Friday, August 01, 2014

Christians in the Middle Ages did not believe in a flat earth

Many times when I'm discussing issues of faith and science, I hear the accusation that one cannot hold the Bible to be true and accept modern scientific findings. Usually, the person with whom I'm conversing will assert how backwards the beliefs of Christian society was during the Middle Ages and that we would still believe in a flat earth had it not been for the scientific revolution brought on by the Renaissance.

The idea that the medieval Church held to a flat earth has been around for some time. In his popular historical text The Discoveres, Daniel Boorstin exemplifies the position, as he devotes a full chapter of the book, ominously entitled "A Flat Earth Returns," to the proposition.He writes:
While Christian geographers feared the close calculations of Eratosthenes, Hipparchus and Ptolemy, they cheerfully embellished their pious Jerusalem-centered maps with the wildest ventures of pagan imagination. Julius Solinus (fl. A.D. 220)… provided the standard source of geographic myth during all the years of the Great Interruption, from the fourth till the fourteenth centuries… Saint Augustine himself drew upon Solinus, as did all the other leading Christian thinkers during the Middle Ages."1
Boorstin elsewhere describes the Middle Ages as "a far more remarkable act of retreat."2 However, the idea that all the leading Christian thinkers during the Middle Ages feared an idea of a spherical earth is simply wrong. For example, at the very beginning of St. Thomas Aquinas' 13th century Summa Theologica, this leading Christian thinker writes about the spherical character of the earth. "For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself."3

The interesting thing about Aquinas' use of the roundness of the earth is that he was using the fact as an example of something well known. Thomas said that the theologian should explore theology to find its clear truths the way the astronomer or the physicist will use their disciplines to show the roundness of the earth. In other words, Aquinas is using the fact of a round earth the way the atheist would, as something no one would doubt.

By any measure, Aquinas must be considered one of the "leading Christian thinkers during the Middle Ages." Yet, here is Aquinas clearly believing in a round earth! This made me curious to investigate what some other church fathers believed. Since Boorstein brought up Augustine, I looked there next. In City of God, Book XVI, chapter 9, Augustine discusses possible races of men who may have escaped the Flood of Noah. He writes:
And, indeed, it is not affirmed that this has been learned by historical knowledge, but by scientific conjecture, on the ground that the earth is suspended within the concavity of the sky, and that it has as much room on the one side of it as on the other:  hence they say that the part which is beneath must also be inhabited.  But they do not remark that, although it be supposed or scientifically demonstrated that the world is of a round and spherical form, yet it does not follow that the other side of the earth is bare of water; nor even, though it be bare, does it immediately follow that it is peopled.4
Note that the focus here is whether there were human survivors of the Flood. Augustine is commenting on the possibility of antipodes—people taking a boat to the opposite end of the earth, not sailing off of an edge. Augustine states that even if science does show a round earth, it doesn't follow that it has people on it.

In preaching on Psalm 61, Augustine also makes his belief known, when he comments that Christ will "showeth himself to be throughout all nations in the whole round world, in great glory, but in great tribulation."5 It seems Augustine believed, then, in a round earth. Even the fifth century father Gregory of Nyssa taught that the earth was spherical, stating "As, when the sun shines above the earth, the shadow is spread over its lower part, because its spherical shape makes it impossible for it to be clasped all round at one and the same time by the rays."6

Gregory of Nyssa lived in the fourth century, Augustine lived in the fifth century, and Aquinas lied in the thirteenth. All are "leading Christian thinkers" and all believed in a spherical earth, so Boorstin's charge itself falls flat. It simply isn't true that the vast majority of people prior to the Renaissance held to a flat earth, and to accuse modern Christians of doing the same is boorishness.


1. Boorstin, Daniel J. The Discoverers. (New York: Vintage Books, 1983). 110.
2. Boorstin. 102.
3. Aquinas, Saint Thomas (2012-05-17). Summa Theologica, Part I (Prima Pars) From the Complete American Edition (Kindle Locations 94-95).  . Kindle Edition.
4. Schaff, Philip. St. Augustine's City of God and Christian Doctrine. (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 1, Volume 2.0 Web.
5. Schaff, Philip. St. Augustine: Exposition on the Book of Psalms. (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 1, Volume 8) Web.
6. St. Gregory of Nyssa." On the Soul and the Resurrection." New Advent. Web.

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Thursday, July 31, 2014

What Christianity Has Always Done

Why would a 33 year old man travel thousands of miles from his home to an isolated country, just so he could provide relief and medical care for those with an incurable disease? Why would this man risk such close proximity to those that basically carry a death sentence? How does he feel when he discovers he is infected with it himself? The man has told us. He said, "I am very satisfied and very happy."

Currently, the world is closely watching reports on Dr. Kent Brantly who, after studying for years in college, medical school and four years of residency, took a position with the Christian missionary organization Samaritan's Purse to provide medical services for the poor people of the African nation of Liberia. Brantly began is missionary efforts last year and when the deadly Ebola outbreak occurred there he chose to stay and provide treatment and comfort to those in need. Last week it was reported that the doctor had contracted the disease, which has no known cure and proves a 90% fatality rate.1

But Brantly isn't the man I'm speaking of.  I want to tell you the story of Joseph De Veuster, better known as Father Damien. Like Brantly, Father Damien left his comfortable home at the age of 33. Instead of Africa, he was sent to the Hawaiian Island of Molokai, where a quarantined camp for lepers (now defined as Hansen's disease) was located. Because of its isolation, victims of the disease where simply shipped there to die.  According to one web site, "The area was void of all amenities. No buildings, shelters nor potable water were available. The first arrivals dwelled in rock enclosures, caves, and in the most rudimentary shacks, built of sticks and dried leaves."2

Father Damien changed that. He felt called to share the saving message of Jesus Christ with the lepers, but he also put his faith into practice. An 1889 New York Times article states that Father Damien had "always expected that he should sooner or later become a leper… it was not likely that he would escape, as he was constantly living in a polluted atmosphere, dressing the sufferers' sores, washing their bodies, visiting their deathbeds, and even digging their graves."3

Father Damien even had the opportunity to leave the island, when his superiors wrote that he may leave "as your devotion dictates." It is said that when Damien received the letter "he was overjoyed; he had permission to stay where he was and where he longed with all his heart to be with the people he loved."4

Even though Father Damien died in 1889, people like Kent Brantly continue in the same spirit and with the same motivation. Brantly is following in a long line of individuals who've put others above self in order to obey the command of Jesus. This is what Christianity has always done. Sometimes, it means risking one's health to serve others. Sometimes it means taking an unpopular stand. But recognizing that all people are made in the image of God and therefore have dignity and worth, and should be treated that way, is fundamental to the Christian faith.

Books that disparage religion such as "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" don't talk about the Father Damiens or the Kent Brantlys of the world.  But the evangelization efforts of Christianity cannot be separated from its efforts to alleviate suffering; both are simply people taking the commands of their Lord seriously. I don't believe that religion poisoned those banished to Molokai, nor did it increase the suffering of those Ebola patients. In fact, it proved to do just the opposite.


1 The Associated Press. "American doctor in Africa tests positive for Ebola." Fort Worth Star-Telegram. 27 July 2014. Web.
2. "The Lepers of Molokai." The New York Times. 26 May 1889. Accessed online.
3. "Brief Biography of St. Damien of Molokai." St. Damien Catholic Church. 21 Dec 2011. Web.
4. Ibid.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

That quote may not mean what you think it does!

Yesterday, I began a rebuttal of some comments from a previous post on Gandhi. I had said that Gandhi's eastern background hindered him from understanding the gospel message because he filtered it through his pre-existing Eastern conception. I quoted Gandhi, who said, "If God could have sons, all of us were His sons. If Jesus was like God, or God Himself, then all men were like God and could be God Himself." I then explained, "Jainism specifically teaches that one can remove all their bad karma and become God. In fact, in Jainism the only Gods that exist are those humans who've rid themselves of their karmas."1 So, it isn't surprising that Gandhi would somehow misunderstand Jesus' unique claim to divinity since in the Eastern view, being divine is not unique; it's the goal.

I supported my point with several footnotes, including one by scholar Huston Smith and one from, which is one of the most comprehensive sites covering Jainism. However, that passage elicited this response from Nate:
Also, as far as Gandhi's issues with "if God could have sons, all of us were sons." Are we not "children of God?" I don't see any issue with his logic here. And this: "If Jesus was like God, or God himself, then all men were like God and could be God himself---" Seems as though his perspective is consistent with many great Christians.
In order for Gandhi's perspective to be consistent with many great Christians, these Christians would need to be polytheists, like Hindus and Jains are. However, being a polytheist is a direct contradiction to the most basic of Christian theology, which is widely recognized as one of the three great monotheistic faiths of the world.

For his support, Nate included sixteen different quotes from the Bible, C.S. Lewis, and others. They are reproduced here as he supplied them:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. . .
—C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

. . . the Spirit and our spirit bear united witness that we are children of God. And if we are children we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, sharing his sufferings so as to share his glory."
—St. Paul, Rom. 8:15-17

They (those who love him) are the ones he chose specially long ago and intended to become true images of his Son, so that his Son might be the eldest of many brothers.
—St. Paul Rom. 8:29

God became man, so that man might become God.
—Early Christian Proverb

I am the vine, you are the branches.
—Jesus, John 15:5a

For the Son of God became man, that we might become God.
—St. Athanasius, De inc

God said to this hairless monkey, "get on with it, become a god."
—C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

"the Word became flesh and the Son of God became the Son of Man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God"
—St. Irenaeus, Adv Haer III 19,1

I tell you most solemnly, whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do myself, he will perform even greater works.
—Jesus, John 14:12

Souls wherein the Spirit dwells, illuminated by the Spirit, themselves become spiritual, and send forth their grace to others. Hence comes . . . abiding in God, the being made like to God, and, highest of all, the being made God.
—St. Basil the Great, On the Spirit.

(God) said that we were "gods" and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him-for we can prevent Him if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for.
—C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity 174-5

Let us applaud and give thanks that we have become not only Christians but Christ himself. Do you understand, my brothers, the grace that God our head has given us? Be filled with wonder and joy—we have become veritable Christs!
—St. Augustine of Hippo

The Only-begotten Son of God, wanting us to be partakers of his divinity, assumed our human nature so that, having become man, he might make men gods.
—St. Thomas Aquinas

In this way we are all to come to unity in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God, until we become the perfect Man, fully mature with the fullness of Christ himself.
—St. Paul, Ephesians 4:13

Morality is indispensable: but the Divine Life, which gives itself to us and which calls us to be gods, intends for us something in which morality will be swallowed up. We are to be remade. . . . we shall find underneath it all a thing we have never yet imagined: a real man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy.
—C. S. Lewis, The Grand Miracle, p. 85

A seed of God grows into God.
—Meister Eckhart
With the possible exception of Eckhart, who was a very controversial figure in the 14th century and whose teachings were put on trial as heretical, these are good Christian sources. However, these would more prove my initial point than Nate's. Each of these sources, removed from its context does not communicate the full thought of the passage. Some, such as the John 15:5 quote, are incomplete. The entire verse reads, "I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing" (emphasis added). Rather than teaching Gandhi's view that we have the power within ourselves to become sons of God, it teaches the opposite. We need Jesus otherwise we are hopelessly lost.

Quote-Mining Distorts of the Truth

I don't how Nate amassed these quotes. He may have been gathering them in his studies or he may have done a bit of Googling. Regardless, I highlight this to show how quote-mining without context is a dangerous thing.  Notice how C.S. Lewis used scare quotes in Mere Christianity when he wrote, "(God) said that we were ‘gods' and He is going to make good His words." That's a tip-off that Lewis doesn't believe that we will become divine in the way the Hindus, the Jains, or even the Mormons do. He's talking about something else. To use this quote as support for Gandhi's perspective being "consistent with many Christians" is to twist Lewis' words and make him say something he is not saying.

And so it is with all of the quotes above. Not one of these quotes supports a view that would coincide with man becoming an equal of Jesus. Remember what Gandhi said: "If Jesus was like God, or God Himself, then all men were like God and could be God Himself" (emphasis added). That isn't Gandhi claiming to have a God-centric attitude. That's saying man has the potential to be all that God is—omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. Can the context for any of the quotes above to show that they argue for that position? I think not.

The problem with quote-mining is that it's pyrite, fool's gold. It looks like it supports a point of view, but it often has no value for the conversations. Occasionally, like the John passage above, it can even be used to support the opposing point. Without context it always disregards the author's intent. I think it smacks of dishonesty, as it portrays form of knowledge that doesn't really exist.

I've see Christians who have been caught up trying to defend their faith sometimes resort to gathering quotes that they don't completely understand and offering them as proof of their position. You shouldn't do this! This is unfair to the author and to your objector. If you are researching some supporting evidence for your view, make sure you understand the author and his or her position.  Even then, make sure you understand the quote itself, in its proper context. That may even require you to read the entire chapter in which the sentence appears. However, it will be an honest way to present good evidence to others who are questioning the faith.

Yesterday, I quoted another passage from Mere Christianity where Lewis explicitly states that one cannot take Jesus as a moral teacher and leave behind His claims to Lordship. Lewis said, "let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to." Jesus very clearly taught the same thing: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). While Gandhi wants to take Jesus in just this way, he has taken Jesus out of context.  That was his undoing.


1. Esposito, Lenny. "Why would Gandhi Reject Jesus?" Come Reason Ministries. 2014-07-24. Web

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Is Gandhi a better model for Christians?

A post from last week discussing the difficulties in communicating with those of different backgrounds inspired several comments from Nate. He commented three times (most of which were quotes taken out of context) but prefaced those with a couple of paragraphs that seemed antagonistic, even though nothing he wrote addresses the post's central argument. First off, Nate responds with a bit of confusion between outward actions versus beliefs:
I would say, let Gandhi serve as a caution to Christians today that when you embody the teachings of Jesus, you may starve, be beaten, ridiculed, misunderstood, alienated, be poor.....Gandhi lived more like Christ than any Christian I have ever seen (with my own eyes), and yet here we are cautioning other Christians to his story. Hmmm... seems as though it should be the other way around.
Nate seems to be upset that I would use Gandhi for a blog post discussing Christianity at all, although I'm not sure why. I never said Gandhi was a bad man nor did I say that he didn't do great things. I affirm he did. As to his caution, Nate is obviously unaware of the history of Christianity. Jesus taught that we would be starved, beaten, ridiculed, misunderstood (even in blog posts, perhaps?), alienated, and poor. The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1-11) starts with this and there is a HUGE historical record of Christians bettering society at extreme cost to themselves. Simply look at stories like St. Telemachus, David Livingstone, William Wilberforce, Father Damien, Corrie ten Boom, Mother Theresa, and Jim Elliott just to name a few. Paul the apostle recounts his sufferings as well in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, where he writes:
Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.1
Paul lays out just some of his sufferings in spreading the gospel, and they are more than nearly all Christians face today, to be sure. However, notice how Paul opens the list. He writes, "Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors." If one cares about what Paul is actually trying to communicate, he or she would stop and ask why the apostle qualified his list.

Christianity isn't about the suffering

The answer is simple; Paul is saying that it isn't suffering that makes a person a real Christian. Paul is continuing a thought he began in chapter 10 where he is defending his authority to correct the wayward church at Corinth. (He doesn't finish his thought until the end of chapter 12, so anyone who wishes to understand the passage above needs to read all three chapters.) Basically, Paul says that boasting in sufferings or what one does is nothing. It is what one believes about Jesus that matters. That's why he says his battle is spiritual and it is fought in the realm of beliefs: "We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5).

The big point here is that sufferings, beatings, and such are not the things that make one "live more like a Christian." That's not biblical; it's works-based nonsense. Nate didn't expressly say so, but it is what his comment (along with past comments) implied. Corinth was a city of great wealth, and the Christians there weren't poor like the church in Judea. That's why Paul in both his letters asks them to donate money for the Christians in Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1, 2 Cor. 9:6 ff). The Corinthians had huge problems with sexual immorality, too. Yet, even with a church in a prosperous city, where they had large feasts, and fell into unmentionable sexual sin, Paul still considered them Christians.

Of my post, Nate writes, "here we are cautioning other Christians to his story. Hmmm... seems as though it should be the other way around." Perhaps he needs to read the post again. The caution is about how we communicate with others, not how Gandhi lived. What I argued was that people with a western worldview and people with an eastern worldview could be talking past each other and not know it. The Christians in Gandhi's life failed to understand the Hindu and Janist concepts that all can become divine in the same way God is divine. (This is a mistake Nate makes in another comment, which I will address tomorrow.)

My caution was aimed towards Christians to make sure one asks instead of assumes what the other person believes. I would hope that such caution applies to carefully reading blog posts as well, to ensure one's criticism applies.

Gandhi is not a good model for Christians

Gandhi was not a Christian. He denied it himself and to say he lived more like Christ simply ignores the more fundamental teachings of Jesus. Jesus was asked once which is the greatest commandment? We're talking about the greatest commandment, now, the greatest. The most important one. I want to emphasize this so no one says "but what about this teaching on suffering or sacrifice?" This is the thing that Jesus holds as first and foremost. If you don't have this, you have nothing.

Jesus responded to this question with the definitive monotheistic text, quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment" (Matt 22:37). Gandhi failed at this. He didn't love the God of  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the way that Jesus said. Gandhi was a polytheist who believed that even he could become God some day. Such talk was blasphemy. So, Gandhi is not Christ-like in the most important way. Therefore, Gandhi doesn't serve as a model for Christians, but Jesus served as a model for Gandhi. Just after Gandhi talked of his distaste for the Old Testament, he commented on the New:
But the New Testament produced a different impression, especially the Sermon on the Mount which went straight to my heart. I compared it with the Gita. The verses, 'But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man take away thy coat let him have thy cloak too,' delighted me beyond measure and put me in mind of Shamal Bhatt's 'For a bowl of water, give a goodly meal' etc. My young mind tried to unify the teaching of the Gita, The Light of Asia and the Sermon on the Mount. That renunciation was the highest form of religion appealed to me greatly.

This reading whetted my appetite for studying the lives of other religious teachers. A friend recommended Carlyle's Heroes and Hero-Worship. I read the chapter on the Hero as a prophet and learnt of the Prophet's greatness and bravery and austere living.

Beyond this acquaintance with religion I could not go at the moment, as reading for the examination left me scarcely any time for outside subjects. But I took mental note of the fact that I should read more religious books and acquaint myself with all the principal religions (emphasis added). 3
It was the Sermon on the Mount that spurred Gandhi to become more religiously aware. Jesus' words awakened him to even the teachings of Hinduism that had a parallel to the Sermon's. Selflessness and nonviolence were prompted in Gandhi from Jesus' teachings. Christian teachings had a huge influence on his nonviolent practice. So, Christians can look to Jesus' teachings and get everything that Nate has said wiithout ever looking to Gandhi. But one cannot take parts of Jesus' teachings in isolation. One must take all of Jesus' teachings to understand them. Jesus claimed to be God in the flesh and He said that His authority rested on the fact that he would rise again. As C. S. Lewis rightly pointed out:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.4
In my next post, I will address Nate's confusion on the deity of Jesus and his claim that Christianity somehow teaches we are all God in the same way that Jesus is God.


1. The ESV Study Bible, The English Standard Version. (Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2008) Print. .2237-2238.
3. Gandhi, Mahatma. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Reprint of the Public Affairs Press, Washington, DC, 1948 edition). 107.

4Lewis, Clive Staples. Mere Christianity. (New York: Macmillian Pub. Co., 1952). 55-56.

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Christianity Is Not a Private Party

Is Christianity stuck in a Holy Huddle? How can we reach the world if we're only talking to ourselves? There are six mega-themes—shifts in the way Christians think and act—that show how much the world's ideas are corrupting the church today. In this second of a six-part series, we look at the charge that Christians are becoming more ingrown and less outreach-oriented.

For more on this point, see the accompanying blog post here.

Photo credit: Cameron. Licensed through the Creative Commons 2.0 Licence.

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