The Sovereignty of God

It was observed in the literature review that one of the key strengths of “God uses” language was its ability to express complete surrender to the Sovereign God. Therefore we now turn to a consideration of God’s sovereignty and whether this language provides the most appropriate way of expressing it and our response to it.

Sovereignty and Worship
Williams (in McCormack, 2008) addresses the links between God’s sovereignty and freedom. He asks the question “Must sovereignty mean control?” In response to this rhetorical question he delineates two view points. The first argues that control is not necessary to sovereignty and that the freedom of the creature is maintained in a relationship with a God who may be trusted. The second holds onto control and is content to relinquish freedom, on the understanding that freedom is understood as anarchy. (p.172)

Williams argues that both views of sovereignty and control seem to flow from an understanding of God, which is derived from Scripture, of an absolute monarch with absolute power. He further argues that the use of this image of God may be a conceptual error. He argues that the primary purpose of the presentation of God as Sovereign in Scripture is there to draw out our worship, not to answer our questions. “The greatness of His sovereignty does not lie either with meticulous control or; alternatively, in the donation of space that He does not determine. In worship we find that sovereign greatness lies in God’s sheer being.” (p.174)

This view finds support in McFadyen (in Gunton 1995) who argues that at the root of sin is a refusal to praise God properly, of denying the worship that is rightfully God’s. (p.54) The implication of this argument is that rebellion against God’s sovereignty is more to do with denying who God is, than failing to do what God says.

Sovereignty and Being
However, contra Williams, it might be argued that the primary factor in God’s sovereignty is one of power. If this is the case then it is necessary to have an appropriate conception of power in God’s nature. Furthermore, this understanding must be held in common with a complimentary apprehension of God’s love and God’s justice. Such an understanding is presented by Tillich.

Tillich (1954) argues that to see power merely as a compulsive force is to misunderstand the fundamental ontological commonality of love and power. (p.12) This commonality is evident in his proposed definition of love “Life is being in actuality and love is the moving power of life.” (p.25) This definition, he argues, reveals that to be really alive is to experience the journey towards the other, a journey that requires the fuel that we call love. In this journey we discover not only the other, but our self. Human selves cannot be fulfilled except in the meeting with other selves in love.

To compliment this ontological definition of love, Tillich also proposes one for power “Power is the possibility of self-affirmation in spite of internal and external negation.”(p.40)
Given the necessary expression of power through compulsion, Tillich asks again how love and power can be reconciled. Returning to the ontological definitions and drawing on Luther’s distinction between the proper work and strange work of love, he suggests that as far as the strange work destroys those things opposed to the proper work then power and love work in harmony. “In order to destroy what is against love, love must be united with power, and not only with power, but also with compulsory power.” (p.49)

The guiding principle is that anything that supports love’s aim of the reunion of the separated is allowable but anything that prevents that aim is not. He does, however, critique Luther’s model by suggesting that he does not take sufficient account of the misappropriation of love’s strange work by those who wish to maintain their own power. Tillich further suggests that protection against this appropriation is found in the ontology of justice. (p.51)

In this analysis of justice, Tillich also attacks the concept of complete self-surrender as the apotheosis of love. He argues that a self that surrenders on the basis of weakness and vanishing is not expressing love because love is defined as the uniting of the separate. In this construct there is no unification there is merely sublimation. (p.69)
In his application of these concepts in practical situations, Tillich argues that it is only in personal encounters that a person becomes a person. “only by meeting a ‘thou’ does man realize that he is an ‘ego’.”p.78

Having presented this understanding of justice, linked ontologically with love and power, Tillich outlines the dynamics at work in a situation where a person denies the personhood of another.

“man can refuse to listen to the intrinsic claim of the other one. … He can remove or use him. He can try to transform him into a manageable object, a thing, a tool. But in doing so he meets the resistance of him who has the claim to be acknowledged as an ego. And this resistance forces him either to meet the other one as an ego or to give up his own ego-quality. Injustice against the other one is always injustice against oneself. The master who treats the slave not as an ego but as a thing endangers his own quality as an ego.” (p.78)

It seems to me that all of these objections to the abuse of love, power and justice as self-defeating when exercised between human persons carry even more weight when considered as aspects of the human-divine relationship. This is particularly true if we take Tillich’s definition of God as being-itself. (p.107) Whilst a view of the transcendence of God might allow God to transcend the restrictions of inter-human relationships, this ontological analysis reveals that to do so would be to betray the very nature of Godself because love, power and justice are inescapable functions of authentic being. (p.109)

From this analysis, it seems that an expression of God’s sovereignty that depends on “God uses” language is, ironically, an expression that denies God ontological primacy. A god who relates on a basis that denies the selfhood of people is not only not the supreme Being, but is not even authentic being.

Sovereignty and Otherness
A third perspective on God’s sovereignty is provided by Brueggeman. (1986) In his exposition of Ezekiel, he argues that the primary portrayal of God in Ezekiel is of God as utterly other, holy, over and above creation. Flowing from this observation is the assertion that humanity is entirely incapable of drawing near to God, so any relationship with God is entirely on God’s terms. One of the implications that Brueggemann draws out is that God is not there to be useful to God’s people. Deriving from the widely held perception that anything or anybody that does not have usefulness can be dismissed out of hand, he argues that “we have arrived at a view of God that is essentially utilitarian” (p.53) In contrast to this understanding of God, Ezekiel’s narrative of God leaving and departing, with no particular grief, illustrates very starkly that God will not stay where God is presumed upon. “God has the will to leave and not look back.” (p.54)

Brueggeman argues that Ezekiel’s ministry is driven by the discrepancy between “the disinterested holiness of God and the utilitarian unrighteousness of Israel.” (p.57) He further suggests that Ezekiel presents three challenges to contemporary culture. Firstly, the exaltation of the self and the needs of the self that has led to the church becoming a means to the end of self-actualisation. Secondly, the reduction of our relationship with God to a utilitarian one, where the important thing is what God wants us to do for God. Thirdly the utilitarian co-option of God as a useful buttress to our views on certain moral issues. (p.86)

Having considered these three perspectives on God’s sovereignty, it seems that we can speak of God being sovereign in our worship, over all being, and apart from all creation, without “God uses” language. More than this, it is apparent that “God uses” language does run the risk of limiting God’s sovereignty from all three of these perspectives: a focus on what are to do distracts us from who God is; ascribing to God the will to treat people as tools reduces God’s ontological primacy; and asserting that God is interested in what we can do for God disregards God’s complete otherness.

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