Let us therefore now apply what we have learned to the moving-earth controversy, to see how Christians eventually came to accept this “new” interpretation and ceased to insist on a literalistic understanding of the foundations and pillars of the earth.
Of course, this did not happen overnight. For many years, if not centuries, there would have been two major polarized positions: the fixed-earthers and the moving-earthers—with the latter group growing in number all the time. These positions were held, not only by people for whom Scripture had little or no authority (although there must have been some such), but by those who were convinced that the Bible was the inspired Word of God and who regarded it as the full and final authority. The latter would agree on the core elements of the gospel, including the doctrines of creation; the fall; salvation; the incarnation, life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Christ; the expectation of his return; and the final judgement. They disagreed, however, on what Scripture taught about the motion of the earth.
This immediately raises several questions. Were these differences simply driven by a desire on the part of the moving-earth faction to fit in with advances in science; or were they the result of intransigence and antiscientific attitudes on the part of the fixed-earth faction? Did the moving-earthers necessarily compromise the integrity and authority of Scripture?
The Bible and Science
First, some general comments. It is often said that the Bible is not relevant to science at all. Indeed, well-known American palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University suggested that religion and science belong to separate domains or magisteria.1 He meant that science and religion deal with fundamentally distinct questions, and harmony can be achieved if we keep the two completely apart.
Now this view (often referred to by the acronym NOMA—nonoverlapping magisteria) has an obvious attraction for some people: if science and the Bible have nothing to do with each other, then our problem is solved. However, there are two very big snags. Firstly, the claim that science and religion are completely separate often conceals another belief: that science deals with reality, and religion with Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and God. The impression that science deals with truth and religion deals with fantasy is very widespread. No one who is convinced of the truth, inspiration, and authority of Scripture could agree with that.
But there is another snag with Gould’s view. We cannot keep science and Scripture completely separate, for the simple reason that the Bible talks about some of the things that science talks about. And they are very important things—like the origin of the universe and of life. They are also foundational both to science and to philosophy. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) and “God created man in his own image” (Gen. 1:27) are statements about the objective physical universe and the status of human beings, with very far-reaching implications for our understanding of the universe and of ourselves.
Let me make my position clear. I am a scientist who believes Scripture to be the Word of God. I am not shy, therefore, of drawing scientific implications from it, where warranted. However, saying Scripture has scientific implications does not mean that the Bible is a scientific treatise from which we can deduce Newton’s Laws, Einstein’s equations, or the chemical structure of common salt. John Calvin wrote in his commentary on Genesis, “Nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.”2
Indeed, one of the fascinating tasks we are encouraged to do in God’s universe is to do just that—to find out many things for ourselves. Remember, according to Genesis, it was God himself who told the first humans to name the animals: he was not going to do it for them (Gen. 2:19–20). That is very interesting, because naming things is the very essence of science (we call it taxonomy); and so it was God who started science off! It was for this kind of reason that the brilliant scientist James Clerk-Maxwell had the words of Psalm 111:2 (KJV) engraved on the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge: “The works of the LORD are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein.” God loves an enquiring mind, a fact that has been a great encouragement to me in my study of mathematics and the history and philosophy of science.
We can surely also agree that the Bible is not written in advanced contemporary scientific language. This circumstance should not cause us any surprise or difficulty, but rather gratitude and relief. Suppose, for instance, that God had intended to explain the origin of the universe and life to us in detailed scientific language. Science is constantly changing, developing, standing in need of correction, although (we trust) becoming more and more accurate. If the biblical explanation were at the level, say, of twenty-second-century science, it would likely be unintelligible to everyone, including scientists today. This could scarcely have been God’s intention. He wished his meaning to be accessible to all.3 Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about Genesis is that it is accessible to, and has a message for, everyone, whether or not they are scientifically literate. As John Calvin put it,
The Holy Spirit had no intention to teach astronomy; and, in proposing instruction meant to be common to the simplest and most uneducated persons, he made use by Moses and the other prophets of popular language … The Holy Spirit would rather speak childishly than unintelligibly to the humble and unlearned.4
This statement, be it noted, does not come from someone who was vague about the authority of Scripture; nor is it a recent reflection produced by the alleged embarrassment of Christians confronted by modern science. Indeed, Augustine (354–430) had already had the same thought a thousand years before Calvin: “We do not read in the Gospel that the Lord said that I send to you the Paraclete who will teach you about the course of the sun and the moon, for he wanted to make Christians and not mathematicians.”
Rather than scientific language, the Bible often uses what is called phenomenological language—the language of appearance. It describes what anyone can see. It talks about the sun rising just as everyone else does, including scientists, even though they know that the sun only appears to rise because of the rotation of the earth. Saying that the sun “rises” does not commit the Bible, or a scientist for that matter, to any particular model of the solar system.
Having said all that, however, let us once again emphasize the key issue. The Bible, though not a textbook of science, precisely because it is God’s revealed Word, has truth to tell us about the same kind of objective reality that science discusses, in particular about the nature and origin of the cosmos and of human beings. We must therefore try to understand that truth.
In On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine offered Christians some interesting and valuable advice on how to engage with science. His advice shows that our scientifically advanced era is not the only one to be aware of the kind of tension precipitated by a perceived conflict between science and the biblical record. Augustine was well acquainted with it in his own day.5 What he has to say is worth quoting at some length in order to capture its spirit:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens … and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn … If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?6
Augustine has surely put his finger on one of the reasons none of us would maintain a base-level literalistic interpretation of the foundations and pillars of the earth: we don’t wish to appear scientifically illiterate7 and bring the Christian message into disrepute. Of course (but it needs to be said) Augustine is not suggesting that Christians should not be prepared to face ridicule over fundamental doctrines of the Christian message, like the deity of Christ, his resurrection, and so on. Such ridicule, often based on the false notion that science has made it impossible to believe in miracles,8 has been evident from the very beginnings of Christianity and still occurs today, as the present author has cause to know. The take-home message from Augustine is, rather, that, if my views on something not fundamental to the gospel, on which equally convinced Christians disagree, attract ridicule and therefore disincline my hearers to listen to anything I have to say about the Christian message, then I should be prepared to entertain the possibility that it might be my interpretation that is at fault.
In the final installment tomorrow, Dr. Lennox reminds us that while scripture is truly authoritative, our particular interpretations of it are not always accurate.
1. A magisterium is a body of teaching.
2. John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses, Called Genesis, trans. John King (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 1:79.
3. We might also note that biblical Hebrew has a vocabulary of fewer than four thousand words, whereas in English roughly two hundred thousand words are in current use.
4. John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. V (Edinburgh: T. Constable, 1849), v.7, p. 184.
5. Please note that I don’t mean a twenty-four-hour day here—but more of that later!
6. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, vol. 1 (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982), chap. 19, v. 39, p. 42.
7. Although I note that there still exists today a website maintaining the Aristotelian view: www.fixedearth.com.
8. See Lennox, God’s Undertaker, chap. 12.