What We Can Learn from Galileo

Our faith is not about ethnicity, race, age, or gender.

As Reformed Christians, how do we approach critical and controversial contemporary issues? There really are only two possible choices. We can use our faith as a reason to deflect consideration of these issues, or we can use our faith as a prism to fully engage them. Frank, honest discussion and faith are not mutually exclusive. They are interdependent and lie at the heart of our commitment to the 17th-century concept semper reformanda—always reforming.

This issue is not new to the Christian Reformed Church or to the broader church. Throughout history, the church has struggled to accept open and honest dialogue. There have always been Christians who have argued that such and such an argument must be rejected because it violates accepted theological norms. Very often, advances in knowledge have been put forward that were rejected by sincere Christians but ultimately were proved valid and accepted by the church. The key to whether or not we accept a “new” idea rests on the willingness of Christians to examine it in light of our faith before a decision is made.

The 17th-century case of Galileo, a devout Christian, is a telling example of the church’s unwillingness to engage in honest, open investigation of an argument. Most astronomers and Christians of that time accepted the geocentric argument. Originally the church had been cautiously open to Galileo’s heliocentric position. But, eventually—out of fear—the church establishment turned against Galileo. Ultimately the Inquisition found him guilty of heresy, and Galileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Galileo was condemned not because his scientific position was discredited but because the Pope and the established community of astronomers felt their power and prestige were being challenged. Today no one denies that the earth revolves around the sun. But 300 years ago, the church relied on an argument that still is used today: we have years of doctrine behind us, so there’s no reason to investigate any further.

When our Reformed faith and the Dutch ancestry of many members of the CRC were intimately entwined, it was somewhat easier to be of one mind on a whole host of issues. Our insularity provided comfort and security. It is much more difficult today to maintain unity as the denomination is in the midst of fundamental demographic change. We are losing members, especially among our young people. We now have more gay members. Transfers from other denominations have broadened our cultural, ethnic, and racial configuration. Centers of Dutch culture and ancestry are declining, and the racial and ethnic composition of the denomination is changing. It is a fact that after about 160 years, the demographic reality of the Christian Reformed Church is not what it was for many of our parents and grandparents. That “cocoon” is gone forever. Perhaps we have been too wrapped up in our historic cultural identity, and God is now telling us to deal with a new reality as mature Christians.

Our faith is not about ethnicity, race, age, or gender. It is about fidelity to Christ as he is revealed in Scripture. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). This means approaching every issue that affects us all with open, contrite hearts. It means applying our faith and our intellect to pressing contemporary issues without prejudging them. If we do not do that, our denomination’s future is indeed bleak.

So let’s learn from the example of Galileo. We do not have to accept every new argument that is proposed, but we do need to honestly and openly investigate every new argument, in keeping with semper reformanda.

Web Questions

  1. Meyer identifies one issue where there has been an apparent conflict between our interpretation of Scripture and the results of scientific research: the revolution of the earth around the sun. Identify some others that have cropped up since the time of Galileo. Summarize some of the arguments on both sides of the issues you have identified.
  2. Do you agree that “frank, honest discussion and faith are not mutually exclusive?" Why or why not? What are some examples?
  3. The Reformers taught semper reformanda—that we should always be reforming so that we grow closer and closer to what King Jesus would have us be, as revealed in the Scriptures. Does that tenet have an element of risk as well? Is change always positive or might it sometimes lead us into trouble—away from God’s will? Give some examples. Is change worth the risk?
  4. Meyer says that “the key to whether or not we accept a ‘new’ idea rests on the willingness of Christians to examine it in light of our faith before a decision is made.” Is that true? Can you give examples either way?
  5. Meyer asserts that Christian Reformed folks used to live in a cocoon, sharing one mindset that made it easier to agree on most issues. Do you believe that’s true? Either way, what issues do we now need to face as we increase in diversity within our denomination? How shall we tackle them?
  6. Does “approaching every issue that affects us all with open, contrite hearts” mean that we must always accept every new idea? May we reject new ideas because they are contrary to Scripture? And if we disagree on whether an issue is indeed unbiblical, how should we proceed?
  7. What role should our creeds and confessions play in sorting out issues that challenge our current beliefs?

About the Author

Steven E. Meyer is retired from service in the federal government. He consults, lectures, and writes on political, economic, and security issues primarily in the U.S., Europe, and Russia. He is member of the Christian Reformed Church in Washington, D.C.

See comments (6)


In an otherwise interesting article, what jumped out at me was what was intended to jump out at me, namely, the bold-printed statement "Our faith is not about ethnicity, race, age, or gender". Is that really true? Does this not represent the sort of spiritual reductionism that results in the very problem addressed in this article? Looking for the lowest common denominator does not help us address the many issues arising from the relationship between Christ and culture, nor does it clarify how my faith affects my desire to follow Christ precisely AS a white male, sixty-something, American resident of Dutch descent. There is nothing inherently exclusive about those identity features. This is the hand God dealt me to play, and I should play it the way it was dealth to me. It also behooves me to appreciate the identity features of every person God puts in my way, so as not to minimize the unique contribution that person can make to the big picture of the Kingdom of God. 

I think the far more important lesson to learn from the "Galileo incident" is about the societal role claimed by the then established institutional church (Roman Catholic), and about the societal role increasingly claimed about our now established institutional church (CRCNA).

Notice that the 17th-century RC church assumed for itself the authority to pronounce about matters (astronomy) that its authority structure (an assembly of theologians) knew little to nothing about.  Notice too that the 17th-century RC church assumed for itself the authority to punish a member who thought otherwise by imposing a form of imprisonment.

Thankfully, history has since moved in such a way so as to more appropriately define different societal "spheres" of power and authority (see, e.g., John Locke and Abraham Kuyper), which "societal differentiation" has resulted in increased political freedom ("limited government") and the proper re-definition of the institutional church (see, e.g., Abraham Kuyper's thoughts re the "church as institute" vs. the "church as organism").  We are the beneficiaries of such historical change.

Which is why I think the lessons of history are unwisely ignored when the 21st century CRCNA expands the scope of its institutional authority, and in the process of doing so encourages government to expand its scope of authority as well.

In contradition to its century-plus tradition of pronouncing truths only within its sphere of authority, the CRCNA has, in recent decades, assumed for itself increasing authority and wisdom to pronounce "truths" for it members.  The CRCNA has recently pronounced "truth" about, e.g., complex matters of multi-field sciences (like climate change), complex matters of specific political praxis (like the competing versions of the US farm bill and Senate v. House versions of immigration reform), infinitely complex matters of international justice (CRWM Hope Equals pronouncements concerning the middle east), etc.

Just as the RC Church was not satisfied that its members, like Galileo, were studying science, the CRCNA increasingly appears unsatisfied that its members, tens of thousands of them, are studying science, engaging in political theory and practice, practicing creation care, etc. etc. etc., deciding instead that it -- the CRCNA as an church institution -- should decide which of its members are right (and wrong) about climate change, and which proposed laws its members should advocate for, etc. etc. etc.

How, in principle, is this latest shift in perspective in the CRCNA so different than the 17th-century RC Church presuming for itself a knowledge and wisdom that trumped that of its members, like Galileo?  Do the officials/staff within the denomination-level structures of the CRCNA who make these scientific, legal, political, foreign policy (etc) decisions have more expertise than the 17th-century RC officials who pronounced about astronomy and imprisoned Galileo for disagreeing with their supposed learned conclusions?  Not that I can tell.  Indeed, in both cases, the expertise of the institutional church was/is in the area of theology, but the expertise needed -- and possessed by its members -- was otherwise.

So I guess see a different most important (most foundational) lesson from the "Galileo incident" than does this article's author.  What we in the CRCNA need right now, more than anything else, is to re-figure out what the proper responsibility and authority of the institutional church is (and isn't), and what responsibility and authority belongs to each of us, as members of the organic church ("holy catholic church"), and the non-church institutions we create.  Once we see more clearly on that, we'll see much more clearly and be able to better take on all the other issues this article raises.

OK, I'll bite on some of these, even though one has always got to ask if the question is the right question. Some of these are not the "right questions", but...

#1: Notice how this question assumes the problem is with our interpretation of Scripture (where as scientific research can only have results, rather than interpretation). However, in the case of Galileo, we are dealing with repeatable, observable science. If we pick some other issues, like "global warming", or many issues where people claim genetic predispositions, or the hot topic of the age of the earth; we must make the distinction between what is fact, what is assumption, and what is interpretation. There are too many arguments to list here.

#2: frank, honest discussion and faith are not mutually exclusive. We look to the history of the reformers and see that it was done often and with skill. In today's culture, it is less frequent since we are polarized by epistemology: our culture says science trumps everything, and our theology says scripture trumps everything. Only a rare few go beyond the surface to struggle through and see how both inform while God's Word still rules.

#3: I've seen far too many use "semper reformanda" as an excuse to mean "always changing" without meaning "always re-forming to scripture". We all have blind spots and need to examine our thoughts, doctrines, and actions to see that they conform to God's Word, rather than the patterns of the world (Rom 12:2). When we re-form it should be for the purpose of forming ourselves, or our church, to be more Biblical; to weed out a spot we missed before; to repent of an oversight or sin. There is always a risk; this change should be preceded by thorough examination of scripture to avoid a rash decision. It is worth the risk, when we see how we are not living up to God's expectation, and fail to change and conform to His pattern we risk much.

#4: see my previous answer

#5: I did not come from that "cocoon" Meyer described. The cocoon we should live in is the light of God's word. We have our life and being in Christ, not in the world. When we differ with the world we should not worry, when we conflict with them we put our trust in Him, when He comes to judge we will be separated from the world. We are to live in the world, but not of the world. Don't worry about being accepted by the world.

#6: Usually, when someone tells me that, it is a sure sign that they disagree with me and want me to change my mind on something. We must always reject ideas that are contrary to Scripture. The last part of your question is very complex, there are a number of situations that would call for different behaviors.

#7: This is a follow-up to #6, really. To have an "open mind" and a "frank, honest" discussion we have basic ways of dealing with and answering questions where there is an apparent conflict. As I've said before, Scripture is our ultimate source of truth. We search the scriptures and understand them as a whole, not just one verse on its own. As such, our creeds and confessions help us summarize our understanding of Scripture as a whole, most of which have references so we can study these on our own as well. We can also look to the doctrines and issues of the past, as most controversies we see today in theology are not new, they have been studied, and argued, and worked out, and debated already before. By reading and studying these, we can gain a better understanding of Scripture. However, I also said, that we all are human, and can have blind spots, and need to examine our own understanding. It has been my habit, when challenged on an issue or conflict, to ask for Scriptural support, and to go back to Scripture, and doctrine. Re-read God's Word, does your memory serve you well, does it say what you remember it to say, does it mean what you remember it to mean. Study it again! I also have notice (non-scientific observation) that those who read more books about Scripture than they read Scripture itself tend to have a distorted view of Scripture. Reading God's Word is a means of Grace; reading Christian books is not.

As always, when an issue is oversimplified, it results in an incorrect conclusion.   Steven is trying to compare an inquisition church which had an army, the ability to impose taxes, the ability to torture and burn dissidents, and did not believe in free speech in any realm, with Christians who defend and explain scripture and point out scientific flaws in contemporary arguments.   This comparison with Galileo stifles discussion rather than enhances it. 

Steven says our faith is not about ethnicity, race, age or gender.  But as a reformed Christian, he should be acknowledging that our faith is about everything, our entire life, our entire world belonging to God.  That means that our faith starts with Christ, but it is also relevant to ethnicity, race, age, gender and biophysical  issues. 

Twice he has invoked “semper reformanda” .   However,  “Always reforming” begs the question of who or what is being reformed by whom or what?    We could reform science to conform to scripture as well.  That would also be semper reformanda, and probably more true to the intent of the early reformers. 

Wikipedia states that Galileo was having arguments with other astronomers who said that there was no stellar parallax and this caused them to doubt heliocentrism.   The roman  church persecutors were more interested in protecting their power than in examining scripture, and at a time when they were busy persecuting all kinds of reformers and other christians, Galileo also fell into the net.   But it should be noted that there were a significant number of astronomers who supported the roman churches stand, and even caused it.   These astronomers were also scientists, presumably, and were probably the ones who did not like the challenges presented by Galileo and Copernicus. 

The implications for heliocentrism is that there is something bigger and more central  than our globe.   Perhaps a reflection of our reliance on God, rather than God’s reliance on us.  What are the implications for God using death and disease to create animals and people?  What are the implications of man not falling into sin, but merely exhibiting the survival of the fittest by which he will ultimately be redeemed and made better even than Christ? 

While I agree with Steven that open discussion is good and useful, we need to distinguish between “always reforming”, and “always being reformed by non-scripture”.    The argument is not that we have years of doctrine behind us.   The argument is that this is what scripture says.   And the argument is that science postulates something for which they actually have no proof. 

A recent headline:  “Scientists have found fossils of whales and other marine animals in mountain sediments in the Andes, indicating that the South American mountain chain rose very rapidly from the sea.”   Giant  Camels in the Siberian permafrost and ice, clam shells on the highest mountains, whale fossils on the Andes.  Unfossilized tropical trees trunks  in the Artic Ocean, Mt. St. Helens.  Carbon 14 found in supposedly billion year old rock.   Lots of questions unexplained by establishment evolutionary theory.  Establishment evolutionists who want to shut down even any consideration of any other theory.  This should tell you who the new real inquisitors are today.

It would be interesting to have someone write an article for the banner about the implications for Christians and the world, if evolution was wrong, a mere fabrication of interpretation of the evidence.  This could be speculation, just like the evolutionary perspective is speculation.   Today  I became aware of another instance of where geologists discovered organic tissue within a triceratops horn fossil.  This tissue was still stretchable, and contained what looked like blood cells, and what the scientist believes were remnants of osteo-tissue and blood cells.  Armitage and Anderson, Histochemica, Feb. 2013.  (Genesis Week, Episode 26, season 3).  Is this compatible with the supposed age of dinosaurs as evolutionary theory suggests?   Mary Schweitzer had already previously found osteo-tissue in triceratops femurs.  Again, seems odd doesn't it?   Much less odd with a reduced age of these dinosaurs, doesn't it?  Strictly from a scientific perspective, even. 

My apologies.  I said Mary Schweitzer had found osteo tissue in triceratops, but should have said that she found it in t-rex (tyrannosaurus) femurs.