Saturday, November 15, 2014

Scripture and Chance

Someone with whom I once dialogued suggested that chance might just be our perception of things, and only our perception of reality. Initially, I feel compelled to question the suggestion that "chance" is our perception as opposed to being an objective feature of the world. In Eccl. 9:11, Qoheleth writes: "time and chance happeneth to them all" (ASV). This passage indicates that at least some events in our lives happen by "chance." This view also seems to be corroborated by Luke 10:31. That verse says in part: κατὰ συγκυρίαν δὲ ἱερεύς τις κατέβαινεν ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ ἐκείνῃ, καὶ ἰδὼν αὐτὸν ἀντιπαρῆλθεν. Again, "by chance," the priest happened to be traveling along the road. According to Vincent's Word Studies: "By chance (κατὰ συγκυρίαν) Only here in New Testament. The word means, literally, a coincidence. By coincidence of circumstances."

There is no indication in this Gospel account that God foreordained the priest's actions. In fact, I actually wonder what purpose would be served by God foreknowing or foreordaining everything. For example, let's say that one day I'm driving down the road imbibing a fifth of liquor (MH GENOITO!), then I lose control of my vehicle before hitting a bridge. Did God foreordain/will my actions? Were my actions known long before there was ever a human race? What would have happened if I had not been drinking and driving? Would I have been involved in a terrible accident? Maybe, but it would not have been as a result of driving while intoxicated. In either case, I would put the blame on my personal actions, which I had the power to perform or to refrain from committing.

Maybe God chose not to know whether I would do such a foolhardy thing. It's also possible that before I found myself in that situation, there was the objective possibility that I would imbibe alcohol, and the equal possibility that I would not drink while driving. Call this position libertarian free will if you like: Peter van Inwagen prefers to drop the "libertarian" tag.

My position about chance is not simply based on logical considerations. I've also referenced Luke which mentions "chance." On the other hand, there's an interesting passage in Ruth 2:3: "And she went, and came and gleaned in the fields after the reapers: and her hap was to light on the portion of the field belonging unto Boaz" (ASV).

καὶ ἐπορεύθη καὶ συνέλεξεν ἐν τῷ ἀγρῷ κατόπισθεν τῶν θεριζόντων· καὶ περιέπεσεν περιπτώματι τῇ μερίδι τοῦ ἀγροῦ Βοος τοῦ ἐκ συγγενείας Αβιμελεχ (OG/LXX).

"She just happened to end up in the portion of the field that belonged to Boaz"(NET Bible)

"The text is written from Ruth's limited perspective. As far as she was concerned, she randomly picked a spot in the field. But God was providentially at work and led her to the portion of the field belonging to Boaz, who, as a near relative of Elimelech, was a potential benefactor" (NET Note).

The writer of this particular OT account states that Ruth happened to "light on the portion of the field belonging unto Boaz." We are thus told that Ruth fortuitously began working in his field; but the rest of the narrative assures us that God's holy spirit is at work in the life of Ruth. Now it is quite possible that God could have
used Ruth if she happened to come upon a field belonging to someone else; however, the fact is that she happed upon the plot of land belonging to Boaz. Was this mere chance? Was it pure coincidence that Ruth began to work for Boaz? How should we understand this passage?

Benson's Commentary offers this view on Ruth 2:3: "Her hap was, &c. — It was a chance in appearance, and in reference to second causes, but ordered by God's providence. God wisely orders small events, even those that seem altogether contingent. Many a great affair is brought about by a little turn, fortuitous as to men, but designed by God."

Another theologian writes:

" . . . the author's real meaning in 2:3b is actually the opposite of what he says. The labelling [sic] of Ruth's meeting with Boaz as 'chance' is nothing more than the author's way of saying that no human intent was involved. For Ruth and Boaz it was an accident, but not for God. The tenor of the whole story makes it clear that the narrator sees God's hand throughout. In fact the very secularism of his expression here is his way of stressing that conviction. It is a kind of underplaying for effect. By calling this meeting an accident, the writer enables himself subtly to point out that even the'accidental' is directed by God" (Hals, Ronald. The Theology of the Book of Ruth. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969).

It seems that some commentators also try to handle Luke 10:31 by attributing chance to the mind of God like the Cambridge Bible does:

"by chance] Rather, by coincidence, i.e. at the same time. The word 'chance' (τύχη) does not occur in Scripture. The nearest approach to it is the participle τυχὸν in 1 Corinthians 15:37 (if τυγχάνοντα be omitted in Luke 10:30). Chance, to the sacred writers, as to the most thoughtful of the Greeks, is 'the daughter of Forethought;' is 'God's unseen Providence, by men nicknamed Chance' (Fuller). 'Many good opportunities work under things which seem fortuitous.'"

Finally, at Rabbi Derek Leman's blog, we read:

"No, it is accepted that life's seemingly random events are actually, all or some of the time, influenced by the Divine purpose. So, Ruth's 'chance' doesn't randomly 'chance upon' the field of Boaz. Her unwitting steps were guided by an unseen hand, with invisible Providence bringing about a specific event. No argument about predestination vs. freewill is needed (freewill is simply assumed throughout the Bible). The mystery of unseen purpose is always with us."

However this account is to be understood, I don't believe that God foreordained this event before Ruth or Boaz existed. Similarly, I find it quite implausible that God foreordains every event that happens throughout the KOSMOS: reasons for this belief have been given in previous blog entries. A final thought pertains to free will. If our wills are truly capable of causing events, if they can bring it about that some action (A) occurs, then it's hard to correlate a strong deterministic view of the world with an agent causation (or libertarian) view of free will.


Nathan said...

Crikey Edgar! Your timing is impeccable. Or should I say determinable? For just this day when I was having my hair cut the clipper gauge slipped from its shears and left a two inch wide bald patch half way up the back of my head. It's an embarrassment of follicles! Why would God mock me so? Why predetermine my shame in such an inept way? Really, why not just leave me entirely bald instead?

If I'm feeling the indignity of looking like a badly mown piece of turf, then God must have really had it in for Samson. Poor guy... If only he was a determinist he might never have been so angry with those Philistines.

There is a saying in the world that, although crude, has managed to express a simple libertarian truth that so many religious folk have failed to grasp:

#$@! happens. Get over it.



Edgar Foster said...


I hope you don't mind if I enjoy a little chuckle at your (mis)fortune with the hair clipper guard.

If it makes you feel any better, the same thing happened to me when I was a teen--on meeting night. So I attended the meeting with part of my hair missing in the back, and my dad was so embarrassed that he almost never let me forget it.

I guess it was just providence that placed us in this figurative boat. And thanks for bringing Samson in the mix too.

As for the last part of your comments, I agree that the saying is crude, but illustrates the chancy feature of the world. One country song has this title: "Life Happened."

Part of the lyrics are below:

Curtis had an old Chevelle
The cops knew that car well
He never lost a race on Windy Hollow road
By the time he turned eighteen
He was a Georgia Dirt Track King
Proudly sponsored by the local Texaco

I bumped into him at Murphy's bar and he ordered us a round
I said, "Why aren't you in Rockingham chasing Gordon down?"
He killed his drink, tore the corners off his napkin

And said, "Life happened
I was driving home from Athens late one night A trucker fell asleep and swapped paint with me
Said, I rolled that van at least five times
Now I thank my stars and I sell used cars And I teach drivers education at St. Catherine's
Yeah, life happened"



Nathan said...

I'm more than happy for you to chuckle at my expense, Edgar. After all, I could only laugh after it happened as well. Still, you braved up far better than I did. I simply couldn't bring myself to enter the KH and have to front up against all of the talk of brain tumours, Psoriasis, Dermatitis, Chemo, Thyroid, Alopecia – or even worse, the truth.

Love the lyrics, by the way. ;)