The Works of Galileo

Scripture and Copernicanism

Galileo, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina

In 1612, Niccolo Lorini, a 70 year old Dominican who was on good terms with the Grand Duke, attacked the “opinion of Ipernicus, or whatever his name is,” as contrary to Scripture. In 1613, Galileo’s friend Benedetto Castelli defended Copernicus to Cosimo’s mother, the Grand Duchess Christina, when the question whether it contradicts Scripture arose during a banquet. Galileo wrote a “Letter to Castelli” to reconcile the two, which circulated in manuscript. In 1615, Lorini denounced the “Letter to Castelli” to the Inquisition as an incursion upon theology.

In the same year, Galileo prepared a longer, revised version which circulated in manuscript as the “Letter to Grand Duchess Christina." It was not published in printed form until 1636: (Figure 1) (Figure 2) . Galileo argued that the purpose of Scripture is to tell us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go; Scripture never errs, but its interpreters do err; and read rightly, Scripture and Science will never conflict (there is a unity of truth). That which is obscure (e.g., figurative language) should be explained by that which is clear (e.g., mathematical demonstrations). To show the traditional basis of his approach, he cited St. Augustine throughout.

“If, against the most manifest and reliable testimony of reason, anything be set up claiming to have the authority of Holy Scriptures, he who does this does it through a misapprehension of what he has read and is setting up against the truth not the real meaning of Scripture, which he has failed to discover, but an opinion of his own; he alleges not what he has found in the Scriptures, but what he has found in himself as their interpreter.” English translation of Galileo’s “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” in Maurice Finocchiaro, The Galileo Affair (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

While professional theologians at the time were not impressed by a mathematician trying his hand at amateur interpretation, Galileo actually did biblical interpretation better than the theologians did physics. Pope John Paul II used Galilean language to affirm similar hermeneutical principles in 1992. However, John Paul II did not follow Galileo so far as to imply that Scripture could be used to prove Copernicanism, which Galileo attempted to do in the weakest and most provocative part of an otherwise magisterial letter.

In 1615, Paolo Foscarini published a treatise reinterpreting Scripture consistent with Copernicus. Cardinal Bellarmine responded with a “Letter to Foscarini” instructing him to regard Copernicanism as hypothetical (i.e, keep mathematics in its place). At the same time, Galileo visited Rome to advocate Copernicanism both as physically true and as consistent with Scripture. Tomaso Campanella defended Galileo’s scriptural arguments with Apologia pro Galileo, written at the request of Cardinal Caetani.

Foscarini’s work and Bellarmine’s letter are in Richard Blackwell, Galileo, Bellarmine and the Bible (1991). See also Thomas Campanella, Defense of Galileo, trans. Richard Blackwell (Notre Dame, 1994).

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Galileo, 1636. Title page.

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Figure 2 Figure 2 - Return to Text

Galileo, 1636.

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Exhibit credit: Kerry Magruder, with the assistance of , Marilyn B. Ogilvie, Duane H. D. Roller.

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