Sovereignty

Once again, Heather entices us to play a dangerous game. This time, the question is as follows:

What does the sovereignty of God mean to you?

I’ll only be brief because I’m still cranking out a book.

The sovereignty of God is something that I think the majority of Reformed theologies speak too blithely about. For me, to say that God is sovereign is to make a statement of faith and hope, a statement which flies in the face of the evidence of my own experience and of what I perceive about the world. It is a radical statement because it seems so clearly untrue.

The basic questions of the problem of evil essentially preclude a God who is both good and sovereign in the way that we usually use the word. (Look into the eyes of a child dying of leukemia and tell them “God is good, and God controls everything, but God chooses not to save you from this”. If you can. I certainly can’t.) I think that in most cases, Reformed theology is willing to tone down God’s goodness while preserving God’s sovereignty, whereas, for example, process theology will hold to God’s goodness and redefine God’s sovereignty to the point where the term falls away.

Now, if God is not good, then I’m not sure there is any good reason to worship God except for perhaps the desire to placate God so that we won’t be struck down. I think the term sovereign gets in our way, because for us it is still a political term which means overt control.

If God’s sovereignty was overt control, then there would be no crucifixion. In fact, if you were brave enough, you might even be inclined to say that the cross is God’s absolute “no” to our ideas of sovereignty as domination or control. It is a very extreme no that seems to leave no room whatsoever for our alliance with the powers of domination in this world. You might say that, at least.

We forget that it was sovereign power that tortured and killed Christ, who seems to have rejected political power at every turn.

So, for me, if God is indeed sovereign, then the term needs to be radically overhauled. For the time being, when I do make that claim, it is as I said above a statement of hope.

I think that if we are to learn what it means that God is sovereign, we must depart our ivory towers forever, and go live among those who are being crucified in this world, right now, by the sovereign powers of domination. We need to go to them and learn the meaning of the word as it applies to the God who is known in Christ.

15 thoughts on “Sovereignty

  1. Like you, I also had trouble with applying the concept of “sovereignty” to God.I think that Jesus represented an opposition to the very ideology of “sovereignty” that is characterized in the current world by domination systems, oppression, Empire, and war.

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  2. If knowing Jesus is to know God, and the story of the washing of the feet is to be taken for what it is, that in the Kingdom of God the greatest must be the servant of all, then the “sovereignty” of God must mean He is the servant of ALL.Think about it. Only God could do that.

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  3. I find it very interesting that so far, none of us holds to the view of sovereignty that “God is the boss and y’all better obey.” (My view is probably closest, at least when talking about the huge range of things God could possibly do–but then Jesus finds that “boss” form of power satanic!)About theodicy–I don’t think any theodicy can be the thing to say in the moment when you’re there with the kid with leukemia. The kid or parent who asks “Why is this happening?” is not going to be satisfied with any answer that begins “Well, here’s why! …” I mean, isn’t it equally problematic to say “God just isn’t strong enough to save you from leukemia. Too bad.” ?In my experience it’s only much later that people who’ve lived through a tragedy start to say how this fits with who they believe God is. Or how it doesn’t fit. For some it remains a point of protest and anguished prayer.All of which is to say, I agree with you, because in the moment, when I’ve sat next to a parent staring into the jaws of death, it’s meant (among other things) the complete crucifixion of any possibility of sitting back and saying, “Well, here’s the explanation.”

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  4. @ HeatherYeah, theodicy isn’t the thing for the hospital bedside. I guess my point was more that, well, God isn’t saving *anyone* from leukemia, or is saving almost no-one. So when you’re talking about sovereignty, for me, theodicy is inextricable.For me, really, sovereignty isn’t a very useful descriptor of God, but its definitely something I have to deal with because it is such a common one.

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  5. Heather,(I know you guys are all seminary students and professors, but can I barge in a little more?)I know a man whose daughter was dying in a hospital and his pastor offered to pray with him and his wife and he refused saying “God and I not on talking terms right now”He says his wife imposed on him to let the pastor pray anyway, and when he did, his pastor started with,“God, what is this shit?”He says “at the time I thought, “now there’s a prayer I >can< pray""I see him in church every Sunday. It’s been over twenty years since that day. (His daughter lived).I don’t think theodicy is ever our calling. Because ultimately the entire human race is sitting at the bedside of its dying daughter.

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  6. I think that in the face of the reality of evil, both the statements that “God is good” and “God is in control” are statements of hope. We HOPE God is good and God is in control because most of the evidence is to the contrary.Good stuff here, Doug. Though I come down stronger than you on wanting to use the term sovereignty not so much for what it says about God, but for what it says about sovereignty. To me the reason to use this language is that it completely disestablishes the legitimacy of the state. If willing death on a cross is what it looks like to be sovereign than our many puffed up military mucky mucks are just so much foolishness and waste.

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  7. The sovereignity of God is an essential of faith. I don’t know how to reconcile it with freedom and sin and heaven but it’s something that must be accepted if God is to be God.Good luck with book…hmmm…I sure would like to read it someday:-)

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  8. Doug,Interesting question. But Aric, the need for someone to be “in control” is a human need. You said so yourself: “we HOPE”. But is it a God need? I think the cross says “no”.So if sovereignty is not “in control”, then what is it? And why is it an essential “of faith”. The only essential of true Faith I think is being able to live without essentials. Even more, I think the search for essentials is a dead give away to a crisis of faith. They are something to hang on to when faith is failing. Faith IS the essential without which no others are sufficient and through which no others are needed.That’s why Paul says we are saved through Faith.Well, I guess Grace is essential; His that is.

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  9. Hi Doug. I totally do not know how I found your blog, but I like it.The issue here is the evidentiary problem of suffering and not so much a world in which some suffering exists.The view that I tend to find to be the only one that is remotely intellectually satisfying is the idea that Simone Weil argues that in the act of creation God elected to limit God’s own sovereignty in order that what was created could have an existence on its own. She calls this the first crucifixion.While this is sustained by God, it is not determined by God for otherwise human beings would not be able to receive God. We assent to the good by an act of will. So the relationship between God and humanity is one of recognition of the other as an other and not as something that is determined by what we say or do. In other words, if God determined everything for us, then we would cease to be human in the image of God – at all.For Weil, not having the freedom to assent to God as an act of the will is more like suffering. When we have no choice in the matter, we are less than human.It’s far more complicated that this, but the idea is that the act of creation was God electing God’s own self to be limited and Jesus functions as that principle that orders the world in the place of that limitedness.

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  10. @ DrewI’m glad you like it. I definitely get mixed reviews 🙂I basically agree with Weil’s view in this respect. If God is sovereign, then God is sovereign in a very non-sovereign way, through surrender rather than domination, through relationality rather than authoritarianism. I also agree that the human capacity to assent to God (or not) is crucial – though other bloggers, like my friend Aric Clark, certainly disagree with me there.

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  11. Hi DougHmm…for me sovereignity meant that God was before the beginning and God will be after everything ends. God is not only in charge, God is everything (a little pantheism there). God rules over all.That is how sovereign God is. The farther one travels from that thinking, the one gets nearer to it.To tell the truth Doug, I’m becoming a Calvinist! 🙂

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