In Redeeming Mathematics: A God-Centered Approach, Vern S. Poythress, professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, lays a theological foundation for all mathematical inquiry. He argues that the Christian God’s consistent character and nature are found in the harmony between mathematical truths, our physical world of things, and the personal world of our thinking. You don’t need the spiritual gift of mathematics to understand this book. As Vern says, God’s eternal truths are made evident in the simplest of addition and subtraction. Thanks to Crossway, Redeeming Mathematics: A God-Centered Approach by Vern S. Poythress is available to download and enjoy by Christ and Pop Culture members for free. My goal is to show how even the most elementary parts of mathematics, like 2 + 2 = 4, show the presence, wisdom, and faithfulness of God.
The following interview between Vern S. Poythress and Christ and Pop Culture writer, Nate Claiborne, explores why Christians need a God-centered approach for the seemingly neutral discipline of mathematics, as well as the cultural importance of laying a theological foundation for mathematical truths.
Can you give us a little more background on your reasons for writing this book?
On the personal side, I became a follower of Christ and made a public commitment to him when I was nine years old. I also had a growing love for mathematics from an early age. By the time I was in high school, I worried about whether my love for mathematics exceeded my love for God. I knew that God should be first in my life, but I struggled with the fact that I had a strong love for mathematics. I did not have anyone to tell me what I would now say, namely that the two loves, rightly understood, are not in competition or tension with each other. I loved mathematics because I saw beauty and purity and truth in it, and those things I saw were reflections of the beauty and purity and truth of God himself, who is the origin of mathematics. I should have been loving God through loving the reflections of him that I saw in mathematics. Now that I understand ways that God is involved in mathematics, I want to convey that message to others.
On the cultural side, mathematics has a strong influence on cultural thinking through its influences in the sciences. Mathematics, together with natural sciences powered by mathematics, has given us impressive truths and impressive results. Culturally, it is easy for science to become a model for all knowledge and truth. And this tendency to model everything after science easily truncates human life in its richness. Human life is made to fit within the viewpoint of materialistic philosophy; scientific truths become the only thing that matters. I want to respond to that truncated view partly by discussing how human beings, as full people made in the image of God, are involved in mathematics. By implication, similar things hold for people involved in the natural sciences.
Modern culture conceives of mathematics as something religiously neutral and independent of God. So the more human culture is influenced by the achievements in mathematics and sciences, the more God seems to be peripheral. For that reason, I want to show people the numerous ways in which our reflections on mathematics constantly depend on God, and ways in which mathematics reflects the character of God and his glory.
Who is your target audience and what is your hope for this book in their life?
Anyone who is curious about the meaning of mathematics and why it works. People without any special skill or any special attraction to mathematics can understand it. My goal is to show how even the most elementary parts of mathematics, like 2 + 2 = 4, show the presence, wisdom, and faithfulness of God. If people catch on to the significance of God’s presence here, they have a starting point for appreciating any part of mathematics. I hope that people will have their minds and hearts transformed by the truth of God, so that they will grow in praising God for what he has given us in mathematics.
Who is someone that you think might be uninterested in this book that you’d hope would give it a chance?
I have in my mind’s eye someone who says, “I hate mathematics.” Many people who say this may have had a bad experience in a math class at some time in their lives. They did not understand, and they got defeated. Maybe the teacher was mean. So they determined that they were going to avoid the subject. I want to help people like this appreciate God’s revelation of himself even in an area that is outside their comfort zone. They can grow to appreciate it without feeling they personally have to excel in mathematics.
How has your fascination and understanding of the relationship of mathematics and God changed since you did your Ph.D. at Harvard?
I hope that I have matured, partly in subtle ways that are difficult to assess. I have grown in appreciating the relation of the Trinitarian character of God to mathematics. But when I finished at Harvard, I was already convinced that we needed a specifically Christian approach to mathematics, and that mathematics was not the “religiously neutral” subject that our mainstream culture takes it to be.
How does your background in mathematics affect your current teaching position?
I have seen people who come to study the Bible with a background in science or mathematics, and who expect the Bible to talk to them that way–not necessarily with the technical language of science, but still with some of the concentrated one-dimensional focus of science. The Bible’s literary and artistic dimensions escape them, or frustrate them. Fortunately, that did not happen to me. I endeavored to let the Bible be what it was. But there were two more minor and indirect effects from my background.
First, I learned linguistics and translation theory, parts of which have some affinities to the word problems in mathematics. I then applied that background in linguistics to the challenge of biblical interpretation.
Second, from my background in science, I retained during my career an interest in the issues of science and Christian faith, and areas like the days of creation and the theory of evolution, where Christians see tensions between mainstream claims in science and what they find in the Bible. I kept thinking about these areas. And because of my scientific background, I enjoyed reading about the scientific side of these tensions, rather than being intimidated by scientific claims, as I think some theologians may be. Because mathematics plays an important role in education and in sciences, it is important to enhance people’s appreciation for ways in which we can be praising God for what we see of him in his gift of mathematics.
What would you say to students who question the need to learn upper-level math (e.g. Pre-Calculus, Calculus, Physics, etc.) to appreciate the complexities of God?
We can see some of the complexities and wisdom of God even with elementary arithmetic. But we need to have guidance from Scripture to see the world of mathematics for what it is. And we need to slow down and reflect about why and how things are the way they are. Any additional knowledge that we get in advanced mathematics may enhance our appreciation. But different people have different aptitudes and callings, so not everyone should feel that he has to have achievements in every area.
When it comes to interpreting culture well, what is one key take-away that you’d hope readers gather from reading your work?
I hope people will see that the mainstream of the culture is wrong to assume that mathematics is religiously neutral and that God is irrelevant in this area. Rather, they will learn to appreciate the presence of God and his glory in mathematics.
You’ve examined quite a few subjects using the “God-centered” approach in order to redeem the field. Did you always expect to work toward this book on mathematics?
No, I didn’t. In 1974 I completed a Th.M. thesis that explored the relationships between science and the Bible. A little later, as a result of an invitation, I wrote a single article on how to see mathematics from a Christian point of view (1976). I thought that I had said what I could, and did not anticipate doing anything more.
But further insights did gradually come to me during my years teaching the New Testament and growing in appreciation of the full message of the Bible. I realized at a certain point that I had material for a book. This book would present a Christian, biblically based understanding of science (Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach) and it included one chapter on mathematics. Again I thought that I had said what I could.
But I found that there were continuing needs in these areas, partly because the surrounding culture is putting pressure on Christians to “keep religion private,” and to treat most of life as unrelated to religion–not only mathematics and sciences but many other areas, like politics, business, education, the arts, and entertainment. The attempt to keep God out corrupts people’s understanding in all these areas. And mathematics is a particular area of intense need, precisely because it is one of the places where people think it is “obvious” that God and religion are “irrelevant.” I thought it was worthwhile to write a book to address this cultural perception of allegedly religiously neutral knowledge. And because mathematics plays an important role in education and in sciences, it is also important to enhance people’s appreciation for ways in which we can be praising God for what we see of him in his gift of mathematics.
Are there are other areas you see a need for redemption and a “God-centered” approach? Are you working on any upcoming projects?
I am writing a book tentatively titled, Christ the Lord of All of Life: The Joy of Loving and Serving the Savior, that Crossway is going to publish (God willing). It articulates the larger challenge to Christian believers, while earlier books of mine worked at the challenge in particular subjects like science, language, social life, logic, philosophy, and mathematics. I would also like to see books on chemistry, astronomy, physics, geology, biology, and other disciplines outside scientific areas, such as economics and history, that articulate a God-centered approach.