Review: The Galileo Connection

The Galileo Connection

The Galileo ConnectionCharles E. Hummel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986.

Summary: A study of past and present “conflicts” between science and the Bible, that proposes that the reality of these conflicts were actually more complex, that Galileo and others were sincere Christians, and that it is possible both to pursue rigorous science and believe the Bible.

The confrontation between Galileo Galilei and the church, in which Galileo was forced to abjure his views regarding a heliocentric model of the orbits of the planets, is often cited as the classic case of the warfare between science and Christianity. This work, something of a classic, proposes that the actual history isn’t quite that simple, and that science and the Bible needn’t be at war with each other.

The author, a former chemical engineer and national leader of a collegiate ministry responsible for launching its ministry with faculty, first studies the history of the conflict and the emergence of the scientific enterprise, then turns to the matter of the Bible and science, and concludes with some cases of possible conflict and possible resolutions concluding with a chapter that is worth the price of admission that outlines connections between theology and science.

Hummel begins by tracing the rise of science from Aristotle and Archimedes, including the Aristotelian geocentric model of the universe. This was systematized in Ptolemy’s Almagest and became enshrined in the church. Copernicus was the first to hypothesize a heliocentric view, and at the advice of Osiander, proposed this as a hypothesis or model for computations rather than a description of the way things were, keeping the Aristotelians at bay. Johannes Kepler saw the beauty in Copernicus’ proposal and, combining mathematical and observational data, proposed orbits that were ellipses rather than circular, and recorded his work in the Rudolphine Tables, The Epitome, and other works. He believed his ideas were not just models, but the way things were. At the same time, none of this shook his faith or seemed contrary to it and as he was dying declared where his salvation lay: “Only and alone on the services of Jesus Christ.”

Galileo had the misfortune to come along at the time of the Renaissance and Reformation. Galileo’s rising career and defense of the ideas of Copernicus at received a favorable reception from the Pope. Unfortunately, he ran afoul of the Aristotelian professors at Pisa who joined with church leaders to repudiate the work of Copernicus. Galileo went to ground for a time, but produced his Dialogue on the Two Principle World Systems, couched as conversations between an Aristotelian and a Copernican. The outcry resulted in his trial, where the Aristotelians prevailed. What is significant is that in the end, Galileo never thought his science in conflict with scripture, and the outcome was as much a result of political maneuvering by the Aristotelian academics, aided by clergy, as anything. The church still doesn’t look good, but what is evident was that Galileo was attacked as much for challenging a prevailing scientific paradigm, that had been conflated with church teaching, rather than teaching what was contrary to Christian doctrine.

Hummel completes his survey of science with chapters on Isaac Newton and modern science. Newton not only elucidated foundational theories of physics and mathematics, but also wrote extensively on the Bible. He advocated for observational science while affirming that the cosmos reflects the work of “an intelligent and power Being.” The concluding chapter in the first part explores modern science, arguing that its methods and basic premises are both consistent, and may actually have been facilitated by a Christian worldview (e.g. the regularity, contingency, and intelligibility of the universe).

Part Two focuses on biblical interpretation. Hummel explores the importance of the historical and literary context of scripture as well as the biblical language of nature which is the language of appearance (e.g. the sun rises), and nontheoretical. In discussing miracles and scientific law, he notes that science is descriptive and not prescriptive, and that miracles, as non-repeating events are beyond the purview of science, and are matters for philosophy and history. Finally, he turns to the early chapters of Genesis showing the highly structured character of chapter one in which God forms during the first three days what he fills during the second three, he discusses the difficulties concordist approaches have of conforming scientific discoveries to a literal six day, young earth interpretation, and observes how, when we move beyond preoccupations with “how long,” we find much of import for Israel among the nations, for biblical theology, for the scientific enterprise in de-divinizing nature, and for our care for the creation.

Part Three centers around two areas the conflicts in geology and biology, including tracing the history of evolution controversies in the United States, including the creation science controversies of the 1980’s, up to the time of the book’s publication. In each, he shows the nature of the conflict as well as approaches that resolve and move beyond those conflicts. The final chapter demonstrates the connections between science and faith, reflecting the idea of the two media of God’s revelation, that are mutually informing. Science answers “how” and theology answers “who and why.” Science explains what “is” and theology explores what “ought” to be. Science helps us understand mechanism while theology reveals goals and values. He lays a basis for conversations where theologians and scientists might learn from, rather than fight with each other. He concludes the work with an epilogue on the life of Pascal, scientist, mathematician, and apologist and theologian, whose Pensees profoundly influenced French literary work. Hummel writes of Pascal:

“If a passage of Scripture seems to contradict the senses or reason (scientific explanation), ‘we must interpret the Scripture, and seek therein another meaning which will be in agreement with the testimony of the senses.’ Since the Word of God is infallible, and our observations provide reliable information, the two must be in agreement when properly understood. To confirm that principle Pascal quoted both Augustine and Aquinas.” (p. 272)

Written over thirty years ago, Hummel does not address more recent conflicts around Intelligent Design Theory or climate science (a political as much as theological conflict). Nor does he deal with newer developments around sociobiology, neuroscience, and genomics, nor the explosion of technology and the lures of trans-humanism. The work also does not incorporate the biblical insights of John Walton on the early chapters of Genesis, though his comments on Genesis are consistent with Walton’s treatment.

What Hummel does is give us a good account of the rise of science, particularly the tension between Aristotelian and observational science. He explores well the questions both science and scripture can and cannot answer, and how, rather than being in conflict, may together give us a fuller understanding of reality than either can alone.

I first read this book shortly after publication. Coming back to it thirty years, and many discussions later, I found much that is still relevant, and a large measure of good sense. The author died in 2004 and the work is now “print on demand” or available in the second hand market. Other books have come on the scene since but I still appreciate the breadth and careful thought that combines history, biography, interpretive principles in scripture, an exploration of the nature and philosophy of science, and models of reconciling conflicts in one volume. For both the apologist and Christian who is in science or works with those who are, this book ought to be on your reading list.

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