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Words I Hope I Never Hear Again: Part 3

Often repeated but never verified, “Five is the number of grace” is the poster child for Christadelphian phrases that need to be deep-sixed. Or deep-fived. 
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“Five is the number of grace”

Often repeated but never verified, “Five is the number of grace” (hereafter 5 = grace) is the poster child for Christadelphian phrases that need to be deep-sixed. Or deep-fived. 

What’s wrong with it? Everything. Five isn’t the number of grace because grace doesn’t have a number; if it did, it surely wouldn’t be five. If five is the number of anything, it’s something unsavory. 

Five isn’t the number of anything

What’s at stake? Not much theologically—no essential doctrine hangs on associating the number five with grace. What is at stake is our community’s integrity as Bible students and critical thinkers.

How to improve it? Can’t be fixed. Needs to be expunged. Five isn’t the number of anything, and grace doesn’t have another number to flee to. 

Discussion: Of the scores of times I’ve heard this assertion, I’ve never heard a gram of evidence to support it. It’s invariably made when there happens to be either the number five or a group of five nice words or ideas (as arbitrary as the included text size might be), and the speaker or a participant in the Bible class informs us, “Five is the number of grace.”

Grace has five letters in either English or Greek—that’s about how cogent most of these observations are. 

Where did it come from?

As far as I can tell, the origin of “five is the number of grace” traces to the prolific 19th-century Bible linguist and scholar E.W. Bullinger. He has a brief account of the representational meaning of numbers in Appendix 6 of the Companion Bible and a full account in his book, Number in Scripture. The chapter on “Five” is pathetically weak, but that didn’t seem to hinder its spread as gospel. 

Bullinger’s support for 5 = grace is “4+1=5.” That’s clear proof of the thesis because Bullinger explains that “4” represents physical creation, and one is the activity of God. God acting on the natural creation is grace. Slam dunk. 5 = grace. 

Why didn’t he opt for 2+3? Maybe something in his scheme wouldn’t click?  Likewise, 6-1= 5, but how would you get grace out of that equation? The number of humanity minus the activity of God equals five, which is God’s grace. You can see that I’m jabbing at the arbitrariness of the original calculus.  

Criteria for Assigning an Equivalency

Before deconstructing 5 = grace, we need to back up and establish criteria for making any statement of the form S (the symbol) in some way represents or indicates Z (the symbolized), where S is some identifiable entity, such as the number, color, animal, or body part. And Z is some concept, such as grace, priesthood, wealth, resurrection, or death. 

our community’s integrity as Bible students is at stake

To assert that any S symbolizes Z, the following criteria must be met:

  1. Both S and Z must be identifiable, discrete entities. 
  2. S appears only in the context of Z; S never appears in the context of X, Y, or anything else. 
  3. No other entity symbolizes Z unless the same criteria can be established for two or more symbols.
  4. At least some associations of Z with S are explicit; others can be inferred.

Let’s first look at a hypothetical example: something other than 5 = grace: purple is the color of royalty. This assertion has the same form as 5 = grace, so the same rules apply.

For purple to be the color of royalty, it must meet these criteria: 

  1. Purple and royalty are discrete and identifiable entities.
  2. Whenever purple appears, it is in the context of royalty. Purple never appears associated with any class other than royalty.
  3. No other color appears in the context of royalty.
  4. At least some associations of purple are explicitly associated with royalty. 

As for #1, purple and royalty are discrete and identifiable, so we’re good there. Secondly, the test of purple = royalty requires that purple always and only appears in the context of royalty; purple is never associated with peasants or warriors, and (#4) in at least some of the contexts where purple appears, the mention of royalty is explicit. For instance, if the association is established with explicit occurrences, and elsewhere you read “Abniezer sat in his purple chair,” you understand that the text is implying that Abniezer has some connection to royalty—maybe he’s an estranged heir to the throne or a usurper. 

Criterion #3, no other color being associated with royalty, demands some slack. The queen could have crimson trim on her purple robe or white bloomers under her purple gown. Several kings with yellow robes, however, would pose a threat to the hypothesis. Note that while it is necessary for purple to always appear in the context of royalty, the hypothesis purple = royalty does not require that every mention of royalty has a reference to purple. 

These four association rules make it difficult to say whether any given S represents or indicates Z. The association needs to be tight and unique if it is to have any expositional value. However, we’re not dealing with mathematical equations or logical syllogisms. Given that the Bible was written over millennia, in at least three languages, and covers many cultures, it’s okay to relax the above criteria. Still, to make an assertion about Bible symbology, you better have some pretty tight evidence and solid explanations for nonconforming data. If “five” repeatedly occurs with other items, such as death or taxes, its meaning is unreliable. 

Does 5 = grace meet these criteria?

The number five is indeed discrete and identifiable. A grouping of five related items or five occurrences of a word could be disputed, however, on the grounds that the size of the text is arbitrarily assigned to include five and only five of the items. Romans 5:15-21 (NIV) is a good example. The word “grace” appears five times in this well-known passage, contrasting the consequences of Adam’s sin and Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. The length of the passage is arbitrary, though; it could end at v. 19, or it could also include the first verse of Romans 6—there being, of course, no verses or chapter divisions in Paul’s writing. 

Is “grace” a discrete, identifiable concept? Couldn’t be further away.

Also of note is if you do keep 5:15-21 as the natural boundaries of Paul’s thought (to make sure you have five occurrences of “grace”), you are also demarking five occurrences of the word “sin.” 

Is “grace” a discrete, identifiable concept? Couldn’t be further away. Almost any circumstance can be described as an act of God’s grace if you want to derive 5 = grace from that passage. David’s five stones are clearly about warfare, but it’s easy to slide in an amorphous version of grace here—God showed grace to David by providing five smooth stones.” 

How about this one: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?” (Luke 12:6 NIV). If grace can be read into this passage (e.g., God’s grace is shown by valuing us more than the sparrows), then five is the number of anything, and something that means anything means nothing. 

Is Five Associated with Something Else?

Moving on to criterion #2, are there any instances where the number five, or some group of five, clearly indicates something other than “grace?” Can it be demonstrated that “five” is not uniquely associated with “grace?” 

How about the five books of the law? Five cities of the Philistines? Two deal breakers right there. 

The following list absolutely dispels 5 = grace.

  • Five persons specifically mentioned die on Gilboa: Saul, his three sons, and his armor bearer (1 Sam 31:6).
  • Five Amorite kings fight Joshua; “five kings” is repeated five times (Josh 10:5, 16, 17, 22, 23); they are hanged on five trees (v. 26).
  • Five kings rebel against Chedorlaomer and his allies (Gen 14:2-9). 
  • David selects five stones to fight Goliath (I Sam 17:40).
  • Five giant Philistine warriors, Goliath, and four more are listed in 2 Sam 21:18-22.
  • Five Philistine cities with five lords who get five golden mice and five golden tumors (I Sam 6:16-18).
  • David utters a five-fold curse on Joab for slaying Abner (2 Sam 3:29).
  • The Hebrew idiom for an armed sortie is to go out “by fives” (Josh 1:14, 4:13; Judg 7:11, and possibly also Exod 13:18). This idiom may or may not be footnoted in your Bible version, but it’s evident in Hebrew. 

The above examples are all associated with war and fighting and couldn’t be further from God’s grace.

Five does not appear to be uniquely associated with warfare, but it does show up many times in that context. 

In another vein, and without doubt another nail in the coffin for “5 = grace” is I Sam 2:21. After Hannah (which translates to “grace”) bore Samuel, she was blessed with five more children—three boys and two girls. That makes six children total. And if it is the case that the five includes Samuel (the context leans toward the five are in addition), then that’s precisely also the offspring of Saul: three boys and two girls (I Sam 14:49). You can’t say God was gracious to Hannah and not include Saul. 

You can’t say God was gracious to Hannah and not include Saul.

Criteria #3 and 4 are now superfluous to dismiss 5 = grace. Even if you can find a few groups of five somethings that seem pretty closely allied to a standard definition of grace, that doesn’t help unless you want to assert that “five is sometimes associated with one conception of grace.” That’s hardly useful.

The formulaic 5 = grace has no validity, and it is an embarrassment to keep hearing it asserted. We are a body of believers who take Bible study seriously. Our beliefs are founded on abundant evidence, reasonableness, and aptness. Uncritical adherence to 5 = grace, even if it’s a relatively minor doctrinal point, reflects poorly on our highly valued principle of accurate Biblical investigation.

A Big Problem About the Word Grace

Do you know where zero = grace? That’s the number of times the word “grace” appears in our Statement of Faith (BASF). No mention of the word or the concept of salvation by grace. Now, that’s a serious concern.

David Levin,
Denver Ecclesia, CO

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Christopher Maddocks
5 months ago

This article might be helpful here: https://bibleonline.uk/archives/22460

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