Napier’s Bones


My aim, as we so often say here, is to report to you God’s faithfulness to the students and faculty of Bethlehem College & Seminary in the generosity he stirred in the hearts of many during 2021 redounding to the support of The Serious Joy Scholarship —the financial instrument that permits all full-time students to launch immediately into life and ministry on graduation, without student loan debt.

But I digress. 

John Napier, a.k.a. Ioannes Neper, a.ka. Marvellous Merchiston (1560–1617), is one of the lesser-known Protestant theological writers from Scotland at the turn of the 16th–17th century. He was an ardent Reformer. In his dealings with Rome, he sought no quarter and gave none. His Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of Saint John, published in 1594, occupies a prominent place among the works of Scottish ecclesiastical history (though his dating of the Apocalypse was off by a number of years obviously yet to be determined). His life was spent amid bitter religious dissensions, and he dedicated himself to keeping the commandments of God’s sacred word before James VI, King of Scotland.

Among mathematicians, Napier is better known as the inventor of the logarithm, which he introduced as a means of simplifying calculations. Don’t ask me how—I developed a lifelong intellectual aversion to such things when my elementary math teacher first began combining letters with her numbers. Napier’s obsession with such calculations, however, led him to create a manually-operated calculating device known as “Napier’s Bones,” an abacus-like box of rods and spindles used in ciphering products and quotients. Most notably, Napier is credited with the  creation of the modern decimal point, the dot that establishes the location of “the ones column” in the presentation of a decimal fraction.

The decimal point. To the left of the dot, an infinity of addition and multiplication; to the right, a never-ending fractionalization. Is it too much to suggest that a Calvinist mind, already captivated by the absolute sovereignty of God, was perhaps uniquely equipped to conceive of a mathematical presentation of such sovereignty, infinite in all directions?

Now, to get to the point. We are tasked with appealing to Christian men and women to contribute $2,500,000.00 (read it “two point five million dollars”) to provide a $10,000.00 Serious Joy Scholarship to 250 students annually. We are now just a little more than halfway through the school year. 

At the time of writing, the saints have responded to our appeals with an outpouring of $1,276,450.00 (or “one point three million dollars,” rounded up thanks to Dr. Napier) to meet our $2.5 million need. To God be the glory!

Gifts to The Serious Joy Scholarship in the second half of 2021 were down about 25% when compared to the previous year. Was this the result of economic pressures? COVID? Controversies? God knows. I say this not flippantly, but in all sincerity. God knows, as he does our need, to which he remains steadfastly faithful. We claim this future grace.

The net of it is that we are left with appealing for $1,223,550.00 in the remaining six months of the school year, about $700,000.00 more than usual in this period of time. The task seems daunting, even impossible, but for all the decimal places available to God in his sovereignty. In the presence of his vast treasuries, a spin of old Napier’s Bones might cause us to see that it is as if we asked for nickel, and God has already faithfully provided two and a half cents. How easy it is for God. How grateful we are that he makes it look so difficult to us that we may see his glory more clearly, when it is manifested.

So, let the work begin. We humbly make these requests:

  1. Please consider another gift to The Serious Joy Scholarship between now and June 30, 2022.
  2. Visit our contributor page to automate a recurring monthly or bi-monthly contribution, even in a small amount, that helps complete the funding of scholarships for students already enrolled.
  3. Ask the Lord whether you might be (or lead us to) another of those few individuals who have the means and generous heart to fund multiple scholarships.
  4. Seek our prayers, help, and encouragement if 2021 dealt you a hardship that precluded you from contributing in recent months, and seek an explanation from us or a reconciliation with us if for any reason your affections for the school have been quenched.

As I wrote you before Christmas:

In our college, we are, by God’s grace, graduating mature leaders who are ready to witness for Christ with wisdom and wonder for the rest of their lives. In our seminary, we continue to launch pastoral apprentices into eldership and pulpit ministry who are ready to shepherd God’s people with biblical clarity and Christ-exalting affection until Jesus comes or calls them home. Our fruitfulness on these lines is not only unchanged, but prospering.

I would add thanks to God and to the love in your hearts for him that keeps overflowing to the benefit of these godly young men and women and the God-entranced professors who shepherd them.


Rick Segal is Vice President of Advancement and Lecturer of History and Political Philosophy.