According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for
this world to recreate, reclaim, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of
explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. - anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. - anon
... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a
power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table
to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace,
reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants
us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. - anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Biologos, "Science and Faith Issues in Ancient and Medieval Christianity, Parts 1-3"

Science and Faith Issues
in Ancient and Medieval Christianity
Part 1

by Pablo de Felipe and Robert D. Keay
December 2, 2013

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.

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.

Science and Faith Issues in Ancient and Medieval Christianity, Part 1


To be labeled a “flat-earther” is probably one of the most potent insults in our modern scientific era, suggesting that the person being insulted is unaware of, or unable to understand, the more basic scientific facts. This very accusation has, since the 18th century, been hurled at Ancient Christians.[1] But was the invective ever an accurate assessment of what early Christians believed? What did they really think about the shape of the earth or the cosmos? Medieval Christians have also been identified with the denial of antipodeans, sic, "humans living on the opposite side of the earth."[2] Is this accurate? Is this in any way related to a flat-earth belief? This essay aims to clarify these historical issues as well as draw insights for science and faith relations that are still relevant in our present day.

Introduction and background

Science and faith debates did not start with Darwin or Galileo. As Christians, we have a long tradition of wrestling with the relation between our theology and our scientific knowledge. Of course, to portray the history of these relations as one of continuous conflict is neither helpful nor accurate, but neither is it helpful to ignore potentially embarrassing episodes in our history or to portray them as insignificant or unimportant. We need to learn from past conflicts in order to avoid errors in the present and future of Christianity.

Cosmological issues were among the most vigorously debated topics from the early Church to Galileo’s time. In fact, any careful reader of Copernicus, Kepler, or Galileo will discover that they identify these precedents, seek to learn from them, and apply lessons learned to their contemporary heliocentric debate. Unfortunately, many Christians today are not sufficiently aware of these precedents to learn from them, and we are in danger of falling into Santayana’s doom (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”). The aim of this paper is to help us to regain this historical perspective.

The cosmological issue in the 16th-17th centuries was the movement of the earth, in great part, because previous debates had already been settled. This question did not emerge ex nihilo, but was a continuation of a series of earth-related questions. This historical line of debate provides essential context for understanding any individual question, because la longue durée reveals the more fundamental but somewhat hidden hermeneutical foundations of the debates. In ancient times the issue was the shape of the earth. Once settled by affirmation of sphericity, the Medieval discussion moved on to the habitation of the earth; that is, whether it was possible to have inhabited landmasses on both Hemispheres. It was only at the end of the 15th century that this mystery was solved when sailors actually crossed the Equator and found people living on the other side of the earth.

The view of nature from the Bible to the Early Church

Christians have often made two claims about the Bible and/or Christianity and modern scientific achievements. First, it is said that Christianity provided the foundation on which the modern scientific edifice could be built and, second, that God reveals truth through two books: the Bible and the book of nature. But both of these claims must be carefully nuanced in order to avoid historical and biblical inaccuracy.

When asking questions about the relationship between the Bible and science it is important to understand and respect the approach the biblical writers take toward the natural world. It is very easy, especially in our scientifically-minded world, to ask questions of the biblical text that the biblical writers would have little or no interest in answering. We can ask scientific questions, such as, ‘What is the shape of the earth?’ or ‘Does the earth move?’ but the biblical writers may have no interest in those questions, and it is unwise of us to try to force the biblical texts to answer them.

How do the biblical writers approach the natural world, then? It is important to recognize that no one in the ancient world could approach the natural world with the same methods of inquiry as are standard in today’s world. Aristotle comes the closest in his work Physics, but even then his methods of investigation were more philosophical and less investigative and rigorous than today’s methods. But even granting that Aristotle approached the natural world with probative (sic, "designed for testing or trial") and critical questions that yielded helpful knowledge of the physical world does not mean that he was typical or that the biblical writers followed a similar path. In fact, the biblical writers repeatedly turn to the natural world for other reasons - to learn about God, and for practical lessons in living well. They do not investigate the physical world for knowledge of that world itself.

For example, the wisdom writer in Proverbs instructs those who are prone to laziness to consider the ant (Prov 6:6). Indeed, not only ants, but badgers, locusts, and lizards all provide examples to humans in living well (Prov 30:24-28). According to the Psalmist, the ‘book of nature’ speaks, but not of itself; it reveals God: the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps 19:1). Likewise, the Psalmist pictures the natural rhythms and cycles of the physical world as the creation responding to its creator with praise, and this becomes an example to humanity (Ps 96:11-13; 98:4-9). Nature also groans, along with humans, waiting for the day of redemption (Rom 8:18-25). Indeed, nature appears to run in a parallel track with humanity in regard to salvation.

Humanity’s rebellion against God is pictured in the natural world as chaos and curse. The restoration of humanity in the kingdom of God is pictured by the harmony of nature: wolf and lamb, leopard and goat, lion and calf, bear and cow, cobra and infant all live together happily (Isa 11:6-10). The natural world recognizes the birth of its Savior (Mt 2:9), and responds in submission to him (Mt 14:23-33; John 2:1-11; cf. Lk 19:40), while humanity continues to rebel (John 1:11).

The biblical writers use the natural world in much the same way medieval churches used stained-glass windows. Both provide opportunities to tell stories that give guidance and instruction for life. Furthermore, events in the natural world are understood as acts of God, typically as God’s response to human behavior, whether to bless or to curse. Human rebellion brings on the flood (Gen 6:5-7, 11-13, 17; Ps 29:10). The curses for covenant disobedience are initially natural events: famine, plague, disease (Deut 28:15-24). God’s decision to rescue Israel from Egypt is accompanied by several natural phenomena that bring about the fulfillment of God’s plan (Ex 15:3-12). Likewise, the conquest of the land of Canaan is accomplished by God’s hand in directing natural events (Ex 23:28; Josh 10:9-11). And the subsequent blessings of living in the land are natural occurrences (Deut 11:8-17). The natural world is seen as God’s tool for accomplishing his plans and purposes. All of nature is at his disposal (Job 37:2-13; Ps 114:1-8). Therefore, the physical world is under the sovereign control of God and it is best approached as a revelation of him (Ex 19:16-20; Ps 19:1-6; 50:1-6; 97:1-6; Rom 1:18-20; Mt 5:44-45; 6:28-32; 10:29-31) and his ways (Ps 65:9-13; 104:21-30; 147:7-9, 12-18; Jer 10:13).

Origen of Alexandria reflects this biblical approach to nature when he writes in the early 3rd century:
I think that He who made all things in wisdom so created all the species of visible things upon the earth, that He placed in some of them some teaching and knowledge of things invisible and heavenly, whereby the human mind might mount to spiritual understanding and seek the grounds of things in heaven.[3]
Peter Harrison, in an important and fascinating book, The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science[4], has related the Bible and science in a unique manner and has argued that the Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on the Bible as the ground of truth in additin to its hermeneutical shift from allegorical to literal readings of the Bible, motivated an important and fundamental shift in the Christian’s approach to the natural world, from seeing nature as allegorical teaching about God and life to seeing nature itself as something to be studied in a ‘literal’ manner.

However, long prior to the Reformation, some scholars, following the ancient Greek natural philosophers, did consider the natural world in a naturalistic manner (that is, the understanding of nature itself through observation) and at the same time some Christians read the Bible in a literal and historical manner, seeking information about the natural world. These two groups, not surprisingly, clashed, and one can find a rather vituperative polemic for the ‘Christian’ view of the natural world amongst some of these theologians. Indeed, beginning in the 4th century, the Antiochian School of Christian Theologians promoted a more literal and historical biblical hermeneutic. And these literal readings proved to be potentially problematic, especially concerning the development of science, because some of their interpreters argued that the biblical texts mentioning the natural world should be read in a literal manner and were instructional about nature itself. Some of these interpreters bequeathed to Christianity the idea that the world is flat, or more accurately, is box-shaped, on the model of the tabernacle. When this kind of literal reading of Scripture is combined with the belief that the Bible is the ground of truth, scientific investigation stalls, and polemical rhetoric blossoms, and it is no surprise that modern science does not emerge from this paradigm.

The 4th century Cappadocian Basil the Great of Caesarea exemplifies a slightly less polemical and apologetic approach, being content to go no further than the biblical writers go, by encouraging his readers to consider the theological and practical implications of biblical texts about nature:
As to the form of them [the heavens] we also content ourselves with the language of the same prophet, when praising God ‘that stretches out the heavens as a curtain and spreads them out as a tent to dwell in.’[5]
Nevertheless, Basil enjoys explaining and defending the scientific accuracy of the biblical texts against prevailing views, such as when he considers how the firmament upholds the waters above the earth (Hexameron 3:4), falling again, in a different way, into conflict with the science of his time.[6]


  1. The reason for that happening since the 18th century is out of the scope of this paper and will be discussed in a paper we are preparing for publication: P. de Felipe and R. D. Keay. ‘The flat earth “flat error” and the origins of the science and faith conflict ideology’. [back to body text]
  2. For a detailed description of this topic, see P. de Felipe. ‘The antipodeans and science and faith relations: the rise, fall and vindication of Augustine’. In: K. Pollmann and M. J. Gill (eds.). Augustine beyond the Book: Intermediality, Transmediality, and Reception. Leiden: Brill, 2012, pages 281-311. [back to body text]
  3. Origen, Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies, translated by R. P. Lawson. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1957, page 220. [back to body text]
  4. The book was published in 2001 by Cambridge University Press. A short version of Harrison’s argument is available in ‘The Bible and the Emergence of Modern Science’. Science and Christian Belief 18 (2006):115-132. [back to body text]
  5. Hexameron 1:8. Transation by B. Jackson in P. Schaff (editor). Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers 2.8. Hereafter NPNF. [back to body text]
  6. Efthymios Nicolaidis writes, “From their publication, Basil’s homilies on the Hexaemeron aroused a storm among pagan philosophers, at the time still numerous and powerful. These philosophers found Basil’s theses unfounded because they were in flagrant contradiction to science.” Science and Eastern Orthodoxy. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press (2011), page 7. [back to body text]

* * * * * * * * * *

Science and Faith Issues
in Ancient and Medieval Christianity
Part 2

by Pablo de Felipe and Robert D. Keay
December 2, 2013

to help this article's flow and organization I have
subjected it to a small amount of editorial outline
and pagination marked by [...]
- R.E. Slater

[The School of Antioch (pro-Scripture, Context, and Flat-Earth)
The School of Alexandria (pro-Science, Allegory, and Sphericity)]

The flat earth in Ancient Christianity

The School of Antioch arose as a reaction to perceived excesses in the allegorical interpretation of Scripture as practiced by the School of Alexandria. Eustathius, the 4th century bishop and patriarch of Antioch, wrote the radical and groundbreaking early treatise On the Witch of Endor and Against Allegory highlighting inconsistency in Origen’s allegorical interpretations and emphasizing the importance of contextual readings for maintaining consistency and faithfulness in interpretation. Antiochene scholars argued that a text could not say more than could be connected to its literal and historical context. The leading teachers included Diodore of Tarsus and two of his students: the exegete and commentator Theodore of Mopsuestia and the great expository preacher John Chrysostom. The School of Antioch is known more for its influence on the development of Nestorianism, a Christology that advocates two natures in Christ, a divine and a human. But its influence is seen in its development of biblical reflections on the natural world. Chrysostom displays such a literal reading in his discussion of the earth being carried on waters:
Whence does this appear, that the earth is borne upon the waters? The prophet declares this when he says: ‘He founded it upon the seas and prepared it on the floods’, and again, ‘To him who founded the earth upon the waters’ What do you say?[1]
This hermeneutic, when pressed consistently, leads to a cosmology that includes a flat earth. The Homilies on Creation and Fall (circa 400 A.D.[2]) by Severian of Gabala, a Syrian bishop who moved to Constantinople in the early 5th century and became closely associated with John Chrysostom (to the extent that his writings were transmitted under the name of Chrysostom for many centuries), exemplify a group of Antiochian interpreters who read the biblical text as teaching that God created heaven and earth in the shape of the tabernacle and who therefore were compelled to reject and attack belief in a spherical cosmos. For example, Severian writes against those who believe in a spherical world:
He did not create heaven as a sphere, as the idle talkers claim; he did not make it as a sphere moving on its axle. Rather, as the prophet asks, what course does the sun follow? ‘He arches the heaven like a curved roof and extends it like a tent’ [Isaiah 40:22]. None of us is so impious as to be convinced by the idle talkers. The biblical authors say that the heaven has a beginning and an end; hence the sun does not climb—it travels. Scripture says, ‘The sun had emerged upon the earth when Lot entered Zoar’ [Genesis 19:23]; so it is obvious that the sun emerged, as Scripture says, and did not climb. And again, ‘from the furthest point of heaven was its emergence’ [Psalm 19:6], not its ascent: if it were a sphere, it would not have a furthest point; what is the furthest point of something completely circular? Surely it is not only David who says this, therefore, or even the Savior? Listen to his words [Matthew 24:31]: ‘When the Son of man comes in his glory, he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from one end of heaven to the next.’[3]
Going even further, Cosmas Indicopleustes (whose true name was Constantine of Antiochia[4]) exemplifies in the 6th century the fiercely polemical and apologetic approach against the Hellenistic ‘pagan’ science that was mainly associated with Alexandria. Cosmas extracted as much science as possible from these very same verses to defend a box-like ‘biblical’ cosmology with a flat-earth at the bottom in his Christian Topography.
This is the first heaven, shaped like a vaulted chamber, which was created on the first day along with the earth, and of it Isaiah speaks thus: He that hath established the heaven as a vaulted chamber. But the heaven, which is bound to the first at the middle, is that which was created on the second day, to which Isaiah refers when he says: And having stretched it out as a tent to dwell in. David also says concerning it: Stretching out the heaven as a curtain, and indicating it still more clearly he says: Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters. Now, when Scripture speaks of the extremities of heaven and earth, this cannot be understood as applicable to a sphere. […].[5] 
[…] we have exhibited the Christian theories concerning the figure and position of the whole world from divine scripture; […].[6]
Cosmas found support in Eccl. 1:6 for his view that the sun circles a huge mountain in the north, thereby producing the night when it is behind it:
[…] according to the wise Solomon, […] The sun ariseth and goeth towards the south and moveth round to the north; the wind whirleth about continually and returneth again according to its circuits.[7]
Cosmas directed vitriolic attacks against Christians who accepted the Hellenistic science and, particularly, the sphericity of the earth, which he considered the major mistake of that scientific worldview.
[…] some supposed to be Christians, holding divine scripture of no account but despising and looking down upon it, assume like the Pagan philosophers, that the form of the heavens is spherical, being led into this error by the solar and lunar eclipses.[8] 
Were one to call such men double-faced he would not be wrong, for, look you, they wish both to be with us and with those that are against us, thus making void their renunciation of Satan whom they renounced in baptism, and again running back to him.[9] 
[…] those miserable men admit the spherical form of the heaven to be true, disbelieving, yea, rather execrating, the whole of divine scripture […].[10]

[Philoponus Countermands Cosmas' Hermeneutic]

Interestingly, these attacks were rejected in his own time by Philoponus of Alexandria, the 6th century Christian philosopher and scientist who represented all that Cosmas hated. Philoponus never mentioned Cosmas directly; instead he criticized the top representatives of the Antiochian school (particularly Theodore by name and, indirectly, the ideas from Severian that Cosmas quoted).

Philoponus denied that the Bible was a book of science, being instead a path to reach the knowledge of God. He considered himself a follower of Basil on the theological side of the debate, and a defender of the Ancient Hellenistic science on the scientific issue of the shape of the earth and other astronomical knowledge (stating clearly his rejection to astrology).

This was a difficult position to hold, and at times he fell into the complexities and inconsistencies of science-Bible concordism (sic, "the difficulty of finding agreement between two vastly different disciplines"), like Basil, as he tried to fit Genesis 1 with Hellenistic science to avoid the conflict. However, he was admirable in his commitment to defend both Christianity and science in his commentary on Genesis, and rebuttal of Cosmas, De Opificio Mundi.

Philoponus devoted the third book of this seven book treatise to attack the Nestorian Antiochian school, using Hellenistic science as well as sophisticated biblical hermeneutics, frequently influenced by Basil, to respond to their many arguments, not being afraid to counter-attack with strong language.
If certain people, owing to the uneducated state of their soul, cannot attain to what has been said and are troubled about the way the facts are put together, silence will help them to cover up their own ignorance. And let them not tell lies about God’s creation out of their own lack of experience and the slowness of their mind, fearing the retributions for a lie. […]. What punishment do they deserve who lie about such works of God? Let them hear it from him: “My name is blasphemed by you everywhere among the nations.” 
For those who grasp investigations of matters of the heavens with accuracy and witness in their words that they possess perception both about the other things I have already said and about eclipses of the sun and moon, […].[11] 
[…]. Thereby it is again patently demonstrated that as much of the heaven as is above the earth, so much again of it is below the earth, being one single sphere complete out of two hemispheres. […].[12] 
Some people’s saying that it [the sun] is carried by the north winds to return to the east, being hidden by very high mountains, was an ancient and foolish notion held by some which deserves the laughter befitting it, […].[13]

The End of the Flat Earth Society

Interestingly, and contrary to the impression commonly left after the rediscovery of Cosmas in the early 18th century, his work was not the beginning or even the pinnacle of flat-earth cosmological influence among Christians. It was rather the opposite; this most elaborate defense of the flat earth seems to have brought the discussion to its end. As far as we can track in the extant Christian texts of late Antiquity and the early Medieval period, there seem to be no followers of Cosmas.

The two known direct references to Cosmas in Eastern Christianity were critical (Shirakatsi, 7th century, Armenian scientist) and very negative and even sarcastic (Photius, 9th century, Patriarch of Constantinople: “he [Cosmas] may fairly be regarded as a fabulist rather than a trustworthy authority.”[14]) Additional criticisms were directed at the flat earth beliefs of Diodore of Tarsus. Consideration of other contemporary authors addressing topics of cosmology suggest Cosmas carried no weight since these writers ignore him and show no interest in his ideas. Instead there is a continuation of the Ancient Hellenistic cosmologies.

Likewise, the situation in Western Christianity was not favorable to Cosmas’ views. We know from Augustine (4th-5th centuries, Bishop of Hippo) that debates on the shape of the earth existed at the time, and in the early 4th century, the Christian writer Lactantius attacked with vigor the sphericity of the earth in connection with his aggressive denial of the antipodeans (see below).

[The Other Ancients: Augustine, Isidore, Bede]

Augustine himself was never very clear on the topic and, indeed, there has been a discussion up to our present time on whether Augustine himself was a flat-earther, sphericist, unsure, or just did not want to commit himself. In any case, it is very clear that he was not a defender of the flat earth in the way Cosmas or even Lactantius (whose work Augustine knew and used in other contexts) were. In general, we can say that Augustine followed a line of thinking going back to Ambrose in the West and Basil in the East that highlighted the irrelevance of the cosmological speculations for the spiritual life of a Christian, and therefore was prone to show a non-committal position on these topics. Of course, this position was sometimes a disingenuous position, crafted to avoid the pagan attacks on the Bible as supporting antiquated cosmological ideas. Retreat was a better strategy than fighting on topics where a victory was seen as unsure, a far cry from the naïve and dangerous attacks from Cosmas and Lactantius to Hellenistic science.

Another author of great influence in the West was Isidore (6th-7th centuries, Archbishop of Seville). As with Augustine, there has been an ongoing debate up to our time on whether he was a flat-earther. Although his work contains some ambiguous passages, we cannot find any clear defense of a flat earth cosmology or attacks to the sphericity of the earth. In addition, his disciple, the Visigothic king Sisebutus (6th-7th centuries) composed an astronomical poem where he explained the eclipses in the traditional sphericist fashion. Finally, the English monk Bede (7th-8th centuries) explained very clearly the sphericity of the earth in his scientific work, which became one of the most important influences in the West during the early Medieval period.

  1. Homilies on the Statutes 9:7 W. R. W. Stephens’ translation in Schaff’s NPNF 1.9. [return to body text]
  2. R. E. Carter. ‘The Chronology of Twenty Homilies of Severian of Gabala’. Traditio 55 (2000):1-17. [return to body text]
  3. Translation by R. C. Hill in Commentaries on Genesis 1-3. Severian of Gabala and Bede the Venerable. Ancient Christian Texts. Series edited by T. C. Oden and G. L. Bray. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2010. Text from Homily Three, page 44. [return to body text]
  4. W. Wolska-Conus. ‘Stéphanos d’Athènes et Stéphanos d’Alexandrie. Essai d’identification et de biographie’. Revue des etudes Byzantines 47 (1989):5-89. [return to body text]
  5. Cosmas Indicopleustes. The Christian Topography IV. Tr. J.W. McCrindle. London: Hakluyt Society, 1897, page 130. [return to body text]
  6. Idem, VII, page 265. [return to body text]
  7. Idem, V, page 152. [return to body text]
  8. Idem, Prologue II, page 4. [return to body text]
  9. Idem, V, page 10. [return to body text]
  10. Idem, III, page 128. [return to body text]
  11. Philoponus. De Opificio Mundi III.8. Tr. L. S. B. MacCoull (unpublished, 1995, kindly provided by the translator), page 106. [return to body text]
  12. Idem, III.9, page 111. [return to body text]
  13. Idem, III.10, page 117. [return to body text]
  14. Bibliotheca 36 [return to body text]

* * * * * * * * * *

Science and Faith Issues
in Ancient and Medieval Christianity
Part 3

by Pablo de Felipe and Robert D. Keay
December 2, 2013

The antipodeans in Medieval Christianity

Of course, flat-earthers like Lactatius or Cosmas rejected the antipodeans, seeing such as impossible, and 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 [flat earth] 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.

[Four Main Strands of Thinking]

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:

1) 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;

2) 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,

3) 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]

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