Example 18 – Fred H. Klooster on the Sovereignty of God

Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence

Calvinist Fred H. Klooster[1] writes the article in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology on the “Sovereignty of God.”  As a staunch Calvinist we would expect Klooster’s view of sovereignty to reflect the theistic determinism of that tradition.  Let us see how he handles the doctrine.

Klooster first establishes the general idea of divine sovereignty from quoting several pertinent texts that state God “has established his throne in heaven and his kingdom rules over all” (Ps. 103:19); that God is “sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Dan. 4:17, 25, 34; 5:21; 7:14); that “everything in heaven and earth” is his (1 Chron. 29:11) and that God is indeed the “only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15; cf. Rev. 19:16).  Klooster concludes,

“The sovereignty of God thus expresses the very nature of God as all powerful and omnipotent, able to accomplish his good pleasure, carry out his decreed will, and keep his promises.”[2]

Thus far non-Calvinists would agree with this description of sovereignty.  Note that the emphasis in the verses quoted speak about God as Ruler and King; the one who disposes kingdoms as he sees fit.  But none of these characteristics entail that God has predetermined all things to occur as they do.  Indeed, the phrase “able to accomplish his good pleasure” implies his actively working in history in which all things are not his “good pleasure” which Klooster will subsequently affirm when he states, “God effectuates his will even through sinful, disobedient human actions.”  Klooster may be emphasizing God’s ability to do what he has planned and wills.  This is not problematic.  But the word “accomplish” suggests that God’s will is not the only will involved in the working out of events.  What sense is there in saying that God is “able to accomplish” his good pleasure if all things were the result of his divine will and preordination to begin with?

So thus far Klooster’s description of “sovereignty” does not entail that God has ordained “whatsoever comes to pass.”  Certainly he can carry out his decreed will.  He is all powerful and omnipotent.  Yet, we still do not have a exhaustively deterministic view of divine sovereignty taught from these Scriptures.

Klooster continues with the divine names that reflect God’s sovereignty.  “God most high,” “God almighty,” “Sovereign Lord” and “Lord God Almighty.”  He then writes,

“God’s sovereignty is expressed in the comprehensive plan or decree for world history; he “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11).”[3]

It appears that by the use of the phrase “comprehensive plan or decree for world history,” Klooster is affirming theistic determinism.  The word comprehensive is important here.  That is, that all that happens God has planned and decreed to happen.  He seems to interpret Eph. 1:11 as meaning just that, especially in that this text is used by Calvinists to support their universal divine causal determinism.  He uses it in support of “the comprehensive plan or decree.”  We may charitably interpret Klooster as referring to the larger events in the broad sweep of world history.  With this the non-Calvinist will agree.  But as a Calvinist Klooster is committed to having God’s decree refer to “all things,” that is, the minutest details of all that occurs.  Everything happens the way it does because God has planned, decreed and willed it to happen that way.  That is the Calvinist definition of God’s sovereignty.

But in contrast to the typical Calvinist understanding we need not interpret Eph. 1:11 deterministically.  God has a purpose which is rooted in and springs from his will that he is working out.  It will not be thwarted even by those who resist his will and actions.  It is a function of his many attributes (i.e., wisdom, omnipotence, foreknowledge, etc.) that he is able to work out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.  This verse does not say that God purposed, willed and predetermined everything to occur as it does.  It does not say that God predetermined and causes to occur by his will alone all that happens, which would include all evil acts.  Rather, it means that what God wills or purposes to accomplish he will accomplish because he is able to work in and through all the contingencies, events and actions of men who, because of their free will, do not act in accord with God’s purposes and who would otherwise seek to thwart those purposes.  Everything will conform to the purpose of his will.  The text does not say that God purposed that everything would be the result of the working of his will.

Klooster goes on to mention God’s sovereignty in relation to creation, providence, Scripture and salvation or redemption.  “God also sovereignly upholds and governs the created world in his providence.  He rules the destiny of men and nations (Acts 14:15-17; 17:24-28).”[4]  Certainly God acts deterministically among men and nations, he determined to create and that certain subsequent events would occur (e.g., that an inspired Scripture would be written, that salvation would be in Christ, that salvation would be appropriated by faith, etc.), but none of these selective workings of God require us to embrace a universal divine causal determinism as the only context in which the sovereignty of God is to be understood and in which it functions.  This is especially the case when it comes to soteriology.

Klooster then offers theological reflection on the biblical data.  He writes,

“God’s sovereign will and power are not arbitrary, despotic, or deterministic; his sovereignty is characterized by his justice and holiness as well as by his other attributes.”[5]

I would agree.  But the need to deny arbitrariness, despotism and determinism may hint that his Calvinist definition of sovereignty may be indicted as arbitrary, despotic and deterministic.  Given his Calvinist definition of “sovereignty,” the rational basis for Klooster to state that God’s sovereignty is not deterministic is not at all evident.  In fact, reason tells us that the Calvinist definition of God’s sovereignty entails determinism.  As such, Klooster’s denial of this implication of his definition of sovereignty is a mere assertion.  Klooster then adds the following which affirms that he defines sovereignty deterministically.

“Divine sovereignty and human responsibility are paradoxical and beyond human comprehension, but not contradictory.  Divine sovereignty and human sovereignty are certainly contradictory, but divine sovereignty and human responsibility are not.  God uses human means in history to accomplish his purposes, yet such means do not involve coercion.  God commands us to live according to his sovereign law (Gen. 2:16-17; Exod. 20: Matt. 22:37-38).  Yet God effectuates his will even through sinful, disobedient human actions (Gen. 45:5, 7-8; 50:19-20).  The crucifixion of Jesus Christ, certainly the most heinous crime in history, occurred within the boundaries of “God’s set purpose and foreknowledge,” for the crucifiers did what God’s “power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; cf. John 19:11).”[6]

When Klooster says, “Divine sovereignty and human responsibility are paradoxical and beyond human comprehension, but not contradictory” we have the tell-tale sign that the understanding of sovereignty being brought to the table is deterministic.  If it were not deterministic there would be no need to speak of the matter being “paradoxical” and “not contradictory.”  I believe divine sovereignty and human responsibility are not paradoxical or contradictory because I find no biblical warrant to define God’s sovereignty deterministically.  And if I am not carrying the baggage of determinism there is no need for such qualifications and concerns like “coercion” and “paradox.”  

Klooster points our attention to an important distinction that we should not neglect lest we allow him to explain away his determinism.  In this matter of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, we do not have a formal contradiction, as in the claim that God is sovereign and man is sovereign, or, as in a married unmarried man.  But that does not mean that there is no informal and real contradiction here.  What we have is what philosophers call a broadly logical contradiction, as in a married bachelor.  Although this distinction between deterministic sovereignty and human responsibility is not a strict, formal contradiction like a married unmarried man, it is still a contradiction in the broadly logical sense.  Hence, if determinism is not what Klooster means by “divine sovereignty,” we must ask why divine sovereignty and human responsibility are “paradoxical.”  And if Klooster has in mind by “divine sovereignty” theistic determinism, then we must ask why this is “paradoxical” when the conjunction of such sovereignty and human responsibility certainly strike us as contradictory.  I have argued in Chapter 8, “Calvinist Attempts to Justify Sovereignty as Theistic Determinism,” that divine sovereignty defined as theistic determinism, by definition, necessarily excludes human responsibility.  Besides, if this is merely a paradox and not a contradiction, why would it be “beyond human comprehension?”  Aren’t paradoxes comprehensible with further information or revisiting our understanding of one or more of the propositions involved?

But also, is Klooster referring to just those incidents where God determines to bring about a particular something he has willed (i.e., salvation in Christ) and to do so he must influence persons to perform his will while the persons remain responsible for what they do (good or bad)?  It seems that Klooster is offering a reason why sovereignty and human responsibility are not contradictory – because God doesn’t use coercion.  I can agree with this if it is not an attempt to rationalize theistic determinism.  It may just be that God uses those people who will cooperate with God’s revealed purposes.  And it may just be that God can employ the free will actions of those people who do not will to cooperate with his purposes.  But the point is that there are such people in this latter category and whether they are determined by God to do what they do or do it of their own wills is the issue at hand.  Coercion or not, if they are determined by God they have no responsibility for what they do because it is not they that do it.  Instrumentally yes, but meaningfully as a responsible human agent, no.  Some people do not cooperate with God’s purposes.  And if that is the case, and God has not determined that they not cooperate with him – which would be nonsense on God’s part – then the Calvinist definition of sovereignty as an exhaustive determinism fails.  It fails precisely because there is a genuine human freedom, and there is genuine human freedom because God cannot be the cause of people not cooperating with him, thus working against his own revealed will, and because he cannot be the cause of the evil they do.  Therefore, evil people do evil things out of their own wills. Divine sovereignty understood deterministically is in contradiction with human autonomy when the Calvinist admits to human autonomy.  There are those who are disobedient to God.  Therefore, for God to have predetermined their disobedience while calling for their obedience is an absurd thing to think about God and his ways.

The Calvinist has an unwarranted fear here.  It is that any degree of human autonomy would make God less than sovereign.  How so?  When we define sovereignty as God’s unfailing ability to accomplish his will in a world containing free human creatures it makes things less deterministic, but it does not make God less sovereign.  The very thought of God being any less than what relates to or is integral to his divine nature as a result of what his creatures can do or due to some quality he has endowed them with (e.g., free will), is an absurd thought and an unfounded fear.  And Klooster’s admission that there are those who are disobedient to God – that they perform “disobedient human actions” – makes no sense in a world where God has predetermined all things.  If Klooster is referring to a definition of sovereignty where God must have predetermined all things to have absolute control over what happens so his plans and purposes will not fail, then I contend we do not see this determinism in Scripture for it is in contradiction with the human autonomy confirmed by human responsibility and divine judgment that we find throughout Scripture.  As a contradiction Calvinist determinism cannot be a correct interpretation of the biblical data.

Reading on, Klooster further clarifies for us what he means by “sovereignty.”  He continues,

“The doctrine of the sovereignty of God is emphasized especially in the Augustinian-Calvinistic tradition and is denied or compromised in the Pelagian, Arminian, and liberal traditions, which claim varying degrees of human autonomy.”[7]

Here Klooster’s Calvinism becomes clear.  Note that to hold to any degree of “human autonomy” amounts to a denial of the sovereignty of God.  So “sovereignty” must mean universal divine causal determinism.[8]  It is God’s predetermination of all things according to his will alone and therefore his causal control of all things, including human persons, such that meaningful human freedom is annihilated.  Any degree of human autonomy as some desire, thought, belief or action caused by the will of the human self or person as a free human agent would be a denial of the doctrine of the sovereignty of God.

So Klooster’s definition of sovereignty has no room whatsoever for the human will defined as a will differentiated from the will of God.  How then does this not reduce to theistic determinism?  How is this an accurate accounting of the comprehensive witness of Scripture on these matters?

Moreover, Klooster previously denied that the sovereignty of God was arbitrary, despotic or deterministic.  But how so?  Why isn’t it deterministic if sovereignty must exclude any degree of human autonomy?  This is a mere assertion on Klooster’s part.  He is imposing his Calvinist definition of sovereignty onto the biblical data regarding the sovereignty of God.  Klooster continues,

“The confession of the sovereignty of God has become the hallmark of authentic Calvinism.  While not being its central principle, (the term “sovereignty” is found only a few times in the Institutes of the Christian Religion and the Reformed confessions) the doctrine is a vital part of authentic Reformed thought.”[9]

Yes, it is.  And we can see that according to its Calvinist definition it is both deterministic and contradictory to human freedom and responsibility.  It is therefore an incorrect understanding of Scripture on divine sovereignty.  In addition, Klooster may be the type of Calvinist that cannot logically abide the “Bible teaches both” position.  He might be like those Calvinists who see the logical contradiction between their determinism and human freedom, so they “bite the bullet” and deny human freedom.  This is of course to deny the overwhelming testimony in Scripture to human free will.  So, it is as flawed a hermeneutic as those Calvinists who abide the contradiction their determinism creates with free will and label it a mystery.  This is a flawed hermeneutic because it does not take rational and moral coherence on board in discerning a valid from an invalid interpretation of the text.

Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence / Table of Contents / Home

Go to Example 19 – J. D. Greear’s Gospel Inconsistency

[1] Fred H. Klooster (1922-2003) was a professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary for thirty-five years.  His writings include ‘Calvin’s Doctrine of Predestination’, ‘Quests for the Historical Jesus’, and ‘Our Only Comfort: A Comprehensive Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism’ (2001).

[2] Fred H. Klooster, “Sovereignty of God,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., Walter Elwell, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 1131.

[3] Ibid. 1131.

[4] The non-deterministic account of the divine-human relationship should be noted in Acts 17 when Paul speaks about how God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him…The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent…”  Contrary to the Calvinists insistence that because of “total depravity” or “inability” one one can seek God, these verses clearly indicate the responsibility and therefore the ability of men to seek God.  Also, these verses affirm human responsibility and free will.  God “commands all people everywhere to repent” implying the responsibility and ability to repent or refuse to repent.

[5] Fred H. Klooster, “Sovereignty of God,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., Walter Elwell, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 1131.

[6] Ibid. 1131.

[7] Ibid. 1132.

[8] This is the phrase William Lane Craig uses to describe Calvinism.  Here I refer you to Chapter 4 and William Lane Craig’s critique of Calvinism at the link below.  In his Defenders Bible study class Dr. Craig offers a five-fold critique of Calvinist theology which he describes as “universal divine causal determinism.”  It should be noted that the reasons Dr. Craig gives for rejecting Calvinism rest upon the logical and moral entailments of the Calvinist’s interpretations of Scripture as deterministic.  Calvinists claim that this determinism is the result of proper exegesis of the relevant texts.  But how can that be?  What Dr. Craig does is examine the logical and moral entailments of what Calvinist’s conclude from their exegesis of the biblical text to see if those entailments are logically consistent and non-contradictory and morally coherent.  On the basis of the problematic logical and moral entailments of Calvinism, Dr. Craig concludes that the Calvinist’s “universal divine causal determinism” is “unacceptable for Christian theology.”  The point is, that on the basis of logical and moral reasoning we can know that the Calvinists exegesis is not what Scripture teaches.  See William Lane Craig, Defenders 2 Class, Doctrine of Creation: Part 10.  Oct. 21, 2012.  https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-2/s2-doctrine-of-creation/doctrine-of-creation-part-10/  You can read the transcript or listen to the lecture at this link.  Last accessed April 22, 2020.

[9] Fred H. Klooster, “Sovereignty of God,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., Walter Elwell, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 1132.

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