Flat vs. Round? Lessons from a Sixth Century Debate

Video Icon

Years ago, Christians debate about God’s creation were markedly different. What can these early debates teach us about our own debates today?

Ken Keathley, Senior Professor of Theology at Southeastern Seminary, recently delivered a faculty lecture on how the importance of thinking Christians to critically engaging science and culture is an ever present need in our society.

In particular, Dr. Keathley addressed the 6th century debate between John Philoponus and Cosmas Indicopleustes about the shape of the earth.

Creation is a theological doctrine. Creationism is an apologetic approach. I suspect that many confuse the two.

In the days of the early church, Christians did not debate between creation and evolution, but creation and eternalism. The pagan philosophers argued ex nihilo nihil fit (“Out of nothing comes nothing”). The Church Fathers responded with the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (“Creation out of nothing”). Unfortunately the debate was nearly derailed by the parochial controversy of whether the earth was flat or round.

Dr. Keathley notes that Christians today can learn several lessons from this controversy:

  • It’s easy to get sidetracked.
    The main question (creation vs. eternal) can be lost to debates that miss the point (flat earth vs. round earth).
  • Creation vs. creationism.
    The debate serves a reminder that creation is a doctrine while creationism is an apologetic strategy. Doctrines remain the same while strategies continually have to be updated.
  • An ironic historical lesson.
    The Roman Catholic Church defended the Ptolemaic system against Galileo in the 17th century, yet the situation was completely the opposite in the 6th. Then the question was whether or not Christians should embrace the Ptolemaic system. It’s important to know what’s truly important.
  • A precursor of things to come.
    The debate was a foretaste of the disagreements between the various creationists groups today.
  • A template for the way forward.
    This story actually has a very bright silver lining. The episode presents a template for acceptance of a creationist theory by the scientific community. When a particular theory makes a contribution to the body of scientific knowledge or when it demonstrates explanatory power, scientists will eventually take notice.

Watch the video above for the entire lecture.


Email Signup

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

  • creation
  • theology
  • video
Ken Keathley

Director of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture

Ken Keathley is Senior Professor of Theology, occupying the Jesse Hendley Chair of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina where he has been teaching since 2006. He also directs the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture, a center that seeks to engage culture, defend the Christian faith, and explore its implications for all areas of life. Of his writing projects most notably he is the author of Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (2010), co-author of 40 Questions About Creation and Evolution (2014), co-editor of Old Earth or Evolutionary Creation? Discussing Origins with Reasons to Believe and BioLogos (2017), and editor of The Historical Adam and Eve: An Evangelical Conversation (forthcoming). Ken and his wife Penny have been married since 1980, live in Wake Forest, NC and are members of North Wake Church in Wake Forest, North Carolina. They have a son and daughter, both married, and four grandchildren.

More to Explore

Never miss an episode, article, or study.

Sign up for the Christ and Culture newsletter now!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.