“The Early Christian Attitude Concerning Astronomy and Thoughts on the Galileo Controversy”

It is brought up anytime a discussion on Scripture and Science is to be had. A Christian makes a scientific statement about their holy writ and someone counters with “Scripture is not a science book.” Debates on Evolution are heated and unending in sight. Science teachers have to stop during lectures and answer questions from unknowing, young Christians with “What about the Bible?” Because of the religious climate of the post-fundamentalist South, there exists an anti-intellectual vein of contention between faith and science. When talks of the stars, age of the earth, or the specific, biological mechanism from whence the phenomenal world came, many Christians retreat to a literalistic hermeneutic and a siding with “what God says.” Amidst the discussions and debates, the Christian is admonished to remember the Galileo controversy. The goal of this paper is to show the pro-science standpoint of the early Church and give some thoughts on the famed Galileo controversy.

The early Church possessed a resounding denunciation of astrology. The composers of horoscopes based their predictions upon calculations regarding the routes taken by heavenly spheres: planets, stars, and constellations. A person’s life was mapped out by the heavenly paths. In the astrological orbit, there was no place for human free will; everything was predetermined by the heavens. It is no wonder why early Christian theologians, philosophers, scholars, and pastors rejected such a field of study. However, early Christian authors respected and encouraged the pursuit of astronomy, and they likewise integrated the insights derived from this field of scientific study into their theological understanding. In fact, they viewed it as a worship-oriented task that was called by God through his Word. Creation revealed a Creator (Psa. 19: Rom. 1:20; Wis 13:4-5). To understand the creation was a component to understanding it’s Creator.

Athenagoras of Athens, a second century apologist, declared that Christians appreciate the study of the heavens, recognizing the beauty and harmony of the universe, and thereby give praise to it’s Creator- the One True God. He had no anti-scientific viewpoint when it came to astronomy. In fact, astronomy could be used by the Christian for different purposes. Hippolytus of Rome, one of the most important third century theologians in the Church of Rome, also favored the astronomy of his day. He recounted the Ptolemaic understanding of the universe of the day, catalogued the numerous calculations made by astronomers for the distance between the earth and the sun, the earth, and the moon, and the planets: Venus, Mercury, Mars. Jupiter, and Saturn. Though both warned against astrology, they utilized the best astronomy in their day in their practices.

Clement of Alexandria also had a favorable disposition towards astronomy. He recommended astronomy to his students saying:

This branch of learning, too, makes the soul in the highest degree observant, capable of perceiving the true and detecting the false, of discovering correspondences and proportions, so as to hunt out for similarity in things dissimilar; and conducts us to the discovery of length without breadth, and superficial extent without thickness, and an indivisible point, and transports to intellectual objects from those of sense.

Clement reasoned that God is the Creator of all, and hence we should study and use all things for God’s praise and honor including empirical findings that concern astronomy.

Another noteworthy Church father that used astronomy was the Alexandrine philosopher and theologian Origin. Origin is known for his exegetical premise of “spoiling the Egyptians.” Just as the Israelite’s made use of Egypt’s goods during the flight of the Exodus, Christians are called to use the wealth of knowledge from different areas other than theology. He said:

I would wish you to employ the full power of your pursuit ultimately for Christianity; therefore as a means I would beseech you to extract from the philosophy of the Greeks all those general lessons and instructions which can serve Christianity, and whatever from geometry and astronomy will be useful for interpreting the holy Scripture. Thus, what the children of the philosophers say about geometry and music, grammar, rhetoric, and astronomy, as handmaids to philosophy, we also may say concerning philosophy itself in relation to Christianity.

Origen clearly had no problem appealing to and understanding the natural world around him. The school of Alexandria even had it’s own observatory. It is also interesting to point out that Origin believed astronomy will be useful for interpreting the holy Scripture. It is not holy Scripture that is used to interpret astronomy. By the middle of the third century three centers of Christianity-Athens, Rome and Alexandria- were promoting a positive approach to astronomy and its study by the Christian faithful.

Basil the Great, the bishop of Caesarea of Cappadocia, likewise had a deep love and respect for astronomy. He explained to his congregation that the book of Genesis says nothing about the shape of the earth, its circumference, nor the length and shape of its umbra when it causes a lunar eclipse, because the sacred author was only concerned about matters of salvation, not about science. Other material can be cited from Basil. In Basil the Great, the Church finds a great theologian and a man devoted to knowledge of the world around him. The shining star of Cappadocia though would be Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory was equally convinced that one ought “to receive such things as moral and natural philosophy, geometry, astronomy, dialectic, and whatever else is sought by those outside the Church, since these things will be useful when in time the divine sanctuary of mystery must be beautified with the riches of reason.” All the Cappadocian fathers showed a respect and honor to astronomy and empirical science as a whole. During this period of Church history there was no battle between faith and science, religion and reason.

No survey of the early Church’s view of astronomy would be complete without mentioning Augustine of Hippo. Augustine was an ardent supporter of science and the methods of astronomy. Augustine remarked:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

The aging theologian called the people to a vibrant study of astronomy and the sciences. When it comes to matters of science, Augustine did not go to the Bible first. Augustine believed observation and critical reason alone are sufficient to lead anyone to the right understanding of the world around them. He possessed a healthy admiration of astronomy and used the science in the pulpit and throughout his writings. Augustine believed that Christians should not foist their own “biblical” interpretation on empirical science. According to Augustine, scientific, empirical data must be accepted, and the Scriptures need to be interpreted in the light of these facts when dealing with matters that do not pertain to salvation. The early Church’s tradition demonstrates critical thinking and objectivity.

The testimony of the early Church and the Galileo affair stand in stark opposition. Galileo Galilei was an Italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who erupted a fire storm when he advocated a heliocentric view of the universe. Galileo used experimental measurements, observation with a telescope, and mathematics to determine that Ptolemaic view of the universe had some considerable problems. Through the use of his telescope, Galileo observed four moons orbiting Jupiter and also sunspots. Galileo’s findings ultimately led him to reject the geocentric model of the universe in favor of the heliocentric model. Under the admonition of the current Pope, Galileo wrote his masterpiece, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Galileo’s leanings landed him at odds with the Roman Catholic Church. He was tried in 1633 by the Roman Inquisition. The Church had the power to put Galileo on trial, sentence him to house arrest, and, if we can trust Catholic theology, excommunicate him and consign his soul to Hell; in contrast, Galileo had little more than the strength of his arguments.

The whole controversy had theological and political motives behind it. It is clear that many Christians found the idea of the planets rotating around the sun at odds with some interpretations of Scripture. Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine stated:

For to say that the assumptions that the Earth moves and the Sun stands still saves all the celestial appearances better than do eccentrics and epicycles is to speak with excellent good sense and to run the risk whatever. Such a manner of speaking suffices for a mathematician. But to want to affirm that the Sun, in very truth, is at the centre of the universe and only rotates on its axis without traveling from east to west, and that the Earth is situated in the third sphere and revolves very swiftly around the Sun, is a very dangerous attitude and one calculated not only to arouse all Scholastic philosophers and theologians but also to injure our hold faith by contradicting the Scriptures…

Wrapping up Geocentrism with the truthfulness of Scripture led many to reject Galileo and become suspicious of science in general. Unfortunately, Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine had an unwavering commitment to being right instead of what is right. One wonders how the marvel and respect of early Church history led to such a controversy with a faithful Catholic many years later. How did Geocentrism become the dogma of the Church? Why was a scientific viewpoint considered worthy of dogma to begin with? Why did the Roman Catholic Church have such an affinity towards science? These questions plagued Church historians and should become an omen to Christians in the present to not make the same mistakes.

Church and popular history later vindicated Galileo on scriptural grounds as-well-as scientific ones. The claims that heliocentricity contradicted the Bible are now seen to have been overstated, and the insistence on a literal interpretation of those particular scripture verses seems wholly unwarranted. Cardinal Bellermine and the Christians of the day should have listened to Augustine when he said hundreds of years earlier:

In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.

It is my opinion that the Galileo controversy can be applied to other problems the Church is having with science currently. The early Church did not have a disdain for Science and neither should the Church today. The rifts that divide and fragment the relationship between Science and Faith can be mended or eliminated if a valuing of truth, all of truth, occurs within the individual. Augustine, Clement, Origin, Basil, Gregory, and a host of others found it completely acceptable to give one’s self to and value the science of astronomy.

Bibliography

Augustine, Aurelius. The literal meaning of genesis . New York, N.Y. [u.a.: Newman, 1982.

Collins, Francis S.. The language of God: a scientist presents evidence for belief. New York: Free Press, 2006.

Cox, Cleveland A., Fathers of the second century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus and Clement of Alexandria. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979.

Giberson, Karl. Saving Darwin: how to be a Christian and believe in evolution. New York: Harperone, 2008.

Gingerich, Owen. 2004. “Truth in science: proof, persuasion, and the Galileo affair.” Science and Christian Belief 16, no. 1: 13-26. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 29, 2011).

Stramara, Daniel F, Jr. 2002. “Surveying the heavens: early Christian writers on astronomy.” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 46, no. 2-3: 147-162. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 29, 2011).

Taylor, John Hammond. The literal meaning of Genesis . New York, N.Y.: Newman Press, 1982.

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One response to ““The Early Christian Attitude Concerning Astronomy and Thoughts on the Galileo Controversy”

  1. To be fair, Roman Catholics were not the only ones to reject a heliocentric model because of Scripture. Calvin, Luther, and Wesley also denounced the view based upon their interpretations. “There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must needs invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth. (Luther)” “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that on the Holy Spirit.(Calvin)” John Wesley declared the new ideas to “tend toward infidelity.”

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