Sovereignty – What Do We Mean?

July 7, 2015

by Jacob Mitchell

Jacob Mitchell is a third-year M.Div. student at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, VA. He is a member of Forest Baptist Church in Forest, VA and an online instructor in Apologetics for Liberty University.

Sovereignty. There are few more misunderstood terms in conservative evangelical Christianity today. Now, more than ever, the faulty assumptions many have when they use the word “sovereignty” need to be challenged. This is particularly true within Southern Baptist churches, where debates over Calvinism have become a dominant topic of discussion. Our language should be precise, and the term’s usefulness has been damaged by our lack of precision when throwing it around.

Non-Calvinists are often accused of not believing that God is “sovereign,” as the Calvinist typically defines it. To deny that humans are totally depraved (defined by the Calvinist as total inability), that the form of election taught in the Bible is unconditional and limited, that Christ died only for those elected, and that salvific grace is irresistible, is to deny that God is either omniscient or omnipresent. When the Calvinist frames the debate in this way, being allowed to define the term sovereignty, the orthodox non-Calvinist is immediately suspected of denying God’s clearly revealed attributes. The term sovereignty, as a general word outside of Christianity and as a theological concept outside of Calvinism, has never meant what the Calvinist claims it means (a synonym for their doctrines). Considering the fact that Christians do not have the right or ability to serve as the authority on the English language, and that Calvinists (as a minority throughout church history) do not have the right to define theological terms for non-Calvinists, non-Calvinists should not cede this important term.

If it has not become clear, I am not a Calvinist. I don’t define total depravity as total inability, I believe that election is not strictly unconditional (or if it is, it is the unconditional election of Christ), I agree with every biblical passage which speaks to the extent of the atonement (that it is substitutionary on behalf of all of humanity), and I completely reject the concept of irresistible grace as foreign to Scripture. Perseverance is the section most open to interpretation as affirmed in the Canons of Dort (Dort’s denials are much more clear). Still, as defined there, it teaches things which I would reject, since it is grounded in Calvinist definitions of election. The Baptist Faith & Message’s definition of perseverance or security is much more agreeable: “Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.” Room is left open for non-Dortian interpretations of perseverance and security. Do those who reject these Calvinist doctrines deny sovereignty?

First, let’s look at how that word has been defined within our language generally before going to the Bible. The first English dictionary, Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall, published in 1604, defines sovereign as “chief, or highest in authority.” Samuel Johnson’s third edition of his Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1768, defines sovereignty as “supremacy; highest place; highest degree of excellence.” How do modern dictionaries compare? Currently the Oxford Dictionary of English defines sovereignty as “supreme power or authority.” It defines sovereign as (adj) “possessing supreme or ultimate power” or as (n) “a supreme power, especially a monarch.” Collins English Dictionary defines sovereign as (n) “a person exercising supreme authority, esp a monarch,” or (adj) “supreme in rank and authority,” “excellent or outstanding,” and “independent of outside authority.” Cambridge defines sovereign as (n) “a king or queen” or (adj) “having the highest power or being completely independent.” Sovereignty is defined as “the power or authority to rule.” In 400 years, the definition remains the same.

So where does the Bible, our measuring stick of truth, mention sovereignty? Does it define it? The writers of the Bible clearly did not use the words sovereign or sovereignty, since they did not speak English. The translators of the King James Version used neither of these terms when producing their translation though, as mentioned earlier, the word was a part of the English lexicon. Neither did the 1599 Geneva Bible make use of the word. The Wycliffe Bible does indeed use the word sovereign 130 times, almost always in the Old Testament and always in reference to humans (for instance, the Hebrew word “rosh” is translated in the KJV and the NASB as “captain,” where TWB uses “sovereign”). Other Wycliffe uses of sovereign are from Hebrew and Greek words which are variously translated “firstborn,” “head over,” and “ruler” in other translations. The NASB translates the Hebrew word “malkuth” as “sovereignty” seven times, but again, this word simply means a “kingdom” or “rule.” It contains one use of “sovereign” as a translation for “dunastes,” in 1 Timothy 6:15, which simply means “ruler or officer.” The ESV also translates this word as “sovereign,” along with two other instances of “despote?s” (usually translated Lord), but does not once use the word sovereignty. The words of Scripture which have been taken to mean sovereign or sovereignty in our Bible translations have been in keeping with the general English definitions.

So which of these definitions does the non-Calvinist Southern Baptist deny? Do they deny that God has power and authority, or is the supreme power over the universe? Do they deny that He is independent of outside authority? Do they deny that He is Lord or king? Clearly not. To say that God has power and authority says nothing of how He uses and applies that power and authority within a given context. I have the power and authority to do many things which I choose not to do. Not doing those things does not negate my power and authority to do them. If I choose to shop at Target rather than Wal-Mart, I have not surrendered my right or authority to shop at Wal-Mart. If God chooses to allow sinners to reject His offer of salvation, has He forfeited His right to send all to hell without offering them salvation? Of course not. No orthodox evangelical Christian denies that sinners deserve hell, and that God could have sent humanity to hell for their sin without His propitiation on the cross in the person of Jesus.

The beauty of God’s sovereignty is that He has the right to do whatever He chooses, choosing to send Christ to the cross to die in our place for our sins so that we might accept that sacrifice and come into relationship with Him. The Calvinist, on the other hand, undermines sovereignty by conflating the term with “meticulous providence,” or the idea that everything at all times is the will and work of God. John Piper, as akin to a modern Calvinist pope as anyone, writes that “God controls all things, including evil,” “God purposefully governs the sinful choices of people,” and “God wills that what he hates come to pass.”[1] By taking the word sovereignty and limiting it to one aberrant view of how providence works, they deny God’s ability to choose to create a world in which His creation can freely interact with Him. They have consigned God and His redemptive plan for mankind to mechanical determinism. Traditional non-Calvinist Southern Baptists should heartily affirm the actual definition of sovereignty, that “God is in control of all,” but not a Calvinist definition, which really means that “God is actively controlling all, including causing people to sin and reject Him.”

 

 

[1] John Piper, “Is God Less Glorious Because He Ordained that Evil Be?”, http://www.desiringgod.org/conference-messages/is-god-less-glorious-because-he-ordained-that-evil-be.