Monday, 10 June 2013

Understanding God's Word Through His Creation - 4

A Flat Earth Christadelphian - Correcting false theology with true science

A striking example of how a nuanced reading of the “two books” can correct a flawed reading of nature and the Bible is found in The Christadelphian magazine nearly 100 years ago. A brother T Griffiths argued that the world was flat, and both heliocentrism and a spherical earth were pagan ideas that threatened the doctrine of inspiration. Bro Griffiths argued:

DEAR BROTHER WALKER.—Referring to your brief eulogium on Sir Robert Ball’s speculation as to the “dots in the heavens” (The Christadelphian, July, page 316), I shall be glad if you will condescend to reply to the following queries through the columns of The Christadelphian.
Seeing that the veracity and verbal inspiration of the Scriptures are denied by many on the basis of the revolving globe-earth theory, even to the extent of rejecting the ascension of Jesus into the heaven of heavens as a “geometrical impossibility.” the matter surely cannot be set aside as of no importance, and beyond the province of a magazine devoted to the defence of Biblical teaching and the overthrow of pagan and papal dogmas.
The globe-earth theory is essentially pagan in its origin, and no amount of ingenuity has yet succeeded in harmonizing it with the cosmogony of the Bible.
It is supposed that the theory was first introduced into Europe by Pythagoras, in the sixth century B.C., and he was a rank pagan. It was afterwards adopted by Plato, and latterly modified to its present form by Aristarchus of Samos, “who went to the length of ranking our green world as a planet revolving yearly round the sun.” Through Copernicus and Galileo the theory has acquired a distinct Romish taint.
We may blame the author of “Lead Kindly Light” for following the glimmer of Rome’s magic lantern,1 instead of bringing his mental difficulties to be solved in the light of the word of God; but what about those who allow themselves to be led by the vapourings of scientific theorists while pondering over the plainly worded inspired narrative of creation? . . .
There may not be much danger of a brother being led astray by the perusal of modern rationalistic literature, for in that case he is prepared to antagonize the fallacies of modern thought, but morsels of error, in the form of “scientific” tit-bits, daintily wrapped up within the covers of a Biblical magazine, devoted to the defence and advocacy of Scripture doctrine, may not give rise to suspicion that there is anything wrong. The wrong is there all the same, and its effects become manifest when he who has swallowed the morsel finds, as the logical outcome of an adopted bastard theory, that the Bible and modern science are at variance, and verbal inspiration a farce. . . .
The late Prof. Woodhouse, of Cambridge University, once wrote, in reference to the globe-earth theory—“We shall never arrive at a time when we shall be able to pronounce it absolutely proved to be true. The nature of the subject excludes such a possibility” (Astronomy, Vol. 1, p. 13).
The “great astronomer,” Sir Robert Ball — wherein does his greatness lie? Certainly not in his discovery or advocacy of scientific truth. He is an evolutionist of the first order, and a pronounced anti-creationist. He is just the type of unbeliever that so-called modern science is producing; the old Scripture - revering type of astronomers, such as Ferguson, Woodhouse, and Herschell, is fast dying out as the natural effect of an anti-Scriptural theory.
But here I must submit my queries:—
1.—Is it not a fact that the Bible teaches that there are but two great lights and but one sun?
2.—Is it not a pure speculation, unsupported by any natural fact, the theory that the “dots in the heavens” are great suns?
3.—Is it not a fact that the enormously extravagant distances and magnitudes of the so-called “dots” have for their bases, the unproved assumption that the earth is a revolving globe, speeding through space at 68,000 miles an hour, and with an orbit of 190 millions of miles?
4.—Is it not a fact, as Prof. Robert Main, of Greenwich, candidly affirmed, that the theories “respecting the distances of the fixed stars and other cosmical problems” are based upon the “refined speculations of modern astronomy?”
5.—Is it not the teaching of Scripture that the earth, that is, the dry land, is a stationary body, founded upon the seas, and established upon the floods, and with its foundations in the deep?
6.—Is it not the plain testimony of Moses that sun, moon, and stars, were made and set in the heavens on the fourth day of Creation week?
Believing, as I do, with you, that it is “necessary to bring everything to the test of the Word of God,” I present these questions in all good faith for your serious consideration.
Faithfully yours, in the pursuit and defence of all divine truth,

While we may regard bro. Griffiths’ assertion with some bemusement, he must be credited with being consistent in his interpretation of the Bible literally. If one takes the Biblical cosmology as a literal description of the universe, then it will teach a flat earth over which a solid firmament exists, around which the sun orbits. The word translated ‘firmament’ in Gensis 1 is raqia’, which as the standard Hebrew lexicon HALOT notes to something beaten out or solid. [35] Paul Seely, in an exhaustive survey [36] on the subject of the pre-modern conception of the firmament and its implication for OT exegesis notes that both Jews and early Christians believed the firmament to be solid, and drew support for this from a literal reading of Genesis. [37] Geocentrism likewise is plainly taught in verses such as Josh 10:12-13 if taken literally, and given that prior to the 5th century BCE there is no recorded evidence of anyone believing in geocentrism, the burden of proof lies on the person claiming that these verses are meant to be interpreted in a phenomenal rather than descriptive manner. Given this, bro Griffiths’ adherence to a flat earth cosmology can be seen as entirely Biblical, assuming that a literal exegetical approach is mandated. 

Returning to bro Griffiths’ claims, there are a number of strong parallels between what he asserts, and contemporary claims made by special creationists:

  • The inspiration of the Bible is denied by those who accept the scientific theory
  • The scientific theory is ‘pagan’ in origin
  • It cannot be harmonised with a Biblical cosmogony
  • Those who accept this theory have followed non-Biblical sources rather than solve the problem in the light of Scripture
  • The plain word of the Scripture should be preferred over the “vapourings of scientific theorists”
  • Ad hominem attacks on scientists
  • Out of context quotes and argument from authority

The response of bro CC Walker to bro Griffiths’ letter is exemplary, and provides a template for how contemporary questions on how to reconcile science and Christian faith should proceed.

‘We would not discuss this matter were it not that our brother does himself and others an injustice in proclaiming the well settled belief of so many of his brethren a “wrong” and “bastard theory” and so forth; and quite unfaithful to the Word of God. This is not the case at all. Speaking for ourselves: before we learned “the truth” we were quite well convinced of the spherical figure of the earth from perfectly candid study of natural phenomena, and of navigation, which certainly “works” on the spherical basis. And we have found nothing in the Scriptures to unsettle this conviction in the least. Quite the contrary. In fact, the “enormous distances and magnitudes” which appear to be a stumbling block to our brother, are to us only the fitting suggestions of the Infinite and Eternal. And this is the impression of many of the brethren, as it was of the late Dr. Thomas and brother Roberts.’,
‘Admitted that “the globe‐earth theory” is of “pagan” origin, it is not therefore untrue. Much natural truth is of “pagan” discovery. We do not reject it on that account; and as to Galileo and the “Romish taint,” we have always understood that the whole weight of Papal authority was thrown against “the globe‐earth theory,” which it has since been compelled to accept as true.’,
‘With regard to the remarks of Professor Woodhouse, we are inclined to think a great many of his brother professors would have differed from his conclusion. It would largely depend upon just what he meant by “absolutely proved;” and as he is dead we cannot ask him.’
‘So far as we understand, the prevailing type of “Scripture‐revering Astronomers” is that of believers in the spherical earth.’
‘No; the Bible does not absolutely limit the number of “great lights” to two; nor does it affirm that there is absolutely only one sun in the universe. It tells us that this is so with reference to the earth (which is obvious enough to the most elementary observation), but it also tells us that God made “the stars also,” without telling us what the stars are. Later, an apostle speaks of “one star differing from another star in glory,” without defining the extent of the “glory” of any.’
‘Moses’ testimony is not so “plain” that it cannot be misinterpreted or misunderstood.’
‘Moses’ testimony was given to Israel in what might be called the infancy of the world, when men did not know the extent of the earth, let alone that of the sun, moon, and stars. And, as we believe, it was given (by God through Moses), not so much to instruct Israel in cosmogony in detail, as to impress upon them the idea that The Most High God is the Possessor of Heaven and Earth (Gen. 14:22). And this against the claims of the gods of the nations, as was abundantly proved in Israel’s history.’
‘As to “the fourth day,” we do not know of any “day” in the literal sense apart from the sun and its motion. And, therefore, if the “days” of Genesis 1. are to be taken as literal days, we feel bound to admit the sun as the origin of the “light,” and “evening and morning” that were the characteristics of “the first day.” How can you have “evening and morning” without the sun? We must settle up “the plain testimony” of verse 5 with that of verses 14–19. As we said before (The Christadelphian, 1910, p. 269), “If we understand Moses as saying that the sun came into existence on ‘the fourth day,’ we make him contradict himself; we make him present us with day and night, evening and morning, without the sun upon which these things depend.’
‘No; there are “natural facts” underlying the “speculation.” Such are the ascertained velocity of light, the eclipses of Jupiter’s moons, the fact that the best telescopes will not resolve the stars into discs as in the case of the planets; the fact of the existence of the planet Neptune as simultaneously discovered by Adams and Le Verrier; the facts of parallax and spectrum analysis. “Natural facts” are the essence of modern astronomy.’
‘Without committing ourselves exactly to the figures named, we may say that what our brother calls an “unproved assumption” is with us a well‐settled conviction, for reasons which may be found in any good work on astronomy, Sir Robert Ball’s “Story of the Heavens,” for example.’ [38]

Walker’s response proceeds on the basis that contemporary science should be regarded as a reliable witness to the natural world, rather than spurned because it contradicts a literal reading of the Bible. Arguably, his most important remark was the observation that the creation narrative was given to a scientifically naïve population that was unaware of the nature and scope of the universe, and designed not to “instruct Israel in cosmogony in detail” but teach them that it was YHWH and not the other gods who was the creator of the world. An awareness of the ancient near eastern context of Genesis, as well as recognising that the need to read the creation account not as a scientifically accurate description of how the world was made follows logically from this point. [39] It is unfortunate that in the nearly 100 years since Walker made this observation, little has been done to expand on this insight, and – truth be told – Christadelphian exegesis of Genesis 1 has either been mired in a concordist dead-end, or captured by young earth creationist literalism.

While one’s salvation ultimately is not predicated on an accurate knowledge of how the universe was created, it is vital not to give those opposed to the gospel message material with which they can criticise us. Advocating literal interpretations of Genesis as first principles of the faith is arguably the theological equivalent of an own-goal, as evidenced by the number of ex-Christians who state that the scientifically untenable nature of special creationism was a principal reason behind their deconversion. 

This article first appeared on my Facebook page here


34. Walker CC “Is it wrong to believe that the earth is a sphere?” The Christadelphian (1913) 50:346

35. Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M., & Stamm, J. J. 1999. The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic ed.) (1290). E.J. Brill: Leiden; New York

36. Seely P.H. “The Firmament and the Water Above. Part I: The Meaning of raqia’ in Gen 1:6-8Westminster Theological Journal (1991) 53: 225-240

37. ibid, p 236

38. Walker, op cit. p347-348

39. The recent literature on this is vast, but a relatively accessible overview can be found in John Walton’s “The Lost World of Genesis One” (2009, IVP)