Below is my summary of Kelsey’s fourth lecture from Wednesday night:
In his lecture “God’s Sovereignty in Two Registers” Kelsey rejects an account of God as the one who absolutely and therefore oppressively controls creation. Instead, God’s sovereignty is developed along two lines: God exercising care over creation and God providing eschatologically.
Kelsey begins his discussion of the first “register” with a question raised by Charles Wood: how are we to understand what goes on? For Wood, a point of contention with historic Christianity’s answer to this question is reliance upon a doctrine of providence rooted in Greco-Roman philosophy. Within this schema God’s control is total and absolute. This is problematic because this kind of control overrides the creaturely exercise of power making God’s relationship to creation oppressive at its core.
Wood suggests that a better focal point for understanding God’s sovereignty is God’s intrinsic glory. This is displayed in the way God creates and maintains liberative promises, and in the way God gives creatures blessings. Accordingly, God maintains rather than rules. For Wood, Christ is in permanent relationship with the universe as the one who “hold all things together.”
Kelsey explains that this line of thinking requires a nuance in the way we understand God’s relationship to God’s creation. Sovereignty reveals a relationship between God and humans that is radically close while at the same time radically other. Kelsey is clear that God is self-determined so this relationship is non-competitive. He understands the correlative closeness and distance of God to be a relational marker, not an expression of God’s being.
This relationship between God and humans reveals God’s goodness – God’s providence in ordering the good of all that is not God. This goodness extends to the ordering of systems. But because God’s sovereignty is displayed in relation to the individuality of the specific creature the result is a dynamism that resists systematizing, predicting or charting. God does not control history in a way that moves creation along in a progressive manner. There is “an inherent ambiguity of creaturely life and sovereignty.”
The second “register” of sovereignty concerns God’s eschatological rule. Kelsey draws attention to two moments in Scripture that typify God’s movement of God’s creatures into the eschatological consummation, already but not yet. The resurrection is the non-coercive act of God that initiates the eschaton without violation of God’s creatures. And at Pentecost a community is formed and drawn into eschatological blessing. Here again Kelsey sees acts where God is both radically close and radically other.
This otherness/closeness is perhaps no more apparent than in the Incarnate life of Jesus. In the Incarnation Jesus entered a world of otherness, sharing the lot of the people in the specific situation he entered. Jesus also formed social structures that were a foretaste of what is inaugurated by the Spirit. Yet, God did not violate the old in the in-breaking of the new. Rather, God “draws them just as the creatures they are into eschatological flourishing here and now.”
This earthly flourishing is coupled with an eschatological flourishing that is above and beyond the good of providence. These eschatological and temporal goods are, however, continuous; the former does not negate the latter. The result of this relationship is blossoming and flourishing here and now, though not yet fully actualized.
Kesley defines this thriving as having one’s self “in hand.” We are enabled to respond appropriately to the Lord, “setting about in lived worlds as a foretaste of eschatological hope.” This participation here and now allows for the continuation of creaturely life in its fragility and temporality. Yet, this life is transformed by occurring in the communion that is God’s life, the Trinity.
The resurrection of Jesus is the inaugural first fruit of this new/old life, yet we must also contend with human resistance to being blessed with this fruit. For Kelsey, God’s response to human resistance is God’s holiness: God resists this resistance to being blessed. Judgment, too, takes on a different character. It has already happened – “now the ruler of this world is cast out” (John 12:31).
Kelsey sees this understanding of God’s sovereignty as transforming other perceptions of God’s character. It tells us something of God’s relating to us: God is always on both sides of the human equation. As such, sovereignty is no longer about oppressive control, either temporally or eternally.
Dr Nancy Duff’s asked a question following the lecture about the possibility of apocalyptic theology in Kelsey’s account of sovereignty. It’s not simply that God needs to reorient particular systems. Some systems need to be broken open or apart. Sometimes the old does need to pass away.