Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Sovereignty of God

I’ve just finished Greg Boyd’s lay treatise on the Open Theism entitled “God of the Possible.” In the main I think Boyd has laid out an excellent perspective that conforms far more closely to my understanding of Scripture and my observation of the world, than does the classical view that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of a settled future. I definitely recommend the book.

However correct he is about the openness of the future and of God’s knowledge of that future, I think Boyd misses the significance of God’s sovereignty as it informs God’s future knowledge. It is not wholly unaddressed—Question 16 in chapter 4 deals in some degree with the objection classical evangelicals raise, that the open view of God somehow demeans God’s sovereignty (pp. 147 and following in the paperback edition). Nevertheless I suggest that if Boyd were more fully to consider the basic nature of God’s sovereignty, he could present a more forceful response to this question.

We Americans (perhaps others, but I know “us” best) don’t get the concept of sovereignty in anything remotely approaching a Biblical sense. It’s not our fault exactly, it’s in the DNA of our nation. The American Declaration of Independence illustrates my point, when it states that governments “. . .deriv(e) their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This concept, that we, the ruled, are in fact the source of the ruler’s authority, is a fundamental American belief, but it was wildly revolutionary in the context of European monarchs whose sovereignty was derived, either from divine right (that is, conferred upon them by God), or by their own self-existence. Interestingly, even now the term “Sovereign” in a monarchy refers, not to the state or the nation, but to the person of the monarch him- or herself. This contrasts sharply with our constitutional republic in which the people themselves are the sovereign (I speak, of course, of the governing philosophy with no comment on how it is—or isn’t—reflected in reality).

But all too often--and in sharp contrast to the way any Biblical contemporary would have understood it--American Christians’ description of God’s sovereignty falls into the trap of imputing to God’s authority the same source as human governments—namely us. This is true any time anyone makes the claim “if God weren’t this way (pick the theological trait of choice), he wouldn’t be sovereign.” This is hubris of the highest degree. What we’re really saying is that we couldn’t possibly grant the sovereignty of anybody who doesn’t measure up to our standard. In other words, God Himself is presumed to derive HIS just powers from our consent. Now, no good Evangelical would actually admit that is what he is saying; in fact he’d rightly counter that it was heresy. But when we attach conditions to the sovereignty of God, that’s exactly what we’re doing.

What I’m getting at is that God is sovereign simply and completely because he is—full stop. There are no conditions, no criteria that define or justify the fact that God is supreme over all things in heaven and on earth. God doesn’t derive his power or authority from anything at all. Rather it is one of the truths of his self-existent being. If nothing else we believe about God were true, his supreme authority would not be affected in any way, because it stands on its own. Therefore, any pronouncement of the sort “If X were not true, God’s sovereignty would be diminished” is sheer nonsense.

This brings me back to the open view of God, and Boyd’s book in particular, but I’ll save that for the next post.


E. A. Harvey said...

Wow, excellent post! This point particularly struck me--This is true any time anyone makes the claim “if God weren’t this way (pick the theological trait of choice), he wouldn’t be sovereign.” I know I am guilty of thinking that way. Thanks for reminding me He is sovereign because He is God, not because of the things He does or doesn't do (or things I think He should do or not do).

I really appreciate Boyd's views on the myth of a Christian nation, but I have never delved into his open theism stance. Maybe I ought to do that.

Dan Martin said...

I would heartily recommend it. A whole lot of people have lambasted Boyd pretty thoroughly over this, but I think it's tragic as from my perspective he makes a solid Biblical case and approaches the text with a whole lot of humility.