vehemently rejected Copernican astronomy as heretical.
On the basis of observation and experimentation, Galileo stood in defiance of Church authority and spent the majority of his life defending the sun-centered system. He justified his position by (1) distinguishing between the kerygmatic (the Book of Scripture) and the scientific (the Book of Nature)—which cannot clash because they come from the same author—and (2) by stressing a metaphorical interpretation of Scripture when a scientific fact seems to conflict with a literal interpretation. Regardless of his justifications, as a result of his subversiveness, Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church in 1633 and lived the rest of his years under house arrest.
The Contemporary Evolution-Creation Debate
Like the Galileo Affair, the contemporary evolution-creation debate revolves around a scientific theory that, to the great majority of the evangelical church, appears to both devalue the special status of human beings within God’s creation and conflict with a plain, straightforward reading of the biblical text. As to the first concern, many conservative Christians perceive Darwinian evolution as a threat to human uniqueness and dignity; it seems to conflict with the notion that human beings are distinctly and specially created in the image of God and thus are set apart from other living organisms in a qualitative manner. As to the second concern, like the church in Galileo’s day, many well-meaning evangelical Christians confuse the divine inspiration of a particular text with a literal interpretation of that text. Evangelicals are often guilty of imposing a hyper-literal interpretation onto Scripture—as if the text itself was a modern, Western science manual—and thus see evolutionary theory as being in direct conflict with biblical Christianity.
Learning from the Past
Now that we have briefly explored some parallels between the historical Galileo Affair and the contemporary evolution-creation debate, we are in a position to make some meaningful recommendations to the evangelical church concerning science-religion relations. The contemporary church would do well to listen to the collective voices of Augustine, Aquinas and Galileo on these matters. Following Augustine’s lead, both Aquinas and Galileo adamantly affirmed the Augustinian notion that “all truth is God’s truth.” Aquinas did this by delineating between special revelation and general revelation, whereas Galileo did this by distinguishing between the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature; both of these men created these synonymous categorizations in order to reestablish the same Augustinian principle: All truth is God’s truth.
According to this understanding, Scripture and nature cannot contradict one another since God, the source and unifying unity of all truth, is the author of both. Now, this understanding does call for some additional nuance. Our subjective interpretations of special revelation and general revelation (epistemology) need to be distinguished from special revelation and general revelation as they are in themselves (metaphysics). Although our subjective interpretations of Scripture may, at times, conflict with nature itself and our subjective interpretations of nature may, at times, conflict with Scripture itself—in this schema—Scripture and nature as they truly are in themselves cannot contradict one another.
Using this model, the contemporary church would do well to reflect upon the rich history of biblical interpretation within orthodox Christianity. When a literal hermeneutic conflicted with a fact of nature, the classical exegetes utilized a metaphorical, or allegorical, interpretation—believing that there was natural cohesiveness between the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature. This may appear to be quite ad hoc. Within the context of the evolution-creation debate, however, it is worth pointing out that well before the theory of evolution had ever been conjured up in the human mind, classical exegetes were interpreting the creation story in Genesis allegorically (it is also worth pointing out that there are several Old Testament scholars today who would contend that the creation account in Genesis is an expression of Hebrew poetry and therefore was never intended to be read literally). The contemporary evangelical church should open itself up to its historical roots, being willing to transcend its hyper-literal, anachronistic reading of the ancient biblical text.
Finally, following in the footsteps of both Augustine and Galileo, the church should also be willing to recognize the significant differences between the kerygmatic nature of the Bible and the materially-focused nature of science. The Bible is not a science book, and it does not intend to be a science book. Likewise, science does not teach us the way of Christ. Both avenues lead us to truth, but often different kinds of truth (I am certainly not advocating for a separation of science and religion here, rather I am simply expounding on the importance of understanding fundamental differences between the primary goals of Scripture and the primary goals of science).
Science and religion are not enemies; they are not in competition with one another. The truths of general revelation, at least to a reasonable degree, should help inform our interpretation of special revelation. Evolution is not injurious to the Christian faith (although the question is technically still open as to whether evolutionary theory actually corresponds with reality). The idea that humanity was created in the image of God and the concept of Darwinian evolution are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one might argue that both the existence of the human being and the very process of evolution itself are necessarily dependent upon the presence and activity of God.
In reclaiming the classical Christian maxim, “all truth is God’s truth,” the church can embrace the scientific enterprise and openly welcome the advancements that it brings. This is even easier to do when we become aware of the historical fact that the development of modern science (from Francis Bacon to Isaac Newton) was actually rooted in a Judeo-Christian worldview and was largely directed by Christians, in particular. All things considering, there is simply no reason why the religion of the church and the study of science cannot cooperate with one another and experience a harmonious relationship in today’s day and age.
- Barbour, Ian G. Religion and Science. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Ryan Ragozine is the Director of Thinker Sensitive. He is passionate about both ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue. Ryan holds a B.A. in Theology from Southwestern Assemblies of God University and an M.A. in Theology from Asbury Theological Seminary. He and his wife are big on Christian hospitality, and they currently run a house church ministry that welcomes people from all different backgrounds and belief systems.