God and Math

By Dr. Christopher Plumberg

The Bible doesn't say anything explicitly about mathematics, at least in the modern sense of the term. Many Christian philosophers, however, have adopted various positions on the right way to think about mathematics from a Biblical perspective. The philosophy of mathematics, whether or not from a Christian perspective, is a very broad and technical field, and one which I'm not personally qualified to discuss in any great detail. However, I can still try to give an overview of where the Biblical debate over the nature of mathematics typically focuses.

Perhaps one of the most significant debates in this field is between realism and anti-realism: in short, these names refer to two positions which try to answer the question, "Do mathematical objects, such as the number 2, actually exist, or not?" The realist answer to this question is that things like numbers do exist as real, abstract entities, even though they would not exist in the same sense that a chair or a pencil exists. The anti-realist answer to the same question denies that numbers actually exist, even as abstract entities.

This might seem like a question that no one could possibly care about, but it does relate closely to a question with slightly more theological relevance: did God create the numbers (a natural conclusion, from the realist perspective), or are numbers (and the mathematical relations between them) simply a quantitative expression of God's perfectly rational and logical nature? Personally, I favor the latter understanding, since it avoids the peculiar difficulties of the former option (e.g., On which day of creation would God have created numbers? What would it even mean for God to "create" a number?). However, Christian philosophers debate both sides of this topic, because Scripture does not explicitly require one view over another.

Another issue related to a Christian understanding of mathematics has to do with epistemology: how do we know that mathematics is true? Is it objectively true, and if so, why? Both Christians and non-Christians can agree that 2+2=4. But why? What makes us so confident that mathematical statements are absolutely true? Another closely related question is, what is the right way of proving a mathematical statement? Scripturally, all truth, including all mathematical truth, is objective, because it is grounded in the nature of God: Jesus expressed this idea when He referred to Himself as "the Truth" (John 14:6, NASB). Moreover, God made people in His image (Genesis 1:26-27) with the ability to understand and know the truth (cf. Luke 1:4), so we should expect that He would equip us with the mental tools necessary to understand and demonstrate things which are true, including mathematical truth.

One further connection between the Bible and mathematics has to do with answering the question, "Why does mathematics work so well in describing the physical laws of the universe?" Theism, and particularly Christianity, is uniquely positioned to give a satisfying answer to this question. From a non-theistic perspective, the effectiveness of mathematics in describing creation is either a happy coincidence or just the way things are, but there can be no deeper explanation than this. From a Christian perspective, the mathematical organization of creation is an aspect of God's own orderly, creative processes. In Genesis 1:2, we read that creation (before God began to shape it into its present form) was merely "formless and void" (NASB). The details of the Creation Week describe how God imposed structure onto creation, and it is this structure which we typically characterize in terms of mathematically formulated physical laws, in turn allowing us to explain the success of our mathematical descriptions.

As to how God's attributes are manifested in mathematics, we have already seen that mathematical objectivity is a reflection of the orderly, logical, objective nature of the truth of God's character. God is truth, and so mathematics is an expression of one aspect of His nature. Mathematics has also often been described as beautiful, a characteristic which is also grounded in God's beautiful and good character. In short, mathematics is a good and necessary aspect of understanding God's creation and how He has designed it, and clearly demonstrates His glory in a unique way.

Image Credit: Courtesy Double-M; "Brockhaus & Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary"; 1890-1907; Public Domain

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Science-Creation

comments powered by Disqus
Published 6-19-2015