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Review: Chance and the sovereignty of God, by Vern Poythress

Book description

What if all events—big and small, good and bad—are governed by more than just blind chance? What if they are governed by God?

In this theologically informed and philosophically nuanced introduction to the study of probability and chance, Vern Poythress argues that all events—including the seemingly random or accidental—fall under God’s watchful gaze as part of his eternal plan. Comprehensive in its scope, this book lays the theistic foundation for our scientific assumptions about the world while addressing personal questions about the meaning and significance of everyday events.

About the author

Vern Sheridan Poythress (born 1946) is an American philosopher, theologian, and New Testament scholar, who is currently the New Testament chair of the ESV Oversight Committee. He is also the Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary and editor of Westminster Theological Journal. He is a professor of New Testament, Biblical Interpretation, and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he has taught for four decades. In addition to earning six academic degrees, he is the author of numerous books and articles on biblical interpretation, language, and science.

At a glance

This book probably isn't for everyone, but if you like mathematics, statistics or probability theory, it is a must-read. Regardless of your background, it would be well worth your time and perseverance to read this book - even if just the first few chapters. The book is divided into four sections:

1. The Sovereignty of God

2. God as the Foundation for Chance

3. Probability

4. Probability and Mathematics

There are also 10 appendices that cover a range of topics. The most interesting of these appendices talks about gambling, why you can never win, and why gambling is morally wrong.

The first two sections lay a great foundation using scripture for the premise of the book which is that God is sovereign over all aspects of creation (including human affairs) and that He is still active in the world today. The last two sections get more technical and start introducing some formal probability theory and notation. Although I have a background in statistics and probability theory (and as such it was easy to follow Poythress), I still believe he does a great job of really introducing the layman to the concepts such that you don't need any formal education to understand his writing. In fact, this book might be the ideal introduction to the amazing subject which is probability theory.

Some of the content might be hard to process, especially if you're not really into math and science, but there are gems in this book that can only be discovered if you're willing to persevere to the end. It's not much that I give a book 10/10, but since I love probability, am a Christain and love Poythress' work - this book deserves it in my view.

It is important for us to see God's hand in chance and probability, because it deepens our respect for him and our worship. It is also important because chance and probability play a key role in our lives through the influence of science. Virtually all of modern science rests on ideas about chance and probability. And these ideas inescapably reveal God.

Poythress, Chance and the Sovereignty of God

Rating: 10/10.

If you feel like purchasing the book yourself, please use the link below. Apologetics Central receives a commission for each of our links that convert into purchases. Click the book below, or follow this link.

Contents at a glance

Part 1: The Sovereignty of God

  • The Bible as a Source for Knowledge 19

  • God’s Sovereignty 23

  • Unpredictable Events 33

  • Disasters and Suffering 41

  • Human Choice 53

  • Small Random Events 63

  • Reflecting on Creation and Providence 71

  • God’s Sovereignty and Modern Physics 77

  • What Is Chance? 91

Part 2: God as the Foundation for Chance

  • Regularities and Unpredictabilities 101

  • Trinitarian Foundations for Chance 107

  • Responding to Chance 115

  • Chance in Evolutionary Naturalism 123

  • Chance and Idolatry 133

Part 3: Probability

  • What Is Probability? 145

  • Predictions and Outcomes 155

  • Theistic Foundations for Probability 161

  • Views of Probability 169

  • Subjectivity and Probability 179

  • Entanglement of Probabilities 189

  • Probabilistic Independence 197

  • Independence and Human Nature 203

  • Is God Probable? 213

Part 4: Probability and Mathematics

  • Pictures of Probability 221

  • Mathematical Postulates for Probability 229

  • Theistic Foundations for Some Properties of Probability 239

  • Limitations in Human Thinking about Events and Probabilities 249

  • Conclusion 257


  • Why Gambling Systems Fail 263

  • The Real Problem with Gambling 279

  • Puzzle in Probability 283

  • Interacting with Secular Philosophical Views of Probability 293

  • Permutations and Combinations 303

  • The Birthday Problem 315

  • Diseases and Other Causes 321

  • Proofs for Probability 329

  • Statistics 333

  • The Law of Large Numbers versus Gamblers 337

How probability presupposes God

In 1 Kings 22:34, we see a powerful example of God's sovereignty over even the smallest events that we might consider to be random. The passage tells the story of how a random arrow shot by a random soldier ended up killing the wicked king Ahab, fulfilling a prophecy made by the prophet Elijah.

This event, seemingly insignificant and random on the surface, is actually a powerful reminder of God's control over all things. As the Poythress writes, "God is in control of every event, including those that seem to us to be chance events."

In other words, even the smallest, most seemingly random events are under the control of God. This can be a comforting thought, especially in times of uncertainty, as it reminds us that God is sovereign over all things and has a plan for our lives.

According to Poythress, the concept of probability is based on the assumption that God is in control of all things. This means that when we talk about the probability of an event occurring, we are recognizing that God is the one who ultimately determines whether or not that event will happen.

Furthermore, Poythress argues that the unique nature of events reflects the diversity of the Trinity. Because in God diversity is equally ultimate with unity (three persons in one being), the events of the world are also diverse. This means that no two events are exactly the same, and this diversity is a reflection of the diversity in the Godhead. At the same time, the similarity of some events also reflects the unity of God's character. Because God is a consistent and unchanging being, certain events can be similar to each other. This similarity is a reflection of the unity and consistency of God's character. And so, whenever you flip a coin, the different outcomes of the event reflect God's diversity, yet the underlying unity between the coin flips which we can describe using probability distributions reflects God's diversity.

In conclusion, probability presupposes the sovereign control of God, and the uniqueness and similarity of events reflect the diversity and unity of God's character. This is according to the work of Vern Poythress.

The book has much more to offer, of course, and I would recommend this book to anyone remotely interested in the concept of God's sovereign control and His general works in this life.


Poythress is no doubt a brilliant man and I look forward to giving this book a re-read sometime in the future. I'd recommend this book for one main reason: It opens your eyes to the Trinity in a way you've not experienced before. The Trinity is not an abstract concept that has no bearing on our lives on Earth. Reflections of the Trinity are everywhere. We are living in the finite creation of the Trinitarian God - and we take much of it for granted.



Published by Apologetics Central

At Apologetics Central, we are committed to providing biblically grounded, Reformed presuppositional apologetics resources to equip believers in defending the Christian faith. As a ministry, we strive to uphold the truth of God's word and present it winsomely to a world in need of the gospel.


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