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The Debate over Biblical Cosmology: A Case Study in Gracious Forbearance | Righting America

by Terry Defoe

Pastor Terry Defoe is an emeritus member of the clergy who served congregations in Western Canada from 1982 to 2016, and who ministered to students on the campuses of the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. He is the author of  Evolving Certainties: Resolving Conflict at the Intersection of Faith and Science, a book which, among other things, chronicles his transition from Young Earth Creationism to evolutionary creation. Evolving Certainties is endorsed by scientists in biology, geology and physics, with a foreword written by Darrel Falk, former president of BioLogos, an organization that has as its goal the facilitating of respectful discussion of science / faith issues. Defoe has been educated at: Simon Fraser University (BA Soc); Lutheran Theological Seminary, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (M.Div.); and, Open Learning University, Burnaby, British Columbia (BA Psyc).

A Representation of Early Cosmology. Illustration via DustoftheBible.com.

Biblical cosmology is phenomenological — reflections of earth-bound observers seeking to explain various aspects of the natural realm. The ancients were without the benefit of modern science and its associated technologies. Their understanding was limited to what the eye could see. In the Old Testament book of Job, (42:3), Job admits his lack of knowledge of both material and spiritual realities when he says, “I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” The issue of phenomenology is at the root of much of the current conflict between science and faith. Old Testament professor John Walton of Wheaton College says, “There is not a single instance in the Old Testament of God giving scientific information that transcended the understanding of the ancient Israelite audience” (106).

The author of Genesis is not aware of the limitations of his own knowledge. In the Hebrew Scriptures, important theological truths are often embedded in prescientific contexts. Modern-day believers do not base their faith on scripture’s statements about the natural world. Denis Lamoureux asserts that

The earth “looks” flat, “seems” to be surrounded by water, and “feels” stationary; the sky gives the “impression” of being a blue body of water overhead, and the sun “appears” to cross the dome of the sky, rising and setting every day.… to ancient peoples like the biblical authors and their readers, these are descriptions of the actual structure and operation of the universe.

The Firmament

The Hebrew word translated “firmament” or “expanse” is “raqia,” or metal pounded flat. The ancient authors of scripture believed that the firmament supported God’s footsteps. Job 22:14 in the New English Bible says, “He walks to and fro on the dome of heaven.” The ESV translation says, similarly, “He walks on the vault of heaven.” Job 37:18 has a question for God’s servant: “Can you join God in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze?” And Isaiah 40:22 says, “God sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and his people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.”  The builders of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) were convinced they could build a tower that would reach the firmament.

The Israelites believed that the stars were quite small and fixed to the firmament. The stars sometimes dislodged, falling to the earth. This idea was carried forward into the New Testament (Revelation 6:13), where the apostle John says “… the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind.” In the fifteenth century, some scholars (called “philosophers” in those days) began to question the idea of a firmament. Luther (1483-1546) insisted on a literal interpretation of the relevant texts:

Scripture says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven, below and above which heaven are the waters… It is likely that the stars are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night… We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if so far beyond our comprehension like those before as concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe that rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding (30).

Israel’s cosmology was similar to that of surrounding near eastern nations, especially Egypt and Babylon. There were differences, however. And those differences were theologically significant. For example, the author of Genesis carefully pointed out that astronomical bodies were not autonomous divinities able to control human behavior, as was believed in neighboring nations, but were inanimate entities under God’s control. 

Paradigm Shift

A typical sixteenth-century scientist, Polish priest Nicholaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was a man of faith. Somewhere around 1514 (the date is uncertain) he proposed a radical new theory, subsequently called heliocentrism, arguing that the earth orbits the sun, not vice versa. Physicist Stephen Hawking pointed out that the theory was first circulated anonymously, perhaps fearing that Copernicus would be labeled a heretic (3). Heliocentrism caused consternation among theologians because of verses like 1 Chronicles 16:30: “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” 

Galileo (1564-1642) was asked to write an account which would lay out the arguments pro and con. He was instructed not to take sides. But that’s exactly what he did. Galileo displayed what Stephen Jay Gould called “… a fatal impetuosity,” the behavior of “…a frightfully undiplomatic hothead who brought unnecessary trouble on his own head” (88). Incidentally, in 1992, 350 years after Galileo’s death, Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) admitted, on behalf of the Catholic church, that errors had been made by the theological advisors in their persecution of Galileo.


Martin Luther was a contemporary of Copernicus. He shared the geocentric cosmology of the  learned people of his day. Luther refused to budge from the standard scriptural interpretation which claimed that the earth did not move. This, however, is not the end of the story. The  Lutheran Church never took an official position against the Copernican theory. As Russell Moulds has established, Luther and his colleagues at Wittenberg University included the Copernican heliocentric model in their curriculum, despite the radical, counterintuitive, and exegetical problems status of that theory (40). Paradoxically, the Lutheran University of Wittenberg actually played a central role in promoting heliocentrism. 

Despite Luther’s biblically grounded skepticism, Lutherans openly considered and embraced heliocentrism without fear of reprisal. According to Moulds, “this approach fostered the study of what was current and emerging in the arts, letters, and sciences without necessarily endorsing the content as conclusive” (40). Lutherans granted early scientists the autonomy to understand nature on its own terms, and for this they played a key role in shaping the modern scientific enterprise. 

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was a devout Lutheran, best known for his laws of planetary motion. As A. J. Swamidass explains

Kepler’s introduction to Astronomia Nova included a careful exegetical study, analysis of Psalm 104 and Joshua, showing these passages did not put science at odds with the Bible. . . . As a scientist, I admire Kepler’s obvious and diligent brilliance. I identify with his worshipful devotion to the Creator in his study of creation. I also aspire to Luther’s graceful forbearance of those who disagreed with him (84)

Kepler pointed out that science could assist investigators in learning about God’s creative will. (Gribbin, 2003, p. 52) Faithful individuals the likes of Augustine, Kepler and Galileo encouraged the church to acknowledge scientific advances and let those insights inform church teachings. As Ted Davis says:

Kepler used the Augustinian principle of accommodation to justify the figurative interpretation of biblical references to the motion of the sun. The Bible, he noted, speaks in a very human way about ordinary matters in a manner that can be understood, using ordinary speech to convey loftier theological truths. Thus, the literal sense of texts making reference to nature should not be mistaken for accurate scientific statements (36).


Many Christians are unaware of the fact that the Big Bang theory was initially proposed by Father George LeMaitre, (1894-1966) a Jesuit priest, friend of Albert Einstein and leading scientist in Belgium. According to the theory, the universe expanded from a high density state approximately 13.8 billion years ago. In 1951, LeMaitre’s theory was officially pronounced to be in accordance with Roman Catholic teaching. 

The earth is 4.5 billion years old. In order to assist viewers in grasping the magnitude of that number, producers of a Nova TV Special used the analogy of a vehicle traveling at the rate of one million years per minute. This vehicle would have to travel nonstop just over three days (74 hours) to reach the equivalent  of 4.5 billion years. As explained in PBS’ “Australia: First Four Billion Years” that’s at the rate of 1 million years per minute. 

A growing number of Christians today believe that God has continuously supervised an evolutionary process, a point of view called evolutionary creation. The New Testament book of Hebrews, chapter 1, verse 3, says that God “… sustains all things by his powerful word.” The Apostle Paul adds “… All things were created through him, and for him: and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16-17) In Romans 1:20, we read: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…”