Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Paul Seely

(Posted on behalf of Steve Hays.)

Over at Green Baggins, Paul Seely has come to the defense of Peter Enns.1 He's posted several related comments, so I'll rearrange the material by topic:
To help one arrive at an answer to my question regarding accommodation, it may help to look at the question from a slightly different perspective via the issue of “phenomenal language.” Scripture often speaks of the sun “rising,” and “going down.” Since people in biblical times believed the sun was literally moving, when a biblical author made a statement of this nature, he thought he was saying that the sun was literally rising and literally going down. In other words, he would have been surprised and unwilling to agree that he was just using phenomenal language, just speaking about appearances.

If you will read those papers, even though I did not specifically address the movement of the sun, you will find a plethora of evidence from both ancient literature and anthropology that Peoples in OT times, including the educated, did not distinguish between the appearance of the universe and its factual nature. That is, they believed that the appearance was the reality. The earth looks flat, so they thought it is flat. The sky (especially at night) looks like a solid dome, so they thought it is a solid dome. The sea at the horizon looks circular, so they thought the sea must surround the earth. Mutatis mutandis, the sun looks like it is moving, so it is moving. In addition to this, because the earth is fixed, a revolving earth is excluded. And because the earth is flat even if you forced the concept of revolving upon it, there would never be any nighttime unless the sun moved. Given the flat earth and the nighttime, the sun has to literally move. Given all of the evidence I cited in my papers (and more) the burden of proof falls on anyone supposing the Israelites, or even Moses, distinguished the appearance of the sun's movement from the reality.
To summarize Seely's contention:

i) The ancients didn't distinguish between appearance and reality.

ii) As a consequence of (i), they thought the earth was flat, the sky was a solid dome, the sea surrounded the earth, the earth was immobile, and the sun was mobile.

By way of response:

1.Seely is attributing naïve realism to the ancients. Things were the way they appeared to be.

By this logic, the ancients thought that mountains really were smaller at a distance. As you walked toward a mountain or hill, it literally grew taller.

Is it Seely's contention that the ancients were, in fact, that clueless? Could it not occur to an ancient Israelite that mountains only seemed to be smaller at a distance?

2.I'd add that Bible writers describe mountains and hills as if they really are taller than the surrounding countryside. So they don't speak as if they think the size of mountains is observer-relative.

3.Likewise, did an ancient sailor really think an oar was bent in water?

4.Assuming Seely would concede that the ancients did make allowance for certain optical illusions, then they did distinguish between appearance and reality. Yet that's the linchpin of his subsequent argument. He ascribes ancient belief in geocentrism and a flat earth to the fact that the ancients didn't distinguish between appearance and reality. But once he is forced to admit that, at least in some cases, they did draw such a distinction, then he loses the major premise in which he grounded his conclusions.

5.Let's remember that you would have had the same bell curve in the ancient world that we have in the scientific age. The ancient world had its share of brilliant men. Its Bronze Age version of Dirac, Da Vinci, Einstein, Feynman, Gauss, Mandelbrot, Newton, Pauling, Penrose, Poincaré, Shannon, von Neumann, Witten, &c.

Men of native, scientific genius. Of course, employment opportunities were limited back then, viz. scribes, tanners, farmers, shepherds, hunters, carpenters, fishermen, masons, blacksmiths, &c. But the raw intelligence was already in place. And with it comes the natural aptitude to draw inferences from observations.

6.Yes, the earth looks flat. And the sun seems to move across the sky. But how do those two observations go together?

i) The sun apparently travels from east to west. Yet this happens everyday. But if the earth were flat, how did the sun make its way back to the east in time to repeat the cycle?

Logically, we'd expect if the earth were flat, for the sun rising in one place and set in another, then reverse direction, so that it alternates direction from one day to the next.

But, of course, that's not what we observe. So there's a certain tension between the motion of the sun and the flatness of the earth.

ii) Would the sun go under the earth? But what does that mean if the earth is flat? Why wouldn't the flat earth be solid all the way down until you hit bedrock? Why would there be anything underneath the flat earth?

iii) The only way for the sun to go under the earth is if there were empty space under the earth. But that's not something an earth-bound observer could see. Rather, that would be an inference.

iv) And if an ancient Israelite could imagine that the sun went under the earth, then it would be just as easy to imagine the sun going around the earth. But if the sun circles the earth, then it's more natural to think of the earth as a round object. Two globes floating in space. One globe circles another other.

But if you think it through to that point, then there's no way of telling which object is moving in relation to the other.

v) Ancient stargazers would have noticed the phenomenon of retrograde motion. That's easier to account for in a system of mutual motion. And the calculations are simpler in a heliocentric system.

vi) The ancients were well aware of the seasons. Their calendars and agricultural cycles were dependent on the seasons.

Surely they noticed a correlation between the seasons and the shortening or lengthening of day and night. Surely they also noticed that the sun didn't rise or set in the same place along the horizon throughout the year. And yet, if the sun were moving across the sky of a flat earth, what would account for the seasonal variations?

But if the earth were spinning like a top, with an axial tilt, then that would explain the seasons.

vii) The ancients were well aware of solar and lunar eclipses. From these events it's possible to draw some inferences regarding the size and shape of the sun, moon, and earth.

viii) How big was the sun? Did it looks smaller because it was smaller? Or it did look smaller because it was farther away?

If, in fact, then sun were bigger than the earth, then—intuitively speaking—it seems more natural for the smaller object to orbit the larger object, rather than vice versa.

ix) The ancients were also familiar with whirlwinds. And these exhibit the Coriolis effect. Suppose you were a Bronze Age Richard Feynman. What might you infer from that phenomenon?

xi) Ancient mariners could observe ships “sink” below the horizon, or vice versa. That makes sense if the earth were spherical rather than flat.

xii) How would the sun, moon and stars move through a solid dome? If you really think the sky is a solid dome, then, logically, the earth would be illuminated because the dome was backlit, with holes in the dome, through which shafts of light would beam down. But, of course, that doesn't allow for the motion of the luminaries through space. So would the sky need to be a movable dome?

7.I've been drawing attention to empirical phenomena which any attentive observer could see with his own eyes. Phenomena in tension with a literal triple-decker universe.

Perhaps Seely would say that not every ancient Israelite would be smart enough to ponder the deeper implications of empirical evidence. But he's the one who indulges in sweeping generalities about what the ancients believed.

8.Let's also recall that heliocentrism was originally an armchair theory. Long before the space age. Ground-based observers came up with this theory. Naked-eye astronomy.

9.And consider the role of thought-experiments in science,2 such as Newton's spinning water pail. Later, Mach came up with a counter thought-experiment.

In principle, there's nothing to this experiment that a Bronze Age “scientist” couldn't visualize or duplicate.

Then there's Newton's thought experiment involving an orbital canon ball. In principle, an ancient archer could have drawn the same inference.

10.My point is that men in Bible times might well have been far more sophisticated than Seely gives them credit for.3

11.Even more to the point, Seely is setting up a false dichotomy between a phenomenal interpretation of the text and a grammatico-historical interpretation of the text—for the natural phenomena don't implicate geocentrism or a flat-earth or a triple-decker universe. An alert observer would be able to perceive the fact that what he saw called for a more complex model behind the scenes to account for what he saw.

12.Another fundamental problem with Seely's argument is that that ANE cosmography in general, as well as Biblical cosmography in particular, was rather stylized, using architectural metaphors to signify sacred space—as the symmetrical counterpart to sacred time.4 The universe was a temple. As such, architectural metaphors were used to depict the universe. That was a way of denoting its sacral significance. Seely is very insensitive to the cultic dimension of Biblical cosmography. But grammatico-historical exegesis would take this into account.
I hope you will read my papers, and you might add the discussion of the biblical/ANE universe in Chapter 7 of John Walton's Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. He is a very conservative professor of OT at Wheaton, but too well educated in ANE literature to take the Bible out of context. The same might be said for John Currid, professor of OT at Reformed Theological Seminary in Mississippi. And see my comments in the Save our Seminary thread that Charles Hodge and E. J. Young acknowledged that the OT was speaking of a solid sky, and Warfield acknowledged specifically that the merely human [and erroneous] opinion about the sun's relation to the earth might show up in inspired Scripture outside of the scope of the writer's teaching [hence as an accommodation.]
Three issues:

i) This statement overlooks important OT scholars who demure.5

ii) It's also deceptive for Seely to cite Currid and Walton when—in fact—they interpret Genesis very differently than he does. Yes, they agree with him on 1:6, but they disagree with him on so much else.6 If he's going to invoke their expertise in ANE literature, then that carries over to all the times in which they differ with Seely.

iii) Even if we construe Gen 1:6 to denote a “solid firmament,” that misses the point—for if Moses is using architectural symbolism, then the sky is the roof of the cosmic temple. But this doesn't mean Moses really thought the universe was just a scaled up version of the tabernacle or pagan shrines.7 The imagery is emblematic, not representational.
Historically, this has led to two different responses in the Reformed tradition. Turretin argued on the basis of such passages that since God cannot lie and he knows more about these things than we do, we ought to agree with Scripture and reject the Copernican theory. (Compendium Theologicœ Didactico-Elencticœ,(Amsterdam, 1695.) He rejected the idea that such passages were accommodated to the beliefs of the times. Calvin, on the other hand, when dealing with the size of the sun, moon, and stars (Gen 1:16) set the example of reducing such statements to merely phenomenal language, and Warfield's statement (above) about such matters follows Calvin's example.

The biblical evidence cited by Turretin, which I would also cite, is given by T. as follows: “First. The sun is said [in Scripture] to move in the heavens, and to rise and set. (Ps. 19, 5.) The sun is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race. (Ps. 104, 19.) The sun knoweth his going down. (Eccles. 1, 5.) The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down. Secondly. The sun, by a miracle, stood still in the time of Joshua. [As Luther had said, Joshua commands the sun to stand still, not the earth.] (Joshua, 10, 12-14,) and by a miracle it went back in the time of Hezekiah. (Isa. 38, 8.) Thirdly. The earth is said to be fixed immoveably. (Ps. 93, 1.) The world also is established, that it cannot be moved. (Ps. 104, 5.) Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever. (Ps. 119, 90, 91.) Thou hast established the earth, and it abideth. They continue this day according to thine ordinances. [He missed the best evidence: Eccles 1:5 ends with the statement that the sun rushes back to its starting place, which could not be phenomenal language because no one sees it do this.]
Several issues:

i) Isn't it anachronistic to interpret Biblical statements in light of Ptolemaic astronomy? And if Bible writers were that self-conscious about celestial mechanics, then they were capable of entertaining heliocentric as well as geocentric speculations.

ii) Statements about the (im-)mobility of the earth have reference, not to the relation of the earth to other celestial bodies, but to eschatological earthquakes—which symbolize divine judgment.

iii) John Walton doesn't interpret Joshua's Long Day the same way that Turretin or Seely does.8

iv) The description of the sun in Eccl 1:5 is figurative. Solomon personifies the sun as a runner who is “gasping” or “panting” to make his way around the racetrack.9 And note the similes and metaphors in Ps 19:5.

Did ancient Israelites think the sun literally dwelt in a tent, was literally a bridegroom, was literally a runner? Isn't it quite arbitrary of Seely to selectively take one part of this description literally and another part figuratively?
My question can then be framed as, On what basis do we reject the historical-grammatical meaning of any passage in Scripture and replace it with the meaning that it is just phenomenal language? Or, What is the criterion or criteria for deciding when an inspired statement in Scripture can be set aside as not really speaking of the actual facts but only of the misleading appearances?

This takes us back to my questions, which could be summed up as, On what basis do those who follow Calvin, Hodge, and Warfield in believing that merely human opinions have been accommodated into inspired Scripture, separate those errant opinions from the inerrant teachings of Scripture? Since Hodge and E.J. Young acknowledged that Scripture is speaking of a solid sky, a concrete example would be Gen 1:6, 7. What is the inerrant teaching in those verses, and what is the accommodated human opinion? And on what basis do you tell the difference?
Seely has failed to give us any examples in which we must set aside the grammatico-historical meaning of the passage. He's failed to give us any examples in which Scripture has accommodated errant human opinions.

On a final note, I'm struck by how supporters of Enns play the Devil's chaplain in this debate. They're casting about for some wedge which they can use to punch through a more liberal view of Scripture. Can they find some verse of Scripture at which the inerrantist will balk?

Their strategy is to instill a spirit of doubt in the mind of a Christian. It's a game of chicken with the Word of God.

This is nothing short of diabolical. If that's the only way they can defend Enns, then that, alone, is sufficient reason for Westminster to fire him.

3 Incidentally, there are contemporary Christians who defend geocentrism. That's not the position I'm arguing for, but I doubt that Seely would have the scientific expertise to win an argument with an astute geocentrist. For example:
4 E.g. J. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil (Princeton 1994).
5 C. Collins, Genesis 1-4 (P&R 2006), 45-46; V. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Eerdmans 1991), 122; G. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Word 1987), 19; R. Youngblood, The Book of Genesis (Wipf & Stock 1999), 28.
6 J. Currid, Genesis 1:1-25:18 (EP 2003); J. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Baker 2006); Genesis (Zondervan 2001).
7 Cf. V. Hurowitz, I Have Built You an Exalted House: Temple building in the Bible in the Light of Mesopotamian and Northwest Semitic Writings (Sheffield 1992); O. Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms (Seabury 1978).
8 Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 262-63.
9 D. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Broadman 1993), 285; I. Provan, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Zondervan 2001), 55.


  1. "On a final note, I'm struck by how supporters of Enns play the Devil's chaplain in this debate. They're casting about for some wedge which they can use to punch through a more liberal view of Scripture. Can they find some verse of Scripture at which the inerrantist will balk?

    Their strategy is to instill a spirit of doubt in the mind of a Christian. It's a game of chicken with the Word of God.

    This is nothing short of diabolical. If that's the only way they can defend Enns, then that, alone, is sufficient reason for Westminster to fire him."

    I've been dialoguing with modern biblical scholars and their argument is that by holding to "untenable" inerrancy, you then cause some people to fall away towards atheism when they uncover or discover an "error" in the Bible.

    They make up a false antithesis. Inerrancy or atheism. And when inerrancy fails (according to the lens of modern biblical scholarship), then the crestfallen Christian is on the slippery slope towards atheism is their argument.

    Naturally I disagree. But that's their argument.

  2. As an interesting experiment, it would be fun to see how many college graduates could figure out such things as the shape of the Earth based solely on ships going over the horizon, or the distance to the moon using only geometry, etc.

    In other words, as "advanced" as we are, I think the Greek "pre"-scientists would have totally destroyed 99% of our "educated" masses, IMNSHO.

  3. Ancient sources proposed many different shapes for the earth, but a spherical earth was widely accepted during New Testament and patristic times:

    Pythagoras and other sources referred to a round earth during the closing centuries of the Old Testament era, and I doubt that they were the first to reach that conclusion.