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 of Scripture.
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 made Christian.
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.