In 1633, Galileo Galilei was put on trial by the Roman Catholic Church. Galileo was an astronomer, mathematician and philosopher, as well as a devout Catholic. He is best known for his development of heliocentric theory; the concept that the solar system revolves around the sun. Copernicus invented heliocentrism approximately one hundred years prior, but it was not widely accepted then. Even though we now recognize this theory as accurate, during Galileo’s lifetime it was both controversial and heretical.
According to anthropologist George Murdoch, every culture has had a framework for both religion and cosmology. Religion and cosmology each provide humans with a locus point for the world. Cosmology helps provide a reference for our physical world, the history of our origin, and has the potential to provide expectations for the evolution of our world in the future. Religion gives orientation for a realm beyond our physical reality, the purpose of our origin, and has the potential to provide hope for the evolution of our world in the future. In the seventeenth century, Galileo challenged the church’s established Aristotelian theology of cosmology by promoting Copernican heliocentrism. Religion and cosmology came into conflict through Galileo’s body of work.
Astronomy, math, science and cosmology may appear on the surface to have been beyond the scope of the Catholic Church’s spiritual authority. But worldview determines practical alliances and allegiances, so the real competition was over social and political power.
In order to properly understand any individual event in human history, it must be contextualized within its sociological environment.
Galileo’s work followed a historical backdrop of church conflict. Just one hundred years prior to the trial of Galileo, Martin Luther upended the Catholic Church when he posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of a Wittenberg church. This action sparked the Protestant Reformation and caused thousands of individuals to leave the Catholic Church. One major point of contention in the Ninety-Five Theses was over who had the authority to interpret the Bible.
The Protestant Reformation took power from the Catholic Church and put spiritual empowerment back into the hands of laypeople. The split led to the foundational Protestant doctrine of “Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Solia Gratia,” or otherwise interpreted from Latin as “Scripture Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone.” At the same time Galileo was developing his theories, Reformers were beginning to arrive by boat on the shores of America and form faith communities. Some of these new denominations laid the foundation of modern day Evangelical churches.
The Catholic Church had to respond to the Ninety-Five Theses, and formally rejected the private interpretation of Scripture in the Council of Trent.¹ And here cosmology and Galileo’s science becomes antagonistic, because the Catholic Church had approved a literal interpretation of a somewhat obscure Old Testament passage in the Book of Joshua. In Joshua chapter 10, Joshua commands the sun to stand still during a battle in order to help the Israelites obtain victory. A literal, church sanctioned interpretation would imply that in order for the sun to stop, it had to revolve. Galileo’s version of science and the sanctioned Biblical interpretation seemed oppositional.
In 1615, the Roman Catholic Church essentially issues Galileo a cease-and-desist letter over his heliocentric evangelism.² At this time, Galileo makes an appeal, with an attempt at diplomacy in a letter to Duchess Christina. He posits that the work of science, astronomy and cosmology are equivalent to the revealed nature of God in the Holy Scripture, although he seems committed to reconciling his work to Roman Catholic teachings.³ However, he argues that the literal interpretation of Biblical cosmology is in error when it contradicts nature and science because nature is also subject to and reveals God.⁴
Ultimately, a second attempt at promoting heliocentrism through the publication of a book was the downfall that led to Galileo’s trial. He was found guilty of heresy and held under house arrest until his death.
Galileo may have primarily been a scientist who passionately cared about his work, but in defending it, he also espoused a Protestant theology of the priesthood of believers. The ‘priesthood of believers’ doctrine states all people who believe in Jesus have equal access to God without the need for a mediating party. If Galileo was correct that science also speaks authoritatively to the nature of God, the door opens to new challengers to church hierarchy for the interpretation of Scripture. The Pope becomes obsolete as the official interpreter of Scripture.
If the Bible is not always to be interpreted literally, but can be adjusted to incorporate new scientific discoveries, there are always new potential interpreters and interpretations of Scripture. The battle between science and the church has never fully resolved.
Galileo was a victim of the exogenous forces of church history and cultural battles, because his heliocentric ideas could not have come at a more destabilizing time for the Catholic Church, which was still recovering from the earthquake of the Reformation. His trial was partially a consequence of the Church’s fight for power. Galileo’s science was accurate.
The Roman Catholic Church was and still is a powerful institution. The Protestant Reformation neutralized some degree of the Catholic Church’s organizational force. Jesus came to build a community of people with counter-cultural values, empowered by the ability to have direct relationship with God. In the kingdom of God, humility, mercy, peace, servanthood, and surrender of personal rights for the common good are prioritized.
Galileo’s trial is a solemn reminder that the battle for control and power is persistent throughout human history, and Christian faith does not provide exemption from this temptation. Although the Roman Catholic Church successfully prosecuted Galileo, they were not right. Power and positional authority does not equate to correct perspective. In 2020 America, a major subsect of the Christian church is displaying primary concern about the maintenance of personal rights and control. Politics and science are the arenas for this public discourse.
In America, the Evangelical Church has become an institution concerned with wielding social domination through policy. Institutions have budgets and buildings and hierarchy. Institutions are designed for self-preservation, a concept that is biblically excluded for Christ-followers. An institution can host individual people that are thoughtful and genuine. But as soon as the survival of the institution becomes the priority for an association of Christians, it has adopted a mission other than the one Jesus commissioned.
Humans are never exempted from participating within their historical, political, economic, and social conditions. These combinations of factors make up the system, and participation within can take on various expressions. Worldview largely determines the form individual action takes, whether religious or otherwise. In a democratic society, political participation can easily be conflated with Christian influence. We all have a right to vote our values. But no one has a right to usurp the process to demand their values are victorious, and Biblical Christians have even less right to do so.
Christians are to have cultural influence, and in some instances that influence could affect policy. Few will argue against more humility, mercy, kindness, peace, love or servanthood in our public spheres. But ‘Christian’ politics do not exist because dominance is not a Christian objective. There are only people and places Christians are called to serve others, and when in politics it would be wise not to consider the priorities of the institutional church first. The risk of being wrong is high. The family of Jesus was simply not designed for the task of preserving an institution.
The phrase “God is in control” should not be a platitude, but a pathway to self-surrender.
¹Coyne, George. (Vol 48, 2013). Science Meets Biblical Exegesis in the Galileo Affair. The Journal of Science and Religion, 221–229.
² Lee, H.J.. (March 2010) Men of Galilee, Why Stand Gazing Up Into Heaven: Revisiting Galileo, Astronomy, and the Authority of the Bible. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 103–116.
³ Galilei, Galileo. (1615) Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615.