Last week I gave the faculty lecture at Southeastern. I talked about the 6th century debate between John Philoponus and Cosmas Indicopleustes about the shape of the earth.
In the days of the early church, the apologetic debate was not between creation and evolution, but creation and eternalism. The pagan philosophers argued ex nihilo nihil fit (“Out of nothing comes nothing”). The Church Fathers responded with the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (“Creation out of nothing”). Unfortunately the debate was nearly derailed by the parochial controversy of flat vs. round.
In my talk I argue that there are several lessons to be learned from this controversy:
- It’s easy to get sidetracked: The main question (creation vs. eternal) can be lost to debates that miss the point (flat earth vs. round earth).
- Creation vs. creationism: The debate serves a reminder that creation is a doctrine while creationism is an apologetic strategy. Doctrines remain the same while strategies continually have to be updated.
- An ironic historical lesson: The Roman Catholic Church defended the Ptolemaic system against Galileo in the 17th century, yet the situation was completely the opposite in the 6th. Then the question was whether or not Christians should embrace the Ptolemaic system. It’s important to know what’s truly important.
- A precursor of things to come: The debate was a foretaste of the disagreements between the various creationists groups today.
- A template for the way forward: This story actually has a very bright silver lining. The episode presents a template for acceptance of a creationist theory by the scientific community. When a particular theory makes a contribution to the body of scientific knowledge or when it demonstrates explanatory power, scientists will eventually take notice.
Take a listen to the lecture. I conclude that we should pay attention to Cosmas’ theological concerns, but follow Philoponus’ example.