Galileo, Copernicus, and the Condemnation of the Church

The common wisdom is that Copernicus and Galileo came along and proposed the theory that the earth revolved around the sun, and that the church condemned Galileo for teaching the Copernican theory. As it turns out, this is quite a stretch historically speaking. It is often used to condemn the church as being backwards scientifically. The reality is that heliocentricity was not actually the issue with Galileo. The idea of the sun being the center of the universe was proposed long before Copernicus by Aristarchus of Samos in the third century B.C.

Owen Barfield, in his book Saving the Appearances, argues that quite a different issue was at stake. The issue was the nature of scientific theory itself. He writes, “It was not simply a new theory of the nature of the celestial movements that was feared, but a new theory of the nature of theory; namely, that, if a hypothesis saves all the appearances, it is identical with truth” (pp. 50-51). The importance of this can hardly be exaggerated, since the whole course of modern scientific inquiry has reached levels of hubris scarcely imaginable to the Medieval mind. Is scientific theory fact or theory, in other words? Galileo was the first to propose that scientific theory could be equated with fact, and for that he was persecuted by the church. And with good reason.