More on God’s sovereignty

April 14, 2015

The following words of mine come from a response I gave to my friend Grant in the previous post. I think it covers some important ground, so I’m posting it as a separate blog post:

In some clergy circles in which I run, God’s sovereignty is almost a bad word, which blows my mind because Wesley himself certainly had a high view of it.

What turned me around on the subject more than anything was reading C.S. Lewis and, oddly enough, a Jewish Holocaust survivor named Viktor Frankl.

But honestly: if we believe that God has the power to grant our prayer petitions, and will do so at least sometimes (and even most Methodist ministers still believe that!), then it follows, logically, that, indeed, everything happens or doesn’t happen for a reason—unless we believe that God will answer prayer only arbitrarily.

If we pray for something, for example, and we don’t get it, then we can only assume that God has a good reason for not giving it to us. It’s easy enough to imagine that he does have a good reason, given that only God can foresee all the possible outcomes and effects throughout all of history of granting or not granting our petitions.

Do you see what I mean?

I had an argument once with a Methodist minister who said that while he believes that God has the power to intervene, and sometimes he does, often God just lets things run according to the laws of physics.

So, for example, if a boulder rolls down a mountain and happens to flatten a man in its path down below, God merely “lets physics run its course” and kill this person. God has nothing to do with it.

And I said, “Yes, but what if that man’s mother was praying that very morning for his safe travel to his destination. God didn’t grant her petition. Why? Did he not hear it? Did he not care? Did he not have the power to stop the man from being in its path at that exact moment? Could God not have redirected the boulder—not even miraculously, but by arranging before the creation of the world to have a small twig fall in the boulder’s path to steer it off its course?

God could have done that and it wouldn’t even involve a “miracle.” (In fact, I believe God intervenes in this way all the time.)

Or did God hear the mother’s prayer, consider it alongside every other circumstance happening at that moment and all future moments—alongside every other person living at that moment and all future moments—and foresee that intervening in that case (to prevent nature from running its course) would cause some greater catastrophe later on? And if God considered all that, then there’s no way around it: even the boulder flattening the man happened for a reason.

Moreover, any loving God in his providence can’t merely “let physics run its course” because the death of that one man sends ripple effects across all of history. His death affects so many other people’s lives—people living and not living. It has a profound impact on future generations. At what point would my friend start believing that God’s providential care “kicks in” and God starts “intervening”?

I hate to even use the word “intervene” because it makes it sound like God’s involvement in our lives is an exceptional event, rather than a continuous occurrence—as if there were moments in our lives when God isn’t intervening, and that can’t be true: Every breath we take and heartbeat we enjoy is a completely gratuitous gift of God. Every moment of life is given to us directly by God. He sustains us at every moment. So he’s continuously intervening.

The only theological question at stake for us Wesleyans is that God enables through his Holy Spirit our free acceptance of rejection of his saving grace.

That’s it! When planning the future, can God not foresee that free choice and arrange history accordingly—without abridging whatever freedom we need to love God and others?

This view of God’s sovereignty doesn’t seem very difficult to understand. But what am I missing? Where am I wrong?

12 Responses to “More on God’s sovereignty”

  1. Nelson Says:

    Brent, I certainly believe that God has the power to intervene in any circumstance in this world but how does the devil figure in to this. There are certainly evil things that happen (flying an Airbus into the Alps and killing everyone on board) and God could have stopped it. But is evil not a part of living in a fallen world? If everything was as God wanted it then it would not be fallen! So does God work all things to our good in spite of them not being his will in the first place? Or am I getting His will and His sovereignty mixed up? These discussions bake my brain sometimes…

    • brentwhite Says:

      Great questions!

      We have to get clear on God’s antecedent will (what God would want in a sinless world) and God’s consequent will (what God wants in the world in which we live). By all means, God didn’t want humanity to fall into sin (although he foresaw that that would happen if human beings were free, and he permitted it). But he’d rather we live in a fallen world than any alternative that abrogates humanity’s freedom to choose to love and obey God.

      Antecedently, in a world without sin, God wouldn’t will that homicidal pilots fly planes into Alpine mountains. But that isn’t the world in which we live. In our world, Satan and his minions have the freedom to cause harm. Humans have the freedom to cause harm. They often work together, even unwittingly—at least from humanity’s point of view—to cause great harm. God grants these creatures the freedom to do that—obviously believing that the gift of creaturely freedom is worth the sin and evil that result. Besides, God has the power to transform sin and evil into something good—witness what he did with the cross of his Son.

      So I guess what I’m saying is, God wants more than one thing. There are competing desires at work here. By all means, God, in general, doesn’t want homicidal maniacs flying planes into mountains, but he wants it more than any other alternative given this world in which we live. Otherwise, he would have prevented it. Therefore, if it happens, it happens according to God’s will, but his consequent will rather than his antecedent will—his will for the world in which we live, not the world that might exist had we (or the angels) never rebelled against him.

      Again he didn’t want angels or humans to rebel, all things being equal, but he wanted their rebellion more than he wanted a Creation of automatons who have no choice but to obey him. Does that make sense?

      But your point about Satan is one that I can’t emphasize enough: Satan causes great evil, especially in conjunction with us humans. But that doesn’t “let God off the hook,” so to speak, because God has the power to prevent Satan from working this evil. But prevention, from God’s perspective, comes at too great a cost.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I largely agree with you. Nelson’s comment that I see here certainly raises a significant question in that regard. As I see it, God’s “intervention” is actually part of how God “set things up” to begin with. And part of what God “began with” was the nature of men (and devils) that they would have, of their own free will. So, God then “orchestrated” the events in that light. Thus, although this is a limited example, in your boulder illustration, God foreknew what types of choices the boulder’s “recipient” would make and “planned” for the boulder. And he also knew that the mother would pray. That would have affected whether the boulder rolled down the hill unabated or hit a tree root. (Among many other things that God foreknew.) But God does not “override” what we are, the type of person that we freely choose to be. He “acts around that,” even though that may largely have been from eternity past. (Not the most lucid analysis, but that’s how I generally see things.)

    Also, to the extent that balancing the whole universe may necessarily cause some present “inequities,” this still works out because God will “balance the books” when we enter eternity, so that things will still ultimately be “fair.” See, e.g., the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Yes, yes, yes! Heaven! Let’s not forget about that. (And see my comment above to Nelson.)

      I wouldn’t say that God doesn’t, or at least never, overrides what we are: This may be the Reformed influence of the Arminian tradition I inherit talking, but from my perspective we’re not able to choose God at all without the (somewhat) overriding influence of the Spirit to begin with: we are, left to our own devices, utterly depraved, helpless to do anything to move toward God. This is classic Protestantism. As a Baptist (which makes you part of the “Radical Reformation” tradition) you won’t necessarily embrace that (although you might). Catholics don’t embrace total depravity either.

      Beyond that, I agree with you. In general, God honors our creaturely freedom, arranging history to accomplish his ultimate will, in spite of our sinfulness.

  3. Josh Says:

    Divine sovereignty does NOT equal divine determinism. That’s where the Calvinists get all mixed up. I know because I spent a lot of time with the young, restless, and reformed crowd in college.
    God is the absolute ruler over all of His creation though. As the old hymn goes, “This is my Father’s world . . though the wrong seems oft so strong, he is the Ruler yet.” We often times miss it but sovereignty is a word that refers to kingship or ruler-ship.
    I don’t know what’s wrong with Methodists in regards to God’s sovereignty but I’ve noticed it as well. I don’t know if it’s the product of theological pluralism, the influence of process theology, or a negative reaction to Calvinists (which I can sympathize with) but the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is definitely something that needs to be focused on and reexamined.
    And you’re right, Wesley and his fellow Methodists fully incorporated God’s sovereignty into their theology and ministry. I guess it was because of his interactions with those inclined towards Calvinism in the Anglican church. They probably kept him kind of evened out. I sometimes wonder if Methodists would have been better off to have remained within the Anglican church. Instead of arguing about homosexuality and apportionments, we would be arguing about theology (which is not always a bad thing).

    • brentwhite Says:

      I love the Anglican tradition and would be happy to be Anglican. (Anglican Church in North America, not Episcopalian!)

      • Josh Says:

        Yeah, that’s where I might end up with before long. Like Calvinists, Lutherans, and other Protestants who trace their theological heritage back to one individual or a group of individuals, Methodists have a bad tendency to just talk about Wesley this and Wesley that without even talking about the Bible or theology. Listening to an Anglican bishop is way different that listening to a UMC bishop. One will speak of the Biblical narrative and how theology should shape us . . . the other speaks about being connected, apportionments, and benevolence issues. Often times, they talk about good things but they don’t ground these things in theology.

        People need to form their theology themselves through interaction with the scriptures, history, life, and other Christians. If you are force fed a particular theology and told that’s it (like many Protestant groups), I just don’t see how you can learn these things for yourself. John and Charles formed their theology in the midst of a lot of varying beliefs (which were all grounded in the Bible and in the writings of ancient Christian writers – scripture, tradition, reason). They would not have become the men they were without this formation. This is very different from our UM context in which theology is devalued (in my best Goofy voice, “Gosh, in the UM you can believe anything you want!”).
        Looks like I’m rambling . . . sorry about that.

      • brentwhite Says:

        This is anecdotal, but I wonder if the more progressive a Christian is, the more in love with their denomination they happen to be—the more self-consciously denominational they are. I grew up Southern Baptist, for instance, but I belonged to a self-consciously “moderate” church. We opposed the so-called “fundamentalists” who took over the denomination (by rightly taking over the seminaries, the place where all theological poison spreads).

        But I remember how often people from “my side” (at the time) appealed to Baptist polity, history, and agencies. We were all about what it meant to be Baptist. We were the true Baptists, or so we thought. But it was important to be true to that. Those fundies, meanwhile, only seemed to care about—you know—Jesus and stuff. They didn’t talk about what it meant to be Baptist. To our indignation, they didn’t seem to care!

        Don’t you see the same thing in the UMC? The theological liberals care greatly about their Methodist identity—what it means to be Wesleyan. (Of course, they make Wesley into their own image, but whatever…) It’s easy enough to spot the progressive Methodists: If they watch proceedings from General Conference online and post about it on social media, they’re progressive. The thought of watching GC, much less participating in it, makes me want to gouge my eyeballs out.

        Although I’m a convinced Arminian like Wesley, and I like Wesleyan theology (recognizing that it’s slightly watered-down Anglican theology), I mostly couldn’t care less about being Methodist. Given how wayward we’ve become, I feel like I have to apologize for it. You know?

        And if any of my progressive clergy acquaintances are reading this, I’m sure they’re as indignant as I used to be when I was theologically liberal.

      • brentwhite Says:

        And give me the Anglican “trilateral” over the Wesleyan Quadrilateral any day! (Not that I think the Quardrilateral is a real thing.)

      • Josh Says:

        Ha, I love you, dude (in the right way, of course)! You hit the nail on the head. We may have to make a list: “You know that you are a liberal/UM if . . . when describing your denomination, you sound like a business person pitching a proposal, etc. etc. I could come up with more but I need to cook dinner.

        And that’s the same way that I feel. I used to be really into the Methodist thing until I saw that most UMC’ers do not actually practice Methodism. It’s mostly either cultural evangelical lite on the right or generic mainline on the left.

        And yeah, I do feel apologetic most of the time and that really bothers me. And yeah, I would rather take a kick to the groin than sit around and watch GC or an AC for that matter. The conferences were meant for small groups like para-church organizations. When you expand them into national and international meetings it gets ridiculous and just plain stupid at times. It’s embarrassing.

        We’re going to have to Skype sometime and have a good rant. Blessings on ya.

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    Wow! “Total Depravity”, the T in TULIP.

    Seriously though, I get really tired to the “labeling”. If you agree with any aspect of the Calvinist view, your a “Calvinist”. And, as Josh said, the Methodists are” Wesley this and Wesley that”. I agree with what I think both Josh and Brent’s point is, which is that you get good theology by studying all of the views put forth, and then testing them with Scripture yourself. If you are not willing to make the “brain baking” (Nelson) mental effort then you are only borrowing someone else’s belief system.

    This is a great discussion. What a good Bible study group we would make 🙂


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