Up in the mornin’
Out on the job
Work like the devil for my pay
But that lucky old sun has nothin’ to do
But roll ‘round heaven all day
-Bob Dylan, 2015[i]
Full Moons rise at sunset & set at sunrise. New moons rise at sunrise & set at sunset, but the lit side faces the Sun and not us.
-Neil deGrasse Tyson[ii]
That’s the word that perfectly summed up the feeling of my fellow biochemistry students after a particularly tense lecture.
The young professor had asked us to think about how different cultures and religions had viewed the natural world in the past. Are there perhaps other ways to think of nature? she urged us. At this point, the professor and the students were still simpatico.
And then she mentioned, in a sympathetic sense, the Book of Genesis.
The mood changed swiftly. There were groans. Students shifting nervously in their seats. “Why should we care what the Bible said?” one student asked. “Science already proved it wrong!”
That was basically the mood of everyone in the classroom. The angered students weren’t interested in learning anything about the lexical elasticity of the word yom, literary genres, or theological frameworks. They already knew: the word Genesis mentioned in a secular school’s science lecture hall is a fightin’ word.
I wish this was an exaggerated tale but it isn’t. The professor’s superiors were notified and, if memory serves, she sent the students an explanation of her actions, which served as a “sorry-not sorry” apology. University is where I went to expand my mind. But every subculture has rules to what constitutes orthodoxy and what constitutes heresy. The professor had crossed the line.
Why the indignation? The discussion that took place in my biochemistry class was, on the face of it, simply a discussion, the invitation to think outside of the barriers of the discipline. But what do you think? she was asking. However, this discussion took place inside of a longer context: the conflict between religion and science that began with Nicolaus Copernicus and, eventually, his punished disciples Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno.
The story is often told that the Western world was under the sway of the Catholic Church and its teachings from the Christian Bible. The Bible was the main science book in the medieval and early modern world. The earth was at the center of the universe, the apple in God’s eyes, and God swirled the planets and the sun around the immovable earth for our delight. Except for once when God stopped the encircling heavenly bodies—the sun and moon—as detailed in Joshua 10:12-13. All was well in the world.
And then Nicholas Copernicus showed up in the 16th century and ruined everything!
Copernicus whispered devilish nightmares into the ears of self-important humans: the earth is not the center of the world, the Bible is a book of fairy tales, and human beings are nothing special, mere cosmic accidents.
Well, that would have really angered the religious zealots around him—which pretty much everyone was back then—so he lived in fear of his ideas being made public. He was so afraid that he waited until he was nearly dead to have his book published.
The story as told above is, conservatively, about 98% false. It was invented in the 19th century by Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper, creators of the Draper-White Thesis, known more popularly as the Conflict Thesis.
The Conflict Thesis was the idea that religion and science had always been in conflict and would inevitably collide in irreconcilable differences. The long-since debunked tale has been told far and wide since then, from pop-level atheist blogs to otherwise well-informed scientists … and Christians! And so it still demands attention today.
What gives the Conflict Thesis venom is the re-imagining of the past. As such, the antidote is to look back behind the fog of confusion of the last century and a half. “Neither Draper nor White even bothered to distort the evidence to support his case,” writes theologian David Bentley Hart. “Both discovered that, where evidence was lacking, literary invention proved a happy expedient.”[iii] By looking at the case of Copernicus, we can discern that things are not quite what we’ve been told.
[i] Bob Dylan, “That Lucky Old Sun,” track 10 on Shadows in the Night, Columbia Records, 2015, compact disc.
[ii] Neil deGrasse Tyson, Twitter Post, October 2, 2012, 1:52 PM https://twitter.com/neiltyson/status/253190782054453249.
[iii] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 56.
As the story goes, Copernicus feared repercussions from the Catholic Church, and that is why he took so long to publish De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres). Copernicus waited about thirty years to publish his findings of a heliocentric universe, only doing so a short time before his death in 1543.
The latter part of this story is true: Copernicus waited to publish until about two months before his death. But everything in between is quite different. In reality, Copernicus was a relatively faithful Catholic churchman, serving in his local parish in Poland as a canon, helping to take care of financial and other administrative duties, and as a personal physician to other canons and several bishops.
His work was also supported by several Catholic clergyman and dedicated to Pope Paul III. One of his Catholic supporters, papal secretary to the aforementioned Pope, even gave the Pope a lecture on Copernicus’ heliocentric theory in 1534, for which the Pope was highly receptive and grateful.[i] If Copernicus was trying to keep this a secret, he was doing a terrible job; if the Catholic Church was trying to persecute Copernicus, they were highly inefficient, as Copernicus was still allowed to write to and converse with other astronomers about his theory. He was not restricted in the least bit in the nine years between this lecture to the Pope and the publication of his famous book.
Another supporter, Cardinal Nikolaus von Schönberg, wrote to Copernicus from Rome in 1536 concerning his heliocentric theory. Schönberg said that he had learned Copernicus taught “that the earth moves; that the sun occupies the lower, and thus the central, place in the universe.” Yet, rather than responding with apoplectic vitriol, Schönberg eagerly requested that Copernicus make his findings more widely known:
Therefore with the utmost earnestness I entreat you, most learned sir, … to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars, and at the earliest possible moment to send me your writings on the sphere of the universe … If you gratify my desire in this matter, you will see that you are dealing with a man who is zealous for your reputation and eager to do justice to so fine a talent.[ii]
Copernicus’ main reason for delaying the wide publication of his theory had little to do with religious objections and everything to do with ill-informed scientists who would reject his theory out of hand. The long-standing scientific consensus of geocentrism was based on the synthesis of Aristotelian physics and Ptolemaic mathematics where the earth was at the center of the universe. This scientific consensus, which had turned into the common sense understanding of the universe, would make many people regard heliocentrism as “an insane pronouncement,” Copernicus wrote in the preface to his book. “Therefore I debated with myself for a long time whether to publish the volume…”[iii]
While Christians had located texts to interpret in line with the prevailing geocentrism, the geocentric theory was never founded on the biblical text. Tim O’Neill, an atheist blogger and careful historian, explains why Copernicus wrote in his preface that his view was simply one of many and that a better one might come along: he was attempting to placate not the church but, in his own words, “Peripatetics and Theologians.” As O’Neill explains, what Copernicus meant was, “those theologians and philosophers who were especially devoted to Aristotle.”[iv] He had little reason to fear or placate Catholic theologians. In fact, earlier authors of similarly provocative published works—for instance, Nicholas of Cusa’s 1440 De docta ignorantis hypothesizing an infinite universe, and Celio Calcagnini of Ferrara’s 1544 essay suggesting that the earth moves while “Heaven Stands Still”—were never punished by the Catholic Church for any biblical infidelity.[v]
The Catholic Church did eventually ban Copernicus’ work for two hundred years, but that was after one hundred years of acceptance, including many decades where it (and earlier similar theories) were taught in Catholic universities. The Catholic ban was largely a Counter-Reformation capitulation to pressures from the burgeoning movement of Protestantism, which at that point largely rejected Copernicanism, as did most of the scientific community.
[i] Tim O’Neill, “The Great Myths 6: Copernicus’ Deathbed Publication,” History for Atheists, July 13, 2018, https://historyforatheists.com/2018/07/the-great-myths-6-copernicus-deathbed-publication/.
[ii] Nicholas Schönberg, Cardinal of Capua to Nicholas Copernicus, November 1, 1536. Replicated in O’Neill. See also Malcolm Oster (ed.), Science in Europe, 1500-1800 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 29.
[iii] Nicholas Copernicus, “Preface” to De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543). See Oster, 30.
Copernicus had no desire to debunk Christianity. He only sought to understand the universe, which he believed was God’s handiwork. But most importantly, Copernicus did not seek any sort of revolution against the past. Sure, he disagreed with the prevailing model, but there was growing dissatisfaction with the model from within the scientific (and Christian) community.
Sociologist Rodney Stark has shown that Copernicus, by and large, was doing regular science, in a regular way. Stark, ever the defender of pure historicism devoid of ideological revisions, declares that the only reason Copernicus’ contribution is called a revolution at all is to create the illusion that there was a distinct separation between Copernicus and prior Scholastics. “What Copernicus added,” Stark writes, “was not a leap but was the implicit next step in a long line of discovery and innovation stretching back for centuries.”[i]
Stark then traces a lineage that Copernicus would have been well acquainted with, given their prominence in all three of the Catholic universities he attended. Going as far back as Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253) and Albertus Magnus (1200-1280), Stark shows that scientific Christian scholars were proponents of experimentation, going against the purely rational type of science practiced by earlier Greek and Christian scientists (or what we might call scientific philosophers today). Nicole D’Oresme (1325-82) hypothesized that the earth turned on an axis, making it only appear as if everything spun about us. Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64), a German bishop and later cardinal, found that because of how motion worked and the fact that all objects on a planet had the planet’s motion imparted to them (one of D’Oresme’s hypotheses), no matter where you were in the universe it would appear as if the universe moved around you.[ii]
“Copernicus was not,” writes Hart, “some isolated visionary gazing back through the centuries, across a vast chasm of Christian darkness, to the pale flickering flame of a forgotten Hellenistic wisdom.”[iii] What Copernicus found when he arrived on the scene of astronomy was a growing dissatisfaction with the old system and an already underway movement away from “strict geocentrism.” Copernicus was “heir to a long mathematical tradition and … a tradition of physical theory that had opened the way to new models of the cosmos.”[iv]
Famed Harvard historian of science, I. Bernard Cohen, wrote that “the idea that a Copernican revolution in science occurred goes counter to the evidence … and is the invention of later historians.”[v] Copernicus did not wish to debunk or remove Christianity. Instead, he was simply doing science and paying more attention to experimentation and observation than tradition. In this, he followed not “rebel secularists,” Stark points out, but “devout Christians” who were “all priests or monks,” and even some bishops and a cardinal.[vi] Even the non-believing historian Tom Holland must admit: “Daring though Copernicus’ hypothesis seemed, then, it stood recognizably in a line of descent from a long and venerable tradition of Christian scholarship.”[vii]
[i] Rodney Stark, Bearing False Witness (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2016), 145.
[ii] Ibid., 145-50.
[iii] Hart, 62.
[iv] Ibid., 61.
[v] I. Bernard Cohen, Revolution in Science (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985), 106. Quoted in Stark, 151.
[vi] Stark, 152.
[vii] Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 354.
It was not just God who was apparently getting His comeuppance by Copernicus’ theory, but God’s precious earth and image-bearers too, or so the commonly believed story goes. In reality, the opposite was true.
To understand this, we first need to look back at Aristotle’s view of the center of the universe. When Aristotle says that earth is at the center of the universe, he does not mean that it holds any special importance. He does not mean to say that earth is the center of the universe as one might say “my faith is the center of my life.” No, Aristotle simply meant that earth is located at the center of the universe.
And he didn’t even mean it as a good thing.
Occupying the center of the universe also means that occupying the lowest point of the universe. Think of the old saying that sewage (to put it politely) rolls downhill to get the drift. By being at the center of the universe, the earth, as physicist Mano Singham put it, was “the squalid basement.”[i] Historian Dennis Danielson explains that the earth’s location was meant to highlight its “sheer grossness.”[ii]
Pre-Copernicans were even more unreserved in heaping scorn on the earth’s location. Danielson writes that Dante’s Inferno, in line with the teaching of the time, “placed the lowest pit of hell at the very midpoint of the earth, the dead center of the whole universe.”[iii] Giovanni Pico (1463-94) wrote in his 1486 Renaissance masterpiece that the earth was located in “the excrementary and filthy parts of the lower world.”[iv]
In other words, Copernican cosmology was actually a metaphysical elevation for the earth and human beings. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), whose equations established the veracity of heliocentrism by correcting Copernicus’ view of planetary circular orbits with elliptical orbits, certainly believed so. He proclaimed that human beings had been created as explorers and discoverers, and that they “could not remain at rest in the center … [but] must make an annual journey on this boat, which is our earth, to perform [their] observations.”
Astrophysicist Hugh Ross elaborates on the exceptional vantage point of human beings. Many factors, including but not limited to the fact that our galaxy is not in a crowded cluster and that our sun exists between the stable spiral arms of the Milky Way, increase both our planet’s stability and vantage point. Our situatedness gives us a “clear view of the heavens,” so that we can explore and discover as God intended.[v] As my father delighted when I would visit him at the Lebanon Fire Department in Indiana and climb all over the trucks asking what this or that did, our Father delights in our quest to understand His line of work.
Kepler was not the only Copernican who felt that heliocentrism elevated the earth’s status. So from where did the myth that Copernicus had demoted humankind arise? It seems to have begun in France about a century after Copernicus’ death and publication of his findings with Cyrano de Bergerac. A French satirist and libertine, de Bergerac spoke of the “arrogance of Mankinde” who had considered “Nature” something created for and meant to serve humanity alone.[vi] This was later popularized in the Enlightenment by German poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Danielson laments this historical error, for
By equating anthropocentrism with the now plainly untenable geocentrism, such modern ideology dismisses as nugatory or naïve the legitimate and still-open question about the role that earth and its inhabitants may play in the dance of the stars. Instead it offers, if anything at all, a role that is cast in exclusively existential or Promethean terms, with humankind lifting itself up by its own bootstraps and heroically, though in the end pointlessly, defying the universal silence.[vii]
[i] Mano Singham, “The Copernican myths,” Physics Today, December 2007, 48.
[ii] Dennis R. Danielson, “Myth 6. That Copernicanism Demoted Humans from the Center of the Cosmos,” in Ronald L. Numbers (ed.), Galileo Goes to Jail: And Other Myths about Science and Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 53.
[iv] Quoted in Danielson, 53.
[v] Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos 4th ed. (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2018), 206.
[vi] Danielson, 57.
[vii] Ibid., 58.
Various versions of heliocentrism and geocentrism existed long before Copernicus. Early Greek heliocentrism was rejected in favor of Aristotelian physics and Ptolemaic mathematics. As discussed above, this was not because humans wanted a more exalted space in the cosmos, as being at the center of the universe was not a place of high regard in this system.
Copernicus may have been influenced by the earlier Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BC). Aristarchus lived nearly 2,000 years before Copernicus and may have been the first to propose a truly heliocentric model. Aristarchus was most likely building on the work of earlier Pythagoreans (and others) who spoke of the planets revolving around a “Central Fire,” though the Sun was also thought to revolve around this fire.[i]
Aristarchus’ heliocentric theory resolved several of the strange behaviors witnessed in the heavens, among them the fact that the appearance of the heavens swirling about the earth would appear the same if it were the earth that rotated. It made rational sense that the earth would rotate rather than that the whole heavenly realm would move about the earth. And this was not the only planetary conundrum that Aristarchus’ heliocentrism solved.
So why was Greek heliocentrism so quickly abandoned?
The late historian of ancient science, William Harris Stahl, explains that the view was never one with a significant following and so perhaps it was never really abandoned at all. But that isn’t because of bad science or a desire to make earth the most esteemed planet in the universe. Though Aristotle’s influence and interpretations of the Bible may have been important in Copernicus’ day, they were not as much in the time and context of Aristarchus, especially in the realm of astronomy.
Greeks abandoned heliocentrism due in part to their vision of the sciences. According to Stahl, astronomy was meant to fit into the Greeks’ elegant mathematical models, not the other way around. Socrates explained that astronomy is discovered through geometry, without appeal to the stars in the sky. And anyway, he posited, what we see when we look into the sky may be predominantly illusion.[ii] Mathematics, the Greeks thought, removed the variable of human observational frailty and/or naivete.
Another major reason to reject heliocentrism, though, was the lack of visible stellar displacement as the earth encircled the sun. Without the aid of telescopes, the only two possible solutions were that stars’ remoteness made it impossible to detect displacement, or that the earth must be stationary. Stahl notes that, while the acceptance of the heliocentric view in modern science was made two centuries earlier, it was not until 1838 that the first proof of annual stellar parallax—witnessing the shifting of distant stars against even more distant background objects—was made through Friedrich Bessel’s (1784-1846) telescope.[iii]
Lastly, while the heliocentric theory was perhaps helpful in some areas, it did not have time to fully develop before going out of fashion, as all theories were. The Greeks wanted hard data based on the best instruments of the time. Stahl explains, “the emphasis of the Alexandrian Age was upon the determinable and upon precise observation and data—two factors which would have a dampening effect upon planetary theories and upon the heliocentric theory in particular.”[iv]
To the ancient mind studying the earth’s place among other planetary bodies, the popularity of Hipparchus and his celestial geographical measurements may have done away with Aristarchus’ heliocentrism.[v] So, in other words, it was not that the Greek world had progressed to the correct theory—heliocentrism—and then regressed to the incorrect one—geocentrism. In fact, the Greek scientists were using the best scientific data at the time, with the best instruments at the time, to make careful scientific pronouncements. Heliocentrism was far from a sound scientific theory at that time. In heliocentrism, theorizing had been exhausted, and empirical verification was not yet possible.[vi]
Ptolemy was a great admirer of Hipparchus. Through that admiration and Ptolemy’s own popularity and reasonable calculations, a new system emerged from the mixture of Ptolemy’s mathematics and Aristotle’s model of the physical universe. Some might say that Ptolemy “cooked the books” for Aristotle, making the numbers work—something for which later medieval Muslim astronomers critiqued Ptolemy, thinking he had failed Aristotle.[vii] The popularity of both men combined to create a potent view of reality. Heliocentrism did not entirely disappear, but it was only a minority view that had no greater explanatory power than geocentrism at that point. And geocentrism had common sense on its side. It looks like the universe swirls around us. In a world where eyes were the best scientific tools available, it was not a bad theory.
All of this shows the great difficulty earlier Greek thinkers faced. It also shows the difficulty Copernicus faced, as his theory did not answer all of the geocentric model’s inconsistencies. This is not a knock against Copernicus, for he could not do what was not yet possible. Rather, this shows that his theory required further technological development to be demonstrably true.
As it turns out, Rodney Stark explains, Copernicus’ “calculations were no more accurate or any easier to calculate than those based on the prior Ptolemaic system from the second century CE, because Copernicus failed to realize that the orbits in the solar system were elliptical, not circular.”[viii] O’Neill adds that Copernicus was actually “trying to make the mathematics fit closer to the semi-mystical Greek ideal of concentric celestial spheres and circular orbits.”[ix] This meant that, in Stark’s stark estimation, “everything in Copernicus’s famous book … is wrong, other than the placement of the sun at the center.”[x]
The rejection of Copernicus’ system was widescale and immediate. We have to keep in mind the complete paradigm shift this was for everyone, especially scientists who had simply assumed the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic system was true and, consequently, understood all they discovered through that bedrock paradigm. It was the steady climb of science that led to the hypothesis of Copernican heliocentrism, yes, but this was a steady climb that led to an unforeseen world. It would take some time to wrap one’s head around the counter-intuitive notion of a mobile earth.
That said, O’Neill points out that the criticism of De revolutionibus did not have “any substantial religious basis.”[xi] Perhaps religious loyalty was in the back of many or most scientist’s minds, but their objections were typically more focused on upholding the accepted, traditional model because of their loyalty to Aristotle.
Conversely, Galileo Galilei is said to have been an enthusiastic believer in heliocentrism early on precisely because it was against the system of Aristotle, of whom he was no fanboy. Whatever the case, it seems that the reluctance was adherence to Aristotle rather than the Bible.
It would not be until Kepler’s new mathematical scheme based on elliptical orbits, Galileo’s observations through the newly invented telescope, and Newton’s findings in physics that Copernicus’ theories would be accepted as fact. It took at least a century for heliocentrism to gain scientific respectability among most scientists, especially non-astronomers.
Religious objections against Copernicus have been overblown, though not created out of thin air. For instance, John Calvin is famously quoted as saying one must choose between the Bible and Copernicus— though he never said any such thing. While he opposed heliocentrism, his major objection had more to do with the obvious ridiculousness of heliocentrism, based on the long-standing foundational view of an Aristotelian universe and what one observes with their own eyes. One of Calvin’s arguments is that Copernicus is just like those contrarians who always try to create some novel interpretation of something and call what is plainly good, evil, or what is plainly evil, good.[xii]
We can ridicule Calvin’s stubbornness today or wish that he had handled it differently, but he was simply following the most long-established and respected scientific theory of his age. Calvin needed to learn what many of us need to learn still today, which is that science is never entirely settled (and what “works” one day can be overturned with the advance of scientific instruments the next).
In some sense, though, Calvin must have known that the imprecision of biblical language was a possibility, given his robust understanding of God’s accommodation to human beings, which includes His describing (or allowing the description of) complex concepts to us like a father or mother might to a young child.[xiii] In that sense, God would not have expected his people to understand the complex physics and miraculous providence involved in holding the earth in place for a prolonged period of time, but they would easily understand “the sun stood still, and the moon stopped.”
Martin Luther is also cited as an antagonist toward Copernicus. However, as O’Neill discovered, the quote of Luther that is typically understood as being an attack on Copernicus is from 1539, four years before Copernicus published his findings. Also, Luther never names Copernicus, so it could potentially be a different scientist he has in mind altogether.[xiv] Luther’s lieutenant, Philip Melanchthon, also disregarded Copernicus’ theory, but he still found the mathematics useful.[xv]
Not all religious figures were opponents of Copernicanism, either. Cotton Mather, a New England preacher reviled for his role in the Salem Witch Trials, was a public defender of Copernicus, even in his sermons. After all, it was Mather who marveled that the great heavenly landscapes opened through the telescope: “Great God, what a variety of worlds hast thou created! How astonishing are the dimensions of them! How stupendous are the displays of thy greatness, and of thy glory!”[xvi]
[i] Alex Ely Kossovsky, The Birth of Science (Chichester, UK: Springer Praxis Books, 2020), 17-18.
[ii] Ibid., 327-28.
[iii] Ibid., 329.
[iv] Ibid., 330.
[v] Rather fascinatingly, while writing this article, news broke that a map of the stars created by Hipparchus, which the author of the article calls the “earliest known map of the stars” had been unearthed at the Museum of the Bible under a manuscript of John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. See Zoe Sottile, “Archivists discovered the oldest known map of the stars under a Christian manuscript,” CNN, October 30, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/10/30/us/christian-manuscript-star-map-scn-trnd/index.html.
[vi] Stahl, 332.
[vii] “The Ptolemaic model was never perfectly congruent with the actual Aristotelian physical model of the cosmos,” writes Hart (58).
[viii] Stark, 151.
[x] Stark, 151.
[xii] Wyatt Houtz, “John Calvin on Nicolaus Copernicus and Heliocentrism,” Biologos, October 28, 2014, https://biologos.org/articles/john-calvin-on-nicolaus-copernicus-and-heliocentrism.
[xvi] Danielson, 57.
Theologians have been wrong in the past, are wrong presently, and will be wrong in the future about a great many things. They are mostly human, after all. But the nagging question is this: was the Bible wrong? If the Bible teaches a geocentric universe, then that is a clear sign that whoever wrote the Bible did not have great insight into the natural world. If the Bible were any other book, then perhaps one could move on, accepting what is true in one place and rejecting what is false in another. We expect that even the best books on science will become dated sooner or later. Why not the Bible?
The Bible, most Christians believe, has two authors: the human author (like Paul or David) and the divine author, the Holy Spirit who fills and inspires the authors of holy scripture. Typically this is taken to mean that the Bible can be riddled with grammatical errors because the human author may not have been a technical master of Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. But, we must exercise caution here and state emphatically that there are no factual errors. A factual error would move beyond the Holy Spirit’s willingness to use the weakness of human beings. A factual error would mean that the Bible contained an untruth, a lie, a deception, and it was guided to do so by the Holy Spirit. In that case, either God would not be good, God would not be real, or God would not be the God of the Christian Bible.
So, then, the remaining question is precisely this: Did the Bible get it wrong?
Without a doubt many theologians thought that the Bible taught geocentrism. However, this could be a case of biblical interpreters simply attempting to make their texts agree with the prevailing theories of the natural sciences, a tactic not uncommon today.
There are a few verses that typically get bandied about in this discussion. For the sake of space, I will focus on the one most cited by skeptics of the Bible (accusing it of a geocentric view) and classical defenders of the Bible (attempting to refute a heliocentric view): Joshua 10:12-13.
Joshua 10:12-13 states,
On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel:
“Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,
as it is written in the Book of Jashar.
This text seems to be saying that God miraculously stopped the sun from rotating around the earth long enough for Joshua to be victorious in battle. A couple of issues immediately spring up: 1) stopping the earth’s rotation would have globally fatal effects on the natural world, and 2) God would need to stop the earth if He wanted the sun to appear to be standing still, not the sun.
There are several potential ways to illuminate this text within its ancient context. Some responses are better than others. We will turn to those now.
The Disjunction Consideration
Some have suggested that perhaps the biblical authors at times slipped in their own mistaken views of the world, but that has no bearing on the reality or omniscience of God. It is well known that several of the authors of Scripture were not masters of the language they were writing in (take for example the Greek of Mark’s Gospel). If God allows subpar or even incorrect grammar, perhaps he also allows incorrect views of, say, cosmology to be represented in the Bible.
First, it must be noted that the Bible never says anything like, “God said the world does not move around the sun.” Whatever the Bible does say on such matters, it says so vaguely (according to our modern conceptions of how truths must be expressed) and often poetically, which is the case for this passage in Joshua.
Second, some Christians do believe that the Bible itself needn’t be inerrant for God to still be real and His truth to be taught—more or less—within the pages of the Bible.
Call me old-fashioned, but factual errors in the Bible from God’s “mouth,” even if communicated through human writers/speakers, are difficult to swallow. So while some may be comfortable with this view, I don’t find it a view that boosts confidence. And in my experience, I’ve often found that if we just try to understand the issue a little more, these difficulties have a way of resolving themselves.
The Providential Possibility
Philosopher B. R. Tilghman points out the difficulty of believing this text in Joshua by looking at the consequences of such a cosmic event. According to Tilghman,
If the earth were suddenly to stop rotating the law of inertia tells us that anything not securely tied down would continue to move in a straight line tangent to the surface of the earth at its original velocity of 1,000 miles an hour. … The enormous inertial forces generated by such a sudden halt would have destroyed everything on the planet if not the earth itself. Since there are no such curious objects flying around in space and no evidence of any such geological disturbances, we can only conclude that the earth did not stop rotating.[i]
The obvious problem with such a statement is that Tilghman has not grappled with what it would mean for the Almighty Creator and Sustainer of the Universe to attempt such a feat. There is nothing logically impossible about making it appear as if the sun and moon are standing still in the sky. It only appears to be a naturally impossible and unwise choice. If we say that God could not do such a thing while also providentially protecting His creation, then we do not have in mind Anselm’s maximally great being. Rather, we have in mind one trapped within creation like the rest of us.
The Phenomenological View
This view essentially states that the biblical authors described what they saw—and God described what they would experientially see—without making a claim as to the technical precision of their language.
There is nothing unscientific about simply reporting what you see. Observation is the cornerstone of good science, and reporting how events appeared is the cornerstone of honest communication. So, on both points, there was nothing erroneous in what was stated, because it was never meant to be the type of statement that was understood as a statement of scientific truth.
It may be then that God described his stopping the earth’s rotation as stopping the sun and moon. We do this every day when we speak of sunrise and sunset, knowing full well that the sun is neither rising nor setting. In the introduction to this article, I quoted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson using these two phrases. Dr. Tyson has used the imprecise wording of the Bible about scientific matters as proof that it knows nothing of the natural world. Should we conclude, then, that Dr. Tyson also doesn’t understand that the earth rotates around the sun, despite appearances to the contrary? Of course not. As it turns out, it is totally fine using language like this, as he explained in a 2016 interview with Larry Wilmore.
We still refer to sunrise, sunset. That only has meaning if you think that Earth is in the center of things, and everything is moving around us. So even though we know intellectually Earth goes around the sun, the language is still pre-Copernican, as we would call it.[ii]
Dr. Tyson has proven once and for all that one can speak in geocentric terminology without believing in a literal geocentric system. As we’ve already discussed, the ancient Greeks largely believed in geocentrism, but not entirely. As for ancient Hebrews, the landscape is different.
The Polemical Battle
God often uses the meaning of certain symbols within a culture to simply communicate with or polemically correct that culture. There is not enough space to devote to it here, but he certainly responded to both Jewish and ancient Near Eastern symbolism/theology when He communicated the creation days in Genesis 1, the interaction with flood narratives in Genesis 6, and the plagues on Egypt in Exodus 7-11.[iii]
In the present case, God is seeking to communicate who He is and correct the ancient view of surrounding cultures’ own “gods.” For instance, Neo-Assyrian astrology taught that it was a bad omen to see the sun and moon on the same day.[iv] For Joshua to request such an omen, then, might have even been a warning to the Amorites. Keep in mind, God was more in the business of driving out the inhabitants of Canaan than He was with literally killing them—which was something of a last straw approach—often through sending His dread ahead of Him and scaring the enemies of Israel into fleeing (Exodus 23:27-33; Deuteronomy 2:25). This theory assumes that Canaanites believed in this form of astrology, and that Joshua knew that about the Canaanites, of course. It is a safe assumption.
Furthermore, Canaanite religion revered their sun and moon deities.[v] This, then, could also be a polemical point: God is sovereign over all, and no other “gods” come close to Him. This is not unlike God’s way of handling heavenly bodies in the opening chapters of Genesis, in which God simply moves them around as clay in his hands and demotes the sun in a way that would have been unfathomable to surrounding cultures. In essence, God demythologized certain astronomical fixtures and, in so doing, showed the weakness of the created false “gods” or malevolent spirits masquerading as divine sovereigns. Warfare between nations was first and foremost considered warfare between gods. Notice how the plagues in Egypt were not said to be against the people of Egypt, but a judgment against their gods (Exodus 12:12). God’s demoting of these other “gods” is not just a demythologization of his good creation but also a defeat of spiritual bullies.
Perhaps the main point, though, is the message God was sending to everyone in this miraculous event. In both involved cultures, when there is miraculous intervention in nature, this is considered a reflection of the particular deity’s glory.[vi] God’s acts in the world are always missional acts displaying his glory for the purpose of eventually drawing the whole world back to himself. Everyone saw this event take place (either in reality or in a mass psychological vision), which would have necessarily adjusted their ideas of “gods.” Most of all, however, it would have communicated the greatness of Yahweh.
The other major point is that God listened to his faithful servant, Joshua. In this act, Joshua shows himself to be in lockstep with Yahweh, which means Joshua’s prayer was essentially an early version of your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. That the name Jesus is the Greek alliteration of Joshua is no accident! God loves and works with humanity, constantly approaching us in relational fidelity and intimacy. And this is made no clearer than when the Son of God became a human being and the Spirit of God made humankind his temple.
The Literary Flourish
When God grants that the sun will be made to stand still, it is recounted in a peculiar way for the Book of Joshua: poetry. And so, some surmise, perhaps this account is true poetically or literarily if not literally. This is not uncommon in the Bible, whether it be in the Psalms or in passages about total-kill warfare (which is quite common in Joshua).
With this in mind, perhaps the poetic truth is not that the sun and earth literally stood still, but that God was with Israel in battle and won the battle for them, or the day appeared abnormally long because of all that the Lord accomplished. So in that sense, it was as if God prolonged the day. I do not find this latter point particularly persuasive, however. The text seems quite clear in declaring that a very literal cosmic miracle took place. The poetry is meant to signify the unique and powerful movement of God on behalf of his people, not simply that someone looked at God as being almost impossibly productive that day.
The Theological Expanse
We have some general sketches on Hebrew cosmology, but we are not sure how literally they themselves understood those sketches to be. They seemed to describe the physical layout of reality in spiritual terms: heaven above us, Sheol below us in the earth, and below that an even murkier, treacherous “Great Deep” (which was associated with judgment and, later, with Gehenna, or hell). Perhaps they understood God was accommodating His message to them. Assuming we know precisely what ancient Hebrews thought on such matters assumes too much.
That said, we should not expect ancient Hebrews to have the view of the universe that we do today. They did not have the tools and, for various reasons, God did not find it necessary to explain to them the laws of nature. Contrary to popular beliefs on how God should present himself to us, he rarely feels the need to prove his existence in the ways we demand of him today. He speaks to all of us the things we need to know in ways we can understand, much like a parent may explain complex matters to a child.
We act as if God should have described the physical world to ancient Hebrews in modern scientific understanding and parlance. However, even this understanding will one day be archaic as our ability to see and measure more increases. Essentially, cultured despisers of the biblical text are demanding what God did. They want biblical language describing the world in their own terms. This is precisely what God did in the past, which now appears archaic to us. Yet describing to ancient people the physical universe in our own modern terminology would have been unintelligible.
This leads us to the great irony of ironies: whatever the Bible teaches about the earth’s place in the cosmos, it cannot be called heliocentrism or geocentrism. It doesn’t seem to care at all about such a question. And it is not anthropocentric, either. The Bible instead teaches, in terms of the earth’s place in the cosmos and the source of its privileged status, a theocentric cosmology. It is uniquely God-centered, unlike anything we find in surrounding ancient Near Eastern cultures.
Matthieu Pageau, in his recent commentary on Genesis, considers the move from biblical cosmology to material cosmology to be a consequence which mirrors the fall. While the spiritual and material could co-exist historically, the eventual reception of Copernican cosmology created a deep fissure. “The reason to preserve biblical cosmology against scientific hegemony,” Pageau writes, “is that it describes reality at the meta-cognitive level.”[vii] In biblical cosmology, we see above the senses and faculties of our brains with the eyes of our hearts, minds, and souls; we see the ultimate reality that lies below, above, to the side of, and behind the penultimate reality of the sensate world. Adam and Eve’s fall from Eden mirrors the Copernican reception in that they denied God to seek their own omniscience. “Hence, the story of the fall is really about the process of knowledge itself and the dangers of acquiring greater material knowledge at the expense of spiritual insight.”[viii]
What the Hebrews wrote and taught can still be true—and in fact, may be truer than merely scientifically accurate—if we understand what they meant to communicate. To them, a purely natural world devoid of the divine did not exist, so we should not expect their descriptions of this world to fall in line with materialist explanations of our own day. That was not their point or their concern. They cared less about how the world moved and more about who made it and why it—and they—existed at all.
Final Thoughts on Joshua
My own opinion on the matter is that God performed a cosmic miracle, halting the cosmos while not allowing any of the negative consequences that would arise were this to happen naturally. That “there has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded the voice of a man” (Joshua 10:14), certainly speaks to something being particularly spectacular about this day. Not the appearance of the miracle, but the reality of the miracle.
At the same time, God is performing this particular miracle in order to communicate His relationship with Israel and perhaps even a message of warning—most likely to minimize bloodshed—to the Amorites inhabiting Canaan. This truth is recounted poetically not because it did not literally happen, but because poetry is the language of awe and wonder.
God stopping the earth’s rotation and Joshua describing this event observationally does not mean the Bible teaches geocentrism, any more than Neil deGrasse Tyson does when he speaks of sunrises and sunsets. The Bible does not teach geocentrism or heliocentrism because it does not spend time on the precise mechanics of the universe. (It is not trying to answer those questions, though it sometimes does so incidentally with a degree of scientific accuracy.) Rather, its cosmology is thoroughly theocentric and theological, and the authors of the Bible found this the most important truth that bears repeating.
Other passages of the Bible are accused of depicting a geocentric view as well, such as Psalms 93:1 and 96:10. These and other verses are very clearly theological in nature, however. For instance, Psalm 93:1 is speaking of the greatness, strength, and everlastingness of the Lord. This verse—“the world is established, firm and secure”—has nothing to do with the earth’s place in our solar system and everything to do with its status as a creation of and temple/palace for God.
The same is true of Psalm 96:10 which, while saying that “the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved,” has everything to do with the Lord’s reign over all the earth and nothing to do with its physical movement. These are statements about God’s greatness, His relationship to the world, and the world’s purpose, not the earth’s physical movement. Simply put, the authors of the Bible had a different agenda than modern scientists when describing the earth.
[i] B. R. Tilghman, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 108. Quoted in J. Gordon McConville and Stephen N. Williams, Joshua, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 159.
[ii] Larry Wilmore, “Neil deGrasse Tyson,” Interview, November 1, 2016, https://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/neil-degrasse-tyson.
[iii] These interactions will be elaborated upon in future articles.
[iv] Richard S. Hess, Joshua, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), p 217-218.
[v] Ken Fentress, “Introduction and Notes: Joshua,” in Ted Cabal (ed.), The Apologetics Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman, 2017), 270.
[vi] Lissa M. Wray Beal, Joshua, The Story of God Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019), 224.
[vii] Matthieu Pageau, The Language of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis (self-published, CreateSpace, 2018), 7.
[viii] Ibid., 6.
In the preface to De revolutionibus, Copernicus wrote to Pope Paul III that he sought “to seek the truth in all things, to the extent permitted to human reason by God.” He almost did not publish, he says, because of the kneejerk reactions he expected from his nearly novel proposal, yet he was urged on by his friends, one a cardinal of the Catholic church in Capua, and the other the bishop of Chelmno.
What compelled Copernicus into this field in the first place was the disagreements between astronomers and difficulties in calculating an accurate calendar. Essentially, astronomy at the time was a hodgepodge of quick fixes that were workable but not ideal, like driving on a spare tire.
This lack of clarity frustrated Copernicus. He writes,
For a long time, then, I reflected on this confusion in the astronomical traditions concerning the derivation of the motions of the universe’s spheres. I began to be annoyed that the movements of the world machine, created for our sake by the best and most systematic Artisan of all, were not understood with greater certainty by the philosophers, who otherwise examined so precisely the most insignificant trifles on this world.[i]
Copernicus viewed the universe as the handiwork of God, whom he calls “the best and most systematic Artisan of all.” And like a child who marvels at his father’s workmanship, he wanted to understand more about it. Like the Magi of old, he wanted to follow the stars and meet God there.
“There will be babblers,” Copernicus writes, “who claim to be judges of astronomy although completely ignorant of the subject and, badly distorting some passage of Scripture to their purpose, will dare to find fault with my understanding and censure it.” Here he seems to be speaking largely of those who follow the astronomical traditions of Aristotle and Ptolemy and tack on biblical prooftexts for good measure. Yes, Copernicus himself did not believe that the Bible taught geocentrism. Furthermore, as odd as it may sound on this side of the Conflict Thesis debacle, he noted that still others would consider his work as a defense of a particular liturgical reform:
To them my work too will seem, unless I am mistaken, to make some contribution also to the Church, at the head of which Your Holiness now stands. For not so long ago under Leo X the Lateran Council considered the problem of reforming the ecclesiastical calendar. … But what I have accomplished in this regard, I leave to the judgement of Your Holiness in particular and of all other learned astronomers.[ii]
Copernicus was a faithful believer in God who only saw his work as illuminating the work of the Artisan. He saw no contradiction between his work and the Bible, nor did he appear to fear any retribution from the Catholic Church. In fact, it seems he was most encouraged by other Catholic officials and astronomers of his day. What he feared most was the riff-raff of non-specialists who misused the Bible for their own pugnacious purposes, which was mostly to defend the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic tradition.
One of the many sad consequences of the Conflict Thesis’s revisionist history is that Copernicus’ real legacy, the one with which he would have relished, has been all but lost. It is not just that he discovered heliocentrism. Rather, it is the steady march of science and the tradition of that science that has been lost. This revisionism, David Bentley Hart explains,
has tended to obscure the rather significant reality that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christian scientists educated in Christian universities and following a Christian tradition of scientific and mathematical speculation overturned a pagan cosmology and physics, and arrived at conclusions that would have been unimaginable within the confines of the Hellenistic scientific traditions. For, despite all our vague talk of ancient of medieval “science,” pagan, Muslim, or Christian, what we mean today by science—its methods, its controls and guiding principles, its desire to unite theory to empirical discovery, its trust in a unified set of physical laws, and so on—came into existence, for whatever reasons, and for better or worse, only within Christendom, and under the hand of believing Christians.[iii]
How ironic that the one who falsified geocentrism is falsely the center of the Conflict Thesis. Nicolaus Copernicus would be surprised to learn about the Conflict Thesis and dismayed to learn that he was the epicenter of the alleged conflict. O’Neill’s remark that the story of the Church’s oppression of Copernicus is a “pseudo historical fairy tale” is apt.[iv] Let us hope that it becomes no more than an interesting insight into the anxieties of an age that attempted to erase the signature of God that lights the night skies.