Science and Faith issues in Ancient and Medieval Christianity, Part 3

Bookmark and Share

December 4, 2013 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now, Evolution & Christian Faith project

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 The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Science and Faith issues in Ancient and Medieval Christianity, Part 3

The antipodeans in Medieval Christianity

Of course, flat-earthers like Lactatius or Cosmas rejected the antipodeans, seeing such as impossible/absurd upside down beings that could not inhabit the underneath side of our flat living space. While Cosmas exploited the lack of historical evidence and, again, abused biblical texts, Lactantius considered the antipodeans the consequence of the belief in a symmetrical distribution of people around a spheric earth, which for him was the root of madness: “Thus the rotundity of the earth leads, in addition, to the invention of those suspended antipodes.”[1] However, both shared criticisms based on a vertical top-to-bottom view of gravity, instead of a spherical surface-to-center view:

How is it with those who imagine that there are antipodes opposite to our footsteps? Do they say anything to the purpose? Or is there any one so senseless as to believe that there are men whose footsteps are higher than their heads? or that the things which with us are in a recumbent position, with them hang in an inverted direction? that the crops and trees grow downwards? that the rains, and snow, and hail fall upwards to the earth? […].[2]

However, acceptance of the sphericity of the earth does not automatically imply acceptance of the existence of antipodean landmasses and inhabitants on the other side of the earth. The criticisms from Augustine in City of God (composed in the 420s) became the model for Medieval Christianity, at least in the West. They were based on the absolute lack of reliable historical information on their existence (as later in Cosmas) and a denunciation that antipodeans were the result of a speculation based on imposing a symmetrical view of the planet (with inhabitants all around its surface), as Lactantius had argued (whom Augustine quoted in other contexts, but crucially, not in this discussion). It was clear that there was no realistic basis to defend the existence of landmasses on the antipodes and even less to suppose that they were inhabited by living beings, not to mention by humans. To this extent, the denial of the antipodeans was a very different thing than the denial of the sphericity of the earth. While the latter was a gross mistake that ignored the solid arguments for the sphericity that were gathered by Ancient scientists, the Augustinian criticisms of the antipodes/antipodeans were completely reasonable with the scientific/historic information he had at hand.

In the light of the above discussion, this seems to be a scientific debate with no theological implications. Unfortunately, and differently from the anti-antipodean criticisms of Lactantius, Augustine introduced a final theological argumentation in a few confusing sentences that started with the words: “For there is no falsehood of any kind in Scripture.”[3] The silence of the Bible on the existence of antipodeans was there combined with the defense of the unity of humanity (apparently challenged by the existence of humans in landmasses out of reach on the antipodes). This transformed an apparently innocent and irrelevant scientific topic into a science and faith issue for over a millennium. The debate became of great relevance in medieval cosmology and some quarters of Christianity considered it an obligation of orthodox Christians to reject the idea of the antipodeans as opposed to the authority of the Bible. Therefore, the topic became a question of biblical authority, as with the flat earth before it and the heliocentric view after it at the hands of Cardinal Bellarmine in the 17th century.

However, the rejection of the antipodes/antipodeans was far from being uniform among Medieval Christians. Like Cosmas’s attacks on Christian sphericists, the furious attacks of some Christian authors on other Christians who considered the issue of the antipodes/antipodeans worth discussing, showed that the topic would not go away easily. The speculation on these lands and people was common even in popular medieval literature, as Travels of John Mandeville (c. 1370).

The cosmological debate on the distribution of land and seas over the sphere of the earth intensified in the 15th century in connection with the beginning of the era of geographical discoveries that started with European trips down the Western African coast. The Equator was crossed in 1473 by Portuguese sailors, who became familiar with the Southern hemisphere and its inhabitants, while Spanish sailors explored the Western American Hemisphere and completed the first trip around the Earth in 1522.

Unfortunately, this complex history has often been confused from the 18th century onwards. As we mentioned before, many modern authors supposed that most Ancient and Medieval Christians were anti-scientific flat-earthers, while they were neither. On the other hand, the frequent (but by no means uniform) denial of the antipodes/antipodeans during the Medieval times was neither anti-scientific nor connected with a flat earth belief. Sadly, some modern authors went even further to portray Christians as flat-earthers up to Columbus’s times (as famously depicted in the fictional account by Washington Irving in 1828, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus).[4] This confusion was at times no mistake, but part of a well-orchestrated campaign (that we are currently investigating) to discredit the influence of Christianity on science throughout the Late Ancient and Medieval centuries.[5]

Conclusion: what can we learn from these old science and faith stories?

The Ancient and Medieval debates over cosmology may seem irrelevant and at times bizarre to us now. However, this superficial response fails to recognize that they have much to teach us about the significant role of biblical hermeneutics in these matters, how Christians have approached specific scientific topics deemed to be important in the history of science, and how Christians sought to relate the Bible with these topics. Much more work is needed in the primary sources for understanding the relations between science and faith in the Ancient and Medieval Church, and it is encouraging to see more publications of scholarly works focusing on the Eastern contribution to these questions. We now offer a provisional categorization that reveals four main strands of thinking. But it should be understood that these categories are more theoretical than actual, for authors can be found in more than one category.

First, probably the largest category is made up by those Church Fathers who were uninterested in matters of science. Their concern is basically with religious ideas. This is not to suggest they had a negative attitude to science, but simply that it was not their topic and they did not discuss it.

Second, there are Fathers who had some knowledge of both the Bible and Hellenistic scientific views but saw little or no conflict between the two. We might find three subcategories here. Those whose specific biblical hermeneutic (i.e., Alexandrian-allegorical) taught them to read the Bible as teaching theological or spiritual ideas through mention of the natural world, such as Origen; those whose general view of the Bible (Alexandrians, Antiochians, or neither) was that it was intended to be read for religious, not scientific, knowledge, such as Augustine (and later Calvin) who viewed revelation as accommodated communication for human comprehension; and those who were able to harmonize the biblical statements about nature with Hellenistic scientific views (concordism). These categories are not necessarily exclusive, and we find that several authors converge in this category and display concordist tendencies.

Third, there are those who had some knowledge of both the Bible and Hellenistic scientific views and saw conflict between the two. Here we find that most of these writers encounter conflict because of their specific biblical hermeneutic, a literal hermeneutic influenced by the Antiochian School. Some of these, such as Basil, offer an apologetic of the biblical texts, but do so in a restrained manner; others, such as Cosmas, take a more polemical stance and seek to discredit Hellenistic views while building a robust biblical cosmology, including such views as a box-shaped cosmos.

Finally, a fourth category includes a small number of Christians who had a very good knowledge of scientific and philosophical matters and were able to enter into a rigorous discussion of both the Bible and science. Philoponus stands out as an example here; another is probably Photius. These were able to show that Christian theology does relate to scientific matters, not in a literalistic manner of reading biblical texts for specific information about the natural world, but rather in a manner that recognizes that our understanding of God impacts our stance toward the natural world. It is from this particular view that modern science can develop, for it reflects positively on the correspondence between humanity, made in the image of God, and the created order, made by a rational intelligence, and more specifically on the trustworthiness of the human senses to gain knowledge of the physical world.

These theoretical categories, along with their exemplars, can provide models and lessons for understanding the later debates surrounding the movement of the earth, the age of the earth, the origin and diversity of species through Darwinian evolution, and the ‘Big Bang’ theory. To focus on first millennium discussions might help diffuse some of the heat and emotion surrounding the contemporary debates and also clarify the proper role of the Bible in such discussions, while also revealing strengths and exposing weaknesses of particular approaches to scientific questions. Throughout our discussion, we would do well to follow the advice of Philoponus:

. . .  let the truer position prevail: let nothing come before the truth.[6]

. . . someone honoring what is true, wherever it may be found, honors Christ, the Truth.[7]

  1. Lactantius. The Divine Institutes 3.24. In: P. Schaff (editor). The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 7, Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries. Edinburgh: T&T Clark and Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1886. [return to body text]
  2. Idem. [return to body text]
  3. Augustine, City of God 16.9. ed. R. W. Dyson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998; repr. 2001, page 710. [return to body text]
  4. See J. B. Russell. Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1991. [return to body text]
  5. See ref. 1. [return to body text]
  6. Philoponus. Op. cit., III.17, page 132. [return to body text]
  7. Idem, III.13, page 126. [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.

< Previous post in series

Share your thoughts

Have a comment or question for the author? We'd love to hear from you.

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 1 of 1   1
Scott Jorgenson - #83834

December 4th 2013

This series has been a fascinating survey of early Christian thinking on these matters, and its illuminating to see so many of the same patterns repeated today.  Thanks.

PNG - #83864

December 6th 2013

Ditto for Scott’s comment. I have suspected that there was an ancient tale to be told of the different responses among early Christians to Greek natural philosophy. The Wikipedia article on “flat earth” first suggested it to me. Glad to see that it’s being looked into seriously.

On the Medieval question of the antipodeans, it’s not surprising that Europeans, who presumably knew there was a vast desert beyond the coastal regions of north Africa, would have thought that the southern hemisphere was forever blocked off by an uninhabitable region.

Nick Gotts - #83950

December 16th 2013

An iteresting series of posts. But it leaves unanswered - and indeed, unasked - a key question: why was there effectively no scientific advance within Christendom from the time of Constantine until, perhaps, the 13th century? Contrast this with the considerable advances in the Muslim world, where Hellenistic science was translated, commented on and built on, at least up to the 11th century - a process that fed into the rise of pre-modern science in western Europe via Sicily and Spain, particularly after the Christian capture of Toledo in 1085 and the subsequent translation of Arabic manuscripts, including those first translated from Greek into Arabic.

Page 1 of 1   1