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The Sovereignty of God Debate

D. Stephen Long and George Kalantzis, eds., The Sovereignty of God Debate (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), 193 pages, ISBN 9781556352171.

This collection of essays presented in 2006-07 to the students and faculty of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary is part of the on-going work of The Forum for Evangelical Theology. D. Stephen Long and George Kalantzis, both the book’s editors and the convenors of the forum, invited a number of scholars from a wide range of Christian theological perspectives—many but not all would identify themselves as evangelicals—to present their views on questions surrounding the idea of the nature of God. In particular, these essays focused on the nature of what it means for God to be sovereign and, more particularly, on the nature of his relationship with creation, especially with humanity. Each author presented their perspective on whether or not God may be affected by the happenings of creation—known theologically as the question of divine impassibility—and, if so, the nature of that affect.

In the opening chapter, Jimmy Cooper introduces the question of divine impassibility, providing for the reader a short history of the debate and an introduction of the authors that follow. From there George Kalantzis, through an examination of a debate between two early church leaders, Cyril and Nestorius, shows that while the question of divine impassibility is important for orthodoxy it is not sufficient; one may hold to God’s impassibility and still be heretical (e. g. Nestorius). D. Stephen Long, on his chapter on the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, defends Aquinas and his theology from contemporary accusations of being too influenced by a pagan philosophical system. Instead, Long asserts that Aquinas’ theology is biblically grounded. He notes that, instead, it is the conclusions of many contemporary theologies that result in significant theological and practical problems. These problems are the consequences of, on the one hand, a diminished view of God (where is he too dependent upon his creation) and, on the other hand, having an exaggerated view of evil. John Calvin is famous for the prominence that God’s sovereignty has in his theology. Vincent Bacote, rather than appealing to the many theological traditions that look to Calvin as their founder, unpacks the theology of the Reformer himself. In regard to those passages that are often understood to assert the changeability or even the suffering of God, Bacote asserts that Calvin understood these as “divine accommodations”—instances where God represents himself not as he actually is (which is beyond our understanding) but in a way that allows us to understand him. The first contemporary theology represented in this text is presented by Michael Lodahl who asserts that the issue of God’s sovereignty is best dealt with by Process Theology with a little bit of John Wesley thrown in to compensate for the former’s limitations. The author begins by challenging the church’s historic understanding of Christ which, he asserts, sounds more like Caesar than Jesus. Process Theology asserts that given that all things exist in relationship, including God, and therefore He cannot be wholly disconnected from his creation but is, instead, “a fellow sufferer” and that rather than meticulously predetermining the actions of all other beings, God’s power is seen in his ability to persuade. A former student of noted German theologian Jürgen Moltmann provides insights from his theology to address the question of God’s sovereignty. Nancy Elizabeth Bedford notes that Moltmann’s response to this question revolves around his “theology of the Cross.” Consequently, God’s sovereignty must be seen in his ability to limit and humble himself. While God suffers, it must be understood as a consequence of the intensity of the love that he has for humanity. John Sanders presents the view of what is commonly called “Openness Theology;” the theological understanding that re-opened the debate on the nature of the sovereignty of God about twenty years ago. Sanders argues that God seeks to be in true relationship with humanity and that real relationship requires that humanity be able to exercise real freedom (especially in its response to love God or not) and that God truly respond to human action as opposed to meticulously predetermining the actions of all involved. Sanders asserts that Scripture portrays a God who actually takes risks. The final chapter, by Thomas G. Weinandy, places great emphasis on the historic Creator/creature distinction, noting that Scripture affirms both God’s nearness but also, and at least equally, his wholly-otherness from it. He notes that God’s unchangingness does not make God unfeeling or distant; it actually empowers him to be all that the creation needs him to be, including perfectly loving. The book concludes with a series of shorter chapters where each author is given space to respond to the contributions of the others.

This book is well worth investigation as it provides an excellent resource to those interested in investigating and comparing the varied views on the closely related questions of God’s sovereignty and immutability. Each author has done an admirable job of addressing the issue from their perspective. Novices, be warned! This text may prove daunting or , perhaps, out of reach. Much of the language and many of the concepts that are used assume a level of theological familiarity and sophistication. This is understandable, of course, given the audience to which the presentations were originally made.

Reviewed by Bernie A. Van De Walle

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About the Author: Bernie A. Van De Walle, Ph.D. (Drew University), is Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology and theology program convener at Ambrose University College in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is the author of The Heart of the Gospel: A. B. Simpson, the Fourfold Gospel, and Late Nineteenth-Century Evangelical Theology (2009), Rethinking Holiness: A Theological Introduction (2017), and contributor to other works including The Spirit Renews the Face of the Earth: Pentecostal Forays in Science and Theology of Creation (2009), Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (2011), and The Holy River of God: Currents and Contributions of the Wesleyan Holiness Stream of Christianity (2016). He has served as the President of the Christian Theological Research Fellowship and sits on the Steering Committee of the Wesleyan Holiness Connection. Amazon Author page

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