catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 20 :: 2003.10.24 — 2003.11.06


Late night thoughts on the sovereignty of God

It's not just the annual approach of Reformation Day that has my
thoughts turning to the sovereignty of God; it's the multiple
appearances of alternate claims for sovereignty that keep me up at
night. I recognize that even the word "sovereignty" is problematic in
some corners of the Christian community, laden as it is with overtones
of domination and oppression quite at odds with contemporary
understandings of democracy and equal rights. But for the Reformers,
the sovereignty of God was no small matter and referred not so much to
political arrangements (although in part to these as they seem to have
comprehended that the reforms they were unleashing could be more than a
little politically upsetting; hence their fondness of terms like "king"
and "almighty" in reference to God) as to the question of who is
sovereign over the decision on an individual's eternal destination. Put
perhaps overly simply, was a human institution such as a church
sovereign over that decision, holding the power of saying who entered
into the blessed repose of the saved and who was ferried off to eternal
damnation? Or was this a matter preserved solely for God? They chose
the latter alternative so decisively as to form new expressions of
institutional Christianity in response.

But the multiple denominational heirs of the Protestant Reformation
do not always hold fast to this crucial affirmation of the sovereignty
of God. Here we hear trumpeted that only the substitutionary view of
the atonement is acceptable. There we hear shouted that only those who
accept the literal interpretation and inerrancy positions on scripture
will be saved. Again there are those who are certain that only those
holding certain positions on social issues—abortion,
homosexuality—are truly members of the elect. In each of these and
other such postures, there is a tending towards claiming a position of
sovereignty for a doctrine at the expense of the sovereignty of God.

And what is lost amidst such claims is great. Humility is lost as we
claim our finitude capable of encompassing the reality and freedom of
the Infinite One. Tolerance is lost as we emphasize "only" in the name
of the one who transcended social boundary after social boundary in
order to draw all into relationship with God. Creativity is lost as is
living by the guidance and inspiration of the Spirit who is ever
seeking to evoke newness in our encounter with God. Dialogue with other
paths of knowledge is lost, as scripture is understood as history and
science rather than as theology. Relevance is lost as doctrines
developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century are
enshrined as timeless truth.

And perhaps even God is lost (as if that were possible!), lost to
the limits of human understanding instead of being found in the fresh
and empowering mysteries of grace. The Reformers were quite right that
we cannot save our selves by our deeds; indeed, that we are saved for
good works, not by them. But their heirs are not infrequently claiming
salvation based upon right beliefs. Neither our deeds nor our adherence
to specific beliefs or doctrines save us. God does. And if that crucial
feature of the Reformers' insight is lost, so are we.

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