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Sovereignty

November 15, 2010
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I would like to start off with an assertion that will horrify some of you. It is possible to overstate God’s sovereignty. It is possible to do this not because God is less than sovereign, but because God’s ideas of sovereignty are not ours, and so we sometimes claim that something is a property of sovereignty when it is not. This is especially commonplace when that this is actually a property of tyranny.

But, some people will claim, isn’t tyranny simply complete sovereignty? Isn’t the problem with tyranny a human one, that no human should have that much authority, something obviously not applicable to God? Well, perhaps, depending on how we define tyranny. But I’m primarily thinking of a sense that a tyrant is beyond the law. The law in this case would be moral law, which is an outgrowth or reflection of God’s nature. God is certainly not beyond His own nature.

I’ve already written two paragraphs and I don’t think I’ve caused enough trouble, so let’s start swinging. The primary doctrine that I run across which misstates sovereignty is the idea that God should choose us without regard to anything about us. This is the same thing as God choosing whom to save in a completely arbitrary manner. To demonstrate this we need to delve into a brief (I promise) discussion about randomness and arbitrariness.

Imagine that you are presented with a black box that performs some sort of a selection procedure on items. You wish to discover what this selection procedure is, but you can’t simply get a print-out of the rules from the device. One of the first questions might be, “Is this selection random?” But how would you tell? You could present a number of items to the device and get it to repeatedly select from the same group. If it was equally likely to select any item, regardless of that item’s properties, you would know that this selection was done randomly (specifically, randomly with a uniform distribution). But what if the selection was not uniform allowing some items to be more likely selected than others? Well, then there are two possibilities. Either the device selects based on some set of criteria (“biggest and reddest”, for instance) or it imposes some set of criteria (say, numbers the items in the order it detects them and then remembers the assigned numbers between trials) and uses that to select items. This is true even if the non-uniform selection is still random. Imagine a die with six sides labeled one, two, three, four, four, and four. Rolling the die is still random, but it’s not uniform. Four will show up a lot more than anything else. However, to turn the numbers on the die into selections we need an imposed criteria – we need to have numbered the items so we know which one “four” is.

This exercise exists to outline three possibilities for selection: selection can be random, or it can impose a characteristic and then select using said characteristic, or it can select using an inherent characteristic. That second category is important for the discussion of random versus arbitrary. It is not random to impose a characteristic (a number, say) and then select using that characteristic as a selection criteria (for instance, selecting the highest number). It is, however, arbitrary. If that characteristic is imposed it could equally well be imposed on anything. You could have one black box that selects a wine glass most of the time and another black box that selects a toilet seat most of the time. The one that selects a wine glass might select one wine glass quite frequently, but almost never select an identical wineglass. If we were able to reset the device we could get a completely different set of preferred choices out of it because it would re-impose the criteria. Arbitrary criteria don’t matter much when some hypothetical device almost never selects a particular scarf because it was the 356th item presented to it, and 356 falls on the tail end of its drawing distribution. However, arbitrary criteria do matter when they are applied to people. Imagine, for instance, that you discovered a certain college was choosing applicants by assigning values to each letter in the alphabet and then adding up the number values for each applicant’s name and accepting applicants whose names summed to the highest value. Odds are good that you feel this is as bad as letting a random number generator select applicants or even worse.

When we talk about God’s selection we generally assume one of two possibilities. Either we make some effort of our will to respond to God which God then magnifies or we don’t do anything and are instead dragged kicking and screaming into the faith (which causes us to stop kicking and screaming). The first is often held to inflate the human ego. Isn’t it far more sovereign of God to choose us arbitrarily, not because we worked for it? Indeed, it’s certainly more like the behavior of a human tyrant, but we already recognize that God uses at least some inherent traits when He decides to choose people. As Dallas Willard points out, God has not, apparently, seen fit to extend his mercy to any rocks. There are an awful lot of rocks, but Irresistible Grace does not seem to have gripped any of them. The natural response to this is to make a sarcastic noise, but “human” is an inherent trait. Most of us have no problem with this bit of selection based on inherent criteria.

In fact, it’s simply not smart to ignore inherent criteria when selecting things most of the time. When selecting a cup it’s good to pay attention to criteria such as whether the cup has a bottom. When selecting an employee it’s good to ask such things as, “Does this person have any clue how to do this job?” If God is smarter than us (something that no one who asserts sovereignty has ever denied in my presence) then why would he use a selection process deemed stupid in the human world? Primarily, I think, because we think God is giving out gifts. In fact, the usage of the term “free gift” (as opposed to those gifts for which you pay, which are not called gifts) to describe salvation correlates pretty strongly to this whole idea. Now, God is certainly giving out gifts. I’ve been throwing out burning, gas-soaked ideas jammed into glass bottles a lot in this essay, but this isn’t one of them. Salvation, which I see as an extremely holistic thing that redeems on every level, and not merely something that happens to some immaterial part of you called a soul, is certainly a gift. However, salvation is also a call to action. God has a funny habit of asking us to participate. Did He need Moses to rescue His people from Egypt? No. But He used him. Did He need prophets to declare His word? No, He could have shouted it from the sky. In fact, the Bible lists very, very few incidents in which God acts completely alone without answering the prayers of a human or providing a human with guidance.

Given this, God is not merely deciding who to hand the goodies out to: He is also recruiting agents for His work in the world. This happens to be one and the same process, but because there is this element of recruitment it makes sense for God to pay attention to inherent characteristics in us. Those of us who are eager to do God’s will and progress in knowledge and sanctification would seem to be obviously better agents than those who do not (except, of course, when those who do not can be dramatically reversed).

But doesn’t God choose the bad choices? I probably know more people who “know” this than I know who can recite four lines of the Nicene Creed. I’d like to suggest that, actually, God always selects the best choices. Because He’s God and He’s smarter than us. Pick a bad choice. Moses, perhaps? The stutterer? He worked out pretty well. It probably didn’t hurt that, raised in the Egyptian court, he was possibly the only ethnic Hebrew who knew how to maneuver the halls of power to get audiences with Pharaoh and who knew Egyptian tactics in warfare. And, during his sojourn with his father-in-law Jethro, he gained knowledge of the terrain the Hebrews fled into from Egypt. Bad choice or excellent one? What about David? The youngest boy, the shepherd? The lion-killer, the giant-slayer, the pious, careful man who tricked his Philistine enemies, respected the rights of the priests, made friends where it counted, and unified Israel under a single king? Or Paul, who breathed out murderous threats against the Church and whose incredible brain and educational background, as well as his past, gave him the ability to understand the new thing God was doing in an incredible way and serve as a great witness to the truth of God, that could turn even a zealous persecutor of the Church into a staunch defender?

Really, the problem isn’t that God picks bad choices, or arbitrary ones (although His mercy sometimes goes further than we would like, as the oft-quoted, and oft-misused, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” suggests). God chooses the best choices, but, being stupid, we don’t get that. We say, as Samuel says in 1 Samuel 16, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him,” only to learn that, “The Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” It is in no way insulting to God’s sovereignty to claim that God’s choices are best, and even understandable (in hindsight, at least) as we learn God’s system of values. What is insulting, though, is to claim that our tyrannical pretensions, full of arbitrary beneficence and equally arbitrary cruelty, represent the sort of lordship the God brings. Does God need to engage in pointless acts simply to show that He can? Is His position under threat that He must flex His divine muscle at us? Or is God, being God, bringing about rule that is as just as it is wise, and altogether conditioned by His incredible goodness and mercy?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 15, 2010 7:04 pm

    This is very interesting, and a great debate of philosophy. Is God bound by the moral law, or is God completely sovereign? Personally, I’m on the other side, because I believe God made the law. I think what he made right is right because he declared it so. I cite the oft-quoted example of God commanding Abraham to kill his own son. Abraham was expected to be faithful to God over all in his life, even in murdering his own family, which was certainly wrong by any other standard. God expected Abram to do what he commanded, because by virtue that it was his command made it good. So, my 2 cents on why I think God is totally sovereign.

  2. Eric permalink
    November 15, 2010 10:49 pm

    I’ve actually addressed that very dilemma here:
    https://thejawboneofanass.wordpress.com/2010/05/31/personhood/
    I think the answer is neither – the law is not separable from God and so the question doesn’t make sense. It would be like asking whether I typed these words or my fingers did.

    Regardless, I’m cautious of using the term “sovereignty” loosely. I absolutely believe that God is sovereign. On the other hand, people frequently claim strange things about God while claiming that these strange things are merely outgrowths of sovereignty.

    I’m not interested in challenging God’s actual sovereignty. I’m interested in challenging the idea that God’s sovereignty looks like Stalin’s.

  3. November 16, 2010 2:49 am

    Ah, very interesting, and yes I like your answer. This was a big debate in our intro philosophy class, and our teacher was very concerned with having an answer to that question (I daresay she thought the “correct” answer was that God was bound to a moral law). I agree, God is not like a human tyrant. I love that you highlight his interactions with us. In my last post, I just listed with short descriptions a few human interactions with God in Genesis. My favorite example from there correlating to your pointing out that God doesn’t usually act without us is this…

    “Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maids, so that they bore children.” Genesis 20:17

    Abimelech got rid of Sarah after the dream, but it wasn’t until Abraham interceded that Abimelech’s household was healed. God was waiting for Abraham to return and approach him in order to completely resolve the matter.

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