Did the mediaeval Church teach that the Earth is flat? (Reflections on Augustine’s ‘On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis’ #2)
There is a recurrent charge that the mediaeval (Catholic) Church taught that the Earth is flat. It frequently does the rounds whenever people wish to point out the antediluvian nature of some other group’s beliefs — whether that be Christians, Republicans in the U.S., or whoever. But did the mediaeval Church actually teach that the Earth is flat? Not according to 5th-century theologian Augustine of Hippo.
Doing an internet search for “Did the Catholic Church teach that the earth is flat?” is of course a dangerous business. It’s the sort of internet search that can lead to all sorts of spurious factual rabbit-warrens. Reader beware!
“Did the mediaeval Church actually teach that the Earth is flat? Not according to 5th-century theologian Augustine of Hippo.”
Indeed, I see (since I began writing this piece) that the nation’s favourite atheist, Richard Dawkins, is having another go at “flat earthers” in this month’s edition of BBC Science Focus. (Not that it’s ever like Dawkins to set up “straw men” on which to vent his arguments.)
I did find, however, in my searches, a page which appears to be a credible assessment of whether the mediaeval Church taught this — it says no — and where this idea might have come from. According to this page, the notion appears to have first arisen in the nineteenth century as an apocryphal citation from the sixteenth-century explorer Ferdinand Magellan, which then took on a life entirely of its own as a long-running urban myth.
The evidence of Augustine’s ‘On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis’
Reading Augustine’s On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis strongly suggests that the ‘flat earth’ accusation is a fallacy.
“Augustine of Hippo is undoubtedly one of the three or four most influential theologians on Western Christianity. His writings, coming out of the turbulent period when Rome itself was sacked by the Goths and the Roman Empire in the West and in North Africa was succumbing to barbarian invasions, attempted to make sense of the political upheavals going on in the world from a divine perspective, and paved the way for mediaeval Christian theology.”
It should be borne in mind that Augustine of Hippo is undoubtedly one of the three or four most influential theologians on Western Christianity. His writings, coming out of the turbulent period when Rome itself was sacked by the Goths and the Roman Empire in the West and in North Africa was succumbing to barbarian invasions, attempted to make sense of the political upheavals going on in the world from a divine perspective, and paved the way for mediaeval Christian theology.
To give an indication of how influential Augustine was, one only has to read a little way into the high mediaeval theologian Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. Thomas himself was one of the greatest Christian theologians of the Middle Ages. When Thomas wishes to prove some point of Christian doctrine, he frequently has recourse to the authority of Augustine. For example, discussing the question of whether God is simple, i.e., not composed of many parts, he begins his answer to a hypothetical objector:—
“On the contrary, Augustine says: ‘God is truly and absolutely simple.’”
Summa Theologica, Question 3, Article 7
The reason this is important is that Augustine’s view on significant matters could hardly be ignored — nay, entirely up-ended — by the mediaeval Catholic Church, not even on matters of science.
And when we read the On the Literal Interpretation, we find that there is actually some very good science in there. Given that this was written 1,600 years ago, the modern reader ought to be impressed by how good much of the science in this work is.
The earth is spherical
We will give some examples in a future article of the good science to be found in Augustine’s On the Literal Interpretation. However, if here we examine merely the question of Augustine’s conception of the shape of the earth, we see very clearly that he believed the earth was spherical.
For instance, in Book 1, chapter 10 he states very clearly that when the sun is illumining one part of the earth it is dark at the other side; and vice versa: so that when one reads,
And there was evening and there was morning, the first day,
and so forth, this must be understood in a subjective sense — as if spoken from the point of view of an hypothetical observer standing somewhere on the earth — and not in an objective sense.
“Augustine is well aware that in the Genesis account the sun was not created until the fourth day. This observation drives Augustine to understand the phrase, ‘Let there be light’ (Genesis 1:3), in a spiritual sense.”
Of course, this argument only applies once there is such a thing as the sun, and Augustine is well aware that in the Genesis account the sun was not created until the fourth day. He says as much in the same chapter.
This observation drives Augustine to understand the phrase, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), in a spiritual sense: the “light” which was spoken at that moment was not the physical light that we see with our eyes, but rather was intellectual life.
It is also one consideration that leads him to deny that the “days” in the Genesis 1 account can have been literal, twenty-four-hour periods.
Moreover, his reference in Book 2, Chapter 15, to the heavenly bodies and his accurate description of how the waxing and waning of the moon is caused by the fact that the sun is shining on a different part of its surface, so that, “one part of its orb is always aglow,” indicates very clearly that he understood these bodies to be spherical.
Augustine’s On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis shows us very clearly that he understood, in accordance with the science of his age, the earth to be spherical. This fact had been observed centuries earlier by mathematicians, and Augustine is not about to override plain and provable reason in order to maintain some theological ‘flat earth’ policy.
As we have said already, Augustine’s influence on the mediaeval Church in the West is hard to overestimate. It is hardly likely that the mediaeval Church would have taught that the earth is flat when one of its most towering theologians, Augustine, clearly taught otherwise.
Augustine’s On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis (ISBN 0-8091-0326-5; 0-8091-0327-3) is available in two volumes from Newman Press / Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ.
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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Augustine and John Hammond Taylor, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, vol. 1, Ancient Christian Writers, No. 41 (New York, N.Y: Newman Press, 1982), 30–31.
 Genesis 1:5, &c.
 Augustine and Taylor, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 1:31.
 Ibid., Book 1, Chapter 9 (p.29)
 Ibid., Book 1, Chapter 10 (p.30)
 Ibid., pp.67-69
 Ibid., p.68
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