Chapter 5

The Purpose of Mathematics

Truth & the Transcendent

by Larry L. Zimmerman

Why is it so important for the Christian to behold the glory of God reflected in mathematics or anywhere else? Simply because beholding the glory of God is the prime directive for spiritual growth.

Cease from thine own wisdom. Wilt thou set thine eyes upon that which is not?Proverbs 23:5

Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am, in order that they may behold My glory, …John 17:36

Instead of our doing something to the subject matter, the subject matter should do something to us. —Dr. Mark Fakkema

Why is it so important for the Christian to behold the glory of God reflected in mathematics or anywhere else? Simply because beholding the glory of God is the prime directive for spiritual growth. One may as well ask why eating and breathing are important to life.

What is meant by “spiritual growth?” How is it measured? Toward what, or in what, are Christians to grow? These questions are answered ultimately in Romans 8:29; the destiny of the Christian is to become conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Since those events God predestinates occur with probability one, Christians know that “when He shall appear, [they] shall be like Him, for [they] shall see him as He is.1 King David said, “I will behold Thy face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with Thy likeness.”2

Evidently, the agency of change is vision. 1 Corinthians 13:12 reads, “For now we see a dim reflection in a looking glass, but then we shall see face to face; now what I know is imperfect, but then I shall know perfectly, as God knows me.

It is hopeless for a Christian to attempt to change himself into Christ-likeness. His tendency nevertheless is to hide behind the characteristics of a Christ-like life, to don a mask of christ-ness, which only suffocates spiritual vitality. The battle against this deception is made more difficult because it is often one’s pastor, parent, teacher, friend, or counsellor who, intending only the best, proffers the mask and urges “their” Christian to squeeze into it.

It is easy to forget that the transformation to Christ-likeness is inward, where God gazes, in our character, the marrow of our soul. The New Testament lists of characteristics of Christ are primarily check lists, so the Christian can gauge whether growth is occurring.

One prominent church prints on its bulletins the motto: “Learning to live like Christ lives.” It is easy to learn to live like Christ lives, but impossible to live like Christ lives. A better motto would be: “Learning to live Christ,” or “Learning to live Christ-lives.” To illustrate this so-called “deeper life,” Major Ian Thomas uses the hand-in-glove analogy: Christians should simply be the glove, allowing Christ, the Hand, to use them as He wishes.

Yet this again is “What?” when “How?” is needed. How does a Christian “let go and let God?” How does one relax one’s self to become the glove when one is pervaded with human-ness? “Listen,” the Christian is admonished, “Christ is the Vine, you are a branch. You don’t have to try to bear fruit, you will bear fruit because the fruit-producing life of the Vine flows through you.”

Yet the cry of the tent maker from Tarsus echoes in the heart of every Christian: “Nevertheless, I live!” If you live, you must do. The poet-priest G.M. Hopkins wrestled with this dilemma continually, and wrote:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.3 (Emphasis Hopkins’)

When a Christian gets a Sunday charge from church and charges from church into the “real” world, he often carries with him subliminal panic as he anticipates the confrontations he is certain will face him if he follows through on his Sunday resolve to “live like Christ lives.” Often he finds himself backing down, resigned to shouldering his weekly load of guilt, until he gets temporary relief again on Sunday. Even if he swallows hard and “witnesses” during the week, he is never sure that this activity is not just a result of his Sunday “high.” It certainly feels as though he is trying to do it.

The key to resolving this tension between what is God’s part and what is my part, as a Christian, is found in 2 Corinthians 3, 4, and 5, the linchpin being 3:18. “But we all, with uncovered faces, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into likeness to Him, from one degree of splendor to another, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.I become like Christ by beholding His glory. This always-painful transformation is powered wholly by the Holy Spirit. The Christian’s function only is to behold. Someday believers will be like Christ because they will see Him as He is. Now they should “be becoming” like Him, by beholding His glory. If beholding is “doing,” this is what they do. The New Testament lists of hallmarks of Christ are done through the Christian, a function of the amount of time he spends beholding, and of the quality of his vision. Jailed by time, the Christian sees not the face of Christ, but views His revelation in Scripture (Behold the Lamb), and in the “dark glass” of the creation.

What does “beholding” mean? How does one behold the glory of God? Obviously, physical vision is a part of the answer, and just as obviously, not the whole answer. One cannot see Christ physically, but one is able to physically view evidences of His power and glory in the creation, the basis of which is mathematics.

Annie Dillard, in her Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek, composed a hymn to the variety, complexity, and mystery, to the glory of the creation, which she often labels “nature.” She senses a lurker-behind-the-scenes, shedding transcendence there, contentless for her, which the Christian knows to be the “invisible things of God, even His eternal power and Godhead,” constantly reflected in the mirror of His creation.

When God wanted Job’s attention, He saturated the waiting man’s natural vision with the majesty of the creation. But realistically, since Christ is Spirit, to behold Him the Christian somehow must develop spiritual sight. Easter time, when believers miss most “dearest Him who lives alas! away,” brings it home. Their walk is by faith, not by sight. The implication: faith is spiritual sight or discernment, looking through the visible and tangible to the invisible and transcendent. Faith resolves the scriptural paradox—the Christian is able to look at things not seen, to clearly see the invisible things of God. Moses “by faith … left Egypt … for he persevered as though he were actually seeing Him who is unseen.” (Heb. 11:27) The Author and Finisher of our faith must naturally become the focus of our spiritual vision if we are to grow like Him.

Dr. Al Greene, a pioneering thinker in the philosophy of Christian education, has this to say:

The sixth beatitude, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,’ is double edged. Not only is seeing God a consequence of purity of heart; purity follows from seeing God. When John says ‘… we shall be like Him even as He is,’ he is saying that the unalloyed quality of Christ’s mind becomes ours increasingly as we see Him, here by faith, later by sight. This purity is referred to in the Sermon on the Mount in these terms:

The lamp of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body will be full of darkness.’ Contamination enters the human mind as a person attempts to walk independently of God.4

It becomes clear that the Christian’s eye of faith is his mind, by whose renewing the Christian is transformed. His mind is the prism which receives the light of the glory of God and showers its dazzling spectrum on the wrinkles and caverns of his soul. Christians have the mind of Christ which, through beholding, becomes more and more their mind. Setting their minds on things above, beholders are “renewed to a true knowledge according to the image” of the Creator. After this promise in Colossians 3, there follows a check list. Before the lists in 1 Peter, and after the linking of faith with sight, Christians are exhorted to gird their minds for action. Rather than cruising over the surface of Scripture, the beholder finds some “deep things” for meditation, even in such deceptively simple verses like: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Prov. 23:7)

As we learn to walk by faith, our spiritual vision centers down on the future coming of the Lord, a focus the Bible calls hope. (See Rom. 8:18–30) The natural result of this supernatural process is humility (remember Job’s testimony) and love. Living in the light of His coming gradually destroys the urge to heap to ourselves things; the consequent lessening of fear we find replaced by a growing freedom to give sacrificially, that is, to love. Just as 1 Corinthians13 indicates, hope is maturing faith which is producing the “greatest,” love.

So … Christ is the Truth, revealed through His word in Scripture and in the world, perceived by the believer with the eye of faith through the agency of his (His) mind. As the believer looks at “things not seen,” his inner man is being renewed day by day,” producing for him through affliction an “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

We Christians evaluate our growth toward Christ-likeness on the basis of the checklists in Scripture, which are epitomized by humility and servanthood. When we judge ourselves lacking, we do not try to be more _______, or less ________, because we know that the Christian life is not a staccato of good deeds, but a continuum, Christ’s life. We recognize blindness or short-sightedness as the real culprit, and we concentrate upon improving the quality and quantity of his vision of the Father of lights, as explained in 1 Peter 1:9.

Now, rather than being puzzled and condemned by verses such as I John 3:3, we beholders are blessed. It is not that we purify ourselves by trying to emulate Christ’s purity. Instead, we purify ourselves by fixing our hope on Christ; by degrees Christ’s purity becomes ours, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Hopkins’ poem mentioned earlier, so beautifully continues:

I say more: the just man justices; Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces; Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his To the Father through the features of men’s faces.5

The Truth gives the Christian the potential to do truth, and indeed is setting him free.

Many Christians read, even study, the Bible, and never look for God Himself to be revealed. Such a simple question: “What has this piece of Scripture to do with God?” The answer is deep, big enough to involve a lifetime of prayer, research, meditation, help from others, and above all, thinking. To the growing Christian, the insights which seemed so complete and satisfying yesterday, open his eyes to new trails needing exploration today. The prophetic word really does become “a light shining in a dark place;” “the day dawns” and “morning arises” in the believer’s heart. Like David, he seeks “to behold the beauty of the Lord and to meditate in His temple.” (Ps. 27:4) Hearing God’s command, “Seek My face,” the beholder, like David, responds, “Thy face, Lord, will I seek.” (Ps. 27:8) Such Christians are prone to cut through the empty repetition which characterizes much preaching, teaching, and writing, to demand of themselves and their mentors: “Sirs, we would see Jesus!”

In the best of times, however, we find ourselves spending many more hours in activities other than searching out the revelation of Christ in the Scriptures. These other projects are carried on in the domain of the creation, the “dark glass” which also constantly reflects the power and Godhead of its Creator, “and but the beholder wanting; which two when once they meet the heart rears wings bold and bolder and hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.”6 In fact, as I have already pointed out, Romans 10:17 is set in the context of the creation’s proclaiming, “The Hand that shaped me is divine.

The year that King Uzziah died, when Isaiah saw the Lord in His splendor, the attending angels directed attention to the whole earth which, claimed they, was full of the glory of God. And when God unveiled for Job the panorama of His power in nature, Job’s response is enlightening: “I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees Thee.” Like Isaiah, Job was overcome with repentance and humility; “… therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.7

Those blinded to the light of God reflected from the mirror of nature automatically stumble from rationality into a dream land where “sacred” and “secular” form mutually exclusive sets. With this false dichotomy— this perversion of reality—pervading their lives, they lip-serve God on Sunday, but expend most of their energy in the worship and service of the creation.

This type of pernicious thinking is nothing new. The Bible records a dramatic instance of it in 1 Kings 20. I realize that many a sermon uses this passage to (correctly) illustrate that God is with us in our sorrows (valleys) as well as in our “mountain top” experiences. As history, however, the Syrian king, BenHadad, was willing to grant God the actual hills, but claimed the actual plains for himself. Although the children of Israel, in battle array, were “like two little flocks of goats, while the Syrians filled the countryside,” God allowed the Israelites to eat Ben-Hadad’s lunch. Why? “Because the Syrians have said, ‘The Lord is God of the hills, but He is not God of the valleys’”(v. 28). A human involved in an ownership dispute with the Creator over a portion of His creation is in a no-win situation. This is true whether it’s the plains of Aphek or the universal language that is mathematics.

One last observation regarding 1 Kings 20. God is explaining the correct worldview to His people, not to the pagans. Before I came to Jesus, my worldview was bound to be wrong. Error is the normal milieu for the unbeliever. But now in Christ, with the Holy Spirit to lead me into the truth, I have no excuse to cling to a secular/sacred, compartmentalized, idolatrous perspective of life in the universe, falsely and futily trying to exclude God from any part of it.

We pilgrims need to progress from an occasional vague recognition of the God behind a spectacular sunset, to “lifting up heart, eyes; down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;”8 where the visible and invisible creation triggers constantly conscious praise, thanks, and worship, directed to the Creator and Sustainer.

I see a rose, dewy in the morning sun. Marvelling at the harmony of beauty and fragrance it exhibits, I “look” through and beyond it in my mind, and remember that God created it, His beauty more than its own, His majesty and power more also. Upholding it by His word, He’s presently placing it in unity with all else. If I am privileged to study the flower microscopically, to go where “lives the dearest, freshness deep down things,” to view the awesome structural craftmanship of God, I come to “see” Him in even newer light.

Ultimately, I may construct in my mind an approximation of the mathematical model rose which God holds in His mind, “to think His thought after Him” in the language fabric of nature, mathematics.

These thoughts and memories stir in me gratitude and praise, echoing Revelation 4:11, “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory, honor, and power, for Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure thy were and are created.

Thus I “behold” the Creator of the rose.

Beholders appreciate the function and purpose of time, without an accounting for which a worldview is deficient. In the past God predestinated Christians to be like His Son; now they are becoming like Him by beholding His glory; in the future, they will be like Him because they will face Him.

To express the beholding principle, Dr. Mark Fakkema used diagrams similar to the following, where Symbol of Christ symbolizes Christ. Symbol of New Man represents humans, not only created in His image, but also recreated to new spiritual life in Him. Christ dwells in them by their personal invitation and submission to Him. The unsaved person might be represented by Symbol Old Man. Though still an image-bearer of God, he lies dead spiritually in his trespasses and sins. The beholding process is pictured next:

Beholding Process9

The Christian is being completed, made whole, as he beholds the reflected glory of his Lord. Even in a Christian school, some students exhibit no Christian character. It may be they are not alive in Christ, a fact which has implications for the admissions policy of the school. It may be that a shroud of sin covers the student’s eyes of faith. The scriptural remedy is to confess and forsake sin. It may be the student is not learning the truth as it is reflected in a particular subject. Incompetence in mathematics, for example, will blind the student to the glory of the Creator reflected there.

But perhaps it is simply because worthwhile growth takes time. The parable of the sower and the seed (Mark 4) makes this clear. It implies also that sowing the truth, both biblical and creational, comes first, and is the constant. “Behavior modification”—the fruit—comes second, and is a function of the soil condition.

The amount of exterior control applied to a student body must be continually monitored, so it remains sufficient and, just as important, kept to the minimum. As G.K. Chesterton said, “… The chief aim of (rule and) order (is) to give room for good things to run wild.”10

Never should Christian teachers or administrators attempt the fruitless work of tying the fruit onto the children by rules, meetings, threats, ridicule, punishment, or other forms of coercion. The only hope for real fruitbearing lies in the faithful sowing of the seed.

Though solidly real and indispensably practical, beholding God’s glory bouncing off mathematics is utterly dependent on faith, which is spiritual sight. How does the Christian teacher desecularize the whole area of applications of mathematics, the vocational, tangible aspect? Judged by the course descriptions cited previously, many Christian colleges either are not aware of the problem or choose to ignore it. Christian high schools do no better. A typical description: “Mathematics opens the door to many career opportunities and advanced studies in any of the science and engineering schools.” Reading this, the student doubts not that, for his Christian mentors, the only reason to study mathematics is to make merchandise of it. The latter then are puzzled when the former develops into a worshipper of material, and a pharasaical one at that.

Applications of mathematics to nature, under which are subsumed, directly or indirectly, mathematics-oriented vocations, are governed by the principle expressed in Genesis 1:26–28 and Psalm 8, the so-called “cultural mandate.” God commands His children to subdue and replenish the earth and take dominion over it. Christians are governed by this executive order as long as they live on the earth, and it impinges on every occupation. A minister, referring to a member of his congregation, proclaimed from the pulpit, “George does dentistry to put food on the table, but his real vocation is leading his patients to Christ.” George should be encouraged to provide for his family, and be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in him. If, however, George (or his pastor, for that matter) is unaware of the part his profession per se plays in subduing and replenishing the creation; if he denigrates it; if, in fact, he views it as other than a sacrament in the context of 1 Corinthians 10:31 or Colossians 3:17, he grievously errs. His God is much too small. Worse, he has made an idol of his profession, vainly imagining it existing outside God’s purview.

In contrast, the biographical film, “Chariots of Fire,” depicts Olympic athlete Eric Liddell, a Scot missionary destined to die in a Japanese prison camp, telling his sister, “God made me for a purpose. He made me for China. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure. To win is to honor Him.”11 God wants Christians to do “_______” (mathematics, dentistry, the dishes) to bring Him pleasure, and to do it excellently, to bring Him honor. At least peripheral to any occupation, integral to most, mathematics is essential in subduing and replenishing tasks. Students should be faced not only with their caretaker responsibility, but also with the futility of attempting it while neglecting mathematics. Without a working knowledge of the patterns of God’s speech used in the creation, humans are powerless to replenish the earth and are in danger of being themselves subdued by it.

Christian Christian teachers, then, motivate their classes in two valid ways to learn mathematics. First, mathematics exhibits the glory of God, necessary to growth in His image, which is the destiny of Christians. Second, mathematics equips students to care for the creation, under the divine command.

Since this training must occur in the middle of a spiritual battle, its practical implementation is neither simple nor easy. Morris Kline is more truthful than he realizes when he says, “The noxious weeds of falsehood may flourish side by side with the good, the true, and the beautiful. Perhaps the Devil sows his seeds and raises his harvest along with the God of truth.”12

But greater is He who is in us than he who is in the world. Through His power, in faithfulness and patience, it is possible for Christian schools and colleges to graduate students who, rather than worshipping and serving mathematics, worship and serve the Father of lights, from whom mathematics comes.

Let Thy work appear unto Thy
servants, and Thy glory unto their
children. And let the beauty of the
Lord our God be upon us.

Psalm 90:16, 17

Truth & the Transcendent

“How do you know that God created mathematics?”

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Footnotes

  1. 1 John 3:2.
  2. Psalm 17:15.
  3. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems and Prose (London: Unwin, 1954), Penguin Books, p. 51.
  4. Al Greene, The Mind Field (Alta Vista College), vol. 3, No. 2, March and April, 1980, p. 2. See also John 20:29.
  5. Hopkins, 51.
  6. Hopkins, “Hurrahing in Harvest,” 31.
  7. Job 42:5, 6.
  8. Hopkins, “Hurrahing in Harvest,” 31.
  9. See Fakkema, Christian Philosophy.
  10. Chesterton, 94.
  11. Hugh Hudson, dir., Chariots of Fire, with Ben Cross and Ian Charleson, 20th Century Fox, 1981.
  12. MTLC, 324.

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Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively. We focus on providing answers to questions about the Bible—particularly the book of Genesis—regarding key issues such as creation, evolution, science, and the age of the earth.