According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for
this world to recreate, reclaim, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of
explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. - anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. - anon
... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a
power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table
to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace,
reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants
us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. - anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals
and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What We Mean and Don't Mean When We Talk About God's Sovereignty

A Non-Calvinist, Relational View of God’s Sovereignty
 
by Roger Olson
April 14, 2013
 
As I gave this talk at this week’s Missio Alliance gathering in Alexandria, Virginia. For those who are watching me carefully (from the Arminian camp) I must say I make no claim for this being “the” Arminian view. It is simply my view and I’m an Arminian. 
 
Comment
This subject has been long overdue and short on recognition until
now. Many thanks to Roger Olson for this post. Additionally, I will
post mine own comments as necessary through the body of this article.
- R.E. Slater (res)
 
 
My office phone rang and I answered it. A stern voice said “Is this Roger Olson?” who which I confessed. The man introduced himself as pastor of Baptist church in the state, implying that he was a constituent of the seminary where I teach. Anyway, I got the message. “I hear you don’t believe in God’s sovereignty,” he declared. I responded “Oh, really? What do you mean by ‘God’s sovereignty’?” He said “You, know. God is in control of everything.” I decided to play with him a little. “Oh, so you believe God caused the holocaust and every other evil event in human history? That God is the author of sin and evil?” There was a long pause. Then he said “Well, no.” “Then do you believe in God’s sovereignty?” I asked. He mumbled something about just wanting to “make sure” and hung up.
 
My experience, based on teaching Christian theology in churches and three Christian universities over thirty-one years, is that many, perhaps most, Christians don’t know what they mean when they talk about “God’s sovereignty”—beyond “God is in control.” My concern has been to help Christians think reflectively about God’s sovereignty and arrive at beliefs about it that are biblically sound and intelligible.
 
My own view of God’s sovereignty is what I call “relational.” I believe in God’s “relational sovereignty.” What I want to do here, today, is explain what I mean by that and invite you to consider it as an alternative to the view of God’s sovereignty currently enjoying great popularity—the Augustinian-Calvinist view that I call, for lack of any more descriptive term, “divine determinism.” It could rightly be called “non-relational sovereignty.” Thousands of Christian young people are adopting it, often without critically reflecting on what it implies and without knowing any alternatives to it.
 
I identify with a different movement in contemporary theology called “Relational Theology” or “Relational Theism.” There’s no single “guru” of the movement and it’s not nearly as popular or easy to identify and describe. But it also has biblical roots and historical precedents.
 
In 2012 thirty theologians, nearly all self-identified evangelicals, wrote chapters in a book entitled Relational Theology: A Contemporary Introduction edited by Brint Montgomery, Thomas Jay Oord, and Karen Winslow. It was published by Point Loma Press, an imprint of Wipf and Stock publishers. The volume covers many issues of Christian theology and practice from a “relational point of view.”
 
It’s an excellent little book and I can recommend it highly as an introduction to contemporary Relational Theology—especially that segment of it that is evangelical. Most of the authors, maybe all of them, are Wesleyans in the evangelical tradition (or evangelicals in the Wesleyan tradition). However, one weakness I find in the book is the lack of a chapter on God’s sovereignty from a relational perspective. That is a gap I hope to fill here.
 
Everyone familiar with current religious movements knows about the “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement led by John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler and Louie Giglio (among others). Some call its theology “neo-Calvinism.” It’s actually a contemporary form of the theology of Jonathan Edwards, John Piper’s favorite theologian. Anyone who has studied Edwards or Piper knows they have a distinctive view of God’s sovereignty. It’s enjoying great popularity, especially among twenty-something Christians. According to it, whatever happens is planned, ordained and governed by God. Another way of saying that is that God foreordains and renders certain everything that happens without exception. As John Piper has said, according to his view, if a dirty bomb were to land in downtown Minneapolis, that would be from God.
 
Many people simply believe this view is what is meant by “God’s sovereignty” and anything else is a denial of God’s sovereignty. If God is not the all-determining reality, then he is not sovereign. Or, as Reformed theologian R. C. Sproul likes to say, if there is one maverick molecule in the universe, God is not God. Or, as British Calvinist Paul Helm says, not only every atom and molecule but also every thought and intention is under the control of God.
 
My purpose today is not to expound this wildly popular view of God’s sovereignty or spend a lot of time critiquing it. I will do both briefly. My purpose is to expound and defend an alternative perspective on God’s sovereignty that I believe is more appealing—biblically, rationally and experientially. And it has historical appeal as well, even if it has been throughout much of Christian history a “minority report,” so to speak.
 
At risk of over simplifying, I will argue that there are three main views of God’s sovereignty in Christian theology. That is to say, in spite of many variations, all views tend to “come home” to one of these. Think of them as large tents under which people with different interpretations of them gather, talk, and debate. They are divine determinism, relational theism, and mediating views. The third, “mediating views,” have much in common with each other and so represent a single over-arching view even if they emphasize singular points differently.


Divine Determinism
 
I begin with divine determinism which I actually began describing above. According to all versions of it, all events are traceable back to God who controls history down to every detail according to a blueprint. God has never taken a risk. God micromanages history and individuals’ lives. Nothing surprises God. Nothing can happen that is contrary to God’s will.
 
Now, of course, there are many versions of divine determinism. Hardly any advocate of that view likes my label for it. Sproul, for example, adamantly rejects “determinism” as a descriptor of his view. However, a quick look at any major English dictionary will reveal why it’s a fair descriptor. By whatever means, even if through “secondary causes,” God determines what will happen and that determination is as Helm says “fine grained.” Nothing at all escapes it.
 
Some proponents of divine determinism make use of something called “middle knowledge” to attempt to reconcile it with free will. Others reject that tactic. Some attempt to define free will compatibilistically, that is as simply doing what you want to do even if you could not do otherwise. Others reject free will altogether. Some admit that this view makes God the author of sin and evil; others adamantly reject that, appealing to God’s permission rather than authorship of sin and evil. However, when pressed, they say that God’s permission of sin and evil is “effectual permission.” In any case, God still plans and renders them certain.


Relational Theism
 
The second view of God’s sovereignty, the one I plan to expound here, is relational theism. Oord, one of the editors and authors of Relational Theology, defines it this way: “At its core, relational theology affirms two key ideas: 1. God affects creatures in various ways. Instead of being aloof and detached, God is active and involved in relationship with others. God relates to us, and that makes an essential difference. 2. Creatures affect God in various ways. While God’s nature is unchanging, creatures influence the loving and living Creator of the universe. We relate to God, and creation makes a difference to God.” (p. 2) Another author, Barry Callen, says of relational theism (or theology) that it focuses on “the interactivity or mutuality of the God-human relationship. God is understood to be truly personal, loving, and not manipulative. The interaction of the wills of Creator and creature are real.” (p. 7)
 
Relational theism or [relational] theology comes in many varieties, some of them quite incompatible at points. All share in common, however, belief that creatures can and do actually affect God. The relationship between creatures, especially human persons, and God is two-way. God is, as Dutch theologian Hendrikus Berkhof said, the “defenseless superior power” within a genuine covenant relationship with us whose immutability is not impervious to influence but “changeable faithfulness.” According to relational theism, the God-human relationship is reciprocal, mutual, interactive. God is not Aristotle’s “Thought thinking Itself” or Aquinas’ “Pure Actuality” without potentiality. Rather, God is Pinnock’s “Most Moved Mover”—the superior power who allows creatures to resist him and becomes vulnerable and open to harm as well as joy
 
One of the best descriptions of relational theism, I believe, is found in Thomas Torrance’s little book Space, Time, and Incarnation:
 
The world…is made open to God through its intersection in the axis of Creation-Incarnation. … But what of the same relationship the other way round, in the openness of God for the world that He has made? Does the intersection of His reality with our this-worldly reality in Jesus Christ mean anything for God? We have noted already that it means that space and time are affirmed as real for God in the actuality of His relations with us, which binds us to space and time, so that neither we nor God can contract out of them. Does this not mean that God has so opened Himself to our world that our this-worldly experiences have import for Him in such a way, for example, that we must think of Him as taking our hurt and pain into Himself? (p. 74)
 
In sum, then, relational theology or theism is any view that imports the creation into the life of God so that God is in some way dependent on it for the whole or part of his experience [for which he designed and planned at the beginning of creation in order to establish living, willful, relationships with himself. Perhaps the word "dependent" is a bit harsh in view of God's all-glorious sovereignty, however, it is a very good, and necessary word to us, because it informs us that God is in a very real, two-way, living relationship with us. A relationship that calls forth the older, classical term of the "divine-human" cooperative. But rather than calling ourselves into a "cooperative" with the divine, God says "I love you," and because of this divine love, I wish to be in holy communion with you, where we each depend upon the other, according to the limiting sense of our being in relationship to his own.Where the infinite, all powerful One desires to limit himself in accordance to our own creative limitations bounded by sin and a corruptible free will. Where through Jesus the Creator becomes the Incarnated Creator, experiencing with us our own limitations, corruptibility, and life in general. Whose passion runs towards us even as our own passion runs to meet him, and holy fellowship, eternal and soaring, meet in lockstep with one another. This is what is meant by a dependent relationship. A relationship where each depends upon the other's love - both God and man. To one another's joy and boundless, living relationship. - res]....
 
... The implications of this for a view of God’s sovereignty are enormous and takes it away from divine determinism. As I will be spending the second half of this talk exploring this view of sovereignty I’ll settle now for what I have said about relational theism in general.


Mediating Sovereignty
 
The third main Christian view of God’s sovereignty is what I call, for lack of a better term, mediating. These are views that attempt to combine, usually with some appeal to paradox, divine determinism with relational theism. An excellent example is the late evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch. Throughout his career Bloesch boldly expressed and defended the paradoxical nature of Christianity following Kierkegaard and Barth. In his book The Evangelical Renaissance he declared that:
 
God knows the course of the future and the fulfillment of the future... (I prefer to think of God as actively bringing the future to fruition, so that he has an idea how this will occur - i.e., through his own sacrifice - but that the how, when and where of it is open to change and fulfillment. This then keeps to an Open definition of theology and not its more classical component of austere direction and non-relational force. - res)..., but this must not be taken to mean that He literally knows every single event even before it happens. It means that He knows every alternative and the way in which His children may well respond to the decisions that confront them. The plan of God is predetermined, but the way in which He realizes it is dependent partly on the free cooperation of His subjects. This does not detract from His omnipotence, for it means that He is so powerful that He is willing to attain His objectives by allowing a certain room for freedom of action on the part of man. (p. 53)
 
This may sound relational or deterministic and Bloesch reveled in that ambiguity. “The plan of God is predetermined” is deterministic; “The way in which He realizes it is dependent partly on the…cooperation of His subjects” is relational.
 
I think that many theologians and non-theologically trained Christians alike tend to embrace a kind of ambiguous, paradoxical view of God’s sovereignty. I often hear the same person say “Oh, well, God knows what he’s doing” and “People have free will, you know” in different circumstances—the former to comfort in grief and the latter to get God off the hook when evil raises its ugly head.
 
Relational theology or theism lends itself to a particular view of God’s sovereignty that is neither deterministic nor paradoxical. Divine determinism of any type cannot explain how God is good in any meaningful sense or how people are responsible for the evil they do. Mediating theology, theologies of paradox, cannot explain the consistency of God’s comprehensive, meticulous providence with genuine free will and prayer playing a role in the outworking of God’s plan. Relational sovereignty, which is what I will call the view of God’s sovereignty derived from relational theism, seeks and finds consistency and flexibility.
 
*I will further add the important, necessary component of Open theology as I had mentioned immediately above... "open theology" simply means that nothing is known for sure, and that the future is as open with God as it is with ourselves. However, what is known by God is his plan of redemption. A redemption that will be large enough, and flexible enough, to reform, renew, reclaim, revitalize, reform, and resurrect this old world back to its original design of uncorrupted communion with Himself.
 
And yet, God's plan of redemption does not lessen his relationship with us, as free willed beings, but enhances it, giving to it its living, unknown quality of formation. In itself, it was a plan as much known to Himself as was his plan of creation that included indeterminacy in its creative fabric, and human free will in its sentient aspect. Each aspect was accounted for, and planned for, including the corruption of sin that would surely come at the moment of its initialization. In effect, God knew that to create would, at the last, involve himself in his own creation through personal sacrifice and redemption (the "heart ache" side of it as expressed in relational terms, sic the book of Hosea).
 
Hence, by coupling relational theology with open theology (e.g., "the future is more open than it is known," in a sense) the paradoxical nature that Dr. Olson refers to can be appropriately removed. We live in an Open relationship and an Open future... just as real as any relationships we have in our own lives with loved ones, living organizations, ministries, and evolving friendships. At the same time, these concepts remove the more classical definition of unmoved, austere, sovereignty that bears with it a closed future already preknown and laid out deterministically without necessity of our intimate involvement. And because we have open relationships and open futures than our bible and our faith becomes open and evolving as well, requiring our necessary apprehension and interaction to each.
 
Finally, for more discussion on these subject matters, please refer to the sidebars along the right side of this web journal under "An Emerging Theology," "An Open Faith and Open Theology," and the several categories found under "Theism."
 
- res
 
 
 
[sidebars] Categories of Theism - Intro, Definitions, Open, Process, Relational
 
 
 
The Matter of Process Theology
 
... What I want to outline for you and recommend to you is a non-process, narrative-based, relational view of God’s sovereignty. It is not rooted in process theology which, while relational, detracts too much from God’s transcendence. Process theology is one form of relational theology, but not all relational theology is process. Process theology denies God’s omnipotence which is its main failing. From that flow other flaws such as its denial of any eschatological resolution to the struggles of history and eventual end to evil and innocent suffering. Process theology, in my opinion, sacrifices too much of the biblical portrait of God and, in the process, robs us of hope for the world. It is right in much of what it affirms but wrong in much of what it denies. It rightly affirms God’s vulnerability and the partial openness of the future; it wrongly denies God’s power to intervene in human affairs to rescue, heal and defeat evil.
 
*One may think of process theology as the extreme to Calvinistic doctrine, where relational/open theology would lie in the middle between both positions. For myself, the term "process" I like a lot... it gives to the Christian the idea of God's resident movement through time and history... but like Dr. Olson, I have mine own reservations of it. However, it was because of process theology that I became cognizant to the idea of relational theology. Apparently, there was a debate whether process theology should be known as "relational-process theology" back in the early days of its formation - and when discovering that aspect of it, I immediately grabbed hold of the revolutionizing idea of "relational theology" and began to develop it. Months later, I happily came to discover additional advocates of this same position (a point you will discover when reading of my journey through my past documents here on this site).
 
Overall, I find great sympathy towards Process Theology, but at the same time have found that it re-engineers a lot of past Christian orthodoxy - which is not necessarily a bad thing to do - but just how it is done and towards what ends it intends (similar to Dr. Olson's comment above). Along with process theology has come the many helpful ideas found in Emergent and Postmodern thought as well. Certainly foreign to classical thought, however, nonetheless relevant and important to discuss in our understanding of who God is, what he is doing through Christ, and what the mission of the church is and should be.
 
Especially so if the church is to continue to bear a contemporary, relevant gospel to the world.... Where old-line classicism must be updated and not left unscrutinized to a more historically mature and educated world. Hence, it is the task of today's theologian to do just that in today's global, industrialized, technological societies. Consequently, it is my intention to continue to sift through process theology to discover biblical fundamentals that may be kept, while disregarding any unnecessary corollaries, assumptions, or surmises, that are non-central to its overall structure (a syncretisim if you will to Christian orthodoxy). And with the overall mindset of creating a more relevant Christian theology giving to us a better understanding of our living faith and hope in Jesus our Lord and Savior.
 
- res
 
ps - "Narrative Theology" has also arise as one of those undated ideas to undertanding God and our faith as Dr. Olson goes on to explain.... More can be found on this under the sidebar "Hermeneutics as a Meta-Narrative."


The Matter of Narrative Theology

... No doubt some critics will regard my own non-process, narrative-based, relational view of God’s sovereignty as an unstable middle ground between divine determinism and process theology. I hope to show that it is not unstable or incoherent and preserves the best of both of those alternative perspectives while avoiding their fatal flaws.
 
Rather than focusing on proof texts of Scripture or philosophies, this relational view of God’s sovereignty arises out of and is justified by a synoptic, canonical, holistic vision of God drawn from the biblical narrative. Obviously I do not have time now even to summarize “narrative theology,” but I will mention a few of its major points.
 
Narrative theology regards stories and symbols as vehicles of truth. The Bible contains propositions, but it is not primarily a book of propositions. It is primarily a book of stories and symbols from which propositions can be drawn. The Bible is the story of one great “theodrama.” Its purpose is to identify God for us and transform us. Transformation is its first and highest purpose though it does also contain information.
 
Narrative theology refuses to treat the Bible as a “not-yet-systematized systematic theology” which is how I believe too much conservative evangelical theology treats it. No system can replace the Bible which always has new light to reveal and more truth into which to guide us.
 
Narrative theology resists too much philosophical speculation into matters beyond our possible experience and beyond the biblical narrative which is not about God-in-himself but about God-with-us. Narrative theology resists metaphysical compliments paid to God that cannot rest on the portrayal of God in his own story.
 
Finally, narrative theology insists on taking the whole biblical story into account when theology attempts to derive truth about God.
 
A relational view of God’s sovereignty begins not with philosophical a prioris such as “God is by definition the being greater than which none can be conceived” or “If there’s one maverick molecule in the universe, God is not God” but with God as the personal, loving, self-involving, passionate, relational Yahweh of Israel and Father of Jesus Christ.
 
This God is not aloof or self-sufficient in himself or impassible. His deity, as Barth taught us, is no prison. And as Jürgen Moltmann has taught us, his death on the cross is not a contradiction of his deity but the most profound revelation of it. And that because this God is Love.
 
Does this all mean that God needs us? Not at all. This God could have lived forever satisfied with the communal love shared between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but he chose to become vulnerable in relation to the world he created out of the overflowing of that love. Is that just a metaphysical compliment unnecessarily paid to God or a truth necessary to the biblical story of God with us? I would argue it is the latter. A God who literally needs the world is a pathetic God hardly worthy of worship.
 
The key insight for a non-process relational view of God’s sovereignty is that God is sovereign over his sovereignty. The missio dei is God’s choice to involve himself intimately with the world so as to be affected by it. That choice is rooted in God’s love and desire for reciprocal love freely offered by his human creatures. None of this detracts in any way from God’s sovereignty because God is sovereign over his sovereignty. To say that God can’t be vulnerable, can’t limit himself, can’t restrain his power to make room for other powers, is, ironically, to deny God’s sovereignty.
 
Allow me to use the words of Torrance again to express this view of God and God’s sovereignty. Contrary to classical theism,
 
If God is merely impassible He has not made room for Himself in our agonied existence, and if He is merely immutable He has neither place nor time for frail evanescent creatures in His unchanging existence. But the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ as sharing our lot is the God who is really free to make Himself poor, that we through His poverty might be made rich, the God invariant in love but not impassible, constant in faithfulness but not immutable. (p. 75)
 
There is a doctrine of God’s sovereignty subtly included in those phrases about God’s vulnerability. Torrance’s vulnerable God cannot be the all-determining reality of classical theism and Calvinism. Such a God has not really made room for us in his existence, his life, whatever certain neo-Calvinists might say. Rather, the God of Torrance and relational theism is the God who makes himself partially dependent on his human partners so that our history becomes his, too.


Conclusion of the Matter

What does that mean, then, for God’s sovereignty? First, the relational God of the biblical story is not, to quote Baptist theologian E. Frank Tupper, a “do anything, anytime, anywhere kind of God.” (A Scandalous Providence, p. 335 ) Second, however, the relational God of the biblical story is a powerful God who lures, persuades, cajoles and occasionally overrides the wills of people. He is the “superior defenseless power” in the covenant relationship he has established with us.
 
I argue that such a view of God’s sovereignty, one that sees God as truly relational with us, that views us as genuine partners with and sometimes against God, can support and give impetus to commitment to participation in the mission of God. The picture of God as invulnerable, static, unmoved, all-determining derived from much traditional Reformed theology, for example, undermines participation in the mission of God towards God’s kingdom because it makes our participation with God superfluous. We are then seen as pawns rather than knights.
 
Am I, then, advocating so-called “open theism?” Not necessarily, although I think that’s far superior to classical theism in many ways. Relational theism and its attendant view of God’s sovereignty are larger than just open theism which is one form of relational theism. The view I have outlined here goes back at least to German mediating theologian I. A. Dorner in the middle of the 19th century who helped Protestant theology complete the Reformation by reconstructing the doctrine of God inherited and left virtually untouched by the Reformers. According to Dorner, God is historical with us and we are created co-creators of history with God. Listen to Dorner after he has expressed his view of God’s ethical immutability in which he changes in relation to creatures, not in his nature but in his “thoughts and his will”:
 
To be sure, God does not hand over the reins of government to the faithful; but neither does he want to make them automatons [robots], beings resigned to a determined will. From the very beginning, he has preferred to give his friends a joint knowledge of what he wills to do…and to deal historico-temporally through them as his instruments, which as personalities may co-determine his will and counsel. (Quoted in Claude Welch, God and Incarnation, p. 116)
 
This is, so far as I have discovered, the best brief theological expression of a truly relational view of God’s sovereignty that I have found in Christian thought. The only correction I would offer is to the use of the word “instruments” for created personalities that “co-determine” God’s will and counsel. To contemporary ears, anyway, “instruments” sounds like “pawns” which is clearly not what Dorner intended.
 
Finally, in sum, then, a relational view of God’s sovereignty is one that regards God’s will as settled in terms of the intentions of his character but open and flexible in terms of the ways in which he acts because he allows himself to be acted upon. Only such a view of God’s sovereignty does justice to the whole of the biblical drama, to God as personal, to human persons as responsible actors and potential partners with God in God’s mission.