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divine sovereignty

Photo by Waiting For The Word is licensed under CC 2.0.

What follows is an excerpt from my book The Evangelical and The Open Theist

General Sovereignty

Opponents of open theism often argue that the open model of God undermines God’s sovereignty, claiming that in order for God to be able to guarantee the achievement of his goals, everything must be under his complete control. Open theists counter that these objectors “limit God by asserting that God cannot decide which sort of sovereignty to practice.”[1]

Open theists do in fact affirm God’s absolute sovereignty over creation. Once again, however, they must redefine the term. They argue that there are two kinds of sovereignty: specific and general. Specific sovereignty

maintains that there are absolutely no limitations, hindrances or insurmountable obstacles for God to achieve his will in every specific circumstance of the created order. God has exhaustive control over each situation.[2]

John Calvin argued that that there is no such thing as chance. Seemingly arbitrary events, such as one person’s escaping a shipwreck while another drowns, or one mother’s ability to feed her child while another’s starves, are all meticulously planned by God. Every detail of every event transpires according to God’s preordained plan. “For proponents of specific sovereignty there is no such thing as an accident or a genuine tragedy.”[3]

Biblical accounts of God experiencing grief (Gen 6:6), changing his mind (Ex 32:14), resorting to plan B (Ex 4:14), responding to the actions of his people (Jer 18:6-10), experiencing surprise (Jer 3:7; 32:35), and depending on prayer (Jas 4:2), however, pose a serious threat to the scriptural viability of specific sovereignty. John Sanders writes,

[T]hese sorts of things make no sense within the framework of specific sovereignty. If God always gets precisely what he desires in each and every situation, then it is incoherent to speak of God’s being grieved about or responding to the human situation. How can God be grieved if precisely what God wanted to happened did happen?[4]

In addition, God’s anger in response to sin is incoherent because “any sin is specifically what God wanted to come about.”[5]

Ironically, even Augustine recognized this point when he wrote, “Alas for the sins of humanity! (Isa. 1:4) Man it is who says this and you have pity on him, because you made him and did not make sin in him.”[6] Furthermore, the reality of this world stands in direct contradiction to Christ’s prayer for Christian unity and mutual love. If reality corresponds to the will of God, then Christ seems to be at odds with the Father, undermining the orthodox understanding of Christ as the full revelation of God.[7]

General sovereignty, however, “maintains that God has sovereignly established a type of world in which God sets up general structures of an overall framework for meaning and allows the creatures significant input into exactly how things will turn out.”[8] In this model, God, while maintaining the freedom to micromanage events should he see fit, refrains from exercising exhaustive control over everything that may transpire on earth. Consequently, there are events that occur on account of human decisions and chance that are not preordained by God.[9] This is not to say that God is incapable of practicing specific sovereignty, only that he chooses not to do so. God’s restraining his omnipotence does not imply that he does not posses it.[10]

Omnipotence is limited by love; but there is no imperfection about that. The ultimate fact remains that God, the ground of omnipotent love, cannot be destroyed or corrupted, but it is essential to his being love that he can be changed and affected by what his own power permits to be.[11]

To the open theist, the difference between specific and general sovereignty is the difference between a God who reduces the divine-human relationship to an impersonal level through manipulation and coercion and a personal God who allows for genuine give-and-take in his relationship with humanity. “It requires tremendous wisdom, patience, love, faithfulness and resourcefulness to work with a world of independent beings. A God of sheer omnipotence can run a world of exhaustively controlled beings. But what is magnificent about that?”[12]

God’s sovereignty ensures that he is never caught off guard or at a loss in new situations, but he has to respond to events as they happen and deal with new realities as they come into existence without knowing with absolute certainty what will happen beforehand.[13] The open model may seem to diminish God’s sovereignty, but “the sovereignty that reigns unchallenged is not as absolute as the sovereignty that accepts risk.”[14]

God in his sovereignty has chosen to create a world that allows other factors, besides himself, to contribute to the transpiring of events, including the decisions of free agents, circumstances, and chance. He can, by his wisdom and sheer omnipotence, guarantee that his overarching plans for creation will ultimately be fulfilled. “God has not given everything over to us. God is the one who established the conditions, and his overarching purposes cannot be thwarted. Whatever ability we have to thwart God’s individual purposes is given us by God.”[15]

God’s not knowing what cannot be known, namely, the future decisions of self-determining beings, does not detract from God’s maximal knowledge or cause him to be either ignorant or misled. God’s control, even of the unforeseen future, is not limited by his lack of knowledge. It is guaranteed by his omnipotence, and this is not threatened by the nonexistence of the future.[16]

Upon reflection, a God who is able to bring about his purposes without controlling every aspect of reality seems more powerful and more truly sovereign than a God who must meticulously control every detail of every event. One proponent of specific sovereignty demonstrates this point when writing, “If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled…Maybe that one molecule will be the thing that prevents Christ from returning.”[17]

How magnificent can God’s sovereignty be if one loose molecule could threaten the whole thing? Though open theists would affirm that God is omnipotent, and therefore all created beings have power only within the boundaries he has set, those boundaries are wide and that power is real. This guarantees the eventual achievement of God’s goals, while preserving the genuine freedom of created beings. God is able to direct genuinely free beings toward his goal for creation, which enhances, rather than undermines, divine sovereignty. Is a God that must control every movement of every molecule in order to bring about his intended purposes really a figure to be admired?


In light of this understanding of divine sovereignty, open theology holds to a nontraditional view of predestination. 1 Peter 1:2 speaks of those “who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” Ephesians 1:4-5 reaffirms God’s predestination—“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”—as does Romans 8:29—“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”

The previous chapter presented an open theist’s understanding of these passages of Scripture, and so there is no need to rehash the issue here. These passages refer to the predestination of a corporate group, not individuals. God has predestined the existence of a church, but he did not predestine individuals to attain or refrain from membership in that church.[18] The matter of predestination is not therefore a matter of foreknowing or determining the salvation of the individual, but rather the predestination of a divine movement giving rise to a corporate body known as the people of God. Whether or not the individual joins that corporate body is a matter of free will, not divine preordination.


In response to the attacks of classical theists, openness proponents emphasize the metasovereignty of God,[19] that is, God’s sovereignty over his sovereignty. Open theists along with tradition theologians affirm that God is omnipotent. Therefore, as mentioned earlier, God could have chosen to create a world in which he exercised specific sovereignty, predetermining every event beforehand and knowing exactly what would happen from all eternity. God could have created a universe in which even the “free” acts of human beings were predetermined by him. He could have created a world that allowed him to remain immutable, impassible, and in possession of exhaustive foreknowledge of future events. Open theists adamantly affirm God’s ability to accomplish all of this.

Through his metasovereignty, however, God has not chosen to create such a world, choosing instead to create a world in which he is engaged in a genuine give-and-take relationship with his creation in which events may occur outside or in contradiction of his will. He has chosen to create a world where he can be genuinely affected by his creation and in which free agents can disobey and shun him. He has chosen to create a world in which he does not exercise all the power, a world in which he must share the responsibility of forming future events, and a world in which he may suffer. The world is as it is because God sovereignly decided to create such a world. Open theology is the clearest exhibition, and not degradation, of the supremacy of divine sovereignty.

If you are interested in reading more, you may purchase the entire book on Amazon.com.


[1] Sanders, God Who Risks, 208.

[2] Ibid., 211.

[3] Ibid., 212. See Calvin’s Institutes, 1.16.2-3.

[4] Ibid., 213.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Augustine, Confessions 1.7.

[7] Sanders, God Who Risks, 213.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 213-14.

[10] Tiessen, 75.

[11] Ward, 151, quoted in Tiessen, 80.

[12] Sanders, God Who Risks, 215.

[13] Tiessen, 85.

[14] Albert C. Outler, Who Trusts in God: Musings on the Meaning of Providence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 96, quoted in Sanders, God Who Risks, 215.

[15] Sanders, God Who Risks, 234.

[16] Tiessen, 86.

[17] R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale, 1986), 26-27, quoted in Sanders, God Who Risks, 234.

[18] Richard Rice, “Biblical Support for a New Position,” in The Openness of God (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 56-57.

[19] I am indebted to Will Darr, a college classmate, for suggesting this term.


See Also:

Issues of Time and Timelessness


Tom Torbeyns · November 30, 2015 at 4:59 am

Well written but some things seem to have been generalized here. Because not all Open Theists hold exactly the same views on these issues. 🙂

    Garrett Ham · December 5, 2015 at 5:56 pm


    That is true. There is diversity within the open theist position, just as there is within the Calvinist and Arminian positions.


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