Control Without Controlling: Rethinking Divine Sovereignty

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As we’ve seen in Part 2, Luke 13 poses a problem for those who assume that “everything happens for a [divine] reason” — that is, Calvinists and those who hold to a very strict notion of divine sovereignty. The concept of meticulous sovereignty says that God controls every little particle of life, such that not even a leaf falls from the tree without God’s approval.

And yet, if God governs every leaf that falls, every raindrop that falls on the earth, then God governed the Tower of Siloam mentioned in Luke 13:1-5 to fall exactly when it did — killing those innocent 18 victims. And yet, Jesus exonerates God when He says that these 18 victims did not suffer for righteous judgment, that they were not any worse than any other person in the city in their day.

In other words, Jesus says that there’s no divine reason behind why the 18 innocent people died. Their deaths did not occur due to divine reasons. So, Jesus, in effect, refutes the Calvinist notion and statement that “everything happens for a [divine] reason.”

This is the theology of John Calvin, Calvinists (those who ascribe to John Calvin’s theology), and Molinists (following the theology of the Spanish Jesuit Luis de Molina). Now, some Molinists would disagree with the concept of meticulous sovereignty, though a number of Molinists do ascribe to Calvinism (though they also believe in human freedom).

And then, there are those who ascribe to divine sovereignty but believe that the nature of it is general sovereignty: that is, God is surely in control but He doesn’t have to be controlling. God can control everything without controlling everything. What does this mean and how can someone hold to this? That’s what we’ll cover in this post.

So, without further ado, let’s get to it.

Control Without Controlling: How God Manages Everything Without An Iron Fist

Niccolo Macchiavelli wrote in his political treatise The Ruler that “it’s better to be feared than to be loved.” Fortunately, the Bible disagrees. Solomon’s son Rehoboam tried to live out Macchiavelli’s words and ended up running for his life (1 Kings 12:6-19). He told the people, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scourges!” (1 Kings 12:14), not a very good response to the people you’re overseeing. Well, it didn’t pan out well in the end.

And somehow, Macchiavelli and, I’m afraid to say, John Calvin, held to this notion of God: that God cannot control unless he is controlling. But to control and to be controlling are two different things. Let me give an example that will suffice.

Take the current President of the United States, Joe Biden, for example. Biden is President of the United States, but he alone cannot run every cabinet position and political task required of the Federal Government. This is why the Federal Government has a payroll of clerks, cabinet members, executives, and federal officials. It’s the reason why the US has a Congress of politicians elected from all 50 states in the Union.

It’s why Biden has a Vice President, Kamala Harris. It’s why, in the event of an emergency where the President cannot fulfill his role, there is a line of presidential succession. Biden cannot oversee every law, write every law’s documentation, and see to the particular needs of every constituent in every state.

There are over 350 million people in the US, and Biden cannot talk to every one of them. And not every one of the 350 million citizens is able to travel to Washington to vote on legislation when the time comes. It’s why Americans elect representatives: because we have a representative form of government, a republic. Though some label it a democracy, and while there are democratic principles, it is a democratic republic we live in.

This Democratic Republic allows Americans to live in a country where there is some measure of control, yet they don’t have to control every single piece of legislation to get things done. So Americans need not travel and concern themselves with every law, while still getting things done the way they want them to.

It’s a more convenient form of government that employs politicians while keeping citizens happy who would rather work in other arenas, marry, have children and grow families, write books, and so on). In other words, citizens need not sacrifice their lives for the sake of keeping the government running.

Some people think that to say that God is in control while not controlling is to argue that God is some sort of “Deist” who winds up the world as a clockmaker winds up a clock or a pocket watch while He sits back and lets things be as they are. And yet, God is no Deist who is hands-off in His creation, leaving things entirely up to chance. God didn’t create the world in chance, and He doesn’t govern the world “in chance” either. God keeps a steady, unwavering eye upon His world. “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me” are lyrics of one of the most beloved Gospel hymns in the genre.

In this democratic republic, we elect representatives who see to the business at hand, rather than all 350 million citizens tending to the work themselves. And in this democratic republic, so many went to the polls in November 2020 during the pandemic and voted for Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. to be the nation’s 46th President.

In this democratic republic, Joe Biden can be President without having to oversee everything in the Federal Government. He still has control over every department, cabinet, and federal office without having to serve in all of them simultaneously. And delegating power to others doesn’t change the fact that, ultimately, those people are still accountable to him if something goes wrong.

So President Biden operates with general sovereignty: He is the ruler, the President, but he delegates power to others who in turn, delegate some of their delegated power to others. What these many people accomplish together is greater than what they could accomplish alone — and the work gets done for the benefit of the nation’s citizens. It’s a beautiful picture of a well-oiled machine.

This general sovereignty of Joe Biden isn’t hard to believe when you consider that, in the minds of some, God works like this. He is God, the Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, the Ruler of all that is, the King of kings and Lord of lords. He is the One who runs it all. He is the One who “upholds all things by His Word.” And yet, He doesn’t have to govern every little thing in the universe in order to retain control over it all. Like Joe Biden, God doesn’t have to control every little thing in the world to firmly retain His control.

Delegation Of Power (General Sovereignty) In Scripture

In Genesis 1, we see God’s sovereign hand when we see God creating light, stars, sun, moon, stars, seasons, animals, water, etc., and putting everything in its place. But after God creates the animal kingdom, for example, He gives Adam the right to name the animals: “19 Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name.” (Genesis 2:19, NKJV).

God formed every animal. Since He formed the animals, He had the sovereign right to name them. With His sovereignty, He chose to delegate the naming of the animals to Adam rather than name them Himself. God did this because He wanted to; He wanted Adam (mankind) to share in the power of ruling the world. God doesn’t have to give Adam the power to name the animals, but He does. And the animal names were at the mercy of whatever Adam chose to call them.

Isn’t that something? God took a hands-off approach and approved whatever Adam selected for animal names. Does that sound like a controlling God to you, a meticulous sovereign who has to have His hands in everything?

god gives dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26-28)

26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28 Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Here in Genesis 1:26-28, God gives mankind (humanity) dominion over the earth. What is the word dominion? The word “dominion” in the Greek is arxetosan (pronounced ar-ke-TOE-san), meaning “they should rule” or “let them rule.” The “osan” of the word arxetosan (“osan” pronounced “O-san”) is the subjunctive case ending.

The subjunctive case, according to Greek grammar, is used for “should, might, could” or as a tone of permission. When God says “let them have dominion,” the Trinity here (noted by “us” in “Let us make man”) is giving humanity permission, power, to rule over all of God’s creation. Humanity was given charge to exercise authority over everything that moves on earth.

Even here in Genesis 1:26-28, the Lord grants power to humanity. God is the Creator of the earth and all that is in it; yet and still, He, who alone retained power over the earth, created mankind and gave “them” (the plural; male and female He created them, we read in Genesis 1:27) power over everything. God didn’t have to; the power belonged to Him. But He gave that authority to humanity over creation. Nothing compelled God to do it. He did it because it was His sovereign right to do so.

If God gave authority over the earth to humanity, is He the type of Creator who hordes all power for Himself? No. God doesn’t horde power over the earth to Himself. God cannot give authority over the earth to mankind, then control every single thing on earth. He cannot give man authority over all that is on the earth, then control every single thing on earth. If God gives power but then controls everything, giving power to man is a matter of mere lip service. And God is not a man that He should lie.

Is it farfetched to think that God retains control though He isn’t controlling over every single event that occurs?

Delegation in the trinity: Separate Functions, equally god

As if God’s delegation of authority or power to mankind on earth isn’t enough of a hint, there’s also how God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit relate to each other — what some call intra-trinitarian relations.

The Trinity is so-called because it is a “tri” unity of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And yet, despite the fact that there is a plurality of persons in the Triune Godhead (plurality means “more than one”), all three persons are fully and equally God. Each person of the Trinity is fully God. So, contrary to what some religions say about Christianity, the Trinity is not a “unity of different gods,” but rather, a unity of three persons that are fully and equally God. God is the Father; God is the Son; God is the Holy Spirit.

God the Father never left the throne. God the Son came down to earth in the Old Testament and then came in the New Testament in the person of Jesus Christ. God the Holy Spirit moved on men and women in the Old Testament and is considered within New Testament theology to be the God of the New Testament Church. God the Holy Spirit picks up where God the Son (Jesus) leaves off when Christ ascends back into Heaven and the Holy Spirit moves on those gathered in the Upper Room in Acts 2.

Though God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all fully and equally God, they do have different functions, however. God the Father is the One who sends Jesus to earth. At every turn, we see Jesus giving honor to “the Father who sent Me” (John 5:30; 6:39, 44; 8:16, 18; 12:49; 14:24). The Father sent Him, meaning that the Father gave the order to Jesus to come to earth. So we see that Jesus answers to the Father.

And then, once Jesus arises from the dead, He says that “all power has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). As a result, Jesus is the one who sends the Spirit. He says in John 15:26 that “I shall send to you [the Spirit] from the Father” and in John 16:7 “I will send Him [the Spirit] to you.”

The Father gives the Spirit to Jesus, who then sends Him to earth. The chain of command is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which fits the words of Jesus in The Great Commission when He tells the disciples to baptize in the names of the three persons of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). And yet, the Father being listed first doesn’t mean that He is “more God” than Jesus the Son, or that Jesus is “more God” than the Holy Spirit. Rather, the listing here is to respect the chain of command in the Trinity.

The One giving the orders, that is God the Father, has a function that places him functionally above (not ontologically or in essence, but function alone) the Son. And the Son, who died for humanity, has a role as Savior that makes him “functionally above” (though not in essence, but in function alone) the Holy Spirit.

Even in this, however, keep in mind that the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus in the womb of Mary, the woman chosen to carry Jesus in her womb for nine months (Luke 1:35). The Father raises Jesus from the dead. We read in Acts 4:10 that Jesus is the One “whom God raised from the dead.” In Romans 4:24, God the Father is described as “Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead.” And in Romans 8:11, the Holy Spirit is described as “the Spirit of Him who raised Christ from the dead.”

And yet, Jesus says that the One who conceived Him in Mary’s womb “will testify of Me” (John 15:26). The Holy Spirit comes to speak of Jesus and to point to Jesus. “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come” (John 16:13, NKJV). The Holy Spirit testifies of Jesus, not Himself.

As can be seen from the biblical evidence above, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have different functions. They support each other. Even God the Father exalts Jesus before the crowd when He says, “This is My Beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17; 17:5). And yet, the Son exalts the Father as well.

And yet, all of them are God. Neither is more divine or less divine than the other. There is no superiority of essence; there’s no such thing as “more divine” or “less divine” when it comes to divinity and Godhood. If someone is “less God” than someone else, then they are not God (capital G), but “lowercase g” god. God, capital G “God,” is the Ultimate.

There is no one above God. And so, Greek and Roman mythology have messed with the minds of humanity in that they all entertain “lesser gods” and “greater gods.” Logically, there’s no such thing as “greater” or “lesser” gods. When Scripture says that God is “above all gods” and that Jesus is “King of kings and Lord of lords,” it’s saying that God alone is God, that Jesus alone is King and Lord. There is no one to rival Him, no one else that can be God because He alone is God. The “gods” mentioned here is accommodationist and refer to what some consider to be gods:

Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but oneFor even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.

However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. (1 Corinthians 8:4-7; bold font mine).

The Father is the One who sends. The Son is the One who dies for humanity; He is its Savior and Lord. The Holy Spirit is the One who testifies concerning Jesus, who enters into the hearts of those who believe in Jesus, the One who sanctifies believers as they conform to the image of Jesus, God’s Son. The Father is Sender; The Son is Savior; and the Holy Spirit is Sanctifier.

There are other names for these three persons of God, but these show that all three persons have different functions. The Father does not horde all the functions and thus, all the power. Despite their different functions, they are all fully God. There is no “hierarchy” of God, no lesser God or greater God. All three are divinity, true Godhood. They cannot be compared and they come as a package deal. As the apostle John says about those who would receive the Father but not Jesus, “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23).

god delegates his power

The result of all of this discussion is that, contrary to what Calvinists believe about God, and despite how Calvin himself thought about God, God is a God of delegation; He delegates His power rather than horde it all for Himself. God didn’t have to create a universe and make mankind; He did it because He wanted to. He didn’t have to give mankind power over everything on earth, but He did it because He wanted to. In God’s sovereignty, He delegated power to someone other than Himself because that’s what He wanted to do. It seemed right to Him.

And the same God that created mankind and delegated power to someone outside of Himself is the same God that delegates power within Himself, too. The same God who gave power to mankind is the same God that distributes power among Himself with the three members of the Triune Godhead. The Father sends the Son, who then sends the Holy Spirit. The Father exalts the Son, the Son exalts the Father, the Son exalts the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit exalts God the Father and the Son, Jesus.

As one can see from the pages of Scripture, contrary to Calvinism and its notion of divine sovereignty, the members of the Triune Godhead are at peace with one another. They share mutual love, one for another. They do not fight and bicker and argue about “who’s in control” among themselves. There is no power struggle among the Trinity members. There’s no tension within the Trinity.

If God could delegate power within His union of the three persons, if He could delegate power to mankind, those He created outside Himself, then all the evidence points to God being a God of delegation. He doesn’t have to control every single event or thing to control it all. He can delegate and still exert control over it all because He knows who He is. God can control all things without being controlling.

He isn’t a tyrant scared of losing His power if humans make decisions, if Satan the captain of hosts has power and plots a rebellion against Him. He isn’t scared of what happens when Adam and Eve sin against Him and introduce sin into the world because He is God. Nothing is ultimately outside of His control. But God, having all power (hence “the Almighty” or “All Mighty”), cannot give power to mankind and then snatch it back because mankind makes decisions He doesn’t like or want. And so, we live in a world where bad things happen because mankind, free agents, make terrible choices with the power God gives. But those bad choices are a result of our error, not God. He wasn’t a terrible God to give power; we, however, are terrible because of what we’ve done with it.

As I’ve said in Part 1, God is not the only free agent in the world; humans are free agents, too. The only way humanity is responsible for sin is if it had the power to choose otherwise. You can’t blame someone for doing something when they were helpless to act to the contrary.