Warfare of Science/Theology

Author: Andrew Dickson White

IV. the Size of the Earth.

But at an early period another subject in geography had stirred the minds of thinking men—THE EARTH’S SIZE. Various ancient investigators had by different methods reached measurements more or less near the truth; these methods were continued into the Middle Ages, supplemented by new thought, and among the more striking results were those obtained by Roger Bacon and Gerbert, afterward Pope Sylvester II. They handed down to after-time the torch of knowledge, but, as their reward among their contemporaries, they fell under the charge of sorcery.

Far more consonant with the theological spirit of the Middle Ages was a solution of the problem from Scripture, and this solution deserves to be given as an example of a very curious theological error, chancing to result in the establishment of a great truth. The second book of Esdras, which among Protestants is placed in the Apocrypha, was held by many of the foremost men of the ancient Church as fully inspired: though Jerome looked with suspicion on this book, it was regarded as prophetic by Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Ambrose, and the Church acquiesced in that view. In the Eastern Church it held an especially high place, and in the Western Church, before the Reformation, was generally considered by the most eminent authorities to be part of the sacred canon. In the sixth chapter of this book there is a summary of the works of creation, and in it occur the following verses:

"Upon the third day thou didst command that the waters should be gathered in the seventh part of the earth; six parts hast thou dried up and kept them to the intent that of these some, being planted of God and tilled, might serve thee."

"Upon the fifth day thou saidst unto the seventh part where the waters were gathered, that it should bring forth living creatures, fowls and fishes, and so it came to pass."

These statements were reiterated in other verses, and were naturally considered as of controlling authority.

Among the scholars who pondered on this as on all things likely to increase knowledge was Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly. As we have seen, this great man, while he denied the existence of the antipodes, as St. Augustine had done, believed firmly in the sphericity of the earth, and, interpreting these statements of the book of Esdras in connection with this belief, he held that, as only one seventh of the earth’s surface was covered by water, the ocean between the west coast of Europe and the east coast of Asia could not be very wide. Knowing, as he thought, the extent of the land upon the globe, he felt that in view of this divinely authorized statement the globe must be much smaller, and the land of "Zipango," reached by Marco Polo, on the extreme east coast of Asia, much nearer than had been generally believed.

On this point he laid stress in his great work, the Ymago Mundi, and an edition of it having been published in the days when Columbus was thinking most closely upon the problem of a westward voyage, it naturally exercised much influence upon his reasonings. Among the treasures of the library at Seville, there is nothing more interesting than a copy of this work annotated by Columbus himself: from this very copy it was that Columbus obtained confirmation of his belief that the passage across the ocean to Marco Polo’s land of Zipango in Asia was short. But for this error, based upon a text supposed to be inspired, it is unlikely that Columbus could have secured the necessary support for his voyage. It is a curious fact that this single theological error thus promoted a series of voyages which completely destroyed not only this but every other conception of geography based upon the sacred writings.[37]

[37] For this error, so fruitful in discovery, see D’Ailly, Ymago Mundi; the passage referred to is fol. 12 verso. For the passage from Esdras, see chap. vi, verses 42, 47, 50, and 52; see also Zockler, Geschichte der Beziehungen zwischen Theologie und Naturweissenschaft, vol. i, p. 461. For one of the best recent statements, see Ruge, Gesch. des Zeitalters der Entdeckungen, Berlin, 1882, pp. 221 et seq. For a letter of Columbus acknowledging his indebtedness to this mistake in Esdras, see Navarrete, Viajes y Descubrimientos, Madrid, 1825, tome i, pp. 242, 264; also Humboldt, Hist. de la Geographie du Nouveau Continent, vol. i, pp. 68, 69.


It would be hardly just to dismiss the struggle for geographical truth without referring to one passage more in the history of the Protestant Church, for it shows clearly the difficulties in the way of the simplest statement of geographical truth which conflicted with the words of the sacred books.

In the year 1553 Michael Servetus was on trial for his life at Geneva on the charge of Arianism. Servetus had rendered many services to scientific truth, and one of these was an edition of Ptolemy’s Geography, in which Judea was spoken of, not as "a land flowing with milk and honey," but, in strict accordance with the truth, as, in the main, meagre, barren, and inhospitable. In his trial this simple statement of geographical fact was used against him by his arch-enemy John Calvin with fearful power. In vain did Servetus plead that he had simply drawn the words from a previous edition of Ptolemy; in vain did he declare that this statement was a simple geographical truth of which there were ample proofs: it was answered that such language "necessarily inculpated Moses, and grievously outraged the Holy Ghost."[38]

[38] For Servetus’s geographical offense, see Rilliet, Relation du Proces criminel contre Michel Servet d’apres les Documents originaux, Geneva, 1844, pp. 42,43; also Willis, Servetus and Calvin, London, 1877, p. 325. The passage condemned is in the Ptolemy of 1535, fol. 41. It was discreetly retrenched in a reprint of the same edition.

In summing up the action of the Church upon geography, we must say, then, that the dogmas developed in strict adherence to Scripture and the conceptions held in the Church during many centuries "always, every where, and by all," were, on the whole, steadily hostile to truth; but it is only just to make a distinction here between the religious and the theological spirit. To the religious spirit are largely due several of the noblest among the great voyages of discovery. A deep longing to extend the realms of Christianity influenced the minds of Prince John of Portugal, in his great series of efforts along the African coast; of Vasco da Gama, in his circumnavigation of the Cape of Good Hope; of Magellan, in his voyage around the world; and doubtless found a place among the more worldly motives of Columbus.[39]

[39] As to the earlier mixture in the motives of Columbus, it may be well to compare with the earlier biographies the recent ones by Dr. Winsor and President Adams.

Thus, in this field, from the supremacy accorded to theology, we find resulting that tendency to dogmatism which has shown itself in all ages the deadly foe not only of scientific inquiry but of the higher religious spirit itself, while from the love of truth for truth’s sake, which has been the inspiration of all fruitful work in science, nothing but advantage has ever resulted to religion.


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Chicago: Andrew Dickson White, "IV. The Size of the Earth.," Warfare of Science/Theology, ed. Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in Warfare of Science/Theology (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed July 20, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=16QTHN2PTINIWLF.

MLA: White, Andrew Dickson. "IV. The Size of the Earth." Warfare of Science/Theology, edited by Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in Warfare of Science/Theology, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 20 Jul. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=16QTHN2PTINIWLF.

Harvard: White, AD, 'IV. The Size of the Earth.' in Warfare of Science/Theology, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, Warfare of Science/Theology, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 20 July 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=16QTHN2PTINIWLF.