Misinformed History: Galileo, the Church, and Science

Thanks to the History Channel I discovered that on this day, April 12, 1633:

Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei [went] on trial in Rome for challenging Church orthodoxy, postulating that the Earth revolves around the sun. Chief inquisitor Father Vincenzo Maculano da Firenzuol found Galileo guilty of heresy. The astronomer spent the remainder of his days under house arrest.

If you’ve spent any time around the debate between science and religion, you’ve heard this story at least once. We’re told Galileo was a man whose scientific discovery went against the backward understanding of the Church, which led to his persecution. The problem is that this is not the full story and twists what really happened in unnecessary ways. It is unfortunate that the History Channel has decided to go along with the partial story, and not the full story.

So what exactly happened? Galileo, who was a Christian and believed in Scripture, did postulate that the Earth revolves around the sun. Yet this was first controversial with the philosophers and academic élite who held to an Aristotelian model (the Earth is the center of the universe), not the Church. The Aristotelian view had first been adopted by science, and then the Church. Isn’t it interesting that the scientists of the day were the first to take offense to Galileo’s findings because it challenged their long-held beliefs?

John Lennox, in a lecture he gave at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, astutely summarized what happened:

Here was Galileo, who challenged science that the Church had bought into. A believer [in the Bible] challenged a scientific paradigm that Christians [had] believed… it wasn’t the Bible he was arguing with, but a particular interpretation of Scripture, adopted because of the dominant world picture (Aristotle’s view) which people were reading into the Bible.

In other words, Galileo first challenged the understanding of science and then the Church. In the process he irritated many people due to his biting rhetoric and willingness to mock those who disagreed with him, most notably the Pope. Yet he eventually helped both scientists and the Church to interpret natural and special revelation more accurately.

The main point is that the issue at stake was never science vs. religion.

If you want to learn more of the historical details surround the Galileo controversy I recommend God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God, by John Lennox.

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