For those of you unfamiliar with the term but quite familiar with the practice, apophenia is generally understood to be the obsessive preoccupation with something and its perceived relationship or connectivity to all things. This relationship or its presence is repeatedly sought and achieved through rationalistic schematizing which enables a person to build relationships between things, even two of the most unrelated things possible. An illustration of this is looking up to the clouds and finding shapes of animals. If it is a horse you wish to see then at some point you will find a cloud with enough shape that you can interpret it to be a horse. The apophenic person, however, does not just find one horse on one day with the understanding that he or she made it happen through interpretation, rather every day, maybe constantly, the clouds will present to them all kinds of shapes and sizes that inevitably are claimed to be horses.
Apophenia succeeds because it is constructed upon a system of “false positives”. What is meant by this is that the validation of what people believe they perceive is not a result of substantiated reality or empirically observed certainties but of an interpretive reality where they are able to arrange the varying elements they have at hand to provide a conclusion, message, image and so on that facilitates for them a positive affirmation of that which they seek to find. In the most basic terms they see what they wish to see while ignoring anything else that may properly deny them a validation of what they wish to see.
Apophenic behavior is something probably most, if not all, adult humans have practiced to some degree. Attempting to find validation and relevance of existence and an adequate explanation of the universe, both micro and macro, is an inevitable journey of the human mind. And for the Christian this discovery of the apposite, while spiritually removed from the unbeliever, still has with it the human mind, its strengths and undeniable foibles.
Now accelerate with me to a conglomeration of thought that serves as the impetus for my submission. Some time back I watched a movie starring Jim Carey entitled The Number 23. The movie is centered around Carey’s character named Walter Sparrow and his discovery of a book titled “The Number 23”. And while the movie’s plot here is not what is in view as the contributor to the discussion, the premise that all things lead to the number 23 is. Throughout the movie Sparrow sees presence of the number 23 wherever and whenever he can by arranging whatever numbers are on hand to produce its preeminence. He is apophenic.
And so, along the way while watching the movie I was struck rather smartly with the parallelism of the rationalism of Carey’s apophenic character and that of the acquisition of theological determinations and dogma within the Augustinian/Reformed/Calvinistic (ARC) approach to the doctrine of the sovereignty of God.
Divine Sovereignty Calvinist Style
While most adults generally understand the concept of divine sovereignty and certainly most theologically inclined Christians have a working definition, the Calvinist’s definition has a distinction which purposely induces a conscious dissimilarity between theirs and that of others and does so when referring to divine sovereignty or the sovereignty of God with the phrase, "the absolute sovereignty of God" (this nuanced term may be a hint of what possibly provides the impetus for some Calvinists toward an apophenic trend in their theological posture as it relates to claims regarding divine sovereignty). That is to say, instead of referring to the sovereignty of God, Calvinists prefer the term the absolute sovereignty of God to make clear they have a posture separate from others.
To substantiate this observation and amplify the Calvinistic distinction here are some statements by well known and lesser teachers who affirm this disposition within Calvinism:
The doctrine of God’s sovereignty lies at the foundation of Christian theology…the center of gravity in the system of Christian truth—the sun around which all the lesser orbs are grouped
For the sovereignty of God is literally revealed on every page of Holy Writ. Every page of the bible is God's Word and makes the claim that God is to be recognized, heard, believed on, obeyed, and thanked.
Additionally from Kuiper (at the same link):
When God wills that a man sins, and when He so rules that a man commits that sin in his life, God does this without becoming the author of the sin in any sense. God hates all sin; God detests those sins which He sovereignly wills that man commits.
And finally on pages 18-19 in his book Trusting God, the well known Calvinist Jerry Bridges asserts (curiously this is very close to Kuiper’s statement):
The sovereignty of God is asserted, either expressly or implicitly, on almost every page of the Bible.
So what you have collectively within Calvinism is the pronouncement of divine sovereignty being not just divine rule but divine control; hence the redirection from sovereign rule to sovereign control. For the Calvinist divine rule and divine control are ultimately inseparable. A view which one might say, if Calvinism were a biological specimen, is written in the DNA of Calvinism itself.
In my view this is a distortion of the meaning of sovereignty found within Calvinism which switches from its real meaning (rule) to that of a proprietary or imposed meaning (total and/or absolute control) is the very distinction which produces the view within Calvinism reflected in the statements above, even the most egregious such as Kuiper (and others) who charge God with willing that man sin. And this great error (frankly blasphemous) stems from Calvinistic rationalism which determines because God is all powerful or omnipotent and omniscient (all knowing which includes all future events) it must then be assumed that in the employment of this omnipotence and omniscience within divine sovereignty there will be a resulting expression of God's sovereignty that extends beyond rule to that of control.
And of course the way to find false positives is to discover proof texts in Scripture which appear to state what you wish to find while ignoring other things present in Scripture which speak otherwise. Since this article is not an argument for the ARC view but an exploration of one of the many passages in Scripture which present narratives quite to the contrary, we will leave the mistake of proof-texting to the Calvinists who hold dearly to this view.
The Case of Job
Let me help here as I relate a segment from Dan Gracely’s book Calvinism a Closer Look (I will be doing a series on excerpts from the book in the near future). If you recall in the story of Job, God brought Job to the attention of Satan. And Satan was given permission to do as he wished with the limit of not taking Job’s life in order for Satan to try and prove his point that Job’s commitment to God was quid pro quo and not one based in principle. Satan then embarks on a campaign of personal destruction in the life of Job. Through many vehicles we see Satan in control in his debilitation of Job. In fact Job1:12 records:
The LORD said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”
Here we see God himself stating that God is no longer in power concerning many elements of Job’s life, instead Satan is. This certainly is not absolute or total now is it? And we see the administration of Satan using this power to kill Job’s children, execute a plan of financial disaster and inflict bodily disease upon Job. It was not the will of God for Job to undergo this; rather it was Satan’s will. Satan was was permitted to exercise his will on certain matters in Job’s life.
The Calvinist and God’s Decree
This brings us back to God and the Calvinist. For the Calvinist or anyone under the ARC system of thought, what arises most in their mind is that if God decreed all that would be (the general decree of God) then is this not a reflection of God’s will, thereby God being its cause by virtue of the exercise of His sovereignty? Well, if we were to think of it purely in the realm of circular rationalism this may be reasonable but the Bible declares otherwise. Clearly God did not will this, rather Satan did.
Then did Satan act outside of the decree of God? No. The decree of God as it pertains to this context was one of permission for Satan to exercise his will or his sovereignty. Therefore, what we see here is not the sovereignty of God forcing the act of Satan but the sovereignty of God allowing Satan the exercise of his own sovereignty.
It may come as a shock for some to hear this but God has given us personal or human sovereignty. We have the freedom to choose to do many things and none of these are expressions of God’s sovereignty, rather of ours. We choose what we will eat, what we will wear, who we will marry and so on. God’s sovereignty is expressed in allowing us to choose, not in the choices we make, those are our under our dominion.
So back to the beginning. In the introduction we considered apophenia. And this is just what occurs with the Calvinist in many of these cases. In the case of Job the apophenic Calvinist will insist what we have constantly present and in control is the sovereignty of God and he (the Calvinist) will interpret every action by Satan and Job as ultimately a product of God’s sovereignty. It is not.
God certainly was sovereign and His divine sovereignty was never abdicated or diminished in this case nor in any other context where men or angels exercise their volition. This is because the biblically compatible view of divine sovereignty is not control but rule. In the case of Job, God’s rule was always in tact. He did not control Satan’s exercise but he did rule over it with limits.
And this is how we must understand, properly, the nature of divine sovereignty. It is rule, not control. And in the end, unlike Bridges and others who apophenically declare that on every page of the Bible the sovereignty of God is present, we must understand what really is present in its proper context. If and when God exercises His divine prerogative to act such as causing a donkey to talk, we must acknowledge it and determine what we may learn from it but when it is not present we must not impose upon a context what we wish to find thereby coming to gross misunderstandings; namely the kind that lead to claims that God wills men and/or angels to sin.
John MacArthur, a devout Calvinist, provides a much more theologically perspicacious view on that matter. And though I certainly would love to discuss other statements by MacArthur that do not always reflect this tempered view but tend to sympathize with the extreme view above (he seems torn at times), nevertheless it is worthwhile to cite a Calvinist Teacher who is not compelled by its pervasive rationalism on the matter (though in other areas of theology MacArthur does seemed sucked into this regrettable vortex):
What about sin? God is not the author of sin, but He certainly allowed it; it is integral to His eternal decree. God has a purpose for allowing it. He cannot be blamed for evil or tainted by its existence (1 Sam. 2:2: “There is no one holy like the Lord”). But He certainly wasn’t caught off-guard or standing helpless to stop it when sin entered the universe. We do not know His purposes for allowing sin. If nothing else, He permitted it in order to destroy evil forever. And God sometimes uses evil to accomplish good (Gen. 45:7, 8; 50:20; Rom. 8:28). How can these things be? Scripture does not answer all the questions for us. But we know from His Word that God is utterly sovereign, He is perfectly holy, and He is absolutely just.
Tomorrow, if you cheat on your spouse, the bible does not treat this as an expression of the sovereignty of God, rather as an expression of human sovereignty. God has given you free reign over many things, they are yours to manage and yours for which you must answer. God’s sovereignty expresses itself by permitting you to make these choices but not the choices themselves.