A hot-button issue in theological discussions involves the word “sovereignty.” God’s sovereignty is very important to Christians. It is so important that if a teaching appears to be denying God’s sovereignty, then it is grounds for dismissing—or at least being very skeptical of—the teaching. “If he’s not Lord of all,” some say, “then he’s not Lord at all!”
But I’ve found that it’s notoriously difficult to know what someone means by the word. Sometimes it’s clear that they mean something like causal determinism, where God causes the human person to do what they do. This determinism can be incompatibilistic (which means that the human person does not have free will) or it can be compatibilistic (which means that even though the human person is caused to do as he does, he is nonetheless still free). However, in theological debates, it is far from clear that Christians share a commitment to God’s causally determining things. So, in order to avoid question-begging in these cases, let’s at least start a different way.
I propose we begin with the idea of God’s sovereignty as God’s absolute right to rule his creation. Now this is not original with me, but I think all Christians should agree that sovereignty is at least this. With this definition in place, theological debate becomes far more interesting. Why?
Because we are no longer talking past each other. We know that we want to best represent God’s sovereignty, but how do we do that? We do that in three areas:
1. Through the Bible
The Bible is our final rule of faith and practice. What that means is that if the Bible teaches it, we ought to believe it. If the Bible teaches against it, then we ought to be against it. What it doesn’t mean is that if the Bible is silent on the issue, we too must be silent (or worse, reject it!). It just means we always have a kind of tentative grip on the issue.
2. Through Theology
Our theological beliefs should be shaped largely by the Bible. Now I’m not trying to get a full-blown hermeneutic here, just getting some truths out of the way. We should do theology in light of what God has revealed. God has revealed truths from his word. We should take them seriously, and apply themes that emerge from Scripture to areas of thought about God, what he is like, and his goals (the telos of God’s activity, as it were). Gaining theology from the Bible is one side of it. The other side is . . .
3. Through Philosophy
Our philosophical beliefs come from how God has made us and what he has revealed to us in nature. I’m not speaking specifically and only of empirical reasoning, but natural rationality as well. Insofar as we are thinking truly and rationally, we are reflecting the very nature of God. Our philosophy can—and indeed must—help inform our theology. There is no such thing as a philosophy-free theology. This is at least in part due to the fact that we use our worldview (our own, personalized philosophy on life) in interpreting the Scriptures!
Applying this to our current discussion we can see that the debates aren’t going to be so clear. Those passages you think clearly teach causal determinism? Libertarians see those passages as affirming God’s sovereignty and active role in salvation and the world’s affairs but sees them as open to the how question of God’s accomplishing this. Those passages you think so clearly show free will? Compatibilists see these as affirming man’s responsibility, but not necessarily the particular kind of free will that you do.
So where does this leave us? It leaves us discussing our theology and philosophy, and our Bible and philosophy, and our Bible and theology. All of this will be in dialogue together, with the appropriate levels of authority. Finally, it should humble us, because it means the system we have so neatly put together may not be as compelling as we first thought. I am by no means saying there are no right answers, nor am I saying that we cannot know those right answers. I’m just calling for speaking with the same terms, and a dose of humility and charity.