A quick response to Peter Leithart's review of "The Biblical Cosmos"

Peter Leithart, one of my academic heroes, wrote a kind review of The Biblical Cosmos on The First Things website here. I am very pleased with the essentially generous assessments he made of the book. On the whole, he was positive, but he raised four "fundamental questions"/objections, and so I at least owe it to him to attempt some kind of brief answer.

I will tackle them in reverse order.

His fourth fundamental question seems to be that he thinks that the opposition I set up between ancient and modern cosmologies is undermined by the amount of relevance I find in ancient cosmologies for the modern world. He seems to be approving of the insights I find in the ancient biblical cosmos; his problem is with the opposition I see.

My response is simply that the opposition and the ongoing relevance operate at different levels.

The opposition I set up operates at the physical cosmographic level. It is between the ancient biblical view (in which the world is flat, with a solid dome above the sky, beyond which is a cosmic chaos ocean; in which the dead live in sheol, beneath the earth; in which heaven is literally above the sky, and so on) and modern scientific views. At a literal level, we simply do not think about the cosmos in those ways any more. To my mind this is simply the case, and I cannot retract that opposition,

The relevance operates at the metaphorical and metaphysical level.

I may simply be missing Peter's point, but I can see no tension or conflict between the opposition and the relevance I defend.

Peter worries that my understanding of science is naive because I give the impression that we have rock-solid science when science is in fact porous and ever-shifting.

My point in the sentence that Peter quotes concerns the structure of scientific explanations. I was not intending to make any claims that modern science has actually uncovered the most basic laws of physics, simply that the nature of its explanations is such that it cannot get beyond such a level in its mode of explanation. I am very well aware that science is incomplete and porous, etc.  Admittedly, in that "problem" sentence I did phrase things in a simplified way, but this was simply to avoid getting bogged down in what I had thought were contextually unnecessary qualifications. As far as I can see, nothing in the book's argument is changed by adding the necessary nuances to that sentence.

I actually say very little about science in the book, but I would say this: that while science is always in flux, it is mind-bogglingly unlikely that it will revise any of its conclusions that have a bearing on my argument. These conclusions being that the earth is not flat, that the earth orbits the sun, and so on. So I cannot see how this question is a "fundamental question." It feels to me like more of a minor nuance. But perhaps I have missed the point of the objection. If so, I apologize.

Peter correctly observes that from a phenomenological viewpoint we do in many ways still inhabit a cosmos like that of Scripture. The world feels static and flat to us; the sun seems to orbit the earth, and so on. That is true, but I make this very point in the book on a couple of occasions. So I am not sure that we are even disagreeing about anything here. Perhaps Peter is simply objecting to my stress on the differences between ancient and modern cosmologies. I do stress the differences, but this is simply because the audience for whom I write rarely even notice the differences, and so that is where I have chosen to draw their attention. I am not sure what else to say about that.

The most helpful fundamental question raised concerns whether I am over-confident in thinking I know what ancient Israelites thought about the physical structure of the cosmos. This is a tricky issue. It is the case that there is a lot that we cannot be sure about regarding ancient biblical cosmologies. All we have are the texts that we have and we cannot be sure that they represented the views of everyone. Furthermore, we cannot always decipher the meanings of some of the texts, which can be infuriatingly obscure. Other texts are poetic and it is somewhat unclear how literally to take the imagery. (A point Peter makes well.) It is quite likely, given the historical and cultural gap between the Bible and now, that here and there in the book I have over-interpreted this or that image. Nevertheless, I don't think that things are so unclear that we must simply fall back into a global agnosticism about biblical cosmology. I still think that the overall shape of the world-view is clear enough and is as set forth in the book. I tried to detail the case for it (and my case is not simply mine, but that of the majority of OT scholars, so if I err on this score then so does most everyone else). Thus, while I do think that Leithart offers a helpful and valid warning, I remain convinced that the main building blocks of my presentation are more or less correct. Even if, for instance, the language of pillars or corners was not taken to refer to literal physical pillars, but picks up on the cosmos-as-house idea—and that may very well be—little of substance is changed in the overall picture. I think that the case I make still provides solid grounds for the three-decker cosmos, the flat earth, living stars, and so on.

Essentially, I think that Peter is keen to minimize the gap between biblical and modern views on the physical structure of the cosmos, while I think that it remains pretty wide. But the point of my book is that it is in its very strangeness that the biblical cosmos is so helpful and theologically relevant, so I do not think that the gap I see is a threat to biblical theology.

In the end, I think that on the issues that matter, such as the cosmos-as-temple, Peter and I are rather close to each other. I am grateful to him for taking the time to offer his reflections on the book. I hope that my response has not been needlessly reactionary.


I'm about half-way through The Biblical Cosmos and I'm finding it a quite wonderful read.
Robin Parry said…
Thanks Matthew. That is kind of you to say
Speaking of Leithart, he can be quite melodramatic. For instance last year he took part in a conversation with Fred Sanders and Carl Trueman on The Future of Protestantism and had this to say:

"I long to see churches that neglect the Eucharist blasted from the earth. I hope to see fragmented Protestantism, anti-liturgical, anti-sacramental Protestantism, thinly biblical Protestantism, anti-doctrinal, anti-intellectual Protestantism, anti-traditional Protestantism, rationalist and nationalist Protestantism slip into the grave. And I’ll be there to help to turn that grave into a dance floor."
Leithart seems to imagine that ancient Israelites had no notion of the shape of the cosmos at all. It was all poetic language. But even figures of speech have to come from somewhere. And scholars agree it was more than mere poetry because every major aspect of the ancient Israelite notion of the cosmos coincides with other ancient Near Eastern notions of the general flat firm shape of the cosmos. I produced a paper on the topic that lists such parallels:


And objections to points made in my paper are replied to on this site:


Some parallels between Israelites and Canaanites (and ancient Mesopotamians in general)

Leithart should also take note of these passages regarding the "holiness" of the heavens, and/or the nearness of God and his holy heaven to the earth, as perceived by ancient Israelites and other ancient cultures:


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