This is the 2nd blog in this series. The first blog is St. John of Damascus and the Planck Satellite Telescope. I was reading some news articles about the Planck satellite telescope being able to examine evidence from the Big Bang that brought our universe into being. I’m always interested in science’s claims about the beginnings of humanity or the universe. I also happened to be reading . St. John of Damascus’ (d. 749AD) theologically dogmatic work, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. St. John presents as part of his theology, the science of his times which he also accepted as being true. He believed science and theology were both revealing truth about the Creator of the universe. He saw no need to oppose one to the other.
When St. John writes about his understanding of the universe, we see him combining what the Scriptures say with what the natural scientists and philosophers said:
“But further, God called the firmament also heaven, which He commanded to be in the midst of the waters, setting it to divide the waters that are above the firmament from the waters that are below the firmament. And its nature, according to the divine Basilius, who is versed in the mysteries of divine Scripture, is delicate as smoke. Others, however, hold that it is watery in nature, since it is set in the midst of the waters: others say it is composed of the four elements: and lastly, others speak of it as a filth body, distinct from the four elements.”
In the above comments St. John does what was common science in his day – he repeats what he has learned from wise men before him. Though he notes that there are differences in opinion as to what the firmament in the heavens might be – smoke or watery or composed of the 4 elements (earth, water, air, fire) or some unknown substance. The reality in their day was there was no way to prove the theories one way or another. So the learned people accepted what the wisest believed to be true. St. John Damascene continues his dogmatic statement where it is obvious that he does accept the notion that the heavens are a vault/ceiling of some kind marking the boundary of the cosmos- the earth is at the center and all revolves around the earth:
“All, therefore, who hold that the heaven is in the form of a sphere, say that it is equally removed and distant from the earth at all points, whether above, or sideways, or below. And by ‘below’ and ‘ sideways’ I mean all that comes within the range of our senses. For it follows from what has been said, that the heaven occupies the whole of the upper region and the earth the whole of the lower. They say, besides, that the heaven encircles the earth in the manner of a sphere, and bears along with it in its most rapid revolutions sun, moon and stars, and that when the sun is over the earth it becomes day there, and when it is under the earth it is night. And, again, when the sun goes under the earth it is night here, but day yonder. Others have pictured the heaven as a hemisphere. This idea is suggested by these words of David, the singer of God, Who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain, by which word he clearly means a tent: and by these from the blessed Isaiah, Who hath established the heavens like a vault: and also because when the sun, moon, and stars set they make a circuit round the earth from west to north, and so reach once more the east. Still, whether it is this way or that, all things have been made and established by the divine command, and have the divine will and counsel for a foundation that cannot be moved. For He Himself spoke and they were made: He Himself commanded and they were created. He hath also established them for ever and ever: He hath made a decree which will not pass.” (Kindle Loc 767-797)
For St. John ultimately whatever the scientific truth turns out to be (and he is acknowledging there are different philosophic opinions), he is confident that God is still the creator. Science is not disproving the creator though it can change our understanding of creation. He is not afraid to dogmatize about science, but also he recognizes that we may not know the truth exactly about the cosmos, which doesn’t change our understanding of God.
Of the Scriptures he is certain, but he recognizes the Scriptures don’t tell us all there is to know about the world. It appears to me that the Patristic writers embrace of the science of their day which also indicates to me that they accepted a notion that there is truth in nature which is not found in the Scriptures, but which is still truth. They acknowledged there were things we don’t know, and so were cautious about saying some things about the natural order. St. Augustine cautions Christians against entering into scientific debates if we don’t really know science because when we do we embarrass ourselves and discredit Christianity.
The point being that the discoveries of science do give us new insight into and understanding of the empirical cosmos. But scientific theory and fact does not contradict the basic claim that there was a beginning to creation. How this beginning unfolded in space and time is something science can study and comment on. Why it all began or exists at all cannot be explained by the empirical sciences. They can only account for what exists not why there is existence. (Watch an interesting video by Oxford Professor of Mathematics John Lennox in which he addresses this topic from his point of view as a Christian and a scientist).
As Christians we do not fear truth, even scientific truth. Science is able to help us understand the empirical universe which God created. Science is able to interpret the physical world and its history and physical origins. Science cannot tell us everything there is to know about all that exists for science is limited to commenting on the physical universe. It cannot tell us what existed before the Big Bang, nor can it tell us about what exists outside of space and time. Nor can it tell us why there is existence. But within its parameters, science continues to push to the end of its boundaries to know the truth.
Next: St. John of Damascus and the Planck Satellite Telescope (III)