When Worlds Collide: Scripture and Cosmology in Historical Perspective

Collision Course

Scientists are generally lauded for their stellar achievements for the cause of humanity. Their work is tedious and painstaking, requiring great intellect and greater patience. They dedicate their lives to thinking outside the box, asking unimaginable questions, and resolve seemingly unresolvable problems. Every now and then they reach a breakthrough, identifying the cause or cure for a disease, locating a distant planet where life could be viable, or finding a more efficient source of energy. In most cases, the general public appreciates their efforts and celebrates new discoveries, excited for the promise these triumphs hold for the qualitative improvement of human life; that is, until science interferes with ideology.

There are many ideological obstructions to the advancement of science. Some obstructions are warranted and necessary. As science moves at breakneck speeds with respect to genetic engineering, for example, there are legitimate ethical concerns regarding not what can be done, but what should be done. Other obstructions would seem to be unwarranted and unnecessary. These roadblocks are generally ideological in nature, operating under the assumption that certain scientific ventures are prompted by ulterior motives. One such ideological obstruction confronting science is Scripture, more specifically, a tradition of biblical interpretation that fails to acknowledge a reality of the world apart from the world that is portrayed in their understanding of the Bible. In other words, we have the collision of two worlds: the world as it is and the world as it was.

Well before Charles Darwin ever set foot on the HMS Beagle, numerous naturalists had already argued that species—including humans—descended from other species. Some naturalists and clerics were not on board with these new findings, noting “that each species had been independently created and remained fixed and unchanged throughout its existence.”[1] Thus, when Darwin first published his On the Origin of Species, he articulated his concern that some would dismiss his theory not on the merits of the evidence, but on the “plan of creation” and the “unity of design.”[2] For Darwin, however, there was “no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone.”[3] Unfortunately, he overestimated the impact his evidence would yield in persuading the naysayers, and underestimated the degree of influence Protestant creation theology had on accepting what seemed to him obvious scientific conclusions. In his second revised edition, Darwin confronted the ideological obstruction head-on, adding that there is “no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone.”[4] In the one hundred fifty-nine years since On the Origin of Species was first released, evolutionary theory has been refined and clarified through studies in anthropology, geology, and genetics. Despite the overwhelming evidence in support of the theory, opposition persists in some theological quarters.

Although the collision between Scripture and science as exemplified in Darwin’s theory of evolution perseveres, a survey of how this collision played out in another area offers some historical perspective on how biblical interpretation has adapted in light of new scientific information. In so doing, perhaps the Church can learn from its own history so as not to repeat history, perhaps gaining insight on how to proceed with future collisions.

Cosmology in the Ancient World

In his best-selling book, A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking recounts a tale—perhaps apocryphal in origin—about a public encounter between an astronomer and a spunky old woman:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You're very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it's turtles all the way down!”[5]

Amusing as this anecdote may be, it illustrates the collision of two worlds: a modern scientific view of cosmology and a primitive view of cosmology.

In the Ancient Near East (ANE), the cultural milieu of the Hebrew Bible, the cosmos was not predicated on turtles, but on a closed system consisting of three distinct domains: heavens, earth, and sea. The Mesopotamian creation-flood epic Atra-hasis opens with Anu (god of heaven), Enlil (god of earth) and Ea (god of the sea) casting lots for possession of the heavens, the earth and the sea.[6] In the Egyptian Memphite Theology:

Hail to you—by all flocks,
Jubilation to you—by all foreign lands,
To the heights of heaven, to the breadth of the earth,
To the depths of the ocean,
The gods bowing to Your Majesty . . . [7]

The Hebrew Bible, likewise, affirms this same cosmic structure. It is used to describe the categories of animals God created in Genesis 1: birds of the heavens, beasts of the earth, and fish of the sea. In the Ten Commandments, Sabbath is modeled after God’s rest on the seventh after having “made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them” (Exod 20:11). In Ezra’s prayer at the Water Gate, he acknowledged God as maker of heaven, earth, and seas (Neh 9:6). The book of Proverbs recalls how the Lord in his wisdom founded the earth, established the heavens, and broke open the deep (Prov 3:19–20).

However, it is not enough simply to say the cosmos was three-tiered. It is also important to understand how the ancients viewed those domains. For them the earth was not a sphere, but  considered a flat disk (Dan 4:10–11) supported by foundational pillars (Job 38:4–6). The realm of the dead, i.e., “the land of no return” (Job 10:21), lay beneath the earth and was situated at the opposite end of the cosmos from the heavens (Amos 9:2). The heavens were divided into the lower and upper heavens by a dome or tent-like structure known as the firmament (Gen 1:6–8). In the lower heavens were the birds and the stars (1 Sam 17:44; Isa 14:12), which revolved around the earth (Josh 10:12–13) and were set in the firmament (Gen 1:14). The upper heavens were reserved for deities and angels (Job 1:6). Surrounding the entire cosmos were the cosmic seas (Gen 7:11; Ps 72:2). The seas above were suspended by the firmament (Gen 1:6–7; 7:11), which had windows through which precipitation fell (2 Kgs 7:2). The seas below were the source for springs, wells, rivers and lakes (Ezek 31:3–5), but were also the source of potential chaos (Isa 27:1), whose powers needed constrained (Hab 3:10; Job 38:8–11). This is not to say that the Bible borrowed from the ancient Near East. Rather, it is better to say that the Bible assumed the trappings of its environment.

Aristotelian Cosmology

Starting in the fifth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Parmenides began to question the structure of the cosmos, not on theological or mathematical grounds per se, but on philosophical grounds. For Parmenides, the cosmos must be spherical because the sphere is the perfect shape, “identical throughout, consisting of like bordering like.”[8] Over the next two centuries Greek philosophers refined the idea of a spherical cosmos, culminating in Aristotle’s geocentric cosmological model consisting of one sphere for each of the heavenly bodies. Aristotle, like those before him, was a philosopher grounded in Platonism, in which perfection lay in the forms, and whereby Earth is but a shadow of the perfect heavens. According to Aristotle’s model the earth was situated at the center of the cosmos, with each of the interconnected heavenly physical spheres revolving around it in a twenty-four hour period. Beyond the outermost sphere resided an Unmoved Mover, a spiritual entity responsible for the movement of the spheres. Aristotle’s cosmology was simple and accounted for nearly every observable astronomical phenomenon. A few centuries later the Greek mathematician Ptolemy, detached from Platonic influences, accounted for the apparent retrograde movement of planets by abandoning the metaphysical requirement of spheres and posited “epicycles,” miniature orbits around the rotating sphere.

Neither Aristotle nor Ptolemy were men of biblical faith. Nonetheless, Aristotelian cosmology was generally accepted by both Jews and Christians. Even when these interpreters did not fully accept every tenet of Aristotelian cosmology, they were compelled to reckon their views with Aristotelian cosmology. The Aristotelian model could not merely be ignored or dismissed due to its pagan origins. Moreover, these interpreters not only conceded many of the Aristotelian concepts, but occasionally appealed to them to support their own exegesis.

Broadly speaking, then, post-Aristotelian interpreters adapted their interpretation of Scripture in light of new understandings of the physical universe, having implications for several areas of biblical interpretation. The foundations of the earth could no longer be thought of in terms of physical columns, but as a metaphor for God’s sustaining power. The greater light and lesser light had to be interpreted in terms of the amount of light the sun and moon emitted, rather than their size. The fact that Genesis 1 speaks of two heavens suddenly became non-problematic, since the Greek philosophers had determined several more than that. A global earth had to be reconciled with the possibility of people living on the other side of it. Whether there were waters above the firmament was discussed in light of a spherical firmament. Wherever the biblical text touched on issues of cosmology, interpreters had to contend with Aristotelian cosmology, which meant that they often had to adjust the way they interpreted Scripture.

Perhaps the most influential element of Aristotelian cosmology did not have to do with how interpreters had to respond, but how the Roman Church embraced its premise to exercise control. According to the Aristotelian model, humans maintained their pride of place as the pinnacle of God’s creation, at the center of God’s creation. Since the Church declared itself as the divinely established institution to govern humanity, the Aristotelian model validated the Church as the center of the cosmos, around which all else revolved.

Copernican Cosmology

In the midst of the Renaissance, which saw a flurry of advances in the arts and science, the brilliant mathematician Nicholas Kopernik was born in the Polish town of Turin. Although the parish was his career, astronomy was his obsession. Frustrated with the complexities of Ptolemy’s epicycles, he wondered if a moving, rather than stationary, earth might better explain planetary observations. Using geometrical theorems, mathematical formulae, and simple surveillance of the heavens, Copernicus (as he would come to be known) determined that the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic system could not stand up to scrutiny, ultimately concluding that “it is more probable that the Earth moves than it is at rest—especially in the case of the daily revolution, as it is the Earth’s very own.”[9] Finally in 1543, Copernicus mustered the courage to publish De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium, where he posited the revolutionary idea that the earth orbits the sun, along with the five planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

Copernicus was well aware of the implications this theory had on interpretations of Church dogma. He even disdainfully anticipated her resistance:

But if perchance there are certain “idle talkers” who take it upon themselves to pronounce judgment, although wholly ignorant of mathematics, and if by shamelessly distorting the sense of some passage in Holy Writ to suit their purpose, they dare to apprehend and to attach my work; they worry me so little that I shall even scorn their judgment as foolhardy.[10]

Little did he know that there would be little opportunity for him to face any potential accusers, as he died within the year. Instead, another astronomer would soon take up the mantle and feel the full force of the Holy See’s ire.

In his late teens, Galileo Galilei enrolled in the University of Pisa to study medicine. It was there that he earned the perpetual reputation as an intellectual who would not accept an argument without evidence. Due to this inquisitive spirit, he would eventually be known as the “father of the scientific method.” For the first half decade on faculty at the University of Padua, Galileo taught Aristotelian cosmology. One day while pondering the tides, Galileo concluded that the Copernican system provided a more logical explanation of the cosmos than the Aristotelian model. His new position was bolstered when the German mathematician-philosopher Kepler sent him a copy of his Mysterium cosmographicum, which provided mathematical verification for the Copernican system.

While Galileo remained relatively quiet about his new-found appreciation for Copernican cosmology, two major events turned him into a vocal supporter of heliocentrism and a vocal critic of geocentrism. First, two supernova appeared between 1572 and 1604, completely undermining the Aristotelian position that the heavens were perfect and immutable. Second, the Dutch eyeglass maker Hans Lippershey invented the telescope, prompting Galileo to invent his own. He soon pointed his instrument to Jupiter and discovered four moons orbiting the planet. He looked at Venus and realized that its moon-like phases indicated that Venus, too, orbited the sun. He saw that the moon was not a perfectly round sphere, but was pocked with craters, and that the sun had spots. It was now incontrovertible that the heavens were not perfect or immutable. The stage was set for yet another collision.

Aristotle’s model stood firm for over two thousand years. Whereas the Aristotelian cosmology was received fairly warmly by biblical interpreters, the Copernican Revolution was met with strong theological resistance, primarily due to the conflation of Aristotelian cosmology with Catholic (and in other instances Protestant) theology and anthropology. The Copernican model was so threatening to the Church’s authority that Galileo was ultimately forced to recant helocentrism and placed under house arrest for his final nine years of life. For Protestants, the main point of contention was its apparent violence against the “plain sense” meaning of the biblical text. If the Bible says the earth does not move (Ps 104:5) and that God caused the sun, not the earth, to stand still (Josh 10:12), then no mathematical equation could overturn it.

When Worlds Collide

There is little dispute today regarding the basic structure of the universe, that it began with a Big Bang (first proposed and championed by a Catholic priest), that it is expanding, that there is dark matter and black holes, and that there are galaxies billions of light-years away. The Bible speaks of none of these things, yet for thousands of years biblical interpreters wrestled with how their understanding of the cosmos fit into their understanding of Scripture. They were, in effect, attempting to cognitively navigate the collision of two worlds.

The nature of science is such that it is always changing. For some skeptics, this fact is reason enough to distrust it. With rare exception, however, a turn in scientific opinion does not result in an overturning of old scientific theories. Copernicus did not get it right that the universe is comprised of seven (and only seven) spheres orbiting a stationary sun. He could not have seen that our solar system is part of a galaxy or that the galaxy itself is moving through the universe. These factors do not negate his model; they are improvements upon his theory. We have not seen a reversal of Copernican cosmology, but a refinement of it.

If we have learned anything from cosmological history it is that eventually interpretations of Scripture are subject to negotiation when confronted with compelling external evidence. The primitive cosmological model was eventually overthrown by the more sophisticated Aristotelian model, and interpreters adapted by employing more sophisticated interpretive strategies. The Aristotelian model was eventually overthrown by the even more sophisticated Copernican model, and interpreters adapted by employing even more sophisticated interpretive strategies. Modern interpreters have learned that they must rely on more than just their sense of what the text means. They must consider the original culture, linguistic facets of the text, the rhetorical purpose of the narrative, the use of idioms and other figures of speech, rhetorical analysis, and an ever-increasing array of hermeneutical tools.

Like science, biblical interpretation is constantly in a state of flux. Each time a new artifact is unearthed from the biblical world, every time a new text surfaces from the Middle East, with every advancement in linguistic studies of Semitic languages, the potential exists that some facet of biblical interpretation may be turned on its head. Despite the possibility of such negative prospects, the Church typically does not shudder from such ventures. Rather, she (hopefully) relishes in the exciting possibility that new insights will be gleaned, and our understanding of Scripture heightened.

The Church typically fears the colliding of Scripture and science. After all, collisions usually bring destruction, wreaking irreparable harm on both parties. Not all collisions are destructive. Some collisions are constructive, resulting in fusion. The Church is at its best when it recognizes that all truth is God’s truth, that creation reveals its Creator, and that the God revealed in Scripture is the same God who reveals science, Scripture and science complement, rather than contradict, each other.

[1] Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), 30.

[2] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (London: John Murray, 1859), 482.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species, 2nd rev. ed (London: John Murray, 1860), 481.

[5] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1996), 2.

[6] For more on Mesopotamian cosmology, in particular, see Wayne Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography, Mesopotamian Civilizations 8 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1998).

[7] COS 1.15.

[8] I. Crystal, “The Scope of Thought in Parmenides,” Classical Quarterly 52 (2002): 216.

[9] Nicolaus Copernicus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, trans. C. G. Wallis, Great Minds Series (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1995), 28 (I.10).

[10] Ibid., 26.

Featured Image: Untitled; Source: Pixabay, CC0.


Kyle Greenwood

Kyle Greenwood is the author of Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible between the Ancient World and Modern Science (IVP Academic, 2015) and the editor of Since the Beginning: Interpreting Genesis 1 and 2 through the Ages (Baker Academic, 2018). He is currently an associated faculty at Denver Seminary.

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