Pink on God’s Sovereignty as the Foundation

A. W. Pink’s fine book, The Sovereignty of God, is a great resource for studying the truth of God’s absolute power, might, and dominion.  However, I believe Pink overstates the place of God’s sovereignty in theology.  Notice how he describes it.

“The doctrine of God’s sovereignty lies at the foundation of Christian theology, and in importance is perhaps second only to the divine inspiration of the Scriptures.  It is the centre of gravity in the system of Christian truth; the sun around which all the lesser orbs are grouped; the cord upon which all other doctrines are strung like so many pearls, holding them in place and giving them unity.  It is the plumb line by which every creed needs to be tested; the balance in which every human dogma must be weighed” (p. 139).

I don’t mean to be too hard on Pink – these are only a few lines from a very helpful book.  God’s sovereignty is certainly an essential truth of the Christian faith.  But these lines should make us think.  Is God’s sovereignty the central dogma in theology?  Typically, historic Reformed theology has resisted the urge to make one doctrine central.  For example, if you read the Westminster Standards, the Three Forms of Unity, the 39 Articles (etc.) you will not find one doctrine emphasized above all.  Reformed theology is balanced; it refuses to overemphasize one doctrine at the expense of others.  (Interestingly, Pink never even mentions anything about the covenants in his book on God’s sovereignty.)

Typically what happens when someone overemphasizes one doctrine, his theology becomes lopsided.  The Calvinist becomes a hypercalvinist when he views everything through the lens of election.  The Lutheran becomes a pessimist when he constantly talks about depravity.  The evangelical becomes a legalist when he only thinks about the law.  The Arminian becomes a pelagian when he always emphasizes free will.  The premillennialist loses focus on the gospel when he becomes enamored with end times prophecies.  Some popular Christian teachers have a single slogan that drives their ministry, which usually causes them to forget about other important Christian truths.  The list goes on.

When it comes to a “central dogma” in theology, I agree with Richard Muller’s explanation.

“Neither the methods inculcated [instilled] by the Reformers nor the more scholastic forms used by their successors led toward the establishment of dogmatic focal points from which entire bodies of doctrine could be developed – nor, specifically, did the scholastic method of the Reformed orthodox either conduce to rationalism or to the development of a predestinarian or ‘decretal’ theology.  Claims such as these…are fundamentally anachronistic.  Indeed, the evidence indicates that the scholastic method of the Reformed orthodox…militated against rationalism and against the dogmatic deductivism of such theological models as the central dogma hypothesis. …The very method of their theology, the gathering of topics or loci drawn out of their exegetical work, stands in the way of such [central dogma] models for theological system” (Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics1.39).

In other words, Reformed systematic theology historically has not gravitated towards one central doctrine.  Their mature theological and exegetical methods did not allow them to focus on one biblical truth and downplay or ignore others.  This is one thing I deeply appreciate about Reformed theology: it displays maturity by discussing the whole counsel of God in a balanced, biblical manner.

shane lems

5 Replies to “Pink on God’s Sovereignty as the Foundation”

  1. I took Pink’s statement more or less to be about God being God (i.e. the Creator/creature distinction).

    While I would agree that the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is not the key or central theme in Scripture, I would attest that much of Scripture made no sense to me until after I came to a proper understanding & apprehension of God’s sovereignty.

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  2. I respectfully disagree. The doctrine of the sovereignty of God is the central doctrine of Reformed theology.

    The centrality of the doctrine of the sovereignty of God can be seen most clearly in The Canons of Dordt, one of the Three Forms of Unity, which is focused and devoted to the specific doctrine of salvation of which The Canons of Dordt emphasizes the doctrine of God’s sovereignty above all. But, the centrality of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty can also be seen in the other two unities: The Heidelberg Catechism (starting with Q and A 1) and The Belgic Confession (for example, Article 13). The doctrine of God’s sovereignty is also the central doctrine of the Westminister Larger Catechism beginning with Question and Answer 12.

    In his article “The Fundamental Principle of Calvinism”, Henry Meeter explained what should be meant by the term of “the sovereignty of God” and then he stated: “When the term “sovereignty of God” is, accordingly, Understood, not as a mere legalistic phrase indicative of God as the supreme Legislator and the One who has created the laws of nature, but in the more pregnant sense just described, there is nothing against the usage of the term to indicate thereby the fundamental principle of Calvinism.”

    Now, certainly, there are other doctrines in Reformed theology. And, certainly the doctrine of the sovereignty of God extends beyond just predestination. But, as we commonly use the word “central”, such as “fundamental” or “primary importance” or “essential”, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is indeed central to Reformed theology.

    Our Reformed creeds and confessions are helpful summaries. Just because the Bible contains much more than what is taught in the creeds and confessions does not negate the helpfulness of our Reformed creeds and confessions. Likewise, just because our Reformed creeds and confessions contain more than just the doctrine of the sovereignty of God does not negate nor minimize the fact and helpfulness that the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is the central doctrine of the Reformed creeds and confessions and overall Reformed theology.

    Finally, it is also helpful to others outside of Reformed theology to understand that the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is central or even a signature mark or distinctive mark of Reformed theology. It is one of the reasons why Reformed theology is so different from other theologies and why it is so important.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Bill. I can’t help but think that you and Shane are using the word “central” differently. Shane is using it specifically in terms of a “central-DOGMA” from which the entire system is derived. You are using it with the idea of “fundamental” and “essential.” I think that even your suggestion of “primary importance” doesn’t quite touch the idea of a “central-dogma” that Shane is critiquing.

      On the one hand, you’re right – God’s sovereignty is indeed a major thread that ties together Reformed theologians of every era. One can hardly think of a theologian in the Reformed tradition who outright denied God’s sovereignty, or who reformulated it in such a way as to minimize it. (Though the Remonstrants who “claimed” to be Reformed, they were shown to be outside the pale due to this reformulation of God’s decree.)

      But on the other hand, God’s sovereignty – even properly articulated – doesn’t make one Reformed. At least not in the confessional sense. It hardly needs to be stated that there are NUMEROUS 5-point Calvinists out there who would never claim to be Reformed, nor would we label them Reformed.

      What is more, God’s sovereignty, ripped from its covenantal moorings, is the cause of all sorts of hyper-predestinarian theology. This is why historically speaking, God’s sovereignty is best seen as functioning as part of the matrix of Covenant theology that undergirds the Reformed system. “Covenant” itself, however, isn’t even a “central-dogma.”

      So while the doctrine of the sovereignty of God should certainly be affirmed, defended and indeed CHERISHED, I think Muller’s point still stands. There is no evidence of God’s sovereignty as the central-dogma from which all the other dogma’s were articulated. Some modern theologians have leaned that way (I’m thinking especially of those like Gordon Clark and Herman Hoeksema who do indeed treat God’s sovereignty as a central-dogma) but as Muller notes, attributing such an approach to the Reformers and the Reformed scholastics is highly anachronistic.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  3. I rather agree with brother Hornbeck. Preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God stands or falls on one’s belief concerning the sovereignty of God.

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  4. Good post, Shane. Couldn’t agree more. Reformed Theology is most certainly not a concatenated system – that’s one of it’s geniuses and strengths.

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