The Scriptures do not teach Young Earth Creationism. They don’t teach Old Earth Creationism either.

Taken literally they simply express themselves in the cosmology of the time they were written.  Try reading these verses with ancient eyes as the original audience would have read them…

Does this mean Scripture taught error? No. Why not?

Cosmological models, like all scientific truths, are not absolute truths. Science is made up of tentative truths which can be corrected as more is learned. What makes a scientific model “true” or “not true” depends on whether it is predictively useful.

At the time Moses wrote Genesis the ancient Hebrew view of the world as a flat disc surrounded by the primordial oceans with the dome-like firmament above was, for all practical purposes, “true” since it was useful for their needs at the time.

 This geocentric model remained “true” and useful even after the fifth century BC when just about everybody learned the earth was a sphere thanks to Greek science. For millenia it served man well and told him all he needed to know in his interactions with the rest of the universe. What came to be known as the Ptolemaic model of the cosmos was observably true and useful as long as no one needed to launch satellites into space. Certain structural elements of this ancient cosmology lasted into modern times and were defended vehemently from Scripture. The belief in the solid dome-like firmament supporting the waters above the earth (Gen. 1:6) was held by all believers to be real based on Scripture and observation into the 1600’s AD.

It is only natural for anyone reading the Bible to unconsciously impose his own worldview on the Scriptures in order to understand them. When the ancients did this they were correct to do so since it was written to them in a manner they could comprehend. When modern 21st century believers try to impose our own view of the structural elements of the physical universe on the Bible we create an anachronism. Whenever a modern believer comes across an odd verse describing the natural world the tendency is to try to force it to be scientifically correct out of its original context or to simply write it off as poetry and fail to appreciate the original impact the passage had on the ancients. Two examples will suffice:

When reading Genesis 1 both Young and Old Earthers will bend themselves into contortions to make the description of the Creation Week reflect their respective scientific views. One point which is particularly troublesome is  that God creates light on Day One, the plants on Day Three, but the Sun (which is necessary for photosynthesis if plants are to survive) on Day Four. From a modern scientific worldview this makes no sense whatsoever. Young Earthers will say it was just 24 hours so the plants would have no trouble surviving or they will do what they normally do when faced with a plausible criticism of their theory and play the “Miracle Card” so no rational explanation is necessary. Old Earthers, who consider each “day” of creation to be millions or billions of years long will usually say that the sun, moon, and stars were really created on Day One and the sun was the source of the light but that the atmosphere at that time was translucent but did not allow the Sun and stars to be seen until Day Four. It seems to me that neither view is really taking Genesis One literally. The Old Earth view seems to be a strained explanation that, while scientifically more respectable, does violence to the context. The Young Earth view, while having the merit of taking the context more literally, imposes a scientific explanation of the passage that 99% of real scientists would consider nothing more than Christian folk science. So what is the solution? How did the ancients view this particular problem in the Genesis account of Creation?

In ancient times it was believed that daylight (and moonlight) were not dependent on the sun. Although the sun’s rays added luster to daylight it wasn’t necessary for there to be light. By simple observation this idea seems to make sense: at dawn there can be light an hour or more before the sun ever comes out of his chamber in the firmament to run his course (Ps. 18[19]:5).  The moon was lucid and emitted its own light as a lamp, “Then God made two great lights: the greater light (literally, “lamp”) to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night (Gen. 1:16). St. Ambrose of Milan expresses this view in his Hexameron, “We must remember that the light of day is one thing and the light of the sun, moon, and stars another- the sun by his rays appearing to add luster to the daylight. For before sunrise the day dawns, but is not in full refulgence, for the sun adds still further to its splendour” (Hexameron, Ch. 4, sec. 3). Now reread Genesis 1:1-19 with this worldview in mind and see how much difference it makes in understanding the text. No scientific contortions are necessary, just a literal appreciation of what was really being said.

It is interesting how Young Earthers will comb the Fathers to find references to a 6000 yr. old universe or literal 24 hour days in Genesis but will totally miss what these Fathers say in those same works about other scientific ideas that follow from a literal reading of the Bible like the lucid sky/ moon, the geocentric universe, the solid dome firmament restraining the waters above the earth, that everything in creation is composed of the Four Elements (Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water), and the fact that no one can live in the Antipodes (that is, south of the equator).

When we are not trying to impose our modern scientific mindset on Scripture on passages dealing with the natural world there are scores of passages we simply skim over because we think they are just figurative or poetic.  Most of us when reading the Bible verses in the illustration above will have a hard time not simply dismissing them as “obviously figurative”. That reaction just shows how much modern science has influenced our worldview. To the ancient readers these passages were literal descriptions of the physical universe as they saw it through simple observation. Consider Psalm 148 which in the Orthodox Church we chant at the Praises for Orthros. Verse Four reads, “Praise Him, you heavens of heavens, and you waters above the heavens.” I had always liked the poetry of this verse but it has become more meaningful to me since aquainting myself with the worldview of those to whom the Psalm was originally addressed. For them this verse was quite literal. The “heavens of heavens” was the highest heaven where God was enthroned, the “waters above” was the ocean resting on the solid dome-like firmament that was created in Genesis One, the “heavens” which these waters were above is what we call the sky.

The conclusion is obvious: Scripture simply used the cosmological and physiological views of the time (e.g. “the bowels of mercy” in Col. 3:12) to reach its original audience with the “one thing needful”: the spiritual truths man needed to know for salvation.

The book of Revelation was not written to be a Christian horoscope, the idealized courtly records of the books of Chronicles were not written to be history but historiography, and Genesis was not written to be a SCIENCE of creation but a THEOLOGY of creation.

The whole point of Scripture is to teach us righteousness and how to live a God-pleasing life: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”  (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

3 Responses to Beyond Firmament Thinking

  • David says:

    Good point, Antonio- I think the Ptolemaic model is still the correct science to use when we build planetariums and when we speak to each other in daily life as well. For example, we say to each other, “The sun rose” or “The sun set” even though we know that really “The earth moved”.

    Technically even the heliocentric model is incorrect since the sun is not the center of the universe. Modern science would say we live in an acentric universe.

  • Hi David,
    Can you please provide a link or reference to sources for this statement: “the ancient Hebrew view of the world as a flat disc surrounded by the primordial oceans with the dome-like firmament above”

    Thanks

    Leigh

    • David says:

      Hi, Leigh-

      This link gives a good overview of the ancient cosmological views that everyone, not just the Hebrews, held in Biblical times before the Greeks discovered the spherical nature of the earth. Much of this cosmological view remained intact in New Testament times through the 16th century, especially the teachings regarding the firmament being a solid dome holding back the waters above the earth and having the lucid moon, sun, and stars fixed on our side of the dome. Christians as late as Calvin and Luther strenuously defended these “clear Biblical concepts” against the “godless imaginations” of Copernicus and modern science.

      link to aarweb.org

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