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How Figurative is the Geocentricity Question?
a response to James B. Jordan by Philip Stott
In the Spring 1993 edition of Contra Mundum James B. Jordan published an essay "The Geocentricity Question", which has found wide acceptance. Jordanís essay was the driving influence behind a similar dismissal of geocentricity by Garry North ["Geocentricity - Geostationism: The Flat Earth Temptation"]. Both portray the notion that geocentricity is on a par with a flat earth. In a recent revival of interest in geocentricity over the electronic information channels of cyberspace this idea was described by Dr. John Byl as "not helpful". I believe it important to see why Jordanís essay, although appealing in many ways, is indeed not very helpful for an understanding of geocentricity and its relation to scripture.
Jordan points out that the Bible often speaks figuratively. Quite so. God is the author and creator of language, he gave the first language, fully formed, to Adam, and gave a multitude of other languages at the confusion of tongues at Babel. Language includes figures of speech, poetry, analogy etc. We can expect that God will use all the richness of linguistic possibility in His word. But one of the essential features of language is that one can tell when figure of speech is being used, and when literal meaning in intended.
Jordanís main thrust in dismissing geocentricity is his implication that the Scriptures refer to cosmology, the structure of the universe and the earthís position in it, in a manner that is identical to the way that it touches on the shape of the earth.
Jordanís attempt to demonstrate a plausible case that "the Bible unquestionably and inerrantly teaches that the earth is flat and square", loses credibility with his very first "proof". He notes that the Bible speaks of the "ends of the earth". But a flat square does not have "ends". It has sides and corners. If Jordan wants to suggest it is possible to misinterpret the obvious fact that a figure of speech is intended, then he must accept that the Bible here points to the earth being like a rod or an elongated rectangle or perhaps even a piece of string, but certainly not a flat square. Jordan would also have problems with Isaiah 40:22, which speaks of God sitting on the circle of the earth. If he is to maintain his pose that the Bible could be construed as teaching a flat earth then either it must be a disc, or Jordan must have found a way to square the circle!
Jordan digresses into a theological discourse on the Bibleís teaching that the earth is a house and heaven a fortress. The apparent point of this is to reiterate that the Bible uses figurative language. I suspect it would be hard to find anyone who would challenge that fact. A question which might warrant more serious consideration, but which Jordan ignores, is: "are there any passages which are clearly NOT figurative, which appear to give a teaching on the shape of the earth?" I would hesitate to claim definitively that there are, though perhaps Proverbs 8:27 "When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth:" and Isaiah 40:22 "It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth" may possible come close. There appear to be no commonly used figurative expression equivalent to "the ends of the earth" intended here, so one might consider that a circle or a sphere could be actually and literally indicated. Since it is the face of the deep on which God set his compass, rather than its periphery, one could perhaps make a case for a sphere rather than a disk.
If a serious search is actually being undertaken it might be helpful to ask a slightly different question. Are there passages which NECESSARILY IMPLY a shape for the earth? I believe there could be. We are told in Luke 17 of Jesusí second coming that it will occur as lightning flashes from one end of the heaven to the other, or as Paul put it, "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye". Now Jesus says of that moment (Luke 17:34-36) "I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left. Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left."
An implication could be that for some (grinding meal, working in the field) it is daytime, while for others (those in bed) it is night at the same instant. That fits well with a spherical form for the earth, not with any kind of flat shape. So unless one is going to propose unusual laws of physics, like light traveling in tight curves rather than approximately in straight lines, one could tentatively conclude that if the Bible does point to a shape for the earth, a sphere is considerably more likely than a flat square.
But the fact that there has not been major discord in the Church over whether the Bible teaches a flat earth or not suggests that Jordan's thrust in this direction may be of little relevance anyway.
Now what about the question of the position of the earth. Do we find, as in the case of the shape of the earth, some figures of speech which if given a literal interpretation could be taken to imply one thing, some another? Let us take the texts put forward by Jordan.
Psalm 19:6 His [the sunís] going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it:
The apparent implication is that the sun has a circuit, rather than that the earth turns.
Ecclesiastes 1:5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
The apparent implication is that the sun hastens across the heavens, rather than that the earth turns.
Jordanís next text, Psalm 76:8 The earth feared and was still, is dubious. The apparent meaning of "still" in this context is "silent", and this text probably has nothing to say to the problem on hand.
Joshua 10:13 so the sun stood still in the midst of heaven and hasted not to go down about a whole day.
Again the implication seems to be the sun stopping its motion, rather than the earth stopping a rotation.
Now these could all be examples of figurative language, but they are noticeably consistent in suggesting the motion of the sun, not a rotation of the earth. There are other texts that Jordan does not mention, which are also consistent in suggesting the movement of the sun, but not the rotation of the earth. Although there does remain the possibility that they could all be figurative, unlike the texts that obviously speak figuratively of the earthís form they all say the same thing. But what of texts which hold IMPLICATIONS for cosmology? Consider Genesis 1:1-12. There is the possibility that Genesis 1:1 may be equivalent to a chapter or section heading. Be that as it may, it is clear that the earth was created very early in creation week, and was pretty much in the form we know by the third day.
The sun and the other heavenly bodies were created later, on the fourth day. Verses 14 and 15 show that they are peripheral, and their purpose is that of serving the earth. These statements fit in very naturally with the concept that the earth is central and stationary. On the other hand there is a problem for the popular idea that the earth actually orbits the sun - a body created after the earth was already in place.
There is another, less obvious, but very significant implication of Genesis 1. Jordan makes a major issue of the firmament, and this could be the strongest arguments against his case. Genesis 1:7 tells of the firmament dividing the waters below from the waters above. The waters below were soon transformed into the earth more-or less as we know it today. The waters above are apparently still there, or at least, they were when David wrote Psalm 148. Verse 4 speaks of "ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens". Measurements of the cosmic background suggest a temperature at the limits of the universe of about minus two hundred and seventy degrees Celsius. It seems fairly likely that at that temperature water would be frozen solid and could be very hard (though we would need to know its pressure, etc. to be sure). There might well be the kind of hard boundary which Jordan takes such pains to show the scriptures indicate, but even if none of this water is frozen, it still forms the upper boundary of the firmament of the heavens. Now the relevance of this for the geocentricity question is the clear scriptural indication that the universe is finite and bounded. This is confirmed by Psalm 8:1, which speaks of the Lord "who hast set thy glory above the heavens". This does not exclude the possibility that Godís glory may be infinite and unbounded, but the created universe appears to be finite and bounded - Godís glory stretches above it.
This is important because the universe that we have been led to believe in, a vast, unbounded structure with its centre everywhere and its circumference nowhere, is deduced from initial assumptions. Those assumptions specifically include an unbounded universe and a denial of the possibility that the earth could be "special". Such assumptions are arbitrary and definitely unscriptural. The arbitrary nature of such assumptions was admitted by two of the most famous cosmological theorists of our time, Stephen Hawking and George Ellis, in "The Large Scale Structure of Space Time", where they describe these assumptions as an "admixture of ideology". Ellis, however, later conceded "I can construct you a spherically symmetrical universe with Earth at its centre, and you cannot disprove it based on observations." (1) That conclusion, the earth is at the centre of a spherically symmetrical universe, follows naturally on the acceptance of a bounded creation. Since this geocentric conclusion cannot be disproved by any known observation, since its assumptions fit in perfectly with Biblical indications, since many observations suggest that the earth is, indeed a very special place, and since repeated attempts to measure the motion of the earth through space have failed to prove that it is moving, this view seems to have a good chance of being correct. It has certainly never been scientifically refuted.
Jordan ends his essay by claiming that the geocentricity question has no relevance to Christianity. His final statement "Evolution and chronology are theological issues; geocentricity is not", displays an amazing disregard for history.
Historically we find that as soon as geocentricity was discarded, the view that the earth was not in any way special lead to the perfectly reasonable conclusion that life must exist elsewhere. Giordano Bruno, for example, one of the first to accept Copernicusí idea soon convinced himself that there must be vast numbers of inhabited worlds in the universe. This immediately raised theological questions. If God created intelligent beings elsewhere, did they also fall into sin? If so did Christ have to die for them? Has He been crucified multiple times on multiple planets?
Apart from such obvious theological considerations, it was specifically the issue of geocentricity which led to the secularisation of science. The popular distortions of the Galileo affair (2) tend to obscure the truth about most of the issues involved, but on this one point, the rejection of Biblical inerrancy, there is no doubt. Lutherís vigorous stand against heliocentricity as an attack on the reliability of scripture is well known. Melanchthon, in his "Elements of Physics" states that the scriptures clearly teach that the earth stands fast and the sun moves around it. In his commentary on Psalm 93:1 Calvin wrote: "The heavens revolve daily; immense as is their fabric, and inconceivable the rapidity of their revolutions" - a clear refutation of Copernicus and his heliocentrism. Until scientists convinced the world that geocentricity was a primitive, foolish idea contradicted by vast quantities of evidence, practically all Bible scholars took it as obvious that the Scriptures taught geocentricity - in exactly the same way that Bible scholars solidly upheld special creation until scientists convinced the world that there was a vast quantity of evidence proving evolution. In both cases there is actually none which can stand up to close scrutiny.
Even today the secular humanists delight in pointing to Galileoís "proof" that geocentricity was untenable as the first "proof" that the Bible is not inerrant. (3)
Christians are using the argument "the church was wrong about its interpretation of the Bible in pointing to geocentricity, could it not be equally wrong in its interpretation as far as evolution and chronology goes?"(4)
I believe Jordan is mistaken:- geocentricity certainly is a theological issue, an important one, and it needs to be considered far more seriously than his essay suggests.
Philip R. Stott
4 Exactly this argument was used as one platform of the defence in a trial held at the 1996 General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church examining the case of a ruling elder who taught that Adam had animal ancestors.