Election, etc. — The Sovereignty of God

Calvinists often talk about the ‘sovereignty of God’. Within this post I want to raise some questions about this concept as I often encounter it.

When the Scriptures speak about the sovereignty of God, I believe that they are almost invariably using the language in a way that differs from the manner in which most Calvinists have been accustomed to use it. The sovereignty of God has a number of dimensions to it in Scripture. The sovereignty of God is, in part, His position as Creator and Sustainer of all things. All that exists came into being purely as a result of God’s will and continues to exist only as God upholds it and preserves it. All of creation is accountable to and dependent upon God.

The concept of the sovereignty of God, however, is much broader than this in the Scripture. For the Scripture the sovereignty of God is very much an ‘on the ground’ sovereignty. It is a sovereignty that has to withstand and defeat numerous contenders, climaxing in a costly but decisive victory at the cross of Calvary. This sovereignty is the sovereignty of God that is determined to set right and perfect the world after it was thrown off course following the sin of Adam. It is a sovereignty that is achieved by means of holy war, as God establishes a foothold in a hostile world, a world under the sway of the Satan, and faces off against the forces of evil.

The Scripture speaks of a conflict that takes place in history for sovereignty, a battle in the heavens and a world in turmoil, nations arising against the Lord and His anointed. The sovereignty of God is an eschatological achievement as the power of the oppressors is shattered and kingdom is given into the hands of its rightful owners. The bitter and focused conflict that took place as God sought to secure a beachhead in placing His war camp in the midst of Israel has given way to a time when the struggle spills into all parts of the world.

It is this aspect of God’s sovereignty that seems to be largely neglected within popular Reformed theology. The sovereignty of God in popular Reformed theology is generally an unassailable sovereignty, acting from a great height. The image of a sweating and bloody Jesus, dying in agonizing pain on a cross as He engages in the great showdown with the Powers in the heat and dust of first century Israel is a largely a peripheral one within such an understanding of divine sovereignty. To the extent that the cross of Christ is marginalized in our understanding of how divine sovereignty is secured, I believe that we have betrayed the Scriptures.

Calvinists tend to regard the sovereignty of God as His determination of all that comes to pass. God’s determination of all that comes to pass is identified as God’s hidden ‘will’. Such a manner of speaking makes it very difficult for us to think in terms of genuine opposition to God’s sovereignty and will within the universe. Although it is important to recognize that God’s sovereignty is universal in certain senses (as Creator and Sustainer), it is equally important for us to appreciate the threat that is posed to God’s sovereignty and purpose by the forces of evil.

When every event is regarded as a product of God’s ‘will’ we will find it increasingly difficult to comprehend the strength of the divine No! that is uttered against such things as sin, sickness and the other expressions of evil and corruption in our world. When we are faced with cancer, for instance, we will be far too ready to regard it as the gift of an inscrutable providence, rather than as an enemy to be actively resisted as contrary to God’s purpose. I believe that it is God’s clearly revealed will that we must pray against sickness, seeking healing. We have a duty to do so. Sickness is an enemy. We should pray in the hope of healing and we should have liturgies of healing in our churches. I believe that this is one of the reasons why Calvinists generally resist the idea of healing ministries (along with the tendency towards rationalism and the theological neglect of the physical body).

I do not believe that God will always remove our sicknesses. Sometimes He wishes the Satan’s thorn to become a means whereby we gain a victory over the forces of evil (as we see in the cases of Job and the Apostle Paul). In whatever case, we should beware of meekly acquiescing to our suffering. God’s purpose can be found in continued suffering, but it is found precisely because suffering is the frontline of the confrontation with the Evil One. God’s purpose is worked out as we prove God’s strength in our suffering, not as we surrender to the sickness as if it were God’s desire for us. Suffering is generally meaningless. It only becomes meaningful when the Christian’s suffering is transformed into a cross, a means of engaging in battle with the Satan and finally participating in Christ’s victory over him.

The defeat of evil takes place by means of death and resurrection, not by means of re-description. Calvinist theology, however, has all too often held a theodicy that explains away the problem of evil as everything is placed within a universal teleology. The brokenness of the creation marred by sin ceases to be a problem to be wrestled through and comes to be regarded as the outworking of the sovereign will of God. As soon as sin ceases to be seen as problematic for divine sovereignty, we have a serious problem.

It is imperative that we feel a great tension between the way that things are and the way that God would have them to be. Anything that relaxes this tension can be dangerous. Chief among my concerns with the popular Calvinist understandings of divine sovereignty is their tendency to do just this. The idea of divine sovereignty as an eschatological achievement or victory is troublingly muted. The sovereignty of God as a systematic theological construct in Reformed theology seems to have little place for a robust biblical theological understanding of the kingdom of God.

If our understanding of divine sovereignty is merely one of irresistible and comprehensive sovereignty operating from a great height, the drama of redemptive history will be lost sight of. The drama of Scripture will be displaced in the centre of our consciousness. In its place we will have an alternative narrative, or rather a lack of a real narrative. In this anti-narrative God has willed that certain individuals will be saved and that the rest, countless millions (most?) of the human race, will be destined for eternal perdition. He has decreed that Sin should enter the world so that this purpose could be fulfilled.

Nothing can ever oppose God’s purpose, because God’s purpose is comprehensive. Everything is exactly as God has willed it to be. The idea that God needs to overcome hostile forces in order for His purpose to be fulfilled is lost sight of. As this is lost sight of there will be a corresponding downplaying or loss of the redemptive historical drama. Drama is impossible when there are no real obstacles to overcome. A ‘narrative’ of the inexorable and unhindered progress of God’s purpose to its completion is hardly a narrative in the full sense of the term; it is merely a sequence of events. Such Calvinism will not know what to do with biblical theology; its focus will be almost wholly upon an individual and timeless ordo salutis.

My understanding of God’s purpose is quite different from this. I have argued that we need to resist the popular Calvinist tendency to regard everything as an expression of God’s will and purpose. God’s will and purpose are undoubtedly going to emerge victorious in history, but many of the events that occur within history are to be regarded primarily as standing in opposition to God’s purpose.

God’s purpose is more particular and focused. Christ (understood not as a mere individual, but as a corporate person — the totus Christus) is the telos of all of God’s work in history. Sin and the forces of evil work contrary to this divine purpose. In the Church we become co-workers with God in the outworking of His purpose. We are placed in the hottest part of the conflict. It is through us that God will set His creation to rights. It is the revelation of the sons of God that the hopes of the creation in bondage await. God’s purpose is not unrivalled, nor is every event that takes place to be regarded as an outworking of it. Rather, God’s purpose is worked out through bitter and painful struggle. When we consider the purpose of God this way, the drama of redemptive history will become far more central in our minds.

When the Bible speaks about God’s working out of all things in accordance with His purpose (e.g. Romans 8:28; Ephesians 1:11), I believe that there is no denial of genuine opposition to this purpose. The claim that God works out all things in accordance with His purpose is not, I believe, the same thing as the claim that every event is according to God’s purpose. The point being made in such passages as Romans 8 is that, even in the face of radical evil and suffering, God’s purpose is being worked out and will ultimately triumph. When we start to think of God’s working of all things together for good for those who love Him in such a manner we will be better able to appreciate the manner in which the outworking of God’s purpose is one in which we participate by His grace and does not permit us to think as fatalists or determinists.

Do I have any place for what Calvinists commonly term God’s ‘decretive will’? I do not believe that it is anywhere near as central in the Bible as it is in Reformed theology. I also believe that the use of the term ‘will’ is generally unhelpful. Is there any basis, however, for the idea that every event in history is in some sense or other ordained by God? I think that there is. As the Creator and Sustainer of all, nothing can take place without God’s permission in some form or other. Nevertheless, I do not believe that this permission can be an Arminian nuda permission. The permission that God gives is not the permission of one who stands idly by, making no decision. Rather, the permission that God gives is a voluntary and specific permission. For example, God could have prevented the entry of Sin had He wanted to.

The fact that this permission is voluntary (or ‘willing’) should not blind us to the fact that it is still permission and, as such, does not carry the same force as a positive act of will. For this reason I believe that it is helpful to avoid the language of ‘decretive will’. Using such language can easily deceive us into regarding as positive everything that God has permitted. Whilst we cannot say that God permits things without reason I also believe that there is great danger in trying to factor all events that take place into a universal teleology. Evil does not exist in service of a greater good.

Whilst there is much comfort to be drawn from the fact that God’s permission is a voluntary permission (e.g. Job 1:21; 2:10), most particularly from the truth that God will not permit that which is too much for us (1 Corinthians 10:13) and that we are not at the mercy of forces beyond God’s control, I do not believe that we should start to think that, since God has permitted something, it is to be straightforwardly regarded as a good thing or as something to be accepted unquestioningly.

Whilst God’s creating of man as good, but not yet perfected, makes evil a possibility (not a necessity) for mankind, God is not the efficient cause of evil. God did not create evil. Evil is a matter of privation, not of substance. God does not put evil thoughts into people’s minds, nor, I believe, does He seek to manoeuvre people into situations where sin is inevitable. Adam was created free and able to do both good and evil. The Fall wasn’t inevitable for Adam. Whilst we may not be able to answer all the questions that we would like to ask, I believe that we must hold this much.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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27 Responses to Election, etc. — The Sovereignty of God

  1. Foolish Sage says:

    Wow. You’ve given me much to think about here, Alastair. I have to admit that for almost as long as I’ve been a Calvinist there has been a real tension between the category of absolute sovereignty (which I had accepted as an a priori categor for God) and the story I see unfolding in my Bible. Your way of putting in in this post may lead to a ground for a sovereign God who is over everything yet not the efficient cause of everything without going the route of Open Theism. Lots to think about…and dangerous thoughts in the seminary circle where I live!

  2. AH says:

    AL,

    Thanks for the transperancy with which you handle yourself and the issue in this post. As a ‘Calvinist’ who has begun really to think through some of the implications of the system, I find your insights and those to whom your thought is most a kin to be helpful on a number of fronts. Your insights into Gods sovereignty and that of scriptures testimony seem at points to contradict our systematic theologies, which is testimony to revision or greater clarification. Either way thank you.

  3. Dick says:

    To the extent that the cross of Christ is marginalized in our understanding of how divine sovereignty is secured, I believe that we have betrayed the Scriptures.

    Al, while I appreciate your post in general and find it stimulates thought, I want to ask about your use of betrayal. I see no problem in suggesting that some folks may have misunderstood scripture’s teaching on sovereignty as it relates to Jesus’ death on the cross but doesn’t betrayal suggest an almost wilful neglect, a deliberate decision not to understand. Unless such folks were in your sights at that point, maybe ‘misunderstand’ would be better.

  4. Al says:

    Dick,

    Thank you for your comment. Yes, I think that you are right, ‘betrayal’ might not have been the best word to use. I did not intend to suggest that any willing or conscious betrayal had occurred. My concern for the centrality of the cross is one that has been largely informed by people who hold positions similar to the one I criticize in my post.

  5. Dick says:

    Al,

    Thanks for your gracious response. I’m actually preaching on Joseph’s words in Genesis 45:5-8 tonight and your post has given me additional grist for’t mill. Many thanks.

  6. Jon says:

    You seem to be very much following the via Scotia propounded by Duns Scotus… I don’t think your formulations are without problems… You seem very much to be picking up on so-called “Calvinists” i.e. those who follow a “reformed” tradition who cannot cohesively argue or have read extensively in these areas. I must admit that sometimes I would like to argue against these people because I could make my arguments look just as tight. This isn’t a criticism… Just a note to your readers that whatever you say about “Calvinists” isn’t necessarily denigrating to a refomed theological tradition.

  7. Al says:

    Jon,

    Would you be able to elaborate on the sense that you believe me to be following Scotus?

    Whilst my criticisms are levelled primarily against popular Calvinism, anyone who has read such as Calvin (e.g. III.xxiii.8) in any depth will know that they are very much in view here as well. Indeed, Calvin’s is a very good example of a position that I strongly reject.

    I think that you will find that, as you study Reformed systematicians from all eras, that there is a general tendency to downplay the redemptive historical outworking of God’s sovereignty as God’s absolute determination of history is elevated to the central focus. Whilst Reformed theology is not without biblical warrant for many of its positions it is the disturbing lack of the balance that we witness in Scripture that is the real problem.

    Just about every position that I attack in these posts has been advocated by some person or other within the mainstream of the Reformed tradition. I readily acknowledge that, in criticizing such positions, I have gained much from existing Reformed theologians who have already criticized them. Nevertheless, I have yet to encounter a Reformed theologian who really seems to do justice to these issues as a whole.

  8. john says:

    Much of this series, so far, involves a rejection of some Reformed terminology in the interest of avoiding unbiblical and unwarranted inferences. Reformed teachers who retain such terms as “decretive will” would want to affirm with you that not everything in God’s decree is equally pleasing to him in his holy character, or has the same importance in his purpose.

    The sovereignty “on the ground” is very much addressed by Reformed authors, but they usually speak of it as the “kingdom of God.” What Reformed teacher, preacher, or author “marginalizes” the cross of Christ in the establishment and advance of God’s kingdom?

    Since you use the term “sovereignty” with qualifiers for both the historical advance of sovereignty and also the universal sovereignty, it is important not to equivocate between the two. If the cross establishes God’s universal sovereignty (and is not simply the free manifestation of his universal sovereignty) he would be dependent on what he has created (an understanding outside not only Reformed views, but also most of historic Christianity).

    • Ian says:

      “If the cross establishes God’s universal sovereignty (and is not simply the free manifestation of his universal sovereignty) he would be dependent on what he has created (an understanding outside not only Reformed views, but also most of historic Christianity).”

      Not necessarily, no, anymore than God’s determination to visibly manifest His mercy and justice both leads to the necessity of justifying the ungodly and punishing the wicked (a la Romans 9). Having determined the former He must follow through on the latter, but His initiative in determining the former without external constraint in accordance with His character and nature means that this “must” doesn’t violate His aseity.

      I agree with Alastair that too many accounts of God’s sovereignty leaves God strangely un-innovative; all He’s left doing is making public what’s already been indisputably true the entire time. Go far enough this direction and it’s inevitable we land on things like eternal justification. You’ll recall that fellows like John Owen (though he later abandoned this) saw the act of justification as the announcement to the sinner of what had always already been true, like a prisoner languishing in prison being delivered a pardon the governor had signed weeks before. Noting that God actually achieves victory in real time doesn’t render Him dependent on His creation- it only means His commitment to it and to the genuine good is real.

  9. garver says:

    I’ve often thought along these lines (not that it adds much to what’s already been said):

    [1] if we don’t know Jesus, we don’t know the Father; [2] who God is in himself is unveiled ultimately in the cross; [3] the cross shows us the meaning of Jesus’ statement that he who rules must be the servant of all; [4] Jesus’ point isn’t simply that the cross is the way to dominion, but that that dominion itself is cruciform; [5] thus, when we speak of the sovereignty of God, that must always be a cruciform sovereignty, one that is understood under the category of self-giving love; [6] sovereignty is thus also trinitarian in shape and content for the power and rule of God is the rule of love among the Persons of the Godhead, where Each humbles himself unto the Others; [7] even the will and power of God in creation and providence, therefore, is to be understood in terms of being caught up into this Trinitarian movement of love – God’s gifting of himself unto the creation and the gifting of creation with the capacity to receive him.

    Or something like that.

    On such a view, of course, evil has to be see as fundamentally privative in nature, rather than substantive. Thus evil cannot be seen as “willed” or “decreed” by God in the same sense as that which is good since evil is not a “thing” to be willed or decree.

    The cross then (whatever else it may be) is the overcoming of the privation of evil, the gifting-back of creation to God in and through the Person of Christ, God himself gifting-back and returning what had been lost through sin and death.

    The cross then isn’t the establishment of God’s sovereignty, per se, but the restoration of what otherwise would have been lost, returning creation to the eschatological goal for which it had been created. Since that goal is incorporation into the life of the Trinity, the cross certainly remains a free manifestation of that prior Trinitarian sovereignty. But the restoration through the cross also must always already have been included in God’s free manifestation of his life in the act of creation itself. In that sense, God’s universal sovereignty over creation presupposes and is established by the cross.

    That doesn’t make God’s sovereignty dependent upon creation any more than the God’s sovereignty over the created world is dependent upon the existence of that world.

  10. Al says:

    I agree with Joel’s comments completely. They clarify some points that may have been ambiguous or otherwise poorly stated in my post.

  11. Joel and Al:

    Recently, as you may know, John Piper has been through a battle with cancer. The day before his surgery to remove his prostate, he wrote a letter titled “Don’t Waste Your Cancer” in which he lists ten ways he is determined to glorify God through his cancer. One of these is as follows:

    1. You will waste your cancer if you do not believe it is designed for you by God.

    It will not do to say that God only uses our cancer but does not design it. What God permits, he permits for a reason. And that reason is his design. If God foresees molecular developments becoming cancer, he can stop it or not. If he does not, he has a purpose. Since he is infinitely wise, it is right to call this purpose a design. Satan is real and causes many pleasures and pains. But he is not ultimate. So when he strikes Job with boils (Job 2:7), Job attributes it ultimately to God (2:10) and the inspired writer agrees: “They . . . comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11). If you don’t believe your cancer is designed for you by God, you will waste it.

    What do you think of this challenge, that for an infinitely wise and powerful being to permit something to be is equivalent to his willing it (or “designing it” as Piper puts it) to be?

  12. garver says:

    I would recommend Udo Middleman’s “The Islamization of the Church” as another important perspective. I’m sometimes troubled by Piper’s valorization of the categories of “sovereignty” and “glory” in a way that seems to short-circuit the Trinity and the Cross.

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  14. Joel,

    The Middleman essay was intriguing reading, and the perfect contrast to Piper’s stance, as I blogged here.

    Nevertheless, I’m not sure that answers my original question: if bad things happen, they are at least permitted by God. If God permits something, isn’t that essentially the same as his willing it to be? And if God is always good, then isn’t his willing it to be for a good purpose, as Piper purports?

  15. garver says:

    I don’t see how “permitting” and “willing to be” are at all the same thing, particularly when that which is permitted is a privation of the good and thus not substantive. And there’s a difference between saying that something is good and saying that something is permitted for the sake of a good.

  16. garver says:

    I also suspect there is a mistake in Piper’s thought about the nature of divine causation so that he slides into treating God’s proper creative power (causing things to be) as univocal with God’s causing certain states of affair to obtain.

  17. Thanks, Joel. Very helpful.

  18. Solly says:

    Helo Alastair
    I have made some comments on all four posts on my own bog.

    http://solly57.blogspot.com/2006/03/adversaria-on-calvinism.html

  19. Al says:

    Thanks for the plug!

  20. Matt says:

    Turning to some of the most explicitly Trinitarian texts in the Bible, isn’t the sovereignty of the Father rather distinguished from that of the Son, and depicted as operating precisely “from a great height”? I think of Psalm 2 — “He who sits in the heavens shall laugh”, while he calmly settles sovereignty on His son. Or Peter’s speech in Acts 4:27 “Herod and Pontius Pilate with the gentiles and the people of Israel gathered to do the things which Your hand and will had pre-determined to take place.” It seems, that is, that God the Father’s sovereignty really does operate from a great height, and that most of the struggle depicted, the holy war that Jim Jordan has written of so much, is really about the sovereignty of the Son, whether that be Adam, or Noah, or David, or Christ.

    Or am I being insufficiently Christological in my understanding here?

  21. Al says:

    Matt,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree that we need a Trinitarian account of sovereignty (that has been something that I have been thinking about). I also believe that we need to do justice to the testimony of the verses that you bring up. I believe that it is quite possible to do so without marginalizing the other verses that teach us about God’s sovereignty.

    The other thing that I believe that we need to recognize about the verses that you reference is that they still can be read as referring to God’s acting within history and not just imposing His will upon it from outside. My point is that, although God’s sovereignty is never going to be thwarted by His enemies (the point in Psalm 2, I believe), the enemies of God are really working contrary to His will. What God does is use their weight against them. God deceives them and uses their efforts against His purpose as the very means by which His will is worked out (which is the point of Acts 4:27).

  22. adam naranjo says:

    You must only be reading modern reformed folks.

    Anything? What about the dozens of passages in the N.T. alone that encourage Christians by easing this tension?

    I think you have a point here.

    This is just plain silly.

    Al, did you stop reading your Bible 😉

    Acts 2:23-24 “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; 24 “whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it.

    Does Evil befall a city and I have not caused it?

  23. adam naranjo says:

    Sorry, my last post was a mess…this is what I meant:

    “The sovereignty of God in popular Reformed theology is generally an unassailable sovereignty, acting from a great height. The image of a sweating and bloody Jesus, dying in agonizing pain on a cross as He engages in the great showdown with the Powers in the heat and dust of first century Israel is a largely a peripheral one within such an understanding of divine sovereignty.”

    You must only be reading Piper reformed folks.

    “As soon as sin ceases to be seen as problematic for divine sovereignty, we have a serious problem.”

    “It is imperative that we feel a great tension between the way that things are and the way that God would have them to be. Anything that relaxes this tension can be dangerous.”

    Anything? What about the dozens of passages in the N.T. alone that encourage Christians by easing this tension?

    “The idea of divine sovereignty as an eschatological achievement or victory is troublingly muted.”

    I think you have a point here.

    “If our understanding of divine sovereignty is merely one of irresistible and comprehensive sovereignty operating from a great height, the drama of redemptive history will be lost sight of.”

    This is just plain silly.

    Al, did you stop reading your Bible 😉

    Acts 2:23-24 “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; 24 “whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it.

    Does Evil befall a city and I have not caused it?

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