Crabby Christians or Nebulous Data?

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December 11, 2009 Tags: Earth, Universe & Time

Today's entry was written by Gordon J. Glover. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Crabby Christians or Nebulous Data?

Scientists who confront Bible-believing Christians with the physical evidence of theologically-challenging views like old-earth geology or common ancestry are usually incredulous when their well-crafted and well-supported arguments fall on deaf ears. How can something so obvious to one person be so easily dismissed by another?

In my own Reformed Presbyterian tradition, I have found that our theological presuppositions typically serve as the lens through which the natural world is observed and understood. When faced with apparent conflict between science and faith, the conservative knee-jerk reaction is to insist without equivocation that special revelation is a more reliable guide to ultimate truth than natural revelation. Without this ultimate reference point, it is feared that our sin natures would prevent us from seeing the world clearly. But if Christian theology is merely our fallible attempt to systematize the biblical data, then certainly we are prone to goofing that up as well. And given the estimated 38,000 Christian denominations spread across the world today, I’d say we’ve goofed it up quite a bit!

Interestingly, we do have the ability to faithfully interpret scientific data when no theology is at stake. For instance, Christians who tend to perpetually argue over the most trivial points of doctrine would probably all agree that chlorophyll is green, ice melts at 0 degrees C, and the universal gravitational constant is 6.67300 × 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2. This leads me to believe that theology can also be a dirty lens that blurs our observations of the natural world. Is it possible that scientific data can help Christians sort out good theology from bad theology?

Consider the great supernovae explosions that occurred in the years 1006, 1054, 1181, 1572 and 1604. Details of these incredible events were dutifully recorded by the world’s great astronomers. But the 1054 and 1181 explosions were not mentioned by any European astronomers. Some have cited bad weather as the probable cause, but the 1054 supernova, which is known today as the Crab Nebula, was visible in broad daylight for 23 days and at night for 653 days. Its sudden and violent appearance was recorded by Chinese, Arab, Japanese and even North American Indian astronomers, but for some reason nobody in Europe seemed to care. The 1181 supernova was visible at night for 185 days and was recorded by both Chinese and Japanese astronomers. But once again, Europeans paid scarce attention to it. Perhaps there was more going on than perpetual cloudiness?

In the years following SN1006, European astronomical science gave way to primitive superstitions and occult astrology. The conflation of Aristotle’s ancient cosmology with Christian tradition seemed to give theological support to the Greek notion that everything beyond the sub-lunar firmament was perfect, eternal, and unchanging. We now recognize this as a clear-cut case of bad exegesis based on incorrect assumptions about creation, but at the time this doctrine was considered non-negotiable. While Chinese astronomers referred to these supernovae explosions as “guest stars” European astronomers would have considered the existence of heavenly guests contrary to theologically acceptable science. As a result, the supernovae were not seen as new scientific data to be analyzed and understood, but as omens and curses to be feared—as was the comet of 1066 which nearly threw medieval Europe into widespread panic.

But why is there no mention of SN1054? Some say the object could have been viewed as an atmospheric phenomenon rather than a heavenly event—similar to how comets were understood; but even passing comets were dutifully recorded. Others have blamed the Ecclesiastical disputes between Rome and Constantinople, which came to a head in July of that same year. Pope Leo IX excommunicated the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church only two weeks after SN1054 exploded. Given the political turmoil of the Christian world, it’s quite possible that SN1054 was not seen as a natural phenomenon to be studied, but a supernatural omen marking the schism between East and West. Perhaps it was bad luck to even mention it? Since no written records of the event exist in Christendom, we may never know for sure.

The lesson here is that we Christians must be careful not to ignore obvious facts and data just because they don’t seem compatible with our theology. Often times these inconvenient truths can provide exciting new biblical and theological perspectives, and they can open up areas of scientific investigation that were once considered off limits to believers. For example, after Nicholas Copernicus pointed out the flaws in Aristotle’s earth-centered cosmology, more people were willing to test other aspects of the traditional system. Eventually it became theologically acceptable to study the material changes in the heavens—and just in time for the 1572 and 1604 supernovae! By demonstrating that these transient celestial objects were distant enough to occupy the “immutable” heavenly realm, the Renaissance astronomers began a difficult journey that would eventually liberate Christian theology from the scientific shackles of Greco-Roman astronomy.

It might not have seemed so at the time, but clearly this was a win-win situation for both science and theology—a victory achieved not by new exegetical insights, but through scientific discovery. It is definitely possible for scientific data to be misunderstood, but if Christians can admit that the Scriptures can also be misunderstood, then there is hope for a constructive dialogue between science and faith.


Gordon J. Glover holds degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Ocean Engineering and is the author of Beyond the Firmament: Understanding Science and Creation. A veteran of the U.S. Navy, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area where he works and runs the popular blog, "Beyond the Firmament".

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Martin Rizley - #1251

December 27th 2009

Beaglelady,
Regarding Job 37:18, the immediate context indicates that we are dealing with a description of a drought in summer.  Look at the preceding verse, which is translated in the NIV as follows:  “You swelter in your clothes when the land lies hushed under the south wind.”  The south wind is the hot, drying wind that blows up from Africa, baking the landscape, causing people to swelter in their clothes, and transforming the sky into what appears to be a cloudless, hard, hammered out mirror of cast bronze.  Clearly, the language here is poetic; one can see a pseudo-scientific assertion here about the physical structure of the sky only by importing that idea into the text from one’s prior assumptions regarding ANE cosmology. 
Regarding Isaiah 34:4, obviously God can “roll up like a scroll” a hard dome sky if He wishes to do so by altering the sky’s “hardness” into the flexible consistency of parchment paper; but it seems to me that a more reasonable explanation of these conflicting images is to realize that neither image is to be taken literally.  Both descriptions are poetic descriptions by masters of simile and metaphor.


beaglelady - #1253

December 28th 2009

The sky doesn’t appear to be a mirror of cast bronze in a drought.  The heavenly sea can still be seen above the firmament.  It’s just the sky’s hardness that is compared that that of a cast mirror.


Listen to this, Job;
stop and consider God’s wonders.

Do you know how God controls the clouds
and makes his lightning flash?

Do you know how the clouds hang poised,
those wonders of him who is perfect in knowledge?

You who swelter in your clothes
when the land lies hushed under the south wind,

can you join him in spreading out the skies,
hard as a mirror of cast bronze?
 
 
-Job 37:14-18 (NIV)
   
 
   
My HarperCollins Study Bible, in its comment on Job 37:18 says,
“The Hebrew word for skies or firmament implied an object that was beaten out like metal, hence hard. Windows allowed rain to fall.


beaglelady - #1254

December 28th 2009

(Continuing…)

Note that the firmament is considered to be hard even when it is raining like mad: 
   
   

Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a path for the thunderstorm,

to water a land where no man lives,
a desert with no one in it,

to satisfy a desolate wasteland
and make it sprout with grass?

   
-Job 38:25-27 (NIV)
   
God ends the drought by cutting channels through the firmament so the rain can fall to earth!

   
Finally, at the end of the day, the firmament still divides the waters above from the waters below, no matter what it looks like or what it is made of.  It’s still a barrier, according to the OT. 
The heavenly bodies are set in the firmament and the heavenly sea is ABOVE the firmament.


Martin Rizley - #1259

December 28th 2009

Beaglelady,
When Moses warns Israel in Deuteronomy 28:23 that God will send them drought for disobeying His covenant, He doesn’t say to them, “God will send you drought,” but rather, “The sky over your head will be as bronze.”  In what sense will it be as bronze?”  He means that it will be hard and impermeable as bronze, not allowing the passage of rain the earth.  But is the sky as hard as bronze all the time, in Moses’ view?  Is it always impermeable?  No; obviously not; for if the people obey, Moses says, God will “open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty.”  That is the opposite of the sky being as “bronze” over them..  The language is therefore, a poetic description of how God on the one hand “stops up” the skies by making them impermeable, and sometimes opens them, so the rain can fall.  Does that mean the Hebrews did not realize that rain was stored in clouds?  No, they knew that the rain was stored in the clouds, and did not have to be retained by some hard, impermeable barrier (Prov. 16:5, 25:14).  The problem is that modern scholars do not allow the Hebrews the literary skill to use simile and metaphor in describing the changing phases of nature.


Gordon J. Glover - #1261

December 28th 2009

“The problem is that modern scholars do not allow the Hebrews the literary skill to use simile and metaphor in describing the changing phases of nature.”

Modern scholars assume, and rightly so, that the Hebrews would have shared the same cosmology as their immediate neighbors.  So when they see obvious descriptions of the ancient near-eastern cosmos, they don’t attempt to wiggle out of it by twisting the scriptures—and putting words into Moses’ or Job’s mout.

The only means by which the Hebrews could have obtained a more advanced cosmological picture than the surrounding cultures was for God to reveal it to them.  And if God did revealed to them a different cosmology, one that was more up-to-date than was commonly believed in the ANE, then certaily we would see that in Scripture.  But we don’t.  When it comes to the structure, function, or formational history of the cosmos, we only see the Hebrews in lock-step with the surrounding cultures.

Your endless special pleading only shows that you are not reading the text naturally.  If you really honored the Word of God, you would let it speak to us on its own terms and stop forcing it to support your pre-conceived notions of what revelation should look like.


Martin Rizley - #1262

December 28th 2009

Beaglelady,
As far as the sun and moon being located as “iights” in the firmament between the waters above and the waters below, that makes perfect sense when we understand that the Hebrews frequently described the natural world phenomenolgically, as it appears to the eye.  It is clear that in Genesis 1, Moses is speaking about the sun, moon, and stars in terms of what they are in relation to the earth, and in that relation, they are “lights in the sky.”  What they are in themselves—hot balls of gas in outer space—was not his concern, nor was it a concept that entered into his thinking.  All he knew was that, in terms of their function, the sun, moon, and stars are “lights in the sky,” and therefore, it is no error for him to locate them in the expanse where the birds fly, for that is indeed where they function as “lights” in relation to the earth.  We ourselves speak of the “stars in the sky”—knowing full well that scientifically, there are no stars in the sky.  That is where we place the stars, however, when we describe them according to their functional role and identity.


beaglelady - #1263

December 28th 2009

But is the sky as hard as bronze all the time, in Moses’ view?

The firmament doesn’t soften up from rain, as I have pointed out. 
As we have seen, in Job 38:25-27 God ends the drought by cutting channels through the firmament so the rain can fall to earth!  Cutting a channel only makes sense if the firmament is thought to be solid.

The firmament has windows which may be open or shut.  Do you want me to point out the texts that mention this?

Finally, at the end of the day, the firmament still divides the waters above from the waters below, no matter what it looks like or what it is made of.  It’s still a barrier, according to the OT.
The heavenly bodies are set in the firmament and the heavenly sea is ABOVE the firmament.
Is this true or not?


Martin Rizley - #1264

December 28th 2009

Gordon,
“Modern scholars assume, and rightly so, that the Hebrews would have shared the same cosmology as their immediate neighbors.”  Can you justify this statement?  What proof do you have that the Hebrews shared the elaborate cosmological views of other cultures?  You speak as if there were only two alternatives:  either they shared the cosmological views of their neighbors or held to a more “advanced” cosmology.  There is a third alternative, and that is that the Hebrews did not hold to any developed cosmology.  In that case, it would be wrong to impute to them the errors of the Babylonians, for example, for to do so would be to ignore the intent of their descriptions of nature,  which was not to assert a particular cosmology but to describe the natural world around them according to language of appearance, or with the highly metaphorical language of poetry, which is patently obvious in the Psalms and in passages like Isaiah 40.  It seems to me that the vehemence with which people insist the Hebrew Scriptures teaches erroneous ANE cosmology is “agenda driven;” if the Bible can be shown to be in error about cosmology, then it may also be in error about human origins.


Martin Rizley - #1277

December 28th 2009

Beaglelady,
There is no question that God made the firmament to divide the waters above from the waters below—that point is not in dispute, for Genesis 1 affirms that plainly.  The question is, what does the Bible teach about the physical nature of the firmament.  Does the Bible teach dogmatically that the physical nature of the firmament is literally that of a hard dome?  Or is the “dome” imagery simply one of several images the Bible uses to describe the sky above us.  I once wrote a poem in which I described clouds floating in the “cupola” of heaven.  My use of the word cupola indicates nothing about my cosmology—simply that, on that lovely evening, the sky appeared to me to be like the cupola of a cathedral.  Moreover, to my knowledge, the Bible never speaks of a heavenly “sea” above the firmament.  It speaks of God storing waters in His “upper chambers,” but it doesn’t say in what form those waters are stored—whether in the form of water vapor or ice crystals or a liquid sea.  The Hebrews simply knew that God stored a lot of water above their heads and above the expanse which He created for the birds to fly in; and they knew that from time to time He opened up that storehouse and let the rain fall.


beaglelady - #1280

December 28th 2009

Martin,

Does it not say that the heavenly bodies are set in the firmament and that the waters above are ABOVE the firmament?


Martin Rizley - #1301

December 29th 2009

Beaglelady,
Have you never heard a person exclaim, when looking up into a clear sky on a dark night, “Look!  The sky is full of stars tonight.”  But, when you analyze that statement scientifically, it is totally false, for technically speaking, the nearest star is light years from the earth, and the changing movements of clouds on our planet cannot bring the stars any nearer.  Moreover, were a single star were to draw near to our earth and enter its atmosphere (an impossibility, of course), the earth would be instantly burned to a cinder long before the star ever got that close.  How then can earth’s sky be said to be “full” of stars?  Wouldn’t that place the stars below fhe stratosphere, where they cannot possibly be?  Answer those questions, and you will understand why it is no error for the writer of Genesis to speak of God placing His “light bearers” in the firmament of heaven,  in that expanse that God created the separate the waters below from the waters stored in His “upper chambers.”  That statement is no more in error than when we ourselves speak of earth’s sky being “full of stars,” as long as you keep in mind the phenomenological character of the description.


peter Enns - #1319

December 29th 2009

Martin,

You are making a common error. We use figures of speech all the time, but we know they are figures of speech because of our knowledge of the cosmos. Ancient peoples had no such check and balance. When ancient people talked about the sun rising, they believed it to be physically the case. No other option was open to them.


Martin Rizley - #1333

December 29th 2009

Dr. Enns,
Don’t you think it’s possible for people to realize their ignorance concerning the precise nature of different features in the cosmos, without having the advantage of more advanced knowledge of the cosmos—and therefore, choose to describe those feature (the precise nature of which they are admittedly ignorant) in terms of how those things appear?  As Francis Anderson says in his commentary on Job 37:18, “Since the sky seems firm and solid to a viewer on earth, the poetic comparison with a molten mirror should not be spoilt by introducing quarrels about its scientific accuracy.  The Hebrews were fully aware that the structure of the heavens was much more complex than that of an inverted bowl!”  In support of what Anderson says about the Hebrews’ awareness of the heaven’s complexity,  take the statement of the psalmist in Psalm 104:3—“He lays the beams of His upper chambers in the waters.”  Can we be so sure the psalmist believed that God literally laid down beams in the sky?  What then of the verse that follows, which is about God making the clouds His chariot and walking on “the wings of the wind’?  How do you distinguish between statements that are literally factual, and statements that are poetic?


Martin Rizley - #1337

December 29th 2009

Beaglelady,
There is another possibility regarding how we are to understand the light bearers that God places in the “firmament of the heavens,” and that is that Moses may be referring back to the heavens God created in verse 1, rather than to the heavens He created in verses 6-8 to divide the waters from the waters.  That the heavens of verse 1 are distinct from the heavens of verses 6-8 is evident from the fact that verse 2 begins with a “waw consecutive” which indicates sequential action.  After God created the heavens and the earth, the earth lay for a time in darknes, “without form and void.”  Then, in verses 6-8, God creates a spread out expanse to separate the waters from the waters.  Oswald Allis points out that several words in Genesis 1 are used in diverse ways—the words “day” (which can refer either to the period of light or to an entire creative day with a morning and an evening); “earth” (which can refer either to the planet earth or to the dry land in distinction from the seas.  Therefore, the “firmament of the heavens” in which God placed His light bearers may be the original heavens created in verse 1, rather the spread out expanse that separates the waters below from the waters above.


Hector - #1388

December 30th 2009

martin:

“Gordon,
Modern scholars assume, and rightly so, that the Hebrews would have shared the same cosmology as their immediate neighbors.”  Can you justify this statement?  What proof do you have that the Hebrews shared the elaborate cosmological views of other cultures?”

Well hebrew’s closest civilizations were:

-Mesopotamia
-Sumer
-Babylon
-Canaan
-Egypt
-Greece

Mesopotamia, sumer, babylon share the idea that men were created from clay, especially first three share concepts of flood, water, sky domes, etc.  Actually one of the genesis version resembles more mesopotamian’s myth and the other version resembles more other sumerian or babylonian myths.

Now certainly you don’t expect literal word by word likeness between all the ancient creation myths. Even genesis has only several hundred words so is difficult that it be exactly the same across all myths. But for example in mesoamerica aztecs or mayans, don’t remember, believed that men were made out of corn. Now that’s something different. But hebrews as mesopotamians as sumerians as in babylon all they created man from clay. Not very original.


Hector - #1389

December 30th 2009

(cont)

http://www.mukto-mona.com/new_site/mukto-mona/Articles/brent_meeker/cosmology.htm

here’s a list of several cosmologys, I agree it’s not a page from the biggest authority but it’s late and don’t have the energy to search deeper. But I’m 100% percent sure that the answer for your question:

Hebrews would have shared the same cosmology as their immediate neighbors.”  Can you justify this statement?

will be: Yes it can be justified.

Providing that you use common sense on defining what is “the same”. (I’m so sure that you’ll argue that if it’s not equal word by word can’t be the same).

Of course if you were able to make a really long argument saying that the “lights"mentioned in genesis ARE NOT the moon and the sun (that’s when i started to wonder how sun and moon were created), and really got stuck in the meaning and sense of 1 word “firmament”. And even you were sure without doubt what Moses, Job, and God exactly wanted to say, I don’t expect that the resemblances and common places in all creation myths at the region will be clear to you.


Hector - #1390

December 30th 2009

cont

By the way martin, you demanded proof that origin that cosmology and cosmogony knowledge were shared (Can you justify this statement?  What proof do you have that the Hebrews shared the elaborate cosmological views of other cultures?”).

Well Bible is not the only ancient document from the past. Your proof resides in the several ancient documents that are being founded and translated.

So you can say those documents are false. Or as i say before most probably you’ll say ” Hey mesopotamian’s god and hebrew’s gods (in one version), god (in other version) did some things the same way. But did way more things differently, so it doesn’t mean anything and we can’t take anything valuable from it”


Martin Rizley - #1431

December 30th 2009

Hector,
I’m not denying some type of connection between the Bible and other ANE writings; I’m simply saying that we must be careful not to assume that the Hebrews held to concepts that were held by a neighboring culture, simply because the two cultures use terms or descriptions that are formally similar.  Similarity of language does not prove identity of concept.  For example, the fact that Genesis 1 speaks of God making a “raqia”—a thin, spread out layer of “something“—to divide the waters from the waters, doesn’t mean the Hebrew prophets held to the raqia being literally a “hard dome”  simply because a neighboring culture specified that it was.  If both cultures are working from an earlier tradition common to both, it would stand to reason that the Hebrews, God’s chosen nation, would preserve the original, simple concept in its pure form, whereas the surrounding pagan cultures—interested as they were in astrology—would develop from the original, divinely revealed concept the more elaborate concept of the raqia being literally a hard dome.  The formal similarity of language and description does not prove identity of concept.


Martin Rizley - #1433

December 30th 2009

Hector,
As evidence of what I’m talking about, consider the similarities between the teaching of Genesis 2 regarding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and that of the Babylonian and Sumerian creation myths   Genesis 2 speaks of a single river originating in Eden which splits into four rivers, among them the Tigris and Euphrates—a simple, unembellished statement.  According to the Babylonians and Sumerians, however, the Tigris and Euphrates were produced as the result of a conflict among the gods.  When one god was defeated and split in half, the Euphrates flowed from one eye and the Tigris from the other.  Which account gives evidence of embellishment and elaboration?  Clearly, the Genesis narrative preserves in its original form an earlier tradition, whereas the Babylonian and Sumerian narratives represent a mythical elaboration and corruption of that same tradition.  As one writer puts it, “In the Ancient Near East, the rule is that simple accounts or traditions give rise (by accretion and embellishment) to elaborate legends, rather than the reverse.”


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