If the Earth Moves, Can It Be Old?

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I finished the book “Seven Days that Divide the World” by John Lennox a few weeks ago, and a lot of the ideas put forth have been brewing and stewing in my mind. Although a small book (honestly, I looked at it initially and didn’t think it worth the price), it is very well written and persuasive in its themes. It attempts to address the obvious split in interpreting the days of Genesis to a young or old earth. Here is one of perhaps a few posts on this book:

A Case Study: Copernicus and Heliocentricity

Lennox begins his book with an apt example and compels the reader to not repeat the mistakes of the past. It is, in my opinion, a brilliant way to begin—a look at historical fact. In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs” and started what has become known as the Copernican Revolution. Based on careful observation, he proposed that the solar system is heliocentric (the earth revolving around the sun) as opposed to geocentric (the earth is the center of the solar system and the sun revolving around the earth). He was ridiculed by the church (Luther & Calvin), which held the geocentric position (which was Aristotelian in origin, actually).

But the church had scripture to back up their beliefs. Consider these:

Tremble before him, all the earth!
   The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved. [1 Chr 16:30]

1 The LORD reigns, he is robed in majesty;
   the LORD is robed in majesty and armed with strength;
   indeed, the world is established, firm and secure. [Psm 93:1]

 5 He set the earth on its foundations;
   it can never be moved. [Psm 104:5]

He raises the poor from the dust
   and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
   and has them inherit a throne of honor.

   “For the foundations of the earth are the LORD’s;
   on them he has set the world. [1 Sam 2:8]

And here is scripture used by the church to support the sun revolving around the earth:

4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
   their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
 5 It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
   like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6 It rises at one end of the heavens
   and makes its circuit to the other;
   nothing is deprived of its warmth. [Psm 19:4-6]

5 The sun rises and the sun sets,
   and hurries back to where it rises. [Ecc 1:5]

If taken literally, these verses support a geocentric view of the solar system, but we know from modern science that this is simply not true. But the beliefs of the church did not change during the lifetime of Copernicus. At some point later, though, the heliocentric model became undeniable and church changed its belief.

Unless I am missing some major revisionist history, this example is simply a fact. Is Lennox saying that the Bible is wrong? Is he trying to discredit the Bible? No, not at all. He is saying these verses, and I think this has been proven, cannot be taken literally. Or should I say, literalistically.

To the Exact Letter?

Lennox presents a definition of the word “literal” from the Oxford English Dictionary:

“That sense or interpretation (of a text) which is obtained by taking its words in their natural or customary meaning, and applying the ordinary rules of grammar; opposed to mystical, allegorical, etc.,” and “hence, by extension…the primary sense of a word, or…the sense expressed by the actual wording of a passage, as distinguished from any metaphorical or merely suggested meaning.” [Pg 22]

For the word “literalistic,” Dictionay.com defines it as:

“Adherence to the exact letter or the literal sense, as in translation or interpretation: to interpret the law with uncompromising literalism.”

To illustrate the difference between these words, Lennox provides two simple examples:

  • “The car was flying down the road.”
    • Was the car literally “flying”? No, it was driving fast. “Flying” is just a metaphor, but it is a metaphor for something real—we imagine a plane zipping past and associate that to the speed of the car.
    • The only way we can learn or understand something outside of our experience or knowledge is through metaphor. (As a side note, it would be humorous to for a person, whose only experience with flying was that of butterflies, to hear this phrase. I don’t think they would be impressed by the speed of the car!)
  • Jesus said, “I am the door.”
    • Is he made of wood, with a latch and hinges? No, it is a metaphor, and again for something real—Jesus literally is a doorway into a real experience of salvation and life.

A literalistic interpretation says the car really was flying through the air and Jesus really is made of planks of wood. I have never really thought through the distinction of these words, but this makes sense to me. It applies completely to the interpretation of the above scripture, taken to support the geocentric view of the solar system.

Tremble before him, all the earth!
   The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved. [1 Chr 16:30]

Can the earth be moved? If interpreted literalistically, it cannot. Since we know the earth does move, we know that this verse is a metaphor—but it is a metaphor for a literal reality that God has established. God is teaching us about physics metaphorically because it was beyond our ability to know at that time. We now know from Newton and others that the solar system is very stable. We could point to the “fine-tuning” of universal laws that modern physicists have discovered which, if their constants were altered slightly, the universe would fall apart (or never have existed as we know it).

Implications for a Worldview

A disturbing thought then occurred to me: these people firmly believed they had a Biblical worldview of the reality. They had convictions and a very real idea of the heavens. Yet, it was shattered by the discoveries of science. This situation begs the question: Are there verses we have taken literalistically that are instead meant as only as metaphors? For instance, the Bible says that God sits in heaven on a throne. Is there a literal man on a literal throne? No, I don’t think so…and yes, because it is a metaphor for a literal reality—God reigns. Whether a verse can be taken literalistically (“Jesus wept.”) or metaphorically, it does not reduce or discredit the Bible in any way.

What does this mean for our Christian worldview? How are we to see our world? What are we to accept from scientific discoveries? Do we accept every theory because a scientist proposes it? Do reject theories because the scientists are atheists? We all believe in the structure of DNA, yet Watson & Crick were solid atheists. Also, if we change our position or belief on something, do we discredit the Bible? Or, like those who had to eventually acknowledge heliocentricity, are we willing to acknowledge our error, if science can prove a theory correct?

What do we teach our children about this and other examples? If we bring up Copernicus, they may wonder what to believe. They may question leadership, or their Sunday School curriculum. If we don’t talk about it, chances are some atheist high school or college teacher will, and they will do it to prove the church ridiculous. 

Let’s return to Copernicus. He did not publish his work to defy God. He was a scientist because he believed in God and sought to discover His creation. I think his attitude needs to be our approach today. We need to be able to look at scientific investigations and evaluate them in light both of a literalistic and metaphorical interpretation. What keeps us from that sometimes is the militancy of atheist scientists and their absolute insistence that science defines atheism. They have fused science to natural philosophy and refuse to let go, and they are just as evangelical in their efforts to convert the masses to their philosophy. But science is science—philosophy, whether religious or atheist, is inherent to the observer and rests outside of science.

So, I am deliberately not stating my position on young or old earth because I think the focus of this post needs to be on a metaphor (for a literal reality) or literalistic view of Genesis 1-2. The earth may be 6000 years old, but if it is 4.5 billion, does that mean the Bible is wrong? If I believe the earth is old, am I really threatening the authority of the Bible? I don’t think so. Do you?

These are difficult questions. I am apprehensive just asking them. I am even more apprehensive at the thought of blogging this “to the world”…but here I go…

4 thoughts on “If the Earth Moves, Can It Be Old?

    Robert Nielsen said:
    April 27, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    Fair play on highlighting the problems of taking the bible literally, though you let yourself down when you blame it on the “militancy of atheist scientists”.

      klowery88 responded:
      April 27, 2012 at 2:01 pm

      Thanks for your comment. I wasn’t trying to blame this on militant atheist, but list one reason why there could be a reluctance to concede to them.

    Adam Benton said:
    April 28, 2012 at 7:04 am

    One of the more thoughtful and reasoned arguments I’ve heard in the great debate regarding Biblical literacy. Well done.

    Anonymous said:
    April 28, 2012 at 9:23 am

    Adam, I agree. I’ve read Seven days that divide the world and feel that Kip did a great job in shedding light on the need to understand the difference between reading the bible in a literal vs. literalistic way. Thank you, Kip, for sharing your thoughts.

    Also, even though believing that the earth is young vs. old is not a salvation issue, it is certainly a sensitive topic among the masses. Sadly, I’ve seen friendships fall apart because of differing views about the earth’s age. Perhaps after reading Lennox’s book people (namely Christians) can have a healthy, civil dialogue about this without questioning one’s faith in God.

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