Acton Institute Powerblog

Avoid the ‘Ignorant Arithmetic’

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Joe Carter, purveyor of the evangelical outpost (and, incidentally, now the managing editor for WorldMagBlog), had a discussion last week worth paying attention to on the specifically Christian pursuit of knowledge. He argues that this applies even in something so apparently noncontroversial as mathematics. Regarding questions of math and science, “Even the concept that 1 + 1 = 2, which almost all people agree with on a surface level, has different meanings based on what theories are proposed as answers,” he writes.

He also passes along the view of Leibniz:

When Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, an inventor of the calculus, was asked by one of his students, “Why is one and one always two, and how do we know this?” Leibnitz replied, “One and one equals two is an eternal, immutable truth that would be so whether or not there were things to count or people to count them.” Numbers, numerical relationships, and mathematical laws (such as the law of addition) exist in this abstract realm and are independent of any physical existence. In Leibnitz’s view, numbers are real things that exist in a dimension outside of the physical realm and would exist even if no human existed to recognize them.

This also happens to be the view espoused by Alvin Plantinga in a brief discussion at Calvin Theological Seminary last Thursday on his book, Warranted Christian Belief, although Plantinga discussed “things that exist in a dimension outside of the physical realm” in terms of possible worlds as thoughts of God.

On a somewhat related note, I’d like to pass along some words from Basil of Caesarea on the applicability of arithmetic to a discussion of the Trinity. We might ask, “What is divine math?”

Basil writes in his treatise On the Holy Spirit,

Count, if you must; but you must not by counting do damage to the faith. Either let the ineffable be honoured by silence; or let holy things be counted consistently with true religion. There is one God and Father, one Only-begotten, and one Holy Ghost. We proclaim each of the hypostases singly; and, when count we must, we do not let an ignorant arithmetic carry us away to the idea of a plurality of Gods. For we do not count by way of addition, gradually making increase from unity to multitude, and saying one, two, and three,—nor yet first, second, and third. (Ꝅ—45)

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.