Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Bible endorses Geocentrism

As mentioned in the previous BLOG post, the Bible endorses the idea of a flat Earth.

While few theologians insisted on a Flat Earth even into the Middle Ages, many Christian Theologians held onto some other views not endorsed by modern science. Geocentrism (the belief that the Earth is at the center of the solar system or even at the center of the entire universe) in particular, persisted until well into the Reformation.

For example we can find these quotes in the historical literature:

"Those who assert that 'the earth moves and turns'...[are] motivated by 'a spirit of bitterness, contradiction, and faultfinding;' possessed by the devil, they aimed 'to pervert the order of nature.'"
- John Calvin, sermon no. 8 on 1st Corinthians, 677, cited in John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait by William J. Bouwsma (Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), A. 72

"People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is of course the very best. This fool [or 'man'] wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth."- Martin Luther, Table Talk

John Calvin and Martin Luther are, without any doubt, among the most important theologians of the Reformation. They are probably the most important Protestant theologians in history. They studied the Bible constantly. Luther was the first to translate the Bible into German. If they believed that the Bible said that the Earth was at the center of the universe then they must have had legitimate reasons to do so.

Perhaps shockingly (at least I find this to be shocking), some people believe in geocentrism to this day! In 2006 I received a post from a Roman Catholic priest saying this:

> First let me shock you by affirming that I do believe
> in geocentrism. Let me also shock you by saying that St.
> Robert Bellarmine is my Patron Saint, and He was the
> great defender of Galileo.

There are others who believe as this priest does. Probably the most well-known reference for a belief in modern geocentrism can be found at the web site http://www.geocentricity.com/. That site is the official Internet source for the Tychonian Society. That society promotes Biblical and scientific “evidence” that the Earth is at the center of the Universe. The current leader of that society is Dr. Gerardus D. Bouw who has a Ph.D. in astronomy from Case Western University. (More on him later.) The web site provides links to numerous web pages which supposedly provide support for their beliefs.

All of which begs the question: why would geocentrism be considered to be important into the 21st century?

Theologians who are Biblical literalists insist that one of the most fundamental pillars of Christianity – original sin – collapses if the Garden of Eden didn’t literally exist. Nonetheless the idea that the Earth is positioned at a special place in the cosmos has probably as much theological significance as does that precept.

One of the basic concepts of the Bible is that humans and their place of residence (the Earth) are both very special. Humans, after all, are “made in God’s image”. And when God spent His week creating everything, he devoted a lot of His time and energy to the Earth.

It is MUCH easier to accept all of that if you believe that the Earth is at the very center of the universe. (Both the geocentric priest and Dr. Bouw have a good appreciation of the importance of that belief.)

Instead, what does science teach us? It tells us that the Earth is a mid-sized planet revolving around a mediocre star, in an insignificant part of a galaxy containing 100 billion or so other stars, some bigger, some smaller than our sun. Not only that, our own galaxy is just one of 100 billion or more other galaxies. The total number of stars in the universe is something like 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. The total number of planets surely exceeds that number, possibly by an order of magnitude.

Though it is a bit difficult in the 21st century to really appreciate the point, looking at all of those big numbers and the accepted geometry of it all makes it very difficult to support the idea that the Earth is a very special place. Yet that’s what the Bible tells us.

But science has a profound amount of evidence indicating that the universe is exactly as scientists say that it is. Science’s ability to make predictions based on a rejection of geocentrism, such as when the next solar eclipse will occur, surely reinforces nearly everyone’s belief that the universe is NOT geocentric.

So how do Biblical literalists reconcile this?

They make things up. Or they contend that certain words should not be used in the way in which they were obviously intended to be used.

There are a number of Biblical passages which endorse geocentrism.

For example, there is 1 Chronicles 16:30 (NIV):

[30]Tremble before him, all the earth!
The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.

Another is Psalms 96:10 (NIV)

[10] Say among the nations, "The LORD reigns."
The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.

As a final example, here is Psalms 104:5 (NIV).

[5]He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.

Those all seem to be pretty definitive. If the Earth does not move, and the Earth and Sun move relative to each other (as they surely do if day and night exist) then it must be the Sun which is moving and not the Earth. Therefore the Solar System, if not the entire universe, must be geocentric.

Furthermore, if you asked someone to write a sentence stating as clearly as possible that the Earth does not, and indeed cannot, be moved they would have a difficult time writing something stronger than: “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved” or “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved”.

This, in fact, these are some of the phrases that modern geocentrists use to show that the Bible endorses geocentrism. They are also some of the passages that Luther and Calvin and other theologians used during the Reformation to show the same thing.

Note that the Bible has not changed for thousands of years. None of the OT has changed for many millennia. Though using different translations, Luther and Calvin were using exactly the same Bible that everyone uses today.

They all got their information from exactly the same Bible. If anything has changed, it is that modern Biblical readers are letting science influence their interpretation of the Bible.

It is interesting to see how these passages are interpreted by modern readers once they know, because of science, that the solar system is heliocentric (with the sun at its center) rather than geocentric.

“Answers in Genesis” (AIG) is, arguably, the most influential creationist web site. That organization has a web page dedicated to a discussion of geocentrism and the Bible[2]. The author is named Danny Faulkner. I will use the arguments from that web site in order to examine how creationists attempt to reconcile the Bible and science on the issue of geocentrism.

The discussion on the AIG web page about geocentrism is quite long – running to about 22 printed pages. It gives a bit of history, argues against claims by agnostics and atheists that the Bible endorses geocentrism and also dismisses the idea that any believers in the Judeo-Christian Bible have ever claimed that the Earth is flat. I don’t want to go into much detail on the history of flat Earth beliefs based on what is in the Bible so I will focus instead on just a few paragraphs from the web page that attempt to explain away the passages promoting geocentrism.

Mr. Faulkner does admit that Christians formerly did insist in geocentrism. For example, the AIG web page says this:

"In the middle ages and well into the Renaissance, the Roman Catholic Church did teach geocentrism, but was that based upon the Bible?"

While a negative answer is provided on the web page, the correct answer is in the affirmative. I’ve already provided quotes from Martin Luther and John Calvin saying that geocentrism is compatible with the Bible. They were Protestants so it was not just Roman Catholics who taught geocentrism. Here’s another quotation from a Roman Catholic.

Cardinal Bellarmine was Galileo‘s prosecutor during his trial for heresy for rejecting geocentrism. (Bellarmine has been designated as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church). On May 26, 1616, Bellarmine sent a letter to Gallileo containing the text shown below[3]:

"We, Roberto Cardinal Bellarmine, having heard that it is calumniously reported that Signor Gallileo Galilei has in our hand abjured and has also been punished with salutary penance, and being requested to state the truth as to this, declare that the said Galileo has not abjured, either in our hand, or the hand of any other person here in Rome, or anywhere else, so far as we know any opinion or doctrine held by him; neither has any statuary penance been imposed on him; but that only the declaration made by the Holy Father and published by the Sacred Congregation of the Index has been notified to him, wherein it is set forth that the doctrine attributed to Copernicus, that the Earth moves around the Sun, and that the Sun is stationary in the centre of the world and does not move from east to west, is contrary to the Holy Scriptures and therefore cannot be defended or held. In witness whereof we have written and subscribed these presents with our hand this twenty-sixth day of May, 1616."

The phrase “contrary to the Holy Scriptures” is particularly significant. Clearly the most influential Christian theologians through at least the 17th century felt that the Bible endorsed geocentrism.

AIG responds to such quotations by saying this:

"The Church’s response to Galileo (1564–1642) was primarily from the works of Aristotle (384–322 BCE) and other ancient Greek philosophers."

OK. But that clearly begs the question, why are Aristotle’s works less influential now than they were five centuries ago? What’s changed? Aristotle’s words haven’t changed over all that time any more than the Bible’s words have changed. So what is different now that has made people reevaluate the works of Aristotle and the other ancient Greek philosophers?

In a word, what’s different is science.

Aristotle was more of a philosopher than a scientists. He felt that you could discover how the Earth and the Universe worked through reason and debate, not through experimentation. Modern science insists on experimentation. Much of that experimentation has revealed flaws in Aristotle’s opinions. His influence has diminished significantly as a result. Aristotle’s influence on science in the 21st century is nonexistent (except in a peripheral sense such as the fact that he introduced the idea of logic that is still used by scientists).

Claiming that people are no longer influenced by Aristotle is effectively acknowledging that people are now more heavily influenced by science. So this argument made on the AIG web site really supports the claim that I’m making rather than arguing against it.

And it cannot be overlooked that though theologians of the Reformation and before were certainly influenced to some extent by Aristotle, the Christian supporters of geocentrism could provide chapter and verse from the Bible, as I have done, showing specific endorsements of geocentrism. Surely those theologians would have rejected geocentrism if there were any obvious indications that the Bible endorsed heliocentrism instead.

And, of course, there are some modern Christians, who are surely not influenced by Aristotle, who, somewhat surprisingly, also insist that the Bible endorses geocentrism. Mr. Faulkner next takes up the challenge that they offer. He specifically disputes some claims made by Dr. Gerardus D. Bouw (who was mentioned earlier). He describes Bouw, probably accurately, as “the best-known geocentrist in the world today”. So Mr. Faulkner critiques a book written by Dr. Bouw titled “Geocentricity”.

Let’s look at the discussion Faulkner provides of the previously referenced passages from 1 Chronicles and Psalms:

"Bouw uses this unfounded distinction to draw some questionable meaning from 1 Chronicles 16:30 and Psalm 96:10,18 where the word ‘establish’ is used in the latter verse. These passages declare that the world is not to be moved, from which Bouw concludes that the world does not move.

"This is fallacious. The Hebrew word for ‘moved’ (mowt) is in the niphal stem, which often refers to the passive voice, as indeed it does here. This is reflected in the English translations—to be moved or not to be moved suggests the action of an external or causative agent to bring about change in position, but does not exclude the possibility of motion apart from an external agent. Bouw frequently chides those who disagree with him on Biblical passages that speak of the rising of the Sun by claiming that they accuse God of being a poor communicator. Therefore, we may apply Bouw’s standard to his own work: the Lord could have rendered these passages to read, ‘… the world does not move’, if that is what He intended. As is, these passages are hardly geocentric."

I especially like the next paragraph:

"It is important to note that the same Hebrew word for ‘moved’ (môwt) in the same niphal stem is used in Psalm 16:8, ‘I shall not be moved’. Presumably even Bouw wouldn’t accuse God of poor communication if he didn’t believe that the Bible taught that the Psalmist was rooted to one spot! Rather, the passage teaches that he would not stray from the path that God had set for him. If that’s so, then it’s impossible to deny that ‘the world … cannot be moved’ could mean that Earth will not stray from the precise orbital and rotational pattern God has set for it. "

So, according to AIG, saying that something “cannot be moved” actually means that it can be moved but cannot consciously stray from the path upon which it is placed. Of course it is fairly silly to apply that usage of the word “moved” to an inanimate object in the same way that you apply it to a person. People have emotions and the words “moved” or “shaken” when applied to people most often mean things affecting those emotions. If someone says that they were “moved” by a passage in the Bible, no one believes that the words jumped out of the book and pushed them to another part of the room. It is obvious that the person saying that they were “moved” is merely acknowledging an emotional reaction to what they read.

Inanimate objects don’t have emotions. If someone says that a chair was “moved” by the Bible, they would reasonably expect that someone had placed a copy of the book under one of the legs to stabilize the chair or something similar.

The passage that the AIG quotes to provide their definition refers to a Psalmist – a real person. A pillar, the subject of the passage which indicates a stationary Earth, is not a person. It is an inanimate object. The two things clearly have nothing to do with each other.

The Earth is an inanimate object and doesn’t have emotions. So the word “moved” when applied to an inanimate object can only mean physical motion. If it can’t be moved then it can’t have any physical motion.

But even that interpretation is not inerrant. If gravity works as suspected, the Earth indeed could be moved from its orbit by a large meteor or comet passing close by. Immanuel Velikovsky, whose ideas are endorsed by many creationists, suggests that these very things happened. Is the author implying that God would intervene in that case and prevent any such motion?

One additional question that should be asked by any Biblical apologist attempting to reconcile Biblical passages with other Biblical passages or with what we know about nature, is this: could the passage have been described better if the proposed interpretation is correct? If I believe that Psalms 96 is describing movement along a path, is there a better word than the one that is actually used in the text? In nearly every case, there is a better word.

It seems, according to Biblical Literalists, that if God wrote passages such as Psalm 96 and handed it in as a homework assignment to a high school creative writing teacher, He might get off with a grade like a C-. He describes his ideas but rarely does so as well as He could (at least if the apologists are correct in their own interpretation).

AIG touches on this point in regard to the phrase, “the rising of the sun”. Surely that is a phrase commonly used by believers in heliocentrism. But what is God trying to do in the Bible? Be poetic? Or give humans a message? Most Biblical literalists believe that it is the latter case, and if that is true then such a phrase does indeed endorse geocentrism.

Then, in regard to the passage from Psalms 104, Faulkner provides this discussion:

"However, the next passage that he discusses, Psalm 104:5 reads, ‘ … laid the foundations of the Earth that it should not be removed forever’.

"Bouw notes that the word ‘should’ is a conditional that does not necessarily reflect things as they are. While it is true that many people today use the word ‘should’ in this sense, this is not the correct and original meaning of the word (the usual intended meaning when many people say ‘should’ is better conveyed by the word ‘ought’). The word ‘should’ actually is the past tense of ‘shall’, and as such has the same imperative meaning that that word has. Here Bouw makes much ado about the dictionary meaning of the word ‘remove’, but he is very selective in the use of the dictionary, as he apparently did not bother to consult the meaning of the word ‘should’. As an aside, the words for ‘shall’ and ‘should’ are understood but absent in Hebrew and were inserted into English to make the passages intelligible. As such, the choice of when, where, and which word to insert is a matter of preference or sense of the translator, and ought never to be used as the basis for any doctrine."

My comments regarding this discussion are:

Both Answers in Genesis and Dr. Bouw are using a Biblical translation other than the NIV or the KJV. That’s fine. But it does show how a debate on how to read the Bible is dependent on, among other things, which translation is used. With at least 21 different English translations it is surely conceivable that there may be as many as 21 different ways to understand a specific passage.

The discussion on how to correctly interpret this passage depends partly on an understanding of ancient Hebrew (i.e. the fact that ‘shall’ and ‘should’ are not present in that language) even though the translation itself is written in English. Such knowledge is certainly not something that the typical reader would be expected to possess. Therefore the typical reader would not be able to interpret this section “correctly” (according to AIG). How many other sections of the Bible can only be interpreted correctly by someone who reads that section with an understanding of the limitations of ancient Hebrew?

The Bible contains a clear message? Hardly!

But more to the point, AIG is clearly letting its interpretation be swayed by science.

This has been a long section. I can summarize it in this way:

Did Calvin, Luther, Cardinal Bellarmine and others, Protestants and Roman Catholics alike, interpret the Bible to insist that the universe is geocentric?


Did those people read the Bible with a sincere desire to understand what they considered to be the inerrant word of God?


Did they do so over and over again using tools such as an understanding of ancient Hebrew?


Has the Bible changed since they read it?


What has changed?

One thing only: scientific evidence regarding the certainty of heliocentrism has accumulated to the point that all rational people accepts it.

Conclusion: anyone who says that their interpretation of the Bible is not influenced by science is naïve and illogical (or they are Dr. Gerardus D. Bouw).

[1] http://www.tektonics.org/af/earthshape.html, referenced on July 22, 2008.
[2] http://www.answersingenesis.org/tj/v15/i2/geocentrism.asp referenced on 08/15/2007
[3] Arthur Koestler, Sleepwalkers (1959).

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