The peril of interpreting Scripture is misinterpretation. And misinterpreting Scripture has happened all too often in the history of Christianity. For example, for hundreds of years, the Church believed in a geocentric or earth-centered universe because it seemed to be the clear teaching of Scripture. But five hundred years ago, an astronomer disagreed.
In his revolutionary work, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, published in 1543, Copernicus asserted that the earth revolved around the sun. Copernicus’s idea was rejected because it was contrary to tradition, observation, and most importantly, Scripture. According to Catholic Church authorities and the Reformers, Scripture plainly taught in numerous places that the sun was in motion and therefore the earth was stationary.
While the Catholic Church did not initially reject Copernicus’s heliocentric model when it was proposed, by 1616 the Catholic authorities “suspended” the works of Copernicus “until corrected.” The reason given was that Copernicus’s heliocentric proposal was being defended by a Carmelite father and the authorities didn’t want that proposal to spread any further. But as time passed, the realization dawned that Copernicus was right and therefore the official interpreters of Scripture were wrong.
Today, we understand those statements in Scripture which seem to support geocentricism as phenomenological statements. In other words, from an ancient writer’s perspective the sun looked like it was moving around the earth so they wrote of it in that way. And today we continue to use phenomenological language when we speak of the sun rising and setting. But the official Bible teachers failed to grasp this concept and as a result misinterpreted the Bible. They assumed that the authors of Scripture were giving scientifically precise information when, in fact, they were only describing the world as they saw it.
Harmonizing Scripture and Science
The story of Copernicus should cause us to be humble in our attempts to harmonize Scripture and science. After all, we’re trying to interpret two things which can be complex in themselves and then show how they relate to each other.
One current area of tension between Scripture and science is the beginning of the world and the human race. Did God create in six, 24-hour days? How old is the earth? How long have humans been on this planet? Our answers will be a result of our reading of Scripture and science.
Committed Christians hold a variety of views on the genesis of the universe and the Genesis of Scripture and with the exception of strict evolutionary theory, which excludes God, we should allow for this diversity.