The Big Three Sovereignties

What do you think “God’s sovereignty” means?

Your answer to this question likely dictates what soteriology (salvation theology) you follow, as well as to what eschatology (theology of last things) you adhere.

The following article outlines what I consider to be the “Big Three Sovereignties”:

  • The “Free Will” brand, roughly represented by Erasmus of Rotterdam in the above image.
  • The “Reformed” brand, roughly represented by John Calvin in the above image.
  • The “Purgatorial” brand with the “Heterophroneo,” roughly represented by St. Isaac of Nineveh in the above image.

The first two brands are, by far, the most popular brands in modern Christianity.

What problems do the first two have, such that the adherents of the former “fight” so doggedly against the adherents of the latter, and vice versa?

The “Free Will” Brand

The first is the “Free Will” brand. This encapsulates all Christians who make appeals to free will in order to explain the evil that happens in the world, as well as the exclusive culpability a person has for their own damnation.

This includes everyone from Open Theists, to semi-Pelagians, to Arminians, to most Catholics, to most Eastern Orthodox, to Evangelicals that lack subscription to Reformed theology.

sov_freewill

Some in this camp believe that humans, of their exclusive choice, cooperate with God for their redemption. Others believe that they must first be miraculously “activated” or “enabled” toward this ability. And there are many others still. I’ve abstracted this variety of specific articulations of soteriology within this brand by using a “half-gold, half-purple” arrow.

There are lots of different eschatologies, so “Endless Hell or Annihilation” represents those in which folks will be damned forever with no prospective point. These include endless torment in literal fire, endless torment due to the absence of God, endless torment due to the unsaved bathing in the white-hot fire of God’s presence, punish-then-annihilation, and “partial resurrection” conditionalism.

The Problems

In order for God’s ordination to “move out of the way” for libertarian free will, one of the following statements must be rejected:

  • God is omnipotent (having complete authority over creation to heal, stop, or functionally undo anything he pleases).
  • God is omniscient (even if only about the present).
  • God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
  • God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.

The only other option is:

  • Practice a form of cognitive dissonance or abandon reason to a mysterious contradiction.

(All of those seem pretty bad to me.)

Furthermore, even if granted libertarian free will, God ordained every single constraint. Everyone’s will has boundaries, and God ultimately chose what those would be (and/or chose not to alter them as they took shape).

I don’t have ultimate control over who I’ve become. Put another way, I didn’t knit myself in my mother’s womb, and thus I cannot have exclusive and exhaustive culpability.

What does this all mean (if we don’t jettison any of the first 4 bullets, nor take the 5th)? It means the “(And it’s completely your doing!)” is false. Libertarian free will wants the contributions to your fate to be “buck stops here,” but revelation + reason very plainly tell us this is wrong.

(Why does libertarian free will seem to “provide” something that is, upon consideration, plainly wrong? The answer to the ancient puzzle comes down to how responsibility works.)

The “Reformed” Brand

The second is the “Reformed” brand. This encapsulates all Christians who believe God’s teleology courses through everything, even if indirectly, to eventually accomplish his good pleasure — which necessarily involves the everlasting damnation of the reprobate. This brand includes most Calvinists and many Lutherans, among others.

In order to explain the evil that happens in the world, it makes appeals to the selective indirection of God’s will and/or his circumstantially incommensurable interests. When all is said and done, a perpetual appeal is made to a divine “glory-extraction” from the eternal suffering and/or obliteration of the unreconciled.

sov_reformed

The Problems

Notice that everything in the universe is “gold” — even if “shadowy gold” — which represents the fact that, under this paradigm, God’s sovereignty means that everything is part of his teleological plan, whether directly or indirectly. This proceeds logically from God’s attributes as explicated in Scripture, and aligns with Scriptural statements that God, though wholly benevolent, has superordinate responsibility even for the “bad stuff” — Heb. “raah” — because he instantiated everything and is only selectively interventionist.

But something is still purple, up there, isn’t it? There’s a lingering “(And it’s completely your doing!)” hiding out under the fate of the unsaved!

Where on Earth did that come from?

How could purple come out of gold, even shadowy gold?

It didn’t come from anywhere, but represents the lingering vestiges of libertarian freedom that even Calvinism harbors. This incongruity makes itself manifest in logically incoherent doctrines like “single predestination” and “sufficient for all, efficient for some.”

But this brand needs that purple.

Why?

Because it’s on-its-face cruel for God to set folks up for failure without some future instrumental justification. And when such sadness, despair, hopelessness, and loss is forevera down-the-road payoff is impossible by definition.

The Situation

The former is a brand of sovereignty+soteriology+eschatology often called “synergism.”

The latter is a brand of sovereignty+soteriology+eschatology often called “monergism.”

The situation is that these paradigms together:

  • Are overwhelmingly dominant among Christians today.
  • Both include a hopeless and prospectively-pointless forever-doom for many, if not most, of God’s “in the image of God” creatures.
  • Require at least a dash of purple in order that “a man damns himself,” in an attempt to “excuse” God of the above “love problem.”

And here are three false statements about these two paradigms:

  • Throughout the history of the church, these have been the only paradigms.
  • In the early church, no other paradigm was popularly held by faithful Christians.
  • Only the above paradigms have a robust Scriptural case to make.

The “Purgatorial” Brand (with the “Heterophroneo”)

There’s another brand, however, which lacks the logical incoherence and/or cruelty problems of the previous brands.

sov_purg

First, it bites the bullet on God’s “golden” sovereignty, but punts all purple. As a result, it’s free to say that our salvation is synergistic, because there’s always a valid synergistic perspective riding alongside God’s global sovereignty. (Notice how our salvation from punishment is colored cooperative.)

This “dual perspective” — which we can nickname “the heterophroneo” — uses compatibilism, the view of destiny preferred by the vast majority of philosophers, to solve the age-old “Christian puzzle.” And lest you think it is a modern retrofit, it also makes by far the most sense with Scripture at every juncture.

Second, it doesn’t need any purple because it doesn’t need to make excuses for an interminable doom (whether in torment or in obliteration) in response to human folly.

Rather, hell is purgatorial, a historical doctrine with popular subscription in the early Church.

From our last post on hell:

Evidence proves that by the late 4th century, there were at least two popular views of hell in the Church:

  • “Hell is purgatorial.”
  • “Hell is endless torment.”

The primary proof of this state of affairs comes “straight from the horse’s mouth”: The individual most pivotally responsible for the ubiquity of endless hell belief over the last 1500 years, St. Augustine, admitted the great popularity of purgatorialism in his day (Enchiridion 29).

(Note that St. Augustine agreed with the purgatorialists that there would be a purgatorial fire for at least some, but thought the wholly unsaved would be in torment forever.)

Purgatorialism wasn’t yet considered heretical; St. Augustine regarded it an “amicable controversy” (City of God 17) and purgatorialists “not… contrary to Scripture.”

But the 5th century saw a major shift in attitude, much in thanks to St. Augustine’s campaigning. A few decades later, it was conflated with wacky, violent Late Origenism, reckless bishops unofficially declared it anathema at the 5th Ecumenical Council, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Result

The result is pretty amazing:

  • Purgatorialism solves the indomitable theodicean problem of endless hell/doom by invalidating it as doctrinal error.
  • “Heterophroneo” compatibilism ends the controversy of sovereignty and freedom, syncretizing both synergism and monergism.

So, what’s the catch?

  • It requires calling into question the age-old belief in libertarian free will. We do have libertarian feelings, just as when we look up at a starry sky, it appears as if the sky is a light-speckled dome. We must instead adopt compatibilism, which most philosophers have already come to realize is the correct course.
  • It requires rewinding before the Reformation, before St. Thomas Aquinas, calling St. Augustine into question, and heeding the early Church purgatorialists. See the Purgatorial Hell FAQ.
  • It requires a deeper look at Biblical source languages and calling into question translations that recklessly translate Heb. olam and Gr. aion/aionios/aionion as “forever” and “everlasting” — when we know that’s not always what they meant.

Those three “requirements” aren’t trivial. They take scrutiny and hard work.

And hard work catalyzes memetic weakness. However beautiful and elegant a solution this might be, memetic weaknesses are like when you accidentally leave your car’s emergency brake on.

And there’s probably no way around this.

St. Isaac of Nineveh on the Folly of the First Two Brands

In 1983, documents written by the 7th century ascetic St. Isaac of Nineveh were discovered, confirming his advocacy of purgatorial hell, and his view on God’s “shades of gold” sovereignty — a conclusion he knew was unavoidable even with his fondness for free will (if he were here today, I venture, he might be a compatibilist alongside the majority of philosophers).

The following are excerpts from Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s citations of St. Isaac’s writings, which you can read in a must-have volume.

St. Isaac on the absurdity of a Benevolence knowingly creating beings in his image for ultimate doom:

“If someone says that [God] has put up with them here on earth in order that his patience may be known — with the idea that he would later punish them mercilessly — such a person thinks [wrongly about God because of his way of thinking]: he is removing from God his kindness, goodness, and compassion: all the things because of which he truly bears with sinners and wicked men.

Such a person is attributing to God enslavement to passion, imagining that he has not consented to their being chastised here with a view to a much greater misfortune he has prepared for them, in exchange for a short-lived patience. Not only does such a person fail to attribute something praiseworthy to God, but he also calumniates him.”

St. Isaac on “shades of gold” sovereignty and God’s cunning foreknowledge and planning:

“You should see that, while God’s caring is guiding us all the time to what he wishes for us, as things outwardly appear, it is from us that he takes the occasion to providing things, his aim being to carry out by every means what he has intended for our advantage.

All this is because he knew beforehand our inclination towards all sorts of wickedness, and so he cunningly made the harmful consequences which would result from this into a means of entry to the future good and the setting right of our corrupted state.”

St. Isaac on the consequential and instrumental nature of God’s teleology:

“These are things which are known only to him. But after we have been exercised and assisted little by little as a result of these consequences after they have occurred, we realize and perceive that it could not turn out otherwise than in accordance with what has been foreseen by him.

This is how everything works with him, even though things may seem otherwise to us: with him it is not a matter of [pure] retribution, but he is always looking beyond to the advantage that will come from his dealings with humanity. And one such thing is the matter of gehenna, [which is to say, the hell of judgment].”

St. Isaac on what things have fleeting patience and reactionary vengeance, and Who — of course — lacks these things:

“It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which he knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when he created them — and whom nonetheless he created. All the more since malicious foreplanning and the taking of vengeance are characteristic of the passions of created beings, and do not belong to the Creator.

For all this characterizes people who do not know or who are unaware of what they are doing… for as a result of some matter that has occurred unexpectedly to them they are incited by the vehemence of anger to take vengeance. Such action does not belong to the Creator who, even before the cycle of the depiction of creation has been portrayed, knew of all that was before and all that was after in connection with the actions and intentions of rational beings.”

St. Isaac on how his spiritual and doctrinal forebears lay for him, and for all of us, a foundation of thinking rationally and logically about God’s characteristics and what conclusions they necessitate.

“[The opinions of our church forefathers] will cast away from our way of thinking the… opinion of God expressed by those who introduce evil and passibility into his nature, saying that he is changed by circumstances and times.

At the same time these opinions will teach us about the nature of his chastisements and punishments, whether here or there, instructing us concerning what sort of compassionate intentions and purposes he has in allowing these to come upon us, what are the excellent outcomes resulting from them, how it is not the matter of our being destroyed by them or enduring the same for eternity, how he allows them to come in a fatherly way, and not vengefully — which would be a sign of hatred.

Their purpose was that, by thinking in this way, we might come to know about God, and wonder at him would draw us to love him, and as a result of that love we might feel ashamed at ourselves and set aright the conduct of our lives here.”

We know that doctrine develops.

Our theological understanding gets more detailed and more exhaustive.

But perhaps, when we “rewind” through Christianity — past late political councils and violent doctrinal controversies — we’ll find that on certain topics there are things yet to discover: Treasure troves of earlier sound logic and reason, buried by the sands of time, and quietly objecting to the loudness of memetically powerful mistakes.


Under any “shades of gold” sovereignty, it may appear that God authors evil. It’s important, at this juncture, to theologically dive into what “want/will” mean, God’s interest set, and how “shadowy gold” is God’s business only in a limited sense. Read “Is God the Author of Evil? (Semantics of ‘Want/Will’).”

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About stanrock

Husband, father. Professional game developer, software engineer, & social product analyst. Armchair theology debugger. Fun theology exercises and games at http://StanRock.net

12 responses to “The Big Three Sovereignties”

  1. theoldadam says :

    I like Luther’s view better. It’s more biblical.

    We are bound to sin. NO “free-will”…when it comes to the things of God.

    And God died and forgives all…on the Cross.

    But not all will hear that Word and come to faith.

    Different…but biblical. And true when we look at ourselves honestly.

    Thanks.

    • stanrock says :

      What makes the difference between those who hear and come to faith and those that fail to do so? Let that difference-making set of things be “X.” Is X something that is ultimately arbitrated by God, or is X something not at all attributable to God’s ordination (e.g., bridge-breaking “libertarian free will”)?

  2. Chris says :

    Stan, I enjoy your blog. As a Catholic, I tend towards Augustine’s view that there will be a purgatory for most people (other than those who are ready to enter directly into the presence of God in heaven). But there will be some who totally reject God and will be in torment forever.

    In some ways this is not vastly different from your view. If a person continues to reject God despite their purgatorial suffering, then their torment will in effect be forever.

    • stanrock says :

      Thanks a ton for your kind words Chris, glad you’re enjoying the blog. We can agree that those who reject/rebel interminably would warrant an interminable fate. Our impasse would be whether this is plausible, vs. whether everybody at judgment will fully confess and bow-the-knee to God.

      And, of course, it’s okay to have impasses! Many of what we consider core essentials are shared, and we should pursue communion and shared ideas across whatever vectors make sense.

      • Chris says :

        Stan, this is a great video on this subject – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmsa0sg4Od4

        Chris

      • stanrock says :

        Hi again, Chris! Thanks for the video. I’m a fan of Fr. Barron and have seen a few of his videos, but I’m afraid he makes a couple of important mistakes here.

        First, he incorrectly views the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man as a story of the hell of judgment. See this article for more on this (very common) error: https://stanrock.net/2014/06/04/a-visit-to-sheol-parsing-hell-in-scripture/

        Second, he asserts that hell’s never-endingness is very clear in Scripture, and points to Matthew 25:46. Purgatorialists, by contrast, assert that the Greek word family aion/aionios/aionion does not mean never-ending, but rather age-pertaining. This is an important point of contention. See this article for more: https://stanrock.net/2014/03/18/an-ancient-unsound-argument-in-the-hells-duration-debate/

        Beyond that, we’d find fault with Lewis’s “The door to hell is locked from the inside”; basically, we consider it implausible that anyone feeling the fire of the love of God would be capable of resisting it endlessly. When we read Romans 14:11, we consider “infinite rebellion” even more untenable as an explanation — “As surely as I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow before me; every tongue will fully confess to God.”

        We don’t have to get ratholed on this, but if you’re interested in the nitty-gritty of purgatorialism and its historicity and Biblical case, check out last year’s “Theology AMA” on purgatorialism hosted by Reddit’s Christian community: http://www.reddit.com/r/Christianity/comments/28n858/theology_ama_purgatorial_universal_reconciliation/

      • chrismolemedia says :

        Stan, your position is certainly one that I’m open to. And it’s far more in line with God’s love than the mainstream evangelical view that we only get one chance – then it’s either heaven or hell for eternity.

        I’ve read several near death experiences where people had experiences of what they describe as being in hell, but then they cried out to God and were taken to a place they describe as Heaven.

        i.e.these people were not “saved” (in the evangelical sense) at the time they died, so should have gone straight to hell. End of story. But apparently God had mercy on them in the after life. Howard Storm’s near death experience is a great one along these lines.

        It’s a great discussion and thanks for your thought-provoking posts.

      • stanrock says :

        I tend to think that near-death experiences of hell are hallucinatory, simply because the hell of judgment is something that happens after the general resurrection when Sheol/Hades is emptied per Revelation 20.

        Regardless, though, it’s been great talking to you. Looking forward to your thoughts in the future.

  3. Cade says :

    Great article! I do have a question concerning our free will bypassing God’s free will.

    In the book of Exodus, there’s a moment where God threatens to kill all the Israelites for their disobedience. Before God does that, however, Moses seems to get Him to change His mind. A friend of mine has used this bible passage to “prove” the case of ECT. To basically put it, God wants everyone to be saved, but He’s fine with people going to hell if that is their choice.

    Another Bible story that appears to corroborate that is how the people of Israel managed to get a king despite that not being what God wanted for them.

    I’m not sure how to respond to that argument (I currently believe in PUR). Could you assist me with that?

    • stanrock says :

      Two things at play.

      One is that God uses anthropomorphic language — and anthropomorphic language — to deal with beings with uncertainty (especially uncertainty about the future). These dealings take the form of discussions, assertions, rebuttals, and changes of mind. They can even take the form of false antecedents. These are all in the service of relationship with and development of humanity. This sort of “benevolent condescension” should be very familiar to parents, teachers, mentors, etc.

      The second is that “God suffers our errors” can be ancillary to that development, and to our appreciating God’s Glory, which is in turn ancillary to that aforementioned relationship (God’s Glory is so very important because such proper recognition is ancillary to relationship).

      You can think of these all as “steps in the plan.” Every time God says “Not my desire I shall do, but yours,” we must infer two things: “For now,” and “For a purpose.” This is because God has promised, “All my desire I shall do” (Isaiah 46:10).

      Furthermore, Romans 14:10b-11 explain that, at Judgment, everybody will fully submit and fully confess (the same word used for those who sought John the Baptist, and for the sin confession of James 5) to God, as surely as God lives. The context of Romans 14 is targeted toward believers, but Paul is quoting a passage from Isaiah, which continues that the unrighteous shall do this in shame.

      This is of utmost importance. There won’t be some incorrigible rebellion of humans at Judgment. That’s fan fiction from later folks — well after the 5th century, from my reading — trying to rationalize a view of Judgment that lacks love and purpose.

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