There is constant argument in regard to how God is ‘sovereign,’ with reference to His control in the affairs of the created order. The history of interpretation, in the main, all agree, of course, that God is the Creator; that He is the ‘governor,’ the ‘conserver,’ and the concursus Dei who works alongside creation in ways that surpass our puny understanding. But beyond these general agreements there is still discordance in regard to a theory of causation. Classical Calvinism famously operates from what Barth often refers to as the decretrum absolutum, which others might call ‘causal determinism,’ or maybe logico-causal necessitarian determinism, as TF Torrance does. Whatever coinage one wants to use, this tradition on a theory of causation is largely Aristotelian in nature. We see this theory dominant in much of mediaeval theology; we see it even, at points in Luther and Calvin; and we definitely see it as the normata of the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology that developed, respectively, in the 16th and 17th centuries. At a more popular level, today, we can see these sorts of discussions obtaining between 5 point TULIP Calvinists, evangelical Arminians, and what some are calling Provisionism.
As an alternative to the classic fare on this locus David Kelsey offers a theory that we might call ‘Trinitarian-dynamic-relationalism’ (my phraseology). He writes:
In further support of Wood’s proposal, it is worth noting that there has been some disagreement among translators of the Greek Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed into English about how to translate pantocrator in the first article of the Creed. Perhaps the most common translation is “omnipotent,” following the Latin translation of the term into omnipotem. However, for example, in his classic collection of ancient Christian texts, Documents of the Christian Church, Henry Bettenson translates it as “All-sovereign.” That obviously comports well with Wood’s suggestion.
In “holding all things together,” the Triune God is “prior” or “prevenient” in that it is God who always takes the initiative. In being “prior,” God “takes the lead” in providing for creatures’ well-being by bringing and “holding” together the resources for their well-being available within the limits of the ways in which they are situated in their present circumstances. That priority in “holding together” is one sort of “sovereignty.”
Conceiving God’s providential sovereignty as God’s “holding together” what goes on among creatures is quite different from conceiving God’s “sovereignty” as God’s “controlling” what goes on. “Control” is exercised extrinsically, from “outside” the creatures that are “controlled,” by power that is externally applied to them to cause them to change and interact in ways determined by the agent that exercises the power. As we saw in Chapter 3, construed as analogies for providence as God’s control of creatures, terms like “sovereign,” “kingly,” and “Lord,” too easily allow for, even invite, inferences that are highly problematic. However, those inferences are blocked when God’s “sovereignty” in providential care is understood as sovereignty of God’s “holding all things together” in ways ordered to creatures’ well-being in both absolutely general and particularly differentiated ways.
The sense in which the Trinity is “sovereign” in providential care when the latter is characterized in terms of the pantocrator can be further nuanced by a more detailed reflection on the implications of the claim that is none other than the Triune God that is the pantocrator. Here, we reverse a traditional pattern of theological reflection on God’s providence. The traditional move was to explain providence first, often in terms of the concept of the cosmos’ arche. Only after that had been accomplished did it introduce the doctrine of the Trinity. It, thus, introduced the doctrine of the Trinity as a theological topic entirely extrinsic to providence. It ascribed providence, already fully explicated without reference to the Trinity, to the first “Person” of the Trinity. It did so simply because creative blessing is also ascribed to the first “Person” (cf. the Nicence Creed’s opening “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth”). I want to explore here, in contrast with that pattern of thought, how Trinitarian doctrine of God can serve as the context within which to nuance further the sense in which the Trinity’s sovereignty in providential care is the Triune God’s prevenience, God’s taking the initiative in working for creatures’ well-being in their kinds.1
I am still in the process of reading Kelsey’s book; in fact, I am up to the point of the quote in my reading. We will see how he fleshes these things out further. But what is evident is that he is focusing on what has been called the concursus Dei, or ‘God’s coming alongside,’ in the created and re-created reality, as that is understood with reference to Jesus Christ for us (my spin). He identifies what readers here might be familiar with, primarily because I have focused on this myself with some fervor. That is the all-too-common way of the negative approach to theology to speculate about godness without simply thinking Godness as that has been spoken and revealed for us in the Son, Jesus Christ. Kelsey is clearly going to attempt to tackle the dilemma of God’s ‘sovereignty’ by eliding the inherent problem of abstracting God’s oneness (de Deo uno) from His threeness (de Deo trino) as classical theisms post-mediaeval theology are prone to do. So, Kelsey, at least inchoately, seems to be moving forward from within what some have referred to as the Trinitarian Renaissance of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. I simply take the so-called ‘renaissance’ to be a look back to Nicene theology in general; a look back past the pitfalls associated with the mediaeval via negativa and its apophatic theology. His premise, at the outset, seems promising.
However, Kelsey concludes, for my money, what is important is that the theologian thinks God from God as revealed in Jesus Christ. This is the classical Trinitarian and Nicene way of theologizing. It is a way that is at odds with a majority, if not all of the Post Reformed orthodoxy; that is in regard to the way they respectively thought the singularity of God in abstraction from His multiplicity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It must be from within this frame, I would argue, that the way we think God’s relationship to the world, to creatures, must be thought. If this is how God eternally has related within Himself, in se, then it only follows, since He is the Creator, indeed, that our relationship to Him, as that is grounded in Jesus Christ, would likewise be filial and relational; as such our relationships with others would likewise be relational and dynamic in this way. How that actually looks has some sense of the mysterium Trinitatis associated with it; which is seemingly the way Kelsey is approaching this. It will be interesting to see how he works his understanding of God’s sovereignty out in these sorts of Trinitarian ways; not to mention, how that then cashes out when applied to ‘human anguish.’
1 David H. Kelsey, Human Anguish and God’s Power (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 140-41.