Saturday, March 12, 2011

Is God Sovereign?

For many Christians, the most vital aspect of God's character is His sovereignty. They cling to this attribute without reservation. Everything in scripture is interpreted through this lens. Ideas such as unconditional election, predestination, and irresistible grace flow from this foundational hermeneutic.

This topic is especially relevant in light of the earth's latest disaster, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan that has left thousands dead. In the wake of such disasters, many people ask questions about God's character and often come to the conclusion that God willed for such a thing to happen to achieve some greater good. Indeed, they cling to His sovereignty.

But is it truly accurate to say that God is sovereign? Or, at the very least, is it appropriate to emphasize this attribute over and above all of God's other attributes?

First, let me assure you: I do not subscribe to "open theism," the idea that God does not really know the future (I recognize that "open theists" do not put it in these terms, insisting instead that God, being omniscient, does know the future - but saying that He knows the future as possibilities and, in fact, knows all the possibilities of the future. However, this way of putting it is meaningless, since there are, in theory, an infinite number of possibilities for the future). But it seems to me, based on the witness of scripture, that emphasizing God's sovereignty as the supreme message of scripture, is not only misleading, but also dangerous.

Let me explain . . .

To begin with, let's be clear: the Bible does not use the word "sovereign" at all - at least not the KJV, NKJV, NASB, or many other responsible translations. The NIV, NLT and NRSV do use the word, but these are not based on anything particular in the Greek or Hebrew of either testaments. (For example, the NIV often translates the Hebrew word adonai as "sovereign" when it precedes yahweh, thus making "sovereign Lord." The KJV translates this phrase as "Lord God," though this is not necessarily a literal translation, either. See Gen 15:2 as just one example.)

This, of course, does not necessarily amount to a whole lot, since we do use words (like "trinity") to describe biblical ideas, that are not themselves biblical words. But, at the very least, one must recognize that when one talks about God's sovereignty, he/she is not using biblical language, per se.

More importantly, what does one mean when he/she talks about God's "sovereignty"? The literal definition of the word "sovereign" means "having supreme rank, power, or authority," a definition that I am not sure anyone would disagree with as it relates to God. To be sure, God, by very definition, stands over and above all others.

But those who emphasis God's sovereignty do not primarily have this idea in mind. For them, God's sovereignty inherently means that He controls everything that happens in the universe - and, in fact, He has willed and predetermined every single thing that has ever happened or ever will happen. Or, as The Westminster Confession of Faith (which is the de facto "creed" for many who align themselves with this understanding of God) puts it: "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).

Thus, not only did God ordain for there to be an earthquake in Japan last week, He actually ordained and intended for 10,000+ people to die in its wake. This goes beyond God simply
"allowing" bad things to happen; He actually "wills" for it to happen to accomplish some greater good that we cannot quite figure out as finite human beings - though many do maintain that some how, such events will ultimately bring glory to God.

This concept elicits obvious questions about God's character - especially in the minds of those who recognize that God's fundamental - and overarching - essence is that of self-giving, self-sacrificing love (see 1 John 4:8; Rom 5:8; Matt 5:45; etc.). Nevertheless, such a paradox doesn't seem to deter many from embracing the picture of an all-controlling God and, in fact, actually gives some people great comfort.

For the rest of us, however, the two concepts seem irreconcilable.

On What Basis?

So if the Bible never explicitly mentions that God is "sovereign," on what basis do people make such a claim?

First of all, let me make something clear: I believe that in an objective sense God is sovereign - that He does stand over and above all else and that He can, if He so chooses, control absolutely everything that happens. As a free moral being who has every power at His fingertips, God could choose to interact with His creatures at this level.

But not only do I gather from scripture that God does not try to typically interact with His creation with an inferior-superior attitude - but instead chooses to approach us with humility (see Matt 11:29 where Jesus, who is the "express image" of God, according to Heb 1:3, describes Himself as "meek and lowly in heart," or John 15:15, where Jesus announces that we are no longer His servants but His friends who get to "know what [God] . . . is doing," or Phil 2:6, where Christ is described, as The Message puts it, as not clinging "to the advantages" of being God) - but I especially do not find any scriptural basis for the idea that God chooses to ordain and control absolutely everything that has happened or will happen in the universe.

This is not to say, of course, that there are not passages in scripture - often appealed to - that "sovereignty advocates" rely upon. There are, admittedly, scores of passages in scripture that seem to point in the direction that God's will is absolutely and always followed no matter what. And though there is obviously not enough time to examine each and everyone of those in their context, I do want to address two passages from scripture in the next two posts - one in the OT and one in the NT - that are often considered "slam dunk" passages for those who advocate God's complete and sovereign control over everything that happens in the universe. I do believe that by demonstrating how these passages are often misunderstood by sovereignty advocates, it will be enough to demonstrate that the hermeneutical approach by such individuals in dealing with the rest of scripture is, at best, questionable.

The Witness of Isaiah

One of the passages that is often appealed to in relation to God's alleged "omni-control" comes from the prophet Isaiah. Actually, to be fair, there are a number of passages in Isaiah that allegedly lend themselves to this concept, so I will quickly cite a few of the examples that come from this important Messianic book.

As just a small sampling, God describes Himself as "I [who] form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the Lord, do all these things" (45:7). Elsewhere, God repeatedly makes it clear that "besides [Him] there is no other God" (43:10; 44:6; 45:5-6, 14, 21). But perhaps most significantly, God declares "the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure'" (46:10). Similarly, God announces that just as the rain and snow fall out of heaven and touch upon the earth, never returning to heaven, instead bringing forth buds and giving seed to the sower, "so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it" (55:10-11).

The last two verses are especially impressive, giving clear - and undeniable - evidence that God is all-powerful and able to do whatever He wants.

But, as always, we do great disservice to our biblical study when we divorce a verse from its context. (I find, just as a side note, that whenever I come across a verse that bolsters my presuppositions, I very rarely study its context; however, whenever I encounter a verse that contradicts my presuppositions, I always study its context! I can't help but think that many - if not most - biblical students do the same thing!) And, in this case, the overall context of Isaiah points to the undeniable reality that God, instead of flexing His muscle and insisting that everything has happened or will happen because it was/is precisely how He wants it to happen, chooses to honor the freedom of His creatures.

After all, isn't this the precise reason God sent, not only the prophet Isaiah, but every biblical prophet? We usually think the primary purpose of a prophet was to tell God's people what was going to happen in the future. To be sure, this was one of the prophet's roles. But, more significantly, the chief purpose of a prophet was to inform God's people that they weren't listening to Him or doing what He desired, and to "return" to Him. Not surprisingly, we see God using this precise language ("Return to me") in Isaiah 44:22, as well as many of the other prophets (see Jer 3:12; Joel 2:12; Zech 1:3; Mal 3:7), often times without much success (see Jer 15:7; Hos 7:10; Amos 4:6).

Furthermore, Isaiah plainly spells out the reality that God's people were not "listening to" or "obeying" Him (see 28:12; 30:9; 42:24; 65:12; 66:4). These last two passages are extremely significant because they spell out plainly how God's people were not doing His will at all, but instead following their own will. God essentially repeats the same thing twice when He laments, "When I called, no one answered, when I spoke they did not hear; but they did evil before My eyes, and chose that in which I do not delight" (66:4).

The last clause of the verse is highly significant and must not be quickly brushed aside or discounted. In language that turns my mind back to that great messianic prophecy, where all humans are described as sheep that have "turned, every one, to his own way" (53:6) rather than God's way, Isaiah unequivocally declares that Israel had "chosen" what God did not "desire."

Interestingly, when the OT was translated into Greek, the LXX translators chose the word boulomai to describe God's desire that had been thwarted by the choice of His people. This is highly significant because many sovereignty advocates point to the NT's usage of the noun form of this word as evidence that God ordains everything to happen (see, for example, Acts 2:23 and 4:28).

But from this single passage in Isaiah we see very clearly an interesting dynamic: that is, that God often has definite plans or desires (Hebrew, chaphets) that are sometimes negated or neutralized by the choice of human beings. This does not deny the reality that God can overrule the choices of His people, but it is to say that God will not overpower the choice that He has freely given individuals.

Of course, the response from many sovereignty advocates often goes one of two ways: they either insist that God's sovereignty does not negate man's responsibility, or they propose that God has "two wills" (see "Are There Two Wills in God?" by John Piper, as just one example of this explanation). In other words, the first explanation tries to reconcile God's complete control over us as human beings and our alleged choice in the matter, while the second explanation insists that God actually desires one thing (for all men to be saved, for example, as 1 Tim 2:4 maintains), while at the same time desiring a seemingly - though imagained, as the advocates say - contradictory thing at the same time (desiring that some of those "all" actually be lost).

Besides the fact that either explanation lacks true biblical support, perhaps the biggest problem and frustration with them is that, no matter how many verbose elucidations are given or logical gymnastics are engaged in, such explanations defy and contradict simple logic. So, when all else fails, some simply appeal to God's words that "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways" (Isa 55:8), and that seems to settle it. But more on this in the future . . .

Besides this telling passage that comes at the end of Isaiah's book, however, the stage was actually set in relation to the God-human dynamic at the beginning of the book. Instead of insisting that His desires would be unconditionally achieved, God makes it plain that He would honor, and not overpower, the free choice of His people. And one does not have to read very far into the book to recognize this truth!

After inviting His people to "Come now, and let us reason together," (1:18) an interesting invitation in light of the fact that many people want us to turn our reasoning off in relation to this subject, God then goes onto to plainly state, "If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword" (1:19).

Can it be any plainer? God uses that very important word "if" (Hebrew im, used 40x in Isaiah) to denote the conditional nature of His desires - not because He is incapable or powerless to truly achieve His will, but because He chooses to interact with the world on this level and honor our free exercise of the will.

The LXX version of this passage is also interesting because it uses the word thelo to translate the word "willing" in Hebrew - significant because the noun form of the word is what Matthew uses in the Lord's prayer when Christ invites us to pray that God's "will [thelema] be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt 6:10). Thus, these two passages, coupled together, show us that God's heavenly will can be frustrated on earth by man's will - since it is clear that God's will and desire was for Israel to be a "special treasure" (see Exo 19:5) upon the earth.

Clearly, though, this desire of God was never realized in the nation of Israel, as is evidenced by Christ's lamentation over Jerusalem, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted [thelo] to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing [thelo]!" (Matt 23:37). Again, any appeal to the idea of God having "two wills" in this context lacks scriptural and logical support. (It is also interesting to note how Christ Himself describes the role of prophets - that of attempting to gather Israel into relationship with Himself - but how they were clearly rejected by the will of man.)

Of course, what are we then to make of the alleged "sovereignty" passages in Isaiah? To begin with, let us admit our humility. Though I fully believe that God does want us to understand His mind and not leave us in the dark, we need to recognize our limitations and the fact that we don't know everything God knows (again, this does not mean that God doesn't want us to know - nor that we should stop trying to understand His mind. See John 15:15).

Secondly, there is a definite sense in which God does act sovereignly in the affairs of universal history. He does act independently of our will and choices at times. One simple - yet important - example of this is the cross: none of us asked for God to come down in the form of man and die the death we deserved. In fact, if the choice had been left up to us as to whether Christ would come down to take our place on the cross, we would have rejected the very initiation He took (though we wouldn't have even been around to begin with anyway).

Thirdly, when God talks about His word not returning to Him "void," but "accomplishing" what it pleases, I believe there is a tension going on that deserves thought. Some rightfully interpret such passages in light of God's "foreknowledge," recognizing that God can look into the future and - though not determining it - see that some will, in fact, respond to His word. Thus, He can say with confidence that His word would not come back "empty-handed," so to speak, but would find a residence in the heart of human beings (though not all human beings, even though this is His desire).

This parenthetical statement does not limit God's power in any way because, truly, all those whom God desires to respond could respond if they chose to - which speaks powerfully to God's power, though, sadly, many will choose not to. But this, in no way, diminishes God's power; rather, it highlights His love all the more. (I realize the idea that God's power is not diminished by the fact that some do not respond, though He wants them to, is almost incomprehensible - even illogical - to "sovereignty advocates," but, just the same, we need to be faithful to scripture.)

I believe there is also another dynamic going on with this idea that may seem foreign to many. Nevertheless, it deserves attention. That is, when God declares that His word would not return to Him "void," He is saying that with faith - in other words, God actually has faith in what His love, word, and faith can accomplish - and, indeed, God actually has faith in us. In some senses, we might say that God has "faith in faith."

As I said, the idea that God actually has faith is probably foreign to many people but, nevertheless, it is a biblical idea. The NT writers - and Christ Himself - actually talk about the "faith of God" and the "faith of Jesus," though most versions do not translate it as such. But it's there. See, for example, Mark 11:22 (Young's Literal Translation, which translates the "subjective genitive" accurately), Romans 3:3 (KJV), 3:22 (KJV, YLT), 3:26 (YLT), Galatians 2:16 (KJV, YLT), 2:20 (KJV, YLT), 3:22 (KJV, YLT), and Revelation 14:12 (KJV, NKJV, NRSV, YLT).

Though this topic deserves a whole post itself, and will more than likely get one in the future, suffice it to say, instead of overpowering His creatures with His "sovereign" will, God, instead, chooses to interact with them from the motivation of love and through the eyes of faith - both of which can be freely spurned and rejected should anyone want to respond with "unbelief."

Equally true, of course, is the reality that we can - by His grace - respond with faith and freely choose to have His will accomplished in our lives. And such a reality is far more a reflection of true sovereign power and influence than if He were to be an "omni-controlling, micro-manager" whose will could never be resisted (because logically it cannot truly be resisted).

None of this, in anyway, undermines the reality that "all things work together for good" (Rom 8:28) and that, ultimately, God will get His way, but, again, the way He accomplishes this is not by controlling and ordaining every single thing that happens, but by influencing the world, through His love, towards the grand accomplishing of His ultimate goal of complete and true universal safety (see my previous post entitled, "Safe to Save?")

Of course, there are other passages in scripture that need to be grappled with, but that will have to be in the next post.


Staci said...

Thanks Shawn for this insightful and well-thought out post. I have been thinking a lot recently about the sovereignty of God as one of my friends has been trying to witness to a Calvanist who of course is big on this. It is those sticky passages that are hard to know how to explain at times. We don't want to appear that we serve a weak, unknowing God but we also want to show that He respect our free choice. I look forward to your next post!

practic said...

The correct understanding of the place of God's Law in His government will answer many questions about His character. This is one of the reasons why Adventists were given the light on God's Law, so that God's glory (His character) could be known in all the earth.

Therefore, I would not consider a study of God's character with someone, without laying down principles such as these:

1. God's character is righteous.
2. Righteousness is defined in His Law.
3. Love is the fulfilling of the Law.
4. Love works no ill to its neighbor.

Therefore, God does not work ill to His neighbor. I would not allow any interpretation of God's actions that violate these fundamental principles, regardless of how "plain and obvious" it might seem to be.

Satan's aim is to change God's Law, and that involves distorting God's character. Misrepresentation of God's character leads to rebellion against Him (see Genesis 3 as a simple example of these two points).

Therefore we must understand God's sovereignty in the light of His character (the principles of His law) and not the other way around. Yes, "God can do whatever He wants"...but what does He want to do? His will is defined in His law.

Micaiah said...

Find my short response at

It wouldn't fit in your comments section??

Andrew said...

I have been following this debate as well. One thing I believe you might have forgotten to mention (or I missed) is that the conception of sovereignty that many Calvinists espouse is very much derived from human notions of what sovereignty is supposed to be like. I am glad you pointed out that there might be no biblical basis for focus on this attribute over any other. Love seems to have more evidence on its side.

I also think this might stem from a failure to marry the Old Testament properly with the new.

Andrew said...

We also would do well to focus more on the character of God. I believe when we lose sight of the Great Controversy theme, then we are fighting on someone else's battleground.

Calvinists deny the Great Controversy over God's character completely--because there can be no controversy in a universe run by a sovereign God.