Indeed, Remember Galileo!

In the Reformed Journal of December, 1965 there appears an article by Dr. Lewis B. Smedes entitled “Can the Church Be Trusted?” This article I would characterize as a poorly concealed and also poorly reasoned. argument in favor of the church’s making room in its thinking and its dogma for the views of those who hold to “theistic evolution” or “progressive creationism,” which, according to Smedes, are the same. 

The thrust of this article is expressed by Smedes himself as being, “Remember Galileo!” Writes he, in the conclusion of his essay: “The best word for this situation is: Remember Galileo!” 

Before examining this advice of Dr. Smedes, let me attempt in a few points to summarize his article as it leads up to this advice. 

1. The question which Smedes asks and to which his advice is an answer is: Can the church be trusted? He explains this by means of several more detailed questions: “Are people able to trust the church? . . . .Can people trust the church to be honest, frank, and humble in the face of today’s tough issues? Can people who genuinely want the church to help them as they wrestle with the modem world trust the church to be of real help? Do people know they can trust the church to be at their side as they walk through the jungle of modern problems? Or do they suspect the church of keeping a stock of ready-made, effortless answers, issued painlessly from the arsenal of a closed mind?” And again he writes: “The question is whether people can trust the church to understand theproblems. Can the church be trusted to make an effort to understand modern Christians as they are thrust into a world exploding with questions and answers that cannot be avoided. Can modern Christians trust the church to be wise and honest in response to their needs and their problems?” I will not comment on this question and its rather questionable formulation. I will simply assert at this point that the church must always in its decisions and expressions conduct itself and express itself in a manner that is worthy of trust, whether or not one group of people or another can and do trust it. 

2. Smedes has in mind in this article particularly his own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church. For later in his article he makes specific reference to “our church.” 

3. By the people the writer refers to the members of the church, those who sit in the pew. But he finds among those people two different parties. Writes he: “But we cannot lump them together any longer. Members of the same denomination, who listen to the same sermon and are subject to the same discipline, may live their lives in totally different worlds. One man has become a part of the thought and life of this modern world. Another may be, in his own thinking and living, part of a world that really belongs to another day. This is not a matter of geography. It is a matter of the mind and the spirit.” Again, I will not make extensive comment on this characterization of the two groups. It is evident, however, that Smedes means to characterize the second group as “behind the times.” We should also note, moreover, that later in his article Smedes identifies these two groups more specifically: “For some people it is as clear that the earth is more than several million years old as it is that the earth is not flat. Some people are sure that during those years some kind of evolution produced the earth and its fullness. They are not going to change their minds, be sure of that. They have solved this problem for themselves. Others among us are sure that any kind of evolution—whether it is called theistic evolution or progressive creationism (there is no difference)—is a flat denial of the Bible.” And it is evidently Smedes’ contention that somehow the church must keep both of these diametrically opposed groups, both of which are so sure of their positions, satisfied. “The church must have the confidence of both people.” But it is also evident that Smedes is especially concerned about the former group, “which has once and for all taken citizenship papers in the modern world.” 

4. Dr. Smedes calls attention to a somewhat similar problem which faces the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands, the problem of whether to maintain or to repudiate the decisions in the Geelkerken Case of 1926. (Incidentally, the final decision on this matter has now been postponed by the Synod of Lunteren, according to the last report which I read in the “R.E.S. News Exchange.”) In this connection, he refers to a challenge put by a delegate to the Synod, a challenge not to lose the confidence of those people who believe that the Gereformeerde Kerken blundered in 1926 when, as it is put in the article, it demanded “that people believe the snake really talked” in Genesis 3. This delegate claimed that the church would not be trusted if the Gereformeerde Kerken did not confess that they blundered. And so the article goes on to state that the question is not simply whether the decision of 1926 is right or wrong, but whether the church is credible, can be believed, can be trusted. The article also recognizes that there are people who will not trust the church if it abandons the position of 1926, “people who have not solved the question for themselves in the way the modern generation has.” But again, the article is without doubt on the side of the “moderns” when it characterizes the 1926 decisions as “an untenable position.” And thus, Smedes contends that the real question facing the Gereformeerde Kerken is: “In whose eyes ought it to be trustworthy?” In the Protestant church (and he apparently has in mind his own churches and those of the Netherlands) and in the Roman Catholic Church,—everywhere one finds the tension between “progressives” and “conservatives.” Thus, the church is faced by what Smedes calls an “inescapable dilemma.” Smedes states this dilemma as follows: “Always, the question settles down to the church’s attitude toward the burning issues and the accepted answers of the modern world. Will the church have the honesty and courage to face the real issues of a new day with an open mind? (Note this “open mind,” H.C.H.) Or will the church, seeking to be true to the past (What does this mean? H.C.H.), speak against the threats posed by the new ideas of the new day? Or must it do both (But this is impossible, H.C.H.), each in its time, each in its place? But when is the right time? And what is the right word?”

Dr. Smedes’s answer is: Remember Galileo! 

Galileo (of the sixteenth century) is credited with the teaching that the earth goes around the sun, rather than the sun orbiting a square earth. His views were condemned at one time by the Roman Catholic Church. Galileo bowed to this decision for a time and recanted, as Smedes notes: “They bowed for a while to the church’s authority, but their lowered heads concealed a grin of disdain for the church’s stupidity. The church lost the trust of these people.” Later it became generally acknowledged that Galileo’s astronomical theory was correct. This, then, is supposed to be an example of the church’s blundering in condemning the views of a scientist, an example, too, of how the church can lose its trustworthiness. And this example Smedes applies to the contemporary problem of “creationism versus evolutionism” which vexes the (Christian Reformed) church. “Remember Galileo!” is in effect a warning, then, that the church must not today quickly and confidently condemn these evolutionistic ideas. For “It may also make a future generation marvel at our stupidity.” 

What shall we say? 

There are many things that could be said about many statements in this article, as well as about its main thrust. 

But several pertinent comments may be summed up in this reply: “Indeed, remember Galileo!” 

Remember Galileo! For (though his entire history took place in the Roman Catholic Church, after the Reformation, and therefore outside of the mainstream of church history) Galileo is representative of those who are not honest with their church! Not honest, you say? No! For though he recanted officially, he nevertheless clung to his views and maintained them while remaining in his church. This is not honest. It is not open. It should be remembered as an example of ecclesiastical rebellion and dishonesty that is not to be followed today,—especially not by an officebearer who signs the Formula of Subscription. 

Indeed, remember Galileo! For he is an example of an entirely wrong approach to church questions and matters of doctrine. He came with the findings of a telescope. Now I do not condemn the use of a telescope and of telescopic discoveries. Nor am I at all questioning here whether scientific discoveries are correct or not. I am simply pointing to the sound rule that when you would convince the church of any position, you must not come with scientific evidence, but with the Word of the Scriptures. This is the only evidence to which the church may listen, and all other “evidences” must be considered in its light. And let me remind you: such Scriptural evidence could have been produced. For the Word of God spoke of “the circle of the earth” long before any Galileo appeared on the scene of history. Remember Galileo! Let the church and the scientists among its members not follow his example, but let them subject all “evidence” to the Word of God. 

Yes, remember Galileo! Indeed! But let the memory of Galileo also be a reminder that it was the same “science” of which he was a representative which had also taught for long years previously that the universe was earth-centered and that the sun orbited about the earth. Let the memory of Galileo remind us that the “findings” of science are changeable, that its theories have changed often, that science is a very untrustworthy guide for the church.

Remember Galileo, and be reminded that there is but one trustworthy guide for the church in all its decisions: the Word of God that abideth forever! Be reminded that the controlling question is not whether the church can keep the confidence of two divergent groups, creationists and evolutionists, but this: what is the truth, according to the Word of God? 

Remember Galileo, and let no member of the church emulate his smug and concealed “grin of disdain.” 

Indeed, remember Galileo! 

But above all, remember and be guided by the Word of God!