It breaks my heart to see this Flat Earth Controversy tearing through the SDA Discussion forums online. This issue seems to be gaining momentum in SDA circles rather than losing it. Although I have been locked out of the groups this debate is raging in, the below screen shots were taken by insiders and posted for the public a few days ago. Feel free to take a look yourself.
Apparently this was a controversy in Ellen White’s day as well as she made some comments with regards to it:
“I have a message to this people in regard to the life they must live in this world to prepare them for future life which measures with the life of God. We have nought to do with the question whether this world is round or flat.”— Ellen White, Manuscript 145, 1904
I don’t know why her comment is so controversial amongst Seventh Day Adventists. I have an entire series in my blog that is highly critical of Ellen White. I would never use this quote myself because it isn’t a conclusive statement and it is given as an off the cuff remark with very little context. From what we can see it looks like she wasn’t willing to pick a side, which is a bit odd because the shape of the Earth had been settled science for some time by the 19th century, but there you have it.
To do what I can to help any SDA struggling with this I am going to use this controversy as an opportunity to demonstrate some orthodox techniques I have learned since leaving adventism with regards to Biblical Exegesis and Hermeneutics. A number of verses are twisted and taken out of context to support a flat earth doctrine by SDA. In response to this others seem to double down on the same error and twist alternate verses out of context to try to teach a Sphere Earth doctrine.
It is easy to get tricked by either of these, and I don’t wish to come off as condescending. I commend both groups for taking the scripture seriously. To help any taken up in this I am going to present some of the common proof-texts for each of those two cases and why I believe both fail to rightly divide the Word of God.
Flat Earth Proof-Texts
“30 Fear before him, all the earth: the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved.” 1 Chr 16:30 KJV
The argument used here should be obvious. The word “stable” is defined in the text as “not moved”. The extra Biblical implication of this is that the Earth itself is literally not spinning or moving through space. But rather is sitting flat on a desk under a glass dome in a heavenly office somewhere.
The problem with this understanding is context and genre. The writer is not teaching cosmology at all. This is a piece of historic narrative in which King David is praising the Power and Majesty of God Almighty. Read the whole chapter and see for yourself by clicking HERE.
Below is an abbreviated pericope of the passage to convey my point though.
1 So they brought the ark of God, and set it in the midst of the tent that David had pitched for it: and they offered burnt sacrifices and peace offerings before God. …… but Asaph made a sound with cymbals; 6 Benaiah also and Jahaziel the priests with trumpets continually before the ark of the covenant of God. 7 Then on that day David delivered first this psalm to thank the Lord into the hand of Asaph and his brethren. 8 Give thanks unto the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the people. 9 Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him, talk ye of all his wondrous works. 10 Glory ye in his holy name: let the heart of them rejoice that seek the Lord. 11 Seek the Lord and his strength, seek his face continually. 12 Remember his marvellous works that he hath done, his wonders, and the judgments of his mouth; ….. 23 Sing unto the Lord, all the earth; shew forth from day to day his salvation. 24 Declare his glory among the heathen; his marvellous works among all nations. 25 For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised: he also is to be feared above all gods. 26 For all the gods of the people are idols: but the Lord made the heavens. 27 Glory and honour are in his presence; strength and gladness are in his place. 28 Give unto the Lord, ye kindreds of the people, give unto the Lord glory and strength. 29 Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name: bring an offering, and come before him: worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. 30 Fear before him, all the earth: the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved. 31 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice: and let men say among the nations, The Lord reigneth. 32 Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof: let the fields rejoice, and all that is therein. 33 Then shall the trees of the wood sing out at the presence of the Lord, because he cometh to judge the earth. 34 O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever. 35 And say ye, Save us, O God of our salvation, and gather us together, and deliver us from the heathen, that we may give thanks to thy holy name, and glory in thy praise.36 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel for ever and ever. And all the people said, Amen, and praised the Lord.” 1 Chr 16:1-36 KJV
The meaning of the text should be obvious enough. This is not a divine teaching on science and cosmology. King David is praising God and how the wickedness of this world is still and powerless before him. A good thing to learn here is that one should look at the intent that the author is conveying rather than extrapolating new meaning that was never intended to be gleaned from the text.
This last point is a difficult thing for many that consider themselves conservative scholars to give up. At the end of the day twisting the text to mean new things is really no different than claiming special revelation, it just has the appearance of being orthodox.
Above we have a dynamic very similar to the one in 2 Chronicles. The presumed meaning is the same. A Flat Earth-er would claim that the Bible is teaching cosmology and that the Earth is literally standing still in this text. The truth should be even more obvious to the reader than the one I presented earlier. First of all it’s poetic narrative, thus imagery and symbolism should be expected. Secondly, the lesson we see conveyed by the imagery is the power and sovereignty of God.
When a Flat Earther uses this verse they understand “foundations of the world” to be literal legs like those of a table holding up the Earth. The only reason I am bringing this one up is because it’s a different approach than the earth being still, but the issue is the same as the other passages I have presented. David is not talking about an actual event he witnessed. He is using imagery and symbolism in his song, just see verse 1.
Don’t believe me? Read the full Chapter HERE. This is the same dymnamic as the others, Samuel 22 is not an exposition on cosmology it is a song with vivid imagery praising the power and sovereignty of God.
There are more proof-texts that flat earthers use but the mistake that they make is pretty much the same in all of them as I demonstrated above. Simply read the context and discern the teaching of the text. If you believe you have found pericope of scripture that is teaching cosmology and the shape of the planet let me know in the comments and we can go over it together.
Spherical Earth Proof-texts
A mistake that very many make is to argue that the Bible teaches the Earth is a sphere. This is not the case at all and honestly just makes well meaning believers look silly when the matter is pressed critically. Below is the most common proof-text.
I do not speak or read Hebrew in any capacity. But I would love to see some proof that “circle” in the above passage means “sphere” or even can mean sphere. If you have some good evidence for this drop it in the comments and I will add it to the blog. While I was able to find a lot of sources that would assert the word means sphere I wasn’t able to find any objective evidence.
Furthermore, the same dynamic applies here in Isaiah as is in the texts used above. He is not teaching science or cosmology. He is teaching the power, majesty, and sovereignty of God.
Most other passages used to support Sphere Earth are along the same lines as the one that I just posted. There is one that I do find interesting though:
The idea in this passage is that Christ is speaking of a future event, specifically the Last Day. It is interesting that the passage speaks to this sudden event as occurring both during the day and the night at the same time. The argument is that for day and night to be simultaneous you would need a spherical Earth. Just like the other passages, the topic is not cosmology or the shape of the planet. But I do find this more interesting than the others as it doesn’t require me to bring any assumptions to the text to make the parallel and doesn’t use an idiomatic statement.
“All Christians were Flat Earth until Columbus…..”
You heard the story in school, I don’t have to repeat it in detail. It is claimed that the whole of Christendom believed the Earth was flat. Columbus boldly challenged this idea and discovered America even though he was warned repeatedly that he would fall of the edge.
Apparently this is revisionist history and isn’t true at all. While Geo-centrism was a thing flat earth just wasn’t. There are good sources on this which anyone can just Google but if you are really interested just click HERE.
The truth is that it was Ancient Greek Philosophers who discovered the shape of the earth sometime around 600 BC. In my opinion it’s not that terribly difficult to deduce if you think about it. Everything else in the heavens is a sphere and we do cast a circular shadow on the moon. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure it out.
As you can see above we have some little quotes from Church Fathers who believed the World was a Sphere very early on. I cannot find anything solid that leads me to believe they got this from Scripture. It is my assessment that they simply agreed with the prevailing science of the day.
Belief in a Spherical Earth was pervasive though as we find many very old paintings demonstrating this. I was able to find a few myself digging around online.
Hildegard Von Bingen 1098-1179
Above we have an interesting painting from the 12th century. Clearly this represents a very medieval worldview which one would expect from that time. But if Flat Earth had been the prevailing view before Columbus they we would be seeing something more in line with that. Instead we have a circular symmetry and creatures facing center out as if standing on a sphere. Also notice the wave striations at the center, it seems to be representing four elements or seasons. I am not an analyst of art but those are the things that pop out at me.
The two works above are from the early 15th century, long before the enlightenment and several centuries before Columbus set sail for the new world.
This last one is very beautiful, as I understand it is early 16th century, but it still predates the Enlightenment. The image is supposed to convey the Holy Trinity creating the planet. Apparently the sticks are tools of some kind in this process.
The point in presenting these paintings is that a picture is worth a thousand words. I can either fill this post with quotes and figures demonstrating the world view of ancient people or I can simply show you how they thought of the cosmos in their minds. Clearly the view of a Spherical earth in the Church and elsewhere in Christendom was pervasive long before Columbus.
The Bible is about Jesus
An important thing to keep in mind when studying scripture is the genre of the passage you are reading. I covered this in my series on interpreting the scriptures, but to summarize, below is a short list of the broad genres we find in the Bible.
- Prophecy and Apocalyptic Literature
Science and Cosmology
Yeah guess what…. That last one isn’t in the Bible at all. That topic never comes up and it is never a thesis of any teaching in scripture. In fact, any stray statements which would be construed along such lines should be put in their historic context and understood for the intent the author is trying to convey rather than applying it to something they were not talking about at all.
As you saw in the passages I presented above, the teaching was the power and sovereignty of God, not science or cosmology. To interpret it along the later lines is to twist the text against it’s intended purpose and once you do that you don’t have the Word of God anymore. You have confusion at best and deception at worst.
Ultimately what you have in the Old Testament is types and shadows pointing to the coming of Christ to save the world from sin. This is the redemptive narrative in Scripture, this is what the Bible is about.
Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. John 5:39 KJV
And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. Luke 24:27 KJV
In the Law we have the Holy Standard of God which is total perfection in Word thought and deed (Matt 5:48). It is because of this that we know we need a Savior. In the Genre of History we see the very blood line proceeding from Adam to the cross and the story of God’s prophecies pointing to that event being fulfilled in space and time. In the Genre of wisdom we see texts teaching the Third use of the Law on holy sanctified living in Christ. In Poetry and Apocalypses we receive vivid imagery and figurative teaching on truths related to God’s attributes and promises. In the Epistles we receive systematic teaching and theology expounding on the meaning of the rest of scripture in clarity.
The Bible is not a business book, its not a family self help guide, it’s not a spiritual tome of mysticism. The Bible is about how God in human flesh stepped into our world and crushed the head of Satan with his infant feet that night in Bethlehem. That very flesh which he tore apart on the cross to save us from our sins.
The cross is the very center of the Bible in which all things point to or pull out of.
If you want to learn about the cosmos pick up a science book. If you want to learn about Jesus Christ and how he died to save you from your sins read the Bible.
Jesus was slain for Old Testament saints too. Jesus was always slain before time itself. We simply had the distinct privilege of seeing this play out in human history. This is the story that the Bible points to from Genesis all the way to Revelation and it is this teaching that is conveyed. This is done by God the Holy Spirit in human languages and literary traditions via the Prophets and Apostles as his divine instruments.
For the same reason that it doesn’t matter that the Bible writers were sinners, it also doesn’t matter if some or all of them personally believed in a flat earth or a sphere Earth. This is because that isn’t what the Bible is about anyways.
When you attempt to take the Bible off topic what you lose is the Word of God. If there is one point I would like to convey in this post more than any other it is that the Word is only efficacious for precisely what the text is teaching. When you take it and spin it around on something it isn’t talking about you just lost the Word of God and might as well be exegeting Lord of the Rings for all the good it will do you.
There is no efficacy in the creation of faith (Rom 10:17) with a twisted word whether you are trying to make it talk about the shape of the planet or a false doctrine you just invented.
That said, if you want some really good reasons for believing in a Spherical Earth check out this video on YouTube. It is short, funny, and fun to watch.