Symposium Introduction

So here is a biblical approach to divine revelation that allows for growing insight and fresh understandings of previous teachings. It does not overthrow the earlier understandings as “wrong” but seeks out new interpretations of the truth contained in them.

—Robin Parry, in response to Dru Johnson

Two summers ago, I was visiting old friends near where I grew up, and one of my old buddies ( a mechanical engineer by trade, evangelical Christian by faith) asked me (Old Testament scholar by trade) how the Great Flood could have been possible.

“The Bible says that the ‘high mountains under the entire heavens were covered,'” he said, “but if that were the case, hen the ark would be so high in the atmosphere that it would be too cold and the air too thin for the people and animals to survive.”

It was an observation similar to one most of us have made or heard. Usually, people note how many species of animals there are and that there would be no possible way to house them all in the ark, so this observation, aptly posed by an engineer, had some new nuance to it. I fumbled with an answer, aware that I might offend other believers in the room, but wasn’t comfortable with my initial response. I tried a better response by email later, but that didn’t garner much discussion afterwards.

What I could have done, had the conversation happened just a few months later was send my friend a copy of Robin Parry’s accessible book The Biblical Cosmos. Parry begins (in the Preface) with a reassurance that, though his book “will be worrying to many ordinary Christians,” his goals in writing it are not meant to dismiss the Bible as suffering from archaic science, but to redeem it for those who likely are already worried by the archaic science within it. There is obviously, as my conversation with my friend indicates, a healthy market for such a book.

The Biblical Cosmos is not really an apologetics for the Bible in a new age (though it may aid in such work). Rather, the book presents the ancient understanding of the natural world and its significance to the Temple and Jesus Christ. Before making these connections, Parry begins with a tour of the earth, heavens, and hell as presented in the Bible, itself and in relation to other Ancient Near East cosmologies. It is, as Parry explains, almost impossible to view the earth and heavens in the ways they are ostensibly described in the Bible. In the Bible, the earth is clearly flat, the sea teams with dragons, Sheol lays below us while mountains bring people closer to heaven—a heaven that lays just beyond a “sky dome.” Does anyone harbor such beliefs today? On the other hand, how does it matter for the believer?

Parry concludes by showing how we can inhabit the biblical cosmos while remaining in a world, as Bultmann would say, of “electric lights and radios.” Parry, though, is more reliant on “Christian Platonism” than Bultmannian demythologization, explaining metaphysical difficulties such as the corporeal Christ’s ascension into an otherworldly heaven by way of Augustine’s dualism rather than through kerygmatic theology.

His explanations are brief, meant to point the way forward from his earlier observations of the biblical proclamation. Such brevity is understandable considering the point of the book in the first place—to guide us through the biblical cosmos and why it is significant for the message of the Bible. That being said, it is also understandable that astute readers would have questions for Parry regarding his insinuations.

We are fortunate to have convinced four such astute readers into joining a dialogue with Parry regarding his book and the arguments therein. Crispin Fletcher-Louis feels that Parry “ascribes too much to the status and identity of the cosmos,” particularly the semidivine nature of stars and planets. He senses a danger that could lead to greater status for non-human creatures than the Bible warrants. Lucy Peppiatt hints at a related concern to Fletcher-Louis, but focuses on how genre awareness might mitigate problems that arise in Parry’s exegesis. Furthermore, Peppiatt is more taken by Parry’s appeal to Pauline theology than she is to Parry’s Christian Platonism. Crisp, like Peppiatt, quibbles with Parry vis-à-vis the New Testament witness of the ancient cosmology, focusing on the Christ event and how one might understand the death, resurrection, and ascension in our present world. Dru Johnson pushes Parry beyond what the Bible says about the cosmos to ask deeper questions concerning creation theology such as “is God revealing through the world as He found it or [has He] founded a world in order to communicate with humanity”?

Parry has responded in kind to these kind readers while leaving the way open for others to join in. We invite your participation in this conversation on The Biblical Cosmos.

Crispin Fletcher-Louis

Response

Quibbling with the Biblical Cosmos

This is a wonderful and timely book that lays out some now-widely accepted views on the nature of the cosmos in biblical theology (especially the Old Testament), and reflections on their implications for Christian theology. The subject is one that has taken up much of my own research time and teaching, and at times—when reading the early chapters—I found myself wishing that I had written the book.

In part 1 Parry candidly faces the problem that the Bible describes a cosmos that in some ways we now know to be mistaken. The biblical world, for example, is flat. And it imagines watery chaos monsters that have a kind of personal, demonic, existence. This admission leads to a search, later in the book, for a constructive account of what role a biblical cosmology should play in a Christian theology today. The answer is anticipated in the treatment of the heavens and the sky in part 2. Unlike their ancient Near Eastern neighbors, the Israelites refused to worship the heavenly bodies. Nevertheless, they still thought of the sun, moon, and stars (and indeed other parts of creation) as alive. They were even willing to continue to use divine or god language for the heavenly bodies. In part 3 Parry lays out the evidence for thinking that the Israelite temple was a gateway between heaven and earth and a microcosm of the universe. Against that background, he argues that Christ’s life should be understood in high priestly terms and as a truly cosmic event, with Christ representing the whole cosmos that he then takes with him into heaven in his bodily ascension.

In the four chapters that make up part 4, Parry contends that although the Bible gets some of its cosmological facts wrong, God can still speak through its cosmology. All the talk of angels, heavenly bodies and mountains praising God, a battle between order and chaos, and the temple as the meeting place of heaven and earth, points “to important metaphysical truths that remain as true today as they ever were.” “God,” Parry challenges us, “wants to speak to the modern world through the insights of ancient cosmography” (167).

God’s message, if I understand Parry rightly, is that we need to repent of our scientism and of the tendencies in our Christian theology and spirituality to treat creation as a machine. God is present—“manifest”—throughout creation. All of creation “participates” in the being of God (191). And God is present in particular times and places, not because he is a distant God, who sometimes reaches in from outside to suspend the laws of nature. Miracles that disclose truths that science cannot describe (since they are beyond its remit) happen both with and against the warp of nature.

There is a story of redemption, but it is not the classic Western story of rescue from personal depravity for a future life with God in a completely new space-time universe. Heaven is already here. It is, in a sense, the inside of creation: its “invisible depths . . . containing the divine presence at the center of things,” just as the temple that stood at the centre of the land contains, in its holy of holies, a space that was (or that symbolised) heaven (181). Creation’s future is contained within creation as we already know it. For humanity too there is considerable continuity between what believers are, will be, what we are becoming, and what we were. “Redemption is, in one important sense, simply the story of the restoration of the divine image in humanity, enabling us to function as bearers of divine glory” (177)—what Christian theology has called theosis, deification. There is talk, of course, within the Bible, of a new heaven and a new earth, but the central thrust of the biblical vision for creation is the expectation that the whole of creation will experience the fulfillment of the as-yet-unrealized possibilities to which “heaven” already bears witness. Our task now is to get in touch with the God-given order of creation as it is. Age-old Christian practices can help. If, for example, we let our lives be shaped the Christian calendar we will resist “the modern blandification of time” (196). We need to learn to experience God as he reveals himself both in the whole of creation and in special holy places (as was his way with Israel).

The Biblical Cosmos pulls off two feats. First, on the subject of biblical views of the cosmos, it explains complex ideas in a readable and refreshingly down-to-earth style uncluttered by technical jargon. So it serves a wide readership: because the subject matter is so important I agree with Paula Gooder’s recommendation (on the back cover) that it is “a must read for anyone serious about reading and making sense of the Bible today.” I would also recommend it to university students looking for an accessible introduction to the study of biblical views of the cosmos and the temple. It highlights many of the most important and now widely recognised features of OT cosmology and temple theology.

Second, Parry makes a valuable contribution to questions of biblical and modern theology by combining up-to-date biblical scholarship with wide reading and thoughtful hermeneutical reflections. He moves effortlessly from the Old Testament, through the New Testament, and on into the history of Christian doctrine and recent debates surrounding the relationship between Christian faith and science. Time and again Parry’s theological and hermeneutical interests shed new light on questions that tend to be ignored or poorly treated by biblical specialists with more narrow (historical and literary) concerns.

In his treatment of the biblical material, there is not much with which I would disagree. (There are a few places where, in my view, the biblical text does not say what Parry—and the majority with whom Parry sides—says it says. I do not think, for example, that Eden is a garden temple [145] or that heaven is a temple in the Bible [122]. These three—Eden, heaven, and temple—are related, but not quite in the way that Parry claims. But these are matters which belong in a more technical discussion of the subject.)

Nevertheless, there are three ways in which the book’s argument is problematic or imbalanced. First, there are places where Parry ascribes too much to the status and identity of the cosmos. Second, a more balanced picture would give more weight to Scripture’s high view of humanity and God’s purposes for it. He speaks of the glory or divine grandeur of the cosmos and its parts, where Scripture’s focus, to my mind, is on a God-intended glory and grandeur for humanity. (Parry substitutes an affirmation of the universal for a focus on the particular.) Third, more, I think, needs to be said about the ways an OT cosmology and cosmos-focused spirituality is disrupted or jettisoned in the New Testament. There are here three issues that are interconnected. Let me explain each in turn.

First, Parry says that while the Bible is firmly against the worship of the heavenly bodies, it continued to speak of them as “gods” (98–110), and so might we (188–90). But his only clear evidence for this is a text in Philo of Alexandria (Spec. Leg. 1:13–20), who is almost certainly accommodating his language to a Greco-Roman audience for whom “god” was a far more loose term than it was in the biblical and Jewish tradition. Parry also says that in biblical texts “the heavens manifest something of” God’s “divine splendor.” For this, he appeals to Psalm 19 and Psalm 8 (113). But in Psalm 19:1 the statement that “the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands” surely means the heavens direct our attention to something that they do not themselves have. And in Psalm 8 God’s glory is “above the heavens,” not in them (v. 1). To be sure, the heavenly bodies are ascribed a kind of aliveness that modern science has not typically recognised. In Genesis 1:14–19 they have authority “to rule” that would remind Israelites of the role of the sun, moon and the stars in pagan polytheism. But overall, the portrayal of them in Genesis 1 does seem deliberately designed to strip them of a divine status.

Psalm 8 nicely illustrates my second point. Arguably, in that psalm it is humanity that displays God’s divine splendor—ruling “over all things” in a way that reflects God’s universal sovereignty (vv. 5–8). Parry has a perceptive discussion of the significance of humanity made “in God’s image”: “The only authorized image (ṣelem) of God in Scripture is humanity.” Humanity is alive—thinking, hearing, seeing, speaking—the man-made idols are not. “In Genesis 1, human beings are created to be the equivalent in creation of the cult statue in a temple! That is an astonishing claim” (143, cf. 177). Indeed it is. And I think more should be made of it in a rounded description of a biblical cosmology.

I am not sure that the Bible reveals a vision of creation in which “even humble stones participate in God” (209). Who could quarrel with the call now to love creation and to repent of the modern treatment of it as if it were a mere machine or thing to be plundered? Who would not confess to moments of intense spiritual awareness in the presence of the beauty and mystery of creation? But from Genesis 1 onwards humanity is firmly set apart from creation in a way that means, I think, it can be legitimate to speak of a human, or Christian, “participation in God” (e.g., John 17:21; Acts 17:28), and an end in which God is “all in all” (1 Cor 15:), but not a direct, unmediated participation of creation in God.

A call to love creation surely needs, also, to be balanced by a recognition that humanity was always intended to have a kind of mastery over creation (something Parry seems uncomfortable with on p. 207). For most of humanity and for most of human history the reality has been that nature is red in tooth and claw. The Old Testament proclaims a gospel: in defiance of the dehumanising theologies of Israel’s idolatrous pagan neighbours, all humanity (not just a royal elite) are made for an authority, and an identity, in which we can (under God’s authority and power, and in partnership with him) face down the forces of chaos—in the sea and the flood, in famine and pestilence, and in the darkness of the night. That the desert beyond the garden can become fruitful and supportive of human flourishing. Unfashionable though it may be, more could be said about the ways that modern science has, often unwittingly, fulfilled the biblical mandate to have dominion and to subdue the earth and, thereby, to be fruitful and fill it (Gen 1:26–28).

This leads me to my third quibble with Parry’s account of a biblical cosmology. The discussion is somewhat weighted towards the OT. And I wonder whether there is not a significant disjunction between the Old Testament and the New Testament views of the cosmos that means we cannot draw as neat and straight a line between the OT material and a modern theology and spirituality as Parry would like. I would agree that in the gospels many of the OT themes that Parry surveys reappear. Jesus brings about the bounty of Eden. The sea (of Galilee) is a place of monstrous, demonic chaos. But with Paul and even in some ways with Jesus, the picture has changed. Jesus is apparently uninterested in Israel’s festival calendar and its cosmological connections. Indeed, on one reading of the Synoptics, that Parry himself hints at (150), Jesus wants to prepare his fellow Jews for the coming destruction of the temple that will be an end of the world—a passing away of the old cosmology (Mark 13:31; cf. Matt 5:18). Certainly, after Jesus, Paul is vehemently opposed to a patterning of life in accordance with Israel’s (cosmically attuned) festival calendar (Gal 4:9; Col 2:16). My impression is that, in the main, with the first Christians an interest in holy place fades and is replaced by a heightened sense of the holiness of persons. For Paul and his ilk life is to be lived in a new heaven and a new earth, and some of the jots and tittles of Torah’s description of the old one have now passed away.

Biblical cosmology is currently a much-debated topic. Others—the likes of John Walton (in the US) and Margaret Barker (in the UK)—have covered similar terrain and stirred up a lively debate with provocative proposals. Parry’s arguments are, in the main, less controversial, but deserve to be treated no less seriously.

  • Robin Parry

    Robin Parry

    Reply

    Response to Crispin Fletcher-Louis

    There are three significant matters where Fletcher-Louis thinks that I err. First, he remains unpersuaded by my argument that Scripture speaks of heavenly bodies as “gods.” My “only clear evidence for this,” he writes, “is a text in Philo of Alexandria (Spec. Leg. 1:13–20).” It depends what one means by “clear.” My argument for the association of stars with gods is set out at some length in chapter 5 (in which Philo only appears as a footnote reference on p. 110), and I think that the cumulative case is pretty compelling. Critical to my argument is the ancient Near Eastern background against which the OT texts should be understood. In the ANE, the association of astral bodies with gods was ubiquitous. I argue that ancient Israel was well aware of this association, and while it forbade the worship of the sun, moon, and stars, this was never on the grounds that they were not really divine entities (not even in Genesis 1), but on the grounds that they were created and subordinate divine entities and that Yhwh was Israel’s only God.

    En route I explored how the language of the divine council was appropriated by ancient Israel. In Ugarit, the council was ruled by El, the chief god. Beneath him were “the sons of El,” who were astral gods. Then there were craftsmen gods, and finally minor deities, including messenger gods (i.e., angels). This is strikingly similar to Israel, where El is the ruler of the council; then we find “the sons of El” (also called “gods,” “princes,” holy ones”), and finally the messengers/angels. The Hebrew Bible never denies the existence of “the gods,” it simply denies that Yhwh is merely one god among the many. Rather, he is the “the God” (Exod 18:16, etc.), the “God of gods” (Ps 136:2), with no peer among the gods (Exod 15:11, etc.), for he is their Creator.

    I argued that a range of texts in the Hebrew Bible are best understood as presenting the stars as conscious deities (I looked especially at Ezek 1:4–28a; Job 38:4–7; 4:18/15:15; Isa 14:12–15; 24:21–23; Pss 89:5–7; 148:1–6). For instance, Job 38:4–7 places the “morning stars” in parallel with “the sons of God” (i.e., the members of the divine council) and sees these names either as two ways of referring to the same referent or to two very closely associated referents. (I think that the sun/moon/stars were seen as the astral bodies of the gods, bodies that they transcended.) Furthermore, language about the “armies of heavens” identifies both angels and the stars, without any neat distinctions between them. I also argued, drawing on the work of John Pilch and Bruce Malina, that the book of Revelation exploits the associations between stars and gods to great effect, indicating that these ideas carried on into the early church (which does in part address Fletcher-Louis’ third concern about OT/NT discontinuity).

    I think that my proposal for the interpretation of the texts against their ancient Near Eastern background explains more texts more plausibly than alternative suggestions. Philo, in my view, is not simply accommodating to a Greco-Roman audience, but drawing from the wells of his own Jewish tradition. Without knowing what problems Fletcher-Louis detected in my case, I am not sure what else to say here.

    Fletcher-Louis is a little uncomfortable with my language of the heavens “manifesting” something of God’s glory. He looks at how Psalm 119:1 speaks instead of them “declaring” and “proclaiming” his glory. This is an interesting observation and warrants a comment. How do the heavens declare God’s glory? Their voice is “heard” throughout the world, but not in words (119:2–4). Presumably, they declare glory simply by shining. Now this shining reveals their glory, so how can it count as declaring God’s glory? Might we think that their light points beyond itself to the infinite light of God, their creator? If so, then there is some analogical relationship between their glory and God’s glory. Now Fletcher-Louis is correct that need not be the same as manifesting God’s glory, but it is not a big leap from it. I now think that I should have better explained what I do and no not mean by “manifesting”—I certainly do not intend to collapse the distinction between their glory and God’s glory, which is what I think Fletcher-Louis is concerned about. Instead I consider them to “participate” in the divine glory in the sense developed in the Christian Platonic tradition. So I am going beyond exegesis here. I am a Christian Platonist and I believe that this tradition and the biblical texts can engage each other in a mutually illuminating dialogue, but I appreciate that there are other ways of appropriating the texts.

    Fletcher-Louis’ second concern regards my lack of emphasis on the importance of humanity in biblical cosmology. Here I completely concur with him that the focus of the Bible is more on humanity than on the rest of creation. My book was not trying to reflect the emphasis of Scripture, but simply to set out what Scripture says about the layout of the cosmos and its inhabitants. So what I say certainly needs supplementing. And Fletcher-Louis’ own theological anthropology makes a very significant contribution here. (I should add that an earlier draft had a whole chapter on humanity, but it had to be cut to meet word limits. Furthermore, I hope that the christological chapter somewhat mitigates the lack of an anthropology chapter.)

    (As an aside, any reservations I have about “mastery-over-creation” language are simply because I am sensitive to how such human rule can be misconstrued and used as justification for abuse of creation. I do not think Fletcher-Louis and I would have any substantive disagreements on this matter, and I would have no qualms about seeing science as able to play a role in fulfilling the human mandate to have “dominion.”)

    Fletcher-Louis’ third concern regards the degree of continuity and discontinuity between Old Testament and New Testament cosmology. Here I think we’d need to have a fuller discussion. It is not obvious to me that “Jesus is apparently uninterested in Israel’s festival calendar and its cosmological connections.” He certainly celebrated Jewish festivals and went to Jerusalem to do so. So we’d need at least to carefully qualify the level or kind of “disinterest” he had. And the cosmological connections of the festivals were not a major focus in the Old Testament either. The timing of the festivals was determined by the heavens, but their focus was on God’s acts of deliverance in Israel’s history. For Jesus too, this was their focus. So I don’t know that we can extrapolate much about the relevance or otherwise of Israel’s cosmology from this.

    I agree that the coming of the kingdom does raise critical continuity/discontinuity issues between creation and new creation, and musings on cosmology must factor this in. So the critical question is this: how does the discontinuity between the old age and the new age brought about through the Messiah impact the way that we appropriate from Israel’s ancient cosmology?

    It is not clear to me that any of the contemporary appropriations I attempted from Israel’s cosmology ran roughshod over any new realities brought about by Christ. There may, for instance, be a shift in emphasis from holy places to holy people in the NT, but we need to be very careful here. Israel was always very interested in both, and the early church never lost interest in place and space (I think there is a lot more interest in place in the NT than is usual appreciated), so any shift in emphasis is a relative shift. (Also one that is not necessarily the same for Jewish and Gentile Christ-believers.) In which case, we still need a theology of time, of place, of space, not least because a theology of humanity in the Bible is never a theology of humanity abstracted from its embeddedness in creation/new creation.

    I think that Fletcher-Louis’ third concern (above) is in part another aspect of the relative underemphasis on humanity vis-à-vis the rest of creation in my treatment. And I agree that in a rounded biblical theology this correction of emphasis would need to be made. Thus, I suspect that our differences are actually smaller than they may appear.

Oliver Crisp

Response

Christ and the Biblical Cosmos

In the first volume of his Systematic Theology, the American Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson writes that “there is in a Copernican universe no plausible accommodation for the risen Christ’s body; and, indeed, within any modern cosmology, the assertion that the body is up there some place must rightly provoke mocking proposals to search for it with more powerful telescopes.”1 This issue arises in the context of his discussion of Christ’s resurrection, and it is a point well-taken. It also generates a certain embarrassment for many traditional Christians, for whom heaven is indeed “up there, somewhere,” and hell “down there.” How are we to speak about Christ’s resurrection, or his descent to hell, or even his ascent into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father if we must do so from a worldview so utterly different to the one inhabited by the writers of the biblical texts? Can we speak about these events in a non-mythological sense as the ancient writers—and the vast majority of historic Christian thinkers—have understood them?

These questions are particularly pertinent for Robin Parry’s new work, The Biblical Cosmos. The work does much that is helpful and useful. I for one wish it had been around twenty-five years ago when I began my theological education. It would have assisted me in disassociating my undergraduate self from the biblical worldview whilst preserving a sense of the way in which God is able to speak through ancient texts. This guide through the ancient biblical cosmos is truly a valuable resource, and one that students will undoubtedly benefit from. However, Parry’s book does leave the reader with the questions Jenson raises for Christians living in a Copernican universe, and it is to these questions that I want to address myself in this response.

This is what Parry does say: “It is not possible for a modern Christian, even a fundamentalist, to believe the cosmos to have the exact physical structure that biblical authors believed it to have” (165). Granted. We can no longer believe that “heaven is literally up, and that the stars are divine beings” (165). Well, what are we to do with the biblical texts, then? Can they still have some theological authority even if they are underwritten by a cosmology that is defunct? Parry thinks they can. He maintains that “God is communicating his truth not merely in spite of the ‘wrong science’ but in and through it.” Moreover, what is needed of the modern reader is a “post-critical retrieval—a willingness to let God speak anew precisely through the strangeness of the ancient text” (167, emphasis in the original texts). We cannot peel away the cosmology to get at the kernel of biblical truth. Instead, we must find what God wants to communicate to us today through these texts, including the cosmological mistakes they contain.

To this Parry adds a recommendation of the doctrine of divine accommodation. According to John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, God lisps to us in the text of Scripture as a nursemaid does a child.2 He accommodates himself to our limitations, which, on Parry’s reckoning, includes the faulty cosmology of the ancient writers of the biblical material. This doesn’t seem implausible. After all, we do something similar all the time. A child is terrified of monsters under the bed. Her parent doesn’t tell the child to pull herself together because there are no monsters under the bed, or attempt some bedside psychoanalysis to explain why the child may think there are such things as monsters, which are really just imaginary projections. Instead, he checks under the bed, and reassures the child that he will protect her against the creatures of the dark. Why don’t parents try to reason away the “things that go bump in the night”? Because it would be an unhelpful way to deal with the real worries of the small child. Similarly, on Parry’s way of thinking, it would be unhelpful for God to (somehow) “correct” or “amend” the mistaken worldview of the biblical writers in order to convey his Word. They, like us, are subject to the context and mores of their time, and, like us, have their blind spots. We see their mistakes with the clarity of hindsight in a scientific age, a vantage they did not have. That does not mean God cannot use the words they write and speak any more than it means he cannot use our broken, frail, and often mistaken pronouncements today to speak to the technologically and scientifically more sophisticated readers of tomorrow.

So far, so good. Parry is traversing well-worn trails in recent biblical and theological hermeneutics. He underscores this a little later in the book when he writes of different levels of explanation in the world around us, and of the fact that scientific explanation “can never communicate the meaning of the event, merely its secondary causes. The Bible tells us the meaning” (175). (Well, maybe that is right in some respects. The Bible is primarily concerned with the meaning of events, not their causes—in the modern sense of “causes” at least. But it does use what seems equivalent to causal language. Just look at Proverbs 16:33, for instance. But let us set that to one side for the present.) To his doctrine of divine accommodation and the mistaken cosmology of the biblical authors Parry adds a dose of Christian Platonism. This he regards as a helpful way of conceiving the God-world relationship. God is not so much here or there, present or absent, as he is suffusing the whole of creation. He is everywhere present, although there are places and times at which his presence is particularly felt. This Parry calls the manifest presence of God (172). It is a nice way of trying to explain how God can be everywhere at once and yet particular present in, say, the shekinah cloud, or the primeval garden in the cool of the day, or even hanging on the cross. It is not that God is somehow coagulated in these particular times and places. Rather, he makes himself known in particular ways through these events and at these times—he manifests his presence to us. It is the difference between being in the dark room with the child, and being in the dark room with the child and shouting out “Boo!” As any small child will tell you, the latter experience is not the same as the former, although the same person is present in both cases.

I am very sympathetic to much that Parry has to say in this regard. Like him, I appreciate the doctrine of divine accommodation and think it helps us in making sense of how God is able to take up and appropriate certain biblical texts as his own speech acts. Also, like Parry, I like the idea of God’s manifest presence as the beginnings of a way forward on trying to make sense of how it is that God may be present in the whole creation, and yet particular “felt” or “known” in certain events and times. (This also may provide a clue as to why God also appears to be absent in certain other situations. That is, it helps us see how God may be hidden in certain circumstances, and revealed in others. Just think of the difference between the glory of God in the shekinah cloud that descends upon the dedicated temple of Solomon, and the removal of divine favor when the ark of the covenant is abducted. Truly the manifest “glory had departed” in this latter case.)

That said, all of this only throws into stark relief the problem with which we began, and which was so clearly set forth by Jenson. Here is the problem: Parry himself has shown us how we cannot inhabit the ancient worldview of the biblical authors. So how are we to understand those biblical texts that tell us Christ descended to the dead, was raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven if we are not to believe that these involve his being related to particular locations in space and time? Hell and Sheol/Hades are not beneath our feet. Well then, whence did Christ go when he went to preach to those souls imprisoned in Hades as 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:10 tell us, and as the creed reaffirms? What are we to say about Christ’s resurrection? And what about his ascent if heaven is not “above us”? Interestingly, some traditional Christians have been happy to “demythologize” at least some of these troublesome texts. As is well-known John Calvin attempts to do this with respect to Christ’s descent to Hades, which he reinterprets as a way of speaking about Christ’s suffering on the cross instead.3 That is not Parry’s way, however. He reasons that there is nothing particularly problematic about the descent to Hades since the traditional claim is not that Christ physically descended to Hades, but only spiritually, by means of his human soul. The issue here is not between old and new cosmologies, he avers, but between different accounts of the philosophy of mind (201).

How should we respond to that? It is not clear to me that Parry’s comments are to the point. Even if the issue is really about where Christ’s human soul goes, not his body, one is still left with some discomfort from the perspective of a Copernican cosmos. If souls “go” somewhere upon the death of the body, what can this mean? What does it mean for Christ’s human soul? Parry doesn’t really offer a clear response to these questions.

What of the ascent of Christ, then? If heaven is no longer “up there” what should we make of biblical claims of Christ’s disappearance from the sight of the apostles just before Pentecost? Here Parry has some helpful things to say. First, he points to the Pauline claims in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrection body (of Christ) is significantly unlike his earthly body. This seems to be reinforced by the canonical gospels, where the risen Christ can bear mortal wounds without dying, appear in locked rooms, and fly (or at least, ascend). Still, even if Christ’s resurrected body has qualities quite unlike the limitations of his earthly body, it is difficult to see how this makes headway in addressing where his body goes when it ascends. Pointing out that this is mysterious (which Parry does with the help of Augustine on 187) doesn’t really do anything more than draw a veil over this vital question.

His second, and more speculative response to the question of Christ’s ascension is much more promising (see 187–88). He suggests that Christ’s body is not located in spacetime between the ascension and return of Christ, but somehow “ascends” to the future age. (Perhaps we should think of something like a stable wormhole through which Christ’s body may be transposed across spacetime from one moment and location, to another.) Yet Christ remains accessible to us now by means of the work of the Spirit in the church and in the sacraments. Interestingly, in this regard Parry’s speculative proposal echoes aspects of Robert Jenson’s account of Christ’s resurrection, which depends on the claim that Christ’s body is whatever makes Christ accessible to us. Whilst on earth this was his earthly body; now, says Jenson, it is by means of his sacramental presence and “spiritual” presence in his body, the church. Although Parry is very careful about how he presents his suggestion, admitting that it is nothing more than a proposal, it seems to me that it has real promise that is worthy of further reflection. It may be that what he has begun here could be developed in a way that takes forward his helpful work on biblical cosmology into the constructive world of contemporary systematic theology. For if we are to continue to read Scripture and treat it as a source of theological authority despite the obvious drawback of its setting in a false cosmology it will be vital to attempt something like Parry’s speculative proposal in order to give some account of the doctrinal claims Scripture presents that appear to be inextricably entangled with the biblical worldview—claims such as those pertaining to Christ’s descent to Hades, his resurrection, and his ascension.


  1. Robert W. Jenson,  Systematic Theology. Vol. 1, The Triune God. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 202.

  2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960 (1559).

  3. Calvin, Institutes, 2.16.10..

  • Robin Parry

    Robin Parry

    Reply

    Response to Oliver Crisp

    Crisp as a systematician and philosophical theologian is understandably troubled by the implications of Copernican cosmology for the core Christian doctrines of Christ’s descent into Hades and his ascent into heaven. The former is a little less problematic in that the tradition always maintained that Christ’s body was located in the tomb during the time of his descent into Hades. His soul, not his body, “descended into Hades.” However, Crisp still wants to know what it means for a soul to “go somewhere,” as presumably souls do not occupy space.

    It is hard to know what to say here because speaking of souls apart from the bodies they in-form is tricky and I do not have a clear view on the matter—indeed, I don’t even “see men like trees walking.”

    I have two quick thoughts. First, I wonder whether we need to question the Cartesian assumption that the soul is pure thought and has no extension in space. Since Descartes such a view seems intuitively obvious to many, but it was not obvious to earlier thinkers. Plato, for instance, could imagine the soul of the cosmos (which he conceived of as a living being) extended in space, having length and breadth, but no depth. The cosmic soul is “wrapped around” the body of the cosmos, extending from its center to its periphery (Tim. 34b). One also thinks of the notion of souls/spirits moving from one host body to another, and also of out-of-body experiences that appear to locate the “soul” of a person in some unoccupied space away from their own body. So maybe it is worth contemplating the notion that souls can go somewhere. A hornets’ nest of issues would be stirred up, to be sure, and it may be a dead end, but it should not be excluded out of hand. Which is not to answer Crisp’s question so much as to say that it is a question worth asking.

    Second, one could say that language of descent into hades is mythical/metaphorical language designating a certain condition/state of the soul. I find this much more comfortable as an approach. In this instance the soul does not literally go to any spatial location, but we speak in such terms in order to communicate certain ideas about this condition (e.g., that of being more “distant” from God in heaven, the source of life; that of being locked in a dungeon from which one cannot escape). But we cannot escape the images and metaphors by “de-coding” the language. Perhaps, as Plato notes, some truths can only be thought indirectly, via myth. Perhaps we cannot strip away the myth without losing the truth we seek. Seeing through a glass darkly may be all we can hope for this side of the parousia.

    More troubling is the location of the body of the ascended Christ. It matters to Christian theology that Christ remains fully human and as such that he remains fully embodied. But bodies occupy space, so where is Jesus’ body now? In heaven? But Copernican cosmology seems to leave nowhere for this to be. If heaven is not a physical space then how can an embodied human occupy it?

    Now my first reflections on this matter were, as Crisp notes, that Scripture is clear that Christ’s resurrection body is both like and unlike our bodies, and we simply do not know all the properties that it has. This, Crisp notes, makes no headway in explaining where Christ went, and simply pulls the veil of mystery over the event. That is true, though I can live with that. One thing we can say with certainty about Jesus’ resurrection body is that it is very “weird.” Not only can it appear and disappear, fail to be recognized by people who knew him, walk through locked doors, ascend into heaven, yet eat fish and be touched; it also comes to us in the Eucharistic elements. This is my body. And when we eat this food, we discover that instead of assimilating it into our bodies, it assimilates us into the body of Christ—this food eats us! So the body of Christ now is in heaven and in the Eucharist and is the community of the church. That is a seriously weird body. Origen emphasized the resurrection body as a “spiritual body” (borrowing terminology from 1 Cor 15:44) to highlight the continuity and discontinuity with our current bodies. And if Christ’s body tells us anything at all about the nature of resurrection bodies then it at very least challenges some of our common-sense assumptions about them. If we thought that only souls are “weird,” we may need to think again. So a certain mode of agnosticism is not out of place: we shall be like Christ when we see him, but exactly what that means has not yet been made known (1 John 3:2).

    But perhaps there is more to say, and in the book I do offer a speculation that I am both relieved and happy to discover a sharp analytic theologian like Crisp considers worth further reflection. In an attempt to take the spatially located physicality of Christ’s resurrection body seriously, I suggested that he had ascended into the future—the age to come. Jesus has a resurrection body suited to the new creation, so perhaps he ascended not to a different space, but to a different time. The problem raised here is that on this view the incarnate Jesus has not been located anywhere in our cosmos for the past two thousand years. Does this make Jesus utterly absent from our world? No. In fact, he is no more absent than on the traditional understanding of the ascension. The presence of the incarnate Christ in this time-between-the-times is mediated to us by the Spirit. The Eternal Spirit can bring the presence of Jesus to his people from the future just as easily as from the present. In particular, the Spirit channels the presence of Christ through the Eucharist, through the church (i.e., those he enables to participate in Christ and to be constituted as the body of Christ), through Scripture, and through charismatic gifts such as dreams, visions, and prophetic words. So the church really does experience the risen Christ in its life in the present. Thus, the ascended Lord continues to speak and act in the world even now. Furthermore, the divine Logos, who is atemporal (according to the tradition), is equally present in all times and all places (and can be spoken of as in heaven now). This proposal does raise a host of questions, but I continue to think it has some legs, and I would love it if someone wanted to test it by developing it into a full-blown account of the ascension.

Lucy Peppiatt

Response

As Simple as That?

There is so much to enjoy about the The Biblical Cosmos: Robin Parry’s penchant for puns, his daughter Hannah’s illustrations, the spurious commendations, and his disarmingly light-hearted and winsome approach to what is really a weighty subject. I really did enjoy reading it very much, and I see the great value of a book like this for any reader or student of the Bible. The question of how the writers of the Bible understood God’s relation to the world and the world’s relation to God will always be central to any theological concern, and any book that explores the Bible on its own terms, as it were, is needed. It is honest, illuminating, and refreshing.

The reader is taken on a “tour” of texts and stories from the OT and NT and presented with both the simplicities and the complexities of the biblical worldview, all with an initial specific purpose, which is to highlight, often quite starkly, just how alien this worldview really is to our own in the modern world. It does prove to be a “weird and wonderful world.” This in itself I see as a valuable exercise, especially for Christian readers of the Bible who may be more inclined to minimize much of the “strangeness” of the biblical accounts that we are presented with in the texts. I can imagine many being surprised by the revelations of the aliveness of creation, the role of the stars and astral entities, the divine council of heavenly beings or “gods” (who nevertheless worship “Jehovah”), sea monsters, dragons, and the various construals of the heavens, the earth, death and the underworld, much of which is associated with ANE cosmologies or, in Parry’s view, Platonic categories. This last point I was not completely persuaded by, but there is no doubt that he makes a good case for situating the biblical worldviews very firmly within their historical contexts with their own cosmologies and “science.” This, I think, is his basic point: “Part of what I am saying is that the Bible’s understandings of the universe are based on ancient ‘science’ and are no longer the way that we think about the world” (xi). There is a marked dissonance between the biblical authors’ view of the way the world functions and our own, both in terms of the science and the structure of the universe and in terms of how the creation is perceived to relate to God. “The cosmology of the Bible is ancient and we are not; it’s as simple as that” (166).

Well, it is not really as simple as that, as Parry well knows. What he is saying is that we in the modern world now know that the world does not work in the way they thought it did in the ancient world. This in itself is simple, but the problem with this is that the Christian faith is predicated first on the truthfulness of the biblical account and second on the continuity and enduring significance of the truthful narrative handed down from one generation to the next. We rely on a connection between our world and theirs, so there will be ramifications from claims that highlight the disjunction. He is posing a problem, possibly a serious one, although he also suggests a solution, or various solutions, for where the continuity between the biblical world and our own might lie if we first accept the fundamental disjunction.

One of his aims, therefore, is to expose the awkwardness of literalist readings of the Bible, whether that comes from a fundamentalist Christian perspective or a scientist seeking to disparage, although ironically, he too will at times appeal to a more literalist reading in order to make this point! I will come to that. There is no doubt that the gauntlet has been thrown down, especially as it strikes me that those who claim to be literalists in relation to the creation and historical accounts may not be quite so comfortable adopting a literalist perspective with regard to the more mythical and fantastical references that take us into a world of heavenly hypostases with animal forms, angels, demons, a concrete heaven, a physical underworld and even shadows of astrology and manticism. The exposé of the problematic lines of literal connection between “us” and “them” is only half the project, and it is not a negative one, but leads on to Parry’s own proposals for alternative avenues of continuity which, in my view, is where the strength of the book lies.

In Parry’s theological scheme, God’s relation to the world is very firmly rooted in the ancient biblical view of this relation, reinterpreted in meaningful ways. This is confirmed for him in the person of Jesus of Nazareth as the God-man or incarnate Logos, with concrete implications for the place of humanity as divine image-bearers in the world today. The theological vision that Parry describes stems from the ancient cosmologies in the OT shown to have many resonances with the NT, the gospel stories, Acts, and Paul’s vision for the healing of humanity bound up with creation in Romans 8. The ancient view is mined for many of its theological riches, which are spelled out in the second half of the book. The concrete implications of his biblical cosmology could have been developed more. For example, having led the reader into a world where the creation itself is in a live, playful, and even doxological relationship with God, it is a pity to leave the topic hanging while still hoping that it will function as a “kick up the backside” for the modern reader. Given that, according to the Bible, it is quite clear that the creation is truly alive and truly alive to God, and that the redemption and healing of humanity is somehow inextricably bound up with the renewal of creation, more could have been said about practices that might flow from that.

There was a similar lack of development in relation to assertions regarding the Christ-cosmos connection whereby Christ is demonstrated to be Lord of all (159). I was often reminded of Paul’s claims in his letters as I was reading. A helpful parallel could be drawn with Hendrikus Berkhof’s work on Christ and the powers, which is less concerned with the enmity between Christ and the powers and more concerned with the ultimate harnessing of the principalities and powers to do Christ’s bidding. The powers, through the cross, are brought to order, and it is this that brings peace. In addition to this Parry claims that Christ traverses “all the regions of the biblical cosmos and fills it all” whether this is up to the highest heaven or down to Sheol/Hades (151). We have already mentioned Romans 8:18–22 in relation to creation, and this latter point brings to mind the end of Romans 8 with the Pauline promise that no thing (angels, demons, time, powers, height or depth, nor anything else in creation) is capable of separating humanity from the powerful and all-compassing love of Christ. These connections to Paul’s thought seem to me to be more compelling than those he makes to Platonism.

My difficulties relate to what I see as a multilayered apologetic operating throughout the book. This in itself is not particularly a problem. That Parry has various “targets” in view is not veiled: fundamentalists in any form, scientism, and those who would strip the Bible of its links to other thought-systems and worldviews. In addition to this he attempts to make a case for Christian Platonism, argues for a Thomist understanding of causality, focuses on the prevalence of temple imagery, and presents a Christocentric-cosmic view of the universe. The difficulty arises when Parry sacrifices a certain level of nuance in the handling of the language of the texts in order to make a point. I might be persuaded that one can hold all his theological concerns under one systematic umbrella, but I am not persuaded that he makes a strong case for this from his own exegesis. One of the reasons for this, I would suggest, is his less-than-rigorous treatment of the multiplicity of literary forms in the texts that he places under consideration. The tour takes us through an amazing array of biblical reality, from Genesis through the history books, Psalms, Wisdom literature, the Prophets, the Gospels, and Paul’s letters. What muddies the water is that all the texts appear to be treated equally. The reason this matters is because a lot hangs on what Parry believes the biblical authors “literally” believed and what they understood as symbolic, however, we are not given any rationale for his decision one way or the other.

The reader is presented with numerous examples of descriptions of biblical “reality.” These depictions and descriptions quite clearly fall into various literary categories: historical, figurative, mythical, metaphorical, allegorical, symbolic, poetic, and prophetic language. What is “reality”? Does it matter? Parry’s answers are somewhat elusive. In some instances, he claims that the biblical writers were describing what they believed to be reality, in others he claims that a certain depiction is clearly symbolic, and at times he simply remains agnostic. The problem is that because of his issue with fundamentalism, he finds himself needing to assert what the biblical authors believed. So he writes, “I suggest that it is simply not possible for a modern Christian, even a fundamentalist, to believe the cosmos to have the exact physical structure that biblical authors believed it to have” (165). Or, “Biblical authors did think that heaven was literally up in the sky.” He references Deuteronomy 26:15 and Genesis 28:12–17 (120). The ascension story, on the other hand, is both “laden with symbolism” with overtones of the prophet Daniel (121), and a literal event. “But just because the story has symbolic meanings we should not suppose that the early church saw the story as only symbolic and did not think that Jesus literally went up into the sky” (121). Moreover, in his view, Paul expected Christian believers to “literally rise up into the air to meet Jesus as he descended from heaven” (122). He makes similar points in relation to a flat earth, geocentrism, and the location of Sheol. This was their reality. It matters to him that it was their reality because this is all by way of outlining the “weirdness” of biblical cosmology.

Other biblical pictures though, such as the personification of death, the human/animal forms in the prophetic literature and dragons are clearly figurative, metaphorical, nonliteral. Human beings find themselves “fumbling around to speak of death” and so there is “no way to speak of its meaning that does not appeal to metaphor and myth” (201). Again, “many biblical authors too were well aware that they were using the dragon myth in non-literal ways” (201). Rahab is both a sea monster and a symbol for Egypt. The prophetic literature (Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation) is also considered with its wild world of fantastical creatures, throne rooms, semi-divine figures and the like, but without any real references to the genre.

While targeting fundamentalism, Parry’s aim is to “re-enchant” our readings of the Bible. I do like the project, but it really does not mean that we can just evade multiple questions pertaining to what is “real” and what is not (for them and for us), as even Parry is brought up against. If we are attempting to discern what the biblical writers believed to be “true” about what they were narrating, and what they believed to be symbolic or metaphorical, then other questions follow. What happened and what did not happen, or rather, does it matter that what happened happened or not, and why? What is the relation of the literal and the metaphorical in ancient writing? We cannot simply transcend those kinds of questions. Christians (not just fundamentalists) are concerned with “the truth,” thus, issues relating to historicity and continuity matter and, therefore, the question of language, genre, and meaning is crucial. It may well be that Parry is right in the way that he reads different texts, but at the moment it feels as if his readings are resting more on his own intuition than on any close textual work in relation to genre and meaning.

The reason that this textual work needs to be done is that some theological claims rest on the historicity of an event, and others do not. For example, as Parry notes, if the fact that Jesus walked on the sea demonstrates his mastery over creation, then it does matter that he actually did it. On the other hand, does it matter whether the creatures in Ezekiel’s vision exist? It might be a bit disturbing to know that they did! Mountains do not burst into song and trees do not clap their hands, but the idea that creation praises and responds to its creator is theologically rich. The complexities lie in the need to sift through the biblical data, explaining why it might matter that one text or another is rooted in a historical event or not, why it might be more valuable to see other ideas as purely symbolic, or why it actually matters to read a text on multiple levels. I hope his work will open the door to more nuanced readings of the Bible that will give readers good reasons for differentiating between one text and another, while retaining Parry’s commitment to the enduring theological significance of the whole of Scripture.

  • Robin Parry

    Robin Parry

    Reply

    Response to Lucy Peppiatt

    I am thrilled that Lucy Peppiatt is so positive about my book. However, she raises the concern that the way in which I discern when biblical texts are speaking literally, symbolically, or both simultaneously is unclear. She fears that I devote “less than rigorous” attention to the genres of the different texts and so am not sufficiently alive to how those genre differences may impact the question I am addressing (i.e., how ancient Israelites conceived of the cosmos). So “it feels as if his readings are resting more on his own intuition than on any close textual work in relation to genre and meaning.” It is not that she thinks that I am mistaken so much as that I have failed to provide the argumentation behind my readings of the many texts discussed.

    Peppiatt is right that questions of hermeneutics and genre are very important. She is also correct in observing my lack of overt focus on the issue. And the background donkeywork she identifies does need to be done. In my defense, I must first say that this absence was a conscious pedagogical decision. I was writing the book for a thoughtful general audience, not for academics, so I ruthlessly stripped out any details that would distract attention away from the main issue—cosmology. I was hoping that most of my readers would have enough basic sensitivities to genre matters to get by. (Why does this now feel like a feeble excuse?)

    Second, most of the time my readings of the various texts follow a pretty mainstream scholarly consensus. When I go off-piste I usually provide more arguments to justify my doing so. I was hoping that by sticking close to the mainstream I could spare the reader tedious justifications for all my interpretative decisions.

    Third, while not making such concerns overt, I was trying to be attentive to genre. For instance, my association of “the morning stars” and the “sons of God” in Job 38:7 depends upon poetic parallelism. And some of what Peppiatt identifies as possible inconsistency concerning which imagery I take literally arises precisely from such attention to genre.

    Fourth, a complicating factor that I did not want to get sidetracked into is that discussion of genre is still an open debate. Genre categories do not fall from heaven, but are scholarly constructions of ideal “types” extrapolated from a range of particular texts that share formal similarities. And in classification of genres and their features (including when language is meant “literally”) it is impossible to avoid the subjective judgments of scholars about what seems “plausible.” As such there are still some key matters of dispute, some of which bear on our concerns.

    Consider the debate between N. T. Wright and the scholarly mainstream on apocalyptic. Most scholars think that the authors of apocalyptic texts really did believe that the cosmos would come to a dramatic consummation. Wright argues that this is to misread the apocalyptic imagery, which really presents a way of speaking of the theological meaning of historical events through end-of-the-world/cosmic symbols. Lacking any apocalyptic authors to consult, certainty in this matter eludes us. To some extent, however, we can bypass those debates when reflecting on cosmology. For instance, whether or not apocalyptic authors thought that the stars would literally fall to earth, the image itself only makes sense if stars are imagined to be considerably smaller than we think of them. This tells us something about their cosmology. Similarly, even if they did not literally expect the Son of Man to appear in the clouds, the image in which every eye will see him as he descends only makes sense if the earth is imagined as flat and heaven is above. This too reveals something about their cosmology.

    Fifth, that said, while I agree that genre must always be taken into account, and sometimes plays a critical hermeneutical role, I am not convinced that it is always a major factor at play in this matter. The picture of the cosmos that I sketch in the book can be found presented in similar ways across the various genres. Take Sheol being under the ground. Such language can be found in psalms, prophetic oracles, and proverbs. While we might wonder whether it was simply “poetic,” we should not forget that it is also found in narrative texts. The story of Korah’s rebellion (Num 16:23–34), in which the ground opened up and the rebels fell down to Sheol, seems to take the imagery of Sheol under the earth fairly straightforwardly. Do we have reason to think they understood it otherwise? Similarly, the language of heaven being up above us is found in passages from a wide range of text types, including legal, psalmic, prophetic, apocalyptic, etc. Again, while we may think such a notion was possibly never taken literally, we must not forget the narratives of people ascending up to heaven—notably Elijah and Jesus. Do we have any good reasons to think biblical authors did not take such ascents literally? (Pointing out the symbolism of the ascent-to-heaven motif is not such a reason any more than pointing out the symbolism of the crucifixion is a reason not to take that literally.)

    Finally, sometimes genre is more important than at other times. For example, the uses of the defeating-the-dragon motif in recounting the exodus story in Isaiah 51:9–10 and Psalm 74:12–15 seem to deploy it to speak of the meaning of the event. I do not imagine, though I may be mistaken, that either author would complain that the narrative account(s) in Exodus did not recount the tale with an actual monster battling Yhwh, for one strongly suspects that they never intended their audience to believe a Godzilla-like animal was hanging out near the Israelites. This does raise the question as to how literally any of the dragon talk was taken. We cannot be sure. Certain texts appear to speak of the dragons more straightforwardly (e.g., Ps 104:26), while apocalyptic texts use the chaos monster motif to speak of earthly-yet-demonic political powers, and anyone who imagined an actual dragon has missed the point. Other texts are not so clear-cut and could be interpreted variously. Perhaps a certain amount of being elusive is inevitable.

    The task of sketching out an ancient Israelite cosmology is fraught with problems and we must always remember that the end result is not the actual cosmology of any particular Israelite, but a scholarly construction (inevitably involving some subjective scholarly judgments) based on a wide range of data from different people, times, and places. And it will always be open to corrections and modifications. Nevertheless, we need to take very seriously the fact that all the evidence that we have from both Israel and the surrounding cultures—maps, images, artifacts, and a wide range of written texts of various genres—present cosmologies very different from our own. ANE astrological texts, for instance, were obviously paying meticulous attention to the movement of the stars in the sky and identify those very same literal stars as the gods that they worship. We have no reason not to take them at their word.

    All that said, Peppiatt makes a reasonable request and the work she wants to see done does need doing.

Dru Johnson

Response

Down Here on Earth—Traversing

Full disclosure: I read The Biblical Cosmos as soon as it came out and immediately put it to use in my introductory courses on the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament. Hence, I am coming back to this text after seeing its impact on over a hundred college freshmen. Additionally, I am recommending this book to everyone, scholars, and laypersons alike.

Picture1

In Jerusalem, when you look across the Ophel (that slope going up to the Temple Mount) toward the Mount of Olives, you cannot see what is behind it. The Mount of Olives confronts you as this intimidating hill to the east, now stippled all over with the stone tombs of the righteous. How can one know the shape of the Levant, the plunging valley that leads to the Salt Sea, the lush agrarian valleys of the Jordan and Jezreel, or the hill country that slowly flattens into the Negev desert? Google Earth® gives us the quickest access to such information. But I wasn’t asking about information. I asked, “How can one know?”

The ancients and moderns—until very recently—had no God’s-eye view of this land. They knew it the same way that I knew my childhood neighborhood: by traversing it. Difficult to imagine, the terrain east of the Mount of Olives descends precipitously over one thousand meters, morphing from semi-arid into raw desert. Though roughly at the same latitude, no one would quibble if I said, “I went up from Jericho to Jerusalem.” That is, no one would quibble who has traversed it.

I have lived briefly in Israel and I regularly travel there. When teaching undergraduates about the Hebrew Bible, I cannot help but notice that in their embodied imaginations and theology, they naturally want to take a God’s-eye view of Scripture. Topographical and theological maps are helpful. I even require students to memorize and recite maps. However, I find myself saying, “If we were there right now, I would point over to X and you would see Y and then this would make much more sense.”

The fact that Jerusalem is within eyeshot of Bethlehem brings us out of abstract spaces and concepts into the world of attestation from the ground up. The grounded fact that Joshua’s military advance was in direct line of sight to the people of Jericho certainly should inform our reading of Rahab’s words, “The fear of you all has fallen upon us and all those who dwell in the land melt away before you” (Josh 2:9). Even the remoteness and remarkable daintiness of the hamlet of Nazareth in the days of Jesus bleeds hues into the watercolor of our understanding about the conflict he encounters on his way to Jerusalem.

All of this is to say that the biblical literature works from the ground up. Literally and literarily, our prime ancestor is given the title “Dirtling” (adam) because he was taken from the dirt (admah). The radical promise of land from YHWH to Abram (Gen 15:7–21) is so specious that he doubts YHWH’s veracity or intentions saying, “How can I know that I shall possess it?” After all, it was a land equivalent to the Fertile Crescent, or what Abram would have called “the known world.” In the background of this weird cultic oath is the fact that Abram has personally traversed the entirety of that land promised to him, from Ur to Haran through Canaan and down into Egypt. He has walked from the Euphrates to the Nile (Gen 15:18) and he knows it!

From the perspective of Scripture itself, seeking to “know what God knows” may estrange us from God’s plan of revelation through the cosmos. Instead, we get biblical stories concerned mostly with “seeing what the prophets are trying to show us.” In that spirit, Parry is our prophet, dragging us down to the ground, pointing at the heavens shoulder to shoulder with the ancient Israelite, and asking us to imagine a world where we do not know what is over that mountain until we traverse it.

I have two basic concerns that I will cover in four points below. My two unresolved areas of concern are probably more my problem than Parry’s burden, but those concerns are representative for what I regularly hear from Christians when first encountering the ancient Near East parallels and cosmic leanings of Israel. The first concern regards the ontological nature of the Hebrew cosmos and God’s relationship to it. Specifically, how direct is God’s plan for creation when it comes to communicating to Israel? Is the cosmos just the material that God is stuck working with, or is it specifically orchestrated by the Creator? And, how can either view be justified by the biblical literature? Second, what did the Israelites think of their own cosmography? Much like we think of scientific theory in the throws of revolutionary science today, did ancient Semites think of their cosmography as a tentative understanding (á la Thomas Kuhn)? In other words, how seriously did they take their own view?

Though important to begin the task, Parry does not want us to stay down merely at the ground level and cosmopolitan perspectives of the universe.

I propose that this biblical view was not merely a phenomenological perspective on how things appear from our location on the surface of the earth; it was also a means of divine communication. (197)

This raises, for me, the question of God and the cosmos—whether God is revealing through the world as he found it or founded a world to communicate with humanity. If the cosmos is accidental and God is just excellent at accommodating his plans to its shape and structure (i.e., accidental accommodation), then that would be at odds with a final view of Israelite cosmography (i.e., that they viewed their own cosmography as definitive or final). Or, if Israel’s cosmography is final (i.e., final cosmography) and God’s creation is exactly as he intends it for his ends (i.e., created accommodation)—including how he uses creation to establish the concepts necessary for apt theology—then the final cosmography would be out of sorts with our understanding of the universe, an understanding that has modified appreciably over the millennia. Some combination of God’s use of creation and Hebrew cosmography must jive better than others.1

It is unclear to me, though I have intuitions which are hinted at in The Biblical Cosmos, which arrangement Parry would find most acceptable. It may be that some other arrangement better captures his understanding, and I would be appreciative to hear it.

The World as It Was Found or the World God Founded?

First, Parry fleshes out some epistemological claims that don’t usually occur in an introduction to ancient cosmology. In essence, he advocates at points for thinking about theology from the ground up, from their perspective. That is not a bad thing! Indeed, I am praising him for this. In light of the disclosure above, it should be obvious that I was impressed with what Parry does in the short space of two hundred pages.

By ground-up theology, I mean that he begins with earth-bound thinking and how it lands diverse cultures in similar cultic practices and ideas. In the chapter “A Land Down Under,” Parry helps us to understand the depth of Sheol, quite physically; our death puts us at greater material distance from the realm of YHWH in the heavens. In “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” the idea of a mountain being the one natural place that brings us closer to the heavens explains why nations in flat terrain (e.g., Mesopotamia and Egypt) built mountain-shaped structures (e.g., ziggurats and pyramids) and those in mountainous regions (e.g., Canaan and Israel) do not need to build (e.g., high places and the temple). The physicality, the groundedness, of the biblical authors creates a theological purview that must engage the world around it.

This approach values the life and perspective of ancient Israelites and their various cults and cultures through the centuries and in situ as fundamental for understanding the themes pervasive in the canon. The earth and life on the face of it create the categories through which Israel theologizes. But this supposition generates questions about the nexus of creation and history that I want to probe more below. For instance, does God create rivers with an additional metaphorical feature for use in the psalms and eschatological literature? Or, does our encounter with rivers provide the construct that God can use analogically to reason with us (e.g., Psalm 1)? More broadly, is creation a classroom set up by God (created accommodation), or, is creation where we happen to be and through it, God can sufficiently convey meaning (accidental accommodation)? As Karl Barth famously said (for a different reason), “God may speak to us through Russian communism or a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub or a dead dog.”2 He goes on to say that just because God can communicate through such events, it does not require us to take such communiqués as authoritative for our proclamation of reality.

And so, creation would have to be of a certain kind in a particular order to fulfill the ways in which the biblical authors use it to convey prophetic proclamation. Otherwise, God may be merely clever with his use of the natural world as an accident of creation to speak to humanity through Israel. If God is in the business of this kind of extreme accommodation in his revelation, which entails an accidental view of creation, why should we treat any of it as anything worth proclaiming more than a dead dog? Parry begins an answer in part 4, but I believe he stops short. What I intend to probe below would most likely require its own section in the book.

Second, now that we are down here looking at things from the ground level, what are we to make of the relationship between the cosmos as created and the cosmos as it appeared to ancient Hebrews? Two parallel examples are worth considering here: natural language and the uniqueness of biblical ethics.

Is Hebrew the language of YHWH or is it the natural language of Israel and therefore YHWH speaks Hebrew to speak to Israel? Of course, Islam has taken a definitive stance on this. Allah speaks Arabic and thus the true Qur’an can only be written in the holy language of Allah. Is all of creation to be viewed similarly, like a natural language from below? The implications for natural theology, or a theology of revelation writ large, stem directly from the answers to questions like these.

I am inclined to think that the use of trees in Eden, bows in the flood account, livestock for sacrifice, mountains for worship, and a human as the final sacrifice are not mere accommodations to our ground-eye view of the world. In the case of creation and cultic ceremonies, the connection between the historical act and the use of created items doesn’t appear arbitrary. Unlike our rituals today, biblical covenant ceremonies did not have arbitrary symbols. The bow set in the sky directly related to both the waters of the flood and the violence of a weapon used by YHWH to cleanse the earth. The irony of the temple being built on the shortest hill around Jerusalem—it is immediately surrounded by higher hills—cannot be missed while reading about the plans of the Babel in Genesis 11. Unlike wedding rings, graduation gowns, and mortgage signings, biblical ceremonies do not appear to be mere social constructions of ritual, but embedded in the structure of the cosmos itself as it would have appeared to the ancients and moderns until recently. Parry gets at this where he discusses the role of Eden in the tabernacle/temple, among other places.

I remember hearing a Templeton lecture by a renowned American Roman Catholic biologist (i.e., he had appeared on The Colbert Report) who claimed rather easily that if we could “rewind the tape” on evolution, we might have come up with squid-headed bi-pods running the planet instead of humans (or something like that). When I pushed on that point, asking if “Jesus” would have been a squid-headed bi-pod, he doubled down on his claim, saying, “Of course.” In this move, he is taking the accidental accommodation approach to theology from the ground up. The Son can pour himself into whatever form creation happens to take because creation is (almost entirely) accidental to God’s purposes.

What if creation itself is The Accommodation, imbued with everything that will make the history of humanity physically, and hence, conceptually coherent at various stages of human exploration? What if ancient understandings of wind and water offered them sufficient analogues for their conceptual world, and it had to be so in every running of the tape of history? In other words, their concepts of the cosmos couldn’t have been otherwise given the state of God’s work in the world and human exploration. If that is the case, then what the biblical authors thought about their cosmography matters. It does not matter so much as to how well their ancient view comports with the modern scientific view, but that it comports with reality as they experienced it.

The history of science warns us that our current views will inevitably become quaint and ancient as well. Hence, our present understanding of science cannot the norming norm, a point that Parry appears to lose sight of at spots in the book. Rather, what matters is how rigidly the biblical authors believed that they were conveying the nature of reality to current and future audiences.

This whole rant sprung from the analogy of natural languages. Language is now believed to be contingent on local terrain for its use of vowels, melody, and hardness of consonants. 3 The “acoustic adaptation” of languages to local environs, if correct, either roots God’s language itself in the ground or makes God himself the linguistic accommodationist. I think Parry (and I) would prefer the accommodation view, but the question then becomes: how much accommodation and how much providence? Or, how do accommodation and providence co-vary here? It is now obvious that I am leaning toward created accommodation over accidental accommodation.

The other analogy I want to posit is that of the uniqueness of Hebrew ethics. It has been a matter of some debate as to how differentiated Hebrew ethical schemes were among their peer cultures in the ancient Near East (ANE). It’s safe to say that the ethics of Torah were distinct in modest ways, at the very least, and perhaps more radically pronounced on some topics. In his forthcoming book, Jeremiah Unterman explores discrete sectors of ethical thinking in the Hebrew Bible that we take for granted (even though we suppose they are products of Western thought!), ethical thinking that stood in stark contrast to other cultures in the ANE.4

The treatment of foreigners and persons on the fringe is one way in which the Hebrew Bible contrasts with its neighbors. Whether these ethical practices of hospitality to émigré were regularly practiced in Israelite society or not (and the biblical texts seem to suggest not), they were a standard that the prophets and later leaders appealed to for Israel to live long in the land of Canaan (e.g., Neh 5). Repentance is another category that Unterman explores deftly. He notes that if one has capricious gods who act foolishly and unpredictably, as did the Babylonian pantheon, how would one ever know when they’ve violated some moral order for which they need to repent? Repentance entails a concept of divine stability, which was a rare cultic notion in the ANE.

I raise these examples to say that the Hebrew Bible and New Testament offer critiques and a distinct way of thinking/acting in relation to the human cosmos that is ritualized into Israel through their sacramental theology. Yet, Parry seems to suppose (and maybe I missed his cues here) that the ancient Hebrews were the kind of folk who fall in line with whatever cosmologies du jour surrounded them. They certainly have no qualms with following a distinct ethical philosophy. Yet, when it comes to the material cosmos, they are conceptually conformist? I suspect that Parry would want the similarities with other cultures to entail some sort of implicit critique as well. I would like to hear more on this.

Third, a view of accidental accommodation through creation presupposes something that will pose a problem for some. It seems to suggest that ancient life, cultic structure, and theology derives entirely from grounded concepts and lacks an account of modification. Regarding what I am calling “grounded God-talk,” Parry says:

Now, of course, we still retain this language of the sun rising and setting and have no trouble using it in everyday conversation. We are simply speaking about how things look from where we are standing. . . . Biblical authors too were simply talking about how the world appeared to them from observation. (22)

Like the biblical authors, today’s theology must deal with the world as it appears to us. However, our view of the cosmos is not stable either. We tend to think of our assumptions about the cosmos as transitory, ready to be usurped by revolutions in science. We have good reasons for such tendentiousness. Like the Ptolemaic, Copernican, Galileon, Newtonian, and Einsteinian descriptions of the physical world, we assume that the cosmos will eventually appear different to future generations because of new and more powerful explanations provided by the scientific enterprise.

In this sense, I would like to pull Parry and the rest of us down between today’s ground-eye view and the ancient one. Did the biblical authors believe that they were describing the world (final cosmography), or the world as it appeared to them (tentative cosmography)? This seems like a potential pitfall in our thinking about what the biblical authors thought they were doing. Of course, this is a larger task than called for by the thesis of The Biblical Cosmos, but I would certainly like to hear Parry’s understanding of this.

Do the biblical authors offer signs that evince a transitory understanding of reality (i.e., tentative cosmography)? For instance, would the authors of Genesis or Job affirm, “and that’s how the world is,” or, “that’s how it seems to be, to the best of our understanding”? If yes to the latter, then Parry’s goal appears to be mutually aligned with the biblical rhetoric under what he calls “A Step in the Right Direction” (166). If no, then it seems we have a problem in the nature of revelation. Let’s assume for the final point of this response that the biblical authors think that their view is the stable and correct grasp of reality (final cosmography), though I have intuitions otherwise.

Fourth, and stemming from the problem of accidental accommodation, what about the counter-cultural idea of the heaven-earth nexus found in the Hebrew Bible? By this, I mean that Eden was a union of the heavens and earth split in Genesis 3, mended in the tabernacle/temple, expanded through the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and awaiting full reunion in the eschaton. But the fact that a nexus between the heavens and earth occurs at all is contentious among their peers, especially if the goal is reunion and restoration of the heavens and earth.

Specifically, the heaven-earth nexus identifies a crucial example of God’s identity being bound in his physical location above humanity (i.e., in the heavens/sky) and his repeated actions to come from the heavens above in order to act on earth below.

The book of Daniel depicts the radical nature of that nexus in the battle between the wise men of Babylon and Daniel. When Nebuchadnezzar demands revelation of his dream, the magicians claim with partial correctness, “The thing that the king asks is difficult, and no one can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh [i.e., in the heavens]” (Dan 2:11). When Daniel comes into the story to save them all from certain death, he affirms their view of the source of such knowledge, but denies the strict separation of the heavens and earth, the gods and humans:

No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. (Dan 2:27–28)

In Genesis, YHWH descends to Babel to see the building project. Jacob first sees the stairway connecting the heavens and earth with YHWH at the top and messengers going up and down between the realms. In Exodus, YHWH descends upon Mount Sinai. He descends on the tabernacle, his throne room being the holy of holies. In Numbers, YHWH descends onto Miriam and Aaron to chastise them for their rebellion. In Kings, the fire of YHWH falls upon the offering of Elijah and not the prophets of Ba’al. And in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit falls upon Mary “from the Most High,” a regularly used title for God from the Hebrew Bible. God’s voice descends from the heavens at Jesus’ baptism and the transfiguration, and so on.

This regular insistence of YHWH to reveal a connection between these two realms is bizarre in its ANE context. After flying in an airplane as a child, I learned that “the heavens” of Scripture are not the skies of airliners. In this sense, we can agree plainly with Parry where he says, “It is simply not possible for a modern Christian, even a fundamentalist, to believe the cosmos to have the exact physical structure that biblical authors believed it to have” (165). Hence, he claims that we cannot inhabit the biblical world, but he says that we can visit as tourists.

Returning to this matter of the heavens, now that I know the sky does not contain YHWH’s heavens, how is the term “heaven” meaningful? Until recently in human history, the skies were an inaccessible place for humans. God is up there, and for Israel’s sake, he comes down here. If God accommodates the accident of ground-bound Israel by coming down, then he is neither necessarily or ontologically the “Most High” (עליון). Rather, YHWH is only accidentally the “Most High” because of the way creation turned out and God’s desire to accommodate us. But does God’s ontological Most-Highness, as accidental accommodation, do any work for us today other than to appreciate God’s general willingness to accommodate?

Instead of accidental accommodation and the problems that it entails, what if created accommodation was primarily the construct for understanding God-human relations. In this sense, humans are not created finite and ground-bound as opposed to the infinite and everywhere God. Rather, the man was intentionally created from the ground—the Dirtling—which puts him in a particular spatial relation with the hills and the sky. The human need for oxygen puts them in particular relation to clean air, vegetation, and water. This matrix of physical and social relations also yields analogical schemes with which we can conceptualize God-human relations. In this creationally intentional view, God reveals to humans through divinely orchestrated natural means. However, this revelation is framed and circumscribed by his unnatural descents from the heavens.

Must God descend? Yes, because God created humans with a heavenward orientation toward the skies, which offers the orientation through which he will come down. Until we embed our infants with jetpacks through which they phenomenologically experience the heavens as normative, God’s Most-Highness remains a creationally constructed and correct understanding for us moderns today. It’s not accidental or merely accommodated. Indeed, accommodation may be the wrong term for what I’m describing, though I’m sympathetic to what the term is trying to do.

Along with the ancients, our current cosmography might be correct insofar as it shows deference to our being human and the natural world qua created, even creation in need of restoration. Our theology was created to be down here on earth—traversing.


  1.  Final Cosmography + Accidental Accommodation [Untenable]: God is just using the cosmos as he finds it, but then Israelite understanding could equal or trump God’s understanding. Final Cosmography + Created Accommodation [Untenable]: Our understanding of creation has changed and is now at odds with Final Cosmography. Tentative Cosmography + Accidental Accommodation [Tenable]: Could be seen as out of sorts with the biblical depiction of God. Tentative Cosmography + Created Accommodation [Acceptable]: Allows for modification of cosmography and appreciates the ancient view for its necessary place in Israel’s intellectual history.

  2. Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/1 61.

  3.  Emily Underwood, “Human Language May Be Shaped by Climate and Terrain,” Science, November 4, 2015, http://news.sciencemag.org/2015/11/human-language-may-be-shaped-climate-and-terrain.

  4.  Jeremiah Unterman, Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics (Lincoln, NE: Jewish Publication Society / University of Nebraska Press, 2016).

  • Robin Parry

    Robin Parry

    Reply

    Response to Dru Johnson

    Dru Johnson raises some fascinating issues that arise for him from my book. I am grateful for these because I had not given any attention to those matters and he has helped me better understand some of the implications of the views that I was defending.

    The first question concerns whether God’s accommodation to humanity is what he terms “accidental” or “created.” I share his strong inclination to the latter. God didn’t simply find the cosmos having such-and-such a form with such-and-such inhabitants and then use his great wisdom to improvise ways to communicate with them. Rather, he created the cosmos as he wanted it to be. His hands formed the mountains, he set the boundaries for the seas, he placed the stars in the heavens, he made Leviathan to frolic in the sea, and so on. This is how the Bible itself sees it. It is also the way the Christian tradition would see the matter. In the tradition, God creates ex nihilo. He was not constrained by, say, preexistent matter with various properties that resisted his intentions, simply having to do the best he could with the materials to hand. The cosmos is the way God wants it and reflects the God who created it. As such ours is a world that can mediate the divine—indeed, it is created in order to mediate the divine, or as Johnson puts it, it is “a classroom set up by God.” And humans are created in the image of God. As such, in biblical thinking, the human can see truth about God and the world, albeit in a creaturely, finite way. Of course, the cosmos does not wear its meaning on its sleeve, and we can get the wrong end of the stick (perhaps worshipping stars or, alternatively, thinking that they are “nothing but” burning balls of gas). Revelation and spiritual insight are needed to discern the divine. So like Johnson, I too am inclined to see rivers and trees and mountains as created with the potential to communicate real truth about God. This is still accommodation, for we are finite creatures for whom divine accommodation is necessary, but the world itself is made in a way fit to facilitate this accommodation. “You live in a world of theophanies. Holiness comes wrapped in the ordinary. There are burning bushes all around. Every tree is full of angels.” 1

    Johnson suspects that I think that the ancient Israelites simply fell in line with the cosmologies they found around them. On the contrary, my view is this: precisely because the cosmos was created to mediate truth about God, human beings will discern some of that truth. Thus, the cosmologies of the ANE all contain genuine insights into the nature of reality, even if in mythic form. Israel never felt the need to reject all the beliefs and customs of the peoples around them, but absorbed many of their ways of seeing and inhabiting the world. Yet God was working in ancient Israel by his Spirit through their story and their prophets to reveal himself more clearly. Thus, revelation is not restricted to Israel, but it is focused more intensely in Israel. We might think of Israel acting as a filter, gradually sifting out some ideas from the worldviews around them, adding in others, reorganizing other parts. The emerging results are both like and unlike the cosmologies found around them. For instance, Egyptians and Assyrians and Babylonians and others saw the stars as great gods to be worshipped. Israel acknowledged that the stars were gods but showed little interest in them because it came to see them as servants of Yhwh—who alone of the creator of all that is, the stars included. That is not simply accepting the cosmology of the surrounding cultures; it is a radical critique and reconfiguration of such cosmology. The same goes for Israelite worship, political theology, ethics, and so on. So I think Johnson has misunderstood me here. It seems to me that we are on the same page on this matter.

    Johnson’s second question concerns whether ancient Israelites saw their cosmology as open to modification and correction (tentative cosmology) or as simply “given” (final cosmology). I do not think that I am in a position to speak for any specific ancient Israelites here (!) and perhaps there were folk on both sides of this question. Perhaps, more likely, most ancient Israelites never even posed the question to themselves.

    It is difficult to illustrate modifications in the basic cosmology of the Bible to demonstrate a tentative hold on cosmology by biblical writers because there were no major shifts in the cosmology over that long period, so the basic shape remains unchanged. (While educated first-century Jews may have been familiar with the notion of a spherical earth, I do not think we see this influence in the few places in the NT that the shape of the earth manifests itself in the text. But the data is too thin to draw any more than speculative conclusions.) What we do observe is that when the gospel reached out into the Greco-Roman world the church adapted to the Ptolemaic cosmology without any trouble, and without any indication that the shift was contrary to biblical revelation. Similarly, once the evidence for Copernican cosmology was sufficient to overthrow Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmology the church made that adjustment too. So certainly the Christian tradition has wanted a cosmology that was open to new empirical evidence as well as being true to Scripture.

    Is such a “tentative” approach cosmology biblical? What I will say is that the Bible provides the resources for us to receive biblical cosmologies as open to change. Consider first texts like Job. Here the raw data of experience is allowed to call into question received Israelite understandings of how the cosmos works. A new understanding does not emerge to replace the old, but the old is shown to be inadequate and is rejected. In other words, experience of the world is allowed to modify inherited interpretations of it. Second, we need to consider the way in which certain prophetic and apocalyptic text in the OT and NT treat certain cosmic motifs (e.g., the conflict of Yhwh and the dragon) as mythic symbols for human political realities. This suggests a nonliteral, “demythologizing” direction of travel on certain matters and is suggestive. Third, consider the way in which later experiences of the community with their God serve to reframe earlier ones, often putting them in a new light. The most obvious example is the way in which early Christ-believers reinterpreted the entire Jewish Scriptures in the light of this definitive new divine revelation in Jesus. The new did not replace the old, but it changed the way the old was understood and appropriated. And those Jewish Scriptures themselves reveal plenty of instances of exactly the same phenomenon. The Jewish tradition of the biblical authors was inherently open to new ways of seeing old insights. So here is a biblical approach to divine revelation that allows for growing insight and fresh understandings of previous teachings. It does not overthrow the earlier understandings as “wrong” but seeks out new interpretations of the truth contained in them. I suggest that it provides an epistemic orientation that allows for a tentative approach to our cosmologies. Indeed, I think it provides some warrant for the exercise I attempt in the book of finding new ways of appropriating the truth of biblical cosmologies in our scientific era.


    1. Macrina Wiederkehr, A Tree Full of Angels. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988, xiii.

Shares