Theories abound on the inspiration of Scripture, from God dictating precise words to the Holy Spirit inspiring biblical authors in much the same way musicians speak of being inspired when they create a masterpiece. One theory of inspiration that holds great sway among American evangelicals particularly, states that the Bible is true in all that it affirms. But, how do we know what it is affirming, and what it is simply acknowledging?
Descriptive or Prescriptive?
Perhaps one way of making that distinction is the way in which a statement is presented. It is commonplace, for example, to speak of “descriptive” texts versus “prescriptive” texts. Are the narratives in Kings and Acts telling its readers how to behave (prescriptive)? Are they telling its readers how the characters behaved (descriptive)? Or, is it both? The narratives describe events with an implied prescription to “go and do (or don’t do!) likewise.” When the author of Kings says Jehoshaphat did “right in the eyes of the Lord” by following in the ways of his father Asa, is there not an implicit prescription to the readers that walking in the ways of the Lord is a good thing that we should emulate?
The confusion does not diminish when biblical texts have all the hallmarks of clearly affirming (or prescribing) certain behaviors. Take, for example, the Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” While this passage clearly “affirms” the Sabbath, Christians understand this prescriptive passage in rather disparate ways. Some believe this demands Christians to cease from all unnecessary activity on the seventh day (Saturday), while others think that Jesus, as Lord of the Sabbath, removed Sabbath-day stipulations altogether.
Let me attempt to illustrate the challenges inherent in understanding a biblical prescription by way of analogy with medical prescription. In the ancient world, leprosy abounded. The prescription for leprosy was banishment from the camp (Lev. 13:45–46). However, the World Health Organization not only reports that leprosy (aka Hansen’s Disease)In other words, the Bible affirms some things that most Christians today simply do not accept. is curable, but also that they envision a world in which the disease is completely eradicated. In the case of leprosy, the prescription did not benefit the infected, but the uninfected, to prevent them from becoming infected. For other situations, the Bible offers no prescription where modern medicine offers many proven prescriptions. In the ancient world, the only hope for infertility was that God would “open the womb” (Gen. 17:15–17), whereas today many fertility options exist (some of which, of course, raise various ethical concerns). Likewise, the only treatment for neurological disorders was prayer and divine intervention (Mk. 9:14–29), and Lasik surgery wasn’t available for Isaac’s failing eyes (Gen. 27:1). In other words, the Bible affirms some things that most Christians today simply do not accept.
However, most of us wouldn’t say the Bible teaches wrong medicine. In fact, we would say it doesn’t teach medicine at all. Instead, we understand that it assumes a primitive understanding of communicable diseases, anatomy, physiology, and procedural care (such as angioplasty, bone marrow transplant, chemotherapy, and dialyses). We might say that God accommodated his health-care instructions to the cultural context of his audience.
With that as the backdrop, let’s now return to the question at hand: Does the Bible teach a wrong cosmology–and, does the doctrine of accommodation shed any light on this question? The short answer to this question is two-fold. First, no, the Bible doesn’t teach a wrong cosmology, but it does assume a wrong cosmology. Second, yes, the doctrine of accommodation can shed some light on the question.
It’s well-documented that biblical cosmology is essentially ancient Near East (ANE) cosmology. There are a few elements here and there that don’t line up precisely with the rest of the ancient world, but then again, the entirety of the ancient world didn’t hold to a monolithic cosmological viewpoint. Moreover, New Testament cosmology is not identical to Old Testament cosmology. Nonetheless, broadly speaking, biblical cosmology is ANE cosmology. More precisely, Old Testament cosmology is ANE cosmology, as it was written and formed in a similar cultural environment.
Today, airline travel, Google Earth, and the Hubble Telescope provide the average person a plethora of information we use to inform our understanding of the cosmos. The ancients relied on observations from a very limited geographical reference point. Saul Steinberg’s famous cover art of The New Yorker (March 29, 1976), “A New Yorker’s View of the World,” is not too far afield from how a Babylonian viewed the world, a Memphite viewed the world, or an Israelite viewed the world. The more distant a city, mountain, river, or star, the more conjecture the ancient would be required to offer.
Given their localized perception of reality, the ancients thought about the cosmos broadly in terms of its three domains: heaven, earth, and sea. Examples abound, so let me just offer one from Mesopotamia and one from Egypt. The creation-flood epic Atra-hasis opens with Anu (god of heaven), Enlil (god of earth) and Ea (god of the sea) casting lots for possession of the heavens, the earth and the sea. We also see this tripartite construction in the Egyptian Memphite Theology:
Hail to you—by all flocks,
Jubilation to you—by all foreign lands,
To the heights of heaven, to the breadth of the earth,
To the depths of the ocean,
The gods bowing to Your Majesty…”William W. Hallow and K. Lawson Younger, eds., The Context of Scripture: Compositions from the Biblical World, (Boston: Brill, 2002), 39; 1.15.
These texts and countless others depict a consistent picture of a tri-partite cosmos consisting of the heavens, the earth, and the sea.
It’s not enough to say the cosmos was three-tiered, however. It’s also important to understand how the ancients viewed those domains. The earth itself was a flat disk, either floating on the cosmic seas, or upheld by foundational pillars. Beneath the earth were caverns and catacombs, the dark realm of the dead, as well as the wateryabyss, subterranean rivers, deities and demons. Suspended over the earth was a vaulted ceiling (best described as a firmament), supported by pillars, tent poles and lead ropes, or divine power. It separated the heavens below from the heavens above.Furthermore, the most compelling reason we know the Bible assumes an ANE cosmology, however, is that whenever advances were made in human understanding of the cosmic structure (namely, Aristotle and Copernicus), interpreters challenged the new one based on the authority of Scripture. The lower heavens were occupied by the sun, moon, and stars (planets were considered wandering stars), while the upper heavens belonged to the gods. The firmament also had the crucial role of controlling precipitation. Its gates and windows regulated the flow of rain, hail and snow from the watery reservoirs above. Cosmic waters surrounded the earth, bubbling up from the deep through springs, rivers and streams or falling from the heavens through windows.
In the same way, the Bible also affirms this three-tiered perception of reality. It is used to describe the categories of animals God created in Genesis 1: birds of the heavens, beasts of the earth, and fish of the sea. In the Ten Commandments, Sabbath is modeled after God’s rest on the seventh day after having “made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them” (Exod 20:11). In Ezra’s prayer at the Water Gate, he acknowledged God as maker of heaven, earth, and seas (Neh 9:6). The book of Proverbs recalls how the Lord in his wisdom founded the earth, established the heavens, and broke open the deep (Prov. 3:19–20).
In the Bible, as in the ANE, the earth was considered a flat disk (Dan. 4:10–11), not a sphere—despite some commentators suggesting that certain instances of “circle” (e.g., Isa. 40:2) represents such—supported by foundational pillars (Job 38:4–6). It was a relatively small plot of land, whose four corners represent the ends of the earth (Ezek. 7:2). Sheol, “the land of no return,” lay beneath the earth and was situated at the opposite end of the cosmos from the heavens (Amos 9:2). The heavens were divided into the lower and upper heavens by a dome or tent-like structure known as the firmament (Gen. 1:6–8). In the lower heavens were the birds, and the stars (1 Sam. 17:44; Isa. 14:12), which revolved around the earth (Josh. 10:12–13) and were set in the firmament (Gen. 1:14). The upper heavens were reserved for deities and angels (Job 1:6). Surrounding the entire cosmos were the cosmic seas (Gen. 7:11; Ps. 72:2). The seas above were suspended by the firmament (Gen. 1:6–7, 7:11), which had windows through which precipitation fell (2 Kgs. 7:2). The seas below were the source of springs, wells, rivers and lakes (Ezek. 31:3–5), but they were also the source of potential chaos, whose powers needed to be constrained (Hab. 3:10; Job 38:8–11). Although some of the specifics vary among cultures, this general cosmological viewpoint was held throughout the ANE. Furthermore, the most compelling reason we know the Bible assumes an ANE cosmology, however, is that whenever advances were made in human understanding of the cosmic structure (namely, Aristotle and Copernicus), interpreters challenged the new one based on the authority of Scripture.
The doctrine of accommodation is the idea that God condescends to humanity, since humans do not have God’s knowledge or understanding. It is the idea of parents “dumbing down” a principle in terms their children can understand. As children mature and have a broader knowledge-base, parents are free to provide more complicated, dare I say more accurate, answers. John Calvin explained accommodation this way:
For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to “lisp” in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1; ed. J. T. McNeill; trans. F. L. Battles; The Library of Christian Classics XX (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 99; 1.11.1.
Notice how Calvin essentially says that God speaks to us in baby talk. As infants respond to babbles and coos, rather than sentences and paragraphs, so God limits his speech to the most basic of human communication.
At what point in history will humanity have matured enough for God to have adult conversation with his children? Surely humanity hasn’t learned all there is to learn, have we?
Suppose that God revealed in Scripture the actual structure of the cosmos. At what point in history will humanity have matured enough for God to have “adult conversation” with his children? Surely humanity hasn’t learned all there is to learn, have we? Imagine for a moment, though, that we have arrived and have gained all the knowledge there is to gain about the cosmos. Imagine if Scripture described a universe which we know to be true. What would that have meant to Moses or Job or David? How would they have been able to make sense of that when everyone knew the world was a flat disc supported by pillars? From God’s perspective, would it not make more sense for him to communicate with the conventions, customs, and cultural trappings of his intended audience rather than those of its readers several millennia later? New parents do not speak to their infant as if she had an earned PhD. They speak to her according to her developmental stages. In the same way, God has spoken in history and through history according to the developmental stages of his children.
The doctrine of accommodation has its flaws. It can be pressed to account for any and every difficulty in the Bible without merit. In fact, Calvin himself used it somewhat inconsistently at times. For example, Calvin could account for the firmament by the doctrine of accommodation but saw no reason to account for his own misguided understanding of Aristotelian cosmology. Nonetheless, it is helpful to remember that God does, in fact, speak to a particular culture according to their cultural conventions. More importantly, it is necessary to recognize that God did not reveal himself according to my cultural conventions, but in an ancient time, in an ancient place and in an ancient language. It is not that the Bible teaches the wrong cosmology; rather, the Bible assumes the cosmology of its ancient culture and audience.