It goes without saying that Calvinists see sovereignty as God’s foremost attribute. On the one hand this would seem to be appropriate for the scriptures extol God as sovereign. But on the other hand believing God is sovereign is not the same as believing God cannot be refused or rejected. However it may have happened Calvinists became enamored with a perspective of God’s sovereignty that is fundamentally flawed. They view God’s sovereignty as permeating all choices and all events persuasively and determinatively. In this way God’s sovereignty is a force in the universe that cannot be circumvented or refused. God “always gets his way the first time” because not only do all events occur under the domain of sovereignty but sovereignty determines that all events occur as exactly as they do occur. If a follower of God falls into sin, disregards the commands of God and becomes the willing slave of his fleshly desires it is precisely because God’s sovereignty determined him to do so.
But passages of scripture too numerous to mention become unintelligible and meaningless in such a theological landscape. It is true that all things which do occur, occur under the domain of God’s sovereignty but it is false to then assume that all things which occur are therefore determined by God’s sovereignty. The reason is quite simple–the domain of God’s sovereignty includes genuine freedom which precludes universal, causal determinism. In other words it is because of God’s sovereignty, not in spite of it or contrary to it, that our world is an indeterminate world. God sovereignly chose to endow humans with genuine autonomy making genuine indeterminacy a necessary and indispensable part of his created order.
Moreover to be under the domain of a sovereign authority is not synonymous with being meticulously or exhaustively controlled by the sovereign authority. A captain is the sovereign of his ship, such that all that takes place occurs under his sovereign domain, but that is not to say he exhaustively controls everything that occurs on his ship. The subject of king can dwell under the dominion of his king, but that does not mean he is unable to act independent and against his king’s wishes. Ships have mutinies and kingdoms have revolts. Sovereignty can be refused. “No thanks God–shove off. I refuse to listen to you. I don’t want you or need you. I’m doing my own thing so don’t try and stop me.” And when sovereignty is refused the subjects of the sovereign are left outside the realm of his protection. This is the danger of our refusing God’s sovereignty.
Psalm 81 bears this out succinctly as we will soon see. To the Calvinist the very concept of “refusing God’s sovereignty” must sound like an oxymoron because for them God’s sovereignty is the very thing that cannot be refused. Indeed for the Calvinist everything is an ultimate result of God’s sovereignty. It permeates everything deterministically. But this is not the way the O.T. depicts God’s sovereign relationship with Israel. In the O.T. the chosen people of God were free to come under Yahweh’s protective sovereignty or dismiss it by following after other gods. In his book “The Message of the Psalms” (1984 p. 92-93) Walter Brueggemann shares some insightful comments on Psalm 81 that touch on what we’ve been discussing. He writes,
“From the very beginning , from the time of the exodus, Israel has been under a special decree…If that be so, we may suggest that the primal liberation decree was that Israel now belongs to Yahweh, as Egypt does not. Therefore Israel must take care to respond to this liberation Lord and not succumb to any other form of bondage… Verse 8 is a pivotal verse. It moves the recital from the saving deeds to the commandments. Thus it is an echo of Deut. 6:4, asserting that Israel’s foundational requirement is “to listen.”… The history of covenant begins with an invitation to hear, but the course of that history is a refusal to hear… We are given a clue to the main problem: Israel listens to other voices. Already at the exodus the decree warned against that, because the tradition knows that other voices lead to other obediences and the end result is slavery… Yahweh promises to feed Israel, to make Israel full and safe. Israel need only come fully under Yahweh’s protective sovereignty. Until this point everything is in the foundational past. Only now does the speech arrive at its point: the people of invited to listen have not listened (v. 11) In refusing to listen, they refuse sovereignty and therefore God’s saving.
Let there be no lingering doubt about why there is trouble or judgement or disorientation. It is very simple: “not listening leads to death.” Yahweh let Israel have what it wanted. Israel wanted other lords and other gods, and now Israel has them–in the form of oppression… the remarkable thing about this psalm is that Yahweh moves on (vv. 13-16). It is obvious that Israel can never go back to the good old days of exodus and miraculous feeding. But it is equally clear, by the mercy of God, that Israel need not forever linger in the mess of verses 11-12, which Israel has made for itself. The wonder of Yahweh and the news of this psalm is that Israel is again invited to hear (v. 13). It is a wistful urging, a yearning with pathos on the part of Yahweh. Yahweh does not want Israel left to its fate. Yahweh is ready to move on to a new life together. There is no need for lingering punishment. There is only need for a signal from Israel to enter now the covenant of faith, obedient listening.”