When we got to the chapter on Copernicus and Galileo in Volume 2, I read ahead and supplemented with some research of my own to try to get a clearer picture of what happened between the church and the scientists at that time.
It struck me how similar it all seems to the contemporary tension between young- and old-earth creationists. See for example, the recent hot pot stirred up in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Or examine the speaker list and session descriptions for many a regional Evangelical homeschool convention.
On the one hand, there is the sincere and pious group who believes that faithfulness to the Word means sometimes denouncing data that seems to contradict our current understandings of Scripture. Some act as if even peeping at the naked data would be an infidelity. Some of Galileo's contemporaries, for example, refused to look through Galileo's improved telescope to see the newly-visible moons around Jupiter:
"My dear Kepler," Galileo wrote to a friend, "I wish that we might laugh at the remarkable stupidity of the common herd. What do you have to say about the principal philosophers of this academy who are filled with the stubbornness of an asp and do not want to look at either the planets, the moon or the telescope, even though I have freely and deliberately offered them the opportunity a thousand times? Truly, just as the asp stops its ears, so do these philosophers shut their eyes to the light of truth."
On the other hand, we have Christian scholars who fearlessly (if sometimes pompously—see Galileo's comment re: the common herd) embrace new data and wrestle to understand how the faith and the universe can be reconciled to each other with fidelity to both.
The essential tension seems to be hermeneutic: How are we to interpret and understand certain puzzling passages in Holy Writ?
During the Copernican Revolution, exegetical debate focused on the passage wherein Joshua commands the sun and moon to stand still (Joshua 10:12-14). For some authorities in the church, affirming heliocentrism amounted to "distorting the Scriptures in accordance with [one's] own conceptions," and was considered "likely not only to irritate all scholastic philosophers and theologians, but also to harm the Holy Faith by rendering Holy Scripture as false."
Copernicus, Galileo, and their like-minded contemporaries saw it differently. In a letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Galileo studiously demonstrates an exegesis of Joshua that harmonizes the truth of the faith with the newly-discovered astronomical realities. Galileo also warns of the ill that can come of authoritatively wielding Bible passages to dismiss scientific theories:
It seems to me that [. . .] such men [. . . ] who, being either unable or unwilling to comprehend the experiences and proofs used in support of the new doctrine by its author and his followers, nevertheless expect to bring the Scriptures to bear on it. They do not consider that the more they cite these, and the more they insist that they are perfectly clear and admit of no other interpretations than those which they put on them, the more they prejudice the dignity of the Bible—or would, if their opinion counted for anything—in the event that later truth shows the contrary and thus creates confusion among those outside the holy Church. And of these she is very solicitous, like a mother desiring to recover her children into her lap. [. . .] [T]he Bible [. . .] was not written to teach us astronomy.
I laid out the key facts in simple terms for seven-year-old Katherine: Some people in the church at the time [including Martin Luther and other Protestants, btw] thought that the Bible said the earth had to be in the center of the universe. They thought believing what Copernicus said would mean saying the Bible was false—for example, in this passage in Joshua where it says the sun stopped moving across the sky and "stood still" for a while.
"What do you think?" I asked her.
"Well, maybe," she mused after a moment's reflection, "the person who wrote Joshua was just saying how it looked to him. It looked like the sun moved and stood still. He didn't know about the earth going around the sun, since Copernicus hadn't discovered it yet."
Perhaps we understand both special and general revelation less well than we might like to think. Perhaps a childlike wonder—a revolutionary humility—could lead us to perceive more purely and insightfully both Word and world.