What is the connection between maths (and science) and Christian faith?

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I was recently asked to write a short article on ‘Why study maths as a Christian?’ Here is what I wrote, and at the bottom please find some other perspectives and resources on the relation between the two.

From the moment I started secondary school, I loved maths and excelled at it. When I was 12, I failed to get 100% on a test, and my teacher wrote ‘How are the mighty fallen!’ At the time (since I wasn’t yet a Christian), I did not realise that this was a quotation from 2 Samuel 1.19—but it perhaps counts as the first meeting point of maths and theology in my life! I read about the four-colour problem in my gap year, specialised in pure maths at Oxford, and only decided against doing a PhD in coding theory because I sensed God might be calling me to ordination. 

So why study maths as a Christian? My first reason was because I was good at it—and it was fun! I enjoyed the challenge of learning and solving problems, and the satisfaction of finding an elegant solution. Enjoying something and being good at it is actually a good theological reason for doing something, since it points to God’s gifts that he has given us and which he wants us to put to good use. Many years after ending my formal study, I still enjoy watching YouTube videos about maths and physics (there are some great ones out there). 

But engaging in this fascinating path of study leads to something more—a sense of wonder at the world around us. I love watching nature programmes, and am amazed and awed at the complexity and beauty of the world around us. Yet maths leads to another kind of wonder—that there is even a structure and complexity to the world of abstract ideas. Why is this? What does it mean? There is a strong sense that maths is less about invention (though there is an important elements of creativity in the development of new ideas) and more of the exploration of an unknown world which is already out there. There is a ‘giveness’ to reality, and we are invited to be adventurous explorers discovering and mapping new parts of this world. 

And that leads to yet another layer of discovery. In many ways, maths points to a sense of the transcendent—that there is more to the world around us than we can at first perceive, and in fact we cannot understand the world unless we believe that there is something more beyond it. If you have not yet, you will soon discover the importance of imaginary numbers, based on the square root of minus one. They are called ‘imaginary’ in contrast to the ‘real’ numbers that make sense in the physical world—in the real world, you can only take the square root of positive numbers. And yet real world experience depends on calculations using these imaginary numbers; the suspension on your car could only be designed to work the way it does using imaginary numbers in the calculations! There is more to reality than the reality you can see, and you cannot make sense of the seen world without drawing on the unseen. 

This connects with our thinking about theology. Instead of doing a PhD in maths, I ended up doing a PhD in theology, exploring the way that metaphorical language works and the connection with how we interpret the Bible. Although there is a strong legacy (from the ‘Enlightenment’) of separating theology from science, it turns out that the way we develop our thinking about God using metaphorical language has the same intellectual and logical structure as the way we develop hypotheses in science and theories in maths. In all these areas, the task is to develop a conceptual understanding, using intuition, creativity, and imagination—and then to test our ideas and hypotheses against our experience in the real world. 

This connection has turned out to be very important for me in practice—and for many others. I have lost count of the number of colleagues in the field of theology and particularly biblical studies who also have a background in maths and science. Reading scripture, listening to God, and thinking about our faith requires empathy, creativity, and imagination—but it also requires care and discipline. When I was being assessed as a candidate to do a PhD, the professor of theology who interviewed me said ‘Of course, you will be at a disadvantage, having studied maths instead of the arts.’ I immediately replied: ‘Quite the opposite! What theology and biblical studies needs is discipline and logic in its thinking!’ I am not sure he was persuaded—but I got approval! 

Maths is a fantastic discipline for training your own thinking and developing your skills in following logical arguments, spotting the problems with false solutions, and growing in the discipline of facing challenging questions in the pursuit of persuasive answers. This can be a wonderful asset in thinking carefully about faith and scripture. Paul suggests this kind of disciplined approach to thinking when he writes:

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor 10.5). 

(We just have to make sure that it is ideas, and not people, that we demolish!) But it is evident that clear and rigorous thinking, in maths and science, and in faith, can and should be empowering and liberating. Studying maths is a great training ground for this. 

And so we end where we began. Why did I study maths at all? In the end because, having come to faith as a teenager, it just seemed clear that this was what God was calling me to. God has given each of us unique gifts, talents, and experience, and he invites us in our learning not to ‘be whatever we want’ or to pursue the path that will apparently lead to health and wealth—but to use well the things that he has entrusted to us, in our talents, personalities, and abilities. After all, ‘what do you have that was not given to you’? (1 Cor 4.7)

My current favourite YouTube channels on maths and science are 3Blue1Brown, Veritasium, Steve Mould, Ant Lab, SmarterEveryDay (run by a Christian), Stand-up Maths, and Numberphile.

Revd Dr Ian Paul studied maths at Oxford and Operational Research at Southampton, and then worked in industrial business (making chocolate!) before studying theology at Nottingham and completing a PhD in the hermeneutics of metaphor and the interpretation of the Book of Revelation. He has continued in local church ministry, teaching, and in academic research, and has written the Tyndale Commentary on the Book of Revelation. He writes a blog at www.pesphizo.com

There is quite a useful historical overview of the inter-relationship of mathematics and faith on this page here.

Here is an exploration of what it means to engage in mathematics as a Christian, from a professor in the US.

Here is a great exploration of the role that faith, as an intellectual commitment, plays in the development and use of mathematics.

This is a really nice short video exploring the ‘miracle’ that mathematics works so well in explaining the real world, when it is not ‘real’ itself:

And here is the inimitable John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford and apologist, on how and why faith and maths converge for him:

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77 thoughts on “What is the connection between maths (and science) and Christian faith?”

  1. Thanks for this Ian. I think there is an awful lot more to say on this subject.

    My undergraduate degree was Astrophysics and my MA Theology thesis was about the arguments for the existence of God in light of “the new physics”. For me maths is the language of God with which he paints the whole of creation. To use maths in the scientific realm is to peer at the underlying code which God wrote the universe in.

    There are titbits here about a good creator providing us with the ability to explore, to wonder, to discover and to understand HIS creative mind. The backward unlocking of the universe and its laws is beautiful. More so the forward projection of mathematical or theoretical postulation about what we ought to find … and then actually finding those things when our experimental abilities allow (see especially CERN) is something mind blowingly beautiful.

    To do maths is to touch the hem of the creators lab coat.

  2. Thanks for this Ian. you will not be surprised to know of my interest with my physics background, and having taught quatum mechanics at one point!
    I’m immediately reminded of the (non-christian) physicist Eugene Wigner’s comment in a paper “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”. There seems to be no evolutionary necessity for maths to work so well or why we need to understand creation in such fine detail. But we do, because we are “Created co-creators” to use the Lutherean theologian Phil Hefner’s insightful phrase.

    • Galileo, the great pioneer of experimental method in physical science, wrote that “this grand book – I mean the universe… cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics” (meaning geometry, whose expression in algebra is the main stream in the history of mathematics). He wrote this in 1623 in Il Saggiatore [The Assayer]; English translation in The Controversy on the Comets of 1618, editors and translators S. Drake & C.D. O’Malley, U Pennsylvania Press, 1960, p.183-4.

      • And the Dominican Fr Tommaso Caccini, in his tirade against Galileo from the pulpit of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, declared that mathematics was a device of the devil, and that mathematicians were the source of all heresies and should be expelled from all countries.

          • James:

            STILLMAN DRAKE, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, 1957, pp. 153-154
            LAURA FERMI & GILBERTO BERNARDINI, Che cosa ha veramente detto Galileo, 1969, p. 72
            JEROME J. LANGFORD, Galileo, Science and the Church, 1971, p. 55
            MAURICE A. FINOCCHIARO, The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History, 1989, p. 330 n. 13

            Fr Luigi Maraffi, a Preacher-General of the Dominicans, wrote a letter to Galileo, expressing his regret that a member of his Order had made such a stupid public utterance (Drake and Langford above).

  3. Hi Ian,
    I’m not mathematical at all but I have just read ‘Alex’s Adventures in Numberland’. A good place to start !
    I’m working on another piece of art: The Creation.
    It is 1.2 x 2.4 ±, portrait.
    Instead of the days, 1-7 being the markers, the 10 x “God said…” are used as the defining elements of the design.
    I have noticed that each part of the created order moves faster than the one before, bracketed by light and animals.
    Why is this?
    Water evaporates into clouds, dry land appears. =very, very slow movement.
    Plants grow. = slightly faster.
    Sun moon & Stars. =faster.
    Fish and birds.+ faster still.
    Each observable speed is 10 times faster than the preceeding one.
    Therefore, from the Bible’s perspective, does light have no speed?
    I need a design to draw a representation of light that sums up its properties.
    Thank you!

    • Ancient Israelites would have understood the notion of speed, from getting somewhere after someone else walking faster. It’s just that they didn’t have the technology to measure the speed of light (about 300 million metres per second).

      What is weird about light is that you can never catch up with it – in fact even if you try, it still recedes from you at that same speed. (Chase it and it changes the wavelength, ie colour, that you see, but not its speed.) Lightspeed is a universal speed limit. This is Einstein’s special theory of relativity (1905).

  4. Mathematics is the systematic study of abstract pattern. This definition is due to GH Hardy, a great mathematician and writer about mathematics. God is involved with putting order in his creation, and order means pattern. So mathematics describes it excellently. Hence the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” in describing the physical world, to quote Eugene Wigner.

    Patterns are also *beautiful*, and so is mathematics.

    Mathematics is an exceptionally powerful shorthand. Formally, it is a branch of logic. I know of no other subject in which I can explain to a layman in less than a minute a question which has stumped the best minds for centuries (e.g. Goldbach’s 18th century conjecture that every even number is the sum of two primes).

    • Goldbach’s conjecture? Prove it! 🙂
      IIRC, Hardy couldn’t make up his mind about God’s existence, yet was a Platonist when it came to the existence of mathematical objects – so halfway to believing, I guess.

      I didn’t do maths after A level but came back to it after many years, largely via youtube. It was great to discover Eddie Woo, a committed Christian, explaining maths to young Australians – I think he taught that nation during lockdown.
      It’s also notable how the problem of combinations is used in apologetics in making the case for a designer. William Dembski and others draw attention to the impossibly large numbers involved in the many cosmological constants built into a life-permitting universe, and William Lane Craig employs this as one of his five basic arguments for God. Put simply, the universe isn’t old enough for chance to be the explanation.
      The same argument is employed in discussion of the initial conditions for life (James Tour) and the development of cells and genes and the detection of information (Stephen Meyer et al).

      • James – isn’t this business of proving there is a designer through combinatorial arguments fundamentally anti-Christian? I always thought that the general idea was well expressed in the opening phrases of the Westminster Confession – which points out that there is sufficient in the natural world around us to render our unbelief inexcusable (that applies to everybody – not just those who have a sufficient IQ to work through hard technical combinatorial arguments). Nevertheless, we need God to reveal Himself to us in order to come to faith. The difficulty is not an intellectual issue (i.e. we aren’t brought to faith by doing difficult sums); it is a moral issue – coming to see that we need to repent, that in and of ourselves we cannot repent, asking, seeking, knocking, etc …. The whole business, the crucifixion, resurrection, is a moral issue – and not an intellectual issue.

        I feel that these ID people are very badly mistaken – and when I see that sort of thing I tend to run a mile.

        • Jock: if you think the life, death and resurrection of the Incarnate Son of God is “a moral issue” and not an “intellectual one”, I’m afraid I can’t follow you.
          Morality is always an intellectual question because it concerns the nature of truth.
          And intellectual questions are inescapably moral because they involve the pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful (which are finally the same thing).
          The Bible itself (Psalm 8, 19; Romans 1) tells us to look on the world as a place of design, order and purpose. Modern atheism says there is no design or purpose to the world, just brute facts.
          Have a look at the work of molecular biologist Douglas Axe to see how design is discerned in the lowest level of living things.

      • Those impossibly low probabilities calculated by Dembski and other Intelligent Design advocates – so low that even a universe this big (and arguably 13 billion years old) make our existence implausible – are based on molecules coming together in specific environments such as open water or a reducing atmosphere and combining. But the numbers change dramatically if you consider other environments that can arise. Nick Lane, in his books for the intelligent layman on evolution at molecular level, shows that it is quite likely to happen in hot alkaline vents at the bottom of the ocean, for instance. Frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if the universe is teeming with simple cellular life, but Lane argues that the really unlikely step was the ingestion of one simple cell by another, in a failed attempt to eat it; one cell then survived inside the other and an instant symbiosis began that led to mitochondria able to prodece energy, as well as the ingester cell’s own nucleus and DNA. These far more complex cells were able to aggregate into multicellular life in a way that the two presursor cells could not.

        Burt my main point is that ID advocates’ low probabilities are totally contingent on the environments that they consider, and they have failed to consider others that arise and change the numbers dramatically.

        • Anton – as I understand it, Dembski et al are not talking about the Origin of Life but the initial conditions and 19 (or is it 30?) cosmological constants built into the laws of physics (gravity, expansion rate etc) that rule a life-permitting universe in the first place. Richard Swinburne and John Polkinghorne – no mean physicist himself – incorporated these data into their natural theologies.
          The Origin of Life has its own immense problems in itself: purely by stochastic processes, how do you even get to a primal cell? James Tour is driving this one on the internet. He thinks no explanation around today can get over the difficulties.

          • I believe that the evidence for intelligent design in physics is strong. In biology… we don’t know enough to answer either way, and I exhort anybody who insists that evolution is too improbable to read Nick Lane. I have seen him several times explain how gaps that creationists say cannot be bridged, have been bridged. “Life Ascending: the 10 great inventions of evolution”, “The Vital Question” and Transformer are the three books I have in mind.

  5. Much appreciated reflection, Ian.

    I also consider that my science and mathematics training helps me in the reading of scripture to see what’s actually there and reflect about it, than to come with a predetermined grid – other than the one that believes that the text has meaning – even as the world has meaning. (Physics/maths/epistemology studies before theology – followed by computer science because it was still important to eat after “leaving” stated ministry)

  6. Richard Dawkins and other secular writers like to set science off against religion. But there are many accords between science and the Bible, which is as expected given that God the Father ordained the laws of physics and God the Holy Spirit wrote the Bible through men. The prophet Jeremiah (33:25-26) spoke of the “fixed laws of the earth and the heavens.” Every physicist, whether atheist or Christian, can see that the laws of physics are beautiful; that’s what attracted them to the subject. It’s a type of beauty that you must learn mathematics to see, but then it is as clear as the beauty in a sunset. It is not only the heavens that declare the glory of the Lord! But why are the laws of physics beautiful? That is the question I could not answer when I was a secular physicist, but can today: the laws of physics were put in place by a creator who has a sense of beauty. So that is the question I put to secular physicists.

    Another accord between science and scripture is the Big Bang theory – the scientific theory of the origin of the universe. Modern science, after 300 years, had developed far enough (thanks to Einstein) to be applied to the entire universe. The universe is expanding, implying it was smaller in the past. Einstein’s theory told us that, far enough back in time, it was down to a single point. Its explosive early growth from that point is called the ‘Big Bang.’ (The universe doesn’t expand into any pre-existing space, for it is everything physical; expansion means instead that the distance measured between objects in the universe generally increases.) Before Einstein, science had nothing to say about the origin of the universe. But the Bible opens: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. So, 4000 years after Moses wrote down the Book of Genesis, man worked out part of its first line for himself. Hindus and Buddhists suppose the universe has always been there; science therefore backs up Judaism and Christianity against Buddhism. Einstein’s work (‘relativity’) showed also that time and space are inter-related, so that not only space but time started at the Big Bang. Asking what went on before the Big Bang has no meaning – it is like asking what lies north of the North Pole. (The same wrong thinking can be seen in the questions when did God create time and where did God create space.) Herein is the resolution of the Who-created-God problem; the question supposes that time existed alongside God before he created the universe. But there is only God and his creation, and time is not part of God so it must be something he created. His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). Some Christians dispute the Big Bang, because science says it happened much longer ago than their interpretation of the Bible suggests. But the age of the universe is a subsidiary issue; more basic is the accord between science and Christianity that it did have a beginning (and that God intended a race of creatures in his image, regardless of how he ordained the assembling of humanity from atoms – the ‘dust of the earth’). Keep perspective!

    Moreover, if the laws of physics were slightly different – if the speed of light and the charge of the electron and some other quantities were only fractionally different – then the universe could never have grown from the Big Bang in a way that permits the remarkable complexity of life (which is based on unique properties of the carbon atom). Although this observation does not prove a personal God, it obviously suggests a designer. This is known as the ‘anthropic principle.’ The most important issue for any human being in that case is his or her relationship to that designer.

    There is a further accord. Science developed in the only human culture (Europe several centuries ago) in which people generally believed that the Bible was true. In view of the large number of distinct cultures across human history and geography, this is unlikely to be coincidence. Science will get done only where people believe the world to be objectively real, whereas Buddhists (for instance) believe that everything is ultimately one, so that differences between things are illusory if only we could see deeply enough. Christians believe the world is objectively real, and is diverse because of God’s creativity. We also believe that God put order into the universe, and we can comprehend this order because we are made in God’s image. Unless you believe these things you will not be motivated to get science going. These were the beliefs of Europeans, uniquely. Historians often call Europe a Christian culture. By no means everybody had personal commitment to Christ – which is why wars took place that gave Christianity a bad name – but most Europeans nevertheless believed that the Bible was fact. This was enough to trigger science, with its characteristic dialogue between ideas about how those things behave and interact, and systematic ways of gathering data about their behaviour and interaction. Since science began, our culture has become secular, but plenty of scientists believe in God today.

    So when secular people say that religion is based on faith and science is based on reason, or is based on a form of doubt that makes you check things for yourself rather than blindly accept authority, it’s not that simple. No one person can do all of the experiments on which modern science is based, so you actually take the results from books whose authority you accept – which is exactly how Christians read the Bible. And, when you reason, you start from axioms, which is another way of saying faith. Science has its axioms too; in particular, that laws of nature exist, so it is not mere coincidence when the same experiment done in different laboratories gives the same results. If somebody says that science has disproved God, don’t contradict them; ask them How? and then watch them flounder. They are asserting it, so make them set out their case. You can do that by asking questions such as How? or Why? or saying Please explain. Then come in with a punchline. To see a Christian thinker take on people like Dawkins in simple language, look at William Lane Craig on YouTube.

    There is one place where science and scripture disagree: miracles. Jesus walked on the water of the Lake of Galilee. Peter tried it and began to sink as his faith wavered (Matt 14). Scientific laws of gravity will never explain that. When Jesus rose from the dead he did the impossible. Do not be defensive about this; the early Christian writer Tertullian said it should be accepted (on the basis of eye witness testimony) precisely because it is impossible! You don’t expect ultimate answers to be easy, do you?

    • Anton,
      your references to Buddhism reminded me of a time a while back when I was teaching about Buddhism in GCSE RE to an intelligent class of schoolgirls in a very secular grammar school. The course required them to compare and contrast Buddhism with Christianity, so I went beyond the rather bland and uncritical textbook and posted a few questions on the board, including something like the following:
      1. ‘Christianity says the ultimate reality is the eternal and immutable God, Buddhism says it is the principle of the impermanence of all things. Which seems more true to you?’
      2. ‘Christianity says the world is the finite temporal creation of the eternal God, Buddhism is not interested in this question and ignores it. Is this an adequate response?’
      3. ‘Christianity say the basic problem of human beings is a corruption in our nature that turns us away from God and we need to repent and receive God’s love, while Buddhism says the basic problem is desire for the impermanent. Is the human problem desire – or desire of the wrong things?’
      4. ‘Buddhism says all things are impermanent and it is illusion (maya) to think you have an abiding soul, but somehow after death “you” are reincarnated in another body. How is this possible if there is no abiding “you”?’ (I learned afterwards that Buddhists consider this the hardest question of all and most don’t know how to answer it.)
      I don’t know what the outcome of my probing questions was but I pray I set some of these students thinking. Sometimes we understand our faith best when setting it against a stark contrast.

    • Hello Anton,
      Beauty; one NASA scientist I heard speak about this is Stuart Burgess.
      I made some notes from a talk more than a decade ago.
      Rather than beauty for evolution’s sake he sets out his stall as beauty for beauty’s sake, or rather for God’s sake.
      It would make Jock, run a mile as it was based on his book.
      His talk, centered on
      1. the patterns and “overengineered design” of bird feathers, particularly the male Peacock and on
      2. birdsong, including the dawn chorus. He set out reason which went well beyond standardised evolutionary purposes.
      He also spoke about engineering in a bird wing.
      The name of the book (look away Jock) : Hallmarks of Design.

      I suppose the mathematician who has has the greatest influence on me as Christian is John Lennox, who is also known for his studies and qualification in the philosophy of science. My Consultant Cardiologist was so interested in my low level mention of Lennox and his book: God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God, that he gave me his personal e:mail address so I could send him a link.
      My NHS colleagues laughed when my atheist boss said she read a great book, The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkin and I responded that I’d read a great book The Dawkin Delusion by Alastair McGrath. It also gave me an opportunity to send all my collegues a link to Lennox’s said book, along with its written endorsements.
      My retired GP, a Christian, was appreciative of the writings of Sir John Polkinghorn.
      As my friend,. a retired Dentist who was part of the medical corps in Aden where David Pawson was his pastor: science can be a good servant, but poor master.
      Or, to put it this way, Science is not our Saviour, nor are scientists the secular priesthood, something which Dawkins is finding out in the westernised, philosophical and sociological – psychological cultural push -back.

  7. When I was 9 I was learning about ‘pas de’ in French. Unfortunately I left out the ‘de’ every time, and got 0/10. To which the teacher (HM)’s comment was:
    ‘How are the mighty fallen? The round earth is not so sure that it cannot be moved.’.

    Maths and science have always seemed to me the closest subjects to theology, truth and accuracy being the same thing unless our definition for ‘truth’ be impossibly vague – and intelligent people are never vague. What do they have in common? (a) Reality; (b) investigation of what is there, which is opposed to ideology (imposing what one would prefer to be there).

    Something confirmed by the Christian Union membership at universities.

    The problem lies with humanities, and especially with things like psychology and some aspects of philosophy. Directly one submits to the idea that there are no right answers (e.g. nondirective counselling) one is into inaccurate and self refuting relativism. Humanities at worst make a human look inward, and no enlightenment will be gained from that. It is self reflexive. There will only be anything interesting inward if it has been previously obtained from outward.

  8. Great thoughts here.
    Whatever our branch of study mankind is always behind the curve and only thinks God’s thoughts after Him.
    Ian makes some very good observations regarding science[s] and theology.
    Theology is I think only the science of what we know about God and both recognise that God is a God of Order &, consistency and not of confusion
    The fundamentals of all science are observation and experimentation, to observe a truth/fact and to test its veracity; In the bible truth/fact are a given;
    To obey it to is to test it, “Taste and see that the Lord is good”
    Of course, there are *good*scientists who do bad science and are judged so by their peers. We are urged to get not only knowledge or understanding but to get wisdom [the proper. praxis of knowledge]
    Mat 7:24 Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock.
    John 14:21 He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.

  9. Following a degree in engineering, I taught mathematics (up to A-level standard) for several years. I found the switch to theology somewhat difficult; not least because of the ‘linguistic’ switch from mathematical shorthand to essay writing. Nevertheless, thanks to the original mathetical discipline, I have maintained a deep desire to penetrate to the heart of Biblical texts and words in order to ascertain the richness of their meaning. To that end, I would briefly allude to the two terms to which I have just referred – discipline and Mathematics!
    In Latin, the root of *discipline* lies, I believe, in the Latin for*disciple* meaning *student*. The Greek term *manthano* = ‘I learn’ is linked to the noun mathema (learning or lesson). *Mathetes * is the Greek for pupil or learner.In NT terms it denotes the followers of Jesus and in its verbal form, *Matheteuo* it means ‘ to be, to become, or to make a disciple(of) [c.f. Matthew27:57, 28:19]
    At the risk of over simplification therefore I would make a case for the following two things:
    First, that there is a string connection between discipleship (following Jesus Christ) and (self) discipline, meaning a heart and a mind focussed on being rooted in what Paul calls the transformation of the renewed mind [ Romans 12:2] and elsewhere as setting one’s mind on ‘things that are above’ [Colossians 3: 1-2].
    And secondly, and inextricibly linked to the above, the centrality of Scripture (OT and NT) in becoming and being a disciple of Christ. A *trained* mind is therefore one of the key aspects of true discipleship!

    PS Apologies for the lack of appropriate accents.

    • Ah, I thought you were making a case for string theory!
      ‘discipulus’ is of course from ‘disco’, to learn.
      Hebrew lmd, to learn, gives us ‘Talmud’ and ‘talmudim’, ‘disciples’.

      A standard Hebrew grammar was by Thomas Lambdin, and we studied it (or slept through it) were known as ‘talmubdin’.

      • James “I don’t know what the outcome of ‘my probing questions’ was but I pray I set some of these students thinking.”
        I’m glad you turned the issue over to prayer, if for no reason than it introduces a modicum of humility. Otherwise I would be forced to draw the conclusion that your “intelligent class of schoolgirls” was located at St. Trinian’s.

    • A question that features in some sixth form (secular) ‘Critical Thinking’ texts – I once put this to a class. And a good one to put to agnostics. Is maths the product of our (finite, evolving, fallible) minds – or does it refer to something objectively true?
      But if so – “where” do mathematical objects exist? I had a great time teaching this to a class once as I set about demolishing atheism.
      Briefly, my argument went like this.
      “You all believe in the existence of numbers but you can’t see, touch or taste them.
      If numbers exist, then abstract objects exist.
      So materiality isn’t essential to existing. In fact existence precedes materiality.”
      And from there to talk about cosmology.
      Plato believed in the eternal ‘forms’ (ideata) of essences, independent of God. St Augustine corrected Plato (or Neoplatonism) and said the ‘forms’ existed as the ‘rationes seminales’ (logoi spermatikoi) in the mind of God.

        • I disagree with this. The laws of physics are essentially descriptive not prescriptive. They arise because of the regularity of material processes which is the result of the Creator’s continual activity in holding all things in being.

          • I don’;t know what you mean by sying that the laws of physics are descriptive not prescriptive. Would you explain, please?

            Incidentally Jeremiah (33:25-26) spoke of the “fixed laws of the earth and the heavens.”

          • David,
            To answer the question re the laws of physics as being “descriptive not prescriptive, you reply with reference to (a) “the regularity of material processes” and (b) as being the result of the Creator’s continual activity in holding all things together.”
            Does this not therefore, *given the nature of the topic*, introduce a dichotomy between a “Christian” understanding and a secular one?

            Re Jeremiah 33: 25 which speaks of ” the fixed laws of heaven and earth”: (a) given the scientific advances, not only since the biblical period, but more recently the huge developments in, for example, microphysics,does the concept of “fixed laws” not seem somewhat outdated?
            And (b) Re the text: Is it making a specifically “scientific” point or, given its context, a primarily theological one?

          • Colin: Of course Jeremiah is making a mainly theological point but when inspired by the Holy Spirit he is not going to say anything untrue in its own field.

            We replaced Newtonian gravity by Einstein’s general theory of relativity, to which Newton’s theory is a good approximation in most circumstances, and someday we hope to have a quantum version of general relativity to which Einstein’s version is itself a good approximation in most circumstances. But I don’t think that the laws have changed, only uour understanding of them and our ability to predict accurately in wider and wider regions of parameter space.

          • David, I wonder if you are both saying the same things using different language?

            We do not decide what the laws are; we discover how things consistently behave, and summarise that behaviour in what we call ‘laws’. In the sense, our expression is descriptive.

            Yet the physical world appears to be bound to certain regulated patterns of behaviour, so regular that, when we describe them, they look like universal ‘laws’. Indeed, it is only the regularity that allows us to do this, and thus to predict what will happen in new scenarios. In the sense, the laws are indeed prescriptive.

            Does that make sense?

      • James – and did any of them turn away from atheism and put their trust in Jesus as a result of the intellectual arguments that you presented?

          • Balaam’s Donkey was a brilliant evangelist. The Donkey kept it simple, short and to the point and, like a tracer missile, the sermon hit its mark. She didn’t use any fancy philosophy and she didn’t try to explain to Balaam the theory of Intelligent Design or anything like that.

  10. Of beauty
    The other evening, I watched a science programme on TV.
    Three scientists descended into Antarctic Ocean in a bathysphere several hundred meters, looking for the giant squid, they had seen only dead ones that had been washed up on shores but no one had ever seen a live one. They did find a most beautiful, gracious giant squid and filmed it for our enjoyment.
    Along with this they found some of the most wonderful creatures in existence of colour and form and all of that in the darkest places on earth. For whose benefit?
    Rev 4:11 Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.

    Like our commentators I think that God delights in revealing his knowledge and sharing His delights and pleasures for our enjoyment; As in science so in theology.,as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. 1 Cor 2:9

  11. Over 40 years ago when I was a researcher (in theoretical astrophysics, so basically an applied mathematician) I helped with a youth group. We held a evening for parents once a year. One year our speaker was John Polkingthorne, who had just stepped down from his chair of Mathematical Physics to enter holy orders. One parent asked him the obvious question, “what has your studies taught you about God?” He answered, “that God is a mathematician.”

    One indication of this is how the results of Pure Mathematics are found, after their discovery, to be useful in understanding the actual, physical nature of things. The obvious example of this is Group Theory. For many years this was a seemingly arcane area. Then it was found to be useful in understanding particle physics. There is a description of a pure mathematician as being like a tailor who makes clothes simply for the joy of making them. Should the clothes actually fit someone, that is a bonus.

  12. The most interesting observation here is about the number of people who do something mathematically-related before being called to ministry. I hadn’t really considered this, but it sounds about right in my experience too. I wonder if this is true of ministry in general, or whether there is some disparity across tradition: would it perhaps be more likely that a tradition with a stronger liturgical tradition might be more attractive to such people?

    It’s all conjecture…

    For what it’s worth I did computer science and programming at university, and briefly worked for a software company before my call to ministry. Your comments section seems to be proving the rule… 😉

    • Yes, I agree. My experience is that the correlation is stronger in biblical studies, and also stronger amongst evangelicals, and that is not a coincidence.

      There is a conservative evangelical ‘free’ church locally here which appears to be entirely composed of mathematicians and engineers…

      • This is very much my own experience—but then we put a different hat on with Scripture and think that God revealed something special to northern Europeans in the 15th and 16th centuries that should not be messed with.

  13. This has been a fascinating blog post. God has given us an amazing universe to explore and understand. To that end mathematicians like other scientists use models—but those models are always up for challenge as more is learned, the Times this morning leading on the new discoveries CERN is revealing about antimatter. It seems this is the way God wanted it to be.

    I suggest it is the same with Scripture—while all that is needed to know to secure our eternal future is clear there are still new wonders to discover. Unfortunately, while Protestant Orthodoxy is underpinned by Scripture, it works with a 17th century model of understanding and any challenge to that model is vigorously rebuffed.

    • I have always believed that the New Testament should be seen through the eyes of a faithful ancient Israelite, and that the Old Testament offers gentiles a crash course on that worldview. So I am not a huge fan of the ‘church fathers’, who largely viewed the NT through ancient Greek eyes and philosophical presumptions. Luther was no friend of scholastic philosophy but I accept that, apart perhaps from the English Puritans (who get an undeservedly bad press today) his movement largely failed to return the church to the Hebraic view. Don’t forget that Catholicism didn’t even try.

  14. Anton The key issue here is not the truth of what Jeremiah is saying [Jeremiah 33:25]. Rather it is the meaning of *law*! You seem to have a “one shoe fits all” approach to this issue. The context of this passage ie *covenant*; specifically the Davidic Covenant. *Gods* covenants are *relational*, ergo God’s *laws* are relational! And that is why I challenged the introduction by David Wilson of *The Creator* into the debate. And that is why I introduced (albeit indirectly) a possible linguistic relationship between mathematics and the biblical concepts of discipline and discipleship.
    Much of the ongoing debate has revolved around the employment of esoteric terminology to the detriment of clear definition. Sorry to keep this simple,but by way of illustration, what do we mean when we describe God as Creator? The nature of *language* has received little or no attention in this post! And if truth -specifically *God’s* truth – is the central issue, then not only must we affirm this, we must take care to make clear distinctions between the *nature* of this overriding truth and the various manifestations of ancillary truths undergirding human existence.

      • I’m not even on the bell curve.
        ps I have been reading a book.
        pps I love the bit where St. Paul says: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
        He must have needed to make a resolution because he could have easily joined in with the debates of the current age.

        • Yes, Paul wrote that about his first arrival in Corinth, to which he travelled after his showdown with the prideful philosophers in Athens, who clearly inspired the critique of philosophers a few verses earlier in 1 Corinthians.

    • Indeed Colin,
      God in eternity is relational, Father, Son , Holy Spirit. It is in God’s Triunity that He brought creation into existence out of nothing.
      So God is first and formost not creator, nor mathematian. It is not who He is in eternity before creation. Any it is only in God in Triunity, that it can be said of Him that he is Love. It could be said in effect, that in the pre-creation intra Trinity is seen and established the pre-creation “law” of love and creation is an expression of the expansion and expansiveness of that love, from eternity and into eternity.
      You will of course know that a reformed teaching, more from heavy implication, a conclusion drawn from whole canon scripture, than irrefutable expressed, is that God, intra Triunity, entered into a pre-creation covenant of redemption to reveal his stellar glory..

  15. Colin Hamer
    September 28, 2023 at 11:44 am & 12:04 pm
    Protestant Orthodoxy is underpinned by Scripture, it works with a 17th century model of understanding and any challenge to that model is vigorously rebuffed.

    Question, What would a 21st centuary model of understanding be looking like?

  16. Geoff
    September 28, 2023 at 2:02 pm
    And it is only in God in Triunity, that it can be said of Him that he is Love.
    His stellar glory. ? I would suggest that the essential nature of God is Holiness hence always worshiped as Holy Holy Holy not Love Love Love. True, I think, that it was out of His Love that He wanted to share in His Holiness within His whole creation.

    Back in the 60’s at a convocation of Evangelicals at Keele and Nottingham Martyn Lloyd Jones debated that Holiness[of God]
    was fundamental to the proclamation of the Gospel.
    John Stott [standing as Chairman] intervened in the debate
    to argue that Love was the foundation of the Gospel and was more inclusive. His intervention carried the debate and the Cof E
    along with others followed the result in their praxis.
    Thus we have the current debacle in our Churches,
    One side arguing for inclusive love and those contending for Holiness,which is seen as exclusive.
    It seems to me that never the twain shall or can meet.
    God in Christ are working out their original plan to bring many sons into glory [the essential nature of God is holiness]
    We are to be holy as God is Holy.
    Alas there is very little knowledge or understanding of the amazing wonder of holiness brought to us through his Love,
    due in part to the defective teachings of the past several decades.

    • Indeed, Alan.
      God’s love is only ever Holy-Love. As God’s Holy-Love emanates from the intra Triune love and only in all grace, to all he has made, how could it be otherwise, otherwise He would be denying Himself?
      The emphasis on God’s Holy-Love was pressed home by David F Wells in his book, God in the Whirlwind. As you will know, Wells, in his early Christian ministry, before moving to the States, was influenced and encouraged by John Stott.

  17. Geoff
    September 29, 2023 at 7:45 pm
    Hi Geoff
    Holy – Love
    Yes Stott realized this and apologised to M Ll J for his unprecedented interjection, but not until a lot of damage was done.
    However he did repent and worshiped God in a different light.
    God is Holy Love; as well as holy joy,holy peace,holy grace,
    holy patience and longsuffering, holy comfort, righteousness, judge etc.
    To coin Peter “whereunto God has given us great and precious promises that we might be partakers of the divine nature”; that we might be holy as He is Holy.


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