Warfare of Science with Theology   Chapter I: Geography

The Form of the Earth

AMONG various rude tribes we find survivals of a primitive idea that the earth is a flat table or disk, ceiled, domed, or canopied by the sky, and that the sky rests upon the mountains as pillars. Such a belief is entirely natural; it conforms to the appearance of things, and hence at a very early period entered into various theologies.

In the civilizations of Chaldea and Egypt it was very fully developed. The Assyrian inscriptions deciphered in these latter years represent the god Marduk as in the beginning creating the heavens and the earth: the earth rests upon the waters; within it is the realm of the dead; above it is spread ``the firmament'' - a solid dome coming down to the horizon on all sides and resting upon foundations laid in the ``great waters'' which extend around the earth.

On the east and west sides of this domed firmament are doors, through which the sun enters in the morning and departs at night; above it extends another ocean, which goes down to the ocean surrounding the earth at the horizon on all sides, and which is supported and kept away from the earth by the firmament. Above the firmament and the upper ocean which it supports is the interior of heaven.

The Egyptians considered the earth as a table, flat and oblong, the sky being its ceiling - a huge ``firmament'' of metal. At the four corners of the earth were the pillars supporting this firmament, and on this solid sky were the ``waters above the heavens.'' They believed that, when chaos was taking form, one of the gods by main force raised the waters on high and spread them out over the firmament; that on the under side of this solid vault, or ceiling, or firmament, the stars were suspended to light the earth, and that the rains were caused by the letting down of the waters through its windows. This idea and others connected with it seem to have taken strong hold of the Egyptian priestly caste, entering into their theology and sacred science: ceilings of great temples, with stars, constellations, planets, and signs of the zodiac figured upon them, remain to-day as striking evidences of this.

In Persia we have theories of geography based upon similar conceptions and embalmed in sacred texts.

From these and doubtless from earlier sources common to them all came geographical legacies to the Hebrews. Various passages in their sacred books, many of them noble in conception and beautiful in form, regarding ``the foundation of the earth upon the waters,'' ``the fountains of the great deep,'' ``the compass upon the face of the depth,'' the ``firmament,'' the ``corners of the earth,'' the ``pillars of heaven,'' the ``waters above the firmament,'' the ``windows of heaven,'' and ``doors of heaven,'' point us back to both these ancient springs of thought.

But, as civilization was developed, there were evolved, especially among the Greeks, ideas of the earth's sphericity. The Pythagoreans, Plato, and Aristotle especially cherished them. These ideas were vague, they were mixed with absurdities, but they were germ ideas, and even amid the luxuriant growth of theology in the early Christian Church these germs began struggling into life in the minds of a few thinking men, and these men renewed the suggestion that the earth is a globe.

A few of the larger-minded fathers of the Church, influenced possibly by Pythagorean traditions, but certainly by Aristotle and Plato, were willing to accept this view, but the majority of them took fright at once. To them it seemed fraught with dangers to Scripture, by which, of course, they meant their interpretation of Scripture. Among the first who took up arms against it was Eusebius. In view of the New Testament texts indicating the immediately approaching, end of the world, he endeavoured to turn off this idea by bringing scientific studies into contempt. Speaking of investigators, he said, ``It is not through ignorance of the things admired by them, but through contempt of their useless labour, that we think little of these matters, turning our souls to better things.'' Basil of Caesarea declared it ``a matter of no interest to us whether the earth is a sphere or a cylinder or a disk, or concave in the middle like a fan.'' Lactantius referred to the ideas of those studying astronomy as ``bad and senseless,'' and opposed the doctrine of the earth's sphericity both from Scripture and reason. St. John Chrysostom also exerted his influence against this scientific belief; and Ephraem Syrus, the greatest man of the old Syrian Church, widely known as the ``lute of the Holy Ghost,'' opposed it no less earnestly.

But the strictly biblical men of science, such eminent fathers and bishops as Theophilus of Antioch in the second century, and Clement of Alexandria in the third, with others in centuries following, were not content with merely opposing what they stigmatized as an old heathen theory; they drew from their Bibles a new Christian theory, to which one Church authority added one idea and another another, until it was fully developed. Taking the survival of various early traditions, given in the seventh verse of the first chapter of Genesis, they insisted on the clear declarations of Scripture that the earth was, at creation, arched over with a solid vault, ``a firmament,'' and to this they added the passages from Isaiah and the Psalms, in which it declared that the heavens are stretched out ``like a curtain,'' and again ``like a tent to dwell in.'' The universe, then, is like a house: the earth is its ground floor, the firmament its ceiling, under which the Almighty hangs out the sun to rule the day and the moon and stars to rule the night. This ceiling is also the floor of the apartment above, and in this is a cistern, shaped, as one of the authorities says, ``like a bathing-tank,'' and containing ``the waters which are above the firmament.'' These waters are let down upon the earth by the Almighty and his angels through the ``windows of heaven.'' As to the movement of the sun, there was a citation of various passages in Genesis, mixed with metaphysics in various proportions, and this was thought to give ample proofs from the Bible that the earth could not be a sphere.

In the sixth century this development culminated in what was nothing less than a complete and detailed system of the universe, claiming to be based upon Scripture, its author being the Egyptian monk Cosmas Indicopleustes. Egypt was a great treasure-house of theologic thought to various religions of antiquity, and Cosmas appears to have urged upon the early Church this Egyptian idea of the construction of the world, just as another Egyptian ecclesiastic, Athanasius, urged upon the Church the Egyptian idea of a triune deity ruling the world. According to Cosmas, the earth is a parallelogram, flat, and surrounded by four seas. It is four hundred days' journey long and two hundred broad. At the outer edges of these four seas arise massive walls closing in the whole structure and supporting the firmament or vault of the heavens, whose edges are cemented to the walls. These walls inclose the earth and all the heavenly bodies.

The whole of this theologico-scientific structure was built most carefully and, as was then thought, most scripturally. Starting with the expression applied in the ninth chapter of Hebrews to the tabernacle in the desert, Cosmas insists, with other interpreters of his time, that it gives the key to the whole construction of the world. The universe is, therefore, made on the plan of the Jewish tabernacle - boxlike and oblong. Going into details, he quotes the sublime words of Isaiah: ``It is He that sitteth upon the circle of the earth;... that stretcheth out the heavens like a curtain, and spreadeth them out like a tent to dwell in''; and the passage in Job which speaks of the ``pillars of heaven.'' He works all this into his system, and reveals, as he thinks, treasures of science.

This vast box is divided into two compartments, one above the other. In the first of these, men live and stars move; and it extends up to the first solid vault, or firmament, above which live the angels, a main part of whose business it is to push and pull the sun and planets to and fro. Next, he takes the text, ``Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters,'' and other texts from Genesis; to these he adds the text from the Psalms, ``Praise him, ye heaven of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens'' then casts all, and these growths of thought into his crucible together, finally brings out the theory that over this first vault is a vast cistern containing ``the waters.'' He then takes the expression in Genesis regarding the ``windows of heaven'' and establishes a doctrine regarding the regulation of the rain, to the effect that the angels not only push and pull the heavenly bodies to light the earth, but also open and close the heavenly windows to water it.

To understand the surface of the earth, Cosmas, following the methods of interpretation which Origen and other early fathers of the Church had established, studies the table of shew-bread in the Jewish tabernacle. The surface of this table proves to him that the earth is flat, and its dimensions prove that the earth is twice as long as broad; its four corners symbolize the four seasons; the twelve loaves of bread, the twelve months; the hollow about the table proves that the ocean surrounds the earth. To account for the movement of the sun, Cosmas suggests that at the north of the earth is a great mountain, and that at night the sun is carried behind this; but some of the commentators ventured to express a doubt here: they thought that the sun was pushed into a pit at night and pulled out in the morning.

Nothing can be more touching in its simplicity than Cosmas's summing up of his great argument, He declares, ``We say therefore with Isaiah that the heaven embracing the universe is a vault, with Job that it is joined to the earth, and with Moses that the length of the earth is greater than its breadth.'' The treatise closes with rapturous assertions that not only Moses and the prophets, but also angels and apostles, agree to the truth of his doctrine, and that at the last day God will condemn all who do not accept it.

Although this theory was drawn from Scripture, it was also, as we have seen, the result of an evolution of theological thought begun long before the scriptural texts on which it rested were written. It was not at all strange that Cosmas, Egyptian as he was, should have received this old Nile-born doctrine, as we see it indicated to-day in the structure of Egyptian temples, and that he should have developed it by the aid of the Jewish Scriptures; but the theological world knew nothing of this more remote evolution from pagan germs; it was received as virtually inspired, and was soon regarded as a fortress of scriptural truth. Some of the foremost men in the Church devoted themselves to buttressing it with new texts and throwing about it new outworks of theological reasoning; the great body of the faithful considered it a direct gift from the Almighty. Even in the later centuries of the Middle Ages John of San Geminiano made a desperate attempt to save it. Like Cosmas, he takes the Jewish tabernacle as his starting-point, and shows how all the newer ideas can be reconciled with the biblical accounts of its shape, dimensions, and furniture.

From this old conception of the universe as a sort of house, with heaven as its upper story and the earth as its ground floor, flowed important theological ideas into heathen, Jewish, and Christian mythologies. Common to them all are legends regarding attempts of mortals to invade the upper apartment from the lower. Of such are the Greek legends of the Aloidae, who sought to reach heaven by piling up mountains, and were cast down; the Chaldean and Hebrew legends of the wicked who at Babel sought to build ``a tower whose top may reach heaven,'' which Jehovah went down from heaven to see, and which he brought to naught by the ``confusion of tongues''; the Hindu legend of the tree which sought to grow into heaven and which Brahma blasted; and the Mexican legend of the giants who sought to reach heaven by building the Pyramid of Cholula, and who were overthrown by fire from above.

Myths having this geographical idea as their germ developed in luxuriance through thousands of years. Ascensions to heaven and descents from it, ``translations,'' ``assumptions,'' ``annunciations,'' mortals ``caught up'' into it and returning, angels flying between it and the earth, thunderbolts hurled down from it, mighty winds issuing from its corners, voices speaking from the upper floor to men on the lower, temporary openings of the floor of heaven to reveal the blessedness of the good, ``signs and wonders'' hung out from it to warn the wicked, interventions of every kind - from the heathen gods coming down on every sort of errand, and Jehovah coming down to walk in Eden in the cool of the day, to St. Mark swooping down into the market-place of Venice to break the shackles of a slave - all these are but features in a vast evolution of myths arising largely from this geographical germ.

Nor did this evolution end here. Naturally, in this view of things, if heaven was a loft, hell was a cellar; and if there were ascensions into one, there were descents into the other. Hell being so near, interferences by its occupants with the dwellers of the earth just above were constant, and form a vast chapter in medieval literature. Dante made this conception of the location of hell still more vivid, and we find some forms of of it serious barriers to geographical investigation. Many a bold navigator, who was quite ready to brave pirates and tempests, trembled at the thought of tumbling with his ship into one of the openings into hell which a widespread belief placed in the Atlantic at some unknown distance from Europe. This terror among sailors was one of the main obstacles in the great voyage of Columbus. In a medieval text-book, giving science the form of a dialogue, occur the following question and answer: ``Why is the sun so red in the evening?'' ``Because he looketh down upon hell.''

But the ancient germ of scientific truth in geography - the idea of the earth's sphericity - still lived. Although the great majority of the early fathers of the Church, and especially Lactantius, had sought to crush it beneath the utterances attributed to Isaiah, David, and St. Paul, the better opinion of Eudoxus and Aristotle could not be forgotten. Clement of Alexandria and Origen had even supported it. Ambrose and Augustine had tolerated it, and, after Cosmas had held sway a hundred years, it received new life from a great churchman of southern Europe, Isidore of Seville, who, however fettered by the dominant theology in many other things, braved it in this. In the eighth century a similar declaration was made in the north of Europe by another great Church authority, Bede. Against the new life thus given to the old truth, the sacred theory struggled long and vigorously but in vain. Eminent authorities in later ages, like Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, and Vincent of Beauvais, felt obliged to accept the doctrine of the earth's sphericity, and as we approach the modern period we find its truth acknowledged by the vast majority of thinking men. The Reformation did not at first yield fully to this better theory. Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin were very strict in their adherence to the exact letter of Scripture. Even Zwingli, broad as his views generally were, was closely bound down in this matter, and held to the opinion of the fathers that a great firmament, or floor, separated the heavens from the earth; that above it were the waters and angels, and below it the earth and man.

The main scope given to independent thought on this general subject among the Reformers was in a few minor speculations regarding the universe which encompassed Eden, the exact character of the conversation of the serpent with Eve, and the like.

In the times immediately following the Reformation matters were even worse. The interpretations of Scripture by Luther and Calvin became as sacred to their followers as the Scripture itself. When Calixt ventured, in interpreting the Psalms, to question the accepted belief that ``the waters above the heavens'' were contained in a vast receptacle upheld by a solid vault, he was bitterly denounced as heretical.

In the latter part of the sixteenth century Musaeus interpreted the accounts in Genesis to mean that first God made the heavens for the roof or vault, and left it there on high swinging until three days later he put the earth under it. But the new scientific thought as to the earth's form had gained the day. The most sturdy believers were obliged to adjust their, biblical theories to it as best they could.