394. language is fuzzy (part 5) – science and scripture

I’ve been using metaphors like boxes and illusions to talk about language – how words and meaning are far less certain than we might think.

The basic point I’m hoping to make is that because of the inherent fuzziness of language, we should be a bit more open to readings of scripture that we might be unfamiliar (or uncomfortable) with (the same-sex marriage debate, for example). The appeal I want to make with this point is that (conservative and liberal) Christians should extend a bit more grace towards one another in matters where they disagree.

Because here’s the thing. When it comes to how the church reads the Bible, it’s changed its interpretation before, I think it’s happening again now, and I’m certain it will happen again in the future.

In this post, I’m going to try to tackle this idea from a different angle by talking a bit of church history.
There was a time when the church taught that the Bible clearly described the earth as center of the universe. To make their case, they appealed to scripture (verses like Joshua 10:12 and Psalms 93:1) as well as observation (we don’t feel the earth moving, and the sun and stars clearly move across the sky – just look up!).

It’s hard to illustrate how essential the idea of an earth-centered universe was to the theology of the church, but it’s not hard to imagine. I mean, think about it. If you believed that the earth was the absolute center of all existence, that seems pretty significant doesn’t it? It suggests that the earth literally holds a unique place in the universe and that means that humans are central to God’s created order. It also reveals God to be a God of supreme order and design.1

And then in the 16th C, Copernicus released De revolutionibus – his careful study of the heavens, complete with calculations, that showed that the earth (and the other planets) revolved around the sun (heliocentrism).2

The church, to put it mildly, did not like this idea.

But as disruptive as the idea of a sun-centered universe was, there was a whole other aspect to the church’s unease.

Back then, (physical) science was seen as the handmaiden to theology (which, as the study of God, was known as the queen of the sciences).3 No one was able to challenge the authority of the church and the church’s interpretation of scripture, which meant that science could only confirm and support the teachings of the church.

In other words, whatever the church said about how the world worked was considered absolute and unquestionable.4 If they said that the Bible described the moon, planets, sun, and stars revolving around the earth, then that’s the way it was. To question this view was to question the church which was to question God and if science was able to question the church’s interpretation of the Bible (by showing that the earth revolved around the sun), that meant that the church (and, by extension, God) was not the sole authority over life and reality.

And the church desperately wanted to keep that authority for itself.

Photo by: Don Urban

Now why do I tell that story?

Because I want to point out that there was a time when the church was absolutely certain that the Bible said that the sun revolved around the earth. The church was so certain of this that they excommunicated Galileo and banned Christians from reading books supporting heliocentrism.

But the church was wrong.5

Fast forward to today. Almost everyone knows that the earth, indeed, revolves around the sun. To underscore this, in 1992 (!) the Catholic church finally acknowledged that Galileo was correct.

The point I’m trying to make is that the church has been wrong on its interpretation of the Bible before6 and that suggests that there may be a time in the future when the church looks back on our day and our interpretations of the Bible regarding issues like evolution, global warming, wealthy inequality, and same sex marriage and wonder how it was that we could have been so wrong.7

And that points to yet another question:

If the church has been wrong about its interpretation of the Bible before and may be wrong today then how do we read this thing we call the Bible?8 How is the Bible reliable or authoritative in and for the life of the church?

And I’ll get to that in the next post.

Photo by: Ian Carroll

1 Philosophy nerds will note that the church’s view of the universe was influenced by the dominant (Aristotelian) philosophy of the day – ideas that were based in a universe of perfect spheres within spheres with the earth at the center. If you want to read more about how this all went down, I’d recommend God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, edited by David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers.

2 The history of heliocentrism goes back further than Copernicus, but I’m outlining a simplified history.

3 Edward Grant “Science and Theology in the Middle Ages,” in God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, ed. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1986), 50.

4 The relationship between church and society then was nothing like it is today. Today, church and state are seen as separate entities and the state has a much larger influence over the average citizen’s life than the church does. But back then, the relationship between church and the people was more akin to the relationship between a principal of a private school and the students. Church leadership had the power to kick people out of society. Excommunication didn’t just mean being kicked out of the church. Because church held so much sway in society, being kicked out of the church ostracized you not just from church but from society as a whole.

5 And lest you think this was only a misstep of the Catholic church, reformers like Melanchthon and Calvin were also vehemently against heliocentrism. Avihu Zakai, “The Rise of Modern Science and the Decline of Theology as the ‘Queen of Sciences,” in Reformation & Renaissance Review 9, no. 2 (August 1, 2007): 139.

6 The way the church handled the issue of slavery is another example.

7 I believe that evolution is the best explanation for life on earth, global warming is a real and huge problem, wealth inequality is a blight on modern society, and the church should recognize same-sex marriages. However, I also readily acknowledge that I might be on the wrong side of history on these issues. (But I don’t think I am.)

8 For a preview, see this previous post of mine.


2 thoughts on “394. language is fuzzy (part 5) – science and scripture

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