God, Chance and Purpose: Can God Have It Both Ways? By David J. Bartholomew


Pp. xii, 259 , Cambridge University Press , 2008 , £14.99.

Chance is not antithetical to the providence of a sovereign God but part of the means by which that God governs the world: this is the conviction of David Bartholomew in this tightly argued volume. Bartholomew explicates his position by drawing from the statistical sciences and probability theory, thus offering a different perspective on the issues in the debates about science and divine action. While this approach effectively dismantles the conceptual apparatus erected by certain positions (Intelligent Design, for example, is shown to depend on a circularity of argument arising from a miscalculation of the probabilities that life originated ‘by chance’), Bartholomew's own conclusions about divine action are not as radical as the preceding argument would intimate.

Given his central claim, Bartholomew devotes much space to explaining the theories at play. A whole chapter is devoted to the various nuances of ‘chance’; lengthy accounts of how order emerges from chaos and the reverse serve to demonstrate that chance and divine purpose are not necessarily opposed; and sections on probability and statistical laws add substance to the overall argument. The first half of the book is thus designed to undergird Bartholomew's more constructive proposals in the remainder, where he shows how chance positively influences the world. Many human activities, from games to geometry, assume chance as a real phenomenon. Similarly, chance events are not excluded from God's creative activity and are instrumental in the evolution of life on earth. It is simply not true, Bartholomew claims, that chance counteracts purpose and the divine will.

Bartholomew's analysis of statistical laws is the book's turning point. Statistical laws are said by some to allow room for God to act in a world that appears deterministic. God sets a probability distribution without assigning any particular value to that distribution. Coin tossing, for example, results in either ‘heads’ or ‘tails’, a probability distribution of 0.5. Yet each toss is independent, influenced by neither previous nor subsequent tosses; there is nothing to determine the outcome specifically as ‘heads’ or ‘tails’. The deeper issue here is that of how seemingly random happenings relate to one another within God's plan for the world as a whole: Could the coin toss at the beginning of a football match have far wider consequences than simply the end at which United start? For Bartholomew, although God could determine that a string of isolated incidents should be in fact a chain of causally connected events, it is far more fitting for him to act in a way that allows genuine freedom of action to the creature and so scope for chance.

This leads to Bartholomew's preferred way of speaking about God's action in the world: God is like the chief executive of a large company. The chief executive is not concerned with the minutiae of her company's endeavours, but delegates these to capable subordinates while she focuses on policy and strategic matters. She has overall responsibility for the company's activities, its successes and its less profitable times. Bartholomew suggests that this analogy is superior to any that depict God as controlling all the details: it would be strange if God were to allow the universe (or parts of it) to self-develop only for him then to intervene in its daily operations. Chance thus plays a vital role in God's dealings with creation, which means that God must take certain risks in allowing chance to influence particular outcomes. Such a stance implies a critical orthodoxy that recognizes first the logical impossibility of total control; and secondly, God's acceptance in Christ of the responsibility for his decision to create a complex world that unavoidably entails suffering. On this account, God's sovereignty is claimed to remain unaffected by chance.

Much of Bartholomew's argumentation invites second, third, even fourth readings to grasp the finer points, but this is due not to a stylistic impenetrability but to the intricacies of the subject matter. Every effort has been made to explain the technicalities, most often successfully; the absence of undecipherable formulae is welcome; and the text itself is lively and inviting. Bartholomew has provided a commendable example of clarity in academic exposition. Yet the complexities that the numerous illustrations are employed to elucidate at times threaten to overshadow the central thesis; and the mathematically disinclined may need further assistance to make the necessary connections between Bartholomew's scientific presuppositions and the theological conclusions at which he arrives. Some of the observations made are not entirely persuasive: on more than one occasion, for example, it is implied that the complete predictability of a person's choice means that that choice is not made freely; but one's certain knowledge of the choice another shall make surely has no intrinsic relation to the freedom of that choice's execution. Neither is it obvious that divine sovereignty is more appropriately understood as God's management of the world than as his total control of it. Finally, Bartholomew's analogy of God as a company's chief executive is not too dissimilar to Thomas Aquinas's own account of divine providence, where God is the first cause delegating causal powers to creatures; nor is it too distant from the potential danger of depicting God as the potency of a world-machine manipulating innumerable cogs for some undisclosed purpose.

Nonetheless, there is much of value in Bartholomew's discussion, and repeated readings will yield fresh insights.