Sunday Quote

Was the Three-Tiered Universe Merely Phenomenological?

sc-greenwoodWas the Three-Tiered Universe Merely Phenomenological? 

There are many passages throughout the Bible which appear to show that the authors believed in a three-tiered universe in which there were the heavens, the earth, and the underworld/waters. Some Christians argue that these descriptions were merely phenomenological: that is, the authors were writing as observers rather than attempting to report anything about the actual world. It is like when we say the sun rises, we aren’t actually intending to say the sun is orbiting the Earth, but rather just reporting something we experience: our perspective shows the sun rising.

Kyle Greenwood, in Scripture and Cosmology, argues that the biblical authors did, in fact hold to a three-tiered cosmology, and so the language should not be reduced to being merely phenomenological. He cites four strands of evidence for this conclusion:

First, whenever we find physical descriptions of the cosmos, it is described as three-tiered. Second, whenever we find… images or drawings of the cosmos, they are three-tiered. Third, nowhere… do we find the authors explaining their cosmology in any other terms besides the three-tiered system. Finally, we know that ancients thought of the cosmos in terms of the heavens, earth, and seas because eventually these ideas were challenged by Aristotle and Ptolemy, whose ideas were later challenged by Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. (69, cited below)

Greenwood’s argument seems to me to be quite convincing. If we want to hold that the Bible’s cosmology is phenomenological, we should have some textual evidence that demonstrates a different perspective was in mind. We don’t. Thus, when an author in the Bible speaks of the skies being “hard” (Job 37:18, for example), this reflects an ancient cosmology.

None of this does anything to undermine the authority or inerrancy of the Bible. Inerrancy, I believe, should properly be understood as meaning “The Bible is true in whatever it teaches.” (See my article on the term “inerrancy” and its usage.) The authors aren’t trying to teach us about cosmology, that’s just a background belief. They must describe the heavens somehow, and they used the understanding they had of the cosmos.

What do you think? Can we reduce the language of the Bible to being phenomenological? What reasons might we have for doing so? How might we best understand the Bible’s cosmology in light of other Ancient Near Eastern cosmology, and how could that help us understand what the Bible teaches?


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Kyle Greenwood, Scripture and Cosmology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015).



About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


5 thoughts on “Was the Three-Tiered Universe Merely Phenomenological?

  1. I do agree that what the human authors believed is to be distinguished from what the divine author intended to teach. However I question whether your “what the Bible teaches is true” formula qualifies as a definition of inerrancy. It’s didactic magisterium, a more limited claim. On your view, faced with Mark 2:26 you can say that either Jesus or Mark made an error about the name of the High Priest but it doesn’t matter as Jesus/Mark weren’t teaching about history. I think that’s right but that’s why I don’t call myself an inerrantist. I believe there is an error here, and one that would be considered such by contemporary readers hence why Mathew and Luke cut it out. So the Chicago qualifications allowing for figures of speech or a degree of imprecision that was acceptable within the canons of ancient biography are irrelevant. It’s an error by any standard. But not a didactic error, the point of the teaching is that some rules have exceptions.
    Now if you agree, or even think that my take is permissible within your own formula (which is how I would sum up didactic magisterium), then perhaps you should reconsider your attachment to the term inerrancy. You could talk of didactic inerrancy rather than magisterium if you like but you need a qualifier. If on the other hand you insist that there is no error in Mark 2:26 (or any other passage) then you can call yourself an inerrantist, but your “what the Bible teaches is true” summary needs filling out.
    I’m not going to suggest that you are sticking to the term to stay in the evangelical club. I suspect you get more flak as a result of redefining inerrancy than simply setting aside the term. But why not just stick to your formula and drop the term inerrancy? It’s not in scripture, it’s misleading in most forms proposed, and it’s an empty box due to the loss of the autographs. Moreover the claim that the bible doesn’t err wouldn’t distinguish the bible from an accurate telephone directory. The claim that the bible can’t err is clearly what is meant but that’s infallibility not inerrancy, yet the term infallibility is now taken to indicate a weaker claim, similar to didactic magisterium. Just food for thought.

    Posted by Giles | November 15, 2015, 1:09 PM
  2. We can see the ancient writers assumed the three tier cosmos was a physical reality through the explanation they had for how a three tier cosmos works, for example the pillars of the earth to hold the solid ground up over the watery abyss. The abyss itself cannot be phenomenological since like the pillars of the earth, no one had seen it, this vast underground sea was how they explained springs and artesian wells, also referred to as abysses. We also see it in the writer of Ecclesiastes hypothesising an unseen water cycle where rivers flow into the sea but the seas don’t fill up because the water flows back through the underground abyss to the fountains and springs the rivers flow from Eccl 1:7.

    Posted by dconneely2012 | November 16, 2015, 7:57 PM


  1. Pingback: Is three tier flat earth cosmology getting short shrift from Biblical Creationists? | The Creation Club | A Place for Biblical Creationists to Share and Learn - September 26, 2018

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