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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 - #1135

December 23rd 2009

Dr. Enns,
My point is that what has really affected our understanding of Scripture is a growing knowledge of the Scripture itself, which has sometimes been triggered by advances in science forcing the church to look more closely at the text of Scripture.  That was the case at the time of Galileo, where we see the church coming to a better understanding of the Bible through new exegetical insights.  The discovery the church made at that time was not that the Bible teaches heliocentrism as opposed to geocentrism, but rather, that the biblical texts on which the church had been basing its dogmatic geocentrist views taught nothing whatsoever about cosmology.  Once it was understood (by comparing Scripture with Scripture)  that the phrase “cannot be moved” has nothing to do with the physical immobility of the earth, the ground was cleared exegetically for Christians to accept a heliocentric cosmology.  Even so, belief in a heliocentric cosmology is by no means of dogma of our faith, precisely because the Scripture itself (the sole foundation of church doctrine) teaches nothing about cosmology.


Martin Rizley - #1136

December 23rd 2009

Dr. Enns,
In conclusion, what I am saying is that Gordon Glover is essentially wrong when he says that theological “victory” (new theologoical inisghts) are achieved not by new exegetical insights, but through scientific discovery.  On the contrary, all real progress in theology always comes through new exegetical insights into the text of Scripture, and never through scientific discovery alone.  The “assured results of science” in themselves should never be allowed to determine the content of our faith as Christians, for that would be to abandon the principle of self-referentiality that underlies the Protestant doctrine of “Sola Scriptura. ”  Exegetical insights into the meaning of Scripture should be the only thing that ultimately determines the content of our faith, and those insights are available to all men, through the illumination of the Holy Spirit and by comparing Scripture with Scripture.


beaglelady - #1168

December 24th 2009

Martin,

Are you going to answer my question?

And what do you make of the firmament—you know, the hard, shiny dome covering the earth?


Martin Rizley - #1176

December 24th 2009

Beagle Lady,
Can you point to a single passage in the Scripture itself which teaches what you allege that it teaches about the nature of the firmament?  I would like to know chapter and verse.


Martin Rizley - #1192

December 25th 2009

Beagle lady,
Are you saying that the universe is in no sense whatsoever a three-tiered universe?  Are all of God’s creatures dwelling on the same “plane of existence”?  Are not the saints of God in heaven dwelling on a much higher plane of blessedness than we do here on earth?    Are not the damned in hell dwelling far, far below us in terms of the misery of their condition?  Did not God created the physical universe to reflect realities in the spiritual realm?  I believe that God made the heavens to teach us something about His glory and the exalted status fo those who go into His presence at death.  Likewise, I believe that He made the earth below us, with its dark, deep caverns and narrow, confined tunnels to fill us with a sense of dread concerning the condition of those who die in their sins, away from the glory of God.  They descend into a condition of abject misery from which they will not “arise.”  Thus, I believe that we are in a sense living in a three-tier universe; only, the physical world around us is simply a dim reflection of the spiritual world which it mirrors and to which the “three-tier” language found in Scripture ultimately refers.  .


Martin Rizley - #1193

December 25th 2009

Beaglelady,
Regarding whether or not the Bible teaches that the earth is flat with a solid dome over it,  etc., check out the following websites—http://www.emperorswithoutclothes.com  and http://www.tektonics.org/af/earthshape.html


Beaglelady - #1209

December 25th 2009

Martin asked,

Can you point to a single passage in the Scripture itself which teaches what you allege that it teaches about the nature of the firmament?  I would like to know chapter and verse.


The Hebrew word raqia is translated as firmament in the KJV. Other English translations render it as as sky, dome, vault or whatever.

In Genesis 1:6-8 the firmament is created to separate the waters in the watery chaotic world; so we end up with waters above the firmament and waters below the firmament.
See also Ps 148:4

The firmament supports the heavenly bodies, which are set in it (Gen. 1:14)
The firmament even has “windows” and “doors” (Gen. 7:11; Isa. 24:18; Mal. 3:10) for the rain
 
The root of raqia is raqa, which means to “flatten,” “stamp down,” “spread out,” “hammer out.”

Ex 39:3 and Isa. 40:19 use raqa for pounding metals into thin plates.

See also Job 37.18, Ex 24:10,  Job 22:14, Ezek 1:22


Beaglelady - #1210

December 25th 2009

Continuing my discussion of the firmament…

The firmament is shiny and bright and shows the glory of God; e.g.,  Daniel 12:3 speaks of the brightness of the firmament

Most of my information above comes from Evolutionary Creation by Denis Lamoureux
.
The Oxford Bible Commentary and other Bible dictionaries and study Bibles I have seen say much the same thing.

I’d also like to mention that my favorite verse about the firmament is Ps 19:1, which says,

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.

Whenever I read it, I naturally think of that great chorus in Haydn’s magnificent oratorio “The Creation.”


Beaglelady - #1211

December 25th 2009

Are you saying that the universe is in no sense whatsoever a three-tiered universe?

I’m saying just what I said, which was the following:

“The ancients really did believe that the earth was fixed and did not move. They believed in a 3-tier universe with the heavens, above the earth and the underworld below the earth.”


Martin Rizley - #1212

December 26th 2009

Beaglelady,
It’s interesting that you say your information comes from Lamoureaux.  The website I directed you to above—http://www.emperorswithoutclothes.com— reponds directly to Lamoureaux’s claims.  He shows that while the idea of firmness or hardness is inherent in the word firmament, the translation of “raqia” as firmament really derives from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament dating back to about 200 B.C.  The Hellenized Jews thought that the spherical earth was covered by a hard spherical shell.  Consequently, they translated “raqia” wih the Greek word ‘stereoma’ which means firm.  When Jerome produced the Latin Vulgate, he worked from the Greek Septuagint and used the Latin word “firmamentum” which conveys the same meaning as “stereoma.”  Our English word comes from this Latin word.
So the firmness in “firmament” is derived from the erroneous Greek cosmology of 200 B.C.  The original meaning of the Hebrew term raqia is that of “expanse,” however, and that is how it should be translated (that’s how the NIV and the NASB translate it).  I believe that God originally created an expanse—earth’s atmosphere— to separate the waters below from the waters above.


Martin Rizley - #1214

December 26th 2009

Beaglelady,
What particular people in the ancient world believed is one thing; what the New Testament writers taught is another.  It is clear to me that the New Testament writers did not intend for all of their statements about the realm of departed spirits to be taken literally.  When they describe the demons as being held in chains, it is obvious that they didn’t mean that spirit beings can be held by physical chains.  When Jesus says that the rich man in hell wanted Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool his tongue, he didn’t mean that disembodied spirits in hell have literal, physical tongues, or that their thirst can be quenched with literal, earthly water. I don’t you give the biblical writers credit enough to speak of the spiritual realities using earthly figures.  When they spoke of heaven as being above us and hell as being below us, they were using earthly figures to describe spiritual realities.  They understood that the structure of the physical realm reflects the structure of the spiritual realm and they spoke of the latter using language derived from the former.  It is common in the New Testament, to speak of spiritual realities in terms of the earthly figures that symbolize and represent them.


Beaglelady - #1217

December 26th 2009

You totally ignored my post. I’m dealing with the original Hebrew word raqia. (The OT is written in Hebrew.) 

Let’s try again.

The root of raqia is raqa, which means to “flatten,” “stamp down,” “spread out,” “hammer out.”

Ex 39:3 and Isa. 40:19 use raqa for pounding metals into thin plates.

“can you join him in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze?”
- Job 37.18

Also, the raqia/firmament separates the waters above from the waters below, and the heavenly bodies are set in it.  So I should think it would have to be rather hard.


I did take a look at your anti-Lamoureux, Catholic-hating, whack-a-doodle creationist site.  They decided that the text of the Bible has been corrupted.  (Something both Mormons and Muslims would agree with).


Martin Rizley - #1222

December 26th 2009

Beagle Lady,
If you looked at the website, then there is little I have to add to his arguments exposing Lamoreaux’s shameful attempt to impute error to the biblical writers and to Jesus himself.  I don’t agree that the text of Genesis 1 has been corrupted, but apart from that one point, I found most of the website’s arguments very convincing, and not at all “whack-a-doodle” as you say.  How could anyone disagree, for example, that the context of Jesus’ statement regarding mustard seeds was not world botany, but Jewish gardening practice?  To call Jesus statement an “error” is therefore a shameful example of ignoring context to make someone appear to be in error when they are not.  I found what the website said about the cosmology of the Septuagint translators influencing their translation of the word “raqia” very enlightening.  It is a well-known fact that a translators’s cultural or theological bias can influence their translation of a text (that is why many modern translations are done by a team of translators who check each other’s work, rather than by a single individual). 
.


Martin Rizley - #1223

December 26th 2009

Beagle lady,
Concerning the Hebrew verb “raqa” it is true that it means “to beat out” or to “spread out.”  There is no question that the sky appeared to the ancient Hebrews like a tent, or blanket, or dome or curtain that God had spread out over the earth, so it is not surprising they should choose a word for “sky” that means something “spread out” over the earth.  To read into that statement a more specific cosmology, however, by saying that the Hebrews definitely taught that the sky was a “hard dome” mistakes the language of analogy and metaphor for the language of science.  At times, the biblical writers compare the sky to a dome; but at other times, they compare it to a curtain which God has spread out over the earth.  Clearly, they were not asserting anything about the relative firmness or hardness of the substance from which the sky is made.  To me the teaching of Genesis 1 is clear; at creation God made a “spread out” expanse to separate the waters below from the waters suspended above the earth’s atmosphere. To say that the Bible definitely teaches that God made a hard dome to hold the waters up goes beyond the text of Scripture.


beaglelady - #1224

December 26th 2009

“they were not asserting anything about the relative firmness or hardness of the substance from which the sky is made.”

can you join him in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze?
- Job 37.18 


—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-


And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
Gen 1:16-17

Is not Genesis clear that the sun and moon are set in the firmament, and the heavenly sea is above it?  Wouldn’t the firmament have to be pretty hard to have the sun and moon set in it?


Martin Rizley - #1228

December 26th 2009

Beaglelady,
In Job 37, Elihu is describing God’s marvelous power revealed in the earth’s atmosphere at different times.  We read of God’s sending the rain in the autumn and spring, His sending the snow and ice in winter, and His withholding the rain and causing drought in the summer.  It is in this context that he describes the heavens as “hard (or strong) as a mirror of cast bronze” (v. 18).  Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the image of “bronze” heavens is used to describe unremitting drought (Deuteronomy 28:22-23); the “hardness” of the bronze sky relates therefore either to its appearance or its unyielding character as a moisture-retaining barrier.  The language is clearly poetic like the statement that God produces ice with His “breath” (i. e., a chill wind) or thunder with the “roar of His voice.”  If the Old Testament writers meant for us to interpret their words literally, what are we to make of the statement that God spreads out the sky like a canopy or tent (Isaiah 40:22)?  Canopies and tents aren’t hard.  What are we to make of the fact that God will “roll up the heavens” like a scroll (Isaiah 34:4)?  Hard domes can’t be rolled up like a scroll.


Martin Rizley - #1229

December 26th 2009

Beagle lady,
You will notice that the words “sun” and “moon” do not occur in Genesis 1, and that is because Moses is not speaking of the sun and moon in terms of their “cosmic” identity as astral bodies in outer space, far beyond earth’s atmosphere (a concept foreign to him); rather, he speaks of them in terms of their “functional” identity as lights in earth’s sky.  In other words, the language is not the technical language of science, but rather the pre-scientific language of visual description.  Moses is describing God’s work of creation in phenomenological terms.  On the fourth day, the sun and moon, in their functional role as “lights” in earth’s sky, were fully formed and placed in the sky by God.  The “raw material” from which these two “lights” were fashioned may have existed way out there in outer space prior to the fourth day (after God, we are told in verse 1 that God “created the heavens and the earth” on day one):  but in their functional role as “lights” in earth’s sky, the sun and moon did not exist until the fourth day.


beaglelady - #1232

December 26th 2009

what are we to make of the statement that God spreads out the sky like a canopy or tent (Isaiah 40:22)?

It’s a simile; a figure of speech that expresses a resemblance between things of different kinds.
Metal can be hammered out and spread out.  Go watch a blacksmith at work.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the image of “bronze” heavens is used to describe unremitting drought

Job 37.18 isn’t speaking of how the sky appears in a drought.  It’s quite the opposite;  God is revealing his glory in the firmament here.

“Firmament was a favorite word of Hebrew writers when they wished to surround an incident with the atmosphere of the majestic presence of the creator”
-Harper’s Bible Dictionary


beaglelady - #1233

December 26th 2009

Canopies and tents aren’t hard.  What are we to make of the fact that God will “roll up the heavens” like a scroll (Isaiah 34:4)?  Hard domes can’t be rolled up like a scroll.

No, God could never figure out how to do that.  He spread it out but can’t roll it back up.

You will notice that the words “sun” and “moon” do not occur in Genesis 1, and that is because Moses is not speaking of the sun and moon in terms of their “cosmic” identity as astral bodies in outer space, far beyond earth’s atmosphere (a concept foreign to him); rather, he speaks of them in terms of their “functional” identity as lights in earth’s sky.

Well, the sun is the sun and the moon is the moon. It’s obvious that these lights refer to the sun and the moon and they are set in the firmament.  That’s my point—they are set in the firmament along with the stars.  Perhaps the originals burned out right away (made in China?) and had to be replaced. 

Finally, as I have said many times, it would take something pretty strong to hold back the waters above the firmament.


beaglelady - #1234

December 26th 2009

oops, pls replace comment #1232 with the following:

what are we to make of the statement that God spreads out the sky like a canopy or tent (Isaiah 40:22)?

It’s a simile; a figure of speech that expresses a resemblance between things of different kinds.
Metal can be hammered out and spread out.  Go watch a blacksmith at work.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the image of “bronze” heavens is used to describe unremitting drought

Job 37.18 isn’t speaking of how the sky appears in a drought.  It’s quite the opposite;  God is revealing his glory in the firmament here.

“Firmament was a favorite word of Hebrew writers when they wished to surround an incident with the atmosphere of the majestic presence of the creator”
-Harpers Bible Dictionary


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