I delivered this talk at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama as part of the annual Holley-Hull Lecture Series on Wednesday, October 7. (The other lectures were at Samford University.)
A Relational View of God’s Sovereignty
Roger E. Olson
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.
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.
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 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. The implications of this for a view of God’s sovereignty are enormous and take 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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.