A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Quote of the Day 2008.21

What do we mean by divine sovereignty?

The definition of sovereignty is important if people are going to be able to receive it. In politics (whence the term originates) sovereignty is understood in various ways. We distinguish among the sovereignty of the tyrant, the rule of a constitutional monarch, the authority of an elected president, and the like. Political sovereignty may include respect for the governed or it may not.

Sovereignty has various meanings in theology also. It may mean total control or some less coercive influence. In Western theology since Augustine, the definition of sovereignty that has been preferred is one at the power end of the' spectrum. Our theologians have taught that God predestines everything that happens in detail. Although employing a free-will defense in relation to the problem of evil, Augustine held a view of sovereignty in considerable tension with it. While (on the one hand) blaming Adam for sin and the fall he did not believe that God's will could be thwarted or God's purposes be successfully resisted. He writes: "He is not truly called almighty if he cannot do whatsoever he pleases, or if the power of his almighty will is hindered by the will of any creature" (Enchiridion, 96). Furthermore, Augustine held that God knows everything that will happen and that all future choices are fixed and certain before they have been made (City of God, 11.21).

Calvin held to a similar concept of sovereignty as an all-determining power. He declared that all creatures "are governed by God's secret plan in such a way that nothing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by him" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.16.3). Sovereignty then refers to the power by which God controls everything and is able to bring every event into conformity with the divine will. Calvin's view gained ever wider influence through the Canons of Dort, the theology of John Knox, and the Westminster Confession.

The Confession states: "God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass" (3.1). This includes the final destiny of everyone whether in heaven or in hell (3.3). God is said to govern all creatures according to his free and immutable will (5.1). In a classic phrase, B. B. Warfield stated that Gods rule is "broad enough to embrace the whole universe, minute enough to be concerned with the smallest details, and actualizes itself with inevitable certainty in every event that comes to pass."

There is no denying the appeal in such a position. What a magnificent portrait of divine majesty, enthroned above the rough-and-tumble of history, perfectly serene and in complete control of everything! It is comforting to know that everything that happens has meaning and reassuring to deny any element of risk or chance. But there are severe difficulties with this position as well. The Bible seems to portray more genuine interaction and relationality in God's dealings with creatures than theological determinism allows. A sovereignty of control seems to deny that human beings possess the kind of (libertarian) freedom with which they are able either to obey God's will or to move against God's purposes. It certainly aggravates the problem of evil in requiring God to bear sole responsibility for evil. It would seem that we need a better model of divine sovereignty than that of total control.

Another way to look at sovereignty is to think of it as open and flexible, placing the emphasis more on the resourcefulness than on the domination of God. An open view would cohere better with the dynamic God-world relationship implied by the Bible and be less theoretically and practically problematic, The Scriptures tell us that God is a loving Parent (abba), who is sensitive and responsive. They depict a relationship with "give and take" not just control. We are not given the impression that history is decided unilaterally by God but that our decisions also contribute to it. God is not responsible for everything that happens. Many outcomes are conditional upon human decisions, and the relationship between God and the creature is personal and interactive.

Open sovereignty, in distinction from process thinking, agrees with the traditional view that God is the superior power who depends on nothing outside of God's self in order to exist and who is (therefore) free in a most fundamental way. God's freedom even includes the power to create a world whose details God does not completely determine. If God could not do so, a certain freedom would be lacking in the deity. We cannot limit God in this way. We agree with determinists that God could actualize a determined world but deny that this world is like that. The world we experience and the world the Bible describes is not a wholly determined world. God has evidently chosen to actualize a world with significantly free agents and to exercise sovereignty in an open manner.

"God's true power is revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ. In this act of self-sacrificing, God deploys power in the mode of servanthood, overcoming enemies not by annihilating them but by loving them."

God decided not to keep a monopoly on power but to give some away to the creature. In making responsible creaturely agents, God willed not to exercise domination and control over the world but to establish an order of real significance and genuine autonomy. Wishing to interact with significant creatures rather than to dominate the world, God willed a dynamic history that would flow from the decisions of finite persons. One could say that, in creating such a world, God accepted certain limitations on the divine power. In effect, God rejected sovereignty in the form of domination and control, at least in this creation. Open sovereignty would make possible what was wanted.

You can read Clark Pinnock's entire article, "God's Sovereignty in Today's World," here.


Craig L. Adams said...

Thanks for the quote. Very good.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Yes. This is more where I'm at, I think. At least it's good food for thought as I ponder Scripture.

Thanks, Allan.

Crowm said...

Good stuff Allan. I stumbed in from another blog. It's interesting that a friend and I were having this discussion earlier today. Thanks! I look forward to reading more.