Reviewed by Mark Farnham
Anyone who has ever contemplated the sovereignty of God and human choice has wrestled with the seeming contradictions of joining these two together. If God knows and ordains all that happens, doesn’t that make the universe mechanistic and already determined? Where is free will? Doesn’t sovereignty make God the author of evil? Are there such things as chance, luck, and probability?
Focus & Approach
In this volume, Vern Poythress walks the reader through the difficult issues of sovereignty and probability. The tone of the book is that of a tour guide taking interested readers from the ground floor of a magnificent gallery to the top floor, where the most advanced and complex ideas are explained. This book, like his other books on linguistics, science, sociology, and logic, starts with personal examples and basic concepts. He patiently and simply explains the foundational principles of the authority of Scripture, the nature of God’s sovereignty, and apparent examples of chance and probability in the Bible.
“The Sovereignty of God”
In Part 1, the Sovereignty of God, Poythress lays out a proposal for a Reformed view of issues such as disasters and suffering, human choice, small random events, and God’s providence. He concludes this first section with an introduction to physics and chance. What makes this book unique is the way he constantly weaves the statements of Scripture into every discussion, even advanced ones like quantum indeterminacy. Contra some who say that theoretical physics limits the knowledge of God, Poythress cites Isaiah 46:9-10 that shows that God declares the end from the beginning, and that God is not limited like humans are. The ubiquitous use of Scripture throughout his discussion makes this book distinct from other Christian treatments of the topic (for example, R. C. Sproul, Not a Chance: The Myth in Modern Science and Cosmology, Baker, 1994. Though Sproul’s treatment is excellent, he does not reference Scripture in his book).
“God as the Foundation for Chance”
Part 2 covers the issue of chance, evolutionary naturalism, and idolatry. Poythress avoids the simplistic solutions to the problem of chance that often require altering or denying aspects of God’s nature. He does this by incorporating the tri-perspectivalism he shares in common with John Frame. Poythress rightly begins the discussion with the metaphysical nature of God as one and many. This is a helpful excursus for those who are unfamiliar with scientific and philosophical classification, instantiation, and association. He has an ability to simplify the complex question of chance and remains faithful to the biblical text. The final chapter of this section deals with very practical effects of his views. He relates pagan idolatry and divination to magic, games of chance, luck and superstition.
In Part 3 Poythress begins to delve deeper into probability, and some sections become more mathematical and theoretical. However, he constantly brings the discussion back to the question of God’s sovereignty by showing how Scripture addresses these questions. The readability of this book is quite amazing, considering the topics he covers. The beauty of his treatment is that he understands and respects the complexity of God’s world, but successfully demonstrates the clarity and simplicity of it, too.
“Probability and Mathematics”
Part 4 is the most academic and deals with probability and mathematics. Poythress is well-equipped to address mathematical theory, having earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard University. Although he spends a few short chapters on probability, he does not overwhelm the reader. He concludes the book with a call to trust the God who knows all and for whom nothing is a surprise. The subjects of sovereignty and probability should elicit awe and worship. This is Poythress’s gift in many of his books. Because he begins with the greatness and glory of God, every subject that man can study should be seen as an avenue to know God better and a reason for praising him more knowledgeably.
The ten appendices that conclude this volume deal with practical topics such as why gambling systems fail and interacting with secular views of probability. Throughout the book Poythress provides numerous charts and illustrations for readers to aid in understanding. This comports with the tone of the book, which is encouraging and helpful. It becomes obvious that Poythress wants to provide clarity for those who wrestle with questions related to sovereignty and chance. By emphasizing the ability of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty to answer the critical questions, he helps the reader grow more confident that what we encounter as chance is actually God’s sovereignly administered governance of this world.
Mark Farnham is assistant professor of church and ministry leadership at Lancaster Bible College.
Buy the books
Chance And The Sovereignty Of God: A God-centered Approach To Probability And Random Events