Ockham’s Razor

Explanation #1

Starting off today’s sermon, I would like to explain how this tan metallic cabinet beside me got here.

About a month ago, the owner was transporting it in the back of his truck while driving to Keene and hit a frost heave on Route 31, causing it to bounce out of the back of his vehicle. Luckily, just prior to that happening a dump truck filled with sawdust had also gone a bit too fast over that large bump and dropped a pile of sawdust in the exact place where the metal cabinet landed.

So this cabinet, in perfect condition, was just sitting there when, of all things, a group of thieves with a van came upon it (heading toward town). The leader especially likes tan and anything he can stick his collection of Hawaiian magnets to, so he had his compadres throw it into the back. Strangely enough, the target for their criminal activity that day was our church, and they arrived in front a short time later.

[ These are quick sermon notes…not cleaned-up…and missing the “extras” that come out in the audio (which is available here). All quotes are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. ]

Now, before they donned their masks, a conversation ensued about whether, with the cabinet, they had enough room in the back of the van to hold all the loot they were going to find inside our church, so the leader begrudgingly decided to give it up. Since they didn’t want anyone thinking something was odd, they decided after picking our lock they would carry it into the building instead of leaving it on the sidewalk.

So, after successfully getting through the door they set the cabinet in the front of the sanctuary and headed downstairs to start grabbing whatever they could. However, a church member showed up early for Bible study and they quickly escaped out the back door without her being aware.

Now, that member was a bit surprised to find the door unlocked, but she figured someone had done so for Bible study and then quickly run down to Dunkin’ Donuts for a coffee. Either way, she thought, “That’s a cool new tan metallic cabinet in the front of the church. I bet it would work great for Hawaiian magnets.”

Explanation #2

Now…some of you are looking a bit skeptical…and I will admit that there is a possible second explanation.

After the second-to-last men’s meeting Jim and I drove to some used office furniture seller (Peterborough-way) and we bought it along with those blueish-gray chairs in back and beside some of the pews. We then brought it to the church in Jim’s truck and put it right here…where it has been except when Jim had to temporarily shift it to drill holes in its back to allow power-cords through.

Which one would you go with?

So, which explanation do you think is true?

Now…I know it is obviously the second one…but why?

Sure, much of it is unbelievable, especially the part about someone showing up early for anything here. 🙂

But even if I hadn’t embellished the story there is a really good reason to go with the second one.

It was a lot more simple.

Ockham’s Razor

Which leads us to Ockham’s Razor.

William of Ockham (O-c-k-h-a-m…also spelled “Occam”) was a medieval Franciscan monk who lived from 1285 to 1347. Although there are many things to recommend him, he is probably most famous for his law of parsimony, generally known as…

That’s right…for those who read the bulletin to get the title of this sermon…Ockham’s Razor.

He wasn’t the first to think of it, but as Nelson’s New Christian Dictionary says…

He was a vigorous and independent logician in the Augustinian-Franciscan tradition. He popularized the principle of Ockham’s Razor which stated that “what can be done with fewer assumptions is done in vain with more.”1

Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is a bit more verbose in saying Occam’s razor is..

…a scientific and philosophic rule that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily which is interpreted as requiring that the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex or that explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of known quantities.2

Now, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, of all things, is…well…more concise and says Occam’s razor is:

…the scientific principle that in explaining a thing no more assumptions should be made than are necessary.3

Or…as I would paraphrase it…

The simplest explanation is more likely to be right (although Wikipedia would disagree with my simplification saying Ockham’s principle “is actually focused on shifting the burden of proof in discussions”4).

Regardless of Wikipedia’s contention…reality is…when we consider explanations…the one that requires us to jump through the least number of mental hoops is statistically more likely.

Now, obviously, it has it’s limits. I could have given a third explanation for the arrival of the tan metallic cabinet (that would look good with Hawaiian magnets) that was simply…

God created it right where it is.

And that would be more simple than #2. Simplest isn’t always right…just more likely as long as it’s not clearly wrong.

You probably noticed how in my first narrative I had to explain why the cabinet didn’t get dented after falling out of a truck at high speed, why the thieves didn’t keep it, why nothing was stolen, and so on. (Although, I suppose, anyone who sees what we’ve got in our church knows why nothing was stolen. :-))

Often wrong explanations require a lot of other explanations to soften their rough edges…with each of those explanations needing even more…it all can become a convoluted spaghetti-like mess.

Gregory Thornbury, in an Sourthern Baptist Journal of Theology article called “Carl F. H. Henry: Heir of Reformation Epistemology,” actually gives Ockham’s Razor credit for moving science forward. He writes:

Hence, Occam developed his law of parsimony, most commonly referred to as the “razor,” which states that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. Occam’s razor effectively made modern scientific inquiry as we know it possible, and precipitated huge advances in our understanding of the natural world. Jacques Barzun gives but one example of Occam’s razor applied. He states:

William of Occam’s principle of economy, that the best explanation is the one that calls for the least number of assumptions, was an argument against Ptolemy, in addition to the awkward facts. It impelled Copernicus to revise—not destroy—the system, by supposing the sun to be the center instead of the Earth. He was thereby able to reduce the epicycles from 84 to 30.5

Copernicus accepted Ockham’s Razor and we started really understanding our solar system…

Why all this talk about the principle of some dead Oxford graduate?

As this point you rightly might be asking why I have spent so much time talking about a rule promoted by a long dead Oxford graduate.

I have done it because it so readily fits into something I promised last week. For those who were here you know that my sermon, “50 Reasons to Question God,” was really more of a discussions of questions we have for God…and I ended by noting that the most important question, from a personal sense, any of us could ask the creator of universe is…

What must I do to be saved?

And I promised we’d ask God that question today…and that He would answer.

What must I do to be saved?

At one point this week I debated titling this sermon “Nothing.” I suspect that many of you know why since orthodox Christians hold tightly to the words that Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-9:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

I considered the title “Nothing” because, from a kinetic or vocal perspective, we do absolutely nothing to earn salvation.

But that would ignore the fact that when the Bible specifically records the question, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas did not answer, “Nothing.” Ditto when the Apostles were similarly asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter didn’t get cute with them and respond, “Nothing.”

Let’s see what they did reply…first joining Paul and Silas as prisoners:

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, 26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God (Acts 16:25-34).

What must you do to be saved?

That’s right. The only thing you must do is “Believe in the Lord Jesus.”

“And you will be saved.”

How about when Peter answered? This time we join the apostles at Pentecost:

36 Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:36-37).

What shall we do?

“Repent and be baptized…in the name of Jesus Christ…”

But…please note…the question Peter responded to was not, “What must I [or we] do to be saved?” Now, don’t get me wrong…he implicitly answered that…but he also was also including the natural next steps of faith in God…which are repentance, baptism, forgiveness, and receiving the Holy Spirit.

The “belief” part is implicit in the fact you will not truly repent unless you believe in the one whose name you are to be baptized in. Only then are your sins forgiven in a salvific sense.

What does this have to do with Occam’s Razor?

So, what does all this have to do with Occam’s Razor?

As humans I believe that we like to complicate things.

  • We’d rather believe conspiracy theories instead of accepting that one lone demented lunatic shot President Kennedy.
  • We’d rather believe that we are constantly visited by aliens so advanced they can travel light years to earth (but not advanced enough to always hide their ships or at least remember to turn the lights off) than to accept that natural phenomena and/or manmade aircraft can mix with our limited eyesight and imaginative minds to lead to sightings all over the world.
  • We’d rather believe our teacher purposely made the questions difficult on the test so people would get a bad grade than accept we just didn’t study enough.
  • Someone like me would rather spell “Ockham” O-c-k-h-a-m than use the simpler (and more common) O-c-c-a-m because the former looks neater. 🙂

The sad thing, however, is that we humans also are attracted to religions who will provide us a lifetime of rituals or acts or beliefs or duties we need to do in order to be saved and remain saved.

Some of it is a fair reaction for those of us who recognize just how sinful we are. Our infractions are so great and so perpetual that there must be some cross motion to make, some prayer to repeat, some mantra to chant, some direction to pray, some penance to make, some food to avoid, some donation to make, some infidel to kill, some candle to light, some whip to use on our backs…

But our Lord…the same Lord who gave William of Ockham the brain to understand and promote his Razor…kept it simple.

Look at any other religion and ask it, “What must I do to be saved?”

If they reply, “Nothing” (the answer of an atheist or a universalist)…then they have fallen for the one potential flaw in over-applying Ockham’s Razor.

And short of that kind of useless (and wrong) answer, every other religion will give you a far more complicated explanation of what you must do to be saved.

Take all those complex explanations…put them in a list…and then put “Believe in the Lord Jesus” at the end.

Read through all of them.

Follow Ockham’s Razor—the simplest one is the right one.

Believe in the Lord Jesus.

Next week we’ll discuss what exactly “Believe” in “Believe in the Lord Jesus” means…

And I’ll try to keep it simple 🙂


1Kurian, G. T. (2001). Nelson’s new Christian dictionary : The authoritative resource on the Christian world. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Pubs.

2Merriam-Webster, I. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc.

3Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2004). Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

4Occam’s razor – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (n.d.). Wikipedia. Retrieved April 2, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam%27s_razor

5Vol. 8: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology Volume 8. 2004 (4) (64). Lousville, KY: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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Alan is an ordinary guy, living in a small, high plains Colorado town...and humbled to be a minister of God...

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