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.