There was a time when scientists made a series of discoveries that revolutionized our understanding of the world around us. They began proposing new theories to explain these groundbreaking observations.
Not everyone was happy about it.
Many in the church felt threatened by the new scientific consensus, which undermined confidence in Scripture (so it was thought), because it contradicted some of what Scripture seemed to say about the universe.
So the church rejected these new theories as “godless,” even though many scientists (though by no means all) professed a deep and abiding faith in God.
Church leaders expended vast resources trying to discredit the new science. They accused scientists of being hostile toward religion and discouraged the faithful from reading any of their books.
“Science or Scripture,” the church seemed to say. “You have to choose.”
For some, this might sum up the present-day creation-versus-evolution debate. But it also describes a scene from our more distant past.
Over 500 years ago, science began questioning the geocentric view of the universe, which said the earth is fixed and everything else revolves around it.
Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo. These were the scientific trailblazers who brought geocentrism crashing down. The church fought them tooth and nail because it feared that without a geocentric universe, the Bible would come crashing down as well.
The new science, heliocentrism, was regarded as a threat to faith. It had to be stopped.
In fact, opposition to it was one of relatively few areas of common ground between Catholics and Protestants (who, generally, were still trying to kill one another).
On one side, Rome forced Galileo to recant his scientific theories (under threat of torture) and sentenced him to house arrest for the remainder of his life. Books by Galileo and Kepler were banned by the pope — for over 200 years in some cases.
Sixteenth-century Protestants took by and large the same view as their Catholic counterparts. John Calvin wrote that “the earth… is placed in the center [of the universe].” It is “unmoved,” because God himself made it that way.
Calvin may not have been acquainted with Copernicus’ theory, but Martin Luther was. And he didn’t like it any better. In a conversation with a student of Copernicus, Luther reportedly said:
But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must agree with nothing else others esteem. He must invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! That fellow [Copernicus] wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.
Luther’s disciple Philip Melanchthon went even further, suggesting governments should punish anyone who advocated the new science.
It took many years for the church to come to terms with heliocentrism. But eventually it did, largely because it had no other choice in the face of overwhelming evidence.
None of the contentious passages in Scripture (Joshua 10, Psalm 104:5, 1 Chronicles 16:30, etc.) disappeared from the Bible. But they came to be read in a new light — not as scientific or literal descriptions of reality, but as something else.
Some would argue that we find ourselves in a similar situation today. Only now with evolution as the church’s Waterloo moment instead of geocentrism.
But we don’t have to fight this battle.
Science can’t answer questions of ultimate origin (i.e. God), and the Bible doesn’t seek to answer questions of science. To make it do so is to turn it into something it’s not. It’s making the Bible what we want it to be, rather than letting it speak for itself.
Five hundred years from now, I wonder if our descendants will look back on the Al Mohlers and Ken Hams of our world in the same way that most of us look back on the 16th-century church’s opposition to heliocentrism.
By waging a battle with science, Ken Ham and others are taking a page from a very old script. They are repeating history. (You might even say they’re refusing to evolve.)
Worse, by forcing people to make a false choice between science and faith, they’re inadvertently pushing people away from faith — people who conclude that science and faith are irreconcilable, that the evidence for evolution (for example, the Human Genome Project) is compelling, and that Christianity therefore is not.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The church came out its last tiff with science a bit bruised, but otherwise intact. Faith didn’t come crashing down. The Bible didn’t stop being God’s inspired word just because people realized it may not be an inspired word about science.
If the church continues to pick an unnecessary fight with science, it will end as the last one did. And it will be a self-inflicted wound.