Today we are joined by Dr. Vern Poythress who lives and works at Westminster Theological Seminary, just north of Philly. It is a huge honor to have you on the podcast Dr. Poythress.
Well, thank you for inviting me. I consider it a privilege to be here.
Some of our listeners will not know you well. Here’s your CV in brief. You have degrees from Cambridge and Harvard and Caltech, and of course Westminster Theological Seminary, where you now work and live. You’ve been editing the Westminster Theological Journal since 2005 and serve as professor of New Testament interpretation.
That is amazing in itself. But you have written several books on a range of topics that include the Mosaic Law, the book of Revelation, a book on inerrancy and Bible interpretation, and one on logic, a book on worldview, one on science, one on sociology, one on linguistics, and a book on chance and probability. That book is titled: Chance and the Sovereignty of God: A God-Centered Approach to Probability and Random Events (2014).
The book is excellent and I’ve wanted to have you on for a long time to talk about coin-tossing and casinos. So let’s start with casting lots today and casinos tomorrow. Now, I’m no mathematician with PhD from Harvard, but by my count I see over 30 references in the Bible to casting lots. What in the world was this?
Right. It is a good question. The main cases where there is more explanation are divinely sanctioned cases. So they are very special events. For instance, when Achan has sinned against the Lord by taking some of the gold and silver out of Jericho when it is conquered, and God announces that there has been a violation of his commands (Joshua 7:10–26), God says: Somebody has sinned, but nobody but God knows who it is. Right? And then lots are cast under Joshua’s supervision to find out who it is. Well, God already knows who it is, right? So this is a very special episode.
And there is casting of lots to decide on the replacement for Judas (Acts 1:23–26). Again, a case where the apostles know that Judas should be replaced and Peter cites an Old Testament prophecy to that effect. And God knows who he wants selected. But these are very special, because it is special leaders like Joshua and those whom God instructs. And it is in a time where God is giving direct revelation about his will to specially chosen people, people like the prophets and the apostles. So it is very special. There may also have been cases where people gambled or whether they did things frivolously, but the Bible doesn’t say much about that.
I want to come back to Acts 1. Does anyone know what casting lots looked like? Was this a two-sided stone?
We don’t know all the details, but it is something like rolling dice. Our modern dice have six sides. And it may have been, as you say, two-sided. We don’t know the details. And, of course, it doesn’t matter, because these special things are once-for-all events. So God is not saying this should be a regular practice.
Right, and yet we have Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” Aren’t lot casts and coin tosses always under God’s control?
Right. Well, every flip of the coin is under God’s control. There are many passages, I think, that indicate God’s control over all is comprehensive—even the hairs of your head are numbered. If a sparrow falls to the ground, it is not apart from the will of God (Matthew 10:26–33).
Now a lot of modern people have lost sight of that and I think it is unhealthy spiritually to lose sight of that, because we are in the care of our heavenly Father. And it matters that we affirm and really believe that with respect to details as well as respect to the big issues of history.
But what I would answer: Does this give us the will of God? That is often how it is framed. And I think you have to make a distinction between two ways of asking that question. And it needs to be illustrated.
So take the crucifixion of Christ. All the events that happened there happened according to a divine plan. God was working out salvation for us. So there is one sense of the will of God, it is the will of God for every event in history. But that is distinct from asking: Did God morally approve of the actions of the high priest or Herod and Pilate? And the answer is: No, he didn’t. It was highly unjust. So moral approval is quite distinct from saying God sovereignly planned it.
And when the coin flips, what we know from Scripture teaching is God sovereignly planned how it would come to. But that gives us no information about his moral will. It is quite different. And people make a mistake. I know. There are immature people out there who think, “I am not sure what God’s moral will for me is. I will find out by flipping a coin.” That is a misunderstanding of how God reveals his moral will.
And yet coin tosses are never prohibited in Scripture. Tell me if I’m wrong here. Christians should not use coin flips to decide God’s moral will. We don’t need it, we have the revealed word. And yet Scripture never equates coin tosses with the evils of divination, soothsaying, magic, or necromancy.
Yeah, that is right.
But I think you are also right to point to the fact that there is discussion, for instance, in Deuteronomy 18. There are other passages, but Deuteronomy 18 is one that has a whole list of ways that in the ancient world people sought for security. That is a basic issue. They want to know something that would help their decision-making and escape tragedy in the future.
Fortunetelling, nowadays, and a lot of the things with consulting mediums, is trying to obtain secret knowledge that will give you extra security. And it is condemned in the Bible not only because it is wrong, but because it is a violation of the fundamental principle of serving God alone. We ought to rely on God and not on those other things. And so it is a form of idolatry in the end and it is serious.
I know some Christians have come from a pagan background. They may not even realize immediately. Stay away from this. It is condemned in the Bible. And it is unfortunate that this kind of thing is growing, and I think we may continue to see it grow because people who no longer know God in a saving relationship are still hungry for God, or they are hungry for security — a security, which, I say, we find in God becoming our heavenly Father. He has a fatherly care for everything that happens in our lives.
If you don’t have God as your Father, where do you? You go to substitutes. You go to the fortunetellers or you have a rabbit’s foot, for instance, you know, for good luck. You carry around some special thing that you think gives you good luck. If God is in charge, all of that is ridiculous. And, as I say, it is really an insult to God, because you are not relying on him. You are relying on this other thing.
Acts 1:26, the choosing of Matthias, is the last mention of casting lots in Bible. Pentecost unfolds in the next verse. Redemptive-Historically, does the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit somehow replace coin flips?
Right. Well, the Bible doesn’t spell it all out, but it does seem logical because when the Holy Spirit is poured out in Pentecost it gives us a new fullness of understanding the mind of God. It is not as if the Holy Spirit isn’t at work in the Old Testament, but this is a new fullness. The Spirit of Christ was poured out from the ascended Christ and Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 2 at the end about we have the mind of Christ. Well, it doesn’t make us divine, but in Christ we have a fellowship with him, we have a fundamental understanding of who God is, and a communion with him that gives us wisdom that we use in our decision-making.
Yes, we have to face hard decisions. And too often I feel that Christian people even may seek for answers to hard decisions. And we don’t seek for answers by some mechanical formula or some trick or some kind of match, but that isn’t what it is about. It is about fellowship with the God who made you and who has expressed his love for you in Christ and has given you the Holy Spirit so that you may be filled with wisdom.
And you have to grow into that, of course. But through that wisdom, you begin to move with more and more confidence, even with difficult decisions. Of course you continue to pray. Of course you continue to read your Bible. But there is a fundamental confidence. God is for me, not because of anything I did, or not because I used some formula, but because of Christ.