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No. 99: Sovereignty and Self-Gift

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 99
Copyright 1997 Biblical Horizons
November, 1997

At the 1997 Biblical Horizons Summer Conference, the Rev. Jeffrey Meyers presented a series of remarkable lectures on the gospel of Mark. Among his many insightful comments, he suggested that the second gospel continues where the first gospel ends; Matthew ends with Jesus saying "Go" (Matthew 28:19), and Mark’s shows the "way" to go (Mark 1:2-3). In the course of the gospel, Mark indicates that the "way of the Lord" in which Jesus’ disciples are to walk is a path of suffering and death. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus demonstrates His glory and His Lordship supremely in His death, evoking a confession of faith from the centurion (Mark 15:39). (This point is stronger if Mark originally ended with 16:8.)

As Meyers pointed out, there seems to be some tension between the conception of lordship found in the gospels and the traditional Reformed emphasis on the sovereignty of God. According to the gospels, Jesus shows His glory and greatness by becoming servant of all, even to death; according to the Reformed conception, God’s Lordship means His control and authority over all things, His disposing of all things according to His own will. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with tensions in theological systems. Because God and His ways with the creation are incomprehensible, there will always be loose ends, paradox, apparent contradiction. But tensions can also be symptoms of some theological malady crying out for medication. I believe that such may be the case here.

The traditional picture of God’s sovereignty fails to do complete justice to the Christian doctrine of creation. When we talk of God’s sovereignty, the picture we have in mind is often of God’s pulling the strings and controlling our movements from the "outside." We think of God’s relation to the creation as being somewhat analogous to a child’s relation to a set of toy soldiers: he moves them around, kills some and rescues others, decides whether the reinforcements are going to get to the field in time or whether they will be delayed by bad weather, and determines which army wins the battles.

While this kind of analogy is not theologically useless, we need to recognize the fundamental discontinuity: unlike the child playing with his toy soldiers, the creation is not only moved around and controlled by God but also owes its very existence to God. The child can leave his armies in the sandbox, and even forget about them for weeks, but (discounting the possibility that other children might invade the battleground) the soldiers will still be there when he comes back. But without the Lord’s continual sustenance of the creation, we simply would not be. If our conception of sovereignty pictures God manipulating the creation as a child manipulates his armies, we have already granted the creation some measure of autonomy: the creation is out there, independent of God, and God "intervenes" to move things around. God’s relation to creation is more like the relation of an author to a novel, for without the author the novel’s world is never brought into existence. Even this analogy is imperfect, of course, since, once complete and published, the novel floats free of its author. So, God’s sovereignty is over creation is inseparable from His continual gift of the creation.

We need to go a step further and recognize that this God’s gift of creation is a self-giving; the fact that I exist is grounded in the fact that God gives Himself to me. To understand this we need to reflect for a moment on the Trinity. God did not need to create the world, but it is entirely consistent with His essential character to do so. The eternal foundation for the act of creation lies in the interTrinitarian relations. The Father eternally begets the Son, and the Spirit eternally proceeds from Father and Son; in Augustinian terms, the Spirit is eternally given from Father to Son and from Son to Father, being the Love that binds Lover and Beloved. In short, it is of the nature of the Trinity and of each person to go "outside" Himself to give Himself to Another; each Person is, in the original sense, "ecstatic," moving outside Himself to offer Himself in love.

Reflecting this interTrinitarian circle of self-gift, creation is also an act of self-giving love, though of course in this case the self-giving produces something that is other than God Himself. He did not need the creation to fulfill Himself, or to satisfy some need for love and fellowship. Creation is purely gratuitous, an act of love. In the light of the previous paragraph, it is precisely what we expect God to do: to create something other than Himself that He can then enfold in lovingkindness.

Like creation itself, God’s continual providential rule and care for the creation is likewise an outflow of His eternal love. Every moment, the creation is kept in existence by the loving gift of the Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, Life Himself, from the Father and Son. Every heartbeat depends on this continual outpouring of God’s loving activity, every movement is dependent on His prior movement. I do this or that only because His energy works in me to do this or that. In short, God is not only directing creation from outside but moving it from within, and both the directing from without and the moving from within are acts of self-giving, wholly gratuitous love.

In the perspective of creation, as in the life of Jesus, sovereignty and self-gift are synonymous. And this is what we must say, if we confess that Jesus is the climactic Word revealing the Father (John 1; Hebrews 1:1).