Interpretation of Scripture and the Copernican Theory

Copernicus 's book, De Revolutionibus Orbitum, was published in 1543. It was only in 1616 that the Church prohibited support of the heliocentric theory presented in the book (see Prohibition of Copernican theory). Why was the prohibition imposed? If the theory contradicts the Catholic faith, why wasn't it prohibited before? Does the heliocentric theory contradict the Christian faith? Why did the Church claim that it contradicts Scripture? On what did Galileo base his claim that the theory does not contradict Scripture? We will try to answer these questions below.

The Christian faith does not deal with matters of science. These matters are raised only incidentally in relation to the tenets of the Christian faith. Nor do the Christian Scriptures (the Old and New Testaments), provide any scientific theory capable of describing nature. Claims about nature are not included among the tenets of the Christian faith, and even the claim that the sun and stars revolve around the earth is not a tenet of Catholic faith. Yet part of the Church clergy viewed it as a deviation from Catholic faith, because it contradicts Scripture.

We have already said that Scripture does not contain any scientific theory. They explain neither the geocentric theory nor the heliocentric theory. There are however places where the sun's motion is mentioned, in a way which seemingly contradicts the heliocentric theory. The main quotation supporting the claim of a contradiction between the Copernican theory and Scripture is taken from the book of Joshua, where the miracle of the battle of Gibeon is described:

"Then spake Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jashar? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hastened not to go down about a whole day." (Joshua, X 12-13).

The sun's movement is mentioned in other places in the Bible too: In the first chapter of Ecclesiastes -

"The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to its place where it ariseth again." (Ecclesiastes I,5)

In chapter XXXVIII of Isaiah:

"Behold, I will bring again the shadow of the degrees which is gone down in the sun dial of Ahaz, ten degrees backward. So the sun returned ten degrees, by which degrees it was gone down." (Isaiah XXXVIII 8).

All of these verses refer to the movement of the sun. Seemingly, these verses provide sufficient basis for determining that the sun revolves around the earth. However, the literal meaning of Scripture is not enough to understand them. In order to understand and explain Scripture, one requires interpretation. The contradiction between these verses and the heliocentric theory may be easily explained. The main explanation is based on the assumption that "The Bible speaks in human speech" i.e., often, the text must be understood according to its appeal to simple people, who find it difficult to assimilate the truth. This explanation is used to justify the use of physical descriptions of the Lord and the attribution of human qualities to a supernatural God who does not suffer from jealousy and anger as do humans, and who lacks any shape or form. It can be said that the Bible speaks of the sun's movement because it directs its words to people who think the sun moves, and its aim is not to explain the structure of the heavens. When the miracle God produced for Joshua is described, the point is to explain the greatness of the miracle rather than depict the movement of the sun. The sun seems to be moving, so that we still say that it rises and sets, even though we know that it does not move but rather the earth moves.

Galileo claimed that also according to the geocentric theory, one cannot explain the verses in Joshua by means of an exclusively literal explanation. The sun's movement according to this theory consists of two movements, its annual movement around the earth from east to west, and the daily movement from east to west common to all stars. The movement of the sun is the first movement, while the movement of all stars is the second movement. Thus, if the sun had stopped its motion (west to east), the day would have been shorter, rather than longer. The accepted Church interpretation also explained the verses in a non-literal way, by explaining that all the stars ceased their movement (although only the sun is mentioned), and by giving other explanations.

The interpretation that Galileo and some of his contemporaries offered, according to which Scripture may be explained according to scientific knowledge, could have been accepted, as it is now accepted by many today. But such an interpretation cannot be based on the biblical text alone. The interpretation of biblical texts must relate to the hermeneutical tradition and be based on it. In Catholic Christianity this tradition is based on the writings of the Church Fathers, on the basis of which one must read the Old Testament and the New Testament. In Judaism, this may be found in the legal tradition of the Talmud and subsequent writings. The Church Fathers explained these verses describing the movement of the sun according to the astronomical theories accepted at the time. In order to reinterpret them, it was necessary to explain them in a way that was different from that of the Church Fathers. Such an interpretation is possible, as explained by Cardinal Bellarmine, but is only necessary when there are sufficient reasons for it. One such sufficient reason would be proof of the earth's motion. If such proof is found, said Bellarmine, it will be necessary to reinterpret these verses according to the scientific discovery. But it is not enough to show that this motion explains observed phenomena in order to determine that the world indeed works in this way.

In any case, the interpretation of Scripture is not the business of Natural Philosophers, but of theologians. They are the only ones authorized to interpret Scripture as part of the legal edicts of the Catholic Church. Galileo's attempt to interpret Scripture met with resistance as have the attempts of theologians who disagreed with the majority view in the Church councils. This resistance even reached the point where a book written by Foscarini, a theologian who wrote an interpretation of the Holy Scriptures according to the heliocentric theory, was banned. The question of authority and right to interpret Scripture was a central one for the Catholic Church in that period. The struggle with the Protestants was at its peak, and at the very heart of the conflict was the question of the authority to interpret Scripture. While the Catholic Church bases its interpretation on tradition and the decisions of the theologians, the Protestants claimed that Scripture should be read directly and that any person can understand them. They rejected the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church. Against the background of this bitter battle with the Protestants, the Catholic Church fiercely resisted any attempt at independent interpretation.

The verses quoted from the Bible and the interpretation of these verses by the Church Fathers, were reason enough for the Catholic Church not to accept any other interpretation. The question remains, however, whether this was sufficient ground to ban the defense of and adherence to the Copernican theory? Was traditional interpretation sufficient grounds for the Church to determine which astronomical theory was to be prohibited and which was to be permitted?

The prohibition of the Copernican Theory revolves around these questions and others. See: Should the Church Take a Stand in a Scientific Debate?

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