Chance and the Sovereignty of God: A God-Centered Approach to Probability and Random Events

Chance and the Sovereignty of God: A God-Centered Approach to Probability and Random Events

by Vern S. Poythress


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Helping Christians trust God in the midst of an unpredictable world, this comprehensive resource introduces readers to a well-reasoned approach to studying chance and probability, exploring implications for the fields of math and science.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433536953
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 04/30/2014
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 1,246,003
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Vern S. Poythress (PhD, Harvard University; ThD, University of Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he has taught for nearly four decades. In addition to earning six academic degrees, he is the author of numerous books and articles on biblical interpretation, language, and science.

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What is chance? Can we know? How can we find out the truth about accidental events?


The Bible indicates that God is the ultimate source for knowledge. God knows all things, including everything that there is to know about chance. God's "understanding is unsearchable" (Isa. 40:28). Whatever we know, we know because God has made it known to us: "He who teaches man knowledge — the Lord — knows the thoughts of man, that they are but a breath" (Ps. 94:10–11).

God is the source of knowledge even of an ordinary sort (Isa. 28:24–29). He is present when we read a book or a page on the Internet, and he has given to the writers of books and Internet articles whatever abilities and sources that they use. He is also present in giving us memories and preserving them. I know from my memory and from my own eyesight what happened when my family escaped the near accident on our vacation. According to the Bible, such knowledge is a gift from God.

But some knowledge is not so ordinary. Can I know why my family escaped an accident? Why does one gambler win $50,000 and another lose? Is there a reason? Or is it just "chance" or "luck"? Is there no further explanation? And what do we mean by "chance" or "luck"? What is it, at a fundamental level?

God knows the answer to such questions. But we do not — unless God says something to us to explain and to give answers. The Bible claims to be God's own word: "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16). I believe that the Bible's claim is true. It does indeed give us God's instruction. So we can study the Bible to find answers to these questions. And when we do, we find that the Bible does have teaching about so-called "chance" events.


But we live in a time of widespread skepticism. People doubt whether God exists. Or if they think there is a God, they doubt whether the Bible is really God's word. Many books have argued the case. We are not going to repeat all the arguments here, but we may briefly note two of them.

First, the Old Testament part of the Bible, written hundreds of years before the coming of Christ, contains prophecies about Christ's coming that were fulfilled in his earthly life. Christ was born in Bethlehem, just as it was prophesied 700 years beforehand in the prophecy of Micah (Mic. 5:2; compare Matt. 2:1–6). Jesus's crucifixion was prophesied 700 years beforehand in Isaiah 53. Jesus established God's reign of salvation during the time of the Roman Empire, just as Daniel had prophesied 600 years earlier (Dan. 2:44). Jesus's ministry was preceded by a forerunner, John the Baptist, just as the prophet Malachi had predicted 400 years earlier (Mal. 3:1; compare Mark 1:2–4).

Second, Jesus himself testifies to the divine authority of the Old Testament when he says,

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matt. 5:17–18)

We leave to other books the detailed arguments about the authority of the Bible. Here we are going to rely on it to instruct us about issues involving chance and chance events. If you are not yet convinced about God or the Bible, I would still invite you to read, because God may still be pleased to use his wisdom in the Bible to teach you both about him and about chance.



According to the Bible, God created the world and everything in it:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Gen. 1:1)

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made my man. (Acts 17:24)

there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Cor. 8:6)

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. (Ps. 121:2)

God created heaven and earth long ago. What about his present involvement in the world? The philosophy called deism says that God created everything, but afterwards was uninvolved. He made the world as if he were winding a clock. After the clock is wound up, it runs "by itself," and the clockmaker — that is, God — does not need to attend to it.

But the Bible contradicts deism. It indicates that God continually sustains the world that he has made:

He [God the Son] upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Heb. 1:3)

In him [the Son] all things hold together. (Col. 1:17)

In him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28)

In addition, Psalm 121:2 talks about "help" from the Lord in the present: "My help comes from the Lord." God's past work in creating the world, far from being an excuse for him to walk away, confirms and undergirds God's availability in the present. (See fig. 2.1.) He is active with his power and his help. Psalm 121:2 adds the reminder "who made heaven and earth" partly to back up the conviction that, in the present time as in the beginning, "my help comes from the Lord."

Other psalms make the same point:

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth. (Ps. 124:8)

May the Lord bless you from Zion,
he who made heaven and earth. (134:3)

Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord his God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever; (146:5–6)

We can see a similar point in Isaiah 51:12–13:

I, I am he who comforts you;
who are you that you are afraid of man who dies,
of the son of man who is made like grass,
and have forgotten the Lord, your Maker,
who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth,

and you fear continually all the day because of the wrath of the oppressor, when he sets himself to destroy?
And where is the wrath of the oppressor?

Isaiah 51:12–13 says that the Lord made the heavens and the earth. Before and after this key claim, the passage gives practical comfort. Its says, "I, I am he who comforts you"; and it counsels God's people not to fear the power of man or the power of "the oppressor." Why do they not need to fear? Because God is more powerful — in fact, supremely powerful. The power exhibited when God created the world is still available for the comfort and protection of God's people today. Thus, biblical teaching on creation supports faith in God in the present. (See fig. 2.2.)

Psalm 121:2 and Isaiah 51:12–13 fit together with many other passages that confirm God's continued involvement with the world:

You [God] cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate. (Ps. 104:14)

From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. (104:13)

You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the beasts of the forest creep about. (104:20)

These [animals] all look to you,
to give them their food in due season.
When you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground. (104:27–30)

For he strengthens the bars of your gates;
he blesses your children within you.
He makes peace in your borders;
he fills you with the finest of the wheat.
He sends out his command to the earth;
his word runs swiftly.
He gives snow like wool;
he scatters frost like ashes.
He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs;
who can stand before his cold?
He sends out his word, and melts them;
he makes his wind blow and the waters flow.
He declares his word to Jacob,
his statutes and rules to Israel. (147:13–19)

We also find summary statements that affirm God's universal control over what happens:

The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all. (Ps. 103:19)

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will. (Eph. 1:11)

Who has spoken and it came to pass,
unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and bad come? (Lam. 3:37–38)

For his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand or say to him, "What have you done?" (Dan. 4:34–35)

This universal control is called God's providence or his providential rule.


How does God's rule over the world fit in with modern sciences? Sciences study regularities in the present order of the world. These regularities are the product of God's specification. For example, "God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light" (Gen. 1:3). By speaking, God not only created the world but also continues to rule it. Note in other verses the key role of God's word:

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and by the breath of his mouth all their host. (Ps. 33:6)

He sends out his command to the earth;
his word runs swiftly.
He gives snow like wool;
he scatters frost like ashes.
He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs;
who can stand before his cold?
He sends out his word, and melts them;
he makes his wind blow and the waters flow. (147:15–18)

He upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Heb. 1:3)

Who has spoken and it came to pass,
unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? (Lam. 3:37–38)

The Bible uses other kinds of descriptions as well, but the descriptions in terms of God's speech are particularly useful as we think about science. God's speech is the real law governing the world. Scientific theories approximate God's speech, and so in their theories scientists think God's thoughts after him. God planned the character of the entire universe. His thoughts about the world were in his mind even before he created it. Scientists are made in the image of God, and so their minds have the capability of imitating God's thoughts. They imitate God when they try to reconstruct the laws that originated in God's mind. There is no tension between God's providence and science, when we understand science in harmony with what the Bible says about God's speech.


The Bible also indicates that God's ongoing providential rule is in accord with a plan that he has already made. Ephesians 1:11 indicates that what happens is in accord with "the counsel of his will":

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.

The events have "been predestined," that is, determined beforehand, indicating that God's plan is already in place. Isaiah makes a similar point about God's purposes as he proclaims the superiority of God to all idols:

for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, "My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,"
calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it. (Isa. 46:9–11)

Ephesians 1:4 says that "he chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world," indicating that God's plan goes back to before the beginning of creation. These verses indicate the magnificence of God's power and wisdom; they also underscore the security of those who are chosen by God, because God's purposes for them will be accomplished.


God's providential rule has practical implications. As we saw from Psalm 121:2, we are meant to trust that he can come to help us. Similar language about trusting God occurs in other psalms:

The Lord is on my side; I will not fear.
What can man do to me? (Ps. 118:6)

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling. (46:1–3)

The Bible indicates that our trust in God should extend to all areas of life. We should trust in matters of war:

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
They collapse and fall,
but we rise and stand upright. (20:7–8)

We should trust when beset by enemies:

O my God, in you I trust;
let me not be put to shame;
let not my enemies exult over me. (25:2)

We should trust when we are afraid:

When I am afraid,
I put my trust in you. (56:3)

We should trust in him for the security of our lives:

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
which cannot be moved, but abides forever. (125:1)

Psalm 62:8 sums it up: "Trust in him at all times, O people."


General principles about God's faithfulness and control over the world fit together with many particular examples that the Bible records. The supreme example occurs in Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, which were prophesied in the Old Testament and predicted by Christ during his earthly life (Isa. 53:7–12; Matt. 16:21; 17:11, 22–23; 20:18–19; 21:39; 26:2, 24, 31–32, 45–46). What happened to Christ was "whatever your [God's] hand and your plan had predestined to take place" (Acts 4:28). God's commitment to us through Christ gives us security:

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Rom. 8:31–32)

The book of Romans indicates that since God is committed to people in this way through Christ, all things work for good for those who belong to Christ:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Rom. 8:28)


Excerpted from "Chance and the Sovereignty of God"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Vern S. Poythress.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Tables and Illustrations,
Introduction: Experiences with Unpredictable Events,
1 The Bible as a Source for Knowledge,
2 God's Sovereignty,
3 Unpredictable Events,
4 Disasters and Suffering,
5 Human Choice,
6 Small Random Events,
7 Reflecting on Creation and Providence,
8 God's Sovereignty and Modern Physics,
9 What Is Chance?,
10 Regularities and Unpredictabilities,
11 Trinitarian Foundations for Chance,
12 Responding to Chance,
13 Chance in Evolutionary Naturalism,
14 Chance and Idolatry,
15 What Is Probability?,
16 Predictions and Outcomes,
17 Theistic Foundations for Probability,
18 Views of Probability,
19 Subjectivity and Probability,
20 Entanglement of Probabilities,
21 Probabilistic Independence,
22 Independence and Human Nature,
23 Is God Probable?,
24 Pictures of Probability,
25 Mathematical Postulates for Probability,
26 Theistic Foundations for Some Properties of Probability,
27 Limitations in Human Thinking about Events and Probabilities,
28 Conclusion,
A Why Gambling Systems Fail,
B The Real Problem with Gambling,
C A Puzzle in Probability,
D Interacting with Secular Philosophical Views of Probability,
E Permutations and Combinations,
F The Birthday Problem,
G Diseases and Other Causes,
H Proofs for Probability,
I Statistics,
J The Law of Large Numbers versus Gamblers,
General Index,
Scripture Index,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Learned and astute, this book on chance and probability demonstrates an absolute reliance on the authority of God’s Word. This is the only way that nothing can be left to chance.”
Douglas Wilson, Senior Fellow of Theology, New St. Andrews College; Pastor, Christ Church, Moscow, Idaho

“The prolific Dr. Poythress has gifted us with a unique and uniquely needed work that is both mathematically adept and theologically deep. I know of no other work that so thoroughly addresses the modern sense of chance in a deeply Reformed and philosophically oriented way.”
Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary; author, Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament

“Is this the go-to book for a biblical theological perspective on chance, coincidence, randomness, risk, probability, prediction, and gambling? You bet it is! Dr. Poythress has hit another one out of the park. This book will transform the way you think about everything from quantum physics and weather forecasts to life insurance and card games.”
James N. Anderson, Professor of Theology and Philosophy, Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte

“Back when I was a researcher in Systems Engineering and Operations Research, probability was my daily breath, so I was delighted to see this work. Not only was this a fun read for me, but I find in Vern Poythress a firm grasp of the mathematical, philosophical, theological, and apologetic issues necessary to guide those who want to think clearly on this topic—a topic which, because of its technicality, many will be daunted by. And Poythress always has an eye for the helpful illustration!”
C. John Collins, Professor of Old Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary

“Many think Calvinists simply reject the idea of chance, random events, and probability. But that is not entirely true. My friend Vern Poythress shows in this book that the God of the Bible—and of Calvin—is in fact the foundation, both of causation and of randomness in the world. Poythress is well-suited to develop this argument, with doctorates in both New Testament and mathematics, and as the author of important recent books on logic and science. I do not fully understand the mathematics of this book, but the theology is entirely biblical, and I can’t imagine a better place to start for readers interested in this subject matter.”
John M. Frame, Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy, Reformed Theological Seminary

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