Re-Thinking Divine Sovereignty
Many people in the church have been taught that divine sovereignty is synonymous with unilateral control. Some have even argued that if God is not in control of everything, then something must be in control of him. Still others have proposed that if God is not sovereign over all, then he has no sovereignty at all.
But why should we accept this understanding of divine sovereignty? Why should we think that God would cease to be God because he decided to create something he does not meticulously control? On the contrary, this view seems to severely restrict God’s omnipotence! It reduces the Creator to one mode of behavior: unilateral control. God must control everything in order to exist! Why should we suppose that this is the most exalted, let alone the only conceivable, form of sovereignty?
It could be argued that this is not actually sovereign at all. It is hard to conceive of a weaker God than one who would be threatened by events occurring outside of his meticulous control. It is difficult to imagine a less majestic view of God than one who is necessarily limited to a unilateral, deterministic mode of relating to his creation. Power is about having choices. If this is so, then if God cannot choose to create an open creation, his power is actually undermined.
What is praiseworthy about controlling something simply because a being possesses the innate power to do so? For instance, I have the power to exercise total and exhaustive control over my little finger as I twitch it. But no one would think me praiseworthy on this basis. Yet this is precisely what we do when we claim that God’s sovereignty is praiseworthy because he controls everything. God could control everything if he wanted to, since it is his creation, but that is not what he chose to do.
There is nothing intrinsically praiseworthy about sheer power. Praise has to do with character. What is praiseworthy about God’s sovereignty is not that he exercises the omnipotence he obviously has, but that out of his character, as ultimately revealed on the cross, he does not exercise all the power he could.
The greatest testimony to God’s sovereignty is the fact that God created beings who possess the power to say no to him.
Our common experience confirms this. On the one hand, we tend to view leaders as insecure, weak, and manipulative when they seek to meticulously control other people in order to ensure that things go exactly the way they want. On the other hand, we commonly admire leaders who influence others through the respect their character earns.
A truly great leader who is sovereign over all—the God revealed in the Bible—is one who is secure enough in the character he possesses that he does not need to resort to coercion. This is what we see in the ultimate revelation of God on the cross. As Irenaeus said, “There is no coercion in God.”
Adapted from Satan and the Problem of Evil, pages 146-151
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