Context
This is an attempt to understand what the Bible says about God's sovereignty.
It is not an attempt to cover all that the Church has taught on the subject,
or to tell you what you should believe.

Introduction

The Christian scriptures consistently affirm that God is sovereign.  But what does this actually mean?

Saint Augustine had a clear understanding of the sovereignty of God, and communicated his understanding clearly and effectively.  His understanding has been, by and large, accepted by the mainstream churches ever since - but it was significantly influenced by Greek philosophy, and it was very different from the understanding of the early Church.  He brought his own understanding of God to his reading of the Biblical text - as people had done before him, and have continued to do after him.  And (as is too often the case), because his understanding of God was not taken from the Biblical text, he was effectively ignoring much of what the Bible actually says about God.

Augustine thought that God was in total control of everything that happens: he believed that everything happens because God wants it to (see below for some illustrative quotes).  But the Bible is full of stories, from the Garden of Eden onward, which show very clearly that much of what happens is not God's will.  Jesus tells us to pray for God's will to be done because, all too often, this does not happen.  The New Testament uses the term 'Almighty' ('Pantokratōr' in the Greek) to refer to God: this means that His rule extends over all things, just as the rule of Elizabeth II extends over all the United Kingdom - but the authority to make laws and the power to punish those who break laws is not the same as the ability to control everything.

When the Bible talks about God as Sovereign, this means that He has the right to make laws, to tell us how to live; it also means that God outranks every earthly King and Emperor so, when their commands conflict with God's, "We have to obey God, rather than men."  It limits the power of human leaders: they cannot require absolute obedience from us; it reminds them that they too are subject to God's laws - rulers may feel (and they may claim) that they are the top dog, but in the end they are answerable to Him.

When the Bible talks about God as 'all knowing', this may be intended to be taken literally: nothing can happen which God is unaware of.  But when the Bible talks about God as 'all powerful', this is poetry, not not intended to be taken literally: He gives us power, and sometimes we take power.  In Genesis 1:26, just before the human race is created, God says; "Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule," saying that the purpose of the human race is to exercise sovereignty, like God.  And Satan is described (In 2 Thessalonians 2:9) as having all power - but, clearly, God and Satan can't both have it all.  This is not an example of the Bible contradicting itself, or some deep spiritual paradox: it is simply the way we usually talk when we speak of power.  We happily talk about an 'all powerful' ruler, knowing that they do not literally have all power, they simply have more power than anyone else in their realm - they are all powerful because nobody has more power than they do.  And this is exactly what the Biblical writers mean when they talk of God being all powerful.

Sovereignty

In the Bible, a Sovereign is not someone who is in total control.  We can summarize some of what the Bible says about the subject quite easily.

  • A Sovereign has the right to make laws, but cannot make the citizens keep them.
  • A Sovereign has the power to issue commands, but only specific commands to specific people. 
  • A Sovereign has the authority to impose punishments on people who break the laws, and to exercise mercy regarding punishments.
  • A Sovereign has a moral duty to act wisely, to use these powers for the wellbeing of their people, and not for their own convenience, comfort or enrichment.

A Sovereign can make laws and issue commands, but cannot tell their subjects what to do in every detail of every day.  Life generally goes on for most people without the active involvement of the Sovereign: they decide what to eat and drink, who to marry, what crops to plant; they trade and celebrate feasts, sing songs and tell jokes.  A more contemporary illustration: your satnav can tell you to take the third turning on the right, but it does not tell you whether to squeeze through as the traffic light changes, or whether to allow someone waiting in a side road to pull out in front of you.

It's clear that many Sovereigns do not behave as they should.  Actually, none of them behave entirely as they should.  And the Bible is full of counter-examples: poor Sovereigns who made their people suffer by their foolishness, selfishness and short-sightedness.  We should not be surprised: Samuel warned the Children of Israel that an earthly King would make them his slaves - which makes it clear that they were better off with God as their King.

A key difference in the New Testament between the reign of God and the reign of Satan is that Satan seeks to control us, while God seeks to set us free.  People who, like Augustine, understand God's sovereignty as God controlling us, are effectively confusing God's rule with Satan's.

Augustine

Just to be clear: there are several Saint Augustines, but we are talking here about Augustine of Hippo (354-430).  He was not the first to redefine divine sovereignty as total control, but he took the idea further than other people had at the time, and he was clearly the most influential person with these views.  He also said and did a lot of good things, but we're not talking about them right now.

Augustine embraced an understanding of God which was mainly derived from Greek philosophy: in his view, God was perfect and unchanging; God acted on the world, but the world did not act on God.  Augustine was a Neoplatonist before his conversion, and his God has more in common with Plato's ideals - an ultimate reality existing beyond our physical world - than the passionate and involved Hebrew God.  Here are a few illustrative quotes from Augustine.

"whatever is said of [God's] nature, unchangeable, invisible and having life absolutely and sufficient to itself, must not be measured after the custom of things visible, and changeable, and mortal, or not self-sufficient"
"For He is not truly called Almighty if He cannot do whatsoever He pleases, or if the power of His almighty will is hindered by the will of any creature whatsoever."
"The will of the Omnipotent is never defeated . . . The omnipotent God never does anything except of His own free-will, and never wills anything that He does not perform."

Suffering

This is where this academic discussion of doctrine starts to deeply affect the lives of real people.  We struggle with suffering - we always have done - but, almost without exception, when people talk about 'the problem of suffering' and how it is impossible to square the fact of suffering with belief in God, the sort of God they have in mind is the God of Augustine, not the God of the Bible.

God's Will

Sovereignty is not the only relevant concept, although it tends to be the most prominent in many traditions because of the place it occupies in Augustine's and Calvin's teachings.  The Bible also talks about God's will, God's purpose, God's plans and so on.  It is easy to assume that these passages support Augustine's teaching, but they actually give us a very different picture of God.

The Bible is clear that God has a plan - but not everything that happens is part of this plan.  We sin, we make mistakes; at times, we participate in God's plan, at other times we get in the way of them.  The narrative around Jesus' birth is a good example of the way these things work.  Here are some of the details we are told.

  • It is God's plan that the Messiah should be born in Bethlehem.
  • Gabriel approaches Mary and tells her that God wants her to be the mother of the Messiah.  This is a difficult and dangerous task: it requires courage.
  • Mary responds in faith and obedience, and becomes part of God's plan.
  • Joseph, too, is presented with a difficult task, but responds in faith and obedience, and becomes part of God's plan.
  • Zechariah has a part to play: he does not respond in faith; his part is changed, but he is not written out.
  • Caesar decides to have a census, and the consequence is that the baby will be born in Bethlehem.
  • Angels appear to the shepherds, who decide to go and see what they have been told about.
  • Herod is told of God's plan, and attempts to thwart it by killing the infant Messiah.
  • God intervenes, responding to the threat from Herod: an angel warns Joseph to take Mary and the child to safety.

Many people are caught up in this plan.  Joseph and Mary choose to be part of God's plan.  Perhaps Mary was not the first young woman Gabriel approached: we are not told.  It is reasonable to assume that, if Mary had chickened out, someone else would have had the honour, and the pain.  God's plan will be fulfilled, but we may not be part of it.  Caesar is part of the plan: you can say that he is used, but he is only used through doing something he may well have chosen to do anyway; he is - we assume - not aware of being part of any plan.  And, presumably, if Caesar had not decided to have a census, God could have found some other way to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.  Herod attempts to prevent God's plan; God intervenes to ensure the attempt fails, but doesn't prevent Herod from doing what he has decided to do.

We see God's plan being fulfilled, but the details are all dependent upon the choices and responses of the people involved.  God know what He wants to achieve, but achieves it entirely through the participation of the various individuals involved, and almost entirely through their willing participation.  There is nothing in the text to suggest that God makes Mary, Joseph or the Shepherds respond as they do, and the early Church never imagined that this might have been the case: they are celebrated as people of faith precisely because they were free agents who were able to reject God's will, but chose instead to accept it and participate in His purpose.

The picture we are given is not an orchestra, with everybody playing only the notes written in advance for them; instead, it is more like a jamming session where the group has a leader taking the music somewhere, trusting the other players to contribute when they are invited, and improvising as the performance develops in response to those contributions.

To put it another way: sometimes, God decides that something specific will happen; He arranges events and intervenes in individuals' lives to enable, guide and warn them, but He never makes anybody do anything.  If they cooperate, then fine; if they resist, He finds a way around the problem.  His will is done, in the end, but the details of how it is done depend entirely on the people involved.  The God of the Bible is big and powerful: nobody is able to stand in His way, to prevent His will from being done; but how His will is done, and the part we play in doing it, depends entirely on our willingness to participate.

We can summarize this approach by saying that the Bible is quite clear on two important points: firstly, that God's will is always done; and secondly, that many things which happen are not God's will.

 

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Comments

  •  "A key difference in the New Testament between the reign of God and the reign of Satan is that Satan seeks to control us, while God seeks to set us free".

    My response to this would be that if true it suggests that the church throughout history was not 'confusing the rule of God for the rule of Satan' but was actually doing Satan's work.

    • Sadly, I can't disagree with you.

      At least, I accept that is a fair judgement on most of the Christian Church, through most of history.  It is a fair judgement on the institution of Christendom, where the Church and State explicitly shared control of the people.  But there have always been Christians, and Christian movements, which have opposed the exercise of power, and rejected it as an option for the followers of Jesus.

      As you know, the Chrstian tradition I most identify with is the Anabaptists, who rejected the use of force and the exercise of power.  They followed the example of many small nonconformist groups throughout history who believed that God wants people to be free, and chose to live as though that is the case.  Consequently, they were persecuted and killed by both Catholics and Protestants.  But their ideas have survived, and I believe that one day the world will come to recognize that love and freedom are the only basis for a happy, healthy and successful community.

    • I came to see this during the final few years of my time within an evangelical church (and I suspect it is true of the majority of churches). Of all the teachings in the Bible about human behaviour, surely the most prevalent are those to do with how we treat one another, especially those who are poor, marginalised, sojourners in a strange land etc. The teachings of the old and new testaments are almost communist in their tone, certainly socialist. And yet, bring up this in most churches and the congregation is told not to get 'political'.  But of course bring up the areas of social interaction the church is obsessed with, abortion, sex outside marriage, homosexuality etc and we were encouraged to engage in the political process to see the law changed, which had it happened would have the effect of making more peoples lives a misery. I'm afraid my perception now looking in from the outside is much worse - the hypocrisy is utterly damning. 

  • Paul

     

    Your perception of my thought processes is probably fair. You say:

     

    “It seems to me that your struggles with the problem of suffering make absolute sense if you believe in the God described by Saint Augustine.  More than that, I think suffering is an unanswerable problem if you believe in Augustine's God - but it is not an unanswerable problem if you believe in the God of the Bible”.  

     

    I grew up with the Augustinian theology of the Plymouth Brethren, and it has been deeply ingrained in me. Even though I now reject it, for the reasons that we have discussed, I still default to it as my perception of “standard” Christianity. I am still moved by the old hymns – Rock of Ages, What a Friend we have in Jesus, etc, far more than by anything that current Christian music has to offer (but I also don’t listen to post-1980 secular music very much!). I then sat under the Arminian, Spiritual Warfare theology of Gerald Coates and then Roger Forster for longer than I was ever in the Brethren, and would have said that I subscribed to it. But the solutions that it offers I found to be inadequate. For instance, you say:

     

    “The Bible is very clear that there are things God cannot do, but this does not mean that God is fallible.  God cannot find a fix for everything (but, to be fair, He does find fixes for quite a few things) - but this does not mean that He makes mistakes, or tries to do things then discovers He is unable to do them after all”. 

     

    My problem is that I can’t round the idea that this makes God into a being who is greater than humans only in degree rather than in a fundamental way; who can bend the laws of physics to some degree but not totally, and if he is worthy of worship, then only to a greater degree than that to which humans idolize a great ruler or celebrity. The Eastern religions would recognize such a God. And of course the more primitive parts of the Bible, the book of Job, and the Creation story in Genesis, do portray a God that seems to be in a duel with his evil counterpart, but nevertheless proclaims to humans that he is super-powerful if not all-powerful: the God of William Blake. Of course the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God is morally superior to most of the ancient Gods: he doesn’t turn into a bull or a swan and rape women, as Zeus is supposed to have done, and he certainly didn’t castrate his father, as Saturn/Chronos is supposed to have done to Uranus. Neither does he demand human sacrifice.

     

    Perhaps these questions can never be answered and Christians do have to be prepared to live with uncertainty, as theologians such as Rob Bell or Philip Yancey have said. The bible becomes a guide-book, not a rule-book. Maybe that contradicts Jesus’ teaching “You shall know the Truth”, but then again Greek thinking insists on Truth being a concept or a doctrine, not a Person as Jesus meant.

     

    But I wonder if all I have done is take the conclusion of this one step further than you have done. You have developed a looser (as it seems to me) concept of God and the bible than the Augustinian one. Without wishing to sound patronizing, that is where I was ten or fifteen years ago! But for me, if I am to live with uncertainty, as it seems I must, then a restatement of Christianity seems to only paper over the cracks of that uncertainty. As I have said previously, Atheism cannot be ruled out as the truth of all this but it comes with its own uncertainties and fudged issues; maybe a God is necessary to fill the gaps in our knowledge of science; maybe he/she/it isn’t necessary; we don’t know yet. So if there is any kind of God, I go one step further than the liberal Christian position towards a Unitarian or Pantheistic position. Neither of those are the concrete positions that the Rationalist in me would prefer, but they avoid the meld of dogma and uncertainty of the liberal Christian or Jewish position. Enlightenment Rationalists such as Hume, Voltaire etc advocated Deism, the idea that God created the Universe and then left it alone: which begs the question “Why would he/she/it do that?” Pantheism leaves room for a God of some kind being involved, but without being limited to the dogma of the bible or any other kind of revelation: it was the philosophy of Spinoza, spoken of approvingly Einstein. I do not want to attach a label to my own position; just to say that if I am going to live with uncertainty then I will question more than just the Augustinian Christian position.

  • Responding to Adrian's post from 26 October...

    Again, you made a number of significant points, so apologies for not responding sooner.

    I think I'm failing to understand the initial point you make.  You say:

    You say: “but there is absolutely no reason why a God who created the universe and occasionally nudges it in some way must be able to decide every single detail - or, being able, would choose to do it. Well... I say there is no reason.” That is a very logical view. But then the equivalent model for humans to the model about the birds as described above, would be that he only cares about humanity in general, not individual humans. That compromises the concept of a God of Love, who knows all the needs of each individual, and who answers prayers from those individuals.

    Forgive me if I'm missing something, but you seem to be conflating two quite different things: firstly, the ability to control every single detail of a person's life; and secondly, love.

    The model I am offering - if you want to call it a 'model' - works for both birds and people.  God feeds birds in the same way that He feeds us: by providing an environment in which the bird's need for food can be met.  And the sad reality is that someties birds don't find the food they need, and they die, and sometimes people are unable to find enough food and they die too.  It is a hard, sad, fallen world we live in - a fact which the people of Jesus' day knew only too well.  But the happy fact is, most of the time, food is found and life goes on.  Jesus, and the people of His day, saw this as God's provision, and that does not seem unreasonable to me.

    All of this is entirely consistent with God caring for every bird, and loving every single human being.  The Bible is clear that God loves each one of us, and listens to all our prayers.  It tells us that He delights to answer our prayers, but not that He does answer all our prayers - in fact, as you must surely be aware, there are many prayers in the Bible which are not answered.

    I love my family, I do what I can to prevent them from suffering, but sometimes they suffer anyway.  Sometimes (but, fortunately, not too often!) they suffer because they do bad things which have bad consequences; sometimes they suffer simply because they live in a fallen world and bad things happen to everyone.  But I do what I can to help them live well and avoid unnecessary sffering.  That is pretty much the picture the Bible gives us of God, - of course, He is bigger and wiser and more powerful than me, I make mistakes and He doesn't, but the fundamental picture is the same.  I love my family, and I don't control their lives.  The same is true of God.

    Assuming that God is not Sovereign in the sense of being all-powerful, and not able to find a fix for everything, starts to downgrade God to no more than some supernatural but fallible being.

    Absolutely not!  The Bible is very clear that there are things God cannot do, but this does not mean that God is fallible.  God cannot find a fix for everything (but, to be fair, He does find fixes for quite a few things) - but this does not mean that He makes mistakes, or tries to do things then discovers He is unable to do them after all.  He knows Himself, and he knows us; He never asks more of us than we are able to provide, and He surely does not make that mistake about Himself! 

    A lot of human suffering may well be caused by humans, and ordinary humans get swept up in the power struggles of a few powerful humans: but is a God who Loves and is powerful enough to to protect those individuals going to stand by and do nothing

    I don't understand why God sometimes answers prayer and protects people from harm, and sometimes does not.  But then, when I was young, there were many things my father did, or didn't do, which I did not understand.  I am not claiming to be able to exaplain why everything happens.  I'm simply attempting to point out what the Bible actually says about God, as opposed to what many Christians have said about Him over the years.

    It seeems to me that your struggles with the problem of suffering make absolute sense if you believe in the God described by Saint Augustine.  More than that, I think suffering is an unanswerable problem if you believe in Augustine's God - but it is not an unanswerable problem if you believe in the God of the Bible.  Of course, you can choose to feel as you do, in response to the God described in the Bible - but, in this case, it is your choice to respond that way.  And there are plenty of examples of people in the Bible who do respond that way.

    You are right, I hope, in that my position is very close to that of Roger Forster.  I have a great deal of respect for him, both for his theology, and for the way he has sought to live it out, to do what I can to express love for everyone, just as God does.  As I understand it, the idea of 'Spiritual Warfare' is one aspect of Roger's understanding of why suffering exists.  Reality is too big and too complicated to be captured by any one picture, image or metaphor.

    Actually: that is an important point.  Reality is too big and too complicated to be captured by any one picture, image or metaphor.  You referred some time ago to the traditional "Propitiatory Substitutionary Atonement theology of the cross", as though that is the only lens theough we we are able to view the cross.  This is not the case, and while you can find people every now and then who make it sound as if this was the case, almost every theologian who has engaged with the theology of the cross has recognised that the 'PSA' model is only one aspect of a much larger, far richer, theological framework, presented to us in the Bible.  I recently found an extremely readable book on the subject of the various ways the Atonement is presented in the Bible, and has been understood through the centuries: 'Did God Kill Jesus?' by Tony Jones.  Excellent reading!

     

  • We were discussing this question on the previous website, the predecessor to Just Human?, and I have been meaning to reply to Paul’s post on the Sovereignty of God. Some of the following is a copy and paste of that discussion, modified to respond to Paul's post above. 

    For people coming into the discussion, I am particularly interested because my pre-occupation, and a major reason for my rejection of institutionalized religion, is the issue of Suffering: for a God to allow the suffering that we see in the world, he cannot be both all-loving and all-powerful, as far as I can see. I have not been able to get round the idea that one of those has to give.

     The possibility of God being all-powerful, which may be the same as “Sovereign”, but not being a god of Love is a different argument,  and possibly a more terrifying prospect than the possibility of him being loving but not all-powerful, and I won’t tackle that question here.

     Many of the most honest and caring Christians that I know of have felt that the only way of explaining the fact of suffering is to say that God is a totally loving God but not all-powerful; not almighty, not Sovereign. Often those Christians also step back from the traditional Propitiatory Substitutionary Atonement [PSA] theology of the Cross.  Apart from Paul H, I could cite Steve Chalke, Philip Yancey, N T Wright, Greg Boyd, Leslie Weatherhead, Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy. I have tried hard to go along with their thinking, but in the end have been unable to make the logic work.

     For instance, Paul says that the Western understanding of God as being necessarily all-powerful comes largely from Saint Augustine, who had a view of God derived from Greek thinking rather than Hebrew. But the Greek gods were a fallible and chaotic lot, fighting among themselves, with consequent fall-out for humans: Saturn and Jupiter acted as sovereign gods but had to fight for their positions. A Christian version of this would be the dualism that most mainstream theologians reject – the idea that God and Satan are almost evenly matched, though if this was true it could be an explanation for the way that the world is, and the first chapter of Job would appear to support it.

     Paul also cites reasons why human Kings in the Bible were described as Sovereign but were not all-powerful and often gave their subjects some leeway in their behavior. But because the term Sovereign is used for these Kings and for God, does it necessarily mean that they were equivalent and that we can deduce things about one from the other? It might be that the language used is only the best approximation that the writers could find (especially if you reject the “email from heaven” view of biblical inspiration).

    The model of divine intervention that Paul suggests, of God working out his purposes through people who choose to obey, and that for instance he might have approached several women before Mary agreed to be the mother of the Messiah, is one that has been suggested by other writers such as Greg Boyd. But apart from being somewhat speculative, it does not necessarily help with the problem of why God allows such enormous suffering to continue in the world. If God is not Sovereign, and therefore cannot stop such suffering, then is he truly God in any traditional sense of the term?

    If we were to accept that God created the universe, either through initiating the Big Bang and then by guiding natural selection, or by ex nihilo creation as fundamentalists believe, then he must be as near to being Almighty as makes no difference. If he is that powerful but cannot control evil, then either he does not care about human suffering, or the Devil is very nearly as powerful (“Dualism”, as mentioned above): neither of those options are acceptable to most Christians. In fact however, many Christians do subscribe to a Spiritual Warfare theory in which the Devil opposes God and the saints, and the Kingdom of God has not yet fully come into being, but they would deny that this makes them Dualists, and would be dubious about the implication that God is not powerful enough to avoid two thousand years of suffering since the Cross if he wanted to. Dualism, or even Spiritual Warfare as understood by many evangelicals, could be a good explanation for the way the world is, but they imply that God is unable or unwilling to take control of the situation. Or, if he is in control, then he witnesses untold human suffering, and either does nothing because “the time has not yet come”, or at best alleviates some suffering but allows some to continue, according to his Mysterious Ways.

    But if we therefore accept that God is not Almighty, what are the implications? Revelation tells us that God will win the struggle between Good and Evil, but will he? It hasn’t happened yet. If Revelation is true, then I certainly hope he wins. But is it all propaganda?  If he is not Almighty, then to assume a win at this stage is about as sensible as a football crowd assuming their team will definitely win, and getting very excited about it, just because they score in the first two minutes. And a very large part of Revelation is about all the heavenly beings worshipping Him for all eternity. Why should we worship a God who is not Almighty? Perhaps Revelation merely reflects the human culture of the time: people would worship an Emperor or a successful General, just as today some people worship Kim Jong-Un or Donald Trump. If God is not Almighty, then we are saying that the world is controlled by (in a greatly simplified list), Joe Biden, Xi JinPing, Vladimir Putin, Jeff Bezos, various hedge fund managers and commodity brokers – and God. Such a God may be many orders of magnitude more powerful than those people, but it would only be a question of degree, rather than being conceptually different.

    If the reason that the violence on Earth continues is because of a struggle between two sets of celestial beings who exist in another dimension but somehow impact human life, then it seems like something out of the Marvel Universe, or the Greek or Norse cosmology. That seems even more difficult to believe, than to believe in a being with Absolute Power who cannot be defeated or contradicted. The first option cannot control the universe and stop suffering and evil, and the second chooses not to. So to downgrade God from Almighty causes just as many problems and illogicalities as an unswerving belief in an Almighty God, at least if we try to tie either of these concepts into the biblical narrative. If we feel that a Supreme Being is necessary to explain the existence of life, then the biblical narrative must be very far from explaining the Truth.

     

    • Another point which is probably worth making: God's sovereignty is commonly understood (at least in theological circles) as meaning that His will is the 'final cause' of all things.  He 'feeds the birds of the air' - but nobody understands this to mean that He takes each individual bird, sits them down and offers a nice juicy insect on a plate.  He is the 'final cause' of the birds being fed, setting up the circumstances in which the birds are able to feed themselves.  He 'causes the rain to fall', not by indvidually manufacturing evey individual raindrop, but by being the original source of the weather systems which produce rain.

    • Adrian,

      A lot there!  Let's try to work through it bit by bit, so I won't try to respond to every point right now.

      One point to start: you are right to note that "the Greek gods were a fallible and chaotic lot" - that confusion is my fault.  I have updated the article to make it clear that it is Greek philosophy I was referring to, not the Greek stories about their gods (who probably deserve an article to themselves!).  The key reference is to Plato's philosophy, because Augustine (like several other early Christians) was a Neoplatonist, building his understanding of the world upon Plato's philosophy.

      The reference to suffering is again entirely my fault: I think something about it is needed here, but the link between our understanding of God and our understanding of suffering is a big and important one, which certainly does deserve its own article.

      I do want to disagree with your claim that "If we were to accept that God created the universe, either through initiating the Big Bang and then by guiding natural selection, or by ex nihilo creation as fundamentalists believe, then he must be as near to being Almighty as makes no difference"  Your understanding  - or the understanding you seem to be defending - is of a God who decides every small detail of our lives, but there is absolutely no reason why a God who created the universe and occasionally nudges it in some way must be able to decide every single detail - or, being able, would choose to do it.  Well... I say there is no reason: you have not provided a reason why this must be so, and in all the literature I have read on the subject I'm not aware of anyone else who has done so, either.

      I accept that the God I describe is not the same as the God who is preached in many churches, but I am not making that claim.  Precisely the opposite: I am claiming that the majority of Christians are holding to an understanding of God which is not Biblical.  But an increasing number of Christians are waking up to this sorry state of affairs. (I'm not sure if that will make you feel better...)

    • Paul

      To reply to your last two posts: When it comes to feeding birds, it may well suffice to say that God’s Sovereignty implies only being the “final cause”, i.e. that he creates conditions in which a species or a population of birds can survive, rather than feeding each individual bird. That would mean that he does not mind if individual birds die. Scripture says that he knows if a sparrow falls to the ground, which isn’t the same as saying that he cares about the individual birds, and putting aside 21st Century Western sentimentality, that would make sense for a Sovereign deity.  

      But does that work with humans? You say: “but there is absolutely no reason why a God who created the universe and occasionally nudges it in some way must be able to decide every single detail - or, being able, would choose to do it.  Well... I say there is no reason.” That is a very logical view.  But then the equivalent model for humans to the model about the birds as described above, would be that he only cares about humanity in general, not individual humans. That compromises the concept of a God of Love, who knows all the needs of each individual, and who answers prayers from those individuals. (The scripture about the sparrows falling to the ground is intended to illustrate that God answers human prayer). Those points are very dear to most 21st Century Western Christians, who then have no real answer for why some humans suffer so much. I tried very hard to answer this over many years. “Making us more like Him”, or “God’s Mysterious Ways” became inadequate in the end. Assuming that God is not Sovereign in the sense of being all-powerful, and not able to find a fix for everything, starts to downgrade God to no more than some supernatural but fallible being. It feels like the arc of the James Bond or Dr Who stories, where the hero goes from being able to fix anything, to being vulnerable, imperfect and unable to fix all that he wants to fix. A lot of human suffering may well be caused by humans, and ordinary humans get swept up in the power struggles of a few powerful humans: but is a God who Loves and is powerful enough to to protect those individuals going to stand by and do nothing, and if he does do nothing, then is he really going to answer the prayers of some Christians who request special healing for their ailments while thousands of others humans suffer? Human suffering is so much easier to understand if we leave God out of it and go with the Marxist concept of Alienation, that humans are the victims of economic forces beyond their control.

      The dichotomy fits neatly with your point about the majority of Christians holding to a concept of God that is not biblical. I have experienced both. The majority that you mention is Conservative Evangelicalism (and also Conservative Catholicism) which are influenced by the Augustinian theology that you mentioned. For me this was the Plymouth Brethren theology that I knew in the 1960s and 70s: God was all-powerful, Love was preached as a concept but ultimately Truth (which was something close to Biblical literalism, again Greek thinking rather than Jewish) and Righteousness were more important than Love. This tradition is dying out in the UK but is in the ascendant in the USA and Brazil, particularly under Bush and Trump. (I wonder if British people and politicians, Christian or not, really grasp the extent to which US foreign policy is informed by the belief that the nation that supports Israel, no matter what Israel does, will be blessed by God, just as a nation that suppresses abortion and homosexuality will be blessed by God). I then spent many years in Ichthus Christian Fellowship: Roger Forster preached an Arminian theology that accepted that the Kingdom of God was not yet fully in evidence, and I believe that this is closer to what you view as truly biblical. Certainly the fruits that it bore cannot be faulted: the work to alleviate poverty and degradation in South-East London. But in emphasizing the Love of God, they have only a partial answer to the problem of why he allows individuals to suffer and does not always appear to answer prayer, and in proposing a Spiritual Warfare theology were in danger of suggesting that God cannot always answer prayer, which to me makes him less than God. Which is why I eventually felt that bringing God into the equation of the human condition makes it so much more complicated than it need be while not really providing a solution.

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