Science and the Bible—Do They Really Contradict Each Other?
THE seeds of the clash between Galileo and the Catholic Church were sown centuries before Copernicus and Galileo were born. The earth-centered, or geocentric, view of the universe was adopted by the ancient Greeks and made famous by the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) and the astronomer-astrologer Ptolemy (second century C.E.). *
Aristotle’s concept of the universe was influenced by the thinking of Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (sixth century B.C.E.). Adopting Pythagoras’ view that the circle and sphere were perfect shapes, Aristotle believed that the heavens were a series of spheres within spheres, like layers of an onion. Each layer was made of crystal, with the earth at the center. Stars moved in circles, deriving their motion from the outermost sphere, the seat of divine power. Aristotle also held that the sun and other celestial objects were perfect, free of any marks or blemishes and not subject to change.
Aristotle’s great scheme was a child of philosophy, not science. A moving earth, he felt, would violate common sense. He also rejected the idea of a void, or space, believing that a moving earth would be subject to friction and would grind to a halt without the application of constant force. Because Aristotle’s concept seemed logical within the framework of existing knowledge, it endured in its basic form for almost 2,000 years. Even as late as the 16th century, French philosopher Jean Bodin expressed that popular view, stating: “No one in his senses, or imbued with the slightest knowledge of physics, will ever think that the earth, heavy and unwieldy . . . , staggers . . . around its own center and that of the sun; for at the slightest jar of the earth, we would see cities and fortresses, towns and mountains thrown down.”
Aristotle Adopted by the Church
A further step leading to the confrontation between Galileo and the church occurred in the 13th century and involved Catholic authority Thomas Aquinas (1225-74). Aquinas had a profound respect for Aristotle, whom he referred to as The Philosopher. Aquinas struggled for five years to fuse Aristotle’s philosophy with church teaching. By the time of Galileo, says Wade Rowland in his book Galileo’s Mistake, “the hybridized Aristotle in the theology of Aquinas had become bedrock dogma of the Church of Rome.” Keep in mind, too, that in those days there was no scientific community as such. Education was largely in the hands of the church. The authority on religion and science was often one and the same.
The stage was now set for the confrontation between the church and Galileo. Even before his involvement with astronomy, Galileo had written a treatise on motion. It challenged many assumptions made by the revered Aristotle. However, it was Galileo’s steadfast promotion of the heliocentric concept and his assertion that it harmonizes with Scripture that led to his trial by the Inquisition in 1633.
In his defense, Galileo affirmed his strong faith in the Bible as the inspired Word of God. He also argued that the Scriptures were written for ordinary people and that Biblical references to the apparent movement of the sun were not to be interpreted literally. His arguments were futile. Because Galileo rejected an interpretation of Scripture based on Greek philosophy, he stood condemned! Not until 1992 did the Catholic Church officially admit to error in its judgment of Galileo.
Lessons to Be Learned
What can we learn from these events? For one thing, Galileo had no quarrel with the Bible. Instead, he questioned the teachings of the church. One religion writer observed: “The lesson to be learned from Galileo, it appears, is not that the Church held too tightly to biblical truths; but rather that it did not hold tightly enough.” By allowing Greek philosophy to influence its theology, the church bowed to tradition rather than follow the teachings of the Bible.
All of this calls to mind the Biblical warning: “Look out: perhaps there may be someone who will carry you off as his prey through the philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary things of the world and not according to Christ.”—Colossians 2:8.
Even today, many in Christendom continue to embrace theories and philosophies that contradict the Bible. One example is Darwin’s theory of evolution, which they have accepted in place of the Genesis account of creation. In making this substitution, the churches have, in effect, made Darwin a modern-day Aristotle and evolution an article of faith. *
True Science Harmonizes With the Bible
The foregoing should in no way discourage an interest in science. To be sure, the Bible itself invites us to learn from God’s handiwork and to discern God’s amazing qualities in what we see. (Isaiah 40:26; Romans 1:20) Of course, the Bible does not claim to teach science. Rather, it reveals God’s standards, aspects of his personality that creation alone cannot teach, and his purpose for humans. (Psalm 19:7-11; 2 Timothy 3:16) Yet, when the Bible does refer to natural phenomena, it is consistently accurate. Galileo himself said: “Both the Holy Scriptures and nature proceed from the Divine Word . . . Two truths can never contradict one another.” Consider the following examples.
Even more fundamental than the movement of stars and planets is that all matter in the universe is governed by laws, such as the law of gravity. The earliest known non-Biblical reference to physical laws was made by Pythagoras, who believed that the universe could be explained by numbers. Two thousand years later, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton finally proved that matter is governed by rational laws.
The earliest Biblical reference to natural law is contained in the book of Job. About 1600 B.C.E., God asked Job: “Have you come to know the statutes [or, laws] of the heavens?” (Job 38:33) Recorded in the seventh century B.C.E., the book of Jeremiah refers to Jehovah as the Creator of “the statutes of the moon and the stars” and “the statutes of heaven and earth.” (Jeremiah 31:35; 33:25) In view of these statements, Bible commentator G. Rawlinson observed: “The general prevalence of law in the material world is quite as strongly asserted by the sacred writers as by modern science.”
If we use Pythagoras as a point of reference, the statement in Job was about a thousand years ahead of its time. Keep in mind that the Bible’s objective is not simply to reveal physical facts but primarily to impress upon us that Jehovah is the Creator of all things—the one who can create physical laws.—Job 38:4, 12; 42:1, 2.
Another example we can consider is that the earth’s waters undergo a cyclic motion called the water cycle, or the hydrologic cycle. Put simply, water evaporates from the sea, forms clouds, precipitates onto the land, and eventually returns to the sea. The oldest surviving non-Biblical references to this cycle are from the fourth century B.C.E. However, Biblical statements predate that by hundreds of years. For example, in the 11th century B.C.E., King Solomon of Israel wrote: “All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place from which the rivers come, to there and from there they return again.”—Ecclesiastes 1:7, The Amplified Bible.
Likewise, about 800 B.C.E. the prophet Amos, a humble shepherd and farmworker, wrote that Jehovah is “the One calling for the waters of the sea, that he may pour them out upon the surface of the earth.” (Amos 5:8) Without using complex, technical language, both Solomon and Amos accurately described the water cycle, each from a slightly different perspective.
The Bible also speaks of God as “hanging the earth upon nothing,” or he “suspends earth in the void,” according to The New English Bible. (Job 26:7) In view of the knowledge available in 1600 B.C.E., roughly when those words were spoken, it would have taken a remarkable man to assert that a solid object can remain suspended in space without any physical support. As previously mentioned, Aristotle himself rejected the concept of a void, and he lived over 1,200 years later!
Does it not strike you as amazing that the Bible makes such accurate statements—even in the face of the erroneous yet seemingly commonsense perceptions of the day? To thinking people, this is one more evidence of the Bible’s divine inspiration. We are wise, therefore, not to be easily swayed by any teaching or theory that contradicts God’s Word. As history has repeatedly shown, human philosophies, even those of towering intellects, come and go, whereas “the saying of Jehovah endures forever.”—1 Peter 1:25.
^ par. 2 In the third century B.C.E., a Greek named Aristarchus of Samos put forth the hypothesis that the sun is at the center of the cosmos, but his ideas were dismissed in favor of Aristotle’s.
^ par. 12 For an in-depth discussion on this topic, see chapter 15, “Why Do Many Accept Evolution?” in the book Life—How Did It Get Here? By Evolution or by Creation? published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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The Protestants’ Attitude
Leaders of the Protestant Reformation also railed against the sun-centered concept. They included Martin Luther (1483-1546), Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), and John Calvin (1509-64). Luther said of Copernicus: “This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy.”
The Reformers based their argument on a literal interpretation of certain scriptures, such as the account in Joshua chapter 10 that mentions that the sun and the moon “kept motionless.” * Why did the Reformers take this stand? The book Galileo’s Mistake explains that while the Protestant Reformation broke the papal yoke, it failed to “shake the essential authority” of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, whose views were “accepted by Catholic and Protestant alike.”
^ par. 28 Scientifically speaking, we use incorrect terms when we refer to “sunrise” and “sunset.” But in everyday speech, these words are both acceptable and accurate, when we keep in mind our terrestrial perspective. Likewise, Joshua was not discussing astronomy; he was simply reporting events as he saw them.
From the book Servetus and Calvin, 1877
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From the book A General History for Colleges and High Schools, 1900
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From the book Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1855
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Over 3,000 years ago, the Bible described the earth’s water cycle