Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Divine Sovereignty and the Aurora Spree Murders: Absolute Control or Divine Rule/Ultimate Control? Where God Was and What Was He Doing.

From a recent interaction with a blogger at High Plains Parson on the matter of divine sovereignty and the Aurora spree murders by accused gunman James Holmes, I was motivated to provide an essay on this topic. For some, it seems, they wish to lay at the feet of God’s divine sovereignty, some kind of responsibility for the actions of Holmes and specifically as a consequence of the definition and/or understanding of divine sovereignty. That is to say, because divine sovereignty is “thus and thus” we can deduce that God is ultimately responsible for these murders as having occurred.

Now if you are satisfied with this kind of conclusion and do not wish to go any further, I cannot help you but remember Christian you, too, will have to come face to face with incidents, both personal and those outside of your own experience which will need reconciled to and with your concepts of God (if you take your theology/Bible study seriously because an honest student of God’s Word will follow the implications and consequences of that to which he or she claims to believe or else they will be a hypocrite and ignore it when it does not work so well. And let me give credit to the High Plains Parson, in this case, for at least being consistent, thought gravely wrong).Thus you will, at some point, ask the following or similar questions:

  • When you get cancer, where is God?
  • When you get another, serious illness, why did God let this happen?
  • When your child is injured, why didn’t God intervene?
  • Why are crimes, evil or even gossip permitted?
  • I am late for a critical appointment, doesn’t God love me enough as his child to at least make the stop lights go green in my favor?
  • Why is my car broken down right now? Why didn’t God warn me? Why won't he help fix it? Why did he let this happen when I desperately need my car in working order?

The Most Common Means of Deriving an Errant View of Divine Sovereignty

The very first principle for understanding divine sovereignty (the rule of God over all that is) must begin with one certainty which is that comprehending divine sovereignty cannot, either in small or large part, stem from a humanistic standpoint. That is to say, too often many Christians at some point come in to contact with the Biblical reality of divine sovereignty, either directly from Scripture or indirectly from incidents which cause them to reflect upon the issue. Unfortunately what ensues for too many is a definition which is based on what “makes sense to them”. Whatever their starting point, be it before investigating or while investigating the Scriptures, many Christians (and non-Christians but for now I am speaking expressly to Christians) come to conclusions too early on about divine sovereignty and its properties instead of comprehensively investigating the Scriptures to discover all that is presented and then forming postulates. Hence, they have a fixed idea (what is called a presupposition) based partially in Scripture and partially in what seems reasonable in their mind. 

When they come upon Scriptures which do not reflect their predetermined certainties about divine sovereignty, such portions of Holy Writ are manipulated or dismissed to insure their desired definition is discovered. And if you do not believe numerous Theologians and Teachers of God’s Words do not have “ego-investment” in their claims, think again. Many will go to great lengths to defend their blind-spots and deficiencies because, as I wrote about in another article (Never Bring Your Ego to a Theological Gun Fight), ego-investment is a significant contributor to sustained theological error, even in the face of what are obvious (prima facie) Biblical contradictions

Rationalism - The method described above is called rationalism and what ARC (Augustinian/Reformed/Calvinist) Teachers and students have as their primary method for forming their proprietary ARC tenets.  Commonly they use the “false positives” method with Scripture to discover what they have already concluded or so strongly suspect early on in their pursuit of defining divine sovereignty and other related doctrines. One need only read Calvin’s Institutes to discover the gross amounts of rationalism used by Calvin and his heavy proof-texting minus any aggressive exegesis to have your eyes widely opened to the reality that this method has been heavily and long ago established (ironically you will discover very few Calvinists along the way as having plodded through his Institutes). This is not to say ARCers cannot or do not hold to many correct doctrines, they do, but the err greatly on certain ones and unfortunately, at times, allow this rationalism to even pollute articulations of rightly held doctrines. But this broader consideration is not in view for this post.

So for this essay I am going to consider divine sovereignty in light of Romans 8:28, what the ARC definition or view of divine sovereignty is, the events of the Aurora murders and what I (and others) regard as a more appropriate theological view.

A Far Reaching Biblical Text Which Makes It Very Clear

If there ever was a point in the Scriptures where so many major doctrines intersect, Romans chapter 8 must be the Biblical terminal where they all come together yet, maintain their distinct properties and express their unique truths while interacting with and among one another. But more importantly the issue of “Where was God in Aurora and where is God in my life when tragedy strikes?” is met right here and right now with the answers you seek. At least it performs the most basic function of providing the foundation upon which you may not only build a correct view of divine sovereignty (and predestination) but the footing upon which you may build a life of confidence in your decision making, your relationship with God and understanding his work.

If there is ever a doubtful man or woman, it is the one who blames God for everything. Why? Because they cannot either understand the true God nor understand their own self. God makes no such proclamation, that he is responsible for everything, yet many foolish men who wish to use rationalism as their foundation for “figuring God out” are more than happy to attribute to God such blasphemous properties because this forces us to include evil and sin. God is responsible for neither nor its by-products such as spree murders.

So instead of droning on with warnings I want to now relieve you of a life of unnecessary misery which God never intended, as well, relieve you of your uncertainty about divine sovereignty and all of its by-products because uncertainty leaves one ignorant of God’s plan for their life and their responsibility toward it.

Romans 8:26-30
26 Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
27 And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
29 For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.
30 Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.

The Common Calvinist Misconception

In my exchange with Riley Fraas, the High Plains Parson blog administrator who is also Pastor of Hope Congregational Church in Bethune, Colorado, Pastor Fraas made this assertion concerning what he believes is a necessary understanding regarding divine sovereignty:

 "sovereignty ruling absolutely and ultimately” is not possible if he does not also control all the details. The whole plan is made up of all the details. If one doesn’t control all the details, one doesn’t control the plan.

Notice again, Riley Fraas asserts that God must "control all the details". I am convinced this represents the fundamental mistake of all those who subscribe to the proprietary ARC view of divine sovereignty which results in the necessitating that divine sovereignty be about control and not rule.

Synergism or Monergism?

Monergism - ARCers are known for throwing around two words, monergism and synergism. Reformed Calvinists love the word monergism. It is sacrosanct. Some might even say for these children of Augustine it is their calling, so to speak. It defines everything about their view of God, his work and his relationship with humanity. It means, essentially, God does all the work (mono-alone). And that is, indeed, true. God does do all the work. But how ARCers understand work and define it and how they understand predestination along with divine sovereignty, when you mix the three together, you have theological toxicity at a very high level. One example is with respect to salvation. Some of these Augustinians say it means up to God being responsible for your having exercised your volition in believing the gospel.

However, in a few quarters you will observe the lesser of Augustine’s offspring giving lip service to “human volition” (free will or human sovereignty). They will say:

Oh yes, we acknowledge human culpability but still, God chose them to be saved and they are saved because God made that choice for them, he preplanned it. Hence he, God, made it happen, not them. They chose because they had no other choice since God made the choice for them to make that choice. 

This is called duplicity my friend, double-speak. And remember, you don’t have to train your mind to ignore doublespeak but if you do you will end up holding to the same kinds of self-contradictory things and sounding as silly.

Synergism - Synergism is based upon its prefix, syn, which means together. For the Calvinist, synergism is akin to a swear word. This is because in the view of the ARCer, to attribute man having any kind of input into the goings on of history is a default robbery of God’s sovereignty. That is, man’s input equals God’s diminishment. Now, that may sound half-way reasonable but what is missing? Right, the Bible! Now you understand precisely why I prefaced this as I did. So to sum up:

Monergism - one controls
Synergism - more than one controls but acts together

Which of These Words Did God Choose?

Romans 8:26-30, with special emphasis on verse 28, was posted for a reason. You will find, rather astonishingly, in its context, God communicating to us about suffering, God working all things together and  immediately following a reference to God’s foreknowledge and predestination (that we be conformed to the image of his son and this cannot be overstated in helping people understand what predestination is and is not). Frankly, you could not find a more fitting place to consider divine sovereignty and how it works.

And so, when God revealed himself to us through Paul who wrote about divine sovereignty “working all things together” did God describe divine sovereignty as absolute control of all the details or instead, did God describe divine rule and ultimate control of all the events, hence, using them for his ends and purposes?

Syngersim is the Choice of God to Describe His Sovereign Work

The word God, through Paul, chose to represent the nature of his divine sovereignty in light of the events of the world and other free agents was not monergism at all, rather it was συνεργέω , transliterated sunergeó which is precisely the source from which the word synergism is derived! God describes, among our suffering (v 26) and God’s predestined plan for us to be confirmed to the image of Christ (v29),  his work of using all things for the good of his children.

Now, if God wished so desperately for us to understand that he is the one responsible for all of the actions of all of the agents of all time and that he is in absolute control of every single detail then word to be used here is monergism. But that is not used because that is not what divine sovereignty is about. It is not about absolute control, it is about divine rule and ultimate control.

The Rationalizing of Divine Decrees

One of the main reasons (but not the only) for this "absolutism of control" by Calvinists and most ARCers is their rationalistic view of how the Divine Decree(s) functions is how they view the Divine Decree(s). To them, if everything that was, is and will be has been decreed by God, then it is God who is responsible for controlling all events so that they come about.

What this represents is the finite mind trying to figure out how the infinite, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent divinely sovereign God can simultaneously decree history while allowing human sovereignty to take its course and exercise its freedom without God having any measure of culpability or responsibility for its occurrence all the while God, not being denied any of his sovereign properties or their exercise. For some, the idea that God can decree to allow free agents or volitional agents to exercise their volition and God use it for his purposes without God being in control of their actions is simply so incalculable they prefer coming to a wrong conclusion rather than accept what is undeniably observed in Scripture.

Look again, Paul writes about suffering and then speaks immediately about God working this for good to God’s children. The suffering is, by way of its context, a bad thing. But God takes these bad things and works them for our good. So what the “absolutist” wants us to believe is that God inflicts bad things (again absolute control) but really does so because he wants good things? Really? But even if this were true and it was all God, again, we have synergism not monergism as the descriptor. It is not all God in absolute control, rather it is God in divinely ruling which means ultimate control by taking those things which do occur and working them for us. As Paul ends the passage:

Romans 8:31
What, then, shall we say in response to these things. If God is for us, who can be against us?

Do you see the point? Paul cannot be more clear. Things are against us. There are volitional agents who are not God, working their will against us. Does Paul resort to the Augustinian/Reformed/Calvinistic error by trying to tell us that God is in absolute control of these bad volitional agents making them do bad things for our good? No! Not at all.

Divine Rule and Ultimate Control, Not Absolute Control

God tells us, through Paul, that such realities are part of life but even though this is the case, that there be those against us, God is for us. This is describing God’s divine rule over and ultimate control of all things or "details" but not an absolute control.

That is to say, even though all these things exist,  “I, God will rule in them all and bring about my ultimate ends. They are free agents, doing as they will but I will take their evil and make it my good. I am not the one doing this, I am not controlling them but I will control and rule how it will work in your life”. This is how you must understand divine sovereignty.


Lest someone bring about questions regarding divine discipline for the believer or divine intervention, none of these are denied but answering them does not answer the fundamental issue of the divine sovereignty. Even these matter cannot be rightly understood without a proper view of divine sovereignty. So yes, God can and does intervene but we will not understand that work, properly, if we improperly understand something regarding a vital property of the person of God, particularly with respect to divine sovereignty.


Notice verses 29 and 30 concerning predestination. No where will you find any reference to God predestinating the wills of men, rather you will find God proclaiming a predetermined planned for his children, that they be conformed to the image of his Son.

Predestination, here, has to do with the predetermined plan of God for his children to mature, to follow the proto-type Christ. It is God’s plan for us to be conformed to the image or better yet, inner-person of Christ. The word for conformed is summorphos (σύμμορφος) – literally “to be morphed together”. It is a reflection of God’s objective for the believer as stated by Paul such as Phillipians 2:5a, “Let this mind being you that was also in Christ Jesus” as well as Rom 12:2b, “Keep on allowing yourself to be transformed by having your mind renewed”.

God’s predestination is with reference to believers. That is, all the things which occur to us, as believers, are not because God is in control making them happen through divine sovereignty, rather as they happen God is in absolute ruler-ship of how these things will be used by God to conform us to the image of his Son, hence his ultimate control.

So Where is God for the Rest of the World?

I have heard this question asked:
If God loves me so much and does not want me to go to hell nor wants bad things to happen to me, why doesn’t he stop all of it since he is able?
And I will answer that with the very obvious fault in the question which seems to be ignored:
Dear friend, don’t you have children? Don’t you have a husband or wife? Don’t you have friends? Don’t you know someone, somewhere who is doing something which you know can harm them? Why don’t you stop it?
Right, you don’t stop others because there are boundaries which would require you to interfere with their freedom and cause you to arrogantly choose to live their life for them. In some cases, yes, you do stop where you are permitted but you never go so far as to live their life for them, now do you? You don’t do the very thing you demand God do, to be arrogant and live someone's life for them to safeguard them from bad things, yet you charge him with fault?

The fact is God observes the very boundaries he has set for the existence of volitional agents. Yes, he has intervened in many a life but not to the neutralization of one's volition and this is what is being asked of God, if not demanded, by many. Never mind this is what is being taught by ARCers about how God's sovereignty works with man's volition.

To be volitional, that is to be capable of making decisions and being culpable for these decisions, requires the capacity and freedom to make such decisions. For God to act with the control of another’s volition is for God to be acting and not that person, this is a prima facie fact that even human courts understand. But lo and behold, our Augustinian brothers and sisters are far too informed for this. To them it is only an illusion and you are not exercising your volition at all. You aren't really making decisions rather, it is all God decreeing to make you do all you will ever do, think or say; he is the one in control, even in control of James Holmes the spree murderer! How dare one blaspheme God so, but let me skip the posturing.

The truth is that the world is left hopeless. That is to say, God is not working all these misfortunes, this suffering, for their good. It is true they may learn, personally, or be enlightened by experiences, both good and bad, in their lives but the lives of unbelievers do not have the promise that the choices and exercises of volitional agents or even natural occurrences due to the laws of physics, are being used by God for their good. They do not have divine sovereignty, that is divine rule and divine ultimatums as the objective for the things which occur in their lives. These things, the good, bad and ugly, are things all unto themselves, removed from God.

Yes, God wants them saved and yes he will use them to call them to salvation. But God does not go beyond this with respect to a plan for their lives and its execution as he does with Christians, those who have been born again by faith in the gospel. And that is the bad news for the world. When the world says, "it makes no sense", I am not sure what they mean but I do know they are right in one way, it makes no sense in their lives since God is not "working all things" for their good.

God Permits Freedom and its Exercise

The fact is we live in a world of sinners who express their sinfulness is innumerable ways. This is not God’s doing but fortunately, God, in his majesty, takes all of these things and makes them part of his plan for his children. And that is the key.

The children of the world are indeed hopeless. When evil strikes, it is not God, it is evil. God’s call to them is salvation and the benefits of that salvation is that such tragedies automatically become a source through which God will work to conform the believer to the image of his Son.

Now don’t make the mistake of calling evil events, blessings, in some pious fashion. The blessing is not the evil event in the life of the Christian. The blessing is God using such cases to conform us to the image of his Son. The blessing is that though these things happen, “God is for us”.


Why do you have cancer? Because God sovereignly zapped you with it so he could then use it to conform you to his Son? Or do you have cancer because you have a defective and imperfect body which is part of the world’s curse of sin on our bodies of sickness and death, yet in this curse God sovereignly brings blessing with his work of using it to conform us to the image of his Son?

Do you see the order of things and how they need to be understood?

So no longer must you charge God with evil because of an errant view of divine sovereignty, rather you are now freed to place evil where it belongs and God using that evil, sin, tragedy or even the most mild of inconveniences, where God belongs in such events, not as the perpetrator but the one who divinely rules in such matters for his ultimate control of such matters in bringing you to be conformed to the image of Christ.


Anonymous said...

To the claim that a sovereign must micromanage everything, I reply: an emperor doesn't churn his own butter.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.

Alex Guggenheim said...

You are welcome. Please know that any specific challenges, questions, benefits or further observations are also welcomed.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely brilliant. Thank you so much. This one is a keeper. I get so sick of Romans being butchered.

Oasis said...

Thank you very much for writing this. It's very, very helpful to me as God lifts me up out of the pit of despair that I fell into as I tripped over the god of Calvinism.

Alex Guggenheim said...


Thank you for the visit. Yes, Romans is the theological butcher's favorite meat.

Alex Guggenheim said...


I am so happy that it encouraged you. Always feel free to ask questions or explore, with challenges, any premise you encounter here.