Galileo and the Bible (conclusion)

July 22, 2016

Children singing (Psalm 150)

Luca della Robbia (1400-1482) Illustration of Psalm 150

In the great contemporary struggle to find alternatives to wooden, sclerotic literalism some Christians have landed on the view that the Bible’s authority lies in its message of salvation.  The implication, sometimes expressed, is that the Bible is not an authority on other matters, especially on scientific matters.

As John Wesley wrote, “I want to know one thing,—the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book!”

The view that the Bible is about salvation is a vast improvement over the absurd claim that the Bible is an authoritative source of knowledge on every topic.

At the same time, does this view help us as we wrestle with the biblical texts involving the natural world?  Much, of course, depends on how we define salvation, but the quotation from Wesley is telling: the concern is to get to heaven.  But if the Bible’s purpose is to guide us to heaven, what are we to make of Psalm 65, which is a prayer of thanksgiving to God for a good harvest?  Or Psalm 104, which praises God’s wisdom displayed in the world?  Or Psalm 148, which calls upon everything–stars, fire and hail, mountains, trees, and animals–to offer praise to God?  If the Bible’s main purpose is to guide us to heaven, then it seems that it contains an abundance of extraneous material.

But this extra material makes more sense if we think of salvation, not as getting to heaven, but instead as worship, as doxology.

To be human (as the Bible wants to portray it) is to be flesh that is summoned to dwell in the presence of God.  We are obviously beings of flesh–that which is inherently weak.  We are beings of nature, taking our place alongside other animals.  Much of our behavior is motivated by exactly the impulses that drive animals: food, drink, sex, territory, status, fear, anger, jealousy.

At the same time, we are flesh that has been called to be people of God.  God has addressed us and summoned us to a distinctive task in the world.  That task is worship.  Of course, each kind of being in its own way offers worship to God–hence Psalm 148, and also Psalm 19, with its assertion that the sky proclaims God’s glory.  But humans have a distinctive task, commensurate with the power of speech.  The rest of the world praises God by simply being what it is.  Its existence alone constitutes praise.  Humans, however, are called upon to articulate praise verbally and in an act of decision.  We are beings with speech; we praise with words.  We are beings of decision; we may choose to respond to God’s call to offer praise, but we may choose not to do so.  That is why Psalm 104 ends by denouncing wicked sinners.  Unlike the rest of creation, sinners refuse to praise God.  They thus stand out.

I am suggesting that one function of the Bible’s passages about the natural world is to draw us into praise–to remind us that we are members of a world whose other members praise God.  We are parts of a choir, parts that need to be reminded to sing our part.

These passages about nature are accordingly not informative.  It is fruitless and insulting to try to squeeze scientific information from them, like juice from an orange, in the manner of Fundamentalists.

But it is also misleading to try to force them into an interpretation that sees the Bible as showing us the path of salvation, at least if salvation is about landing in heaven.  Still, this view has merit, if we rethink salvation.

What if our salvation lies in our worship?  What if worship is our highest good, that to which we are called?  What if human salvation lies in being what we are called to be–beings who with the rest of creation worship God?  In that case, the Bible’s texts on nature do indeed provide us with a message that is strictly about salvation.

Galileo and the Two Books: The Bible and Scientific Knowledge

July 19, 2016

The Bible has a lot to say about the natural world, but what does it say? I’m not asking, “Which words does it use and which sentences does it contain?” but instead “When the Bible talks about the natural world, what is the nature of its discourse?”

As I discussed in a previous journal entry, the Bible talks about the natural world in its relation to human beings.  I offered the example of Proverbs 30:24-28, where moral lessons are drawn from animal behavior.  In contrast to scientific knowledge, in which things are studied in ways that abstract from the human experience of them, in the Bible things are often presented according to the ways in which we experience them.  Scientifically, it would be absurd to claim that ants are wise (as Proverbs 30 does); but it is also true that we (or at least ancient people did) experience them as wise.

Consider Genesis 1:24-25, where God creates land animals.  They are organized into three groups: cattle, wild animals, and creeping things.  This is hardly a scientific taxonomy.  Instead, it divides animals into groups according to their relationships to human beings: animals suitable for eating and sacrificing, dangerous animals, and miscellaneous other animals that are neither edible nor dangerous.  It’s obvious that human concerns–Which animals are for eating? Which animals may eat us?–have driven this description.  It’s senseless to try to read a scientific motivation into it.

The Bible thus sometimes describes natural things from the perspective of the way in which we experience them..  Scientific knowledge, on the contrary, results from trying to minimize, or even eliminate, human subjectivity from knowledge.

So, I now want to look at a couple of other passages:

You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting (Psalm 104:19, NRSV)

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years (Genesis 1:14, NRSV)


In these passages, sun, moon, and stars are described, once again, according to their importance for human beings.  They exist to determine the calendar.  Absent is any scientific interest in what they are made of or why or how they move.  The celestial bodies are important because they serve a purpose that is vital to human beings.

To conclude: I started this series with a discussion of Galileo’s view that science and the Bible cannot conflict because they are about different things: science is about things in nature, the Bible describes the way of salvation.  This view is, I think, wrong.

It’s not that the Bible is not interested in the natural world, but instead that the Bible talks about the world from a certain perspective.  That perspective is human interest.  The Bible portrays the natural world in so far as it bears on matters of human concern or provides an illustration of something that humans are interested in.

There are several lessons to draw from these observations:

  • First, contrary to the view of Fundamentalists, the Bible does not provide us with scientific knowledge.  Attempts to extract information that can inform scientific views is fruitless.  Fundamentalists’ fantasies about using Genesis to construct an alternative science is hopelessly misguided.
  • Second, Galileo’s view that the Bible is about salvation is overly narrow.  The Bible is too big to be contained by any single category.
  • Third, the Bible can perform a useful service for us by reminding us that there is more than one way to know something.  In our culture, it is not uncommon to hear representatives of the scientific community claiming, expressly or implicitly, that scientific knowledge is the gold standard of knowledge, and perhaps the only sort of knowledge that deserves the name.  The Bible’s attitude toward nature reminds us that there are varieties of knowledge, differing ways in which we may relate to things in the world.  The scientific project provides us with one way, but it is preposterous to imagine that it is the only or the best sort of knowledge.

This is where (some) scientists and Fundamentalists both go wrong–assuming that there is one sort of knowledge.  Some scientists, armed with this belief, criticize and reject the Bible for failing to exhibit this knowledge.  Fundamentalists, with the same belief, try heroically but futilely to squeeze the Bible into a scientific mold.

In our current cultural situation, in which rationality is increasingly channeled into one course–science–it is good to be reminded that we relate to worldly objects in many ways.  Scientific knowledge is only one of those ways.

Galileo: The Man Who Made the Bible Safe for Science (continued)

July 1, 2016

Scientists as workIn my journal entry of June 28, I discussed Galileo’s notion of the two books, viz., the Bible and the book of Nature.  Galileo’s goal was to prevent theological and ecclesiastical inference in scientific research.

Pictured: Scientists at work, happily free from ecclesiastical interference


To achieve his goal, Galileo limited the message of the Bible to one issue, salvation.  As he said in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany:

The Holy Ghost did not intend to teach us whether heaven moves or stands still, whether its shape is spherical or like a discus or extended in a plane, nor whether the earth is located at its center or off to one side. . . .  Now if the Holy Spirit has purposely neglected to teach us propositions of this sort as irrelevant to the highest goal (that is, to our salvation), how can anyone affirm that it is obligatory to take sides on them, that one belief is required by faith, while the other side is erroneous? Can an opinion be heretical and yet have no concern with the salvation of souls? Can the Holy Ghost be asserted not to have intended teaching us something that does concern our salvation?


A modern form of this view was offered by Stephen J. Gould.  Gould advanced the notion of non-overlapping magisteria.  Gould, neither a Christian nor a theist, discovered at some point in his life that not all Christians were anti-scientific dolts.  In particular, he seemed appreciative of John Paul II’s efforts to reduce the tension between the scientific community and the theological community.  In response, Gould articulated the NOMA principle, a sort of division of labor between science and religion.  In Gould’s words:

If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.

The truce between science and theology thus called allows each to work undisturbed by the other.  Fuzzy but sincere lines of demarcation are established between the domain of science and that of theology.  Each agrees to work its own side of the street:

The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.

Two circles black white 2

Non-overlapping Magisteria

Gould’s view represents a vast improvement on the idiotic picture that many scientists seem to have of theology’s relation to science, a picture of unrelenting hostility caused by thick-headed religious believers who willfully refuse to accept the results of science.

Distinguishing, as Gould does, the domains of theology from those of science performs a practical service.  As the long, sad, and baffling history of biblical creationism has shown, trying to extract scientific knowledge and theories from the Bible is futile. It is, moreover, a hindrance to the scientific enterprise when adopted into scientific education.

At the same time, I’m not convinced of the wisdom of limiting the Bible so one-dimensionally to matters of salvation.  Gould’s approach gives us a workable strategy for reducing conflict between science and theology, but can the Bible so easily be restricted to “proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives”?

Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_ProjectHere’s what I’m getting at: the Bible (mainly the Old Testament) makes assertions about the non-human portions of the universe: sun, moon, and stars; animals; natural forces and processes; and so on.  Only Fundamentalists want to continue the preposterous agenda of squeezing scientific information from these biblical assertions. But are such assertions one and all expressions of “proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives”?

Here’s a good cliffhanger on which to end.  More to come shortly.

Galileo–The Man who Made The Bible Safe for Science

Two books (Bible and nature)

Two Books and the Man Who Separated Them

June 28, 2016

Back at work after a hiatus occupied with grading and other necessary tasks.

In March I gave a short presentation at the Wesleyan Philosophical Society.  In it I talked about the way in which my church (the Church of the Nazarene) and many other Christians have enthusiastically embraced a view of the Bible that goes back at least as far as Galileo.

Among other things, Galileo is famous (among people who read such things) for an essay


Christina, happy to hear from Galileo

(the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany) in which he argued that the purpose of the Bible is strictly to reveal the way to salvation.  Put differently, it is not the Bible’s purpose to reveal anything about the natural world.  Galileo cleverly used a metaphor to get his point across–God has spoken in two books, the Bible (for knowledge about salvation) and the book of nature (for knowledge about the world).


Judging from my experience in the dialog between science and theology (a curiously one-sided dialog), my sense is that many Christian thinkers are attracted to Galileo’s way of dividing the intellectual pie.  This embrace is due to the perception that too much unnecessary controversy between the theological and scientific communities has ensued because of faulty assumptions about the Bible. Fundamentalists, in particular, are known for their trust that the Bible delivers to us accurate knowledge about everything, at least everything mentioned in the Bible.

For example, there is a physician, Dr. Mel Mulder (, who has a radio show (“Beyond Intelligent Design”) whose tagline is that the Bible is our only source of truth.  This is farther than many Fundamentalists would go, suggesting as it does that the sciences are not at all sources of truth.  Nonetheless, most Fundamentalists would say that the results of scientific study are valid only as long as they do not contradict the Bible.  The assumption is that the Bible does indeed reveal to us certain vital truths about the natural world.  If scientific theory disagrees with the Bible, too bad for science.

Galileo thus provided Christians who are anxious to preserve the autonomy of science with an alternative to Fundamentalism.  Instead of assuming that God lodged truths about nature in the Bible, many, perhaps most Christian thinkers, have embraced Galileo’s division-of-labor approach.  We go to the Bible if we want to know about salvation; we go scientifically to nature if we want to know about the world.

Adopting Galileo’s view carves out a space in the anxious world of Christian universities, a space that, in principle if not always in practice, allows scientists to go about their work without ecclesiastical interference.  This space allows worried university administrators to permit more-or-less untrammeled scientific teaching and research with a good conscience–at least until scientists annoyingly encroach on recognizably theological topics such as the soul and ethics.  Nonetheless, as long as Christian scientists abide by the rules of the Galilean game, the only people complaining are Fundamentalists, who reject the game.  The existence of Fundamentalists, however, is actually a blessing in disguise for Christian universities.  They enable the Christian university’s scientists and administrators to engage in self-congratulation for bring broad-minded and enlightened (compared to Fundamentalists) and also authentically Christian (compared to those afflicted with liberal theology).

Oddly both Galileo and Fundamentalism have proven to be blessings for the Christian university.

Although it is not uncommon for scientists today to play up Galileo’s controversy with the Renaissance papacy, the truth is that he laid the foundation of much contemporary Christian thinking about how faith and theology relate to the sciences.

However, I for one am not happy with Galileo’s depiction of the Bible.  In particular, the notion that the Bible is strictly and only about salvation seems questionable.

However, I’m typing this book on scripture and need to maintain momentum, so I will continue this journal entry on Galileo shortly.