I used to be a Calvinist. I’m not one these days. But I wish to voice my thoughts about a linguistic aspect of Calvinism that has always been confusing. This post is not about whether Calvinism is true. It is about using words in a confusing way that, incidentally, does come up in debate between Calvinists and non-Calvinists from time to time.
And here is the confusing bit in a nutshell:
The modern popular level Calvinist’s phrase for God’s control over every event of history is “the sovereignty of God.” The but in normal English usage, to be sovereign simply means to be a ruler of some sort. Thus, in Calvinist discourse the language of God’s kingdom in the gospels is often confused with the Calvinist language about God’s control over all events because synonymous words are used to refer to completely different things.
The lexical issue
For instance, John Piper says this:
…[H]ere’s what I mean by the sovereignty of God: God has the rightful authority, the freedom, the wisdom, and the power to bring about everything that he intends to happen. And therefore, everything he intends to come about does come about. Which means: God plans and governs all things.
When he says, “I will accomplish all my purpose,” he means, “Nothing happens except what is my purpose.”
The issue is not whether this statement is true. The issue is that the word sovereignty, in any other context means:
In other words, sovereignty means kingdom or rulership.
But, in the technical terminology that is used in this form of theology, sovereignty is disconnected from God’s kingship (his right to rule the cosmos as he sees fit and judge the peoples therein) and is directed to God’s relationship to cause and effect (in Piper’s case, God is seen as the omnidirective immediate cause of all events).
The Gospels, the Kingdom of God, and the language of Sovereignty
The issue, for many Christians who are Calvinists or who flirt with its doctrines (I saw this problem a lot on BSM mission trips when I was younger) is that they start reading the meaning sovereignty as a technical term about God’s control of everything into Jesus’ language about God’s kingdom. This is only natural because in normal English usage, kingdom and sovereignty are synonymous.
The problem that immediately arises while reading the gospels is that God’s kingdom is something that has arrived in history (Mark 1:14-15), something that is prayed for (Matthew 6:9-13), something that is to be entered into (Mattew 5:20), and something that is opposed by the world as it currently stands (Luke 17:21).
So the problem (and again this is not meant to falsify or argue against Calvinism) is that the kingdom of God language in Scripture is the language of God’s opposition to evil, his offer of forgiveness to those who would repent, and his judgment of those who refuse it. Kingdom language is, by definition, not language about God’s control over all events. It is, by definition, language about God’s interruption of the normal course of human events.
The language of sovereignty in Calvinist thought is the language of affirming that everything that happens everywhere is God’s will is always God’s will. If this meaning is imported into Jesus’ language about God’s kingdom coming, then the language makes no sense:
- “The kingdom of God is at hand” would mean “God is doing his will perfectly in all of creation just like always”.
- Praying for God’s kingdom to come would mean “pray for everything to happen as usual.”
- “Enter the kingdom” would mean “be in the cosmos as usual.”
Piper demonstrates that even Calvinists with doctoral degrees in Biblical studies succumb to the problem when he says this of God’s kingdom on page 27 of his book God is the Gospel:
“Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14). In other words, the
reign of God has broken into this world to set things right for the sake of his people; therefore repent and believe this good news. In fact, if you do, you are part of his people. In a world so full of brokenness
and sin, there simply can be no good news if God does not break in with kingly authority. If God does not come with sovereign rights as King of the universe, there will be only hopelessness in this world.
He gives a marvelous description of Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom breaking into the world. But right at the end of it he uses the word sovereign according to it’s typical English usage. He notes that God has sovereign rights. I agree with this statement fully, yet it is confusing if we interpret this statement with Piper’s normal meaning for God’s sovereignty. God would not need to assert his sovereign rights as King of the cosmos, because in Piper’s view every event that happens is God’s will.
One other issue
In discussions with people wherein one denies the Calvinist notion of God’s sovereignty (that God does everything that happens in the world), the Calvinist often incredulously asks why you deny God’s kingship or rights over the universe. This is a clever rhetorical trick, but it is only possible because of a lexical confusion. Many rhetorically honest Calvinists don’t do this. But many others may only do it by mistake.
I propose that Calvinists come up with a new term (they won’t) for God’s direction of all events so that people don’t get confused when reading the gospels. Maybe even the old term “meticulous providence” will do. This is similar to the need of coming up with a better term for Christian growth than sanctification (because the Bible uses the word differently than the theologians). This step has been taken with the doctrine of the Trinity: when referring to Jesus as the second person thereof, we often say, “God the Son” because “son of God” rarely means “second person of the Trinity” in the Bible (in the Old Testament, son of God can mean a king, the elders of Israel, the angelic host, and by implication of the genealogies, Adam).