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.