Science and Orthodoxy: The Faith of Galileo and Kepler

Contributors to The Dartmouth Apologia have frequently examined the relationship between faith and science; in particular they have explored what is known as the conflict thesis, the idea that science and religion are inherently at odds. One major way the Apologia has approached this issue has been by looking at historical scientists and the ease with which they balanced their faith and their scien­tific inquiry.1 Nancy Frankenberry questions the valid­ity of such an approach, however, in the introduction to her new book, The Faith of Scientists. Although she emphasizes “how seamlessly the historical titans of the scientific revolution – Galileo, Kepler, Bacon, Pascal, and Newton… could interrelate their Christian faith and their scientific discoveries,”2 she also argues that it “will strike even the casual reader” that “pockets of perplexity, elements of eccentricity, and unconven­tional forms within conventional Christian faith stand out.”3 She suggests that though scientific figures such as Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler may have been devout believers, they may not have been “conven­tionally Christian.”4 Frankenberry’s assertion, if true, could challenge much of the past work published in the Apologia on this subject. If these scientists were not “conventionally” Christian, not orthodox in their be­liefs, can the Apologia’s writers use them as evidence for the compatibility of religion and science? If these great scientists were not orthodox Christians, does that challenge the journal’s thesis that the claims of science and faith are reconcilable?

Surely Frankenberry’s assertion would not contra­dict the Apologia’s argument entirely, since much of it is based on the separate goals of the two intellectual endeavors. Science empirically examines the world’s physical properties, while religion addresses questions of meaning, morality, and teleology. It is widely held that the jurisdictions of these two fields do not over­lap and that one cannot say anything useful about the other. Frankenberry, paraphrasing Stephen Jay Gould, puts it this way: “Scientific truth and religious faith do not belong to the same dimension of meaning, so science has no right or power to pronounce on faith, and faith no right to interfere with science.”5 She points out that this “view of science and religion… has almost become the default position in the current cultural debates”6 and that this distinction has been recognized since before Galileo’s time. In other words, both sides of the debate conventionally agree that reli­gion and science address completely different spheres of information.

Since the two do not overlap, there is no reason a scientist cannot believe that Christianity holds the answers to the questions science cannot satisfactorily address. However, Frankenberry’s observation could still challenge the idea that science and Christianity are compatible. Even if it were theoretically possible to be both a scientist and an orthodox Christian, it would be hard to argue that science and orthodoxy are particularly compatible if few people ever found com­bining the two to be intellectually satisfying. Indeed, Frankenberry almost suggests that scientific genius goes along with religious eccentricity. What if true scientific advancement is incompatible with orthodox Christian faith? Fortunately, further examination of Frankenberry’s examples indicates that many “histori­cal titans of the scientific revolution” were much more conventional and orthodox in their beliefs than she implies.

Of course, all of this depends on our definition of conventional and orthodox faith. The definition that the Apologia has used since its inception and that has been recognized by many Christians throughout time is assent to the propositions outlined in either the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed, which is found on the last page of this journal. Frankenberry appears to use a much narrower definition, seeming to view “convention” as compliance with the specific doctrine of the specific denomination with which the particular scientist was associated. This is an appropriate meth­odology to her purpose, which is interested in teas­ing out exactly what each scientist believed from an outsider’s perspective, but it is an unhelpful approach for determining whether or not the scientists found orthodox Christianity to be compatible with their sci­entific pursuits. Using the broader definition of ortho­doxy recognized by this journal reveals that many of Frankenberry’s examples of “unconventional forms” of Christianity were actually quite conventional.

For instance, although Galileo’s approach to the­ology sometimes conflicted with the proscriptions of the Catholic Church, his beliefs were quite compatible with orthodox conventions. Galileo mainly conflicted with the Catholic Church over who had the author­ity to engage in biblical hermeneutics. In the Catholic tradition, only the Church Fathers had the authority to interpret scripture, so conflict arose when Galileo personally began interpreting Scripture in light of his scientific discoveries. Although Galileo’s attempts to reinterpret Scripture himself were not compatible with contemporary Catholicism, Galileo’s belief that, as Frankenberry explains, “the Bible was intention­ally simplified by the Church so that lay people could access its meaning”7 was a conventional Catholic doc­trine even in Galileo’s time. The idea she describes, that the Bible is written in simplified and sometimes even allegorical terms to be generally comprehensible, is called the doctrine of Accommodation. This belief had been established doctrine since the time of Augustine.8

For Galileo, the doctrine of Accommodation meant that scientific understanding could be used to inform one’s understanding of scriptural passages, which ex­plained the fact that there were passages in the Bible that seemed to contradict the heliocentric model of the universe. The most famous example of this is Joshua 10:12, where Joshua asks God to make the sun “stand still over Gibeon,”9 suggesting a sun that orbits the earth and that, some said, must be part of a geocentric solar system. According to the doctrine of Accommodation, this was not a problem, because a Bible written to be accessible to all would not necessarily have to be con­sistent with the astronomical discoveries of the distant future. Galileo firmly believed that truth was revealed both in the Holy Scriptures and through science, and that, in Frankenberry’s own words, “neither one can ever be fundamentally in conflict with the other.”10 He also believed, in accordance with the doctrine of Accommodation, that it was acceptable for “scientific truths … [to] help guide biblical exegesis,”11 since the Bible was not written merely for a scientific au­dience. If Galileo’s efforts to engage in biblical hermeneutics himself did not fit into the conventional Catholic para­digm of his time, his willingness to let science inform scriptural interpretation did.

Galileo’s engagement in hermeneu­tics conflicted with the Catholic tradi­tion, but at the time the individual’s authority to interpret the Bible for him or herself was a question that divided Christianity. Indeed, it was one of the most divisive issues of the Reformation. Since the most traditional statements of orthodoxy like the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed do not address this issue, no final answer has been reached, and Protestants and Catholics have ultimately agreed to disagree.12 However, Galileo’s attempts at indi­vidual interpretation of the Bible are compatible with conventional Protestant orthodoxy and so can hardly be described as outstanding “elements of eccentricity.” Though it may have been unconventional in Galileo’s particular religious climate, the ability of the individu­al to interpret Scripture is an orthodox belief in much of Christianity. Even at his most controversial and “ec­centric,” Galileo’s beliefs and practices were compatible with basic Christian orthodoxy.

Frankenberry’s second example of an eccentric be­liever is Johannes Kepler. Indeed, Kepler was consid­ered a heretic in his lifetime, largely because his under­standing of the presence of God during the Eucharist conflicted with that of contemporary Lutheran the­ology;13 accord­ing to Maximilian Lanzinner, this was the only part of Lutheran ortho­doxy that “Kepler could not accept in good conscience.”14 Although Frankenberry claims that Kepler’s beliefs about the Eucharist “fell through the widening cracks” of or­thodoxy,15 other scholars present a very different perspective.

Kepler was in conflict with the Lutheran church specifically because he refused to accept the doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ, that is, the omnipresence of Christ’s body, which was central to the contemporary Lutheran understanding of communion. According to Max Caspar, Kepler’s most definitive biographer, Martin Luther created this doctrine when he broke from the Catholic Church. Although Luther “repudi­ated Mass and rejected transubstantiation,” the actual “sacramental permeation” of the bread “by the sub­stance of the body of Christ,” he still wished to allow for the substantial presence of Christ in Communion.16 Luther did not believe that the bread became the body of Christ during the Eucharist service, but he still wished to provide a doctrinal way for the bread to be Christ’s actual body. Kepler’s studies of the Bible led him to the conclusion that, as Caspar explains, “this remarkable doctrine of ubiquity” is “untenable on the grounds of the traditional Christology” because it re­quired Christ to be physically present everywhere at all times, a seeming impossibility for a Christ who was still fully human.17 According to Lanzinner, “in [Kepler’s] understanding of the wording of the Gospel, the body of Christ was in Heaven—at the right hand of God.”18 If Christ were fully human, his body could not be in more than one place at once, and the Lutheran doc­trine of consubstantiation was wrong.

Studying the Church Fathers and other Christian writers confirmed Kepler’s rejection of the doctrine of ubiquity. He was especially affected by the discovery that the doctrine of ubiquity was never held by the Church Fathers or in any other branch of Christianity, that “our aforementioned conflict was something new.”19 The doctrine was unconventional as well as un­biblical. Here we see that it was not Kepler’s religious eccentricity but rather his study of the Gospels and traditional Christianity that prevented him from ac­cepting the doctrines espoused by the contemporary Lutheran Church. Indeed, later Lutheran theologians would come to agree with Kepler—the doctrine of ubiquity was soon dropped.20 This explanation pres­ents not a Kepler of novel spirituality, but rather a Kepler who held fast to orthodox beliefs in the face of a Lutheran church that proscribed doctrines “untenable on the grounds of traditional Christology.” Indeed, it appears that it was not Kepler, but rather sixteenth-century Lutheran theology, that was “eccentric.”

We see that it is still safe to say that some of the most celebrated scientists of all time found ortho­dox Christianity to be a satisfying worldview that complemented, rather than hindered, their scientific endeavors. Galileo and Kepler join the ranks of many other important scientists who found the orthodox Christian faith compatible with their scientific work, which stretch from Michael Faraday to Georges Cuvier to Francis Collins. Each of these men and women il­lustrates that the Christian faith can go alongside sci­entific endeavor not only hypothetically and theoreti­cally, but also practically and personally. This by itself is not a compelling argument for or against Christianity; the fact that a few celebrated individuals believed a certain thing does not make it true. However, each of these men and women is a case study refuting the sometimes-popular perception that science and reli­gion are insurmountably incompatible. Each provides another data point suggesting that science and faith are not natural enemies.



1 See Andrew Schuman and Robert Cousins, “Galileo Revisited: Part I: From Copernicus to the Inquisition,” The Dartmouth Apologia 1.1 (2007): 8-10; Peter Blair “The Naturalist Dilemma and Why Christianity Supports a Better Science,” The Dartmouth Apologia 3.1 (2009) 6-9.

2 Nancy Frankenberry, ed., The Faith of Scientists in Their Own Words (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) ix.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid. xiv.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Schuman and Cousins 10.

9 Joshua 10:12.

10 Frankenberry 4.

11 Ibid. 5.

12 David B. Wilson, “Galileo’s Religion Versus the Church’s Science? Rethinking the History of Science and Religion,” Physics in Perspective 1 (1999): 65-84, 68.

13 Frankenberry 38.

14 Maximilian Lanzinner, “Johannes Kepler: A Man Without Confession in the Age of Confessionalization?” Central European History 36.4 (2003): 531-45, 535.

15 Frankberry ix.

16 Max Caspar, Kepler (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc, 1993), 25-26.

17 Ibid.

18 Lanzinner 537.

19 Kepler, qtd. in Caspar 49.

20 Caspar, 25-


Grace Nauman ’11 is from Lebanon, Oregon. She is a Molecular Biology major and an English minor.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,