God’s Sovereignty in Today’s World

Clark Pinnock

Theology Today; Princeton; Apr 1996;

Volume: 53

Issue: 1

Start Page: 15

ISSN: 00405736

Abstract: Pinnock dicusses the sovereignty of God and the many challenges to it. Given the atrocities in the Holocaust and Cambodia, it is difficult to say that God rules over and controls history.

Full Text: © Theology Today Apr 1996

Divine sovereignty is a central theme of Christian worship. We exalt God as our creator and ruler: “The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed, he is girded in strength. He has established the world; it shall never be moved; your throne is established from old; you are from everlasting” (Ps. 93:1-2). Islam, Judaism, and Christianity unite in pointing to the glory and rule of God. During periods of renewal, testimony only increases about the greatness of our God. The majesty of God’s rule is deeply biblical. The prophet has a vision of the Lord, seated upon a throne, high and lifted up, his robe filling the temple (Isa. 6:1). Paul praises God as “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords,” who alone “has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:15). The elders fall down before God’s throne, saying: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11). We confess in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The God we serve is the Lord, sovereign and free, the adorable mystery that transcends the world and empowers creation. The world’s existence is an expression of God’s purposes, as Paul says: “From him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom. 11:36). Everything depends on God-nothing is too hard for God (Jer. 32:17).

St. Theresa of Avila writes: “My sovereign Lord, your power is infinite and you are supremely good and wise. There is no limit to your works which are beyond time and understanding. You are a fathomless ocean of wonders and your beauty encompasses all other forms of beauty, You are strength itself” (The Way of Perfection).

The theme of sovereignty is not universally popular, however. The psalmist declares that the rulers of this world take counsel against the Lord and his anointed, saying: “Let us burst their bonds asunder and cast their cords from us” (Ps. 2:2-3). Even more than in the modern world, there is rebellion against divine transcendent rule. Nietzsche declared God dead, and secularists vow to take no account of any divine reality. Even in the churches, some say God is becoming weightless as people are assigning God to the periphery, creating, in effect, an easy-going deity whose reality is little different from our own. The culture is pressing us to worship a God who will satisfy our needs, not the Lord God almighty.[1] But sovereignty can be a genuine puzzle for faithful people as well. Given our experience of such evils as the Holocaust and Cambodia, how can one say that God rules over and controls history? What divine purpose can be detected in death camps and killing fields? History itself seems to call the sovereignty of God into question and to require us to rethink it.

Defining Sovereignty

The definition of sovereignty is important if people are going to be able to receive it. In politics (whence the term originates) sovereignty is understood in various ways. We distinguish among the sovereignty of the tyrant, the rule of a constitutional monarch, the authority of an elected president, and the like. Political sovereignty may include respect for the governed or it may not.

Sovereignty has various meanings in theology also. It may mean total control or some less coercive influence. In Western theology since Augustine, the definition of sovereignty that has been preferred is one at the power end of the spectrum. Our theologians have taught that God predestines everything that happens in detail. Although employing a free-will defense in relation to the problem of evil, Augustine held a view of sovereignty in considerable tension with it. While (on the one hand) blaming Adam for sin and the fall, he did not believe that God’s will could be thwarted or God’s purposes be successfully resisted. He writes: “He is not truly called almighty if he cannot do whatsoever he pleases, or if the power of his almighty will is hindered by the will of any creature” (Enchiridion, 96). Furthermore, Augustine held that God knows everything that will happen and that all future choices are fixed and certain before they have been made (City of God, 11.21).

Calvin held to a similar concept of sovereignty as an all-determining power. He declared that all creatures “are governed by God’s secret plan in such a way that nothing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by him” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.16.3). Sovereignty then refers to the power by which God controls everything and is able to bring every event into conformity with the divine will. Calvin’s view gained ever wider influence through the Canons of Dort, the theology of John Knox, and the Westminster Confession.

The Confession states: “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (3.1). This includes the final destiny of everyone whether in heaven or in hell (3.3). God is said to govern all creatures according to his free and immutable will (5.1). In a classic phrase, B. B. Warfield stated that God’s rule is “broad enough to embrace the whole universe, minute enough to be concerned with the smallest details, and actualizes itself with inevitable certainty in every event that comes to pass.” [2]

There is no denying the appeal in such a position. What a magnificent portrait of divine majesty, enthroned above the rough-and-tumble of history, perfectly serene and in complete control of everything! It is comforting to know that everything that happens has meaning and reassuring to deny any element of risk or chance. But there are severe difficulties with this position as well. The Bible seems to portray more genuine interaction and relationality in God’s dealings with creatures than theological determinism allows. A sovereignty of control seems to deny that human beings possess the kind of (libertarian) freedom with which they are able either to obey God’s will or to move against God’s purposes. It certainly aggravates the problem of evil in requiring God to bear sole responsibility for evil. It would seem that we need a better model of divine sovereignty than that of total control.

An Open View Of Sovereignty

Another way to look at sovereignty is to think of it as open and flexible, placing the emphasis more on the resourcefulness than on the domination of God. An open view would cohere better with the dynamic God-world relationship implied by the Bible and be less theoretically and practically problematic. The Scriptures tell us that God is a loving Parent (abba), who is sensitive and responsive. They depict a relationship with “give and take” not just control. We are not given the impression that history is decided unilaterally by God but that our decisions also contribute to it. God is not responsible for everything that happens. Many outcomes are conditional upon human decisions, and the relationship between God and the creature is personal and interactive.

Open sovereignty, in distinction from process thinking, agrees with the traditional view that God is the superior power who depends on nothing outside of God’s self in order to exist and who is (therefore) free in a most fundamental way. God’s freedom even includes the power to create a world whose details God does not completely determine. If God could not do so, a certain freedom would be lacking in the deity. We cannot limit God in this way. We agree with determinists that God could actualize a determined world but deny that this world is like that. The world we experience and the world the Bible describes is not a wholly determined world. God has evidently chosen to actualize a world with significantly free agents and to exercise sovereignty in an open manner.

God decided not to keep a monopoly on power but to give some away to the creature. In making responsible creaturely agents, God willed not to exercise domination and control over the world but to establish an order of real significance and genuine autonomy. Wishing to interact with significant creatures rather than to dominate the world, God willed a dynamic history that would flow from the decisions of finite persons. One could say that, in creating such a world, God accepted certain limitations on the divine power. In effect, God rejected sovereignty in the form of domination and control, at least in this creation. Open sovereignty would make possible what was wanted.

What God values and desires in this creation is genuine relationship with creatures able to respond to God’s love. The gift of freedom made that possible, since love is not something that can be forced. Human beings are different from animals in the way they can respond to God and the environment. They are open to the future, and the future is open to them. This is something God wanted to actualize. One might put it in terms of God’s resting on the seventh day. This was a rest not of weariness but of delight. In effect, God was pausing to delight in the flourishing of the creature and in the anticipation of all that could happen in a dynamic world. In the work of creation, God was sharing power with us. In summoning us to have dominion over the world, God made us partners, letting us participate in God’s own rule. It is the difference between watching a video and experiencing live interaction. Endowed with freedom, the world is a fruitful and delightful creation. It has a genuine life of its own and is a source of value and delight both to God and to us.

By delegating power to the creature, God chooses to become vulnerable. Had God actualized a determined world, everything would have been controlled. But as it is, God took the risk that freedom might be abused and that the creature might decide to work against God’s purposes. In such a universe, God’s plans can be adversely affected by perversity and disobedience. God accepts the risks that accompany genuine relationship. Though ontologically strong, God chooses to become “weak” by the decision to create a significant world God would not control. God decided to work within a history whose outcome is not predetermined and to rule over a world that is able to resist.

This view helps us deal with the problem of evil. God made a world where evil was possible but not inevitable. We can say that God did not ordain moral evil but that it arose from the misuse of freedom. Ours is a world in which God does not normally override human decisions but lets them play out, because God regards them as significant. God may be responsible for creating a world with moral agents capable of rebelling, but God is not to blame for what human beings do with their freedom. The gift of freedom is costly and carries precariousness with it. But to make a world with free beings is surely a worthwhile thing to do.

Is not open sovereignty implied in Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom? He said that God’s kingdom (sovereignty) was near but not yet fully present. It was breaking into history but not with full effect. At present, God’s sovereignty is actually being resisted by the powers of darkness. There are rival powers with which Jesus has to struggle. He asks us to pray that God’s will be done on earth because it is not happening. Prayer itself is a powerful indicator of how God draws us up into God’s own sovereignty over the world. Paul speaks of the creation groaning as it awaits full redemption (Rom. 8:23). He agrees that God is not wholly sovereign over the world at the present time. The Son has not yet handed the kingdom over to the Father as all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).

God does not rule everything according to blueprint. The present situation involves a struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Though much neglected by theology, spiritual warfare is a reality. God is not now in control-we anticipate complete victory over evil only in the future. This orientation to the future allows us to clarify a point about open sovereignty. Up to a point and in certain areas, we can resist God’s will. But the coming of the Lord tells us that not everything can be thwarted by human freedom. The Lord will come; what we do may affect its timing but not its reality. It is something God intends to do and will certainly do. What we decide may affect when but not whether God does it. The apostle says that we both hasten and delay the return of Christ (2 Pet. 3:9,12). If the parousia appears slow in coming, this is because God wants more sinners to repent that God’s house may be full. God delays the coming to give them more time to respond to divine grace.

A Subtler Deployment Of Power

Because the world is dynamic and capable of producing novelty, God’s power in relation to the world is deployed in subtle ways. In creation, God made room for creatures to exist, and, in providence, God makes room for them to use the finite self-determination that has been given to them. A sovereignty of control would be impressive, but the sovereignty required to rule over a free and dynamic world is even more marvelous. What is needed to rule in this universe is infinite resourcefulness in the subtle use of power; what is required is a style of sovereignty that is open to the world and can respond to the unexpected. The sovereignty requisite to ruling over a world with powers of self-determination is surely more admirable than the sovereignty of manipulation.

Perhaps we should not speak of divine “weakness” just because God (in a sense) accepts defeat at the hands of creatures not wholly under divine control. After all, if God wanted them to be able to decide for or against God, it is not a defeat if some of them decide against. Open sovereignty surely reveals God’s strength not weakness. It requires considerable power to rule over an undetermined world. How marvelous to be able to respond to the unexpected and to deal with new situations as they arise! Open sovereignty requires omnipotence in its own way. The power of love, the power that wills genuine relationships, is certainly not a diminished or inferior form of power.

Perhaps we admire too highly power to force others to do our will. God’s power is greater than the power of coercion. It is the power to make agents who are creators in their own right and the power to continue to rule even when they work against God. We are wrong to measure the greatness of power by a standard of compulsion. This is to confuse sovereignty with the excessive omnipotence of tyranny, which deploys itself against other powers, never alongside them. We have to realize that God wills and loves the existence of free creatures and delights in all their possibilities.

By the grace of creation, God wills to be “God for us” and alongside us. Rather than standing aloof, God is willing to be affected by the world. We celebrate the sovereignty of a heavenly father, not the power of an autocrat. Human fathers have authority over their children and set guidelines for them, but they should not do so as tyrants. They want their offspring to choose to live by right values not by compulsion. God is like that. Jesus likens God to a father who lets his son leave home and learn for himself that sin leads to destruction. When the son repents and returns, the father is thankful and calls for celebration. Our God, who rules over the world, is grieved when we refuse the divine love and rejoices when we embrace it. God’s true power is revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ. In this act of self-sacrificing, God deploys power in the mode of servanthood, overcoming enemies not by annihilating them but by loving them. What an unexpected form of power! Is it not a subtler and higher form of power than coercion? It is a power that respects the mutuality and reciprocity of love.

Growing In Understanding

Despite the appeal of an open view of sovereignty, it is an idea that will take getting used to, for tradition has taught us to think of God’s rule in the mode of control. We are not used to thinking of God as responding flexibly to situations and taking risks. Fortunately, however, our experience of God is in tune with such a view. Not only do the Scriptures speak in these terms but we as God’s children personally know the give and take of relationship. We experience risks and perils and know that we are being taken seriously when God invites us to pray. We experience God interacting without overruling.

If divine sovereignty is to be recovered as a meaningful category, we need to think of it as open and flexible. God created a universe with a degree of self-determination, a world in which things can go wrong, even terribly wrong. God does not rule over it in a way that would render everything cut and dried. God limits divine power and chooses not to control history or even (I would add) to foreknow every outcome that depends on creaturely choices. Sovereignty does not mean that God controls everything, since God gives power to other agents. It means that God is omnicompetent in relation to any circumstance that arises and is unable to be defeated in any ultimate sense. God delights in an open creation precisely because God does not completely control it. The open model of sovereignty does not diminish but augments the glory of God’s rule.

Reformed theology has been a tradition most insistent on seeing sovereignty as total control. It is therefore pleasing to read this conclusion about the matter from a Scottish theologian: “Rather than presiding over a plan immutable in every detail, providence might better be conceived of as the infinite resourcefulness of God in dealing with human creatures in a manner that is in accordance with the purpose disclosed and fulfilled in Christ.” [3]

[1] On the weightlessness of God, see David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1994), chapter 5.

[2] B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1952), p. 276.

[3] David A. S. Fergusson, “Predestination: A Scottish Perspective,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 46 (1993), p. 477. For further reflection along these lines, see Clark H. Pinnock et al., The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994).

Author note: Clark H. Pinnock is Professor of Theology at McMaster Divinity College and author of A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions (1992) and the forthcoming Living Flame of Love: Overcoming our Forgetfulness of the Spirit.

* Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

Clark Pinnock

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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