The issue of God’s sovereignty versus human free will has long been an area of interest to me, and I have been spending a great deal of time recently dwelling on it – certain aspects of it at least.
For instance, why do people tend to think that sovereignty means that if something happens, it must be because God directly made it happen, instead of meaning that God oversees everything, understands everything that is going on and can handle it and “has it under control” per se, without actually controlling everything directly, or causing all things that happen to happen?
I feel as though we, in our western and heavily Greek-influenced way of thinking about the attributes of God, have got a lot of things messed up – everything has to be wooden extremes it seems (hey I rhymed).
Just as an example of what I mean, we tend to take God’s omnipotence, the fact that God is all-powerful, to mean that he can do anything – literally anything. I think that is a very Greek way of thinking about it.
From what I understand of Hebrew philosophy, it is quite different than Greek philosophy, and actually rather more practical. According to a western way of thinking, if God is omnipotent, well then surely that must mean he can do anything we can conceive of, which raises problems such as, “can God make a rock so big he can’t lift it?” This seems to cause a problem for God. Whether He cannot make the rock or cannot pick the rock up, it seems to limit God.
However, the problem is not in God’s power; the problem is in our understanding of God’s power. In a Hebrew mind, such paradoxes would be considered absurd, because that is not what is meant at all by omnipotence. It does not mean that God can accomplish anything we can imagine. Omnipotence means that God is the most powerful being in the universe – the most powerful being conceivable even – and cannot be limited by anything – period.
This is why it is frustrating to talk in terms like “He can, or cannot.” God cannot sin – not in the sense that He is all of a sudden limited by the fact that He is unable to do something, but rather, God is “unable” to sin, because sin stains and limits, and God, by definition, is infinitely powerful and cannot be limited by anything (unless He chooses to limit Himself for a time – can we say kenosis?), and thus sin has no power over Him.
Back to sovereignty – Many people are running on the assumption that if God is sovereign, then that means that if something happens, God must have wanted that to happen, because surely nothing in this world would happen unless God actively wanted it to happen – willed, decreed for it to happen – i.e. it was a good thing that happened.
Well, we see all throughout the Bible that God is often not pleased, and sometimes even saddened, by things that happen in the world (we’ll talk about God’s impassibility another time). Am I limiting God’s power or sovereignty by saying this? I don’t think so. I’d like to think I’m just being biblical!
I don’t see why Christians want to say that if God is sovereign then that means that anything that happens must be “okay” with God to the point that it is actually what he wanted. I think this is a misunderstanding of God’s perfect/permissive/prescriptive will. For instance, He has an overall perfect will – a divine plan for the universe – which will not be thwarted and will infallibly be accomplished (R.C. Sproul calls this God’s “decretive will”), but God also has permissive will – things that He will let happen (and we don’t always need to know why) but did not necessarily desire – as well as things that he would prefer happen, but do not happen.
Many people seem to think that this undermines God’s sovereignty, but this stems from an over-realized meticulous sovereignty view.
I think this understanding of God’s sovereignty as having absolute oversight and care over everything that happens, though not always directly and immediately (as opposed to mediately) causing things to happen, actually makes God seem more amazing to me, and more worthy of glory. We have such an awesome God!