Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What Is Sovereignty?

Folks who don't go to church will mostly hear the word "sovereignty" in political or geographic news items: "CIA drone strikes violate Pakistan's sovereignty" or "World Bank opposes Palestinian sovereignty." The word was cobbled together to describe the autonomy of individual nations—conveying a sense of rightfulness and legitimacy. The idea of national sovereignty was kicked off in 1578 by Frenchman Jean Bodin's influential Les Six Livres de la République, leading to Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, the Peace of Westphalia and the Divine Right of Kings.
The King of Tonga, August 2008
Churchgoers, especially protestants, are often reassured that "God is sovereign." Which is odd in the case of evangelicals, who purport to hold a high view of scripture. Despite being commissioned by a King (James), the 1611 Authorized Version of the bible does not contain the word "sovereign", nor does its final 1771 edition. And the word was still missing from the 1885 Revised Version, widely regarded as the first "modern" bible translation. Only in the mid-20th century, when kings had all but vanished from the earth, did "sovereignty" slowly creep into English bibles:
* 1952 Revised Standard Version (UK) = 3 instances
* 1971 New American Standard Bible = 1 instance
* 1984 New International Version = 295 instances

But there's less here than meets the eye. Fully 290 of those NIV instances are in the Old Testament—60% in Ezekiel alone—and, except for Daniel, the word always appears in front of "Lord." As in "O Sovereign Lord." Before the introduction of this word, previous translations had simply said "Lord", sometimes "King" or "ruler" or "potentate" or some other such designation of high authority. 

And about Daniel: his usages were spoken to—or about—a King of Babylon, describing God as "sovereign over the kingdoms of men." After seeing what God did with Pharaoh, this is hardly a controversial point. Then what about the five instances from the New Testament? Yep, you guessed it: they are all connected to "Lord" (ie: Simeon holding the baby Jesus and calling out the honorific "O Sovereign Lord"). I note with interest that none of the five NT instances comes from the pen of the Apostle Paul—writer of the letter to the Romans (which includes a 9th chapter).

All of which gives us exactly zero insight into the "doctrine" of sovereignty, which A.W. Pink wrote "...is the centre of gravity in the system of Christian truth—the sun around which all lesser orbs are grouped." Pink is still revered among those holding Reformed Theology, or Calvinism. A non-biblical word, first used to justify absolute power for 16th century kings, sovereign has become Calvinism's central premise. To wit, that God's primary, defining attribute is power. The raw, brute exercise of Divine Will. 

The usual context in which I hear the phrase "God is sovereign" is right after somebody makes an assertion about God which casts him as an ogre. Statements like "God made you without a free will" or "God made most people specifically to go to hell." When somebody says to me that "God is sovereign," I hear this: "Shut up." It's the theological equivalent of a Triple-Dog Dare—plucking Paul's famous rhetoric out of Romans 9: "Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?" 

Well. First up, I'm not dissing God, I'm answering back to John Calvin and his speculative, Augustine-flavored theology. Secondly, sovereignty isn't a biblical term or concept. And thirdly it is by no means clear what people even mean when they use the word. Is it an adverb or an adjective? Do they mean omnipotent or arbitrary? 

Look, I can empathize with theologians who fail to construct an airtight container to hold God. And I agree that there's a lot going on in the heavenly/spiritual realm that strikes us strange. So it is entirely appropriate to try and comprehend God, based on what he has revealed to us through scripture...accepting that his ways are not our ways and that we only see dimly in this world. And then reach a point where we say "I don't know." But to flatly contradict whole swaths of scripture in order to cling to a man-made TULIP, saying God is not primarily Love or Truth or Mercy, but is Sovereign...is to enthrone a whole new king.