Friday, 6 August 2010

The meaning of sovereignty

In Tabletalk magazine, 1992 November edition, in an article titled "Before the Omnipotent's throne," Maurice Roberts defines sovereignty thus,
Sovereignty refers to that absolute predestination of God by which He has from eternity chosen some sinners to eternal life and passed by others.
Several dictionaries differ
  • Supremacy of authority or rule as exercised by a sovereign or sovereign state
  • Royal rank, authority, or power
  • Complete independence and self-government
  • Supreme and unrestricted power, as of a state
  • The position, dominion, or authority of a sovereign
  • Supreme power
  • The quality or state of being sovereign
  • The status, dominion, power, or authority of a sovereign; royalty
  • Supreme and independent power or authority in government as possessed or claimed by a state or community.
  • Rightful status, independence, or prerogative
  • Supreme power esp. over a body politic
  • Freedom from external control
The English word derives from the idea of authority and rule. KJV and ESV Bibles do not have the word "sovereignty". It occurs 7 times in the NET Bible (Psa 68:34; Isa 11:9; Jer 49:38; Dan 2:7; 7:14; Mic 4:8; Rev 17:18 NET) translating terms like mamlakah, malkuw, kicce', basileia. "Sovereign" appears 3 times  in the ESV (Act 4:24; 1Ti 6:15; Rev 6:10 ESV), each time meaning king. It does not appear in the KJV.

That the word "sovereignty" relates to kingship in English does not mean Roberts' position is scripturally incorrect, it does however mean that he has to demonstrate his position, and redefining words is not an argument.

Arminians agree that God is sovereign. He does rule over the earth as a king his subjects. Arminians do not need to be convinced that God is in fact sovereign (in the usual meaning of the word). But Arminians understand what it means for God to be sovereign in a different way. Yes, God can do whatever he wills, but does he do so in all things deterministically? Mike T explains this succinctly
The first error of Calvinism is that it defines divine sovereignty as a thing God does rather than something God possesses. God's sovereignty is a pre-existing fact. It is not possible for God's perfect will to be thwarted because there are none like him. We don't say that when a human king expresses a passing wish that a subject not do X that his sovereignty is violated when that subject does it anyway. Yet Calvinists argue precisely that would be the case if humans had the freedom to disobey God's will and act autonomously.

13 comments:

  1. Hi Bethyada,
    I've not read the article you refer to, but it doesn't appear from the quote you give that Maurice Roberts is defining the word sovereignty. In the quote, it appears that he is fleshing out the concept of sovereignty as he understands it. Does the article as a whole suggest otherwise?
    As you acknowledge later in the post, the fact that we use the word sovereignty in a particular way when talking about human political authority is irrelevant. Mr Roberts uses the word sovereignty in a different way when talking about God's sovereignty. That's fine as long as he fleshes out what he means and then provides scriptural argument in support of it.
    Is your point that it would not be a good argument, if a Calvinist argued: We all agree God is sovereign. The word sovereign means, by definition, sovereign in the Calvinist sense. Therefore, we all agree that God is sovereign in the Calvinist sense). If so, then I agree with you. I've never heard anyone argue the point that way, but you may have.
    Also, you don't mention it in your post, but I presume that you are aware that most Calvinists would distinguish between the revealed will of God and the hidden will of God. Humans can disobey the revealed will of God. We do it all the time. This doesn't mean that our choice to disobey is outside of His hidden will.
    Mike T refers to the "perfect will" of God. I am curious to know what he means by that.
    I ended up following this post back to your earlier post on determinism and the existence of sin. For what it is worth, I think you do need to define determinism more clearly for the purposes of that discussion. It's difficult to discuss the premise, the Bible teaches determinism, without a clear understanding of what you mean by that word.

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  2. The perfect will of God is that which God will enforce. The rest is God's desire. Ex: (quotes are not 100%, I know)

    "It is my will that none should perish." ("imperfect will")

    "Those who reject my words stand condemned already before my Father." ("perfect will")

    The divide is particularly important because Calvinists often draw no distinction between the two. They claim that for a man to choose a path that would lead to damnation would violate God's sovereignty in the former. However, that is nonsense because God's will in the former is "God's desire," not what God is willing to act on.

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  3. In fact, one of the major problems with Calvinism is that it makes a mockery of God's desires. For example, Calvinists frequently say "God's grace is sufficient, but not efficient, for all men" because God simply does not will most of the human race to be at a state where it can actually receive the grace on its end. Therefore, it actually kinda makes God look like a sadist by actually making it so that most men cannot receive the grace that He claims is sufficient for everyone.

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  4. Mike,
    As I said in my earlier comment, Calvinists draw a distinction between the revealed will of God and the hidden will of God. The statement "It is my will that none should perish" would fall into the earlier category. It is of the essence of God's character that He does not delight in evil and He does not delight in seeing anyone perish.

    I don't believe that Calvinism makes a mockery of God's desires. The position in this regard is no weaker than Arminianism. I presume that you would say that from a commitment to libertarian free will God has created a world in which he knows that a significant number of people will perish. As I understand the Arminian view, it would also say that God knew, before He created the world, who would and would not be saved.

    On either view, God has chosen to act (in creating and sustaining this kind of world) against his desire that nobody perish.

    Also, I do not believe it accurate that "most men" will not be saved. That is an unduly pessimistic view of God's saving activity.

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  5. Hi Kris. Many of your points are valid. And it is true that groups often use a word to have a meaning that is distinct to common use. My concern is to use words in ways that increase rather than cloud understanding. I work in a field that uses jargon, but communicate to those outside by minimising it, or explaining what I mean.

    My concern is when words are chosen inappropriately, I don't think "sovereignty" is a particularly good term to mean "absolute predestination of God by which He has from eternity chosen some sinners to eternal life and passed by others." Sovereign determinism may be better.

    But more importantly I am concerned at how words modify thinking. People equivocate to themselves without realising. Calvinists (and Arminians) can be so constrained by their theology that they read the Bible thinking that English words mean what they do in Calvinist (Arminian) theology. And in discussions I read on the web, I think the conversations at times are at cross purposes because of this reason.

    I agree that one should flesh out one's claims; provide scriptural support for doctrine. But proving one's point by definition (ie. not proving it) is a frequent unconscious (and sometimes conscious?) error.

    That is why I thought Mike T's quote so useful, it makes clear the distinction between what the Arminian and Calvinist think the sovereignty of God entails. I have seen similar problems with the term free-will.

    As you acknowledge later in the post, the fact that we use the word sovereignty in a particular way when talking about human political authority is irrelevant. Mr Roberts uses the word sovereignty in a different way when talking about God's sovereignty. That's fine as long as he fleshes out what he means and then provides scriptural argument in support of it.

    Not irrelevant, because he sees the English term and the Calvinist theological term as related. Using the words "right" (correct) and "right" (direction) would be irrelevant. Theological sovereignty is an extension of sovereignty thus is more likely to be read into passages or articles that contain the word. However I agree with your comment about fleshing it out.

    Is your point that it would not be a good argument, if a Calvinist argued: We all agree God is sovereign. The word sovereign means, by definition, sovereign in the Calvinist sense. Therefore, we all agree that God is sovereign in the Calvinist sense). If so, then I agree with you. I've never heard anyone argue the point that way, but you may have.

    Yes, that is part of my point. And while you may never had heard an argument as direct as that, frequently that kind of argument is assumed behind discussion. More in the form that people struggle to understand their opponent because of what they understand a word to mean. If I say I believe God is sovereign, that may suggest to some that I have conceded Calvinism, if not then I am confused in what I believe (or I am a liar!), or I don't really think God is sovereign; and by that they mean both the Calvinist and English interpretation, which to them seems like I think God is impotent. So the argument I (and you) oppose is there, just implicitly in the assumptions rather than explicitly in the debate.

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  6. As to your other comments, I may need to address them in more detail in another post. I used the word "determinism" as I understand it to mean, than God controls all things exhaustively. That every act in the universe is inevitable. That God controls and directs everything such that it cannot be otherwise. Not just that God knows everything that will happen, that he causes such. I cannot help but write this, including any speling mistakes.

    This is what I understand determinism to be, though I think "exhaustive determinism" is preferable. This is because I think God does determine many things. It is just that I think man has the power of contrary thought/ action. So some things that God desires do not happen because man rejects God's desire.

    I am aware of Calvinist ideas of revealed and hidden wills, but I don't subscribe to it. God certainly may have some desires that humans are not party to. But that he has a known will about a particular thing and a hidden will about that same thing such that our actions fulfil his hidden, but contradict he revealed will makes no sense to me and appears to me to make God duplicitous. If God does reveal what he wants then the best course of action is do the same.

    The Calvinist and Arminian are not in a similar position here because "will" is being used in the same way in the Calvinist argument (for hidden and revealed) but in a different way for the Arminian argument (desire and cause).

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  7. Thanks Bethyada,
    I think you are right that people often talk passed each other at crossed purposes (by assuming they are in agreement as to what the terms they are using mean).

    I see your point that if the way Calvinists use the word sovereign is different from the common understanding of that word then perhaps they could use a different word for clarity's sake.

    In fact, I think Calvinists do use a number of different words to talk about issues like predestination. It is just that when they talk about God's sovereignty (which both Calvinists and Arminians do) they necessarily frame that discussion within their wider theology. This would mean that, inevitably, what they say about sovereignty will be different to what someone who holds to Arminian theology would say.

    It may be that in our present individualistic culture the word sovereign has evolved in common usage. It would be interesting to explore how our concept of sovereignty has changes as our society has moved away from the concept that kings ruled by divine right as representatives of God.

    I don't think Calvinists do use "will" in the same way when referring to God's revealed will and His hidden will. The revealed will is what God desires, all else being equal. I presume you think that the thing that is 'not equal' is God's commitment to libertarian free will. I don't believe there is such a thing as human libertarian free will (I am conscious given the discussion above, of the danger of talking passed each other when I use the label libertarian free will).

    I agree that the Bible clearly teaches that each person is morally culpable for his or her own actions and decisions. I do not agree that this entails that people have libertarian free will.

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  8. Kris, agree with much of that. I must say that I think the term free-will is also difficult. I think the term libertarian free-will is used to say that man truly can choose. For example Calvinists may use the term free will, but for them it does not mean what an Arminian thinks is involved. So the Calvinist may claim that a man is free to choose but mean that they can only do what God has ordained them to do, but Arminians disagree that this is actually freedom. So they use the term libertarian free-will, meaning that man has the power of contrary choice. But Calvinists (seem to) think that libertarian free-will means the power to do anything, but this is not what Arminians believe. What we need is a term that means power of contrary choice.

    Contrary choice means that men are able to decide other than God's will (hidden, revealed or otherwise). But they do not have complete liberty, they are limited by their knowledge. Their actions may be contrary, but may be constrained by their abilities, or the actions of others, or of God. Arminians would consider terms like choice, free-will, libertarian free-will, liberty, etc. to be related to this concept of contrary choice.

    By the way, the Rendang looks good. May have to try it, my previous Rendangs have not been up to scratch.

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  9. Bethyada:
    But Calvinists (seem to) think that libertarian free-will means the power to do anything, but this is not what Arminians believe. What we need is a term that means power of contrary choice.

    I would not grant Calvinists that concession.

    Calvinists need to abide by standard terminology and stop using "free" will when they really intend "constrained or limited" will and stop conflating ability with choice. Choices are unlimited but abilities are constrained, and consequences (both physical and spiritual) imposed regardless.

    I'm free to choose to fly, but my lack of aerodynamic ability permits gravity to impose a consequence for my (stupid) choice.

    I'm free to disbelieve, but my lack of sovereignty subjects me to God's ultimate consequential judgement.

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  10. Starwind I would not grant Calvinists that concession.

    There is some truth to your statement. Calvinists cannot appropriate every word to their theology, we need to discuss the problem, not define our position as truth; as per my complaint in this post. My comment was to explain what I think Calvinists mean. And to emphasise that I think we should promote dialogue that leads to understanding.

    I may be incorrect about what Calvinists think here, but reading comments suggests to me that this is the thought process.

    In general I find that Calvinists struggle to think outside determinism. Perhaps it is the ones I read? But in general they struggle to assume Arminianism for the sake of the argument. When they show Armininism is inconsistent with its own axioms there is often an assumption of determinism that is not stated. (See point 3).

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  11. Hi Bethyada,
    Interesting comments about the power of contrary choice. I'd like to explore that, particularly when you say that choice is constrained by God sometimes. I've probably blathered on too much already, but I would have lots of questions about this. For example, (this is possibly an easy question that you've considered before) if people are able to decide other than God's hidden will, will they be able to do so in heaven? If so, how do we know that there won't be rebellion in heaven?
    Thanks for checking out our blog. That was the first time we had cooked Rendang, but it got favourable comment from our dinner guest. We'll be trying it again I think.

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  12. Well, I am not sure the Calvinists will like my answer, and this is just speculation on my behalf, but I think yes, contrary choice is possible in heaven, but unlikely.

    Firstly I think that choice entails a multitude of good choices, as well as graded good choices (good and better). Let's say that I am designing a vehicle, there may be several options that are all acceptable. God doesn't necessarily have a preference for 6 cylinders over 8, or red exterior over blue. So many of the choices in heaven will be of that nature: good choices that vary amongst the saints because of their own preferences.

    In terms of sinful choices I don't think we will have a sinful bent in heaven, an inclination to do evil like we now do. Thus while we could choose wrong like Adam—our nature may be similar to his pre-Fall nature?—this is unlikely because we have knowledge of good and evil that he did not. Redeemed men know they are redeemed, their gratitude is such that they may be much less inclined to choose sin.

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  13. Bethyada:
    In general I find that Calvinists struggle to think outside determinism.

    Agreed.

    Perhaps it is the ones I read?

    No, it does seem to be a contagion.

    But in general they struggle to assume Arminianism for the sake of the argument.

    Indeed. They lose the argument on the merits of their hypercalvinism and only score points when deflecting onto flaws of Arminiam arguments.

    When they show Armininism is inconsistent with its own axioms there is often an assumption of determinism that is not stated.

    Yes. It is a mindset (dare I say 'stronghold'?) most can't seem to get past. I suspect the reasons are so many have been steeped in the resurgent hypercalvinism of recent years that they've lost the perspective of what scripture actually says.

    And then there are the communication problems inherent in their near cult-like insistence on claiming to believe in a "free will" which is anything but free.

    My more narrower point above was to not conceded the lexicon to them. We already have numerous perfectly adequate and precise terms to discuss theology without inventing new terms for hypercalvinists to further abuse.

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