It is easy to think that much of the activities in our lives are nothing more than a string of random chance events that have no significance beyond their occurrence or connection to the bigger picture of our lives, let alone the lives of others. Further, when it comes to the good events in our lives we are quick to attribute them to God. But what about the bad events? Is God in those somewhere? Did He ordain them? Allow them? Is He indifferent to them?
Chance. Randomness. Unpredictability. Is there such a thing? What do they look like in everyday life? How would they work with a sovereign God? Is there a place for them within the Christian worldview? Seeking to answer these questions and more, Vern Poythress has written Chance and the Sovereignty of God: A God-Centered Approach to Probability and Random Events. This book is a continuation of his previous books like Logic and Redeeming Philosophy in which Poythress seeks to understand these sciences in light of Scripture and the the existence of God as the foundation for all of life.
The book can be broken into two essential parts. In the first half of the book Poythress establishes the sovereignty of God as laid out in Scripture. From texts like Heb. 1:3 and Col. 1:17 it is established that God ‘s continual sustaining of the universe places God in sovereign control of it. From Scripture Poythress shows how God in involved in many kids of events:
- Coincidences – The arrow that kills king Ahab in battle (1 Kings 22:20-22), Abraham’s servant finding Rebekah at the well (Gen. 24), and the two spies sent into Jericho finding Rahab (Joshua 2).
- Disasters and Suffering – The book of Job, natural disasters (Isa. 45:7; Amos 3:6), and the unjust death of Christ (Acts 2:23).
- Human Choices – Joseph being sold into slavery in Egypt (Gen. 50:20) and Jesus’ death (Acts 2:23).
- Small Random Events – Lives of animals (Matt. 10:29), growth of grass (Job 38:26-27), everyday needs of humans (Matt. 6:25-34), and the casting of lots (Prov. 16:33)
From these passages, and many more, we can see that God and the Biblical writers saw God as sovereign over all things that happen in the universe – no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.
So if God is sovereign over all things then how does, or can, chance play into the Christian worldview? Poythress presents two views of chance from Websters Dictionary:
- something that happens unpredictably without discernible human intention or observable cause,
- the assumed impersonal purposelessness determiner of unaccountable happenings.
Essentially, Christians should not be afraid of the first definition but should reject the second. Christians can, Poythress says, accept the first definition because from the perspective of the person in a random event, such as Abraham’s servant meeting Rebekah at the well, both parties see their meeting the other person as unintentional. They do not see the cause of their meeting at the time. There is no “discernible human intention or observable cause” at the time of the event, and for many events, the causes may never be known, and therefore, leaving the event shrouded in the mystery of chance proper.
What the readers of Scripture see when they read events like Abraham’s servant meeting Rebekah at the well is a view of the event and the entire story from hind sight. In this case, hind sight is 20/20 when it comes to seeing the providence of their meeting. It becomes part of redemptive history.
So a proper understanding of chance can be embraced by Christians (the first definition) while at the same time realizing that the sovereign God has intentions and purposes behind everything whether we know it or not. Luck (the second definition), on the other hand, is to be rejected because to embrace it would mean a denial of the existence of God, and therefore His sovereignty. Poythress is wise to suggest that “chance is properly used to describe the limitations of human knowledge, not the limitations of God’s power.” (121)
Further, because God is sovereign over all he is involved in the inner workings of unpredictable and predictable events.
Unpredictable events arise in the midst of predictable irregularities. For example, the well to which Rebekah regularly walked had water in it. She could predict that she could find water when she arrived. She could not predict that she would meet Abraham’s servant. Unpredictable and predictable go together. (101)
As is common for Poythress, he uses the analogy of the trinity to explain and apply God’s involvement in and explanation for everything. He does so by applying it to the “random” flip of a coin:
God the Father plans the flip and its result. He speaks through the speech of God the Son, sending out his command to govern the coin. The Holy Spirit is present, applying the word of command to the coin. The coin comes up heads, according to his plan and his speaking and his power. According to God’s wisdom, the process and the result for the coin cohere with all other events in his plan. (108)
But Poythress is keen to the fact that mankind makes a god out of chance through idolatry. When we apply the definition of luck to chance, chance replaces God. This is true whether it is referring to astrology, sorcerers, or games of chance like Black Jack or 21. (see chap. 14)
The second part of the book deals with probability, and its varied aspects, and how it relates to mathematics. If readers are not familiar with logical formulas and probability, the second half of the book will prove some hard reading. The reading is good if you can wade through it but it is definitely slower reading. One does not have to grasp all of it to benefit from it.
Essentially, Poythress argues that despite the seemingly randomness and unpredictability of many events in the universe (coin flip or atoms moving), it is only possible because of God’s sovereign presence and control. God makes them possible and actual.
Some of the best reading in the book is Poythress’ discussion of gambling it its utter foolishness. Most gamblers think they can beat the house. But because of the existence of probabilistic independence (PI), there is no system one can learn or master to beat the house. PI is used to describe events in which no amount of knowledge can have an influence on the outcome of a given situation, event or act. Applied to the game of roulette, this means that the outcome of 100% of the throws a person makes are 100% independent from one another. There is no system to master that will enable a person to influence the ball to fall on the number they have bet on. The house has the advantage – and it knows it. Casinos only exist because of the law of PI.
Chance and the Sovereignty of God is a great addition to the ever growing books by Poythress on various scientific fields. Poythress is well qualified to address the issue of chance and probability, not only from an education standpoint, but also from a Biblical standpoint. He interprets all of life through the lens of Scripture, as every Christian should.
I recommend this book for Christians looking for a biblical view of chance and probability. This is not an exhaustive book but it will get readers feet wet and lay a foundation for further reading and study. While readers will not always agree with Poythress’ conclusions, there is much to be learned and agreed with.
I received this book for free from Crossway for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”