Monday, November 26, 2012

A Divine Sovereignty Worthy of God

The title of the Sunday sermon was “If God is in control, then what?”  It was the last sermon in the liturgical year, the next Sunday being the first Sunday of Advent.  The pastor thought it a good sermon topic for ending the liturgical year.  The topic was Divine Sovereignty.  The pastor’s aim was to reconcile three issues with a notion of Sovereignty: unexplained catastrophe, undeserved prosperity of the wicked, and human free will. The key verse for the sermon was Psalms 103.19: The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.

I don't have a problem with Divine Sovereignty, at least how I understand Sovereignty.  My conception of Sovereignty fits exactly, it seems to me, with Psalm 103.19.  I don't understand it in the way that is typical for Calvinists.  Calvinists seem to think that Sovereignty requires, in addition to God ruling over all, that God be in detailed control of every event.  That is, they equate Sovereignty with predestination and foreordination.  Indeed an online encyclopedia of Christianity, Theopedia, defines Sovereignty of God as “the biblical teaching that all things are under God’s rule and control, and that nothing happens without His direction or permission.”  Get that?  It is “the biblical teaching,” as if there is only one biblical teaching about God’s authority, such that any other notion of sovereignty is non- or un-biblical.  The definition also adds the notion of “control” whereas biblical texts end at “rule.”

Yes, there are places in the bible that make it appear that God is in control of some details that we usually think of as under control of humans: perhaps Romans 13.1 The authorities that exist have been established by God.  But that is ambiguous between referring to individual rulers and referring to the notion of human rule and authority: which did God establish, individual rulers or the notion of human authority?  We usually think that determining who is in charge is a matter of a ballot or an appointment by a superior, not a matter of divine control.   And there are places in the bible that make it appear that God is not in such control: perhaps Psalm 2.1-3 Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?  The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles’.  They conspire, plot, rise up, and band together against the Lord.  All this is in vain not because it is really God who is controlling everything; it is because God rules and they are supposed to serve God (with “fear and trembling” it says).

Why should anyone think that the notion of Sovereignty also requires God to be in control of everything?  And why should Calvinists be able to dictate what any other Christian should believe about the Sovereignty of God?

A Sovereign is a ruler, one whose law is law over a domain or region independently of whether a subject agrees with or accepts that law.  A Sovereign is not someone who controls every event that occurs within his or her kingdom.  A Sovereign is one who is the lord of that kingdom.  No Sovereign controls her or his subjects, determining every event that happens to them.  If a subject disobeys the Sovereign, or violates a law set by the Sovereign, the subject is subject to sanction.

With such a notion of Sovereignty, now applied to the Christian God, I see no conflicts between Sovereignty and human free will.  I also have no need to blame God for causing (or not intervening to prevent) wicked people from prospering in what seems a great unfairness.  As well, I have no need to blame God for causing (or not intervening to prevent) great amounts of pain and suffering seen in some unexplained catastrophes.  Why?  Because Divine Sovereignty does not require God being the cause of, or in control of, every detail of every event.  All Sovereignty requires is that God rules over all and God’s kingdom is authoritative over all other realms.

Some of the great amounts of pain and suffering are just due to there being a material world that operates with considerable regularity, following (what we call) laws of nature.  There are some things God cannot and could not do.  God could not make a material world perfect (whatever that means), at least if you hold a standard theological view that God only is perfect.  Maybe to say that some original pre-fallen creation was "perfect" simply means that it was full or complete, that it didn't need anything added to it; it cannot mean "perfect" in the sense that most folks think of God as perfect.  God also cannot make a material world with material persons who acquire a good deal of their knowledge of the world by means of the senses, of nerves, synapses and brains, and make it such that material persons could not sense pain.  If we have material bodies, they will be capable of over-stimulation.  Even if there was an Adam living someplace before a fall, if he stepped on a sharp rock he felt a pain.  I could follow a similar line of reasoning to explain how God designed a world in which benefits sometimes come to various undeserving individuals.

So I don't believe God is in control of everything.  Nor do I think God can do everything.  Nor do I think God knows everything.  And I still think God is Sovereign.  God sets the way for how humans should interact with and relate to God and their neighbors.  God may even have set the way that the universe would develop and run.  God may even enter time and space to act in special ways, the ways we call "miracles."  Sovereignty requires that God is the final, ultimate authority.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.

Lastly, at least for now, while I think God doesn't know everything and isn't in control of everything, there is no event, no human choice or human tragedy that catches God so off-guard that God has to feel helpless and wonder what in the world to do.  An image I use is of chess playing (I don't know how to play chess, so this is hearsay).  It is as if we are playing chess with God.  God lets all of us make our moves (well, maybe for some or all of us there is a measure of prevenient grace so that some or all of us can freely chose to side with God who, through Christ, was reconciling himself to the world).  Whatever moves we make, even those moves that cause great pain and suffering to others—those things that I believe cause God sadness—God always has the capacity for a counter-move.  God can always win the game in the end.  When naturally caused or humanly caused evils occur, God can make things whole again.  I think that to be God, God does not always need to make things whole again.  But God can.  Or maybe God always does make things whole again, but some of those whole-makings are so far down the road that we never experience it.

If most people would think a few minutes about these matters, while they might initially feel very uneasy and even unwilling to say so aloud, I do think they would tend to agree with me.  On the one hand, they want to mouth the mantra "God is in control of everything."  After all, on a list of good and proper things for contemporary Christians to affirm, “God is in control of everything” is about the same status as “God communicates to us through the Bible” or “God loves everyone.”  Nonetheless and on the other hand they (at least secretly and in their private moments) think that God does not control everything, that they really do make choices, that bad and wicked things are not controlled by God.  I think they'd be better off dumping the mantra "God is in control of everything" and instead just stick with the mantra "God is Lord over all."  And Lords, as we all know, do not control their subjects; yet the subjects have to answer to the Lord and should Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling (Psalm 2.11).

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