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Last week I sat in on an oral Ph.D. dissertation defense that focused on a Bible commentator from the 17th century. Among the propositions the student listed as topics he’d uncovered along the way was a curious item that caught my eye; namely, that in the 17th century people who were equally serious about Scripture used the Bible to defend both geocentrism (the old idea that the earth is the center of the universe and that the sun–and all else–revolves around the earth) and heliocentrism (the current idea that the sun is our solar system’s gravitational center and that the earth orbits the sun along with the other planets in our solar neighborhood).
As someone who teaches an elective course on theology and science and who has long been interested in the intersections of these fields, that particular proposition leaped out at me. I talked to the student about it briefly and when I have some time, I hope to do a bit more research as to how this went historically. But the 17th century was a time of considerable ferment on such subjects as the burgeoning field of astronomy (pace Galileo) and developments in the theory of gravity set the world on course for further discoveries. Today there are definitely still some flat earth proponents out there but if you meet them, it’s best to walk away quietly and not make any sudden movements.
Mostly we now believe what first telescopes and then satellites and then spaceships to the moon have confirmed: the earth is round, not flat; objects orbit deep centers of gravity in elliptical patterns; the sun is the local center of gravity and has snagged about nine planets and their moons into its gravity well. Everything in space is moving and spinning around some or another center of gravity. Like many people, I have known the broad outlines of all that since I was 5 years old in 1969 and watched Neil Armstrong hopping around on the moon with a very round globe of the earth visible in the background.
But when you think about it, it is clear that it would not be the least bit difficult to build a biblical case–if you looked at Bible passages only–for the idea that the earth is the center of all things, that it’s flat, and that the sun moves around earth and not the other way around. There is virtually no missing the ancient cosmology depicted in early Genesis: the earth was flat such that you could speak of waters “above the earth” as well as the waters “under the earth.” The “firmament” was like a giant shield over the earth (think of a snow globe) and this shield held back the waters above and served somehow as the home of the stars. The sun moved over the firmament (see Psalm 19), ducked back underneath the earth and then scooted back into position before making the transit around the earth once again the next day. God could stop the sun (cf. Joshua 10) if need be and then set the sun back into motion again.
Probably every biblical writer in both Testaments believed some version of this cosmological map. Such background beliefs on the universe’s structure come out here and there in the Bible. And so it is no surprise that most Christians believed this to be God’s own truth, including leading Reformation figures in the 16th century. As Philip Schaaf noted in his book History of the Christian Church: Volume VIII, “[John Calvin] believed that ‘the whole heaven moves around the earth,’ and declared it preposterous to set the conjecture of a man against the authority of God, who in the first chapter of Genesis had pointed out the relation of the sun and moon to the earth. Luther speaks with contempt of that upstart astronomer who wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy and the sacred Scripture, which tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth. Melanchthon condemned the system in his treatise on the ‘Elements of Physics,’ published six years after the death of Copernicus, and cited against it the witness of the eyes, which inform us that the heavens revolve in the space of twenty-four hours; and passages from the Psalms and Ecclesiastes, which assert that the earth stands fast and that the sun moves around it. He suggests severe measures to restrain such impious teaching as that of Copernicus [who taught heliocentrism].” (This quote is available on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library website here.)
We now know that these theological and biblical luminaries were wrong: wrong about the structure of the universe but also wrong that God’s Word authoritatively teaches something else. Scripture has not fallen into disrepute on account of this. The doctrine of biblical infallibility is as strong as ever. All that happened–and it has happened on many fronts throughout church history–is that evidence from other fields (in this case, from the world of science as it explores the General Revelation of God) helped us to read the Bible differently and better. We discerned what the Bible is actually teaching from background beliefs of biblical authors that are not part of the infallible instruction of God’s Spirit. We have distinguished what is poetry from what is prose, what is picture book language from literal description, what a given author thought as opposed to what he taught.
Today as arguments continue to swirl on issues related to the age of the earth and as some in the wider Christian community work very hard to discredit any scientific teachings that contradict the clear authority of God’s Word, we need to relax a bit and let things play out over time and by the Holy Spirit’s guidance (who, as Jesus said in John 16, would continue to lead us into all truth). We should also be cautious when making accusations that some are letting science take control in ways that mean the centrality of Scripture is getting diminished if not dismissed. Letting science (and other fields of discovery) help us read the Bible better and more accurately has been going on from the beginning. It is a conversation, not a competition.
If John Calvin were alive today and could learn what we now know about what the solar system looks like once you get out there to look at it, he would admit his errors on these subjects. But guess what: once he did that, he would remain every bit as firm on the infallibility of God’s Word as he was 475 years ago and as I and the people I work and teach with are today.