When I saw the title Chance and the Sovereignty of God: A God-Centered Approach to Probability and Random Events, I pounced on the opportunity to review it. This is a topic I’ve been considering for doctoral work so I was extremely excited to dive in.
The book starts off well, with discussions on the nature of chance and exploration of the biblical material for anything dealing with seemingly random events. Poythress ably shows that the Bible clearly presents God as in control of all these events. Numerous verses suggest that God is in control over “all” events, while verses which explicitly mention seemingly random or chance occurrences also attribute such events to divine knowledge and control. Poythress’ look into these topics is detailed and broad. He addresses the weather, random events like the toss of a die, human free choices, the life and death of the smallest creature or plant, and even gambling! These things are all argued to be ultimately, biblically under the sovereignty of God.
Another area the book excels in is the discussion of chance in rival worldviews. Any view which denies the centrality of God is one which suppresses the knowledge of God (Romans 1). Poythress notes that this means that “chance” may become a God-substitute. Chance is seen as being not only the explanation of events but their actual cause:
People are implying that [Chance] has the power to bring about events… The word chance first gets associated with events that we as humans cannot predict or explain… Then, in a second step… [Chance] becomes a label that we offer as the new explanation for the unpredictable event… We say “Chance brought it about”… (Kindle Location 1707)
Chance as an explanation, Poythress argues, is ultimately empty. For chance is substituted to become whatever we cannot predict or explain, and is then used itself as the explanation. I found Poythress’ comments here interesting and very insightful. His application of this concept to other worldviews later in the book makes it worth the read for these sections alone.
One difficulty with the book is the question of audience. At times, the discussion of probability theory becomes complex and very scholarly, but the earlier sections of the book speak broadly and with words that seem aimed more at a general readership. This mixture of technical and general writing makes it hard to pinpoint the audience. Who is supposed to read this book? What is it supposed to be used for?
Another problem I saw in the book is the lack of thorough argumentation for many points. No complaint of this nature may be lodged against the book’s discussion of probability theory, which is well fleshed-out. But on God’s relation to probability theory and how that relates back to sovereignty, there are often only a few sentences at a time to make a claim about the nature of the interrelationship. For example, throughout Section IV on “Probability and Mathematics,” there are lengthy discussions of probability theory with passages on how it relates back to God seemingly tacked on throughout. Near the beginning of this section, one sample is representative:
Both of these [mathematical] principles [discussed above] have their foundations in God… The separations within this world have their ultimate foundation in the distinction among the persons of the Trinity… The unity and diversity in outcomes rest… on the original pattern of unity and diversity in God. God has caused the creation to reflect his glory and wisdom. (Kindle Location 3346)
Poythress does make some earlier references to this argument, but it just never seems to be fully established and surely a statement about mathematical separations for probability in the world being a reflection of distinction among persons in the Trinity may cause some skepticism. It is a point which begs for more argumentation than was dedicated to it here. Where Poythress does address it (Chapter 11), we find more detail to the arguments, but even more questions left unanswered. For example, granting that God is revealed in all things which are made, why think that a sequence of flipping coins is explicitly a revelation of the Trinity instead of simply a revelation of God’s imbuing the universe with order and regularity so that seemingly random events are possible? But Poythress takes it as the former–a revelation of the Trinity–without so much as a comment on alternative possibilities.
Perhaps more problematic is that Poythress never seems to tackle the broader implications of his biblical argumentation. Yes, he put much work into showing God is sovereign over the weather, chance events, free will, and the like. But I kept thinking, “And now what?” What does it mean to say God is in control over natural disasters? What does it mean to say that the roll of dice I make in a game of Risk, for example, is controlled by God? What are the implications of the biblical data Poythress has set before me? Topics like these are taken up at points, only to be quickly set aside by a paragraph or even just a sentence or two.
Overall, Chance and the Sovereignty of God is an interesting look at an oft-neglected topic, but its scope is too broad and its argumentation at times too vague to be helpful. On biblical issues Poythress has offered much to consider. His outline of probability theory is helpful but technical. What I found after reading the book is that I continued to hope for a more detailed discussion on how sovereignty would interlink with chance. Yes, the book makes it plain that God has sovereignty over seemingly random events, but exactly how does that work? What does that mean for everyday life? At times these topics are taken up, only to be set down after but a few sentences. At times helpful and stunningly insightful, at other times frustratingly vague and broad, it’s a book that will leave you longing for more.
Vern Poythress, Chance and the Sovereignty of God: A God-Centered Approach to Probability and Random Events (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of the book through Crossway. I was not obligated by the publisher to give any specific type of feedback whatsoever.
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