St. John of Damascus and the Planck Satellite Telescope (II)

Planck_satelliteThis 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)


St. John of Damascus and the Planck Satellite Telescope

While I’m not a scientist, I do find many scientific stories and discoveries to be fascinating as they give us greater insight into the empirical universe.  Our understanding of the physical universe can also contribute to both our experience of God and our understanding of our God.


I find scientific inquiry into the beginnings of life, of humanity and of the universe to be particularly interesting.  Science keeps trying to peer deeper into the mystery of the beginning of all things, which can also be of interest for anyone who believes there was a moment of creation of the universe.  By studying what scientists call the Big Bang we get ever closer to an act of God.  The Big Bang is an act of God we can actually study scientifically.

A number of the Patristic writers in the ancient Church were very cognizant of and convinced by the truth given to us through science and the study of nature.  But the ancients had far more limits on their knowledge of the universe than we do, lacking the instrumentation which exists today, but also being limited by their philosophical assumptions on the nature of the physical universe.  St. John of Damascus (d. 749AD)  in his very theologically dogmatic work, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, writes about the physical universe and says:

“For the great part the heaven is greater than the earth, but we need not investigate the essence of the heaven, for it is quite beyond our knowledge. It must not be supposed that the heavens or the luminaries are endowed with life. For they are inanimate and insensible.” (Kindle Loc. 810-12)

Much of what the Patristic writers saw as beyond the reach of human knowledge, is now attainable through science and technology.  I think it is completely wrong to imagine that the ancient Christian writers were trying to obscure the truth of science or that they were intentionally superstitious and anti-scientific.  They were as interested in knowing the truth about the cosmos as any scientist today.  But they were people of their time and did rely on both revelation and traditional knowledge to guide their thinking.  They wanted to know the truth, but did so within their philosophical understanding of what truth and nature are.  On the other hand, modern science is based in skepticism and has an ability to test and disprove hypotheses which the ancients lacked.

St. John of Damascus  in his EXACT EXPOSITION writes not only about theology but also about science and he is as confident in his science as he is in his theology.  Many of St. john’s scientific presuppositions and “facts” have been disproved by modern science.  He certainly belongs to the pre-scientific age and accepted what was the traditional view of the universe of his day.  He is well aware that there existed competing theses to explain the universe and sometimes mentions the different theories he has heard about the nature of the cosmos. But lacking any means to test or prove their theories, they often accepted them as the best explanations possible.  For example he writes in his dogmatic treatise:

“Now there are, it should be known, four elements: earth which is dry and cold: water which is cold and wet: air which is wet and warm: fire which is warm and dry. In like manner there are also four humours, analogous to the four elements: black bile, which bears an analogy to earth, for it is dry and cold: phlegm, analogous to water, for it is cold and wet: blood, analogous to air, for it is wet and warm: yellow bile, the analogue to fire, for it is warm and city. Now, fruits are composed of the elements, and the humours are composed of the fruits, and the bodies of living creatures consist of the humours and dissolve back into them. For every thing that is compound dissolves back into its elements.”

The above are all common scientific presuppositions from what even in his day was considered antiquity.   These were assumed to be non-negotiable truths about the world around them which had been handed down by the wisest of philosophers.  St. John doesn’t question this science but rather relied on the science and philosophy of his day to guide his own scientific thinking.  I would assume he would, if he were alive today, embrace the science of our day as he did the science which he believed to be factual.  He never doubts scientific claims but accepts them as being as true as the Scriptures themselves.  But if we Orthodox think everything St. John included in his dogmatic work is infallibly true, we will find that he includes his scientific claims in his doctrine.  We who have been taught a different science, will find his ‘science’ to be far removed from scientific truth as we know it today.   We are not under any obligation to accept what he claims to be scientifically true, especially when we know modern science has revealed facts which disprove what he assumed to be absolute truth about the world.    Still, sometimes I am amazed at what the ancients knew in that pre-scientific world (he knew for example, the world was a sphere, he knew an eclipse of the moon shows the earth’s shadow, he knew night time was nothing more than being in the shadow of the earth).

That he could write about such things in a document dealing with the church dogmatics shows how certain they were of the science of their day.   It also shows he did not consider science and theology to be in opposition to each other.   He accepted that science had discovered truths which are not found in the Scriptures.  This idea we find in St. Paul in the First Century as well:

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”  (Romans 1:19-20)

Both the Scriptures and the created world reveal to us the Creator.

Next:  St. John of Damascus and the Planck Satellite Telescope (II)