My posts from last week and the previous week were both about Copernicus and how he rejected the Two Spheres Theory (TST) regarding the shape of our world—that body we now call Planet Earth. As discussed in those posts, the TST supposed that the world was composed of two spheres of material: an earthy sphere and a water sphere, with the earthy sphere bulging out from the watery sphere, like in the figure at right.
As discussed last week, some people thought that the sphere of waters had been displaced away from the sphere of earthy stuff, with the result being that the oceans were higher than the lands, and this explained springs. The thing that kept the waters from flowing back over the earth was the action of God.
It’s not that seas being higher than the land, or needing to be held back, was a peculiarly Judeo-Christian idea. According to David Wootton in his 2015 book The Invention of Science,* Pliny the Elder wrote about this sort of thing. And, the idea of the seas being something that would inundate the whole world unless held back shows up in different cultures. But it does not require too much imagination to see the TST in the words of Genesis 1:9-10:
God also said: Let the waters that are under the heaven, be gathered together into one place: and let the dry land appear. And it was so done. And God called the dry land, Earth; and the gathering together of the waters he called Seas [Douay-Rheims version—appropriate to the time period being discussed].
And thus we find the strangest incident of the blending of religion and science. Consider this quotation from A Sermon Against Atheism: Preach’d at the Parish-church of St. Martin in the Fields, Novemb. 24. 1700. By Tho. Knaggs:
…the Bounds and Limits which are set to the Sea, which by a perpetual Decree it cannot pass, may let us see the Finger of God is there. Hitherto shalt thou go and no further, proclaims a God. God himself asks Job this Question, Who hath shut up the Sea with Gates, when it brake forth as if it had issued out of the Womb? [Job 31: 8] That the Sea is higher than the Earth, is what Men of sound Reason lay down for a certain Truth, and consequently would overflow the Land, was it not stay’d by an Almighty Hand, that will not permit that raging Element to go beyond its appointed Bounds, and makes it recoil back again, even when it threatens the Shore with its terrible Waves and Roars.
There was a time when the Earth was covered with the Deep as with a Garment, and had not the Providence of God broke up for it his decreed Place, it had still continued such a Garment to the Earth, as the Skirt that was made for the Murthering of Agamemnon, where the Head had no place to get out. I brake up for it my decreed place; I set bars and doors, and said hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: And here shall thy proud waves be stay’d, said God [Job 31: 10-11]…. They that go down to the Sea in ships, and do business in that raging Element: These Men see the Works of the Lord, and his Wonders in the Deep. [Psalm 107:23-24]
Or consider this, from Thomas Vincent’s 1673 An Explicatory Catechism: or, an explanation of the Assemblies Shorter Catechism:
Q7. What is the first Argument to prove that there is a God?
A. The first Argument, to prove that there is a God, may be drawn from the Being of all things …[including 1. The Heavens, 2. The Earth and]… 3. The Being of the vast Sea, where there is such abundance of Waters, as some think, higher than the Earth, which yet are bounded and refrained from overflowing and drowning the Land and its Inhabitants, as once they did when their Limits were for a while removed…..
Vincent’s Catechism was reprinted for over a century—in 1701, in 1720, in 1777, and in 1806. Needless to say, using an idea with roots in the TST to argue for the existence of God did not work out so well in the long run. As Vatican Observatory Director Br. Guy likes to point out, what is in science books changes.
And thus this strange idea known as the Two Spheres Theory on the shape of our world has taken us from the pages of the De Revolutionibus of Copernicus to a strange mixing of religion and science in the pages of an Anglican Catechism! When you start to follow the history of astronomy, you never know through what places the journey will carry you.
*For the ideas from Wootton’s book cited in this post, see the UK version of the book, page 113.