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Return to September/October 2015 articles.

The title of this article is Frames of Reference and Faith.

Many people react with dismay or disbelief to the mention of Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. When I started my unit on relativity in my high school physics classes, I found that students either wanted to make it a fantasy or they wanted to avoid it altogether. When I suggested that it was just common sense and that they already knew much of it, I got eye rolls of disbelief. I get the same reaction out of many people who believe in God, and yet Einstein gave us some valuable tools to use in a variety of spiritual and biblical applications. What Einstein did was to state two postulates that describe how God has created the creation.

The first is a statement of common sense. “The laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames of reference.” In simple terms that means that whether you are in your car, in an airplane, or sitting at your desk, the laws of physics are going to work in a similar way. That has to be true for our survival. If gravity did not work anymore when you got in your car, what would be the result? Chaos would be a simple way of describing what the inside of your car would look like.

The second postulate is a little less obvious. It simply says, “the speed of light in free space has the same value in all inertial frames of reference.” If you measured the speed of light (called c in scientific equations) at your desk, the value would be 186,284.6 miles per second. If you measured it in an airplane flying at twice the speed of sound you would get the same value.

These two postulates have been tested time and time again. They have proven to be absolutely true and describe how God has done things. What is interesting is the consequences of these two postulates.

A birdSuppose you had a young man who had constructed a clock that consisted of two mirrors with a beam of light bouncing back and forth between the mirror (illustration 1). According to Einstein's postulate the speed of the light c would be 186,284.6 miles per second. The young man can measure how far apart the mirrors are, and he can calculate how long it takes for the beam of light to make the trip by just dividing the distance by the speed of light.

A birdNow let us suppose the young man is flying by us in a space ship at a very high rate of speed. Einstein's first postulate tells us that he will not be able to tell anything has changed (illustration 2). When you are in a jet plane flying at 500 mph you cannot tell how fast you are going unless you look out the window. But if you are standing outside the spaceship and able to see the clock, you will see the light beam traveling at a diagonal (illustration 3). The distance you measure along the diagonal will be A birdgreater than the distance the young man measures. When you calculate the time, you will get a bigger number than you did when the spaceship was at rest. Time as you measure it is different from time as the young man measures it.

Thousands of experiments in all kinds of situations have shown that this is, in fact, the way the creation has been put together. Let us now shift the concept of frames of reference to biblical and spiritual applications.


One of the areas where humans struggle with the biblical message is in the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the Old Testament, we see God being actively involved on a human level with laws and edicts that control every aspect of human behavior. Leviticus and Deuteronomy in particular seem to be endless rules about everything. In the New Testament, we see all of these laws and ordinances being done away with. Colossians 2:13 – 17 makes it clear that Christ did away with all of the Old Testament laws “nailing them to his cross” (verse 14). Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament tells God's people, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

The question is, “Why are the Old and New Testaments so different?” The answer is the frame of reference that the people who read these testaments had available to them. The Old Testament was written to a very primitive group of people who had a constant battle for survival. They were nomadic, had limited resources, and were especially vulnerable to disease. In the New Testament we see mankind with a different frame of reference. People are now living in cities. Resources are concentrated. Civil authority has been established to control law and order. For this reason Paul tells Christians in Romans 13 to submit to civil authority. Jesus tells his followers to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's” (Matthew 22.21).

The teachings of Christ aim at attitudes, values, and ways of thinking. The frame of reference is completely different from the battle of ancient man to avoid conquest, protect his family, and find enough to eat.


We have often said that we need to take the Bible literally. We define “literally” as the process of looking at who wrote the passage in question, to whom they wrote it, why they wrote it, and how the people for whom it was written would have understood it. A classic example of the frame of reference issue is the comparison of the genealogies in Matthew with those in Luke. Both genealogies deal with the family lineage from Abraham to Christ, but Matthew covers the family tree in 42 steps while Luke does it in 57 steps. Why are these genealogies different? The answer is the frame of reference of each author.

Matthew is a Jew writing for a Jewish audience. Because of that he uses the system of genealogies that Jews at that time used and understood. The passage begins by saying, “Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1, NIV). Any Jew would have known that this passage did not mean that Jesus was the grandson of Abraham. The frame of reference was the Jewish system of genealogies. This was done by using numerical symbols. The number 7 was the main symbol. It indicated perfection or completeness. Matthew uses this by saying, “There were fourteen generations (seven times two) in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah” (Matthew 1:17). This adds up to 42, and any Jew would have known that was a symbolic statement of the perfection of the genealogy of Christ.

Luke is a Greek and does not use Jewish symbols. His list of “begats” is different because his frame of reference is different. There is no error here; it is simply a matter of paying attention to the frame of reference of each author.”


With the advent of quantum mechanics in the twenty-first century, there have been those who suggest that all of the facts of Newtonian physics and the laws of science from the past are invalid. The principles of simultaneity seem to invalidate much of what Newton said. How can two particles that are not connected in any way physically, still interact so that when one particle has something happen to it, the other particle is affected? Even Einstein expressed doubts about this calling it “spooky interaction at a distance.”

The fact is that nothing in quantum mechanics invalidates anything in classical physics. In this journal over the years we have had numerous articles about the evidence of design in classical physics. The reason that things in quantum mechanics seem so different from classical physics is that quantum mechanics deals with a different frame of reference. That frame of reference is the very small. In quantum mechanics we are dealing with the infinitesimally small entities that make up electric charge and gravitational mass. Words like quarks, superstrings, branes, mesons, bosons, etc., are the building blocks of the larger particles we work with in classical physics. How those larger particles respond to energy and force in the classical world has not been invalidated.


This periodical is associated with what is called the “Restoration Movement.” That is different from the “Reformation.” The frame of reference for the Reformation begun by Martin Luther was to reform the Roman Catholic church. Luther had no intent of starting a new church or denomination. What he wanted to do was to correct what already existed, but had drifted into areas that put it in violation of the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament. The “95 Theses” that Luther wrote and nailed to the door were all reforming principles for the Catholic church. That was the frame of reference for what he wrote.

Those who talk about restoration have a different frame of reference. That frame of reference is the church described in the Bible. There is no attempt to correct something in Catholic theology that needed to be changed as Luther was doing. The idea is to start at the very beginning of Christianity. Restoring means jumping over history and not attempting to correct what has happened in history. Unfortunately, even those who have attempted restoration have drifted off into teachings and practices that were not a part of the first century church. The Reformation did not solve all the ills of Catholicism, and restoration has had its share of failures and instances of corruption. As young people are entering the Restoration Movement, they are sometimes amazed at how much sense restoration makes, and how poorly it has been done.

Can we reestablish a frame of reference that follows the first century church plan more closely? The answer has to be “yes”, and with new ideas and new dedication to avoiding the traditions and theories of humans it will happen. Reformation is hopeless, but restoration makes sense and will work. The frame of reference is the first-century church and its response to sin and human weakness.


“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:5 – 7).

We all have the right to choose the frame of references for our lives. We can either “walk in the light” or we can “walk in the darkness.” Romans 6 spells out what happens when someone chooses to use God's Word as his frame of reference for how to live. Baptism is a dying to the frame of reference that the world uses. The world's frame of reference involves looking after number one, survival of the fittest, and pleasure as the main goal. The frame of reference for a Christian involves “dying to sin” (Romans 6:2) and considering other people's welfare above our own (1 Corinthians 10:24). This means taking on a new frame of reference, and we call it “conversion.”

A birdGalatians 5:16 – 26 spells out the two frames of reference. The author begins by pointing out that these two frames of reference are in conflict with each other (verse 17). The properties of these frames of reference are then given. The world's frame of reference in verses 19 – 21 is all things that embrace looking after number one and pleasure. The Christian's frame of reference is given in verses 22 – 26, and involves obeying the commands, example, and teachings of Christ.

The changing of one's frame of reference can be very hard, but it is essential to being a Christian. Too many in our world want to wear the name Christian but still live in the world's frame of reference. Romans 8:7 tells us that if we have accepted the world's frame of reference our minds are hostile to God and that it is impossible for us to submit to God's law. Romans 6:20 tells us that when we are in the world's frame of reference we are free from the control of righteousness. It goes on to tell us that those things result in death. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Choose God's way and use the Christian frame of reference in your choices in life.

— John N. Clayton

Picture credits:
© Top three illustrations by Roland Earnst.
© Eugene Sergeev. Image from BigStockPhoto.com.