Often my posts appear to be more theological commentary or reflection, but that's because that is how I work things out. I read, think, pray, and then God reveals things. That's what happened with this 'sovereignty discussion.' I have been in discussions about determinism and sovereignty for about 6 months now and I find Keener's observations very helpful in understanding my faith, my very understanding of God.
I have heard the phrase “sovereignty of God” floated in theological debates recently. In some cases it has become a dividing line, and dogmatic adherents of a particular position make no room for debate. You’re on their side, or you are wrong. The specific case in point regards salvation. Some insist that not only does God know in advance all who will be saved, but God determines in advance all who will be saved. God determines all who will be saved (and conversely all who will be damned to eternal Hell).
Those of this mindset declare this to be a sure sign of God’s sovereignty. If God was the sole determining influence in salvation, and if it we human beings had a voice in it by our choice to follow or reject Jesus, then it would mean God was not sovereign. We know God is sovereign because the Bible asserts this (Psalm 8:1). Thus, God is sovereign, ergo, God determine eternal destiny of all (Heaven or Hell).
I believe completely that God is sovereign, but I do not accept the reasoning that sovereignty leads to determinism. Those who do believe that draw a hard line and have trouble allowing for multiple positions in the conversation. I think God’s sovereignty does not impede human freedom to follow God or rebel against God. So, how do we discuss sovereignty without falling into this debate about determinism?
I was surprised to find very helpful teaching about sovereignty of God in Craig Keener’s commentary on Revelation chapter 10 (NIV Application Commentary: Revelation, Zondervan, 2000, p.279-285). In Revelation there are four series of seven judgments – the seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven thunders, and the seven bowls. John gives a thorough depiction of what is said in the seals, trumpets, and bowls, but not the thunders. Why?
Chapter 10 begins with a mighty angel (v.1). Keener points out that angels as they are described in the book of Revelation, exert considerably more power and inspire infinitely more awe than do Greek gods. Revelation was read by Greek speaking Jews, Asians, and Greeks, all of whom would have been familiar with and heavily influenced by the polytheism of ancient Greece. These were gods created in man’s image and suspect to the same personality quirks and flaws as men and women. The angels of Revelation were otherworldly, mighty. And they all fell subject to the God of Israel, revealed in Jesus Christ. The first century reader would look at the text of Revelation 10 and think “Holy smokes! The God described here is far more powerful and awesome than anything I’ve ever heard of.” Revelation 10 points to the sovereignty of God.
So does the secret of the Thunders. We know all about the terrifying images that came when the seals were opened and the trumpets blew. We’ll hear a lot more beginning in chapter 16 when the bowls of wrath are poured out. Here is what we Bible readers get with the thunders. “When the seven thunders sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down” (10:4). In his commentary, Keener concludes, “most likely the seven thunders remain mysterious in order to teach that the hidden things belong to God” (p.281). In other words, we have to accept that there are things we cannot know until God reveals them. And if God chooses to never reveal these things, then as an act of fait and a way of submitting to the Sovereign Lord, we accept that we will never know.
Using this principle of submission before our Sovereign, I turn back to the conversation about salvation – do we choose Jesus or do we have no say in the matter? Who is saved and how it happens exactly is for God to know. We know salvation took place on the cross. How it is appropriated into the lives of individuals is God’s concern. Our God-given mandate is to be a witness to God’s sovereignty, God’s love, and to the story of God’s coming in the form of a man, Jesus of Nazareth. “God rules the future” (Keener, p.84), and we don’t need the details unless he decides we need them.