New Question on Chance and God’s Sovereignty

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June 17, 2010 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose

Today's entry was written by Kathryn Applegate. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

New Question on Chance and God’s Sovereignty

What happens when you ask a Reformed mathematician and a Wesleyan theologian to write a joint statement on the compatibility of chance and God’s sovereignty? The odds might seem low, but if you’re lucky like us, you’ll get a thoughtful response like our newly-posted answer to the Question: Does the presence of chance in natural processes conflict with belief in God’s sovereignty?

We asked Jim Bradley, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and Computer Science at Calvin College, and Tom Oord, Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University, for their expertise in helping us to answer this question. Bradley and Oord come from two theological traditions that tend to think about divine action and omniscience in very different ways.

What do you think? Does the response capture the spectrum of orthodox Christian thought on this topic? Does anything surprise you as you read it?


Kathryn Applegate is Program Director at The BioLogos Foundation. She received her PhD in computational cell biology at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. At Scripps, she developed computer vision software tools for analyzing the cell's infrastructure, the cytoskeleton.

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merv - #17852

June 17th 2010

I didn’t see the actual article above, but had to click the “Does the presence ...” link to get to it.  It is the article at THAT link that I am reacting to below.

The authors state:  “Good managers don’t micromanage; rather they focus on the big picture and leave the details to subordinates. “

This solidly straddles a question that I don’t believe Scriptures or science will ever lay to rest for us, and yet it doesn’t stop us from philosophizing or appealing to Scriptures or science as evidence towards one view or another. 

As much as I agree with the authors that “chance” (which describes our perspective of something) does not preclude purpose or divine activity, I still think the article portrays a bias that has some danger.  We human engineers are all prepared to admire a God who sets a fantastic and intricate machine in motion, settles back with a contented sigh, and watches the Rube-Goldberg action unfold.  But I would appeal to Scriptures such as “not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from his will ...”  or “not a hair of your head goes un-numbered” to suggest that this engineering preference fails to capture something


merv - #17853

June 17th 2010

significant about God.  We see micromanagement as a concept beneath God, but do we feel the same way as we lovingly interact with the smallest minutia of our children’s lives as they grow up?  We don’t invest all our energies into birthing our kids and getting the first few years of their lives exactly right so that we never “have” to interact with them again!  I would propose that this article gives in too much to the “interventionist” model that has God, the mediocre engineer, always having to tweak the wayward machinery to keep it on course.  I know they don’t intend this picture, but that flavor comes out in words like “micromanage”. 

I do think that the language of secondary causes is useful, but we should be careful that it doesn’t become code language for “God isn’t involved.”

Thanks for the thoughtful article.

—Merv


Marshall - #17862

June 17th 2010

Good article. A cursory summary of chance in the Bible would be a useful addition. Chance is often elevated to a competitor equal to and untouchable by God. Since God often chooses to use random processes for his own purposes, perhaps most clearly seen in the Urim and Thummim and the casting of lots (used to finger a perpetrator, divide a nation, and select an apostle), I don’t think this elevation is justified.

In some cases, randomness appears to be a method of getting human influence out of the way so God can reveal his will (or not) as he chooses. Whether the outcome is simply random or God’s direct will, it wasn’t chosen by humans!

In other cases, God works out his purposes even if intervening steps didn’t smooth the way, whether due to human rebellion or chance outcomes in a different direction. As the article describes, there’s a lot of randomness involved in how we are made long before one gets to mutation and evolution. Maybe chance processes are openings in the natural realm for God to work through nature without overriding nature (though I believe God can override natural processes as well).

I think our world can have both chaos and order, free will and influence, and God is the author and sustainer of it all.


whoschad - #17863

June 17th 2010

Good article. I think that this sentence really nailed it:

“By establishing processes rather than using direct action, God has made a stable, understandable world that humans are able to steward.”


If we were truly understand what this entails, the church would be drastically changed (for the better).


Glen Davidson - #17865

June 17th 2010

What I’d like to see is something in there regarding the limitations upon chance—the fact that “chance” follows probabilities and “laws,” both individualistically and collectively.  The process of diffusion mentioned in the article is, of course, one of these “chance” phenomena that ends up being very predictable collectively.

To me it seems that you would thereby better emphasize the aspect of secondary agency, the fact that although you are not denying chance, neither are you in the least suggesting a lack of order in the world’s operations.  It is ID and other forms of creationism that suggest that the order that we find in the biological realm does not follow the usual causal forces that even creationists accept when it is “microevolution” (which generally is an extremely hazy notion to them).

If the order of the world is to be interpreted as being due to God, then it seems best to point out how “chance” in evolution is “law-like” in operation, and that biological order (as it exists) could not be ascribed to God otherwise (it would have to be “whim” or the like).

Your position will be best served by emphasizing order and constraint in “chance.”

Glen Davidson


Mike Gene - #18058

June 19th 2010

For instance, consider the process of human reproduction. ….. Does God directly choose the genetic makeup (including gender) of each child – that is, is God the primary agent in genetic selection? If so, that would mean that in every conception, God selects the particular egg to be fertilized and guides the particular sperm to fertilize that egg. It seems more plausible ...

Very good.  But we can go further than this.  Males, females, humans, humanity, etc., are all abstractions – classifications that originate from of our own minds.  Reality is you and me.  Thus, the question to ask is if God intended Jim Bradley and Thomas Jay Oord to come into existence.  I think so and that is my Christian position.  As such, it is not merely a question of whether the sperm carries the X or Y chromosome, but whether it carries all the alleles that are part of the identity of Jim Bradley and Thomas Jay Oord.  It’s not merely a question of whether “humanity” will be roughly 50-50 in terms of gender, but whether Jim Bradley, Thomas Jay Oord, yours truly, and all you out there, will come into existence.


Gregory - #18139

June 20th 2010

“What happens when you ask a Reformed mathematician and a Wesleyan theologian to write a joint statement on the compatibility of chance and God’s sovereignty? The odds might seem low, but…” - BioLogos

What are the ‘odds’ that a Reformed mathematician and a Wesleyan theologian (would eventually) write a joint statement on the compatibility of chance and God’s sovereignty? If there are ‘odds’ for this human action, how can they be calculated?

I am *for* using probability studies and ‘randomness’ in a respectful way, but *against* the ideology of ‘calculationism,’ as if *everything* can or should be calculable.

Similar to Glen, I’d like to see something at BioLogos regarding the limitations of probability, chance and randomness. Otherwise, what criteria does one use to profess that they don’t *always* exist or that they are irrelevant in certain conversations about science, philosophy and theology? Is it not typical of evangelicals to be leery of probabilism?


Norwegian Shooter - #18206

June 21st 2010

You could have knocked me over with a feather when the answer to the question was “no.” (sarcasm) But the proof of the pudding is in the why, so let’s examine it.

A small point, but materialists use the term “chance” as scientists do, because saying “blind, purposeless without purpose” is obviously redundant. It is the creationists who use the colloquial meaning of chance as “without purpose” and they use that definition as an argument against evolution: “Of course God has a purpose to the results of genetic recombination and even mutation.”

“Thus one can say that God maintains the planets in their orbits but does it through a secondary agent, namely the law of gravity.” But why should one say the first part at all? There is no evidence for it. As for human reproduction producing equal numbers of male and female adults, the situation appears to have no involvement of supernatural forces at all for the same reason - no evidence. (BTW, there is a materialist evolutionary explanation for even ratios of men and women: http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/ridley/a-z/Sex_ratio.asp)


Norwegian Shooter - #18210

June 21st 2010

As for example (1), I’d like to know how the authors define “dynamic stability on a grand scale.” If you take a grand enough scale to even out mass extinctions, then you have to deal with the hundreds of millions of years with very few species of only bacteria, with the million species today of incredible diversity. For (2), it is a problem of level of analysis, as Glen Davidson points out above. Individual molecules cross the membrane by chance, but the important feature, the rate of molecules crossing the membrane collectively, is certainly determined by the membrane and molecules’ structures. (Of course your average mathematician and theologian probably don’t understand this distinction, but they should if they use it as an example in an article about chance and evolution.)

Are the authors really being critical realists when they posit God as a primary cause without any reliable reports at all? “[W]hile God fully understands non-deterministic processes and could exercise direct and detailed control over them, God has chosen not to.” How do you know the first part, and why for the second?

Both of the plausible answers for the second part involve Genesis as a source. FAIL.


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