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The Flat-Footed Failure of Flat Earth “Christianity”

Many evangelical Bible scholars accept that the ancient Hebrews viewed the world as a disk floating on the waters, supported by pillars. But does this mean that God’s Word is “teaching” us today to believe in a “flat earth?”…. Apparently, some people think so… This is pure crazy talk. (credit: Logos Bible Software, the FaithLife Bible).

 

I keep hearing about this stuff, so I decided to check it out.  Apparently, there is a tiny yet growing movement of Christians who believe that the earth is flat.

Seriously?

My cringe-worthy meter just went to the red zone.

What really bothers me about this stuff is that these so-called “Flat-Earthers” use much of the same rhetoric I hear used by other Christians to defend their view of the Bible. These overlapping talking points are disturbing, when you translate what those talking points mean to flat earth advocates.

  • If you believe the Bible is inerrant, then you must believe everything it says about scientific matters, such as the [flat earth]” (translation: Scientifically, Christians should believe in a flat earth because the “Bible teaches it”. The “Bible teaches” a flat earth, because we said so. ).
  • To deny the biblical teaching on the [flat earth] is to elevate man’s word over against God’s word.” (translation: God’s special revelation in Scripture contradicts God’s natural revelation in creation, but that is OK!)
  • To compromise on the Bible’s teaching on the [flat earth] is to compromise the authority of the Bible” (translation: the “real” Christians are the ones who accept a flat earth, and everybody else is either inconsistent, deceived, a liberal, or a non-believer. Trust us. Flat-Earthers are the real believers in the Bible. Every other so-called “Christian” is a compromiser.)
  • If Scripture is false about scientific matters, such as the [flat earth], then what Scripture says about salvation falls with it.” (translation: how can you trust what the Bible says about the Resurrection, if you do not believe what it says about the flat earth? In other words, you do not need to examine the evidence for yourself, just trust us Flat-Earthers!)

You can pretty much replace “flat earth” above with just about any supposed “scientific teaching of the Bible,” that rips the Bible out of its historical context, and get the same result.

Folks, we need to set the record straight.

With very, very few exceptions, no Christian through the course of church history believed that the earth is flat. Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell painstakingly has shown the idea that Christians have believed in a flat earth to be an invention of modern thinkers, over the past couple hundred of years.

Christians are not the only ones who have bought into this type of nonsense. As one of my “favorite atheists” Tim O’Neill puts it, a lot of atheists buy into this garbage as well.

Some ancient cultures did subscribe to flat earth cosmologies, arguably including the Hebrew culture. But certainly by the early years of the medieval church, such views had died out. Overwhelmingly, Bible scholars today contend that neither God, nor the human authors of the Bible themselves, were trying to teach science, with respect to a flat earth cosmology, back in the ancient era, nor should we try to apply such logic today to our cosmology. Sadly however, some Christians today think they know better, and perpetuate misinformation.

Columbus was not trying to test the idea that the earth was flat, by trying to sail around the world. Columbus, just like any other medieval European, believed that the earth was spherical. That old canard was an invention in the mind of writers like Washington Irving (ever heard of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow?”), and propagated by such thinkers as John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, in the late 19th century. For some strange reason, the Internet has made it possible to revive these ideas, and a growing number of Christians are buying into this.

I would not even bother with “Flat-Earth Christianity,” except that it raises serious questions that Christians should consider. For example, flat earth rhetoric mimics a lot of the talk I hear coming out of the Young Earth Creationist movement. Thankfully, Young-Earth Creationist groups like Answers In Genesis have wisely tried to put the “kabash” on such wild-eyed thinking. Thank goodness! But the “cringe-factor” gets elevated at times when both “Flat Earthers” and Young-Earth Creationists start talking alike.

To be clear, though I am not persuaded myself, I am all for the possibility that the earth is indeed young. God could have created the earth any way He wanted, during any time frame: 6,000 years ago, according to the traditional view, or 4.34 billion years ago, according to the contemporary scientific consensus. But when some Christians resort to a rhetorical style of argumentation, with examples like what I gave above, that equates their own interpretation of Scripture, with the authority of the Bible itself, then that is manipulative at worst, or just plain idiotic at best.

Responsible Young Earth proponents may make the philosophical argument that the character of the Creation story, in history, is such that our current scientific knowledge can not adequately describe what happened in the past. Old Earth Creationists reject this view, arguing in favor of the scientific consensus, that the present indeed is the key to understanding the past. But no matter how one views the past, this is all very different from our ability to make scientific observations here in the present. And this is where flat earth thinking goes completely awry.

The flat-footedness of flat earth thinking has all of the characteristics of a conspiracy theory:

Yup. It is that silly.

OK. It can be really tough for scientifically-trained people to accept a Young Earth, but this “Flat Earth” businesss goes way beyond the age of the earth issue. It is bad enough for some Christians to still argue that Copernicus and Galileo were wrong about the non-stationary characteristic of earth, and favor the older, Ptolemaic view that the earth is a fixed object in space, where the sun, and all of the rest of the stars and planets revolve around the earth. But to claim that the Bible teaches a flat earth, when only an obscure handful of Bible interpreters, mostly within the early years of the church, have ever made such claims, only to be refuted by others long ago, is an example of “the-Bible-says-it–I-believe-it–and-that-settles-it” type of thinking gone off the rails.

Do you think this is all incredulous? Well, try this one out: One popular Christian Flat-Earther paid a visit to Colonial Williamsburg a few months ago, and recorded this video. You can see the problem here in this 2-minute video:

Amazing.  Perhaps you have seen enough already (If so, stop reading at this point, and save yourself some time)…..

….. However, the same Flat Earther, takes apart a sermon by well-known evangelical preacher, David Platt, and the results are horrifyingly cringe-worthy. I respect David Platt, but in this sermon he did set himself up to be manipulated by Flat Earth promoters. Here is twenty minutes of cringe-worthy commentary:

Folks, the propagation of such nonsense only casts ill-repute upon the Gospel. It is time to set such bad Bible interpretation aside, and read the Bible responsibly. I will have some follow-up posts on related topics, but this really gets my goat.

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Bigamy, The Reformation, and the Slippery Politics of Expediency

Philip I, Landrave of Hesse (1504-1567). Does the scandal of Philip’s marriage provide any lessons for Christians today? (credit: Wikipedia, portrait by Hans Krel, 1490-1565)

Is it ever right to ignore the moral failure of leaders, for the sake of political expediency? I first started writing this article about a year ago, to remember the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It just seemed like a sobering but important message to consider, a year later.

16th century, Europe: Philip of Hesse, an influential political leader in Germany, was in a rather unhappy marriage. His first marriage to one Christine of Saxony, was a completely political arrangement, and Philip did not find her attractive. He soon lived a rather promiscuous life, to relieve him of his domestic stalemate with Christine. Philip was also a supporter of the Reformation, as articulated by Martin Luther. He suffered pangs of conscience, as he sought to reconcile a respect for the Bible, with his marital difficulties. So, in order to address his guilt and try to move forward, Philip sought the Wittenberg Reformer for advice.

Strangely, Luther had some unconventional ideas about marriage, that will probably sound odd to us today:

I, for my part, admit I can raise no objection if a man wishes to take several wives since Holy Scripture does not forbid this; but I should not like to see this example introduced amongst Christians. … It does not beseem Christians to seize greedily and for their own advantage on every thing to which their freedom gives them a right. (Martin Luther, Works).

Though Luther was not endorsing polygamy, neither did he expressly forbid it. He did seem to allow bigamy under certain circumstances. For example, if the wife was unable to bear a child, then this might allow permission for the husband to take a second wife.

This seems rather startling to modern Christians, who view polygamy as something only fundamentalist Mormons do. But Luther viewed procreation as one of the purposes of marriage. Given the high rate of infant mortality, and devastating impact of the “Black Death,” during the late Middle Ages, the ability to carry on a lineage to the next generation was not something to be taken for granted. So, if the wife was unable to conceive, then that could be ruled to be a legitimate exception, thus allowing one to take up another wife.

Christine of Saxony (1505-1549), Philip of Hesse’s wife #1. She remained married to Philip, after he had take wife #2 (credit: Wikipedia)

Luther’s younger protege, Philip Melanchthon, and the Swiss Reformer of Strasbourg, Martin Bucer, held much to the same opinion. They supported the idea that King Henry VIII of England, could marry Anne Boleyn, while keeping Catherine of Aragon as his first wife, so that the King would be able to father a male child, and thus secure his family’s line for the throne of England. This was not ideal, but at least, it would keep Henry from breaking his marital vows with Catherine. Henry, was not content to keep his first wife, so he ignored the Reformers’ advice, and divorced Catherine, anyway.

However, Philip of Hesse’s position was not as precarious, when it came to having children, for Philip had ten children by his despised Christine. It would seem that the Reformers would not be pushed to support Philip’s plans to secure a “legitimate” second wife.

Philip of Hesse would try to push, anyway. Philip would not divorce Christine, as Henry VIII had done with Catherine. Instead, he proposed to marry a second woman, privately, but he intended to seek the support of the Reformers, despite any moral objections, that they may have had.

Philip needed the sanction of the Reformers, to go through with his plans. Philip of Hesse had recently pushed through legislation to regard the death penalty as punishment for adultery. Having the blessing of the Reformers would give him a way personally around the very law he sought to enforce.

But the Reformers needed Philip, too. Luther, Melanchthon, and Bucer were leaders of the magisterial Reformation, for they intended to carry out their reforms of the church, with the civil support of the magistrate, including Philip of Hesse. Without Philip’s support, as the secular ruler, it would have been very difficult to conceive how the Reformation might continue, without putting their own lives at further risk.

The message was subtle, but clear. The Reformers could count on Philip of Hesse’s support, if they would but grant their approval of Philip’s bigamist intentions. If the Reformers failed to support Philip of Hesse, Philip would turn to the Pope and the Emperor for support instead.

Luther, Melanchthon, and Bucer were in a bind. This was no mere theological posturing. This was a life and death matter. Thousands had already died, due to the turmoil of the Reformation. The Pope was working the political levers of medieval Europe, urging Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, to crush the Reformation, with force, if necessary.

Margarethe von der Saale (1522-1566), Wife #2 of Philip of Hesse (credit: Wikipedia).

The medieval church had become woefully corrupt. The sale of indulgences had made a mockery of the Christian Gospel, encouraging the gullible to hand over large sums of money to a greedy clerical aristocracy. The Reformers knew that something had to be done. If the Reformers would grant their support to Philip’s bigamy, this would secure them the support needed to make Germany a fully Protestant, governed entity. If they refused to stand by Philip of Hesse, the Pope and the Emperor would move against the fledgling Protestant movement. So, if they would but overlook this one moral failure of Philip of Hesse, this pivotal political leader, it would set Germany on the right course for the future, and make Germany a truly Christian nation.

Philip of Hesse met privately to secure the support of Martin Bucer and Philip Melanchthon. Bucer and Melanchthon, seeing this as an opportunity to push forward with their reforms, granted a permissive level of support. But they wished that the whole matter be settled cautiously and quietly.

Yet unbeknownst to Bucer and Melanchthon, Philip of Hesse had already previously selected his new wife, and they married with Bucer and Melanchthon as onlookers. Bucer and Melanchthon were blindsided and stunned.

Philip had dangled the prospect of power and influence, all for a good cause, mind you, in front of Bucer and Melancthon, and the Reformers had taken the bait. But matters soon got out of Philip’s control. The news was leaked and spread among the royal court, and the Reformers’ and Philip’s actions were exposed.

The scandal rocked all of Europe.

Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), a leader of the magisterial Reformation in Germany (credit: Wikipedia)

Luther distanced himself from the entire affair, claiming that his conversations with Philip of Hesse were held in the confessional, and that he never counseled his direct approval of Philip’s bigamy. Melanchthon was so scandalized that he physically became ill. The Roman Catholic opponents of the Reformation pounced on Luther, Bucer, and Melanchthon as undermining Christian values.

It would appear that the efforts of the magisterial Reformers, that took the path of political expediency, had backfired. By appearing to endorse Philip of Hesse’s bigamy, the leaders of the Protestant Reformation had lost some of their moral high ground in their efforts to build a “Christian” Europe.

In the end, the results of the whole debacle were mixed. Philip of Hesse got what he wanted, with his bigamous approach to marriage, and kept on supporting the Protestant movement within Germany. But his posture as a Protestant leader was weakened, due to his moral difficulties, and he was forced to try to find a compromise between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Reform movements. A peaceful resolution to the conflict proved to be elusive, and Philip of Hesse suffered defeat, along with other German princes, in the Schmalkaldic War, against the Emperor, Charles V.

For their participation in Philip of Hesse’s marital failure, the Reformers themselves, Luther, Bucer, and Melanchthon, suffered at least some loss of prestige throughout Europe. Surely, it helped to set many traditional Roman Catholics, who were at once on the fence about the Reformation, against the efforts of the magisterial Reformation.

It is difficult to assess how much the bigamy controversy compromised the magisterial Reformation, in the long run, but I can not imagine it helping the situation either. The following centuries, with “Wars of Religion” dividing Protestant and Roman Catholic throughout Europe, showed that the intertwining of theological with political concerns, in late medieval and early modern Europe, would become an extremely bloody affair, leaving a distaste for Christian theological controversy, in Europe, even down to the present day.


Veracity Biker Blogger Down…. But Back up!!

Last Tuesday, October 30, 2018, one of your faithful bloggers here at Veracity was involved in a bike accident. In what I would describe as a miracle, God has providentially kept me alive and in good shape.

For the past 18 years, I have been a bike commuter to work, driving to the outskirts of town, and pulling out my bike from the car hatch, and riding down Monticello Avenue, towards the College of William and Mary, in my hometown of Williamsburg. This particular morning, I was riding down a stretch of Monticello in the bike lane, just next to an on-ramp for Route 199.

The last thing I remember was the sensation of my bike being shot out from underneath me. I thought to myself, “I need to hold onto my bike!”

The lights went out after a split second…..

The next thing I know, I was laying flat on my back, in the back of a James City County ambulance, and the EMT paramedic was asking me about today’s date, just minutes away from the trauma center at Riverside Hospital in Newport News.

The EMT guy told me that I was rear-ended by a car, and that I flipped back and smashed into the windshield of the vehicle, with my bike helmet, with my head still in the helmet! Later that day, the police dropped off my bike (the photo above) at my house, where you can see how my rear wheel got folded up by the impact.

Amazingly, the only significant injury I received was a concussion. Only a few other bruises and scrapes. No internal injuries. I was discharged within hours from the hospital. The EMT guy later spoke with my wife and said that it was exceedingly rare for someone to endure an accident like this, without worse, debilitating injury, or even death.

I can not describe to you how thankful I am that I was spared anything worse, than a concussion. I had a followup visit with my doctor recently, with good results, and he told me that I was very, very “lucky.”

As an engineer with a mathematics background, I can tell you all about probabilities and whatnot. The driver was probably going at a slow speed. The angle of impact kept me in the bike lane, and away from other vehicles. I could go on… But I really do not believe in “luck.” I believe in God’s providential care. For what purpose this accident served?…. Well, that is something that remains to be known.

Our secular society likes to reduce miracle stories like this to the status of “luck.” I can understand this, as it is clear that there are countless other stories where the outcome of incidents like this that do not turn out so good. Lots of questions are raised as to the nature of the providence of God, the problem of evil, etc…. things we do not always feel comfortable talking about. But these are important questions we ALL need to consider. We simply can not “kick the can down the road,” crossing our fingers, hoping that it does not happen “to me.”

I have no clue who hit me, as I was unconscious for about an hour (which raises questions of its own… I did not have any NDE; that is, a “Near Death Experience,” but it was pretty surreal, for sure!!). I pray for the man who struck me. I am also a big advocate for, and thankful for safety gear, particularly my bike helmet, that did its job wonderfully. Thanks to all of the first responders and medical personnel, who did their job, even though I was unaware of what they did for me.

I am grateful.

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1)

ALWAY WEAR A BIKE HELMET WHEN RIDING A BICYCLE!


The Legacy of “Christian” Anti-Semitism: A Report from Rome

The Jewish Ghetto in Rome: Via Rua in Ghetto, (rione Sant’Angelo), by Ettore Roesler Franz (c. 1880)

As news unfolded last weekend of a man entering a Pittsburgh Jewish synagogue, and killing 11 worshippers, it was a sober reminder that anti-semitism is still a spiritual and moral disease to be reckoned with. My wife and I recently returned from a trip to Rome, Italy, and there we sadly learned that the story of anti-Jewish sentiment has much of its roots in the misuse of the Bible, throughout Christian history….

Our hotel in Rome was but a few blocks from the city’s famous Jewish Ghetto district, now a pricey part of town, lined with fantastic Jewish restaurants, to the culinary delight of tourists (such as this American! …. Try the artichoke! It is unbelievable!). But such upscale status was not always the case in Rome’s history.

Compared to much of the rest of Europe, Jews in Italy have had relatively better treatment throughout history. Unlike stories of exile from England (1290) and Spain (1492), Jews in Italy have never experienced periods of mass exile. Rome’s Jewish community over the years had always lived fairly close together, keeping their Jewish identity intact over the centuries. Christians from a Jewish background, such as the apostle Peter and Paul, were most probably part of this ancient community, back in the first century.

Though abused by pagan emperors, such as Cladius, as mentioned in the Book of Acts, Rome’s Jews lived mostly in peace, until the period of the Counter-Reformation, four centuries ago, right in the heart of the center of Western Christendom. In 1555, the plight of Rome’s Jews drastically changed, when the Jews were forced to live together, in one of the most undesirable parts of the city, next to the Tiber River. Established by a papal bull by Pope Paul IV, the Jews were huddled together in this walled-in ghetto, their homes susceptible to flooding from the nearby Tiber. Jews had their property rights taken away from them, and they were forced to listen to compulsory Christian sermons on the Jewish sabbath.

Veracity blogger, in front of the Church of San Gregorio a Ponte Quattro Capi (Note the presence of the police officer behind me, just to my right, and his police vehicle to the left of the church door).

Some of the successive Catholic popes relaxed various restrictions on Rome’s Jewish community, but the social upheavals of early 19th century Europe led to newer, and even tighter restrictions. One such sign of this can be seen today, at the small Church of San Gregorio a Ponte Quattro Capi, at the edge of the ghetto district.

Above the church door is an inscription from Isaiah 65:2-3, in both Hebrew and Latin:

I spread out my hands all the day
    to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
    following their own devices;
a people who provoke me
    to my face continually,
sacrificing in gardens
    and making offerings on bricks. (ESV)

Placed there in 1858, this is a good example of “right verse, wrong application.” The original context for this passage had to deal with God’s rebuke against Old Testament Jews, in Isaiah’s day, who had given themselves over to worship pagan deities. While it can be applied in our day, as God’s rebuke against all people (not just “the Jews”); that is, anyone who rebels against God, to suggest that this text is specifically targeting Rome’s Jews, with God’s displeasure, is a misuse of the text.

No wonder so many Jewish people today harbor feelings of mistrust around some Christians!

How would it make you feel to live in the Jewish ghetto? Compulsory housing code situated you and your family to live in a flood prone area, without any property rights of your own? Why on earth would anyone even want to listen to a sermon, using these Bible verses as a pretext, for legitimizing such coercion?

Inscription from Isaiah 65:2-3, in Hebrew on the left, and Latin on the right, from the Church of San Gregorio a Ponte Quattro Capi, overlooking the Jewish Ghetto (taken with my Android phone, October, 2018. Click on the image for a closer look).

Many evangelical Christians, of a more conservative bent today, tend to “pooh-pooh” so-called “seeker-sensitive” churches in our day and age. But it might have helped the cause of reaching Rome’s Jewish community, in the 19th century, to have a healthy dose of seeker-sensitivity. Here is the facade of the church, with the crucified Jesus looking down upon the inscription of Isaiah, which surely had Rome’s Jewish population in mind. This is not the most gentle way to win the hearts of people, to say the least:

Conditions for Rome’s Jewish community improved when the Papal States were superseded by the relatively more-secular Kingdom of Italy, in 1870. The formal requirement forcing all of Rome’s Jews to live in the ghetto came to an end, and the unsafe living conditions of the ghetto, for those who remained, were vastly improved by raising the ground level and building a flood retaining wall to keep the banks of the Tiber in check. A new, grand synagogue was built, and completed in 1904, and the Jewish community entered a new age of relative prosperity.

Rome’s Great Synagogue, finished in 1904.

It may seem like I am piling on the Roman Catholic Church here, but Protestants do not get off so easy. When the Nazi’s rose to power in the 1930s, in Germany, some of their anti-semitic rhetoric came from the pages of Martin Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies. When the Nazis eventually occupied Rome, during War World 2, Rome’s Jewish community fell under their uncharitable eye.

The worst day for Jews in Rome, during the Nazi era, came on October 16, 1943. The Nazis drove trucks into the old Jewish Ghetto, rounded up as many Jews as they could, shipping many of them off to Auschwitz.

The situation for Rome’s Jewish community has greatly improved since the days of the Nazis. In 1986, Pope John Paul II visited the Great Synagogue, followed by Pope Benedict in 2010, and recently in 2016, with Pope Francis.

If you are ever in Rome, I would encourage you take a tour of the Great Synagogue of Rome. They have an incredibly informative museum, underneath the worship space, that interprets the history of the Jews in Rome, extending back to the pre-Christian, pagan era. However, if you do visit, you will notice that security is very tight getting into the synagogue and museum. Outside the synagogue, you will see Italian police officers, practically one on every corner. Rome has a high police presence, all across the city, but here in the Jewish ghetto area, it seems particularly high.

Just a few hundred feet down the street from the Great Synagogue of Rome, marks the spot (with a plaque, behind me on the building wall), where Nazi trucks came in, October 16, 1943, and abducted Jews to be taken off to Auschwitz, for extermination.

When I spoke to one of the museum guides about the high security issues, she told me why access to the synagogue  is so strict. In 1982, armed Palestinian militants stormed the undefended synagogue, killing one child. Ever since then, they have made every effort to restrict access to the synagogue, for safety reasons.

Inside the Great Synagogue of Rome.

The security situation in Rome came to mind when I heard of the recent tragedy in Pittsburgh. Whatever the motives of the synagogue killer, what happened in Pittsburgh has been labeled the most horrific single tragedy experienced by the American Jewish community, in U.S. history. Yet as Baptist leader, Russell Moore put it, “If you hate Jews, you hate Jesus.” Or consider the commentary of theologian Gerald McDermott, who challenges us to reach to our Jewish friends.

Where does this ugly legacy of anti-semitism come from? Well, sadly, part of the problem can unfortunately be traced back to misguided thinking among of those who wrongly misread their Bibles, as was evidently done by those who forced the Jews to live in ghettos, like that in Rome.

Earlier this year, I finished blogging my way through the controversial topic of “Christian Zionism,” examining the history  and practice of how Christians have read their Bibles about the promise of the land, to the Jews and their descendants, in the Middle East. No matter where someone lands on that particular issue, we should all be wary of tendencies among those who read their Bibles, to justify all sorts of ill-treatment against our Jewish friends. Instead, may we all, as followers of Jesus, take our example from our Lord, who after all, was Jewish, and learn to better know how to love our Jewish neighbors with the truth of the Gospel.

 

 


The History of the English Standard Version

I use multiple English versions of the Scriptures, in my own Bible study: ranging from the KJV, to the NIV, the online NET Bible (recently reformatted as Lumina) to the late Eugene Peterson’s The Message. Each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. But if I had to pick one stand out favorite, it would be the English Standard Version (ESV). The following is a ten-minute video telling the history of how the ESV came to be:


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