creation

Flat vs. Round? Lessons from a Sixth Century Debate

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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.

 

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Ken Keathley

Senior Professor of Theology and the Jesse Hendley Chair of Theology

Ken Keathley is Senior Professor of Theology and 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. He is the co-author of '40 Questions About Creation and Evolution' (Kregel, November 2014). Ken and his wife Penny have been married since 1980, live in Wake Forest, NC and are members of North Wake Church. They have a son and daughter, both married, and four grandchildren.

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