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Mathematics: Is God Silent

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?,[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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. [4]

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Notes:

  1. Schaeffer, Francis A. How Should We Then Live? (Vision Video) DVD, 2009.
  2. Nickel, James. Mathematics: Is God Silent? (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2001), xix.
  3. Pearcey, Nancy. The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), 161.
  4. Johannes Kepler, Epitome of Copernican Astronomy & Harmonies of the World, trans. Charles Glenn Wallis (Amherst: Prometheus Books, [1618–1621, 1939] 1995), 240
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4 replies to this post
  1. What the author alleges with good cause for mathematics, indeed, with demonstrable evidence, also holds good for the Bible, the Book cited above in the review. During 1969-1971 I earned a Master’s in American Social & Intellectual History. While studying for that degree, I remember thinking, “If the Bible is inspired by an Omniscient Being as it claims, then it ought to reflect a depth and profundity of wisdom commensurate with such a source. Six years of research in church history, plus a thesis on a doctrine traced over a century, and number of papers written in at least three different institutions, plus a paper written a decade later, established the reality of that idea. Among the various realities I discovered was the nature of the doctrines or teachings of the Scripture (they are all two-sided and apparently contradictory to the human mind and are not meant to be reconciled but to be held in tension or held in a way permitting them to produce a desirable tension in the believer), that their two-sided nature by producing a desirable tension, enables a believer to be balanced, flexible, creative, constant, and magnetic. It was an intellectual understanding and experience that changed the course of my life and ministry. The depth of Scripture can well be illustrated by analogy by the practice of US navy captains who stop their ships over the Mariannas Trench and invite their young sailors to go swimming in the deepest swimming hole on earth, an invitation that a cousin and a nephew could not resist. The teachings of Scripture are of such depth that they defy human comprehension. Even their clarity is a problem. As one Puritan said, “The problem is with the perspicuity of the Bible.” Another analogy comes to mind. A friend, an American Indian, fishing on a mountain stream in Virginia decided that a better area for fishing lay further downstream on the other side. He looked down and could see the grains of sand rolling along the bottom of the stream, and he figured it was about two-three feet deep. He stepped off in the water and nearly drowned as it was 18-20 feet deep. He was looking into another medium and had not allowed for the magnifying power of the clear water. So it is with the Bible. Even when we think we can understand it due to its clarity, we might find ourselves wanting, when we find it to be much deeper than we had anticipated. For example, consider the matter of spiritual egalitarianism, that believers are to be considered as equals, regardless of sex, they are one in Christ Jesus. The complementarian views of the present reformed renaissance is wanting as it is unchecked. While the man is the leader, his leadership is not unchecked. Even Abraham was told to do what Sarah said in the matter of Hagar, hardly a likelihood if the complementarianism of the Bible was of the unchecked variety, but exactly what one would expect in view of the balanced nature of the biblical teachings. This evident upon any understanding of an approach to scripture which I call the synthetical approach, a consideration of the Bible as always presenting two sides to its precepts on any subject.

  2. Even Abraham was told to do what Sarah said…
    –Kate Deddens

    Always a hazard when a man marries someone named “princess”.

  3. The challenge to all that strive to be faithful to Scripture is to not tarnish ones interpretation by extra-Biblical categories we impose upon it, e.g. the notion of secondary causes in Greek, and later, Thomistic thought.

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