Mathematics: Is God Silent? by James Nickel
Mathematics: Is God Silent? answers the question posed in its title with a resounding “No! God is by no means silent!” As we are told in Romans 1:20, God is manifestly visible in His creation: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (NIV, 1984). Since mathematics is the language of creation, mathematics is a vital medium through which we perceive, describe, comprehend, and give glory to our Creator. Nickel explains the Christian view of mathematics and demonstrates how that understanding makes sense of the world, has led to many scientific discoveries, and provides an ethical compass to guide technology.
Nickel explains that the Christian view of mathematics is the only one which explains why mathematical concepts are so practical and useful in the physical world. Many modern philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians dismiss mathematics as a concept manufactured by the human brain and therefore unconnected to “reality.” If mathematical ideas were simply linguistic expressions of the human mind, they would not be deeply synchronized with the truths of creation. However, mathematical ideas do reveal a great harmony with physical reality. As Francis Schaeffer points out in the video, How Should We Then Live?, it is precisely because of the harmony between mathematical concepts and physical reality that airplanes actually do fly.
Nickel points out that secular mathematicians and scientists themselves describe this truth with words such as “incredible,” and “unreasonably effective,” and “mysterious.” The Christian understands that this connection stems from the doctrine of creation: “Man’s mathematical constructions and the workings of the physical world cohere because of a common Creator” (Nickel, xx). In fact, “since mathematics deals with things visible (the structure of the physical world) and things invisible (the structure of human thought), it would be reasonable and befitting to deduce that the person of Jesus Christ is the ‘cohesive’ that holds the structure of mathematics together” (Nickel, 5).
The belief that God created the universe in an orderly fashion has inspired the stunning advances in mathematics, science, and technology that have brought Western civilization to the space age and beyond. Nancy Pearcey writes in The Soul of Science, “The history of mathematics was decisively shaped by its interaction with Christianity” by the beliefs that “the world has an ordered structure because God made it; that humans made in God’s image can decipher that order.” Even evolutionary anthropologist, Loren Eiseley, agrees with Pearcey’s conclusion: “We…observe that…it is the Christian world which finally gave birth in a clear articulate fashion to the experimental method of science itself” (Nickel, 143).
Classical, Christian educators must diligently remember that the biblical worldview integrates all subjects and illuminates the truth, goodness, and beauty inherent in them. This should especially be part of the study of mathematics. Often, we are tempted to dismiss mathematics as irrelevant to our lives—echoing the often expressed sentiments of students, “When will I ever use this?” At other times, we have the sense that mathematics is too complex, difficult, and frustrating to be helpful to us as Christians. Instead, we need to recall that:
God [must be] seen as the foundation of all knowledge, not just ‘spiritual’ knowledge…To God, every item of His creation, invisible and visible, reflects back to Him the beauty, wonder, and infinity of His attributes…Since mathematics is a unique…description of God’s creation, we must expect to find, upon reading it, the invisible things of God (Nickel, 234).
Nickel also helps us perceive that it is solely within the biblical worldview that man’s use of mathematics is given any ethical justification whatsoever. This is an essential question for our era in which we impose our mathematical understanding upon the world in the form of technological control—from the very simplest inventions to the complex hi-tech wonders seen in recent years. In creation, God gave mankind the responsibility of stewardship over the earth through what are fundamentally mathematical skills: “understanding, observing, [and] classifying…God’s works…” (Nickel, 233). Thus, the very act of naming all living things, which was Adam’s first task, was in essence not only a mathematical undertaking, but a mandate for the use of mathematics as a means of governing creation.
James Nickel’s informative and instructive book is not simply an apology for (a defense of) the study of mathematics. It is also a call to classical, Christian educators to take vigorous, immediate action: “We need scientists and mathematicians who boldly confess, ‘How great is the Creator who has made both the mind and nature so compatible!’ We need scientists to see the universe, not as a mere mass of mechanistic and impersonal laws, but as the handiwork of God…” (Nickel, 225–226).
Classical, Christian educators must seek to nurture students who will be scientists in the likeness of Johannes Kepler, a devout Christian who transformed astronomy with his discovery that the orbits of the planets were not circular, but elliptical. Kepler’s discoveries led him to proclaim, exalt, and praise the Triune God:
[L]et this do for our envoi [concluding remarks] concerning the work of God the Creator. It now remains that…with my eyes and hands removed from the tablet of demonstrations and lifted up towards the heavens, I should pray…to the Father of lights:…I give thanks to Thee, O Lord Creator, who hast delighted me with Thy makings and in the works of thy hands have I exulted. Behold! Now I have completed the work of my profession….; to the men who are going to read these demonstrations I have made manifest the glory of Thy works, as much of its infinity as the narrows of my intellect could apprehend. 
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
Kate Deddens graduated from the Great Books Program at St. John’s College and went on to receive an MA in Mental Health Counseling from Western Kentucky University. Kate and her husband are committed to classical, Christian education and to homeschooling from birth through high school. She has been involved with Classical Conversations since 2008. Essays by Mrs. Deddens may be found here.
- Schaeffer, Francis A. How Should We Then Live? (Vision Video) DVD, 2009.
- Nickel, James. Mathematics: Is God Silent? (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2001), xix.
- Pearcey, Nancy. The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), 161.
- Johannes Kepler, Epitome of Copernican Astronomy & Harmonies of the World, trans. Charles Glenn Wallis (Amherst: Prometheus Books, [1618–1621, 1939] 1995), 240