A guest column by a pastor that took biblical creationists, in particular AiG President Ken Ham, to task for supposedly being antiscience, appeared recently in a Holland, Michigan, newspaper.
In Ken’s absence (he has been in England to speak at a conference), we asked our astronomer Dr. Danny Faulkner (who eventually joined Ken in England) to respond on Ken’s behalf. It made sense too because Dr. Faulkner’s PhD in astronomy made him highly qualified to address the contents of the pastor’s column. However, the managing editor told us that the newspaper has a policy of “not print[ing] letters to the editor or guest columns from people outside of our coverage area, no matter the circumstance”—even when it’s to respond to what was written about a non-Michigander like Ken Ham. The editor did say that he would forward Dr. Faulkner’s letter to the columnist, Rev. Kurt Volbeda, “so you two can start a dialogue with each other.”
Galileo One Last Time
I transitioned from conservative to liberal Christianity and justify doing so one last time.
Certain events led me to study the Galileo debacle. Before his time (1564–1642), all Europeans believed — because the infallible Bible said so — that God’s heaven was literally located above a motionless Earth, surrounding it. But observations with an improved telescope led Galileo, a Catholic, to publically argue that heaven was not up after all, despite predictable backlash.
To protect himself from accusations of heresy, he claimed scripture was not mistaken. Instead, the relevant texts were being misinterpreted. Yet Catholic officials of the notorious Inquisition did not buy it, judging heaven’s disappearance as undermining both the final authority of the infallible Bible and the very cosmology that immersed Earth in divine meaning.
Protestant theologians like Martin Luther and John Calvin also condemned a sun-centered solar system. Threatened with torture, authorities forced Galileo to retract, thereafter silencing him through house arrest until he died.
Later, Isaac Newton (1643–1727) presented scientific proof, vindicating Galileo and forcing theologians to stop denying God’s geographic disappearance. But thereafter, theologians simply ignored the Inquisition’s original judgment, as if heaven’s celestial disappearance had never threatened Christianity.
Even today, persons claim Galileo’s discovery never signaled a catastrophe for Christianity to begin with. In “The Biblical Cosmos” Robin Parry writes, “Interpreting the language of heaven non-geographically does not threaten the heart of biblical teaching at all.”
Yet that is not what outsiders see. Noel Swerdlow, a scholar of science history, wrote, “Heliocentrism still poses problems to theology. Indeed, one may wonder whether [conservative] theologians have ever taken in the significance of the removal of the earth from the center of the universe, let alone all that follows from it.”
When heaven above vanished, so should have belief in the all-powerful sky-God of the Bible and his future appearing to the world therefrom, transforming it into a divine utopia.
Endless outer space forces the further differentiation of God and the universe far beyond their literalized, spatial relationship in the Bible. The vision of a masculine God beyond the clouds — outward to Earth, able to enter it at will — was a temporary phase of human culture still undergoing development today.
Even so, preachers sometimes call persons to go back to the God of the Bible. I have, not realizing it is impossible. For worshiping the God of the Bible requires embracing heaven’s geographic location therein, so that the same meaning-filled human consciousness attached thereto can be duplicated.
Unfortunately, in addition to heaven’s disappearance with Galileo, scientific discoveries made during recent decades show that the endless cosmos will go on for billions of years. This implies a self-limiting God coextensive with an open-ended universe.Liberals propose a Christ closer to the truth because the Bible is fallible.
Yet even scholars of heaven, like Jeffrey Russell, do not get it. For in his fine book “Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven and How We Can Regain It,” the above problem is never discussed. I agree with him that without a vision of transcendent life it remains impossible to ground spirituality that infuses this difficult world with divine purpose and hope. Yet Russell complains that liberals diminish Christ. Apparently, he does not understand why: geographic heaven can never be regained nor the Christ who supposedly ascended thereto in bodily form after his resurrection from the dead, now waiting to appear worldwide therefrom. Liberals propose a Christ closer to the truth because the Bible is fallible.
Fundamentalists, like Dr. John Ankerberg, remain blind. He claims, “What critics are unwilling to accept is that the critical study of the Bible has never proven an error in it.” To be fair, all persons sometimes outright deny reality.
In any case, conservatives criticize liberals for holding too low a view of the Bible, picking and choosing what to believe therein instead of accepting it as entirely infallible. Yet conservatives themselves select, while hiding it.
Like Galileo, they reject the Bible’s teaching that heaven surrounds a motionless Earth. But in doing so, theologians — like the biblical creationist Ken Ham — compromise scriptural authority just to make the Bible relevant for people living in modern culture, the very thing for which they hypocritically denounce liberals.
— Kurt Volbeda is pastor of Visions Spiritual Pathway, a new community now starting up. He made [sic] be reached at www.visions.life.
Dr. Faulkner’s reply was brief since letters to the editor, by the Holland Sentinel’s guidelines, could not be long. Here is the letter that was not printed.
In a recent guest column, Kurt Volbeda claimed to have studied what he called the “Galileo debacle.” With a PhD in astronomy and more than a quarter century experience teaching astronomy (distinguished professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina Lancaster), I don’t think Pastor Volbeda studied the Galileo affair very deeply. If he had, he wouldn’t have made some of the claims in his column.
For instance, Volbeda stated that before Galileo’s time, all Europeans believed the geocentric theory, with the earth as the center of the universe. This overlooks Copernicus’ work, who died two decades before Galileo was born. Copernicus’ book was widely read in Europe, and though belief in heliocentrism was a minority viewpoint at the time, it had many adherents besides Galileo. Furthermore, the widespread belief in geocentrism then wasn’t because the Bible said so, as Volbeda contended. Rather, it was the prevalence of the Ptolemaic geocentric model which had been the dominant cosmology for 15 centuries.
Nor did Roman Catholic authorities pounce on Galileo because his teachings contradicted biblical text. In fact, theologians seemed very uninterested in the matter. It was Galileo’s fellow scientists who complained bitterly, forcing the Roman Catholic Church to consider the matter, handing down a judgment in 1616, which seemed to settle the issue to the satisfaction of most involved. Galileo’s famous trial didn’t happen until 1633, nearly two decades later. Much happened between those two events, largely because of Galileo’s demeaning and caustic attitude toward his opponents. There is far, far more to the story, but I must be brief.The Galileo dispute was a squabble about science—Galileo challenged the status quo, and others did not like that.
The takeaway is that the Galileo dispute was a squabble about science—Galileo challenged the status quo, and others did not like that. The refutation came primarily from Aristotle and Ptolemy, not from Scripture. When Scripture was used, it was because the Roman Catholic Church chose to interpret certain biblical passages in terms of the Ptolemaic model.
Volbeda fails to understand this, because in his conclusion he identified creationists with the critics of Galileo. If there is a comparison to made here, it is the creationists who ought to be the modern Galileos, for they are the ones challenging the scientific status quo and clerical compromisers who have interpreted Scripture in terms of the current scientific paradigm of evolution and billions of years.
Dr. Danny Faulkner
Dr. Faulkner is the author of the new book The Expanse of Heaven: Where Creation & Astronomy Intersect.
It’s sad to see pastors, such as Volbeda, forsaking biblical truth and undermining the gospel message itself in favor of man’s ideas about theology, biblical inerrancy, and history. Instead of trusting in man’s fallible ideas and interpretations, we need to put our trust in God’s Word and start our thinking from the firm foundation of infallible, inerrant Scripture.