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Friday, June 08, 2012

God's Sovereignty

It's one of my favorite topics -- the Sovereignty of God. I am so enamored with it that I put the "S" in Sovereignty as a capital letter. That is, this "Sovereignty" so far outweighs any other "sovereignty" that it is in a class by itself.

Of course, anyone who reads the Bible knows that God is sovereign. I mean, it says it, right? It doesn't take a Bible scholar to read and understand, "[Jesus Christ] is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords" (1 Tim 6:15), just as an example. The word is there. The concept is clear. It's a given that God is sovereign. But most people will only include the lowercase word. Why?

Well, we have this problem. It is what the skeptics deem the Achilles heel of Christianity. It's the problem of evil. (By "evil" we mean anything unpleasant, painful, or morally bad.) We have this crisis, you see. If there is evil in the world of any kind, then what does that tell us about God? Well, the skeptic would say (by an illogical leap) "There is no such being" (not realizing that such a leap gives them no basis on which to say there is anything evil in the world at all). But the thinking person would say, "Well, it leaves us with two possibilities. Either God is not sovereign, or God is not good." That can be formed in a couple of ways, of course. He's not omnipotent or not omni-benevolent. That sort of thing. But it's all the same in the end. Either God is unable or unwilling to do anything about it. In answer to this conundrum, the standard Christian response goes something like this: "God is doing the best He can." Seriously, that's the common response.

Here's the typical thinking. God is sovereign, not Sovereign. Christians will affirm God's sovereignty because it's in the book, but the position they often take is that God sovereignly limited His Sovereignty to allow for Man's Free Will and, as such, is now only functioning with limited sovereignty. And somehow that is the basis of comfort offered by a host of Christians to those who are suffering from evil in its various forms. "God is doing the best He can."

Strange. When I read my Bible, I don't see that at all. I can only guess that this conclusion that "God is doing the best He can" and the idea that God has limited His Sovereignty for Man's Free Will comes from a philosophical argument because it certainly isn't a biblical argument. Here's the biblical argument:
Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?" (Lam 3:37-38).

"I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted" (Job 42:2).

"I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things" (Isa 45:6-7).

"Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father" (Matt 10:29).
Here, you want a jolt? If you're of the mind that God has surrendered some of His Sovereignty for Man's Free Will, consider this. We know that Jesus was crucified by the command of Pontius Pilate. Here's the question. Where did Pilate get the authority to kill the Son of God? According to Christ, "You would have no authority over Me at all unless it had been given you from above" (John 19:11). Now that's quite a statement, isn't it? Pilate was not operating at the behest of the Jews. He was not serving by the command of Caesar. Pilate ordered Christ to be crucified under the authority of God. That is, God issued the command, approved the order, said "Make it so."

The list is much, much bigger than this. Biblically, it is huge. All biblical indications are that God works all things according to the counsel of His will, and "all things" is not limited to "those things outside of Man's Free Will". Instead, "The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps" (Prov 16:9). God allows evil for His good purposes and intends it that way. Instead of sovereignty, the biblical indications are that God is Sovereign -- without exception.

Now, you'll have to decide if you're going to go with the biblical account or with some other version. And you'll certainly have to decide whether or not it is possible that a Sovereign God can still be good while allowing evil in its many forms to exist. But you'll be hard-pressed to decide that the Bible teaches limited sovereignty ... because I can't find it in there and I don't think you can either. Going with the explicit over the implicit, I don't think there is a biblical argument for limiting God's Sovereignty. So, here's where I end up. Given that God is defined as both Absolute Sovereign and the definition of Good, what can I conclude? I can only conclude that my comprehension of evil (in all its forms) is flawed. And if Romans 8:28 is accurate, it would seem that that would be the correct conclusion.


Dan Trabue said...

you'll certainly have to decide whether or not it is possible that a Sovereign God can still be good while allowing evil in its many forms to exist.

I'm not sure I understand your position, Stan.

It seems to me the limited sovereignty of God that says God grants human free will perfectly explains evil, in that God is not going to subjugate us forcibly to God's will. A good and loving God does not force submission.

On the other hand, a so-called "Sovereign God" that plans on evil happening, that seems to be a god with a problem with "good," not the other way around.

I guess your explanation is that this Sovereign god is so good that god plans on (requires? causes? allows?) evil to happen so that some mysterious greater good can be accomplished and its only because of our limited viewpoint that we can't see the greater good, only the limited evil that this god has required/caused/allowed?

I just see the problem of evil much greater in that explanation than in the "limited sovereignty" of God explanation.

As to this...

you'll have to decide if you're going to go with the biblical account or with some other version.

I would just point out that it is your opinion that this is the biblical account, and not the only opinion in the ocean.

Stan said...

Oh, Dan, of course mine is not the only opinion in the ocean. I said so. "The idea that God has limited His Sovereignty for Man's Free Will comes from a philosophical argument because it certainly isn't a biblical argument." You've taken the philosophical argument without offering a biblical argument. Indeed, you've taken exactly the argument I would expect you to take. It's simply an illustration of a key difference between us. Don't let it bother you. I approach Scripture, ask "What does it say?", and assume that Scripture rightly defines truth (where "truth" = "that which corresponds to reality") and you look around you, determine what you see as "reality", and then interpret Scripture from that reality. Please note that I've only indicated a difference between us without offering a value judgment. I haven't said, "And your way is wrong and my way is right" or anything like it. But, just as in the "marriage" question, I offered my view based on what I see in the Bible and you offered your view based on what you believe to be true. One of the things that makes you and I different.

Dan Trabue said...


You've taken the philosophical argument without offering a biblical argument.

Only because it's been done before. I could repeat my biblical basis for finding your opinions problematic, but the actual difference remains that I try to be clear that my biblical opinions are MY biblical opinions. I don't try to force a false dichotomy ("Oh, well, I'm looking to the Bible but you're just talking about philosophical opinions...").

THAT seems to be the difference between us, Stan. From where I sit, anyway.

We're both looking at the Bible, Stan. There's no need to make suggestions like that, it seems to me.

Stan said...

Dan Trabue: "We're both looking at the Bible, Stan."

Well, Dan, I would invite you to share with us all what it is in Scripture that 1) tells you that your hunches on the topic are correct and 2) to tell us why the Scriptures I offered do not mean what they seem to say at all. This latter point assumes two things, of course. First, the Bible should make sense. If it is perfectly acceptable for the Bible to contradict itself (say, to assure us in one point that God is absolutely Sovereign and to deny it in another), then you needn't accomplish the 2nd point. Second, if the Bible should make sense, then the answer is not to nullify some passages in order to affirm others, but to bring them into agreement.

I'm pretty sure, however, that what I first indicated will still be the case. I will operate on the basis of Scripture and you will operate on the basis of your particular view of reality from which you will reinterpret Scripture. I know, I know, that sounds bad, but that's about how it goes. Still, I'll wait until you provide the biblical reasons why none of the passages I used actually meant what I said they meant. Don't want to leap to judgment, you know.

starflyer said...

I can't imagine reading the Bible and always wondering if it really means what it clearly says.

Stan, thanks for always using verses that clearly prove your point.

I'm not surprised that some readers (not just today's post) will take the Bible and make it into whatever they want it to be. I guess they have to do that to justify their positions (belief systems).

Otherwise they'd have to face the clear realities warned about in the Bible. In other words, "If I'm going to blatently disregard God's admonitions/warnings I better reinterpret the passage; otherwise I'm wrong...and a goner!"

I gotta think that deep down they know they are wrong and just playing at the Bible. I don't take what I'm saying lightly; I wrestle/struggle with my own sinful thoughts and desires, some of which the Bible condemns very harshly. But I don't try to change the meaning of a verse so I can be comfortable with my sin. The Bible calls itself a sword, able to cut to the bone...that's so that I will fall in line with its teachings. For me to say this or that verse really means something else...or that's your opinion, would be just plain wrong.

Lord, please forgive me of my sins and errors in my thinking. May your word keep me on the straight and narrow.

Marshall Art said...

At present, I'm really no farther along on the issue of Sovereignty than I was in past discussions on the subject. I don't believe I've seen a verse that really nails the issue for me one way or the other, and none presented here fail to work within my previous/ongoing perspective. I'm just really glad that standing one one side or the other on the issue doesn't jeopardize one's salvation.

I also have never had much of a problem with the question of evil and what it means as regards God's nature. I don't tend to analyze passages as if God was anything at all like us. I am not threatened by the notion that He has ordered the destruction of entire peoples, that He allows or even uses evil acts to further His Master Plan. If there is anything "above my pay grade", it is to presume to judge God, His plan or His methods. Whatever He wants is way cool with me.

Stan said...

Marshall Art, I'm just a little baffled by your " I don't believe I've seen a verse that really nails the issue for me one way or the other, and none presented here fail to work within my previous/ongoing perspective." Since I agree wholeheartedly that getting this issue right is not the key to salvation, I'm hoping you can explain it to me.

I listed multiple passages in this entry (and there are certainly more to come). I cannot seem, by any means whatsoever, to get around the conclusion from these (and the many more that are in there) to conclude anything but God's absolute Sovereignty. You don't. You're happy with a limited sovereignty, a partial sovereignty, a sovereignty that ends where my free will begins. Given passages like "The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps" (Prov 16:9) and "Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?" (Lam 3:37), what is it that makes you believe that Man's Free Will has sovereignty over God's sovereignty? On what Scriptures would you base your position? (Because, remember, I'm asking a biblical question. Dan concurs with you from his philosophical position.)

Or maybe I'm just not understanding what your position is. If that's the case, what is it and what Scriptures make that case? (Remember, as I told Dan, we can't end up with contradicting Scriptures. They must correlate, not contradict.)

David said...

I sometimes wonder, at what point does Dan swap from "this is your opinion" to "this is what Scripture says clearly". In other words, how can he establish that ANYTHING is true, if EVERYTHING is subjective. Based on his own rationale, Universalism, Hinduism, Satanism, Buddhism, Islam, etc should all be true because they all believe themselves to be true, and who are we to say they aren't? Just because the Bible says, and specifically Jesus said, that He is the ONLY way to reach heaven, is obviously no basis to condemn on religions as false, based on Dan's standard.

And then, Dan's first comment is very confusing to me. Is he purposefully misusing capitalization? From what I'm reading he believes that a Sovereign God is not a true god. I know we live in a society that doesn't actually care about things like punctuation, capitalization, or even proper grammar, but in situations like these, when everything is communicated in text, those things become more important.

I like how Dan says, "I could repeat my biblical basis...", yet I cannot recall him ever giving a BIBLICAL basis, ie giving passage references that are explicit. You know, the way you do. There is no opinion applying about the passages you site. There is no "you" going into those words. They clearly say what they say. Just because you create this meaning of Sovereign from it isn't a rational basis to say you are putting your opinion into those passages. They are crystal clear in what they say.

Finally, thank you for being abundantly clear in your blog. You eschew obfuscation. And while many of your topics aren't considered to be salvation ensuring or denying, it has always been my belief that what one believes about the Bible and God shows how God is working in that person. One may claim to believe in the "fundamentals" of Christianity and thus they are saved, if you get all the "periphery" wrong, I'd have to question your understanding of the "fundamentals". The Holy Spirit has a specific job given to Him by the Father, renew dead spirits in humanity, and guide them in Truth. When we fail to accept the Truth, it is not a failure on the part of the Spirit, but a failure on us to be willing to give up that which we wish to be true for what is True. Thank you for being an instrument of the Spirit to show the Truth, even if believers condemn you for speaking it clearly.

Marshall Art said...

To begin, I don't think I'd rely too much on either Proverbs or Lamentations or Psalms or anything like them because they have the feel of the author giving praise, and giving praise does not constitute anything more than the glory that person wishes to concede to the Almighty. (I'm not sure if this gets across my point about those books)

But again, as I've stated in the past, I don't believe God ever abdicates His sovereignty, even by allowing us free will (or "Free Will", if you prefer). I don't know how it is even possible considering His all-powerful nature and all.

Consider a father who gives his children freedom to do whatever they like. The father can rescind that proclamation at any time because of his ultimate authority over his kids. How then did he abdicate his sovereignty? He can't actually because his authority is absolute over his kids. In the same way, God's authority is absolute over us no matter the limits of our freedom.

So, regarding what Scripture says on the issue, I don't believe I've seen a passage that really makes this distinction regarding His Sovereignty and our free will as you have presented it.

The topic continues to be a mind blower for me. Fascinates me to no end. But I am no more fixed in any position opposed to yours as much as still not quite in agreement.

Stan said...

It is true (as indicated in the post) that we must maintain both God's absolute Sovereignty and the fact that human beings have the genuine ability to make uncoerced choices -- free will. So I think we're in agreement there.

I have to admit that I am completely baffled by the concept of not learning anything about the nature of God or reality (truth) from books like Proverbs or Lamentations or Psalms.

Dan Trabue said...

Unpacking your biblical commentary, then...

It begins with our approach to the Bible. The Bible does not make one single claim of itself to be a literal rule book. The Bible does not make a claim of itself to demand that each line be taken literally. And clearly, a good understanding of the Bible demands that we DON'T take each line literally, that would be a superficial and unreasonable approach to exegesis, a grade school approach.

The good thing is, no one takes it literally literally. We all recognize that the Bible makes no such demands and that, in context, it is vital for good biblical understanding that we treat the Bible as a book of wisdom and a book of Truth and we glean its pages for the truths and wisdom therein. In so doing, we look for over-arching truths and consistent teachings and words of wisdom.

We recognize that sometimes a story is a parable, not a literal story; we recognize that sometimes a teaching uses hyperbole or poetic language, flowery language, etc. There is nothing extraordinary in this approach to the Bible, we who love the Bible and its teachings all begin with this realization.

With that caveat, you rightly begin...

It doesn't take a Bible scholar to read and understand, "[Jesus Christ] is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords" (1 Tim 6:15), just as an example. The word is there. The concept is clear. It's a given that God is sovereign.

Yes, the concept of God-as-sovereign is a truth found throughout the Bible. God is the Lord of All, the Sovereign God and God's hand is in all things.

This is a fundamental truth found in the pages of the Bible.

But what exactly does it mean? Does it mean that God PLANS each activity? That God CAUSES each activity?

As you point out, there are verses that make it SOUND like that - UNLESS those verses are examples of hyperbole, of poetic, flowery language (which we all recognize happens at places in the Bible - Jesus' command to cut your offending hand off was hyperbole, for instance - metaphor and hyperbole happen).

Dan Trabue said...

So, these verses that state literally, "I make well-being and create calamity..." do those mean that God creates literal natural disasters? That each flood, tornado and earthquake is literally caused by God?

That would be one way to interpret the passage. Another would be to say that this is the author using hyperbolic language to emphasize God's omnipotence. Which way does the Bible demand that we treat it? Well, neither. We have to use our own God-given reasoning to make sense of it.

You use your reasoning to say, "When Jesus commanded cutting off your offending hand, it was hyperbole, but when the Bible says that God causes calamity, then it is a literal testimony of how God works in this world..."

I find both to be reasonably considered hyperbole.

Can either of us prove our hunches? No, it is a matter of interpretation and interpretation, being human and subjective in nature is not provable. We each have our hunches.

But stepping beyond natural disasters, you go so far as to claim that God causes (demands? wills to happen? What phrase would you use?) people to do evil. You say verses like, " the LORD establishes his [human's] steps" mean that God is guiding even bad behavior as part of a plan.

The problem with this is the whole problem of contradiction of the biblical truth that God does not cause people to sin.

As James notes in James 1...

When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone, but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.

God is not the author of evil. A Good God does not cause evil. This is a basic biblical truth. When one finds a single verse here and there that seems to contradict a greater and clearer truth, one does not set aside the greater, clearer truth for the single verse.

"God is light and in God there is no darkness" we find in 1 John 1. Here it is my interpretation (and not just mine, but I'd suggest most of Christendom) that this is more than just literal, but it is speaking metaphorically of good and evil, right and wrong.

Out of time...

Marshall Art said...

I admit I didn't articulate my thoughts clearly. I do not dismiss the importance of those books, but I also don't conflate what an author says about God with what he might say God said about Himself. For example, regarding those verses you used in this post, I can't tell if the author is speaking one way or the other. Is he stating an opinion or a fact related to him by God? I know the authors of these books are considered wise men (Solomon the wisest), but that distinction is important I feel and I can't make it out.

Stan said...

I'm still confused, Marshall Art. If I believe that all Scripture is God-breathed, then all Scripture is "the Word of God". Indeed, several of the passages I used are, according to the author, God speaking. (That's as close to "the Word of God" as you can get.) I cannot fathom, then, that Proverbs (as an example) may not be a wholly accurate representation of the truth because Solomon was a wise man, but maybe not speaking accurately about God.

Stan said...

Dan Trabue, we've done this dance before. You like the "hyperbole defense" (as I call it), where any literal comprehension of texts you don't agree with are removed. Here's the problem. When you read "There is none who does good; no, not one", you understand that to be hyperbole (as an example). Now, hyperbole is an intentional exaggeration of a fact in order to make a point. That is, hyperbole must be rooted in fact if it is to have meaning. But when you read this example I gave, you understand it to mean "A whole lot of people do a whole lot of good and, in fact, there is a sizeable number who haven't even sinned yet." In other words, it is an exaggeration rooted in a lie.

So, here we are, with what you define as another hyperbole. God speaking (the closest thing to the actual "Word of God" that you can get) says, "I make well-being and create calamity." You understand it to mean that, well, He doesn't do that at all. He doesn't actually create calamity. It's only ... hyperbole. Of course, again, that hyperbole is rooted in a lie because in your view in no sense does God create calamity. Interestingly, I would guess that you would take "I make well-being" much more literally ... although perhaps hyperbolically. That is, He does make some well-being, but we make some, too.

Again, when Solomon writes "The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps", what he really means is not that the Lord establishes anything at all. That's not hyperbole. That's a lie.

But, as you pointed out from the outset, "It begins with our approach to the Bible." I haven't added anything at all to the Scriptures I used. Indeed, I neglected a host of others that say pretty much the same thing. I'm simply taking it as written -- as written. When you objected earlier (above), I invited you to give your own biblical basis for your hunches (and to be sure to correlate Scripture with Scripture). In two comments, then, you've managed to offer ... no biblical basis at all except for that upon which I've already touched and agreed without denying the fundamental, absolute Sovereignty of God. I'm still waiting for your biblical argument. So far all you've offered is your philosophical reasons for disagreeing. As I said, that appears to be all that there is in opposition to the biblical position on God's Sovereignty. And, as you indicated, it's because I take the Bible in a different way than you do ... as I've always said.

Craig said...

"Another would be to say that this is the author using hyperbolic language to emphasize God's omnipotence."

yes indeed, one way to emphasize God's omnipotence, would be to deny said omnipotence. Excellent exegesis.

David said...

I can't recall if you've made a post on the topic that shows how you believe sin and God's plan work together. If you haven't, that might be a good topic to show how God can be absolute Sovereign, and still hold men accountable for their sin. Dan T and his ilk believe that God must limit his Sovereignty in order to allow for sin... natural disasters apparently.

Personally, I see God as allowing people to sin, as long as it fits within His grand plan. If it doesn't fit, He doesn't allow it. In final analysis, He is Sovereign over whether or not someone commits a sin, but that person is still responsible for committing said sin. I know that there are Scripture references to back this up, but I am unfortunately bad at recalling references.

I wonder what the old argument was that spawned "God doesn't want robots". Obviously, the concept of robots is relatively new, so what did people say before? Of course, the concept of us being robots if He is indeed the absolute Sovereign is complete bunk, but I'm sure its been a long standing argument between those that believe in limited sovereignty and absolute Sovereignty.

Marshall Art said...

But that's just it. God always maintains His Sovereignty. The very fact that He allows any level of free will at all presumes that authority. Because we have any free will at all is because He is Sovereign and has chosen to use His Sovereign Authority to bestow upon us that free will. In doing so He has indeed established all, including our steps. Indeed, His deigning to create everything established everything. That is to say, nothing happens but because of His having created everything. It simply comes down to my not getting how He possibly loses any bit of Sovereignty by allowing us free will, which He can take right away from us at any time. How can the Creator of all things "lose" anything to us? We are as nothing before Him. I don't see the logic in that understanding given the vast greatness of His Being.

Stan said...

Here's the question, Marshall. When God allows us free will, do we, in our free will, violate His Sovereign will? Is everything that occurs in our world some sort of "Plan B" (to the nth level) because God had a "Plan A" that human free will violated and now He's trying to get through it? Ultimately, does evil exist in spite of God's plans, or did God plan for it and it exists in the middle of His plans?

Marshall Art said...

"Here's the question, Marshall."

Which of those three was THE question?

For the first question, the answer is "YES". In our free will (mankind, that is) God's will has bee violated billions of times throughout history.

For the second (and the third, since it seems to be the second restated), I'd say "YES" again except for that bit about Him trying to "get through it". Eden could have been "Plan A" until Adam sinned. Now we're in "Plan B". I say this because it is not clear from Scripture how things would have been different in terms of here and now if Adam had NOT sinned. It seems to appear that he and Eve would still be frolicking in the Garden, but Scripture doesn't give a whole lot of detail on that score.

But Adam DID sin and so now there's a different game plan. That is to say, where is the logic in planning for Adam to sin so that God would have to come down and offer Himself as a sacrifice to save us from a wrath there was otherwise no need to exert?

Stan said...

Actually, it was all the same question. If we are currently on "Plan B" and Adam's sin was a violation of God's "Plan A", then, indeed, God has surrendered His sovereignty to Man's Free Will (and not "human free will"). There are other ramifications as well. Apparently God didn't know Adam would do that and was forced, after the fact, to switch plans, so omniscience is in question. (This problem is solved by Open Theism, a popular heresy today that argues that God cannot know what humans will do until they do it. By "solved", of course, I mean "creates brand new ones".)

If God had a "Plan A" -- a Sovereign Plan -- and Adam violated it by choosing to sin, then God is not Sovereign. If God had a preference and Adam violated it, but God Sovereignly planned for that violation and Adam's sin was in God's Sovereign Plan, then we have no such problem. In fact, I believe that God has three wills, two of which can be violated and one (His Sovereign Will) that cannot. The other two would be His commands which we violate all the time and His desires (such as that every man be saved) which clearly are not fulfilled. But if His Sovereign will is violated -- "Plan A" -- by Man's Free Will, then God is not Sovereign no matter how you slice it. If, on the other hand, God is Sovereign, then Man's sin falls into the category of God's Sovereign Will. He doesn't cause it or coerce it, but it is (as indicated in Genesis 50 as an example) part of His will. If, back to the first position, Adam's sin violated God's will, then Paul was somewhat mistaken when he wrote that God works all things after the counsel of His will.

David said...

Marshall... It seems to appear that he and Eve would still be frolicking in the Garden, but Scripture doesn't give a whole lot of detail on that score.

I would like to point out 2 Timothy 1:8-10 "Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." NAS

From this it would seem that God planned on sacrificing His Son for us before time. The Fall was part of His plan so that He may show His glory to all by saving a few through His sacrifice. The Fall was part of "Plan A". If it wasn't, God ceases to either be omniscient because He didn't see it coming, or omnipotent because He was unable to exert His plan on creation.