The highest heavens belong to the LORD,
but the earth he has given to mankind. (Ps. 115:16)
When Copernicus published his theory, challenging Ptolemy’s model (second century A.D.) and favoring that of Aristarchus of Samos (third century B.C.), that the sun not the earth is the center of the solar system, he could not stand outside his earth-bound frame of reference to prove that the earth, on which he stood, rotates daily on an invisible axis and annually revolves around the sun while suspended in space without any visible hanger. His earth-boundedness constrained him to present his theory with a constructed model, an analogical representation of his conceptual hypothesis. Unsurprisingly his proposition met resistance from scientists and theologians, Catholics and Protestants alike.
That Martin Luther, Philipp Melancthon, John Calvin, and others rejected Copernicus’ paradigm-altering theory is understandable, though regrettable. Many Christians, from the Renaissance-Reformation era until now, have assumed too readily that we must choose between Moses, a prophet, and Copernicus, a cathedral canon—that both cannot be correct. Though rejection of Copernicus’ model of cosmology is regrettable, more lamentable is the rejection of the Bible’s cosmology. Now, when confronted with the two cosmologies, our sinful human proclivity is to reject Scripture’s cosmology as not only naïveThough rejection of Copernicus’ model of cosmology is regrettable, more lamentable is the rejection of the Bible’s cosmology. but wrong in favor of the cosmology learned through scientific discoveries. Uncritical confidence in the efficacy of the methods of science applied to all fields of research presumes to establish a loftier, more palatable cosmology and worldview to explain reality rather than the Bible’s alleged outmoded, non-scientific cosmology.
Commendable is the acceptance of both cosmologies but only after one acknowledges that a scientific cosmology compels Christians to ponder the function of each cosmology. Christians are obligated to give faithful thought concerning the function of the cosmology first presented in the creation account and sustained throughout the Scriptures, the earth-bounded frame of reference, the Bible’s cosmology. The truthfulness, validity, and function of this creaturely, earth-bounded and methodical cosmology portrayed in Scripture is not invalidated, nullified, or threatened by the proper function of a cosmology discoverable through scientific inquiry with the aid of the telescope and mathematics. Rather, Scripture’s portrayal of an orderly cosmos, worthy and capable of inquiry, grounds scientific investigation. The two cosmologies do not necessarily exclude one another because they have divergent functions in two different spheres.
Cosmology, Worldview, and Chronological Snobbery
Though the functions of these two cosmologies differ and do so within their own spheres, in our post-Enlightenment culture where science is extolled as the truly objective approach that gives us the right understanding of reality, Scripture’s portrayal of reality is banished and replaced by the presumed correct perspective on reality, a scientifically derived cosmology and worldview. This culturally directed scientism presumes (1) that apart from science we cannot correctly portray reality, (2) that it is through science, not religion (especially Christianity), that we properly come to understand reality, and (3) that if we would develop lives that are examined, engaged, relevant, responsible, and serviceable we must turn to science, not religion. Reality is defined according to this prevailing theoretical view of things as though science can see through and behind what most of us understand as reality to tell us what holds it together and what makes it appear to be what it is not. Even God is viewed as an aspect of the façade of reality. Those who unduly extol science presume that science gives them access to know what really happens backstage and to know what is real. For Christians the temptation is to regard science as having the power to show how God created all things while the Bible may tell us that he created everything.
For Christians the temptation is to regard science as having the power to show how God created all things while the Bible may tell us that he created everything.
Today, few Christians resist acceptance of Copernicus’ theory, but many have given inadequate thought to the functions of its cosmology or to the Bible’s cosmology and how the two correlate. For example, the notion that Scripture’s writers use phenomenological language to distinguish appearance from reality when speaking of the sun rising and setting is to retrofit the Bible (Eccl. 1:5; Ps. 19:6). This and other attempts to harmonize the cosmology of the creation account with a modern scientific cosmology, often called “scientific concordism,” warrants rebuff.
We must guard against retrofitting the Bible’s cosmology with a modern one. We also must be wary of “chronological snobbery” that demeans the earth-inhabiting-perspective concerning reality and lionizes the current scientific cosmology as superior by identifying Scripture’s creation cosmology as ancient science proved wrong by modern science. Some insist that Scripture’s portrayal of the heavens and earth reflects an ancient science common among pagan nations surrounding Israel, such as Babylon and Egypt, which Israel’s God accommodated throughout Scripture. Advocates of this view engage in a “scientific concordism” of their own by insisting that the Bible’s cosmology introduced in Genesis 1–2 is concordant with the Ancient Near Eastern science believed by pagans and Scripture’s authors alike. Accordingly, God chose to accommodate an errant ancient science to reveal his inerrant message that calls for all to believe that he created all things but says nothing about how he created them.
The Condescension of Revelation
When the Creator authorized the account of his creative acts (Genesis 1–2), did God encase a kernel of truth within a husk of error? Did God conform his revelatory speech to the errant beliefs of his human audience, the Israelites, whose creation story is in concord with that of the Egyptians and Babylonians? Do Christian theologians, as some object, use the idea of divine accommodation only in portions of Scripture where the inference is inescapable that it speaks falsely?
None of this correctly comprehends or represents what Christian theologians since the early church have meant when they articulate Scripture’s doctrine of God’s condescension, less precisely called accommodation. The concept is simple: because God alone can span the Creator-creature divide, the being (ontological) and knowing (noetic) gap between God and humans, he condescends to us, his creatures. Because God made us after his likeness he reveals himself to us by using human words and manifests himself in human forms throughout the entirety of Scripture; every portion of Scripture, however obscure, is due to God’s condescension to speak as a human. Bavinck expresses this well:
And inasmuch as the revelation of God in nature and in Scripture is specifically addressed to humanity, it is a human language in which God speaks to us of himself. For that reason the words he employs are human words; for the same reason he manifests himself in human forms. From this it follows that Scripture does not just contain a few scattered anthropomorphisms but is anthropomorphic through and through.Reformed Dogmatics, 2.99.
That God condescends to reveal himself analogically, using human language and forms, is no limitation on him but for our eternal benefit, displayed most gloriously when the Word became one of us, in the flesh (John 1:14). Were God to disclose himself to us univocally, in deific language and without form, we would have no knowledge of him; if we heard anything we might say, “It thundered” (John 12:29).
Because our Creator made us in his image all our knowledge of God and our relationship with him derive from the fact that we are his earthly analogs who bear his imprinted, integral, and ineffaceable image. Sin now distorts both our reflection of God’s likeness and our understanding of all things, including his revelation in word and creation, but this divine image is his revelatory nexus organically embedded into our very being. So, apart from this imprinted analogical revelation we would be as animals with no God-imaged knowledge of the Creator or of his creation. Because we are imprinted with this analogical reflection of God we have both an intrinsic awareness of deity and an inherent sense of our dignity above all other created things.
Genesis records God’s own human-oriented portraying of his creative acts told not from his divine and heavenly vantage point but from within his creation itself, an earth-bounded third-person perspective. His account tells how, even before he formed the first human from the ground, he condescended to the earthly human frame of reference as he creates the heavens and the earth and everything that fills them within a period of six earthly days (Exod. 20:11). He tells his authorized account of creation as one who condescended to enter his creation and walk on the earth with his crowning creation, humans (Gen. 3:8). God portrays the origin, development, and shape of his creation, the material realm where the entire unfolding history of redemption takes place, deliverance of humans and of his whole creation from the curse (Rom. 8:20-21). This is the world where the Word became incarnatedGod’s revelatory word focuses on his creative and redemptive acts concerning humans and their dwelling place. as a human, where he lived, died, and rose again. Nowhere in the vastness of God’s creation has any event displayed the glory of the Creator more than this one that took place on the earth. Therefore, God’s revelatory word focuses on his creative and redemptive acts concerning humans and their dwelling place.
We have all been subjected to the notion that an out-in-space orientation that regards the earth as a small orb rotating on its axis while orbiting the sun is a superior way to express cosmological reality than to speak from our earthly perspective of the sun rising and setting. When sending a spacecraft to study another planet an extraterrestrial frame of reference or model may be more useful than a terrestrial orientation. A camera focused on the earth from millions of miles in outer space shows the earth as a bluish marble in a vast ocean of darkness and stellar light. From this scientifically achieved vantage point, the earth and its inhabitants, too small to be seen, are portrayed as insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Such a perspective tends to trivialize the God-authorized perspective from which we are to think about the earth as the place where God interacts with humans and brings about his unfolding drama of redemption in and through the Word who became flesh and dwelled among us (John 1:14).
We Christians acknowledge that the night-day sequence occurs because our planet rotates on its axis and seasons change as the earth makes its annual journey around the sun. Yet, we are earth-dwellers whose earth-oriented cosmology functions for all our needs as designed by our Creator. Not to accommodate uneducated folks but because they themselves are earth-dwellers, meteorologists daily announce when the sun will rise and set. At issue is the presumption that modern science provides true access to superior knowledge of reality which peoples of ages past lacked because they had no microscopes, no knowledge of subatomic particles, and were without telescopes or space travel. Scientists use their discipline’s symbolic language to describe reality,God reveals himself to us on the human scale, from within the earthly frame of reference, and most significantly through his Son who became human, and this revelation is sufficient. but their instruments provide neither access nor representation of things in God’s creation as they truly are (univocal). As with Copernicus’ analogical model, when scientists describe the tiniest speck, whether on a microscope slide or a distant star illusorily brought close by a telescope, invisible to the unaided human eye, they invariably convey their insights analogically, comparing the imperceptible to the perceptible with representations, models, and images. Scientists, no less than theologians, are earth-bounded humans in every way, including how they communicate concerning the subjects they study.
God created the vast universe as the canvas of his self-revelation to serve his redemptive purpose, and the earth is the focus of his revealed attention. Why? Earth’s importance is not due to where God placed it in the vast universe but because this is where God sent his Son, who is the image of God who is invisible and in whom all things consist (Col. 1:17), that he might “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col. 1:20). God reveals himself to us on the human scale, from within the earthly frame of reference, and most significantly through his Son who became human, and this revelation is sufficient.
So, the Bible’s portrayal of the origin, development, and shape of the whole of creation is right without either surrendering to or contradicting a cosmology that affirms that our earth, like other planets, travels through space as it revolves around the sun. Indeed, that God condescended to reveal himself and his acts to humans on earth explains how the Bible portrays reality truthfully and fittingly for ancient and modern earth-dwelling humans, for everyone who is made in the image of the Creator. “The highest heavens belong to the LORD, but the earth he has given to mankind” (Ps. 115:16).