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BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION: Algebra or Geometry


I recently read the following, written by Rick Presley as a comment in Edward Fudge’s GracEmail letters. The comment was about a GracEmail discussing the parable of the Good Samaritan. I believe it well sums up two different approaches to Scripture. Each of these has value, depending on the circumstances and the questions we are asking of Scripture.

I have always said that the parable of the Good Samaritan is about people who are so busy doing God’s Word that they have no time to follow God’s Will. I was reflecting last week on the kinds of people I had in class when I was a science teacher. For ease of reference I refer to them as Algebra People and Geometry People. I found that generally those who were good at algebra hated geometry and those who liked geometry often did less well at algebra. This is because the two systems approach problems in completely different ways.

In algebra one has a single correct answer to find and by rigorous deduction, one can find it. In geometry, one has any number of ways that one can solve a geometric proof. Some answers are more elegant than others. Those who are predisposed to accept that the world is composed of situations with One Right Answer like algebra and generally hate geometry. Those who believe the world is filled with principles and one can arrange them in a variety of ways generally like geometry and hate algebra. Some understanding the value of both can live in both worlds, hopping from one stance to the other with great facility.

In teaching both science in school and theology in Sunday school, I see the same people. There are those who feel the Bible contains One Right Answer to every question. There are others who believe the Bible is full of principles and one should work to discover which principles apply best in which situations. In teaching science, those who loved algebra hated true science  – the work of forming a hypothesis, testing it, and either affirming or disproving it before moving on to the next hypothesis – because they hated the notion of accepting things tentatively and not having a clearly defined path marked out for them to follow to solve the problem. The things they liked were the facts of science that were either true or not true. They were good at identifying trees based on the leaves or memorizing the phases of mitosis, but were never good at arriving at experimental knowledge.

We see many in our churches – and I think evangelicalism attracts a high proportion of these folks – who are Algebra People. They are in search of the One Right Answer. They have accumulated facts, which they know for certain. They love absolutes and cut & dried arguments. Less commonly do we see Geometry People who hold to answers tentatively, who are comfortable with imperfect knowledge, who enjoy arguments that end with “on the one hand this, but on the other hand that” because it relates to skilled application of principles rather than right adherence to facts.

I believe that what Rick called “Algebra People” tend to use proof texts. If two of them discuss something, one will tend to use one set of proof texts while the other may use a different set of proof texts. They seldom come to agreement, because each is focusing a different part (or parts) of the Scripture. What he calls “Geometry People” sometimes fail to see the absolutes that God reveals in Scripture.

When “Algebra People” discuss things with “Geometry People,” they often never connect with each other in meaningful ways. The “Algebra People” tend to believe that the “Geometry People” don’t really believe the Bible, that they are subjective, and so tentative they are “wishy-washy.” “Geometry People” tend to look at “Algebra People” as legalistic and traditionalist.

When I was learning to be a computer programmer, back in the “stone age” of computers (our computers would fill a room and actually had vacuum tubes), my instructor used to tell us, “There are more ways to kill a cat than to choke it to death on butter-milk!” By this, he meant that there are many ways to solve a problem, some more elegant than others, but still workable. However, every problem had to use the same “machine instructions” to accomplish the task. Programming required precision in using these. Without the necessary precision, the program would crash. Even when you used the “machine instructions” with precision, your program could still give unintended results – if your program had faulty logic.

I believe the same principles apply in studying the Scripture. We need to approach each text in the way God intendeds it. What is disconcerting to some is that the same text often contains many different principles that have many different applications.

Sometimes it is difficult to see which principles apply in a given situation.

How do we handle that? If we are “Algebra People” we are likely to seize on one principle and make it universal. Then we force it to fit every situation. If we are “Geometry People” we are likely to conclude that no principle has universal application, so we develop “situation ethics.”

Is there no happy medium between these? In mathematics, computer programming, and in most of life there is.

Why not in theology as well?

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3 Responses

  1. That is a beast of a question, Jerry! I agree; it seems that between those two mindsets, there must be an agreeable medium.

    I know of ONE person that has attained that medium: his name is JMF. It is me!!

    Seriously though, isn’t that the way we think? “Well, that guy is just too legalistic…it’s not all about RULES. And her…she is too far the other direction — I appreciate her open mind, but she needs to understand that there are some specifics that we absolutely must do.”

    And as I say that, I am motioning for them all to move in my direction! Because I am the happy medium!

    Don’t we all think like this?! I’d like to chalk it up to a fallen nature — but sometimes it does seem more Satanic than that.

    Very interesting points to consider.

    • Jon,

      I once told an elder that I believed my opinions are the very best ones in the world.

      After he looked suitably astonished at my temerity and shocked at my arrogance, I continued.

      “I think that because as soon as someone convinces me he has a better one, I adopt it.”

      Actually, I believe everyone in the world responds that way. It’s just that some people are seldom convinced to change an opinion. Just this week, I heard of a man (whom my cousin is dealing with) who boasted he had never changed his opinion on anything but once. Then, he became even stricter and more rigid in his opinion about something. Others are so wishy-washy that they agree with the last person to talk with them. They have no facility of discernment at all!

      What we need is a way of reading Scripture submissively but with discernment of what God is really driving at in the text. This demands prayerful, meditative thought – but also rigorous application of principles that can help us see beyond our prejudices and preconceptions.

      Jerry

  2. I agree whole-heartedly with the Algebra vs. Geomerty mentailty philosophy. As a proud lover of Geometry, I’m always fascinated by the unlimited, diverse “angles” of salvation and how a man’s heart is always “perpendicular (or right)” to its “ways” by default (Proverbs 21:2). But both mindsets can be thankful that they at least share the same equation for Truth, as they “solve for x” in real life (Biblical Algebra.com).

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