Math, the Biblical Worldview, and the Mystery of God

Question

How does a biblical worldview ground math? Is math a reflection of the mind of God (which we recognize because His creation is orderly, and to some degree reflects His nature)—similar to laws of logic being a reflection of the perfect mind of God?

Answer

First some groundwork: It seems highly presumptuous for us to assume that something reflects the mind of God, when the only way we can truly know the mind of God is through what He has told us in His Word. To make that argument means we are interpreting general revelation as providing specific content regarding His invisible attributes, eternal power, and divine nature, when Scripture only reveals that those three aspects are seen through His creation (which would include math).

The problem is that there is no (authoritative) hermeneutic for general revelation except for special revelation, and thus we cannot make authoritative claims of specificity regarding the extent of revelation within general revelation.

Instead, I prefer to rely on special revelation for specifics about general revelation—to be dogmatic on the content of general revelation only where special revelation gives us permission. For example, Genesis 9, Job 38-39, and Isaiah 40 describe processes of nature, and assert God’s sovereign control over those processes. The aspects that are revealed in those processes are related to His sovereignty, so I can dogmatically assert His sovereignty, because special revelation does so.

Some interlocutors make the argument that general revelation fills in gaps that special revelation doesn’t address. The practical impact of that (intentional or unintentional) maneuver is to enthrone the interpreter to inject personal interpretations of general revelation and perceive them as authoritative. At that point, the interpreter is now contributing to the canon of revelation, and placing themselves (ultimately) over special revelation. The logical conclusion of this maneuver is the total destruction of biblical authority.

Consequently, if seeing math simply as a reflection of the mind of God isn’t a valid way to view it, then how should we view it? How should the biblical data (and consequently, worldview) undergird our pursuit of the discipline of mathematics?

The best place to start in answering that question is to look at the biblical use of numbers. We see it right away in Genesis 1—God divides time into two parts (night and day). He begins to count days. He establishes two genders, he designs models for replication, and thus multiplication (i.e., “be fruitful and multiply” in Genesis 1:28 and 9:7). He establishes measures that provide order for the conducting of life, including the mathematically balanced seasons and times (8:22).

Later, we see Him working within that established and revealed mathematical framework—12 tribes of Israel, 400 years of slavery introducing Exodus, 2 censuses in Numbers, a calculus for military strategy in Gideon’s day, the 70 7s of Daniel 9 and the prophetic calendar, the numeric deliberateness in Revelation, and on and on.

The what is very clear throughout Scripture: math matters to God. It is something He established, and that He upholds.

The why is not addressed in much detail, but where it is addressed, those comments are powerful. Consider, for example, Elihu’s remarks in Job 37:13, referring to particular natural processes: “Whether for correction or for His world, or for lovingkindness, He causes it to happen.” I think this is a powerful admission that we cannot isolate specifically why He acts as He does in a particular expression in nature. But because we know of Him what He has revealed clearly in special revelation, we can know what some of those reasons are—at least three of them. In other words, we can’t know exactly why He does something in particular (less He has told us in Scripture), but we can know what are His reasons for acting in general.

This keeps us respectful, humble, and dependent on Him, even as He has set us on a course of discovery with eternity set in our hearts, yet so as we will not find out all the works of God (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

As believers, we can be very comfortable with the mystery of God, being certain that we can know Him intimately, insofar as He has revealed Himself. But we must be cautious not to disregard or to eliminate the mystery He has chosen to maintain.

Math illustrates that God has a plan and that He is sovereign, and perhaps even serves as a vivid example of Colossians 1:17—“He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.

If the fear of the Lord is the source of all knowledge, wisdom, and understanding (Proverbs 1:7, 9:10), and if we gain the fear of the Lord from His word (Proverbs 2:6), then we can appreciate nuances of His general revelation as evidences of His past and current activity that are specifically revealed in Scripture, and we can enjoy tracing those out to see just how elegantly He has crafted the universe around us. Our tracing can only go so far, but trace we must. Math seems a part of the aesthetic—an ornamental in the doxological symphony of praise that is all around us.

Christopher Cone 2016


Dr. Christopher Cone serves as President of Calvary University, and is the author or general editor of several books including: Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning, Gifted: Understanding the Holy Spirit and Unwrapping Spiritual Gifts, and Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Dr. Cone previously served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, and in pastoral roles at Tyndale Bible Church and San Diego Fellowship of the Bible.

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There are 2 Comments

Andrew R.'s picture

One can in fact go much deeper than this. The concept of number is inherent in the very nature of God (as both three and one); and the logic that is very idiom of mathematics is inherent in God's nature as truth. Both of these aspects of God's nature are given to us in special revelation, and thus all the necessary consequences of them, including mathematics.

I am of course speaking of mathematics as an axiomatic system rather than as applied to the study of the created world. But given its grounding in God's nature, it is no surprise that mathematics is inextricably woven into God's creation.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

So pleased to see a short accessible look at this subject! One of the things I miss about philosophy of education, as a discipline, is that it requires you ask these kinds of questions... and forces you to take the unity of truth seriously and work through how to integrate all the disciplines, at least in principle.

I'm not sure if I agree or disagree about the relationship between general and special revelation as Chris has described it, but the problem exposes a gap in my worldview and I'm looking forward to closing it.

Agree w/Andrew that there is much more to math. Chris closed with "Math seems a part of the aesthetic—an ornamental in the doxological symphony of praise that is all around us." My first reaction to that was, no, it's the whole symphony! That would be overstatement, probably, but not by much.

(I say this as a guy who is "not a math guy," but I think I get it...sort of like I "get" the galaxy: I look up at the stars and know that there is a whole lot there I can't see or understand beyond a few principles.)

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