Galileo, James Hutton and Charles Darwin: Biblical Conversations with Science

Most people understand vaguely that Christianity in the 21st century is in a different world than it was a hundred years ago. My hope in this series of articles is to highlight the story of how and why we find ourselves in a different world. This is a fascinating story, and it is one that I am looking forward to telling. However, the story is not going to be an academic one, nor is it meant to present an argument. These are meant to be short reflections about what I believe are key moments when we learned something new and important about the Gospel.

I want to give Christians looking to the future of the church a better knowledge of how we have come to the place we are now. I believe that the lessons learned are the tools we need to move forward in this odd time of being church. I assume most readers do not know a lot about these events. If any of the reflections are particularly interesting to you, I link to some helpful resources so that you can learn more.

It is hard to pick a place to begin this story. There are many places to start, but for this one, I will start with the beginning. The very beginning… as told in the book of Genesis. “In the beginning…” Most Christians are deeply familiar with this symphonic story of Creation in six days, with a complex interweaving of time, space, light, creatures, humanity, and ultimately Sabbath rest. And all of it was pronounced good.

If you could have been there at the Creation, what would you have seen? Prior to the 19th Century, I think most Christians would have thought it took place exactly as Genesis chapter one describes it and would have thought that all of this happened about 6000 years ago.  In the 21st Century, most Mainline Christians do not think this. What happened for this change? That is a complex story, but the central player in that story is the rise of modern science.

Three Short Vignettes

Galileo Galilei

Galileo was an astronomer embroiled in the controversies of the 17th Century. The biggest of these concerned the Heliocentric Theory of the Solar System. Most Christians, including the authorities of the Catholic Church, asserted that the Earth was at the center of the universe. Everything else, including the sun, moved around it. They based this assertion on the biblical account of the creation of the universe, and on models rooted in the philosopher Aristotle’s works.

Based on his own astronomical observations, Galileo thought the prevailing view was wrong. He even wrote that the Bible was an authority on faith and morals, but not on science. 387 years ago, on June 22, 1633, he was found “suspect of heresy” and sentenced to house arrest, where he remained until he died. Legends say that Galileo, at the moment of his recantation of the Heliocentric heresy, said under his breath, ‘Still it moves.’ The church could force him to say the words, but his own observations showed him they were wrong.

James Hutton

James Hutton, GeologistYou may not have heard of James Hutton, but he is known as the father of modern geology. He is the reason we started to think that the world was much older than 6000 years. In the 18th century, Hutton spent years puzzling over the mystery of rock formations. There was something that just didn’t make sense. As I mentioned earlier, most people in Europe at that time believed that the earth was about 6000 years old. They arrived at this age through a close reading of the timeline and genealogies in the Bible.

Scientists had explained layers in the rock by saying they were laid down during the great flood. But that didn’t match what Hutton was seeing in front of him. As he puzzled over the rock formations, he did not see how a 6000-year timeline could be possible. In June of 1788, he brought a group of scientists to a particular rock formation on Scotland’s west coast that he believed proved that the world was far older than humanity had ever imagined. He suspected it was millions of years old. We now place its age in the billions.

Charles Darwin

Charles DarwinBy the time Charles Darwin published his famous book On the Origin of Species in 1859, most people in the scientific and even religious communities had become convinced that the earth was old. In fact, the idea of evolution itself as a way organisms changed was not new either. But his two expansions of this theory put Charles Darwin on the map. First, by articulating Natural Selection, he gave us a way to understand the mechanics of biological change without referring to God at all. Second, he made the radical suggestion that humanity is not a special case. Just like other species, humans also evolved over time from less complex organisms. Science has moved on from Darwin and revised many of the details of his theory. But the general thrust of his claim is still intact, and it doesn’t match up well with Genesis 1.

The Crisis of Science vs. Faith

Why do I tell these three vignettes? Together, they illustrate the crisis that Christian faith has had to address over and over. What do you do when your observations of the world don’t match up with what you believe? Each of these scientists made observations about the universe that went against what the church of the day was teaching.

There are three main responses to this crisis. First, the fact that the Biblical description did not match the scientific observation of the world led to a crisis of faith and caused some to abandon their faith. Second, some did not believe that the Bible could ever err. So they concluded that something must be fundamentally wrong with the scientific enterprise. This group evolved into a movement I will talk about four posts from now, the fundamentalists. The third response, which is the one I am advocating, is to re-examine the Biblical witness and ask if we were understanding it correctly. Was Genesis 1 trying to be a scientific description of creation?

Reexamining Genesis 1

The answer of course is no. One of the gifts of this challenge is that we have had to look particularly hard at the ancient writings that make up the first eleven chapters of Genesis and ask what they are about. These investigations have led to profound insights into the message of Bible by looking at the bigger conversations with the cultures among which the ancient Israelites lived.

Scholars have gained tremendous insight into the conceptual thought world of the Israelites through this research . We now understand that Genesis 1 is working out of a cosmology from the ancient world. The author of Genesis 1 was answering questions probably raised by the Babylonian creation myths, and giving a different answer. The author of Genesis 1 was trying to answer their questions, not ours.

Poetry Expressing Timeless Truths

When we look at its context, we see that Genesis 1 is not trying to describe the mechanics of creation. Instead, we are given an ancient poem that proclaims that there is only one God, and that the universe was not born in violence (as in the Babylonian myth), but in peace. Genesis 1 is telling us that creation is orderly and has a meaning and a rhythm. These are timeless truths.

This third response tells us that we can hold to faith AND to scientific exploration. If you want to explore this perspective further, I suggest the site Biologos. Its creator is Francis Collins, a faithful Christian who was the head of the Human Genome Project. It is full of articles, videos and book suggestions.

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7 Replies to “Galileo, James Hutton and Charles Darwin: Biblical Conversations with Science”

  1. Nice job. I’ve never seen any tension between the two as an engineer-priest. Even empiricism has its place in a faith context. Surprised by how many people find that place perplexing – maybe a sign of the modern success at creating a false dichotomy? No one mentions all the parts of foundational science which sound more like faith than evidence based proof.

  2. To add another voice to the comments:
    1. Sometimes I cannot follow how the conclusion relates to the premise; for example: premise – “the Bible has come down to us through a complicated process of writing, story telling, editing and copying”. How is that resolved by “ the Bible’s messy history tells us that God does not require tidiness and perfection to work out the great, cosmic project of salvation. The Bible’s messy history ends up being no messier than the story of the people who wrote it and lived it.” This seems only a restatement of the premise.
    2. While I appreciate you are only sketching through History, surely the Modernist controversies pre-date the French Revolution. Galileo, Copernicus, Brahe, Erasmus, Bruno were associated, to varying degrees, with a much larger and deeper challenge to the Church, Hermeticism, which holds that the world emanates from a divine intelligence in which each part is an essential component member, expressing a facet of a great Mind. This is perhaps why the Church resisted so strongly whereas the heliocentric theory was only a minor annoyance.

    3. There was also a little thing called the Reformation.

    1. Hi Franklin, thank you for taking the time to read our experiment!

      Let me just say three things:
      1) I think the premise that I was making has to do with the assumption that I find people bring to the question of how the Bible SHOULD have come down to us. The assumption is that a perfect God would write a perfect book (clear, tidy, easy to understand, non-contradictory) and ALSO that it would come down through history perfectly preserved. My suggestion (I didn’t flesh out an argument) was that because the first assumption is obviously wrong (the Bible is not clear, tidy, or easy to understand), it should surprise us that the second assumption is also wrong. The suggestion is that we need to attend to how God ACTUALLY reveals himself rather than how we think he logically SHOULD reveal himself.
      2) My overall goal is to help people who don’t know this material know that there has been a long ‘conversation’ going on over the at least the last century. The reason I want to do this is because when people talk about the big issues we are facing today, they talk as if none of this ever happened. As if we are always coming to the Bible and faith brand new rather than at the end of a VERY LONG culture wide grappling with modernity.
      3) If you were presenting the material and didn’t want it to go crazy, where would you start? I actually found that a very hard question to answer. The starting place I chose felt arbitrary but every other place felt arbitrary too. I would be really interested in this.

  3. Thanks Dave, super interesting question. Not to be fussy but there were no rabbinical seminaries until modern times. Even the institution of a yeshiva I think goes back only to after Christianity and Judaism split. So education would have been different. As to the question of allegory, I honestly don’t know. There were medieval Jewish rabbis who said that Jonah was meant to be allegorical. For me I wonder if they would have the fact – allegory split that we do. I haven’t read much about this so only a guess. My point just following John Walton is that they were writing ancient cosmology, and they did see things symbolically in ways we do not when we practice science. According to Walton, the whole of creation is a temple to God. This is the great symbol. I think we can still hold to the symbol.

  4. I’m ready to believe that the ancient Hebrews were accustomed to being taught by poetry and allegory. I wonder: would rabbinical students in ancient times have been instructed as to the difference between obvious allegory—eg Jonah being swallowed by a great fish—and on the other hand historical accounts or moral teachings? Maybe told that these details were too complicated for uneducated believers?

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