Earthly sovereignty, and God’s sovereignty.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 November 2021

As I wrote in my article on God’s sovereignty, humans have some messed-up ideas about how it, and God, works. Largely because we confuse human sovereignty with divine sovereignty, and think God acts like we would act, were we sovereign.

Jean Calvin (1509–64), who came up with various beliefs about how salvation works which we nowadays call Calvinism, was a medieval theologian from France. If you know European history, you know France for the longest time was an absolute monarchy, in which the French king ran his nation like a dictatorship. His rule was absolute. He wasn’t bound by law, because he made the laws and could unmake them at will. He wasn’t held in check by any parliament or court. He answered to no emperor. He didn’t answer to the pope either; if he didn’t like the pope he’d just get rid of the current one and appoint a new one. I’m not kidding; French kings actually did this more than once.

L’état, c’est moi”/“The state; it’s me” was how Louis 14 (1643–1715) put it: If you defied the king you defied the state, which meant you were a traitor and he had every right to kill you. Heck, if he merely found you inconvenient, like Naboth was with Ahab, 1Ki 21 he’d kill you; unlike Ahab he’d suffer no consequence, because the medieval view of “divine right of kings” meant even God’s law didn’t apply to him.

To Calvin, that’s sovereignty. That’s what it looks like. But human kings have limits, and the LORD does not. Human kings can only tap the gold and resources in their kingdom, but God can create new and infinite resources with a word. Human kings can only enforce their will with soldiers, which die; God can likewise enforce his will with a word—but if he chooses to use angels instead, his angels don’t die. Human kings also die, but Jesus is raised and won’t die again.

To Calvin, God’s sovereignty was everything the French king’s sovereignty was… times infinity.

Thing is, the French king was human, and humans have gone wrong. We go particularly wrong when we’re handed absolute power, and nobody bothers to put any checks or balances on it. Our natural selfishness turns into something absolutely monstrous, and even the best kings, like David ben Jesse, fall prey to it… and people die.

Now if you believe medieval French propaganda about how this system was all God’s idea (it’s called the divine right of kings after all), you might develop the idea God’s cool with power-mad kings because he himself exhibits some of these power-mad traits. And you’d probably use that belief to justify the idea of divinely-appointed absolute rulers. You certainly wouldn’t have a problem with it—which is why Calvin felt he could safely preface his 1536 book Institutio Christianae Religionis/“Institutes of the Christian Religion” with an introduction to King Francis 1 (1494–1547). Surely Francis would appreciate the ideas about divine sovereignty; it looked just like his sovereignty. Might even have inspired him to flex it a little more, had he read the book.

But like determinism, this idea of meticulous sovereignty is a human idea, overlaid upon the bible, overlaid upon theology—and it doesn’t belong there. Because it’s inconsistent with love, with grace, and with the essence of God’s being. Love is who he is. Yet Calvin’s Institutes says nothing about it. Never reminds us God is love; never quotes the proof texts. Because to Calvin, God isn’t defined by his love, but by his might. God’s sovereignty is central and vital to Calvin’s understanding about God. Take it away, and he’s not God anymore.

It’s why Calvinists struggle to understand exactly how God became human, because if Jesus really did surrender all his power, it means to them he’s not God anymore. So he can’t have. He must’ve only been pretending to be a limited, powerless human… kinda like the Docestists claim, but not as heretic. More like God in a human suit, kinda like Edgar in Men in Black but less gross.

Dictator God, dictatorial Christians.

This is absolutely not true of every Christian who likes to hype God’s sovereignty, but it’s a disturbingly common trend among a lot of them: If they tend to be just a little bit overbearing, just a little bit authoritative if not cultish, they’re usually gonna point to an idea of God which involves him being just as autocratic as they. “God is in control. And he put us in control of the world around us. And he put men in control of the churches, our families; our wives and kids. And he put men in control of our nation and government… and if we don’t like the government we need to overthrow it. (But at the ballot boxes, people!)” Although sometimes they’re not particular about pointing out they need to stick to the ballot boxes.

No, I’m not saying there’s a correlation between domineering churches and Calvinists. Plenty of non-Calvinist churches get this way too. Plenty of self-identified Christians who claim they don’t believe in determinism the same way Calvinists do, nonetheless believe in a sovereign God similar to the one Calvin taught—and use this belief to justify their own patriarchal sovereignty in ways which are likewise inconsistent with Jesus’s teachings and the apostles’ writings. It doesn’t have to be a consistent theology anyway: It’s not about following God, and never was. It’s only about using his authority to justify our authority. He rules, therefore we rule.

Where I do see a bit of correlation, is when people who are really interested in power tend to gravitate towards Calvinist thinkers. Because Calvinists claim they understand God’s sovereignty. They understand power. They understand how God intricately arranged his universe so that everything is under his control, and there are no accidents, no meaningless things, in it. They claim it all makes sense; that God has a plan. Humans covet power, so Christians wanna know what Calvinists claim to know, because knowledge is power. Maybe they can learn from God’s sovereignty… and learn how they themselves can be little sovereigns. Under God of course… but whether they really do submit to him when they exercise their sovereignty is another thing. Medieval kings didn’t. Domineering pastors claim to, but I doubt their claims just as much as I doubt any medieval king.

Hence power, whether political, or simply over their families and lives, becomes the thing Christians want to get most out of their Christianity. What does God want? Duh; he wants us to get fruity. Is power among his fruits? Nope. Love and self-control are. You know—how God really is, instead of this cosmic overseer who can’t stop watching the monitors lest his employees try to sneak a pee break on company time.

All power already belongs to our God, so why should he jealously defend it? Why should he seek more? Why should he constantly need to flex it, just to remind us he has it? Well he doesn’t. He’s not an insecure despot who can’t survive without constant praise and affirmation. He’s our loving Father who wants us to grow and prosper. And if we struggle to respect God unless he first does something mighty, or shows off his control, it’s only because we covet power much too much. It’s our corrupt nature getting in the way of our relationship with God. That’s gotta change.

Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world.

Jesus is the best demonstration of what God is like. He acts like God does. ’Cause he is God, and has God’s character and nature.

And yes, I’m talking about Jesus as he behaved when he walked the earth 20 centuries ago. He’s the same guy now as he was then. His character hasn’t changed. Way too many Christians presume he’s gonna be radically different when he takes over the world; that once he’s in a position of real power, out goes the grace and here come the rules. Which is how we behave. For too many people, the only reason they’re kind to one another is because they’re not rich enough to escape the consequences of boorish behavior—but once they get rich, they figure they can get away with being jerks to everyone. They project that bad attitude upon Jesus. That’d be entirely wrong.

Or, if they’ve watched political TV shows, they’ve seen too many episodes where people have to compromise their principles in order to get stuff done, or in order to hold on to power. Good people, fr’instance, who have to become ruthless lest they get overthrown. The better-written shows tend to demonstrate how good people can stay in power without compromise; the lesser shows usually have the good guy compromise but feel really bad about it, or gives ’em an immoral sidekick who gets his hands dirty so our hero doesn’t have to. And again, that’s how we are. Not Jesus.

King Jesus isn’t gonna change. Doesn’t have to. Once he takes his throne nobody can overthrow him. Infinite sovereign power, remember? But he likewise has infinite self-control and doesn’t have to show off his might, doesn’t have to be a jerk, doesn’t have to stamp out all the evildoers till the final judgment. They still have a millennium to reform; he has all that time to win them over through love and grace. And maybe we Christians should learn how that love and grace work. ’Cause it works surprisingly well.