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.