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Science and Faith issues in Ancient and Medieval Christianity, Part 2

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December 3, 2013 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now, Evolution & Christian Faith project
Science and Faith issues in Ancient and Medieval Christianity, Part 2

Today's entry was written by Pablo de Felipe and Robert D. Keay. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

The flat earth in Ancient Christianity

The School of Antioch arose as a reaction to perceived excesses in the allegorical interpretation of Scripture as practiced by the School of Alexandria. Eustathius, the 4th century bishop and patriarch of Antioch, wrote the radical and groundbreaking early treatise On the Witch of Endor and Against Allegory highlighting inconsistency in Origen’s allegorical interpretations and emphasizing the importance of contextual readings for maintaining consistency and faithfulness in interpretation. Antiochene scholars argued that a text could not say more than could be connected to its literal and historical context. The leading teachers included Diodore of Tarsus and two of his students: the exegete and commentator Theodore of Mopsuestia and the great expository preacher John Chrysostom. The School of Antioch is known more for its influence on the development of Nestorianism, a Christology that advocates two natures in Christ, a divine and a human. But its influence is seen in its development of biblical reflections on the natural world. Chrysostom displays such a literal reading in his discussion of the earth being carried on waters:

Whence does this appear, that the earth is borne upon the waters? The prophet declares this when he says: ‘He founded it upon the seas and prepared it on the floods’, and again, ‘To him who founded the earth upon the waters’ What do you say?[1]

This hermeneutic, when pressed consistently, leads to a cosmology that includes a flat earth. The Homilies on Creation and Fall (circa 400 A.D.[2]) by Severian of Gabala, a Syrian bishop who moved to Constantinople in the early 5th century and became closely associated with John Chrysostom (to the extent that his writings were transmitted under the name of Chrysostom for many centuries), exemplify a group of Antiochian interpreters who read the biblical text as teaching that God created heaven and earth in the shape of the tabernacle and who therefore were compelled to reject and attack belief in a spherical cosmos. For example, Severian writes against those who believe in a spherical world:

He did not create heaven as a sphere, as the idle talkers claim; he did not make it as a sphere moving on its axle. Rather, as the prophet asks, what course does the sun follow? ‘He arches the heaven like a curved roof and extends it like a tent’ [Isaiah 40:22]. None of us is so impious as to be convinced by the idle talkers. The biblical authors say that the heaven has a beginning and an end; hence the sun does not climb—it travels. Scripture says, ‘The sun had emerged upon the earth when Lot entered Zoar’ [Genesis 19:23]; so it is obvious that the sun emerged, as Scripture says, and did not climb. And again, ‘from the furthest point of heaven was its emergence’ [Psalm 19:6], not its ascent: if it were a sphere, it would not have a furthest point; what is the furthest point of something completely circular? Surely it is not only David who says this, therefore, or even the Savior? Listen to his words [Matthew 24:31]: ‘When the Son of man comes in his glory, he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from one end of heaven to the next.’[3]

Going even further, Cosmas Indicopleustes (whose true name was Constantine of Antiochia[4]) exemplifies in the 6th century the fiercely polemical and apologetic approach against the Hellenistic ‘pagan’ science that was mainly associated with Alexandria. Cosmas extracted as much science as possible from these very same verses to defend a box-like ‘biblical’ cosmology with a flat-earth at the bottom in his Christian Topography.

This is the first heaven, shaped like a vaulted chamber, which was created on the first day along with the earth, and of it Isaiah speaks thus: He that hath established the heaven as a vaulted chamber. But the heaven, which is bound to the first at the middle, is that which was created on the second day, to which Isaiah refers when he says: And having stretched it out as a tent to dwell in. David also says concerning it: Stretching out the heaven as a curtain, and indicating it still more clearly he says: Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters. Now, when Scripture speaks of the extremities of heaven and earth, this cannot be understood as applicable to a sphere. […].[5]

[…] we have exhibited the Christian theories concerning the figure and position of the whole world from divine scripture; […].[6]

Cosmas found support in Eccl. 1:6 for his view that the sun circles a huge mountain in the north, thereby producing the night when it is behind it:

[…] according to the wise Solomon, […] The sun ariseth and goeth towards the south and moveth round to the north; the wind whirleth about continually and returneth again according to its circuits.[7]

Cosmas directed vitriolic attacks against Christians who accepted the Hellenistic science and, particularly, the sphericity of the earth, which he considered the major mistake of that scientific worldview.

[…] some supposed to be Christians, holding divine scripture of no account but despising and looking down upon it, assume like the Pagan philosophers, that the form of the heavens is spherical, being led into this error by the solar and lunar eclipses.[8]

Were one to call such men double-faced he would not be wrong, for, look you, they wish both to be with us and with those that are against us, thus making void their renunciation of Satan whom they renounced in baptism, and again running back to him.[9]

[…] those miserable men admit the spherical form of the heaven to be true, disbelieving, yea, rather execrating, the whole of divine scripture […].[10]

Interestingly, these attacks were rejected in his own time by Philoponus of Alexandria, the 6th century Christian philosopher and scientist who represented all that Cosmas hated. Philoponus never mentioned Cosmas directly; instead he criticized the top representatives of the Antiochian school (particularly Theodore by name and, indirectly, the ideas from Severian that Cosmas quoted). Philoponus denied that the Bible was a book of science, being instead a path to reach the knowledge of God. He considered himself a follower of Basil on the theological side of the debate, and a defender of the Ancient Hellenistic science on the scientific issue of the shape of the earth and other astronomical knowledge (stating clearly his rejection to astrology). This was a difficult position to hold, and at times he fell into the complexities and inconsistencies of science-Bible concordism, like Basil, as he tried to fit Genesis 1 with Hellenistic science to avoid the conflict. However, he was admirable in his commitment to defend both Christianity and science in his commentary on Genesis, and rebuttal of Cosmas, De Opificio Mundi. Philoponus devoted the third book of this seven book treatise to attack the Nestorian Antiochian school, using Hellenistic science as well as sophisticated biblical hermeneutics, frequently influenced by Basil, to respond to their many arguments, not being afraid to counter-attack with strong language.

If certain people, owing to the uneducated state of their soul, cannot attain to what has been said and are troubled about the way the facts are put together, silence will help them to cover up their own ignorance. And let them not tell lies about God’s creation out of their own lack of experience and the slowness of their mind, fearing the retributions for a lie. […]. What punishment do they deserve who lie about such works of God? Let them hear it from him: “My name is blasphemed by you everywhere among the nations.”

For those who grasp investigations of matters of the heavens with accuracy and witness in their words that they possess perception both about the other things I have already said and about eclipses of the sun and moon, […].[11]

[…]. Thereby it is again patently demonstrated that as much of the heaven as is above the earth, so much again of it is below the earth, being one single sphere complete out of two hemispheres. […].[12]

Some people’s saying that it [the sun] is carried by the north winds to return to the east, being hidden by very high mountains, was an ancient and foolish notion held by some which deserves the laughter befitting it, […].[13]

Interestingly, and contrary to the impression commonly left after the rediscovery of Cosmas in the early 18th century, his work was not the beginning or even the pinnacle of flat-earth cosmological influence among Christians. It was rather the opposite; this most elaborate defense of the flat earth seems to have brought the discussion to its end. As far as we can track in the extant Christian texts of late Antiquity and the early Medieval period, there seem to be no followers of Cosmas.

The two known direct references to Cosmas in Eastern Christianity were critical (Shirakatsi, 7th century, Armenian scientist) and very negative and even sarcastic (Photius, 9th century, Patriarch of Constantinople: “he [Cosmas] may fairly be regarded as a fabulist rather than a trustworthy authority.”[14]) Additional criticisms were directed at the flat earth beliefs of Diodore of Tarsus. Consideration of other contemporary authors addressing topics of cosmology suggest Cosmas carried no weight since these writers ignore him and show no interest in his ideas. Instead there is a continuation of the Ancient Hellenistic cosmologies.

Likewise, the situation in Western Christianity was not favorable to Cosmas’ views. We know from Augustine (4th-5th centuries, Bishop of Hippo) that debates on the shape of the earth existed at the time, and in the early 4th century, the Christian writer Lactantius attacked with vigor the sphericity of the earth in connection with his aggressive denial of the antipodeans (see below).

Augustine himself was never very clear on the topic and, indeed, there has been a discussion up to our present time on whether Augustine himself was a flat-earther, sphericist, unsure, or just did not want to commit himself. In any case, it is very clear that he was not a defender of the flat earth in the way Cosmas or even Lactantius (whose work Augustine knew and used in other contexts) were. In general, we can say that Augustine followed a line of thinking going back to Ambrose in the West and Basil in the East that highlighted the irrelevance of the cosmological speculations for the spiritual life of a Christian, and therefore was prone to show a non-committal position on these topics. Of course, this position was sometimes a disingenuous position, crafted to avoid the pagan attacks on the Bible as supporting antiquated cosmological ideas. Retreat was a better strategy than fighting on topics where a victory was seen as unsure, a far cry from the naïve and dangerous attacks from Cosmas and Lactantius to Hellenistic science.

Another author of great influence in the West was Isidore (6th-7th centuries, Archbishop of Seville). As with Augustine, there has been an ongoing debate up to our time on whether he was a flat-earther. Although his work contains some ambiguous passages, we cannot find any clear defense of a flat earth cosmology or attacks to the sphericity of the earth. In addition, his disciple, the Visigothic king Sisebutus (6th-7th centuries) composed an astronomical poem where he explained the eclipses in the traditional sphericist fashion. Finally, the English monk Bede (7th-8th centuries) explained very clearly the sphericity of the earth in his scientific work, which became one of the most important influences in the West during the early Medieval period.

  1. Homilies on the Statutes 9:7 W. R. W. Stephens’ translation in Schaff’s NPNF 1.9. [return to body text]
  2. R. E. Carter. ‘The Chronology of Twenty Homilies of Severian of Gabala’. Traditio 55 (2000):1-17. [return to body text]
  3. Translation by R. C. Hill in Commentaries on Genesis 1-3. Severian of Gabala and Bede the Venerable. Ancient Christian Texts. Series edited by T. C. Oden and G. L. Bray. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2010. Text from Homily Three, page 44. [return to body text]
  4. W. Wolska-Conus. ‘Stéphanos d’Athènes et Stéphanos d’Alexandrie. Essai d’identification et de biographie’. Revue des etudes Byzantines 47 (1989):5-89. [return to body text]
  5. Cosmas Indicopleustes. The Christian Topography IV. Tr. J.W. McCrindle. London: Hakluyt Society, 1897, page 130. [return to body text]
  6. Idem, VII, page 265. [return to body text]
  7. Idem, V, page 152. [return to body text]
  8. Idem, Prologue II, page 4. [return to body text]
  9. Idem, V, page 10. [return to body text]
  10. Idem, III, page 128. [return to body text]
  11. Philoponus. De Opificio Mundi III.8. Tr. L. S. B. MacCoull (unpublished, 1995, kindly provided by the translator), page 106. [return to body text]
  12. Idem, III.9, page 111. [return to body text]
  13. Idem, III.10, page 117. [return to body text]
  14. Bibliotheca 36 [return to body text]


Pablo de Felipe obtained a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Spain). He worked as a Research Fellow at the University of St Andrews (Scotland) before joining the Spanish Medicines Agency. He is in charge of the Centre for Science & Faith, part of SEUT Faculty of Theology (Madrid, Spain).
Robert Keay earned the PhD in New Testament at the University of St Andrews (Scotland), where he also served as a Teaching Fellow in New Testament. He then moved to Northern Ireland where he taught for several years as a Lecturer in New Testament and Hellenistic Greek at Queen's University, Belfast (N. Ireland). He has recently entered the ministry as Pastor of First Baptist Church, Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.

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PNG - #83790

December 3rd 2013

Regarding those polemical quotes of Cosmas, if you replaced the references to a spherical earth with references to evolution, they could have been written by Ken Ham. The attitude is the same.

Jon Garvey - #83792

December 3rd 2013

Just a quick quibble on a passing comment, which might mislead otherwise. The Nestorian error was not to ascribe two natures to Christ, but two separable natures. It was the opposite of the monophysite heresy which suggest Christ’s humanityt was completely lost in the divine.

The mediating orthodox position was that of Chalcedon, which said:

...to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; (ἐν δύο φύσεσιν ἀσυγχύτως, ἀτρέπτως, ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀχωρίστως – in duabus naturis inconfuse, immutabiliter, indivise, inseparabiliter) the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person (prosopon) and one Subsistence (hypostasis), not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God (μονογενῆ Θεόν), the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ;Just a quick quibble on a passing note that might mislead, ie that the Nestorian error was to ascribe two natures to Christ. In fact it’s error was to hold two completely separate natures, the boopsoie of the Monophysite heresy, which said Christ’s humanity was completely lost in the divine.

It’s an important distinction, in that some are saying nowadays that Christ, in effect, was not divine whilst in the flesh, capable of error or even sin, which is closer to Nestorianism than orthodoxy.

Jon Garvey - #83793

December 3rd 2013

Excuse duplication in text - can’t edit.

Jon Garvey - #83794

December 3rd 2013

Regarding Bede - some people may be amused to learn that Bede suggested the pull of the moon as the source of the tides a millennium before Galileo got it spectacularly wrong by claiming the tides were due to drag from the earth’s rotation (ignoring his seagoing friends who knew there were two tides, not one, each day).

GJDS - #83813

December 4th 2013

It is instructive to read and comprehend the writings and debates of the early Church, especially when they debated the earth, heaven and creation. I think that many (if not most) were taught in the current schools of the day, and there they would have assimilated much of the current thinking regarding the earth and what passed for science. My impression is they were more concerned with maintaining their teachings of the Bible, and if they felt the Bible was not contradicted, they probable adopted the particular school of thought they understood. I give the following example to illustrate this point:

St John of Damascus, in his Exposition of the Orthodox faith, Ch 5, states, “Our God Himself, Whom we glorify as Three in One, created the heaven and the earth and all that they contain, and brought all things out of nothing into being: some He made out of no pre-existing basis of matter, such as heaven, earth, air, fire, water: and the rest out of these elements that He had created, such as living creatures, plants, seeds. For these are made up of earth, and water, and air, and fire, at the bidding of the Creator.” 

We note here he assumes the Hellenic notion of the elements, and out of these elements everything else had created ...... obviously we now know these are not the elements, but this is not the point; John wishes to emphasise that God created the heaven and the earth.

His discussion of heaven is also ‘non-scientific’ to us, but again we can see what he is trying to say, “The heaven is the circumference of things created, both visible and invisible....... and also, “But further, God called the firmament also heaven…And its nature, according to the divine Basilius, who is versed in the mysteries of divine Scripture, is delicate as smoke. Others, however, hold that it is watery in nature,........... All, therefore, who hold that the heaven is in the form of a sphere, say that it is equally removed and distant from the earth at all points, whether above, or sideways, or below…...Others have pictured the heaven as a hemisphere. This idea is suggested by these words of David, the singer of God”

He goes on (Ch VI) to discuss various views on heaven, and it is obvious from this (and other writings) that many people speculated on such matters. While these many views were given and some disagreements took place, it is difficult (for me at least) to find any writings (provided they accepted Orthodoxy) that argued theology (e.g. if God is the creator of heaven and earth, or He set things according to His purpose, and so on).

These writings show people formed various views concerning nature (and most was speculation) but maintained the Faith. This I think is how we may harmonise Faith and Reason, and in through reason and our own intellect, be comfortable with the various prevailing scientific theories.

GJDS - #83815

December 4th 2013

I should have made the reference to the above post as “Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”, by St John of Damascus, Book II.

Jon Garvey - #83816

December 4th 2013

Excellent points, GJDS.

I’m not entirely comfortable with this article’s propriety of reading back a modern culture war into an ancient internal theological debate conducted in the polemic manner of those every different times. That’s especially so when both sides held the Scriptures to be inviolable truth, their difference being how they integrated it with their respective Greek educations.

GJDS - #83817

December 4th 2013


I have made my posiiton clear (and perhaps a little too forcefully regarding US culture wars and their re-reading of the core teachings of the Faith. Within that context however, I welcome any effort that allows us to learn more (in a reasonable and scholastic manner) of the history of Christianity. I have held the view that the Christian faith is both the easiest and most difficult one for any of us, since we are admonished to test all things and hold fast to what is true. We are responsible for exercising our reason to arrive at what we can ascertain is true (very difficult but necessary) - yet regarding things of God, it is God who provides that to us (very easy).

Paul Lucas - #83824

December 4th 2013

Jon:  Looking at how early Christians did literal interpretation is helpful now.  I have encountered many creationists who say we must do a literal interpretation of scripture, but try to say that scripture actually says a round earth!  Modern day creationists, of course, have massive amounts of extrabiblical evidence that the earth is round, and do not deny that evidence.  So they accept that the earth is round.  However, here we see what literalists did in the absence of that massive extrabiblical evidence.  Looking only at scripture and applying a literal hermeneutic, they reached the the logical conclusion that the earth is flat. 

What it shows is that we do allow extrabiblical evidence to dictate how Biblical passages are interpreted.  In the face of massive extrabiblical evidence of round earth, even YECs will ignore passages and reinterpret other passages to accomodate a round earth.  Without losing their faith in God.  Yet these same YECs will not allow extrabiblical evidence to reinterpret scripture in terms of the age of the earth or evolution.  Of course, some creationists allow extrabiblical evidence to change interpretation on the age of the earth, but draw the line on evolution.

So yes, Jon, the history is important at showing that extrabiblical evidence from God’s Creation has caused us to change interpretation of scripture in the past and that such extrabiblical evidence eventually trumps a literalist interpretation.  As Christians put it in 1832:

“If sound science appears to contradict the Bible, we may be sure that it is our interpretation of the Bible that is at fault.” Christian Observer, 1832, pg. 437;

Jon Garvey - #83827

December 4th 2013

I wouldn’t disagree with that Paul - all one is really saying is that one takes a text at face value unless there are reasons not to. That’s why, in the Heliocentrism debate, the Catholics were quite right not to change their interpretation of Scripture’s cosmology on the basis of an unproven Copernican theory (especially as it was Kepler, not Galileo, who turned out to be right).

That said, they might have done better with a pre-modern hermeneutic that simply sat light to the material medium in which the spiritual truths were delivered. That indeed is what most of the ancients did, as the writers seem to make clear in their next episode, and as “penman”, a historian of theology who used to post here, has said in response to this article on a thread on his own article on Chrysostom here.

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