The enormity of the impact the demise of the old Ptolemaic cosmology and new discoveries in astronomy were having upon man's thought during the early seventeenth century was expressed by English poet John Donne (1572-1631), in these lines from Anniversaries - An Anatomy of the World (1611):
And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and th' earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it....
'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.
John Milton (1608-1674) made the Ptolemaic system of concentric planetary spheres and a stationary earth the cosmological setting for his Paradise Lost (1667). He placed the waters above the firmament in a crystalline sphere which enclosed the sphere of the stars. The empyrean Heaven was separated from the spheres of the world by a floor of immense dimensions. Chaos and Hell were also located in the region beyond the universe. The account of the fall of the angels and the creation of the stars related by the angel Raphael to the newly created Adam in his poem discusses the question of whether it is the earth which moves, or the heavens:
...whether Heaven move, or Earth,
Imports not, or if thou reckon right; the rest,
From man or angel, the great Architect
Did wisely to conceal, and not divulge
Hid secrets, to be scann'd by them, who ought
Rather admire: or, if they list to try
Conjecture, he his fabric of the Heavens
Hath left to their disputes, perhaps to move
His laughter, at their quaint opinions wide,
Hereafter when they come to model Heaven,
And calculate the stars, how they will wield
The mighty frame, how build, unbuild, contrive
To save appearances, how gird the sphere
With centric and eccentric scribbled o'er,
Cycle and epicycle, orb in orb.
Edmund Dickenson was the author of Physica Vetus et Vera, published in Rotterdam in 1703. He thought that at creation, God caused the primeval chaos to revolve. The fiery sphere of the empyrean was formed by the lightest materials. Denser materials moved towards the center. Tiny globules of water were raised to the empyrean by a centrifugal effect, which constitute the waters referred to by Moses as the waters above the firmament. The firmament included the air and the region of the stars. Beyond the empyrean was the third heaven, the home of the angels and the place of the blessed. Moses made no mention of it because it was immaterial.
Dickenson said that "Aristotle, like the other Greeks and Egyptians, learned from the Jews. In return he taught them his philosophy until they could no longer understand the Mosaic account and denied its truth." [Collier, p. 150]
The firmament was depicted as the spacious sphere of the "blue ethereal sky", that also contained the stars, in the popular hymn, The Spacious Firmament on High, written in 1712 by statesman and writer Joseph Addison (1672-1719). The first verse is:
The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame,
Their great Original proclaim.
The fourth verse suggests the traditional geocentric concept of the universe, with the stars revolving around the earth:
Whilst all the stars that round her burn,
And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings as they roll,
And spread the truth from pole to pole.
The hymn, which was based on Psalm 19, was included in a popular hymnal published by Charles Wesley (1707-1788), and so was sung in churches long after the idea of a rigid sky had been abandoned by most people.
Another ingeneous explanation of the waters above the firmament that was proposed in the mid eighteenth century was that they are the waters which exist on other heavenly bodies, both stars and planets. The firmament, it was suggested, is the air and ether between the earth and these upper waters; the waters under the firmament are the waters on the earth.
Thomas Burnet (1635-1715), in the first edition of his Sacred Theory of the Earth, "seems to have advanced the suggestion that the firmament was the earth crust itself, which separated the waters of the abyss from those on the surface; but he receded from this position in later editions and said there was no solid firmament." [Collier, p. 304] Burnet was discriminating in his approach to the cosmology of scripture, which he thought "had been adapted to popular stupidity for political reasons." He suggested the account of the six-day creation pertained only to the earth, while the universe was much older.
Robert Hooke (1635-1703) suggested there were two firmaments, one which was solid, identified with the spherical crust of the earth. It supported the oceans above, and was bounded below by waters of the abyss. This resembled the earth structure depicted by his contemporary, Thomas Burnet. The second firmament Hooke identified with the atmosphere. The differential elevation of the rocky crust of the earth on the third day caused dry land to appear. Hooke described a mechanism of the flood, based on his concept of waters beneath the crust, which involved differential vertical movements. While some parts of the crust sank deeper into the interior waters, and waters from the interior emerged at the surface, other parts were uplifted by the pressure. He suggested marine fossils in sediments were produced on the sea floor prior to the flood, and these regions became continents as a result of the flood. Hooke wrote:
What I understand by the great Deep, I shewed before; that is, the sinkings inward of the Firmament in the middle of the Waters; and the forcing up of the Fountains of the great Deep, I conceive to signify the raising again of those parts that were sunk to receive the Sea; and a Consequent of that would necessarily be a sinking of that which was the dry Land, and a Consequent of that, flowing and increasing of the Sea from out of that which is the great Deep, and a prevailing and increasing upon that which was a sinking Earth... the sinking parts went as much below the Level, as they were before above, and the rising parts by degrees ascended as much above as they had been below, and that which had been the bottom of the Sea under the Water, became the dry Land, and that which had been before the dry Land, now became the bottom of the Sea, whether the Waters retreated from off these parts which were raised when the Flood was finished.
Alexander Catcott (1725-1779) published A Treatise on the Deluge in 1761. He believed the subterranean waters of the abyss were responsible for the flood. Like Robert Hooke, Catcott believed there were two firmaments. But for him, they were both identified with an expanse or atmosphere. The upper one, the atmosphere above the earth, had waters below it, the waters of the oceans of the earth. Catcott called this the exterior expanse or firmament. The airs which he assumed existed within the earth, he called the interior expanse. This expanse was below the waters of the abyss, which he identified with "the waters above the firmament." Catcott adopted concepts of the firmament similar to views proposed by John Hutchinson in Moses's Principia, (1724). Geologist Davis Young commented on Catcott's model:
The waters under the firmament were the waters above the solid shell and below the atmosphere. The waters beneath the solid shell and above the interior expanse were the waters above the firmament. Hence, in Catcott's primitive earth we have a bizarre situation in which the waters below the firmament were located physically above the waters above the firmament!
Catcott was a careful observer of landforms and he attributed many of the features of the landscape to the effects of erosion of retreating flood waters. He made important observations of the effects of erosion in mountains and suggested they were carved from newly deposited sediment by currents while the earth's crust was still submerged in the waters of the flood. His explanation of the firmament did not become widely accepted.
Patrick Cockburn (1678-1749) in An Enquiry into the Truth and Certainty of the Mosaic Deluge, published in 1750, supposed the firmament extended from the air to the sun, moon and stars. The waters above the firmament were below the greater part of it, since they were identified with the clouds, which also caused the rain at the time of the flood. Most of the waters of the flood were derived from the subterranean abyss.
German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) thought he had discovered a solution to the problem of the identity of the firmament which had for so long perplexed Bible commentators. He proposed that the firmament was a ring of watery vapors which once surrounded the earth, like that around Saturn. It was the condensation of these vapors, or perhaps their disruption due to a comet, which produced the deluge. [Collier, p. 247]
Young, Davis A. 1987. Scripture in the Hands of Geologists, Part 1. Westminster Theological Journal 49:1-34. (See p. 22.)