Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Scripture and Cosmology VI

Greenwood, Kyle. Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible between the Ancient World and Modern Science. DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015. 

Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV, Part V

In chapter 6, Greenwood lays out the massive paradigm shift that is often labeled the Copernican Revolution. The three major players in this paradigm shift were Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Johannes Kepler.  Copernicus, unsatisfied with the ability of the Ptolemaic system to account for
celestial phenomenon, posited the earthshaking idea that the sun, and not the earth, was the center of the universe.  Instead of the heavenly bodies revolving around a fixed earth, the heavenly bodies revolve around the sun, while the earth rotates on its axis.  Galileo confirmed Copernicus' new model of the universe with the help of the newly invented telescope. Nevertheless, Copernicus' new model was not perfect and the problem lay in the fact that he posited circular orbits for the planets around the sun.  Kepler, a contemporary of Galileo, solved this problem when he posited elliptical orbits for the planets. This world view with the planets revolving around the sun and the earth rotating on its axis are common sense today, yet at the time, these findings were simply astonishing. Yet, these three astronomers and mathematicians revolutionized humans' understanding of the cosmos and forever changed human history in the process.  

Greenwood then goes on to discuss the effects of this scientific paradigm shift on the religious communities of the time.  Copernicus was spared much difficulty as he did not publish his work until shortly before his death. Galileo was not so lucky.  The Roman Catholic church brought Galileo before the inquisition and charged him with heresy.  He was forced to recant. 

Both Protestants and Catholics had a difficult time accepting the new paradigm as it seemed to go against he "plain sense" of many biblical passages. The Bible clearly states that the earth is set on firm foundations and does not move (Ps 104:5), and further, the sun, not the earth, was commanded by Joshua to stand still and it did (Josh 10:12). These statements are hard to reconcile with the new Copernican model. 

Nevertheless, the Copernican model, though imperfect, won the day.  It's scientific and mathematical explanations of the cosmos were impossible for biblical literalism or Papal authority to overturn. Kepler improved on Copernicus with his elliptical orbits, Newton improved on it further with his laws of motion, and Einstein improved it further with his theory of relativity.  Now, no one seriously disputes the finding of the Copernican revolution and its subsequent improvements through science, It was left to Christians of all varieties to adjust their biblical interpretations to match the new scientific discoveries.  Most Christians today have no difficulty believing in biblical authority while also holding to a modern scientific understanding of the cosmos. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Scripture and Cosmology V

Greenwood, Kyle. Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible between the Ancient World and Modern Science. DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015. 

Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV

In chapter five, Greenwood lays out the development of what he calls the Aristotelian cosmology. This cosmology began with pre-Aristotelian Greeks and was driven by philosophical and metaphysical concerns, rather than scientific or mathematical concerns: namely, the idea that a sphere is the most perfect shape, and therefore the earth should be represented as a sphere. Aristotle developed this idea and then completed his cosmology by envisioning the earth as a fixed sphere, orbited by seven other spheres, one for each of the visible celestial phenomenon (Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the fixed stars). Beyond the sphere of the outermost stars lay the Unmoved Mover (UMM), Aristotle's conception of God. The UMM set all of the spheres in their orbital motion around the earth.

While the Aristotelian worldview was an improvement from that of the Ancient Near Eastern cosmology (see parts I-IV linked above), it still did not account for some celestial phenomenon, such as the retrograde motion of the wandering planets in the night sky.  It was Claudius Ptolemaius, AKA Ptolemy, an Egyptian mathematician and astronomer from Alexandria, who attempted to mathematically model the Aristotelian cosmology. He accounted for the retrograde motion of the planets by positing epicycles in which the planets had smaller orbits within their specific sphere. These epicycles could explain, at least to some degree, why some of the planets seemed to move backward (retrograde) from their normal orbit around the earth.

It is at this point that Greenwood's book becomes tremendously valuable. Greenwood not only explains paradigm shifts in humans' understanding of the cosmos, but he goes on to investigate the religious responses to those shifts. For example, in this chapter, Greenwood points out that the Aristotelian cosmology caused some consternation among some early Christians in their attempts to interpret certain Bible passages.  Both Augustine and Lactantius found it absurd to think of people living on the opposite side of a spherical earth. Luther and Calvin readily accepted the Aristotelian cosmology, but had difficulty reconciling that worldview with passages of scripture that spoke of the firmament or the waters above the firmament.

I do find interesting that though the authors of the New Testament post-date Aristotle and his cosmology by more than 300 years, and were largely hellenized, the cosmology of the New Testament lines up almost entirely with an Ancient Near Eastern worldview with few signs of any familiarity with the Aristotelian conception.  It is as if the New Testament authors were stuck in an Ancient Near Eastern bubble with regard to cosmology, while being thoroughly influenced by Greek language and thoughts in many other respects.

I'll end with this quote from Greenwood:
The most notable trait we see among Aristotelian-era interpreters is the willingness to adapt their interpretation of Scripture in light of new understandings of the physical universe.  It was assumed that the cosmos was composed of seven spheres that rotated around the earth. This had implications for all sorts of biblical interpretations.  The foundations of the earth could no longer be thought of in terms of physical columns, but were conceived as a metaphor for God's sustaining power.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Scripture and Cosmology IV

Greenwood, Kyle. Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible between the Ancient World and Modern Science. DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015. 

Part I, Part II, Part III

In chapter four, Greenwood systematically surveys every passage in the Old Testament that he views as treating the topic of creation.  This of course includes Genesis chapters 1 and 2, but also many other passages that are often overlooked in the investigation of the biblical view of creation.  Here is a list of passages that he treats: Gen 1, Gen 2, Ex 20:8-11, Neh 9:6, Job 38:2-11, Psa 8:3-8, Psa 19:1-6, Psa 74:12-17, Psa 95:1-7, Psa 104:1-17, Psa 136:1-9, Prov 8:22-36, and Isa 40:12.

After systematically exploring all of these passages, Greenwood draws the following conclusions:
First, a seven day creation week is only present in Genesis 1, although an allusion to the week is also found in Exodus 20:11.  Second, aside from Genesis 1 the order of creation is more closely related to the ancient cosmological structure than it is to the structure of a week.  Third, the various biblical creation accounts are poetic in nature, using metaphors, anthropomorphic language and other literary devices to convey concepts that would otherwise be foreign to human understanding.  Fourth, the various creation accounts conform to the notion that God is the author of all aspects of the created order.  Fifth, each of the creation accounts emphasizes God's sovereign power over the cosmos.  God is not locked in an epic battle with the forces of nature, but has subdued them and commands them to submit to their assigned purpose.  Finally, the general guiding principle for the authors of these creation accounts is the three tiered cosmological structure. God is the maker of the heavens, the earth, and the seas. 
These conclusions provide several important insights.  First, there is a decentralization of the 7 day week of creation.  Second, the poetic nature of the creation narratives is a genre marker that informs us that we should not primarily be looking for historical/factual material in these passage. Third, the ancient three tiered conception of the cosmos was the backdrop and worldview of the all of the ancient biblical passages that treat creation.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Scripture and Cosmology III

Greenwood, Kyle. Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible between the Ancient World and Modern Science. DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015. 

Part I, Part II

In chapter three, Greenwood lays out the biblical evidence for a three tiered universe.  He uses the same divisions of earth, heavens, and seas.  In the end, he comes to the conclusion that the biblical writers held approximately the same view of the three tiered universe as their ancient near eastern neighbors.  He notes slight differences, but ends with this quote which nicely sums up the takeaway from the chapter:
These similarities, and even the dissimilarities, indicate that the biblical authors were not engaged in a systematic correction the the pagan worldviews.  We do not see these authors writing apologetic treatises against the scientifically naive viewpoints of their uninspired neighbors.  They do not speak of atmospheric pressure systems affecting weather.  We do not read about the gravitational pull of planets, the solar orbit of the earth or the earth's rotation on its axis.  The texts do not inform us of faraway galaxies, supernovas, comets, or black holes.  In short, the biblical authors wrote according to the best scientific evidence of their time, an observational viewpoint that was best expressed through analogy and phenomenological language. 
This gets succinctly to the point.  The biblical authors assumed approximately the same physical structure of the universe as their neighbors.  They had no divine revelation of the later scientific discoveries that have shaped our understanding of the universe.  If they were "wrong" about the physical makeup of the universe, what else might we as modern people discount about the understanding of biblical authors?

Friday, January 20, 2017

Scripture and Cosmology II

Greenwood, Kyle. Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible between the Ancient World and Modern Science. DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015. 

See part I here

In chapter 2, Greenwood starts to layout the historical, cultural, geographical, and literary context in which the biblical texts should placed.  He begins by defining the term "Ancient Near East," (ANE) a term used by modern scholars to describe a geographical area (roughly what is thought of as the middle east today) and a time period ending with the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.E.

Greenwood then goes on to discuss the numerous monumental historical discoveries over the past two centuries that have opened up the ANE to scholarly inquiry.  Among these discoveries were the Rosetta Stone (allowing scholars to decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphics), the discovery of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia and the subsequent efforts to decipher the ancient form of writing, These discoveries opened the floodgates for long lost ancient literature from Israel's ancient neighbors.  It was quickly noted that these ancient texts bore striking similarities to long known biblical literature.

Greenwood cautions against two extreme responses to this new treasure trove of material.  On the one hand, he wants to steer clear what what he calls "parallelomania," a overestimation of the literary connection between biblical literature and other texts from the ANE.  On the other hand, he warns against ignoring this material altogether. Instead, he advocates for a position that sees the literature of the ANE informing a cultural "milieu" which the ancient Israelites shared with their neighbors. Therefore, it is not that the biblical flood narrative was "copied" from the Babylonian Epic of Atrahasis (a Babylonian flood narrative with many similarities to the Noah epic in Genesis 6-10), but rather, that both cultures, ancient Israel and Babylon, shared the same cultural context and had similar worldviews. Therefore, this newfound material becomes invaluable for reconstructing the historical, geographical, cultural, and literary context against which one can read the biblical narrative.

The rest of chapter 2 gives the non-biblical evidence for the three tiered universe introduced in chapter one.  Greenwood uses a number of primary texts and artifacts that depict this three tiered universe from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylon, and Canaan.  He takes up the tiers in the order: earth, heavens, and seas.

For the inhabitants of the ancient near east, the earth is a flat disc surrounded by water all around, both above and below. There is also the underworld, which is the ultimate destination of all humans after death. There is no return from the underworld. The earth either floats on the cosmic ocean, or is supported by solid pillars.

The heavens refer to everything above the earth including the sun, moon, stars, and birds.  The heavens are also best described as a physical dome that acts as a roof to the earth and holds back the cosmic ocean that resides above the heavens.  There are upper and lower heavens.  The lower heavens are the visible heavens, the sun, moon, stars, and the firmament or dome.  The upper heavens are the abode of the gods.

Finally, the seas can be divided into freshwater and salt water.  All of the seas are connected to the oceans of the deep, and are often feared. Waters represent chaos and are often depicted as sea serpents. Waters also reside above the heavenly firmament, and the firmament contains gates or windows that are periodically opened by the gods, producing rain, snow, and hail.

In all, Greenwood makes an impressive case from ancient texts and artifacts, that the inhabitants of the ancient near east viewed the universe as a three tiered cosmos made up of the earth, the heavens, and the seas.  This, then is the context in which the ancient biblical texts should be placed in order to engage in responsible biblical interpretation.  It is also a context that is vastly different than our modern conception of the universe.  This can cause problems for modern interpreters who think that the bible describes the world "as it is."

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Scripture and Cosmology I

In chapter 1, "Scripture in Context," Kyle Greenwood attempts to frame the discussion of biblical cosmology as one that can only be treated properly when placed in context.  In fact, this whole chapter is an argument designed to point out what is so blatantly obvious to biblical scholars and literature scholars alike: context matters.  Greenwood points out that while context is important to understanding any communication, it is all the more so for literature that is over 2000 years old, the context of which is so distant from the present.

Greenwood lists four areas of context that are necessary for understanding a text: 1) Cultural Context, 2) Historical Context, 3) Geographical Context, and 4) Literary Context (under which he discusses the topic of genre).  Together, these contexts contribute to what Greenwood calls a "worldview" coming from Immanuel Kant's Weltanshauung. Greenwood notes, "In the classical sense, worldview entails the implicit and explicit presuppositions with which one processes information." Worldview is the basic assumptions we make about the world and how me make sense of the world in which we live.

Greenwood concludes the chapter by giving a brief overview of the ancient Israelites' worldview of the universe, or cosmological worldview.  In that worldview, the cosmos has three levels or tiers, the top tier, heavens (above the earth), the middle tier, the flat earth, and the bottom tier, the seas.

In each section, Greenwood gives numerous examples from the biblical text that illustrate his point. the main goal of the chapter is to argue that the worldview, the context, of the ancient biblical writings with regard to the cosmos are spectacularly distant from our own worldview of the cosmos. The quote he uses from John Walton's book The Lost World of Genesis One, nicely illustrates this point and is the main takeaway from the chapter:

The Israelites received no revelation to update or modify their "scientific" understanding of the cosmos.  They did not know that stars were suns; they did not know that the earth was spherical and moving through space; they did not know that the sun was much further away than the moon, or even further than the birds flying in the air. They believed the sky was material (not vaporous), solid enough to support the residence of the deity as well as to hold back waters.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Religion and Science

This spring, for the first time, I will be team-teaching a Religion and Science course with Dr. Corina Wack.  Dr. Wack teaches Biology here at Chowan and I am excited to learn from her as well as to have critical discussions about the relationship of these two fields.

Upcoming on this blog, I will be giving serial reviews of the two textbooks that we have chosen for the class.  I will be doing this in small chapter reviews to go along with the assigned readings for the course.

The first textbook is Scripture and Cosmology by Kyle Greenwood.  Greenwood teaches Old Testament at Colorado Christian University.

The second textbook that I will be reviewing is Finding Darwin's God by Kenneth Miller.  Miller is Professor of Biology at Brown University.

Stay tuned for the serial reviews.