Chapter 3 - Astronomy
The Old Sacred Theory of the Universe
The next great series of battles was fought over the relations of
the visible heavens to the earth.
In the early Church, in view of the doctrine so prominent in the
New Testament, that the earth was soon to be destroyed, and that
there were to be "new heavens and a new earth," astronomy, like
other branches of science, was generally looked upon as futile. Why
study the old heavens and the old earth, when they were so soon to
be replaced with something infinitely better? This feeling appears
in St. Augustine's famous utterance, "What concern is it to me
whether the heavens as a sphere inclose the earth in the middle of
the world or overhang it on either side?"
As to the heavenly bodies, theologians looked on them as at best
only objects of pious speculation. Regarding their nature the
fathers of the Church were divided. Origen, and others with him,
thought them living beings possessed of souls, and this belief was
mainly based upon the scriptural vision of the morning stars.
singing together, and upon the beautiful appeal to the "stars and
light" in the song of the three children - the Benedicite - which
the Anglican communion has so wisely retained in its Liturgy.
Other fathers thought the stars abiding-places of the angels, and
that stars were moved by angels. The Gnostics thought the stars
spiritual beings governed by angels, and appointed not to cause
earthly events but to indicate them.
As to the heavens in general, the prevailing view in the Church was
based upon the scriptural declarations that a solid vault - a
"firmament" - was extended above the earth, and that the heavenly
bodies were simply lights hung within it. This was for a time held
very tenaciously. St. Philastrius, in his famous treatise on
heresies, pronounced it a heresy to deny that the stars are brought
out by God from his treasure-house and hung in the sky every
evening; any other view he declared "false to the Catholic
faith." This view also survived in the sacred theory established so
firmly by Cosmas in the sixth century. Having established his plan
of the universe upon various texts in the Old and New Testaments,
and having made it a vast oblong box, covered by the solid
"firmament," he brought in additional texts from Scripture to
account for the planetary movements, and developed at length the
theory that the sun and planets are moved and the "windows of
heaven" opened and shut by angels appointed for that purpose.
How intensely real this way of looking at the universe was, we find
in the writings of St. Isidore, the greatest leader of orthodox
thought in the seventh century. He affirms that since the fall of
man, and on account of it, the sun and moon shine with a feebler
light; but he proves from a text in Isaiah that when the world
shall be fully redeemed these "great lights" will shine again in
all their early splendour. But, despite these authorities and their
theological finalities, the evolution of scientific thought
continued, its main germ being the geocentric doctrine - the
doctrine that the earth is the centre, and that the sun and planets
revolve about it.
This doctrine was of the highest respectability: it had been
developed at a very early period, and had been elaborated until it
accounted well for the apparent movements of the heavenly bodies;
its final name, "Ptolemaic theory," carried weight; and, having
thus come from antiquity into the Christian world, St. Clement of
Alexandria demonstrated that the altar in the Jewish tabernacle was
"a symbol of the earth placed in the middle of the universe":
nothing more was needed; the geocentric theory was fully adopted by
the Church and universally held to agree with the letter and spirit
Wrought into this foundation, and based upon it, there was
developed in the Middle Ages, mainly out of fragments of Chaldean
and other early theories preserved in the Hebrew Scriptures, a new
sacred system of astronomy, which became one of the great treasures
of the universal Church - the last word of revelation.
Three great men mainly reared this structure. First was the unknown
who gave to the world the treatises ascribed to Dionysius the
Areopagite. It was unhesitatingly believed that these were the work
of St. Paul's Athenian convert, and therefore virtually of St. Paul
himself. Though now known to be spurious, they were then considered
a treasure of inspiration, and an emperor of the East sent them to
an emperor of the West as the most worthy of gifts. In the ninth
century they were widely circulated in western Europe, and became
a fruitful source of thought, especially on the whole celestial
hierarchy. Thus the old ideas of astronomy were vastly developed,
and the heavenly hosts were classed and named in accordance with
indications scattered through the sacred Scriptures.
The next of these three great theologians was Peter Lombard,
professor at the University of Paris. About the middle of the
twelfth century he gave forth his collection of Sentences, or
Statements by the Fathers, and this remained until the end of the
Middle Ages the universal manual of theology. In it was especially
developed the theological view of man's relation to the universe.
The author tells the world: "Just as man is made for the sake of
God - that is, that he may serve Him, - so the universe is made for
the sake of man - that is, that it may serve him; therefore is man
placed at the middle point of the universe, that he may both serve
and be served."
The vast significance of this view, and its power in resisting any real
astronomical science, we shall see, especially in the time of Galileo.
The great triad of thinkers culminated in St. Thomas Aquinas - the
sainted theologian, the glory of the mediaeval Church, the
"Angelic Doctor," the most marvellous intellect between Aristotle
and Newton; he to whom it was believed that an image of the
Crucified had spoken words praising his writings. Large of mind,
strong, acute, yet just - even more than just - to his opponents, he
gave forth, in the latter half of the thirteenth century, his
Cyclopaedia of Theology, the Summa Theologica. In this he carried
the sacred theory of the universe to its full development. With
great power and clearness he brought the whole vast system,
material and spiritual, into its relations to God and man.
Thus was the vast system developed by these three leaders of
mediaeval thought; and now came the man who wrought it yet more
deeply into European belief, the poet divinely inspired who made
the system part of the world's life. Pictured by Dante, the
empyrean and the concentric heavens, paradise, purgatory, and hell,
were seen of all men; the God Triune, seated on his throne upon the
circle of the heavens, as real as the Pope seated in the chair of
St. Peter; the seraphim, cherubim, and thrones, surrounding the
Almighty, as real as the cardinals surrounding the Pope; the three
great orders of angels in heaven, as real as the three great
orders, bishops, priests, and deacons, on earth; and the whole
system of spheres, each revolving within the one above it, and all
moving about the earth, subject to the primum mobile, as real as
the feudal system of western Europe, subject to the Emperor.
Let us look into this vast creation - the highest achievement of
theology - somewhat more closely.
Its first feature shows a development out of earlier theological
ideas. The earth is no longer a flat plain inclosed by four walls
and solidly vaulted above, as theologians of previous centuries had
believed it, under the inspiration of Cosmas; it is no longer a
mere flat disk, with sun, moon, and stars hung up to give it light,
as the earlier cathedral sculptors had figured it; it has become
a globe at the centre of the universe. Encompassing it are
successive transparent spheres, rotated by angels about the earth,
and each carrying one or more of the heavenly bodies with it: that
nearest the earth carrying the moon; the next, Mercury; the next,
Venus; the next, the Sun; the next three, Mars, Jupiter, and
Saturn; the eighth carrying the fixed stars. The ninth was the
primum mobile, and inclosing all was the tenth heaven - the
Empyrean. This was immovable - the boundarv between creation and the
great outer void; and here, in a light which no one can enter, the
Triune God sat enthroned, the "music of the spheres" rising to
Him as they moved. Thus was the old heathen doctrine of the spheres
In attendance upon the Divine Majesty, thus enthroned, are vast
hosts of angels, who are divided into three hierarchies, one
serving in the empyrean, one in the heavens, between the empyrean
and the earth, and one on the earth.
Each of these hierarchies is divided into three choirs, or orders;
the first, into the orders of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones; and
the main occupation of these is to chant incessantly - to
"continually cry" the divine praises.
The order of Thrones conveys God's will to the second hierarchy,
which serves in the movable heavens. This second hierarchy is also
made up of three orders. The first of these, the order of
Dominions, receives the divine commands; the second, the order of
Powers, moves the heavens, sun, moon, planets, and stars, opens and
shuts the "windows of heaven," and brings to pass all other celestial
phenomena; the third, the order of Empire, guards the others.
The third and lowest hierarchy is also made up of three orders.
First of these are the Principalities, the guardian spirits of
nations and kingdoms. Next come Archangels; these protect religion,
and bear the prayers of the saints to the foot of God's throne.
Finally come Angels; these care for earthly affairs in general, one
being appointed to each mortal, and others taking charge of the
qualities of plants, metals, stones, and the like. Throughout the
whole system, from the great Triune God to the lowest group of
angels, we see at work the mystic power attached to the triangle
and sacred number three - the same which gave the triune idea to
ancient Hindu theology, which developed the triune deities in
Egypt, and which transmitted this theological gift to the Christian
world, especially through the Egyptian Athanasius.
Below the earth is hell. This is tenanted by the angels who
rebelled under the lead of Lucifer, prince of the seraphim - the
former favourite of the Trinity; but, of these rebellious angels,
some still rove among the planetary spheres, and give trouble to
the good angels; others pervade the atmosphere about the earth,
carrying lightning, storm, drought, and hail; others infest earthly
society, tempting men to sin; but Peter Lombard and St. Thomas
Aquinas take pains to show that the work of these devils is, after
all, but to discipline man or to mete out deserved punishment.
All this vast scheme had been so riveted into the Ptolemaic view
by the use of biblical texts and theological reasonings that the
resultant system of the universe was considered impregnable and
final. To attack it was blasphemy.
It stood for centuries. Great theological men of science, like
Vincent of Beauvais and Cardinal d'Ailly, devoted themselves to
showing not only that it was supported by Scripture, but that it
supported Scripture. Thus was the geocentric theory embedded in the
beliefs and aspirations, in the hopes and fears, of Christendom
down to the middle of the sixteenth century.