Astrology Paper by Johnson, Payne & Wilson

Philip Johnson, Simeon Payne & Peter Wilson
The following is necessarily a compressed summary of salient issues we believe are
important to consider in the justification and development of a contextualized
apologetic for seekers attracted to astrology. We have found that the study of
astrology raises broad questions about the role of natural revelation in Christian
theology, missions and apologetics, as well as highlighting the need for a robust
theology of the creation, a balanced understanding of the immanence and
transcendence of God, and tackling the thorny problems of Christian guidance,
discernment, spiritual gifting and divination.
Being cognizant of the theological, missiological and apologetic context of our time, a
fresh apologetic trajectory needs to be developed that should offer a bridge between
natural and special revelation toward those who are attracted to astrology. This
creative engagement can be partially and practically implemented in the context of
booth ministries in new age festivals, and that will be the focus of the case study. It is
in the concluding section of this paper where some practical points are outlined for
applying a contextualized apologetic in outreach. We feel it is necessary at this
preliminary draft stage to concentrate on surveying the historical material, which,
owing to space limitations, means our case study (for the moment) is very brief.
However, it should be noted for the purposes of discussion within the Lausanne
Forum Group # 16 that the authors plan to work on a major book that will explore in
depth the items mentioned in this preliminary discussion. Toward that end we have
also prepared a lengthy annotated bibliography in a separate document from this
present paper (but also posted on the Discussion Board for reference purposes).
Astrology is a commonplace spiritual tool. While it has an ancient pedigree from
Mesopotamian, Greco-Roman, Vedic and Chinese societies, astrology has never been
a static tool in either its theoretical constructs or practical use. The diversity of
activities that have been subsumed under astrology includes: the seasonal observation
of planetary, lunar and solar bodies in the sky, correlating planetary positions with
meteorological forecasts and medical diagnoses, casting horoscopes for nations, kings
and individuals, and predictive prophecies based on planetary conjunctions.
In the contemporary setting we know as “postmodernity”, astrological concepts and
practices have once again surged to the foreground via New Age, Neo-Pagan and DoIt-Yourself (DIY) forms of spirituality. For seekers in these pathways astrology assists
in understanding one’s relationship to God and the cosmos, and it is also a tool used
in the pursuit of answers to questions of guidance for daily living. In many respects
astrology has been transformed into a Jungian-styled tool for intuitive counselling.
Antoine Faivre (1994:95) observes, “astrology still responds to a more or less
conscious need to find once more in our uncentered and fragmented world the Unus
mundus, the unity of mankind and the universe, through an integral language based on
the principle of similitude.” What Faivre calls “the principle of similitude” is also
known as the hermetic concept of correspondences. In this concept the entire cosmos,
or macrocosm, is encoded symbolically with the mind or nature of the divine. While
human beings are in miniature form – the microcosm – a reflection of that
macrocosm. It is summed up in the Swedenborgian expression, “As above, so below”.
Astrologers try to decode the correspondences between the symbols of the cosmos
and the inner spiritual life of the person, in order to facilitate meaning, growth and
(A). Three Common “Errors”:
There are three common errors that skew the way modern Christians treat the subject
of astrology:
Anachronistically assuming, on the basis of our contemporary experience,
that astrology has been a static or uniform activity across cultures and
Applying blanket judgements condemning astrology on the basis of a few
select Bible passages that either oppose divination or mention astrologers,
but without due regard to the historical contexts of the passages and what
type of astrology was being condemned;
Indiscriminately applying the canons of modern astronomy in a critical
dissection of astrology without due regard to the history of science (where
the lines between astrology and astronomy often blur), and often
accompanying such apologetic discourses are the rationalistic assumptions
of contemporary scepticism (thereby unwittingly aligning Christianity with
a negative materialist metaphysic).
A careful examination of history yields some surprises for modern Christians who
have been habituated to only think of astrology as unscientific superstition or as
occultic. The “received wisdom” of popular anti-astrology apologetics is somewhat
shallow when a detailed study of astrology through history is undertaken. The
evidence somewhat undermines popular Christian assumptions about astrology,
precisely because a superficial and sometimes distorted portrait of astrology has been
constructed in Evangelical apologetic literature.
(B). Problem of Planetolatry & Determinism:
Christian apologists correctly pinpoint within astrology the twin problems of
planetolatry and determinism. It is undeniable that in Mesopotamian and GrecoRoman culture astrology was often associated with planetolatry (worship of planets as
gods), and fatalist philosophies (e.g. Stoicism). One can discern a polemic against
planetolatry in the Genesis creation narratives (Hasel 1974) and in the writings of
Church Fathers like Hippolytus and Augustine. Indubitably, planetolatry is
incompatible with Christianity. However, planetolatry has not been a constant feature
of astrological practices (Allen 1966; Barton 1994) and so the relevance of such
polemics is conditional on the cultural and apologetic contexts warranting it (cf.
Netland 1988).
Similarly, Church Fathers and later apologists have correctly discerned a cosmic
fatalism within some astrological views that is in conflict with Biblical revelation
about God’s sovereignty and human accountability for moral actions. There is also a
curious but inadequately acknowledged feature in Christian history, namely the
popular propensity for an eschatological fatalism that parallels astrological
determinism, or, as was the case in seventeenth century England eschatological
prophecies were based on astrological conjunctions (Dyrness 1976; cf. Curry 1989).
(C). Jewish Astrology:
A major weakness in contemporary Christian apologetics is that evidence is ignored
concerning how Jews and Christians have been open to using the non-idolatrous
elements of astrology. In past epochs, astrology was important in developing JewishChristian natural theologies, in medical and meteorological forecasts, in apocalyptic
predictions and even using horoscopes. James Charlesworth (1977), Lester Ness
(1992; 1999) and Kocku von Stuckrad (2000) have assembled considerable literary
and archaeological evidences for the use of zodiacal symbols in the Jewish
pseudepigrapha and Qumran documents (includes horoscopes), as well as zodiacal
floor mosaics in synagogues. The Jewish use of the zodiac was non-idolatrous, and
correlated to their apocalypticism, angelology and natural revelation.
(D). Christian Astrology:
A survey of Christian attitudes toward astrology from apostolic times to the present
may be sorted into three distinct categories: “outright rejection”, “qualified
acceptance” and “apologetic engagement”. Whilst the first category is very familiar
to us from various Church Fathers and modern Evangelical apologists, the other two
categories have largely been neglected in contemporary apologetic discussions.
When it comes to present day evangelical reviews on the early Church’s response to
astrology, the result is uniform and predictable. Various Church Fathers are correctly
quoted as being against astrology, but unfortunately such reviews lack intuitive depth
to understand why, and fail to see that there are a few notable exceptions.
(D. 1). Patristics:
Astrology of the Roman Empire was deeply intertwined with Stoic fatalism,
Paganism, Gnostic sects and heretical Christian sects. In this light it is understandable
why the Christian Church, struggling for orthodoxy, opposed astrology. Jesus meant
freedom from fatalism and remote uncaring gods, and the absolute monotheism of
Christianity naturally opposed any perceived syncretism with paganism. Christianity
as a corporate faith was undermined by astrology’s individualistic nature. By the time
of Augustine when the empire was declared “Christian”, a new problem emerged.
Former pagans swelled the membership of the Church, and there were also pagan
polemics against Christianity over the sack of Rome. So Augustine was forced to
make strong statements against paganism, and by default astrology. It is also no
wonder that at this point the Church tried to retell the Magi story, by recasting them as
noble “kings”, not pagan astrologers. At the Council of Laodicea (365 AD),
astrologers are condemned. It is important to note that astrology is condemned based
on the experiences of their day. There is a near total absence of Biblical interaction
when they justify their positions. The basis for such condemnation was largely
expressed philosophically.
Some early Christians did interact with astrology. Origen referred to the Magi and the
way the Spirit used their spirituality to find Christ. He clearly states that after they had
found the Christ, they lost their previous power. He referred to the Creation account,
that stars are not agents, but signs. Sadly his connective insight was lost when he was
declared a heretic in the new Christian order. Part of the reason for this arose from
Origen’s creative interaction with a common Hellenistic belief that the stars were
souls (Scott 1991). Both Ignatius of Antioch and Tertullian argued that astrologers did
have futuristic knowledge, but this ceased from the birth of Christ. Ignatius’ famous
“starhymn” has an incipient positive apologetic (Walaskay 1979).
Firmicus Maternus, who wrote the most authoritative Roman guide to astrology, later
became a Christian. He rebuked his former art’s judicial or determinative nature, but
did not repudiate a general influence of the stars, and actually used the sun and moon
as illustrations of God and His Church (Maternus 1970, 2003). Sidonius Apollinaris,
Bishop of Lyons condemned astrology, but was able to name numerous Christian
friends who practised the art (Barton 1994).
Perhaps the most creative interaction with astrology appears to be the 4 th century
Bishop Zeno of Verona who Christianised the zodiac for his “baptismal sermon”. His
theme was that those born again in Christ have a new zodiac sign that destines them
for heaven. He interacted with the symbolism of the zodiac to explain key Christian
motifs (Hubner 1975). Zeno appears to be the historic “father” of what is later known
in apologetics as the “Gospel in the Stars” (see below II. B.).
However, the negative polemic from the Fathers leads to an official suppression of
astrology that continued into the early Medieval world.
(D. 2). Medieval, Renaissance & Reformation:
During the late Medieval and Renaissance epochs, astrology re-enters European
discourse as Arabic manuscripts of Classical and Islamic cultures are translated into
Latin. Pierre D’Ailley (1350-1420) was a French Cardinal who rose to prominence
during the Great Papal Schism of 1378-1414. D’Ailley wrote extensively on astrology
in the context of it as a Medieval science, as a means to interpret history and
prophecy, and as one component in developing a natural theology. His interest in
apocalyptic prophecy, that was borne out of the Papal schism, led D’Ailley to
conjectures about the imminent emergence of the Antichrist and the likely date for the
end of world history. D’Ailley’s work stimulated the imagination of Christopher
Columbus in his concerns for world evangelisation (Smoller 1994).
It is quite striking to note in passing that work on St. Peter’s Basilica was undertaken
according to astrological data (Quinlan-McGrath 2001). Similarly, zodiacal data was
regularly printed in English Church prayer books until the 1540s (Siegenthaler 1975)
and also appeared in the original edition of the 1611 Authorized Version of the Bible.
The Protestant Reformation discloses that several prominent Lutherans, such as
Melanchthon, Rhaeticus, Chemnitz, Brahe and Kepler, were practitioners of astrology
(Kusukawa 1994; Methuen 1996; Montgomery 1973). Melanchthon held the chair of
astrology at Wittenberg and taught astrological medicine. He articulated a natural
philosophy where astrology played a prominent role, and the theological construct for
this was interrelated with Luther’s “Book of Nature”. Other Lutherans, especially the
astrologer-astronomers Brahe and Kepler developed their theories using
Melanchthon’s paradigm. In the ensuing decades Lutheran pastors invoked planetary
conjunctions and comets as omens of God’s impending judgement (Dixon 1999).
While John Calvin is generally remembered as being hostile toward predictive
astrology (Calvin 1983), it is also the case that Calvin was content to accept what is
known as “natural astrology”, as in the role of planetary influences on the human
body for medical diagnosis (Calvin 1983; Probes 1974).
In the wake of the Reformation in England, astrological practices were often entwined
in politics and church life in the 17th and 18th centuries, especially for the period of the
Puritan Commonwealth and the Royalist Restoration (Allen 1966; Curry 1989). There
is evidence of keen Puritan use of prophetic astrology during the Commonwealth
(Nelson 1976; Rusche 1969; Walsham 1998), and even American figures such as
Cotton Mather had astrological interests (Winship 1990).
(D. 3). Summation:
This brief but by no means exhaustive survey indicates that in past epochs Christians
have been prominently associated with, and had qualified acceptance of, different
aspects of astrology. This evidence within Church history contradicts the superficial
portrait conveyed in pop apologetic literature that Christians have never used, or have
always condemned astrology. The portrait also has feet of clay in the eyes of modern
professional astrologers who are well aware of the role played in the history of
astrology by figures like D’Ailley, Melanchthon, and Kepler.
Before we turn to the justification and proposed development of a contextual
apologetic, it would be prudent to review two different apologetic models presented
by Evangelicals in modern times.
(A). Negative Apologetics
Most Evangelical apologists (Ankerberg & Weldon 1989; Birkett 1997; Bjornstad &
Johnson 1971; Martin [audio-lecture, n.d.]; Morey 1981; Petersen 1982; Strohmer
1988, 1992; Winterburn 1992) have responded to astrologers with a negative
apologetic style that is designated “heresy-rationalist” (cf. Johnson, 2000). This
approach is characterised by a three-fold emphasis:
(1). Demarcating astrology as heretical on the basis of exegeting a select
cluster of Biblical prohibitions about divinatory and occult practices; and
today’s astrologers are tainted by their commitments to unbiblical beliefs such
as reincarnation and spiritualism.
(2). The Church Fathers and Reformers have invariably rejected astrology as
idolatrous and in conflict with the sovereignty of God.
(3). Asserting that belief in astrology is “irrational” on the basis of
contemporary astronomical cosmology. Embedded within this is a rationalist
grammatology that is expressed using disparaging or scathing terms such as
“superstition” (with the implicit concomitant that a “rational” person will
believe in Christ).
We should commend these apologists for their resolute desire to uphold orthodox
Christian teaching and to eschew occultism. However, acknowledging the faithfulness
of their efforts does not exempt their methods and arguments from being subjected to
any critical analysis. Seven critical weaknesses are:
Astrology is treated as a static phenomenon, with insufficient critical
reflection on the historical contexts in which it has been found.
An apologetic solely framed around debunking claims is not winsome or
balanced, does not encourage mutual dialogue, and simply fails to persuade
devotees that the Christian faith is meaningful and true.
Apologists tend to present a very superficial and lop-sided view of Christian
attitudes toward astrology (namely it has always or almost always been
condemned in church history), while the evidence that many prominent
Christians have had “qualified acceptance” of aspects of it is ignored.
Biblical passages on divination are superficially treated without any critical
reflection on Israel’s use of casting lots, Urim & Thummim, dream
interpretation etc.
Guilt-by-association arguments are used – such as: some astrologers believe in
reincarnation, therefore astrology is completely false; some astrologers also
practice channelling spirits, therefore astrology is Satanic.
The application of sceptical debunking models to astrology that can equally be
applied to debunk Biblical miracles.
No careful effort is made to appreciate astrology’s appeal to seekers.
(B). Gospel in the Stars
A very different apologetic tack arose in the late nineteenth century in England and
the USA, which is generally known as the “Gospel in the Stars” (GIS). The
proponents of it (Rolleston 2001[1865]; Bullinger 1967 [1893]; Seiss 1972 [1882])
were entirely opposed to predictive, determinist astrology. The gist of their argument
may be summarised as follows:
God created the stars, sun and moon for signs (Gen. 1:14).
The purpose of these signs in the sky was to prophetically foreshadow the
coming of Messiah to redeem sinners; hence natural revelation bears direct
witness to special or Scriptural revelation.
The specific signs that disclose the Gospel message comprise the 12
constellations of the zodiac; and the word for zodiac is found in Scripture,
“Mazzaroth” (Job 38:32).
God named the stars and by inference must have shown to Adam what the
stars’ names mean. So the promise of a redeeming Messiah is attested in the
stars and then in written Scripture.
The proper understanding of the zodiac was corrupted into idolatrous
astrology at the Tower of Babel. However there is cross-cultural evidence to
show from diverse cultures (like China) that there were prophetic expectations
of a child to be born to a virgin. The episode of the Magi shows that the stars
can lead people to discover Christ.
The GIS apologia has been criticized by ex-astrologers like Strohmer (2000). Some
salient points include:
The GIS theory is not explicitly stated in Scripture, but is inferred or “read
into” certain Biblical passages – so the apologist simply sets out to prove what
has already been assumed and the argument is circular.
The purpose of natural or general revelation has been classically understood to
mean that the creation’s existence and discernible order attests to the existence
of God. Natural revelation has never been understood in Church history to be
bound up with the stars as signs of the content of the Gospel.
Rolleston’s argument rests, in part, on the assumption that Hebrew was the
original language spoken by Adam and from which all other languages derive;
but linguistic evidence shows that Hebrew is by no means the oldest language.
Moreover we simply do not know what the first spoken language comprised,
and whether it “survived” the confusion of tongues at Babel is likewise
In view of what has been outlined in Sections I and II, we hope to justify and develop
a contextualized apologetic for seekers who are attracted to astrology.
(A). General Principles Justifying A Contextual Apologetic:
As a broad template for justifying the development of a contextual apologetic, we
would summarise the main or general principles as follows:
We are committed unequivocally to the uniqueness and particularity of Christ
as Saviour.
The Gospel is transculturally true, while Christ’s Church ministers within
culturally specific contexts.
The kingdom commissions of Christ to the Church to make disciples
encompass those who are attracted to astrology.
The discipline of apologetics must address the culture and questions of those
who are committed to astrology, and any apologia must be delivered with
gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15; cf. Netland 1988).
Cross-cultural communication necessarily involves “translating” the Gospel,
the precepts of the faith, and the life of the missionary into contextually
meaningful forms, but without dilution of the transcultural truth. Missiologists
often refer to this as “critical contextualization” (Hiebert 1994).
Missiologically apologists must exercise critical cultural and theological
discernment to distinguish between what Shenk (1999) designates
“constructive” and “destructive” syncretism. The former “lives and
communicates the gospel credibly”, while the latter occurs when the church
merely reflects the culture at the expense of the kerygma’s witness to the
uniqueness of Christ.
(B). Biblical Basis:
Various parts of Scripture are significant for justifying and developing a contextual
astrological apologetic (or “apologetic engagement” as suggested earlier on).
Clifford & Johnson (2001) have developed contextually based booth ministries in new
age and psychic festivals in Australia. Clifford & Johnson tell of their experience of
meeting with an astrologer named Matt and their subsequent connections between
astrology and the biblical story. Both Clifford and Johnson present their position as
incarnational and missional, yet they do not syncretise the scriptures to the point of
distortion. Their experience highlights the possibility of connecting with astrologers
and spiritual seekers through the scriptures and the challenge facing Christians.
Clifford and Johnson present the Star of Jacob prophecy from Numbers, connect this
prophecy with the Magi and lead to the worship of the Christ child. This is an
excellent connecting point with spiritual seekers and astrologers and highlights the
goal of incarnating the gospel, the worship of Christ. They offer the best opportunity
yet for a constructive approach to astrology by Christians looking for alternative
methods of connecting with spiritual seekers. The approach of Clifford and Johnson
has been developed in a simple brochure so that other Christians could discuss the
prophecy of Numbers, the role of the Magi in the worship of the Christ-child. The
episodes of the Magi in Daniel and the Matthean nativity assuredly demand a broader
understanding about the incipient astrological apologias in these passages (Yamauchi,
1989; 1990).
While Clifford and Johnson have shown the connection of the Magi to astrology, their
approach could be expanded to include many other areas touching on the role of the
stars in witnessing to the gospel. Psalm 8, for example reflects on the role and place of
humanity in the cosmic scheme of events and leads to the worship of the Creator.
Likewise Psalm 19 highlights the heavens telling their story and that can be
apologetically linked to the fulfilment of that story in Christ. These could be
developed to strengthen the links between the search for meaning and transformation
through astrology, and the answers offered in the Christian faith and the gospel.
Some commentators on the Book of Revelation have recently argued that John’s
Apocalypse can be best illuminated by discerning astral symbolism embedded in it
and understanding this symbolism against the backdrop of pagan astrological beliefs
in Roman religion (Malina, 1995; Chevalier, 1997). The “mystical” flavour of the
apocalyptic material certainly lends itself as another contact point for Christians
interacting with astrologers.
As noted previously, astrology is built upon the hermetic concept of correspondences,
“As above, so below”. This term indicates the interconnectedness of the universe. The
macrocosm influences the microcosm of life on earth. This idea provides an
opportunity for Christians to explore the cosmic dimensions between Christ and the
universe and apply these dimensions to astrology. Colossians, while written to correct
a “Colossian heresy”, and therefore applicable to Christians, could also be developed
to respond to some of the desires and intentions of astrology. Paul’s approach in
Colossae is to present a Christology that reveals the cosmic dimensions of Christ, his
victory and supremacy over all rulers, authorities, powers etc.
The ‘power’ of astrology is not the same as the power of the cosmic Christ and it is in
the cross that we see the greater power for freedom and deliverance. This is not just
some kind of religious or spiritual truth to be held onto by faith, it is a truth to be lived
and experienced. “More than any of his previous letters, Paul stresses the solidarity of
the believer with the resurrected Christ. He explicitly refers to a present experience of
resurrection with Christ and emphasizes the reality of new life.” Whilst there is much
more work to be done in exploring the links between Paul’s teaching of the cosmic
Christ and its connection with the desires and teaching of astrology. Colossians gives
an example of translatability - using the colloquial language of astrology but filling it
with new Christological meaning.
The concept of correspondences should also be grounded in a robust understanding of
the original creation of humans, and the subsequent damage to the Imago Dei. As the
broken Imago Dei cries out for wholeness and healing, it is an echo of what our preFallen state was like and how God intends us to be.
(C). Practical Implementation:
Developing an exhibitor’s booth around the theme of the Cosmic Christ in the
Visual display of the classic zodiacal signs with a “mystical” appearance of
Christ at the center intimating his supremacy over all powers.
A pamphlet, premised on the concept of redemptive analogies, reframes the
way astrologers can look at and comprehend the zodiacal signs in a Gospel
context. Here the accent is not on committing ourselves to the oddities of the
current GIS perspective (i.e. as the stars being exclusively equated with
natural revelation and its correlates in special revelation); rather the accent is
on suggesting an analogy that is best comprehended in Scripture.
Accompanying leaflet “Learning From the Magi Astrologers”, that uses the
Magi episode as a connection point to explain the seeker’s need of
encountering the resurrected Christ. Emphasizes that even the ancient
astrologers recognized Christ’s supremacy and their response was to worship.
Offer a post-festival evening seminar where seekers may gather for a
substantial discussion about the zodiacal signs as pointers to Christ; include in
the programme an interactive segment where participants have a clear
opportunity in ritual and prayer to answer the call to discipleship, again using
stellar symbolism as the spring-board.
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