A question I hear often is this: Is the Bible true, literally true in the sense that a solid science—such as the science of mathematics—is true?
My answer: Absolutely. But before the hoots and howls of protest start, let's take a closer look at the sense in which mathematics is true:
I'll start with an equation: 3 + 4 = 7.
Any arguments? Maybe not on first glance, but let's look a little deeper. Let's start with the numbers themselves. What are they? Can you look around the room and point to an actual 3? 4? or 7?
Perhaps you can find symbols depicting the numbers, like the Arabic numerals I've used here or even Roman numerals (III, IV, VII). Throughout history, many cultures have used other sets of symbols to represent the numbers. Nevertheless, the symbols aren't the numbers themselves any more than a symbol representing a person (for example, an icon showing a silhouette of a head and shoulders) is an actual person.
If you continue to examine your surroundings with your eyes and ears, you may hear or see words representing the numbers. In English, that's three, four, seven. In Spanish, tres, cuatro, siete. In Swedish, tre, fyra, sju (at least according to Google; I don't personally speak Spanish or Swedish). But the words people use to talk about numbers aren't the actual numbers themselves. Here's an experiment you can do at home. Write down the word "fire" on a piece of paper. Touch it. Did it burn your fingers? Unless you set the page aflame (and I urge you not to), you probably discerned by touch that the word "fire" lacks the heat intensity of the real thing.
The actual numbers, not the symbols or words that represent them, are abstract concepts. They don't physically exist in the material world. We can count three or four or seven things (three marbles, four sticks, seven loaves of bread), but there are no tangible entities of just a three, a four, or a seven. At this fundamental level, mathematics deals with a type of reality that permeates our physical experience but that doesn't have a concrete, visible manifestation. God shares some of these attributes, and the Bible uses words and symbols to convey information about God's transcendent being.
Let's look at some more details. What do the numbers mean? Three, four, seven. My desk is three feet wide. My car has four tires. My cat weighs seven pounds. Three is only exactly three if it is followed by a decimal point and an infinite number of zeros. If the zero one short of infinity is anything other than a zero, the number isn't still three, exactly. It's an approximation. Those tires: If there are 4.0000000000001 tires on the car, I may not notice the wobble, but the car would actually have more than four tires. The zeros either go on infinitely, or the number isn't precisely four.
Often 3 + 4 = 7 simply means that approximately three of something plus approximately four of something yields approximately seven somethings. In our modern age of precision, the approximations can be considerably closer than they were when people measured things with their hands and feet, but until we reach the ability to be infinitely precise, measurements will remain approximations.
This is like reading an episode in the Bible and trying to precisely apply its principals to something else. You may get an approximate answer, but the level of precision depends on the societal tools available to the writer and how closely they compare with current situations.
Context is also significant. Suppose a little dot appeared before the 3, like this: .3 + 4 = 7. The presence of one tiny, easily overlooked detail, throws the entire equation off. Or suppose someone with little training in mathematics saw an equation that appeared to be like 3 + 4 = 7, except for a decorative element around the 4. Something cute that looked sort of like a stylized check mark (like this √; I'm describing a radical symbol if your browser isn't displaying it). Putting the 4 in the context of a radical changes the meaning entirely. Just as in math, context is crucial for Biblical interpretation.
Culture also plays a huge role. Even if 3 + 4 = 7 is correctly interpreted, all the details about precision appropriately noted, and the context understood, and even if 3 + 4 = 7 meets all the criteria for being absolutely, literally true, it does not necessarily follow that 33 + 44 = 77. In a base 10 culture, maybe, but in a base 8 culture the answer is actually 115. In order to maintain what is "true," things need to be translated appropriately.
Why, then, do people generally think of mathematics as more "true" than the Bible? I suggest it is because most of us have been trained to hold similar views on how to interpret everyday mathematics and its rules. This superficial knowledge is sufficient to meet all our routine, daily challenges. Among themselves, however, trained mathematicians acknowledge that there are still mysteries aplenty and problems that remain unsolved.
Inadequate tools for desired precision, lack of perception regarding context, and failures to translate appropriately across cultures do not make the science of mathematics untrue. Neither do they make the Bible untrue. They merely point to potential areas of fruitful study.