The last two decades have seen enough books written on the connection between the Bible and ancient cosmology to spread from one corner of the earth to the other. Books like The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton have made a tremendous impact on the origins discussion by showing Christians that Genesis reflects an ancient way of looking at the world, and thus isn’t meant to answer modern scientific questions with precision. Kyle Greenwood’s book Scripture and Cosmology, which I’ve been reviewing in this series, contains a similar argument.
The middle section of Greenwood’s book sets it apart from many of the others. After convincingly demonstrating that the Bible’s references to the physical world fit neatly inside an ancient cosmology (read my last post for more on that), Greenwood moves on to an equally important topic: how Christians throughout Church history have wrestled with conflicts between Scripture and the advance of science.
Among some Christians and many atheists, there’s a tendency to portray Christian history as 1700 years of simple piety suddenly interrupted by a modern wave of scientific progress. This plays into both agendas; conservative Christians use this historical narrative to portray modern science as the recent barbarian at the gates of biblical authority, and atheists are more than happy for science to play that part. And while there’s some truth to this narrative—the blistering pace of scientific discovery in the last three centuries has indeed forced Christians to reexamine many traditional beliefs about origins—what’s often overlooked is that Christians have been living in the midst of scientific revolutions as long as the word “Christian” has existed. Reading the Bible between the ancient world of Scripture and modern science (to paraphrase Greenwood’s subtitle) is not a new discipline.
Greenwood focuses on two scientific “revolutions” that fundamentally changed the way people thought about the cosmos, and challenged certain interpretations of Scripture: those of Aristotle and Copernicus. Before we dive into these, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of how ancient people pictured the world in Old Testament times. Here’s the figure I used in the previous column:
Ancient cosmology has a couple of key features:
- The earth is flat, and thus has edges.
- The earth is surrounded by a solid dome of some sort, on which the stars are fixed.
- Heaven and Hell are located in physical proximity to earth; Heaven is up, and Hell/Underworld is down.
- The earth is the center of the universe, and is stationary.
Centuries before Christ, the ancient Greeks were some of the first to challenge this way of looking at the universe. Interestingly, this revolution started not with observation and measurements but with logical deduction made by philosophers. The Greek philosopher Parmenides (circa 5th century B.C.) postulated that the earth was a sphere, on the basis that spheres and circles were “perfect” shapes. Aristotle, one of the most important philosophers of the ancient world (if not all time), codified this cosmology in his works, with the earth at the center of the universe and the planets orbiting in perfectly circular rings around us:
In the centuries before and after Christ, this radical cosmological revision was verified by a variety of mathematical measurements and scientific observations. However—as is usually the case—this revolution took a very long time to percolate down to the level of popular understanding. The New Testament, written centuries after Aristotle, still clearly reflects the flat-earth cosmology of the Old Testament.
But as Christianity spread through the Roman Empire and Christian theology emerged as an intellectual discipline, more and more Christian thinkers began to read Scripture with Aristotle in mind. However, not every theologian and biblical interpreter acquiesced to the new cosmology. St. Augustine, writing in the 4th century A.D., had his doubts about whether the earth was really a sphere:
For Augustine [the spherical shape of the Earth] was “scientific conjecture” rather than a proven fact. It conformed neither to common sense nor with Scripture, which teaches that the Earth is flat. However, he is willing to concede a spherical earth if it can be proven. Since Scriptures “confirm the truth,” if it is proven that the earth is round, and that there are, in fact, antipodes [the opposite side of the earth], then Augustine was more willing to accept the scientific position against his own sensible and biblically based position.
Augustine is not alone in his openness to revising interpretations of Scripture (and his own “common sense”) if science and reason can convincingly demonstrate that he is wrong. As Greenwood puts it, “The most notable trait we see among the Aristotelian-era interpreters is the willingness to adapt their interpretation of Scripture in light of new understanding of the physical universe…Wherever Scripture touched on issues of cosmology, interpreters had to contend with the Aristotelian cosmos.”
A good example of how Aristotle challenged biblical cosmology is in reference to the “firmament” found first in Genesis 1:6, described as a barrier separating the “waters above” (ocean of heaven in the top diagram) from the “waters below” (primeval ocean). Ancient interpreters through the time of Luther and Calvin almost universally affirmed the firmament as a solid dome of some kind, following the plain sense of the passages about it. But if the earth is a sphere, it becomes very challenging to conceptualize a spherical barrier around the earth covered with water, especially if you imagine it (as Genesis indicates) as above the stars and planets. That would require the waters of the Flood to have traveled through the solar system to reach earth.
Interpreters put forth various ingenious solutions to this problem, but many, like Martin Luther, threw up their hands and proclsaimed it a mystery: “Here I, therefore, take my reason captive and subscribe to the Word even though I do not understand it.” Note carefully what he is saying and not saying. Yes, Luther is holding to scriptural descriptions of cosmology even when they conflict with Aristotelian ideas. But he is not rejecting the validity of a conversation between science and Scripture. He is simply expressing reluctance to allegorize the Scriptures when they conflict with science, even as he admits that science and reason have put forth a legitimate challenge to certain interpretations of Scripture.
These same principles are still present in the time of Copernicus, who introduced the second major cosmological revolution that Greenwood covers. Copernican cosmology made only one major revision to the Aristotelian system: that the earth revolves around the sun (also called “heliocentrism”). In fact, the diagram of Copernican cosmology looks pretty similar to the previous one:
But this small change upended the picture of the cosmos just as much as Aristotle’s revolution. For starters, earth was no longer the geographic center of the universe. Secondly, the earth moved, in contradiction to common experience (we don’t feel the earth moving) and scriptural passages describing the fixed position and foundations of the earth. Famous Christian theologians and interpreters of the time were almost universally skeptical of the theories of Copernicus and Galileo. Cardinal Bellarmine, who in 1616 tried Galileo for heresy for promoting the ideas of Copernicus, thought heliocentrism to be “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts the sense of Holy Scripture in many places, according to the literal meaning of the words…” In a letter to a supporter of Galileo, he is equally scathing in his condemnation of heliocentrism:
…If Your Paternity wants to read not only the Holy Fathers, but also the modern commentaries on Genesis, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Joshua, you will find all agreeing in the literal interpretation that the sun is in heaven and turns around the earth with great speed, and that the earth is very far from heaven and sits motionless at the center of the world.
Luther and Calvin both clearly rejected the ideas of Copernicus, although neither ever referenced him directly (they both died well before Galileo’s time). As Luther says, “There was mention of a certain astrologer who wanted to prove the earth moves [probably referencing Copernicus]…even in those things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth [Josh 10:12].” Calvin is even harsher: “We will see some who are so deranged, not only in religion but who in all things reveal their monstrous nature, that they will say that the sun does not move, and that it is the earth which shifts and turns.”
These quotes are frequently marched out by atheists trying to portray Christian history as a showdown between science and faith. This is a gross oversimplification of the situation. The ideas of Copernicus and Galileo were treated with skepticism not just because they challenged biblical interpretations, but because people did not yet understand how they fit observational evidence better than the Aristotelian system. Here’s a later part of the same letter by Bellarmine I referenced earlier:
I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me.
Luther and Calvin are similarly open to re-interpreting Scripture if their views can be shown by science to be demonstrably false. Calvin, in particular, was vocally pro-science, even to the point of accusing Christians of “sloth” if they didn’t take science seriously—regardless of whether it was done by “pagans”. Here, I’ll quote Greenwood at length:
Like Luther, Calvin believed science complemented Scripture. The Bible was to be trusted on all matters, including science, but both men consistently reminded their readers that they were not the original audience of the biblical text…with the assistance of the doctrine of divine accommodation, Calvin was able to reconcile Scripture with science in areas that may have otherwise seemed irreconcilable…[Calvin] demonstrates on a number of occasions his willingness to concede matters of science to those who are trained in such matters.
Thus, quoting these Christians as evidence of their “backwardness” is entirely missing the point. Christians in each era of scientific progress have had to grapple with conflicts between what they thought about the world and what new discoveries were revealing. Given that this is a dynamic history, of course they disagree about how exactly to put the pieces together. What’s important is that nearly every important Christian theologian and interpreter since Christ has believed, to some degree, that it is legitimate to reinterpret the Scriptures in light of clearly established science that challenges our picture of the cosmos. This does not mean that these Christian leaders thought science should overturn Scripture at every opportunity. But they all accepted the validity of a conversation between Scripture and science.
This brings us to the origins debate among Christians today. Greenwood’s depiction of Christian history clearly has today’s conflicts over Scripture and modern science in mind. In particular, he makes frequent references to the common dichotomy of “God’s word vs. secular science”, repeated endlessly by young-earth creationist organizations and leaders. The young-earth movement has convinced millions of Christians that science can only confirm what the Bible says, but never challenge it.
The problem, of course, is that science has been successfully challenging interpretations of Scripture almost as long as Scripture itself has been around. Young-earth creationists, in particular, have to explain how they can insist so strongly on the authority of a plain, literal interpretation of Scripture, when so many well-meaning Christians have used the same Scriptures to argue for cosmologies that everybody now knows are incorrect.
This approach also assumes that there is a way to read the Scriptures without consciously taking into account any of the scientific revolutions since Genesis was written, along with their implications. Putting it bluntly, this is completely impossible. To demonstrate this point, I’ve made a chart of all the major changes to the “biblical” picture of the cosmos spurred by scientific discovery, and marked which ones are accepted or rejected by today’s Christian perspectives on origins. (For reference, YEC is young-earth creationism, OEC is old-earth creationism, and EC is evolutionary creationism, the position of BioLogos.)
As I hope is plain to see, every perspective has accommodated science to some extent, whether they admit it or not. So why not admit that this is happening? Why needlessly pretend that science has nothing to add to our fundamental understanding of reality, and our interpretation of Scripture? Such a position is not only at odds with logic, but also the witness of Christian history.
I want to close with a note to those who may feel their faith challenged by articles like these. There have been many people who have used these historical points of conflict between Scripture and science as a weapon against belief in the authority of the Bible, and thus the validity of the whole Christian faith. If we need to keep re-interpreting the Bible based on new scientific advances, then why pay it any attention at all? Isn’t that evidence that the Bible is nothing more than an ancient relic?
This argument seems compelling, but as Greenwood points out, there’s another way to look at the historical record. If the authority of Scripture—and the validity of Christian faith—really does rest so entirely on the Bible’s ability to describe cosmology with exacting precision (as many Christians today seem to believe), then Christianity would have probably ended a long time ago. But yet here we are, two millennia and at least four scientific revolutions later, still living out the faith described in the Bible. In fact, Christians have been at the forefront of a great deal of scientific progress. Greenwood explains:
As Christians of great curiosity continued their investigation into the world God created, the new science not only became more and more acceptable but also came to be understood as a fuller revelation of God’s magnificent creation.
Christianity has survived and even flourished in the midst of scientific revolution because of its steadfast faith that the God who created the universe is the same God we find in the Scriptures. Even as we struggle to understand the connections and even conflicts between world and Word, we believe that both originate from the same source, and therefore we pursue truth boldly, with the expectation that the search will deepen our understanding of God and our love for him.