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.
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 ruling over everything is not the same as controlling everything. God has the authority to make laws and the power to punish those who break them, just as our Queen (acting through Parliament) does - but neither of them control all that happens in their kingdom.
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." (Acts 5:29) God's Sovereignty 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. Why are we not intended to take it literally? Because the Bible does not take it literally: what the Bible tells us about power, and about God's power, is far more nuanced. Amongst other things, it says that God gives us power, and Satan has power, and describes how sometimes we take power. Here are two brief examples.
- 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". The purpose of the human race is to rule, to exercise sovereignty, like God.
- Even more tellingly, Satan is described (2 Thessalonians 2:9) as having 'all power'. Clearly, God and Satan can't both have all the power.
The 2 Thessalonians passage is not an example of the Bible contradicting itself, or of some deep spiritual paradox: it is simply the way we usually talk when we speak of power. We happily talk about an 'all powerful' human ruler, knowing that they do not literally have all power: the term simply means that they have more power than anyone else in their realm - they are all powerful because nobody has more power than they do, so nobody has the power to stop them doing what they want. And this is exactly what the Biblical writers mean when they talk of God being all powerful.
As a technical detail: we are talking here about what the Bible tells us about God's authority and activity. Some people teach that God has the power to control everything which happens in the universe, but chooses not to exercise this power. However, we are not talking here about abstract ideas concerning God's abilities and nature, only about what the Bible tells us of His authority and activity. What matters is what God does: people are free to speculate about what He could do if He chose to act differently, but I really don't see the point.
In the Bible, as in ordinary life, a Sovereign is not someone who is in total control. We can summarize quite easily some key aspects of Sovereignty as it is portrayed in the Bible.
- 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 issues specific commands to specific people or groups.
- 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 and well: to use these powers for the wellbeing of their people, 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.
In the Bible, God is described as the ultimate Sovereign, as the 'King of Kings'. Many earthly Kings are subject to other Kings, but all earthly Kings are subject to the heavenly King, whether they recognize Him or not - just as Elizabeth reigns in England, whether I recognize her rule or not. The Bible describes God's rule in exactly the same way as other Sovereigns, except that God does it perfectly: He rules with justice and in love.
It's clear that many earthly 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 they were better off with God as their King - a human King, having human failings, will treat his subjects as slaves.
Satan is also portrayed as a Sovereign. 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.
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."
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.
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. 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 - a difficult and dangerous task requiring 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.
In summary, 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.