Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Define Sovereign

When someone says that God is Sovereign, any Christian worthy of the name finds himself agreeing but at the same time feels that the speaker is using code for something else. It is largely because the idea of YHWH, maker of Heaven and Earth, being sovereign is too obvious to be that speaker's only motivation. He who intones that "God is sovereign" is "up to" something. The word "sovereign" means "rule" and, of course, God does... all things. But the person that was belaboring the obvious was not saying that God rules, he was saying that God exercised a certain kind of rule, that of exhaustive sovereignty. He is saying that God is an Autocrat (all decision falls to Him) versus a Monarch (the highest and ultimate judge of all decisions).

The foregoing is an example of the infamous "boa constrictor" argument. This a form of argument is one in which a concept is uttered in terms with which everyone in the audience will agree (the loose loops of the snake) and once everyone assents to it, applying it narrowly, presuming on the agreement of the audience (constricting the coils). It will either be that the loose or the tight use is being misdefined. In this case, the tight is the erroneous usage.
They say, "God rules."
We say, "yeah, you betcha."
They say "So you agree that God is in exhaustive control and has decreed all things."
We say "Nope."

The question before Christians regarding the Sovereign of the Universe is His method or kind or extent of rule. And the debate is narrower than we think. The nature of rule is that there be two (minimum) participants, that which rules and that which is ruled. They don't have to be outside an individual as in the mind ruling the body but they must be discrete. The discreteness is present only if there is a real potential of regard and disregard of the ruler. The ruled may not merely be the extension of the will of the ruler or there is no other will for the ruler to rule. If God's governance is presumed to be an exhaustive autocracy (in which nothing occurs but the will of the ruler) there is no actuality to the existence of the party called "the ruled". We know that in ourselves, that the closer we get to an absolute submission to our wills, the more closely we are able to define that which is our self. If there is an absolute and exhaustive submission to the will of God, nothing exists but Himself. The apparent diversity of creation would be merely the presence of God. It is pantheism ( "God is everything and everything is God … the world is either identical with God or in some way a self-expression of his nature"). Consequently, exhaustive divine sovereignty is not sovereignty at all. Only that which grants (by whatever method) an encounter with possible obedience and disobedience can claim to rule. God rules like all rulers rule. He has not exhaustive decision but exhaustive imperium, the unquestionable ability to reward and punish all things. His absolute ability to punish and reward all that is in His creation is the arena of sovereignty. The question before Christians is between, and the ratio between, that which He causes and that which He rules.


John Barry said...

Well said, Evan. As I put it from time to time, the essence of God's (or any) sovereignty lies not in a meticulous control, but in exercising judgment--rewarding right and punishing wrong. This is how the Scriptures present sovereignty.

The Oracle said...


Tiffany said...

It seems sometimes that the degree of Reign that God excerises varies in any given area. Child bearing for example. We see through out the scriptures that God closes and opens wombs, gives children to barren women, and even a virgin. However, God also set in His creating a certain biological ordering of things, so what is most often the case is that God's rule is carried out under His original biological ordering. He is no less in rule (or sovereign), it is simply a rule which He established as an over arching principle. Is that a correct application and understanding of this principle?

The Oracle said...

Yep, that is the distinction between decree and rule. Mary had her child decreed. Other women might not in which case God would rule the choices that those people would make.

The Anti-Darwin said...

It seems to me that The Most High Sovereign has woven an aspect of potential judgement within the creation. "God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap." If there is such a thing as Exhaustive Sovereignty, then from whence come the sowers of bad seed?

Gibbs said...


Jon Paul, my best man, recently described to me a book he was reading about process theology and how the mainline Calvinistic approach to God's sovereignty is overly informed by Platonism and our notions of God being "the greatest power." Interesting... the exhaustively sovereign God comes down to little more than a "benefit machine" and is no more three personsthan the Earth's sun, which pumps out energy impersonally in the same way an exhaustively sovereign God pumps out blessings and curses.

Still, any discussion of God's power that doesn't include a discussion of His character and goodness doesn't seem of any more profit or maturity than talking about the spiritual merits of cup size. Doesn't it seem like the Bible's discussions of God's power are always chased down by discussions of what He does with that power?



The Oracle said...

Josh, I think you are correct. All power is either a fact or not. All gods are power infused and that, which makes them gods, is always greater than man. "What is man that thou art mindful of him, Thou hast made him for a little while lower than the gods." The announcement of YHWH to man lays the claim that He is All Powerful, the creator of Heaven and Earth. Gods are adored for what blessings they bring and it is beneficial to find in YHWH He who has both the supreme power and, as our creator, He who has represented in our knowledge that which is good and forever upholds it.

John Henckel said...

I like Evan's description of the "boa" argument. I've seen that used often. But I don't think Evan's conclusion is logical. Evan presents two views of sovereignty (1) absolute, (2) monarchy. He says the "nature of rule" requires two participants. That is bad logic. He is borrowing the definitions of "rule" in the second sense (monarchy) and using it to argue against the first sense (absolute). To find a contradiction with absolute sovereignty, one must first suppose that it is true. In which case, the definition of "rule" is that every decision is ultimately attributable to God, who is the first cause of all things. Evan later says that absolute sovereignty is equal to "pantheism". This is also bad logic. Just because God is in total control of the universe, that does not mean that the universe is equal to God. God may have many attributes that are not expressed in the universe. Just like I have many thoughts that are not expressed in this email.

You should read "The Shack" (Young). Especially the last part of ch.6 God (the black woman) says "We are not three Gods... I am One God and I am three persons, each of the three is fully and entirely the one... If I were simply One God and only One Person, the you would find yourself in this Creation without something wonderful, essential even.... Our love and relationship with you is possible only because it already exists within Me, within God myself. Love is not the limitation [of God]... I am Love." So unless God were a plurality, we would always be on the outside of God. But because God is plural already, as part of His eternal nature, we are able to join Him at the most intimate level. We become God and God becomes us, not just symbolically but really literally.

It gave me new insight to "love your neighbor as you love yourself". God loves us as He loves Himself (or "themself" as The Shack says), and He is telling us to do the same. Regarding sovereignty, God the father is obedient to the Son, and the Son is obedient to the father. Is one the boss? No, they love each other, and each wants to serve the other and put the other one first. And we obey God, and God obeys us. No one is the ruler over the other; it is all about love and mutual submission.

ian paul cunningham said...

Is Sovereignty even an attribute of God? An attribute would be something God IS. Not something God became. You see God only BECAME Sovereign when he created the universe. In order to be Sovereign you must be ruling over something or someone. Something to ponder.