If you have not read part 1 of this series, you will want to read it for the foundation of this conversation.
There are problems with saying, “the Bible clearly says…” about every view and doctrine that we hold.
Modern science as we know it using logical data, research and the scientific method is a relatively new practice, though there were philosophical ideas about the existence of the natural world dating back to thousands of years before Christ.
As ideas of the natural world changed over time, we got to the philosophical ideas of the earth that were in existence during the Old Testament. In the time of the ancient near east (when much of the Old Testament was written), it was believed that we lived in a geocentric (the earth at the center and everything else revolved around the earth) solar system, and the earth was flat with waters below and separated about by a vault (firmament).
Both of these beliefs were held far into the time of the Renaissance because they seemed to make senses, and they were “Biblical”.
Here are a few examples of verses that show the ancient flat earth view:
6 And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so.
11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month—on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.
Here are a few verses that show the geocentric view of the solar system:
5 He set the earth on its foundations;
it can never be moved.
6 You covered it with the watery depths as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
12 “Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
13 So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,
The views of a flat earth and geocentric solar system held on for sixteen hundred years after Jesus.
I want to take a minute and focus on the conflict that existed as views of a geocentric solar system were challenged.
There was a man by the name of Nicolaus Copernicus who began to write about a heliocentric (sun at the center of the solar system) view. Not only was it not commonly accepted, but it was also not accepted by the church, because it was “not biblical”.
Here is what Martin Luther had to say:
“There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must . . . invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.”
Here is what John Calvin said:
“Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?”
The most fascinating situation around the heliocentric view emerging was with Galileo Galilei. Galileo aligned with Nicolaus Copernicus and his heliocentric view. In his 1615 “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina”, Galileo defended heliocentrism, and claimed it was not contrary to Holy Scripture. The way that he began to understand the passages in the Old Testament was by understanding that the writers had a limited understanding of the natural world, but they wrote about bigger truths of God using words and views that were limited to their knowledge at the time.
He applied St. Augustine’s “Doctrine of Accommodation” to understand these texts.
Accommodation (or condescension) is the theological principle that God, while being in His nature unknowable and unreachable, has nevertheless communicated with humanity in a way which humans can understand and respond to. The concept is that scripture has accommodated, or made allowance for, the original audience’s language and general level of understanding. Thus, Divine accommodation means that the infinite God has accommodated various truths about Himself and the world in such a way that they can be comprehended by the finite human mind. – McGrath, Alister. 1998. Historical Theology, An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. p.208-9.
This means that in many of the passages, the writers had a view of a flat earth and a geocentric solar system. Even though they wrote from this perspective, God used this understanding to reach an audience at that time with larger truths about Himself. We can say that though some of the understanding of the natural world isn’t fully accurate, based on the limited understanding of the natural world, that wasn’t the point of the truths that were being communicated. Though these passages were interpreted as if the truth that was trying to be conveyed was about the natural world and the solar system.
Galileo was challenged by the church several times. Here is how History.com explains this:
In 1616, he had been forbidden from holding or defending his beliefs. In the 1633 interrogation, Galileo denied that he “held” belief in the Copernican view but continued to write about the issue and evidence as a means of “discussion” rather than belief. The Church had decided the idea that the Sun moved around the Earth was an absolute fact of scripture that could not be disputed, despite the fact that scientists had known for centuries that the Earth was not the center of the universe.
This time, Galileo’s technical argument didn’t win the day. On June 22, 1633, the Church handed down the following order: “We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo… have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world.”
Notice that they deemed him a heretic for holding a view of truth that was contrary to their understanding of scripture. At this time the Roman Catholic Church had just gone through the Reformation and were buckling down and trying to bring about control of people, truth, and keep ideas in check.
I believe that this is a glimpse of what is happening today. The printing press helped spread ideas quickly that were outside of the Catholic Church’s understanding of doctrine. We live in a time where the internet is like the new printing press. Ideas are available and discussed that are outside of the boundary markers of what might have been able to be controlled by the tradition of denominations in the past.
The word “heretic” is thrown around loosely when there is a biblical disagreement. I hope that we can enter into conversations around differences of interpretation with more kindness and charitably.
This is why I believe more and more in holding to the ancient Creeds (as talked about in my last post). We can stand on key essentials that unite us and have united us for almost two thousand years.
Just like holding onto a geocentric view of the solar system and calling Galileo a “heretic” for not believing that all planets revolve around the earth, we need to be careful not to vilify people for holding onto differing beliefs about creation, atonement, afterlife, the end times, etc. than we do.