Already / Not yet paradox thinking about Sovereignty

(Mervin Bitikofer) #1

Having embraced the classical Christian conception that God is, always has been, and always will be sovereign over everything, I nevertheless see some apparent tension in this with another prominent Scriptural theme, and I’m curious how or if others here reconcile these two.

I confess that my clouded western eyes probably cannot clearly apprehend most of the lessons to be gleaned in Revelation – this may be one of them (11:17): “… We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty, who are and who were, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign.”

This isn’t just one isolated thought here. The gospels too are sprinkled with (…shall we strengthen that to “grounded upon”?) the conviction that God’s Kingdom is breaking in upon us, giving a clear sense that something that was not here before is emerging now, and (on the Revelation account) has not yet been fully consummated.

It seems to me that there must be two distinct levels of “Lordship” happening. On the one hand, If God is already sovereign over everything, then in what sense can anybody ever have claimed that God’s Kingdom had not yet arrived? Yet Scriptures do firmly embed that emergence in the midst of (and not at the beginning of) our own recorded covenantal history. One could argue that human free will / moral responsibility (which I also fully accept as subsumed underneath the complete sovereignty of God) will be the last rebellious agency that is being brought back to God as part of the Kingdom of God that exists in our hearts as a community. But this still seems to teeter on the presumption that there was something (our free will) that was/still is operating outside of God’s sovereignty which I reject (prematurely according to some here, I know) as not part of the classic Christian conception of God’s complete rule. And in any case, peace between lions and lambs seems to refer to the wider nature of things than just humans for the eventual transformation of our entire world (and not just us) into God’s Kingdom when it has fully arrived.

I know that those who have let go of any notion of complete sovereignty, via various open theisms, have already excused themselves from this issue, and in fact probably used it as their doorway out. But for any who also still recognize the indisputably coexistent theme of God’s complete and eternal sovereignty, do you have any insights on how these two different levels of kingship are wedded within your faithful understandings?

Like the little boy up front during children’s moments in church who was asked what has a bushy tail, runs up trees and collects nuts for the winter … he responds: “I know the answer is Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me” – I already know the answer to my challenge here must center around Christ; clarifications are still welcome, though.

(Jay Johnson) #2

I’m interested, but what two levels of kingship? I see the one level of God’s sovereignty over all, but you don’t spell out the second. (Or I’m just too obtuse.) Is it human free will, or the natural world? Sorry.

(Jon Garvey) #3

Merv - maybe the clue is in the various Christus victor type passages of the New Testament. They seem to centre round the victory over sin and death, but in that include the “powers and principalities” including Satan, evil spirits and so on, which are disarmed by the work of Christ … and in particular his work in the salvation of sinners.

Their power was never a threat to God’s rule, it seems, in that his sovereignty is maintained and demonstrated in the OT, but it did put a damper on the untrammeled reign of God: I think because of rebellious wills.

The New Covenant is about renewing human hearts in willing conformity to the will of God and so conquering sin. I suspect it’s too simplistic simply to take a Miltonian line and speak of sinful angels, because it seems more to do with their power to accuse God’s people of sin being defused.

The role of Satan in Job, for example, always reminds me of David’s relationship to Joab, whose actions were not always what David wanted, but David was not in a position to oust him. Of course, God is not lacking in power (leaving aside the Open Theist slant which would make this idea more like the struggles of Greek Theogony than anything), but whilst Satan has a just case against those God wants to justify, God’s ultimate will is not fulfilled. Perhaps that is the gist of the New Testament’s new kind of Kingdom.

After all, another strand in Kingdom teaching is the “already but not yet” aspect of the last days, even though Christ has been given all authority - it’s easy for Christians to forget that and look forward only to the start, rather than the consummation, of the Kingdom.

Dunno how much that helps.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #4

A “before” and “after” picture seems to emerge in the gospels. “The kingdom of God is upon you” is the message Jesus spreads along with his disciples. Never does he say “it has always been here, and we’re only just helping you see that now”. So it would seem that God’s prevailing sovereignty had been need of an additional layer – something that had been lacking prior to Jesus’ incarnation.

@Jon_Garvey may be helping give some focus with the Christus Victor interpretations applied to rebellious agencies. It also occurs to me that there may be some ambiguity about when this consummation of the kingdom takes place. A good Scriptural argument can probably be made that the crucifixion/resurrection events were themselves the consummation. I.e. When Jesus taught that the “Kingdom of God is upon you”, that this is exactly what was fulfilled when Jesus was “lifted up” (on the cross). But there would still be the Revelation prophecies referring to end times things that most will argue have definitely not occurred yet. So it would still leave open (for me) the exploration of just how it is that God’s sovereignty could be “ramped up” from its current presumably already complete state.

(Jon Garvey) #5

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.”Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Cor 15)

So, look out for God being “all in all” for the final expression of God’s sovereignty. But note that God the Father could not have handed all authority over to Jesus unless he had it in the first place, so there is no question that God is ever less than sovereign - it’s the expression (maybe also the reception by creatures) of that sovereignty that appears to be in transition.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #6

Thanks, Jon – that passage nails directly into the heart of my question! Not that everything is suddenly all clear now, but you’ve definitely given me the material I can percolate on.

“Final expression of God’s sovereignty” – that seems a particularly well-chosen phrase to me. Thanks for that.

(Jay Johnson) #7

Ok. Just wanted to make sure I understood your question before spouting off nonsense. Let the nonsense begin!

A large part of Luke’s purpose in Luke-Acts involves a defense of the gospel against charges of sedition, but more importantly, Luke portrays the gospel confronting powers and authorities (including spiritual “powers” such as Satan, demons, magic, etc.) in relation to the gospel.

As James R. Edwards puts it, “In its various encounters with authorities in Luke-Acts, the gospel fundamentally redefines power. The principle is established already in the wilderness temptation by the devil, where Jesus rejects the power and glory of ‘all the kingdoms of the world’ and qualifies even the religious power centred in Jerusalem (Luke 4:5-10). In the remainder of Luke-Acts the redefinition takes the form of a critical posture with regard to the forms and faces of power encountered by Jesus and the church. This redefinition is signalled in various ways. In the Benedictus, Zechariah claims the ‘way of peace’ in Isa 59:8 with reference to its inauguration in the birth of John (Luke 1:79) and subsequent incarnation in Jesus. In Luke 22:24-7 power is redefined by setting ‘the one who serves’ (ὁ διακονῶν) in distinct antithesis to ‘the one who rules’ (ὁἡγούμενος). In the story of Cornelius, Jesus is declared ‘Lord of all’ (Acts 10:36; cf. Rom 10:12) in relation to whom all other lordships are relative. The Thessalonians perceive that Paul and Silas proclaim Jesus as ‘another king’ in contrast to Caesar (Acts 17:7). The cosmic significance of Jesus’ Lordship is signalled by Luke’s use of οἰκουμένη, ‘the (inhabited) world’. The gospel destabilises (Acts 17:6; 24:5) the counterfeit potentates and powers to which the world is currently subjected – whether Caesar (Luke 2:1), Satan (Luke 4:5), Artemis (Acts 19:27), famines (Acts 11:28) or eschatological terrors (Luke 21:26) – in anticipation of the return of Christ to judge the οἰκουμένη in righteousness (Acts 17:31). In relation to the ministry of Jesus the authority of the high priests and temple guards and elders is one of ‘darkness’ (Luke 22:52-3),and the ministry of Paul ‘turns the world upside down’ (Acts 17:6). These various insights and images attest to one overarching conviction: that the only true power, by which all others – and in all their various forms – must be made critically accountable, is the name, person and work of Jesus.”

In regard to God’s sovereignty and the already/not yet paradox, remember that the already/not yet refers to eschatology, which could be said to be the ultimate outworking of God’s redemptive plan in history. God’s sovereignty is part of who-God-is, and is no more subject to change than any other aspect of his eternal nature. God is the Lord, and nothing will change that. What will change, when the “not yet” is consummated in the kingdom? God will not change, but the rebellion against his rule will be brought to an end.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #8

Well answered!

I feel like an Anabaptist who has just been lectured on “his own” turf. I want to jump up and down and declare --yes, of course; I knew that!

As somebody who has read John Howard Yoder years ago and even understood (I think) a fraction of it, I feel appropriately silly for having asked. But I do realize in full that none of us truly understands all the details of these things worked out, no matter how accustomed we have become to reciting the recognized and historically hammered-out teachings. So I appreciate your answers.

(Jay Johnson) #9

Don’t feel bad. It took me two tries just to understand the question!

But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

(Albert Leo) #10

[quote=“Jay313, post:7, topic:5597”]
What will change, when the “not yet” is consummated in the kingdom? God will not change, but the rebellion against his rule will be brought to an end.

Jay, I may be ‘way off base’ in this response. Since I have had no training in theology, it will probably be (deservedly) ignored; nevertheless, it may be of interest to Evangelicals who follow this Forum to observe the train of thought o a scientist who begins with an emphasis on scientific knowledge (rather than scriptural knowledge) but still considers himself a Christian.

As a scientist who accepts evolution as God’s way of creating all life forms, including us, I see no evidence whatsoever (aside from scripture) of a “rebellion against his rule”. I am drawn to the belief that, as the only creature that has been gifted with a conscience, we humans have been chosen to rise above the instinctive behavior that prevails in evolutionary creativity-- chosen to act with greater compassion and love than is promoted by our animal background. In this sense, we should accept God’s invitation to become co-creators of an improved humanity. I can interpret Bobbie Carlyle’s sculptures of ‘self-made man’ expressing this, although it he probably meant them in atheistic terms. Instead of ‘self-made’ man, I see them as humankind using the hammer & chisel of Christ to bring forth the potential hidden inside the raw stone. I

Al Leo

(Mervin Bitikofer) #11

[my emphasis added]
So … why aren’t we? Or why isn’t all of humanity doing this?

You want to have scientific glasses on, but then you want to use them to detect rebellion, which is a matter of ‘will’ that science can’t even get a handle around to establish that it even exists, much less that it is aligned with or in rebellion against God (who is also beyond the capture of science).

As far as evidence of rebellion … the human communities of the world don’t exactly look like paradise, do they? If you can’t see anything wrong with how we are behaving in the world today, then there is probably no science or no argument I could possibly bring up that would persuade you otherwise. It would be easier to persuade you that the earth is flat, if the evil we perpetuate today does not suffice to get your attention.

(Jay Johnson) #12

Just wanted to say that I never ignore your posts, Al. They are always thought-provoking, even when I don’t agree with you or reply directly. [quote=“aleo, post:10, topic:5597”]
As a scientist who accepts evolution as God’s way of creating all life forms, including us, I see no evidence whatsoever (aside from scripture) of a “rebellion against his rule”.

This is true. We would have no way of intuiting that humanity was in rebellion against God unless the Scripture had informed us of it. The Scriptures are God’s self-disclosure, so there are many instances like this in the Bible, where God informs us about himself and our relationship to him. We take such statements on faith.

(Jay Johnson) #13

Hmmm. I may have to rethink my statement above … haha

(Albert Leo) #14

[quote=“Mervin_Bitikofer, post:11, topic:5597”]
@aleo In this sense, we should accept God’s invitation to become co-creators of an improved humanity.

@Mervin_Bitikofer [my emphasis added]So … why aren’t we? Or why isn’t all of humanity doing this?
[/quote]Good question, Mervin; why aren’t we? Its apparent that we should NOT expect science to provide the answer. The first Christian communities, who held property in common and tried to practice _love of neighbor i_n the way that they so recently heard Jesus preaching it–they failed to make it work. And they would surely be disappointed to know that some 2,000 yrs. later we are still failing at the task. Putting it as an analogy of sculpting the ‘ideal’ human from stone (i.e. as Carlyle did), the matrix in which we reside must be more difficult than the Carrara marble Michelangelo worked with.
Al Leo

(Jay Johnson) #15

At least the marble didn’t resist Michelangelo every step of the way!

(Casper Hesp) #16

That’s because Michelangelo made use of the special technique of divine persuasion to convince the marble to cooperate ;).

(Mervin Bitikofer) #17

We may be dodging past each other to alternating sides of this … but maybe that will be a productive dance – so here’s picking up the other end of this rope for a tug or two. To say the early church flat out failed is a bit harsh, isn’t it? I mean, yes, you’re right that here we are now still with so much failure to fill our vision as I pointed out in my last post. But does that mean that all of us are failing all of the time? Scriptures don’t paint the early church as failure despite the fact that the whole world didn’t come into the fold. In fact none of the responsibility seems to be assigned to the people of the church at all. It is God that brings the growth. So to say that God failed then is a theological non-starter. It seems to me that we must acknowledge that God’s purposes are prevailing both then and now, and that we collectively are only partially on board with those purposes, given our world here that still awaits the “full expression of God’s sovereignty” as Jon so lucidly put it.

(Albert Leo) #18

After re-reading my post, I agree with you–it sounds too harsh and pessimistic. In reality, I am an optimistic person, and I remain so in spite of the evidence from the news media that some innate genetic character makes Homo sapiens an intrinsically violent creature. After Constantine gave his OK to Christianity, the way seemed clear for Christ’s _spiritual cure_ for humanity’s predilection for violence to take hold, and Agustine’s dream of the City of God to prevail. But that did not happen.

Is it possible that materialistic science must help out spirituality to accomplish this? Seriously! Science may soon discover one or two genes that direct the bonobos toward a peaceable life as opposed to their more aggressive cousins, the chimpanzees. Then, with an improved Caspase C9 procedure, this pacifying gene could be inserted into the human genome. Even as speculation, that’s a pretty scary prospect–taking God’s invitation to be co-creators beyond his intentions. But, equally scary, is ISIS getting hold of a thermonuclear device! You can bet they wouldn’t hesitate to use it, believing that they were carrying out Allah’s Will.

So what are we to do in order to bring about the “full expression of God’s sovereignty” ? Is being Evangelists for Christianity enough? We may not have all the time in the world to find out.
Al Leo

(Jay Johnson) #19

So much to say, so little time. First, I love the early church in Acts! Would that we could have maintained their zeal! (This always reminds me of Jesus’ comment about the green versus the dry tree in Lk. 23:31.) We shouldn’t overlook the problems that plagued them, though. Just look at the messes Paul had to address in many letters, and Christ’s admonishments (as well as encouragements) to the seven churches in Rev. 2-3.

Second, this is exactly where the already/not yet comes into play. Although we already have a taste of “things to come,” it will not appear in its fullness until the consummation. For the redeemed, it means we will continue to live in the tension between what we are now and what we are becoming. Flashes of brilliance amid the drudgery and failure. Lord help us all!

(Jay Johnson) #20

Here, I go back to the disciples’ question in Acts 1: " Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

They were ready for the resurrected Christ to begin his earthly reign as the Davidic King right then! Instead, Jesus redirects them from speculating about the unknowable future to serving as his witnesses. I suppose he would say the same to us.