How is God Sovereign?
This is the second article in a series giving an overview of two central concepts in Abraham Kuyper’s public theology. For a primer on common grace, see my article from last month.
Having recently moved to New York City, I’m daily reminded of how small I am within this daunting, diverse, and driven world. Suddenly, the universe truly doesn’t revolve around me. As recently as this past spring, I was a graduate student at a small liberal arts school in a mid-size city in the South, pridefully assured of my ability to perform on a standardized test or to solve a world-injustice in a critical paper. Now, I am an inexperienced accountant working in one small cubicle of a big company in a big building in a bigger city, a minor contributor to an economy that would surely continue without me. I sometimes wonder, is God sovereign over all this?
In a recent article on this website, Micah McMeans wrestles with the question, “How can God be completely sovereign if free willed creatures exist?” This question, no doubt, is an important one, having implications for how one views humanity’s contingent nature, God’s work in the salvation of the individual, and God’s relationship to time. Indeed, last year I wrote an article on predestination in light of Calvinism and Molinism. Though this is a key question for the thoughtful Christian, I’m convinced that it is insufficient for grappling with real-world implications of Christ’s sovereign reign. Reflection on God’s sovereignty should not only lead to a clearer understanding of the relationship between our free will and God’s sovereignty, but also to a fuller vision of how we ought to apply our free will in God’s world.
The second Psalm reads as a poignant reminder to the Christian that the Messiah is King over all. Not simply our times of prayer and study. Not merely Sunday mornings and the institution of the Church. But over all things. Part of the Psalm reads,
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”1
Abraham Kuyper, 19th century Dutch theologian and politician, echoed these scriptural truths in a speech given to inaugurate the Free University of Amsterdam. In it, he argues forcefully for a distinct vision of private Christian education, utilizing a theology and political philosophy of “sphere sovereignty.”
As a theological notion, sphere sovereignty begins as this essay did, with a proclamation of the Lordship of Christ. As the title “King of the Jews” was placed over the cross of Christ, so he continues in his resurrection as King over all which he created. Kuyper declares, “If you believe in Him as Deviser and Creator, as Founder and Director of all things, your soul must also proclaim the Triune God as the only absolute Sovereign.”2 Kuyper emphasizes what ought to be obvious but we often miss—the same God who created the universe also cares deeply about the course of human history.
So, what did God create when he fashioned the world? This sounds like an easy enough Sunday school question, one may easily reply “everything!” Kuyper responds to this question with a more complex response, believing that not only did God create all that we see—nature, animals, humans, etc.—but that God has imbued within creation a certain order. This order of creation Kuyper calls “spheres,” interdependent institutions that together constitute the flourishing of humanity. These include, among others, the family, the economy, the state, morality, the arts, and so on.3 Kuyper conceives of these arenas of human existence as having its own “domain,” its own independent authority that other spheres ought not encroach upon.
As a concept, “sphere sovereignty” thus has a double meaning, referring both to the God who is sovereign over the spheres, and the spheres having sovereignty within themselves. The term’s double meaning also explains how God could at once be sovereign over human history, and the world operating without continual divine intervention. Kuyper elucidates, “This supreme Sovereign once and still delegates his authority to human beings, so that on earth one never directly encounters God Himself in visible things but always sees his sovereign authority exercised in human office.”4 Kuyper’s theological view of society explains what many theological treatises ignore; God is deeply concerned not only with the macro of human history and the micro of individual souls, but also with the institutions in between that we interact with on a daily basis.
This is all well in good in theory, one may say, but how does it relate to the real world? Kuyper’s speech has a number of practical examples for our lives. First, though the state is entrusted with the role of mediator of the spheres, and thus has a distinct power in society, it must guard against the perpetual temptation of authoritarian “Caesarism.”5 Kuyper’s theology thus guards against an overreaching government without being individualist or anarchist. The state, within its role, must be a virtuous institution, existing “not for itself but on behalf of the other spheres,” inhibiting “any sphere’s drive to expand and dominate a wider domain.”6
Second, the state is not the only sphere with the will to power. Monopolistic power and corruption must be resisted and reformed wherever it is found, and these problems can be recognized where one sphere denies the freedom and authority of another. Kuyper’s thought in today’s context, to give a couple examples, would likely result in resistance against corporate lobbying power (business sphere overreach into the state sphere), and the state’s attempts to curtail religious freedom as in the recent “burkini” crackdown in France (state sphere overreach into religion’s sphere).
Third, Kuyper’s vision of sphere sovereignty gives us Christians a fuller theology. God is deeply concerned about our Monday-Saturday lives, our work, family, and times of rest. Indeed, Kuyper, towards the end of his speech, speaks his most famous words, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”7 And we are not left to our own devices to make this sovereignty a reality, God has gifted us his grace such that flourishing can exist even in a fallen world. Christ’s title as “Lord” is also given new dimensions, as his death and resurrection conquered not only sin and death, but all earthly powers that challenge his reign “on earth as it is in heaven.” The Christian hope also comes into clearer focus, as God’s vision for the world is not to abandon it but to rescue all facets of life from the effects of sin. One day, our feeble friendships will give way to blessed community, our economies will produce fruitful labor for all, and our worship will be in unity and in truth.
View Sources 1. Psalm 2. Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Photo was taken from Martin at https://www.flickr.com/photos/ugod/5350513540 (no changes were made)
2. Bratt, James D. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 466.
3. On this point, Kuyper does not analytically define what constitutes a “sphere” and what does not.
4. Ibid., 466.
5. Ibid., 469.
6. Ibid., 468.
7. Ibid., 488.
1. Psalm 2. Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Photo was taken from Martin at https://www.flickr.com/photos/ugod/5350513540 (no changes were made)