The ancient Hebrew cosmology, we’re told repeatedly, included an understanding that there is a hard shell over the earth, known as the “firmament.” We’ve addressed this misunderstanding here before, but once again, Martin Luther has something to teach us on this subject.
I’m returning to the first volume of Luther’s Works, and specifically what he had to say about the firmament in Genesis 1:6. Why? Because Luther is correct here, when he explains the meaning of the Hebrew word “raqia” (“expanse,” or “firmament”). Luther writes:
“The Hebrew word “raqia” denotes ‘something spread out,’ from the verb ‘raqa,’ which means ‘to expand’ or ‘to fold out.’ The heaven was made in this manner, that the unformed mass extended itself outward as the bladder of a pig extends itself outward in circular form when it is inflated – if I may be permitted to make use of a coarse comparison in order to make the process clear.”
But what about Job 37:18? That verse says:
“Can you, like him, spread out the skies, hard as a cast metal mirror?”
Isn’t it clear from this verse, found in one of the earliest books of the Old Testament, that the ancient cosmology did in fact include a hard shell above the earth? So goes the argument; the creation account reflects the cosmology of the ancient Hebrews, and as such does not describe in “literal” terms the makeup of the universe.
“This pertains not to the material but to the Word, which makes very strong even that which is very soft by nature. What is softer than water, what is thinner and finer than air? Yet because these very fine and soft substances were created by the Word, they preserve their form and motion most perfectly and firmly. But even if the heaven had been constructed of steel or of an infinitely harder material, it would break and melt because of its swift, long, and continuous motion. The sun, too, would melt one day as a result of its swift motion, even if it consisted of the hardest material. For motion produces great heat; in fact, Aristotle declares that the lead on an arrow melts on account of its swift motion.”
Luther’s explanation of the nature of the firmament is interesting on a couple of levels. First of all, he debunks the “solid dome” idea in a few words, and does so by doing the work of exegesis using the text of Scripture itself in the first place. He goes on to add:
“Among the Hebrews the firmament got its name from the expanding. Thus in Psalm 104 the comparison with skins and camp tents, taken from military life, cleverly alludes to the word. The expression is: ‘Stretching out the heaven like a tent curtain’ (Ps. 104:2). ‘For just as a folded-up tent is unfolded and pitched in a field,’ the psalm says,’ so Thou dost spread out and, as it were, unroll by Thy Word the unformed heaven, where Thou dost sit invisibly in the whole of creation, just as in a sphere, within all things and outside all things.’”
In the second place, Luther interacted with the scientific knowledge that he had available to him – in this case, the teaching of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and later the conclusions of contemporary philosophers. But he does so not in order to re-interpret Scripture to conform with the philosophers’ conclusions. Rather, this knowledge leads him to glorify God and the power of his creative and providential Word. This philosophical (or scientific, to use the modern term) knowledge is limited and provisional. It is always subject to revision. It’s useful, Luther says, but it’s useful within its limits:
“It would… be the height of stupidity to sneer at these ideas [those of the philosophers or scientists of the day], as some do, because they are not so definite that they could not be otherwise. They contribute toward teaching the arts, and this is sufficient.”
But in the end, writes Luther:
“We Christians must… be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of these things. And if some are beyond our comprehension (like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens), we must believe them and admit our lack of knowledge rather than either wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding. We must pay attention to the expression of Holy Scripture and abide by the words of the Holy Spirit, whom it pleases to distribute His creatures in this way…”
These are words to live by! We must acknowledge our limitations, the creaturely limitations that are inherent to our very being (the fact that we are limited creatures, and not the Creator), and the additional limitations and distortions of our understanding which were caused by the fall into sin.