To be labeled a “flat-earther” is probably one of the most potent insults in our modern scientific era, suggesting that the person being insulted is unaware of or unable to understand the more basic scientific facts. This very accusation has, since the 18th century, been hurled at Ancient Christians. But was the invective ever an accurate assessment of what early Christians believed? What did they really think about the shape of the earth or the cosmos? Medieval Christians have also been identified with the denial of antipodeans, humans living on the opposite side of the earth. Is this accurate? Is this in any way related to a flat-earth belief? This essay aims to clarify these historical issues as well as draw insights for science and faith relations that are still relevant in our present day.
Introduction and background
Science and faith debates did not start with Darwin or Galileo. As Christians, we have a long tradition of wrestling with the relation between our theology and our scientific knowledge. Of course, to portray the history of these relations as one of continuous conflict is neither helpful nor accurate, but neither is it helpful to ignore potentially embarrassing episodes in our history or to portray them as insignificant or unimportant. We need to learn from past conflicts in order to avoid errors in the present and future of Christianity.
Cosmological issues were among the most vigorously debated topics from the early Church to Galileo’s time. In fact, any careful reader of Copernicus, Kepler, or Galileo will discover that they identify these precedents, seek to learn from them, and apply lessons learned to their contemporary heliocentric debate. Unfortunately, many Christians today are not sufficiently aware of these precedents to learn from them, and we are in danger of falling into Santayana’s doom (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”). The aim of this paper is to help us to regain this historical perspective.
The cosmological issue in the 16th-17th centuries was the movement of the earth, in great part, because previous debates had already been settled. This question did not emerge ex nihilo, but was a continuation of a series of earth-related questions. This historical line of debate provides essential context for understanding any individual question, because la longue durée reveals the more fundamental but somewhat hidden hermeneutical foundations of the debates. In ancient times the issue was the shape of the earth. Once settled by affirmation of sphericity, the Medieval discussion moved on to the habitation of the earth; that is, whether it was possible to have inhabited landmasses on both Hemispheres. It was only at the end of the 15th century that this mystery was solved when sailors actually crossed the Equator and found people living on the other side of the earth.
The view of nature from the Bible to the Early Church
Christians have often made two claims about the Bible and/or Christianity and modern scientific achievements. First, it is said that Christianity provided the foundation on which the modern scientific edifice could be built and, second, that God reveals truth through two books: the Bible and the book of nature. But both of these claims must be carefully nuanced in order to avoid historical and biblical inaccuracy.
When asking questions about the relationship between the Bible and science it is important to understand and respect the approach the biblical writers take toward the natural world. It is very easy, especially in our scientifically-minded world, to ask questions of the biblical text that the biblical writers would have little or no interest in answering. We can ask scientific questions, such as, ‘What is the shape of the earth?’ or ‘Does the earth move?’ but the biblical writers may have no interest in those questions, and it is unwise of us to try to force the biblical texts to answer them.
How do the biblical writers approach the natural world, then? It is important to recognize that no one in the ancient world could approach the natural world with the same methods of inquiry as are standard in today’s world. Aristotle comes the closest in his work Physics, but even then his methods of investigation were more philosophical and less investigative and rigorous than today’s methods. But even granting that Aristotle approached the natural world with probative and critical questions that yielded helpful knowledge of the physical world does not mean that he was typical or that the biblical writers followed a similar path. In fact, the biblical writers repeatedly turn to the natural world for other reasons, to learn about God and for practical lessons in living well. They do not investigate the physical world for knowledge of that world itself.
For example, the wisdom writer in Proverbs instructs those who are prone to laziness to consider the ant (Prov 6:6). Indeed, not only ants, but badgers, locusts, and lizards all provide examples to humans in living well (Prov 30:24-28). According to the Psalmist, the ‘book of nature’ speaks, but not of itself; it reveals God: the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps 19:1). Likewise, the Psalmist pictures the natural rhythms and cycles of the physical world as the creation responding to its creator with praise, and this becomes an example to humanity (Ps 96:11-13; 98:4-9). Nature also groans, along with humans, waiting for the day of redemption (Rom 8:18-25). Indeed, nature appears to run in a parallel track with humanity in regard to salvation.
Humanity’s rebellion against God is pictured in the natural world as chaos and curse. The restoration of humanity in the kingdom of God is pictured by the harmony of nature: wolf and lamb, leopard and goat, lion and calf, bear and cow, cobra and infant all live together happily (Isa 11:6-10). The natural world recognizes the birth of its Savior (Mt 2:9), and responds in submission to him (Mt 14:23-33; John 2:1-11; cf. Lk 19:40), while humanity continues to rebel (John 1:11).
The biblical writers use the natural world in much the same way medieval churches used stained-glass windows. Both provide opportunities to tell stories that give guidance and instruction for life. Furthermore, events in the natural world are understood as acts of God, typically as God’s response to human behavior, whether to bless or to curse. Human rebellion brings on the flood (Gen 6:5-7, 11-13, 17; Ps 29:10). The curses for covenant disobedience are initially natural events: famine, plague, disease (Deut 28:15-24). God’s decision to rescue Israel from Egypt is accompanied by several natural phenomena that bring about the fulfillment of God’s plan (Ex 15:3-12). Likewise, the conquest of the land of Canaan is accomplished by God’s hand in directing natural events (Ex 23:28; Josh 10:9-11). And the subsequent blessings of living in the land are natural occurrences (Deut 11:8-17). The natural world is seen as God’s tool for accomplishing his plans and purposes. All of nature is at his disposal (Job 37:2-13; Ps 114:1-8). Therefore, the physical world is under the sovereign control of God and it is best approached as a revelation of him (Ex 19:16-20; Ps 19:1-6; 50:1-6; 97:1-6; Rom 1:18-20; Mt 5:44-45; 6:28-32; 10:29-31) and his ways (Ps 65:9-13; 104:21-30; 147:7-9, 12-18; Jer 10:13).
Origen of Alexandria reflects this biblical approach to nature when he writes in the early 3rd century:
I think that He who made all things in wisdom so created all the species of visible things upon the earth, that He placed in some of them some teaching and knowledge of things invisible and heavenly, whereby the human mind might mount to spiritual understanding and seek the grounds of things in heaven.
Peter Harrison, in an important and fascinating book, The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science, has related the Bible and science in a unique manner and has argued that the Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on the Bible as the ground of truth in addition to its hermeneutical shift from allegorical to literal readings of the Bible, motivated an important and fundamental shift in the Christian’s approach to the natural world, from seeing nature as allegorical teaching about God and life to seeing nature itself as something to be studied in a ‘literal’ manner.
However, long prior to the Reformation, some scholars, following the ancient Greek natural philosophers, did consider the natural world in a naturalistic manner (that is, the understanding of nature itself through observation) and at the same time some Christians read the Bible in a literal and historical manner, seeking information about the natural world. These two groups, not surprisingly, clashed, and one can find a rather vituperative polemic for the ‘Christian’ view of the natural world amongst some of these theologians. Indeed, beginning in the 4th century, the Antiochian School of Christian Theologians promoted a more literal and historical biblical hermeneutic. And these literal readings proved to be potentially problematic, especially concerning the development of science, because some of their interpreters argued that the biblical texts mentioning the natural world should be read in a literal manner and were instructional about nature itself. Some of these interpreters bequeathed to Christianity the idea that the world is flat, or more accurately, is box-shaped, on the model of the tabernacle. When this kind of literal reading of Scripture is combined with the belief that the Bible is the ground of truth, scientific investigation stalls, and polemical rhetoric blossoms, and it is no surprise that modern science does not emerge from this paradigm.
The 4th century Cappadocian Basil the Great of Caesarea exemplifies a slightly less polemical and apologetic approach, being content to go no further than the biblical writers go, by encouraging his readers to consider the theological and practical implications of biblical texts about nature:
As to the form of them [the heavens] we also content ourselves with the language of the same prophet, when praising God ‘that stretches out the heavens as a curtain and spreads them out as a tent to dwell in.’
Nevertheless, Basil enjoys explaining and defending the scientific accuracy of the biblical texts against prevailing views, such as when he considers how the firmament upholds the waters above the earth (Hexameron 3:4), falling again, in a different way, into conflict with the science of his time.
- The reason for that happening since the 18th century is out of the scope of this paper and will be discussed in a paper we are preparing for publication: P. de Felipe and R. D. Keay. ‘The flat earth “flat error” and the origins of the science and faith conflict ideology’. [back to body text]
- For a detailed description of this topic, see P. de Felipe. ‘The antipodeans and science and faith relations: the rise, fall and vindication of Augustine’. In: K. Pollmann and M. J. Gill (eds.). Augustine beyond the Book: Intermediality, Transmediality, and Reception. Leiden: Brill, 2012, pages 281-311. [back to body text]
- Origen, Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies, translated by R. P. Lawson. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1957, page 220. [back to body text]
- The book was published in 2001 by Cambridge University Press. A short version of Harrison’s argument is available in ‘The Bible and the Emergence of Modern Science’. Science and Christian Belief 18 (2006):115-132. [back to body text]
- Hexameron 1:8. Transation by B. Jackson in P. Schaff (editor). Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers 2.8. Hereafter NPNF. [back to body text]
- Efthymios Nicolaidis writes, “From their publication, Basil’s homilies on the Hexaemeron aroused a storm among pagan philosophers, at the time still numerous and powerful. These philosophers found Basil’s theses unfounded because they were in flagrant contradiction to science.” Science and Eastern Orthodoxy. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press (2011), page 7. [back to body text]