No Variation Or Shadow Of Turning: Calculus In The Bible

Edit:  02/24/2011, to make a point about path integrals more plain.

Even though Calculus was not “discovered” until the late 17th century by Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried von Leibniz, there is one verse in the Bible that makes a very excellent point in biblical and mathematical language that I would like to share for two reasons:   1.  It’s sufficiently nerdy to have escaped common attention.  2.  I have an odd interest in areas where seemingly different fields connect.  So, here goes.

James 1:17 says:  “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.”  There are several possibilities about what is meant by the enigmatic phrase “shadow of turning,” as some have suggested that this refers to the orbit of heavenly bodies [1], which I consider at least a possible, if not certain meaning.  Given that I do not believe the Bible only has one layer of meaning, though [2], I will discuss a mathematical meaning for this verse.

Let us begin with the assumption that as God is the ruler and creator of all things that this includes mathematics.  If we concede that among the good gifts that God gives and part of the “light” of illumination that He provides is an accurate understanding of mathematics and its implications, let us then examine the mathematics and implications of this particular verse.

First, to say that there is no variation with God is to say that the dGod/dt = 0.  That is, the derivative of God over time is constant.  God does not change change with time–he is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).  As this very quote is stated in scripture, it is an accurate biblical statement expressed in the language of calculus.

Second, though, there is no “shadow of turning” with God.  If we take variation as the first derivative, it would make the “shadow” of turning the second derivative.  In other words, dGod^2/dt^2 = 0.  This is an important mathematical statement for a few reasons.  For one, the derivative of a function equals 0 at either a minimum, maximum, or inflection point, but additionally stating that the second derivative is 0 means that God is a straight line, completely level, with no change at any point in the existence of the universe.  This is a very profound statement–a nerdy one to be sure, but profound nonetheless.

Another option, of course, is described in the article cited below [1] and states that the “shadow of returning” refers to rotation, which would make the dtheta/dt = 0, and would make the first derivative of both the path and the standard integral equal zero.  At this point I am reminded of the difficulties I had understanding the subtleties of Green’s Theorem when I studied Calculus as an undergraduate engineering student, but this would similarly mean that God was without variation, regardless of how it is measured over time.  In short, God is level–however one defines it.

The fact that God is “level” has a lot of implications.  For one, it means that God is completely fair and just and consistent–something that may not be readily obvious in the fallen and corrupt world we live in but will be made very plain in His judgment.  Furthermore, his standard is a just and a fair one, not an arbitrary one as is the case with mankind.  God does not play favorites, but both merciful and fair.  That’s a mathematical truth we can all feel joyful about.

[1] http://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1023-james-1-17-the-shadow-cast-by-turning

[2] http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/on-the-difference-between-greek-thought-and-hebrew-thought/

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About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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18 Responses to No Variation Or Shadow Of Turning: Calculus In The Bible

  1. tyler says:

    hahahaha,
    that is rather nerdy, my friend. i love it. though i am unconvinced shadow of turning is a derivative of no variation. especially since it refers to rotational motion, while variation is any kind of change. perhaps dG/dtheta would be a better description of the other derivative?

    • Actually, that’s a good way of putting it. I had commented, briefly, that no “rotation” was also a meaning of it that I thought was quite profound. I guess it would all be determined by what was meant by “shadow of turning.” That would get really nerdy, and probably require some reading of Greek astronomical texts.

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  3. fresnojoe says:

    lol ~ Amen~!

  4. Rudy says:

    funny stuff.. enjoyed the article and the comments.. thanks to all nerds in the world!!!

  5. Linda says:

    I would like to go deeper into the rabbit hole — regarding “turning.” In the ancient text “Pistis Sophia,” Jesus said that at His ascension, he made some changes to the cosmos. Up to this point, as I understand, the planets and stellar bodies had turned to the left. We have historical records proving that magicians, astrologers, diviners, etc., all through history, have used the paths of these planetary bodies to “fortune-tell.”

    It’s a complicated passage. If you enter phrases like “turn to the left” or turn to the right” in your search tool, you will find these long paragraphs in “Pistis Sophia.” Since I’ve never delved into horoscopes or charting the planets, I don’t understanding how the changing of the orbits — turning from the left side to the right — would affect this “fortune-telling.” Perhaps you, as a math person, could shed some light?

    • Are you talking about gnostic mystical texts? You can research those all you like, but they demonstrate the interests of the heathen and not my own. I’m not particularly interested in astrological matters myself.

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  7. Scott says:

    I agree completely with the sentiment and truth in what you wrote and I, too, revel in it. With no intent of criticism whatsoever, may I point out a subtlety? Math is not ordained by God as truth. It is simply the language we use to describe a situation or reality. Different people choose to describe the same situation differently, though coming to the same conclusion of truth. Some measure in centimeters, and some in inches. Some count in binary, some in hex… Math is not truth. It simply describes truth, which exists and continues to do so at God’s bidding. Math and science are our understanding of this truth, but are still incomplete and inaccurate. God is able to bend the physical (not that he would change the moral) truth in the universe to bring the miraculous to pass, rendering math and science useless in that moment. Sorry. Don’t mean to be verbose, just an observation.

  8. Joshua says:

    Very interesting. I am not familiar enough with the Greek, but couldn’t the reference be to a turning in which there is no shadow? In other words, there is a turning, but there is no shadow – which would be akin to the angel from Genesis who has a flaming sword which turns every way. Perhaps like the sun, it turns but there is no shadow in the turning because it is purely light.

    • That would be an interesting possibility as well. It does seem that in general translations recognize it as an absence of variation, but I do like that idea of your as a secondary interpretation of the scripture (we must be aware that scripture often speaks truths on multiple levels, so there is no harm in looking at the other ways in which a given phrase may apply rather than a very basic understanding of mathematical principles, as my blog entry was focused on).

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