Posts Tagged ‘sovereignty’

I have another way I want to express my critique of the Calvinist thought-tradition I belong to. It’s another angle on the same thing:

Calvinism divorces God’s sovereignty from God’s kingdom.

These are metaphors. We can understand something about God by saying he is like one of our human rulers. He is King. He is in charge. He has a territory over which he holds sway. This is his sovereignty.

Or is it his kingdom?

Thing is, the two metaphors are not two, but one. It’s the same image. Therein lies the problem for Calvinism. Let me show you what I mean.

The first mention of God’s sovereignty in Scripture is at the Exodus:

…your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy…
You brought your people in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession,
the place, O LORD, that you made your abode,
the sanctuary, O LORD, that your hands have established. 
18 The LORD will rule as King forever and ever.”   Exodus 15
 

What does God’s sovereignty mean here? It means he came down and smashed Pharaoh, and created a people and gave them a land where he would rule over them. It’s not abstract, it’s very concrete. It’s about God’s presence and visible action.

In the Psalms, God’s kingship is introduced as a Messianic concept:

 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the LORD has them in derision. 
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying, 
6 “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”     Psalm 2
 

Another classic ‘kingship psalm’, 29, begins and ends with the image of God hovering over waters:

The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.      Psalm 29

This is a creation image. God asserted his power over the waters, in the creation. They obeyed his voice. In this sense he is viewed as ‘enthroned’ over the waters. This is his kingship, or sovereignty.

Psalm 74 bemoans that in God’s absence, foes have made a mockery of his land. But that is not the whole story: there is still hope of God’s kingship.

Yet God is my King from of old,
working salvation in the earth. 
You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.    Psalm 74
 

This is God’s kingship: his victory over the waters and the leviathan. His parting the Red Sea and smashing the ‘dragon’ Egypt. And it may return.

All of these psalms view God’s kingship as something concrete and visible that happens ‘down here’. We tend to overlay this with a framework of ‘God is already fully king, it just needs revealing‘. This is an abstract structure of thought which I suspect would be meaningless to the psalmists.

Seems to me the Jewish Scriptures have a view of God’s sovereignty which is pretty close to what we might call, ‘God’s kingdom’.

In the NT, of course, God’s sovereignty (or kingdom) is completely bound up with Jesus. Revelation 15 is typical: there the first mention of God’s sovereignty in Scripture, from Exodus 15, is transformed:

And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb:
“Great and amazing are your deeds,
Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
King of the nations! 
Lord, who will not fear
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship before you,
for your judgments have been revealed.” 

God can be declared ‘king of the nations’ because of his new victory, which brings all the nations to his feet. Which victory? The victory of the lamb. This is after all ‘the song of the lamb’.

In fact, the NT really has nothing to say about God as sovereign apart from what he has done in making Jesus King. This should give us pause for thought…

This kingdom is of course something that arrives. It means ‘God’s will starting to be done on earth, the way it already is in heaven, as people come under the leadership of Jesus.’ At Jesus’ resurrection and Pentecost, this starts to be a reality.

In Scripture, then there are not two concepts, God’s sovereignty and his kingdom/kingship. They are one and the same.

HOWEVER:

I am aware that systematic theology feels at liberty to use words in a different way from how the Scripture uses them. With its bent towards abstract thought, Calvinist systematics has constructed a whole theology of invisible ‘eternal’ stuff lying behind and prior to God’s action in the gospel, and labelled that concept ‘sovereignty’. Which of course, means ‘kingship’. But it uses this word in quite a different way from how the Scriptures use it.

This is a serious problem for ordinary Christians, as whatever contact they have with Calvinist systematics leads them to misread the Bible’s talk about God’s sovereignty. When they read in the NIV everywhere ‘Sovereign LORD’, they hear it as asserting the Calvinist doctrine of sovereignty. But Adonai Yahweh does not have that meaning. So we have this distortion.

It’s time for the two rival terms and concepts for God’s kingship in the Calvinist tradition to call each other out, confess that they are the same metaphor, go toe to toe and duke it out for the rightful title. This faith ain’t big enough for the two of them.

Historically, ‘sovereignty’ has packed the bigger punch, to the discomfiture of ‘kingdom/kingship’.

But I’m putting my money on ‘kingdom of God’. Coz it’s in the Bible.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

I grew up with Calvinist thinking. I spent my time reading Puritans and Spurgeon, checking things in Louis Berkhof, and promoting the books of John Piper. I was fully immersed! I made Mark Driscoll look like a soft Arminian.

Over the years I’ve questioned everything. Naturally. This is The Grit! And as I have, I’ve noticed some structural problems in my faith, some tensions, ways that it didn’t all hang together. I now hold my Calvinist heritage in a slightly more nuanced way. I’m thankful for the truth in it, but willing to acknowledge its weaknesses and critique it also.

I think some of the weakness in Calvinism occurs at a deep structural level. After a decade of thinking this over, I’m ready to sum it up. Here’s my critique:

Calvinism starts with the complete sovereignty of God. Whereas it should end there. 

By starting where it should end, it collapses the space in which the story might unfold. It has an anti-narrative bent, a static tendency, built-in. There is no deep significance to time in the Calvinist worldview. Whatever time it is, at the deepest level all is well, for every molecule is following the predetermined will of God. And so all times are fundamentally the same time.

But we need space for the story. We need time for the story. Because the story is the gospel. 

For Calvinists, God’s sovereignty is defined basically apart from the resurrection of Jesus. Whereas in the NT, I take it, that event is the defining moment for what it means that God is king. When Calvinists say, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’, they don’t intend to be saying anything much about God’s sovereignty: that’s already been established long ago. Whereas for the apostles, ‘Jesus is Lord’ was pretty much all they had to say about God’s sovereignty.

For Calvinists, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t really change much. There is no room for a real coronation, and real victory of God at the cross. Because God’s victory has always been total anyway. He was King the day before, just as he is the day after. The main thing that changes is the appearance of the thing to us down here. But the underlying, unseen relationship between God and the world (i.e. complete sovereignty/submission to his will)  remains the same.

In other words, God is not personally implicated or involved in the changes and events that make up the story, because there can be no real event for that sort of God. He is immutable in his utter sovereignty. Try making a story with a leading character like that!

This key aspect of the Calvinist world view, it seems to me, is ultimately anti-gospel.

for PART 2 click HERE

Let’s take a closer look at that saying of Joseph’s.

You planned evil against me; God planned it for good.    Genesis 50:20

Firstly, can we trust Joseph’s words? Are we supposed to? He’s the good guy in the story, and he’s a prophet too, he has insights into the mysteries of God’s purposes. So we’re probably supposed to trust his words. Also this statement comes at the end of the whole story, like a concluding reflection on the meaning of the whole. That gives it weight. So, yes, we probably are supposed to accept Joseph’s assessment of things as a truth statement.

Ok. But what does he actually say? Literally he says

“And you designed upon me evil, but God designed it for good…”

The first thing to notice is that there is no mention of causality here at all. The focus of the saying is on ‘intentions’, or purposes. The brothers had one intention, God had quite another one. So it’s a pretty weak verse to use as a proof text for causality of any sort.

But we could say, the language of design implies here a causality also. ‘You designed evil upon me, and carried it out, but God designed it for good, and brought good to pass.’

That’s fair enough: secondarily, by implication, something is suggested here about causality. It’s not the point of the verse, but it kind of follows from it. Pity though that our doctrine is only implied in the best proof text we have.

But if something is implied about causality, what is it? What can we legitimately infer from Joseph’s words about the causality of the events? That depends on what is being said about design or purpose here. What does Joseph say about intentions here? There are a few possible ways to take his words. They could mean:

1. You designed upon me evil, but behind that was God who intended that you should design that evil, and he all along had a higher plan to do good to me and to others through your crime. God was the first cause of your crime. (The two-layered sponge cake)

OR

2. You designed upon me evil, selling me off as a slave. But God intended a good outcome for me. He was working at the same time, following a very different agenda. God subverted your plans and established his own ones. He made sure my coming to Egypt was a blessing. (A tug of war image?)

OR

3. You designed evil upon me, but only because God allowed you to do that. He hated what you did but permitted it. And it coincided with his own plan that I should become lord of Egypt.

Reading 1 has a problem of grammar: On this reading, ‘God meant it’ should be referring to the brothers’ ‘crime’ – the word they have just used repeatedly. But ‘crime’ is a masculine word in Hebrew, while the ‘it’ here is a feminine: ‘God meant it’ can’t be referring to the word ‘crime’. But it’s hard to see what else ‘it’ might refer to. The grammar seems to be against this reading.

Personally, I think Readings 1 and 3 are over-readings, unnecessarily complicated, reading into the text ideas and concerns that are not there. While I think 3 is probably true in fact, I don’t think it’s what Joseph says here.

I think Reading 2 is the most natural and simplest way to take Joseph’s saying. ‘God meant it’ refers not to the crime, but to the outcome God intended for Joseph. In fact, the rest of the saying pushes us to read God’s intention in terms of outcomes: “God meant it for good, to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.” (HCSB)

And the LXX seems to agree with this reading. It renders Joseph’s words:

“You planned against me for evil,

 but God planned for me for good.”

While you could read this as compatible with double causality, it’s not actually asserting anything so complex. This LXX version reads as a much simpler claim, theologically speaking, than the sophisticated ideas which would be invoked in Reading 1. There are two competing plans for Joseph’s life: that’s all.

But whichever you think is more likely Joseph’s meaning, the main point is that there are a range of options for interpreting his words. We are by no means forced to adopt Reading 1, the reading that might imply double causality.

So Genesis 50:20 is not really a very good proof text for our favourite doctrine of God as first cause of everything. It’s not talking about causes as such, and what it says about design doesn’t seem to be structured in the ‘layer cake’ way that double causality requires. It seems more like a tug-of-war than a sponge cake!

Also, Genesis 50:20 is a comment on one particular event. It does not generalise to say that God behaves in the same way for other events (let alone all events). Using this verse to build our doctrine of double causality involves a massive extrapolation from the text.

But if Genesis 50 is the best proof text for this doctrine, and it’s not really a good one, then… what?

Could it be that the doctrine of double causality is actually without biblical support – that it is a foreign import, a cuckoo’s egg laid in the nest of Christian faith?

What do you think?

Q. 7. What are the decrees of God?
A. The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.

So goes the Westminster shorter catechism. It’s a big, magisterial statement: ‘he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.’ Whatsoever. Impressive. If a little difficult to substantiate from Scripture.

This is the doctrine of double causality. Think of reality like a sponge cake with two layers. The top layer is God’s plans. The bottom layer is our choices and decisions, and everything else that goes on down here.

Whenever something happens, it has two sets of causes  (the Greeks identified more than two sorts, but two will do for now). There are immediate causes, such as your decision to get out of bed in the morning. It was your decision. But behind that decision there is the first cause. God ordained that you should get up, and so that you should make that decision, and moved or caused you to do so. God is the first cause of everything. Whatsoever comes to pass.

This idea of double causation is pretty deeply entrenched in the western mindset. When someone’s house gets burgled, they might ask. ‘Why is God doing this to me?’ A common question in our culture is, ‘If God is good, why are there wars?’ The common assumption here is of God as first cause. Of everything.

It’s a nice tidy doctrine that seems to tie everything together powerfully. Appealing. People like it.

It does have problems however. Moral problems: it’s pretty hard for a first cause to avoid responsibility for the things the cause causes. Like wars…

But the problem I want to explore is about Scriptural backing for this idea. For a concept so foundational to western thinking about God, it’s surprising how little there is in the Bible that expresses or even implies double causality.

Of course in our tradition we like proof texts, and this is particularly embarrassing, because, I mean…where are they?

They’re so thin on the ground, people end up going back to the Joseph story from Genesis to find one. That’s not a good sign, when your doctrine can only found in the OT not the NT, and when it’s only in the oldest part of the OT. Progressive revelation suggests that we should have found out a whole lot more about such an important truth later in the Scriptures. And yet Genesis seems to have to clearest example of this doctrine being taught.

Or does it?

Let’s take a look. We’re in Genesis 50, the final chapter, and Joseph’s brothers are panicking. Their dad has just died, and they’re worried that Joseph will take that as a cue for pay-back time. They sold their brother into slavery once – what will he do to them now he’s in power?

But Joseph reassures them:

“Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.  So have no fear.”    Genesis 50:20-21 (NRSV)

That seems to capture the shape of the doctrine: two parallel causes working simultaneously but for different ends. God in heaven, and J’s brothers on earth. I remember as a youngster hearing Don Carson use this text to teach that exact doctrine. Double causality.

But is that really what Genesis 50:20 teaches? Let’s look more closely.

Tomorrow: conclusion