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.

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