God’s Sovereignty & Japanese Fighting Fish


I asked Dr. Robert Knowles to give us a snippet of a smidgin of the theological behemoth that is Divine Sovereignty and Human Free-will.  Now make yourself a cup of tea and read it.  You’re welcome….

“God’s omniscience and sovereignty are so exalted that God can easily turn our rebellions into the service of his good purposes. God is like a master chess-player who easily capitalises on the hostile moves made by much more junior players.

But, to my mind, (a), God is even greater than this. And, (b), I believe that human freewill is much more constrained and limited than many seems to suggest. To my mind, God is so great, that the Fall of humanity was infinitely predicted by him, but is also infinitely contained by him too.

To provide an illustration, then Japanese fighting fish are pretty vicious creatures, and have to be kept apart to be prevented from killing each other (a bit like us at times). But, as fish they are still constrained to fish-tanks that the fish-owner can move around at will. More than that, the owner can at any moment reach into the tanks and overrule the will of any or all of the fish in the tanks.

Furthermore, the fish-owner can buy and sell the fish at will, decide to feed or not to feed the fish at will, and pretty much do anything he likes to the fish. At no point is the fish-owner’s “scope of sovereignty” affected by the freedoms enjoyed by the fish. And yet the fish do still enjoy limited freedoms as they swim around within their tanks.

Another example is a parent’s relationship to their toddler in a play-pen. At any moment, the parent can stop the toddler performing a particular manoeuvre with the play-bricks in the pen. At any other moment, the parent can refrain from stopping the toddler from performing that same manoeuvre. At any time, the parent can lift the toddler out of the pen, whether for the purposes of bath-time, bed-time, a trip out to the play-ground, or to the nursery, and so on.

And yet, within certain parameters – parameters that keep changing – the toddler has what in mathematics is called degrees of freedom. At no point is the sovereignty of the parent under any threat whatsoever, and is in no way constrained. The toddler’s freewill, however, is constrained, contained, and predicted and yet – very often if not always – seemingly completely liberated, from the perspective of the toddler.

So then, parental freedom is not “one kind of thing”, not like a “solid shape”, in practice, but varies according to the relational particularities of love. Similarly, the toddler’s freedom is not a “fixed solid shape”, but changes in shape and extent according to the particularities of relating that are going on at any particular time.

In the same way, the notion of “divine freedom versus human freedom” can be misleading if seen to be like a thermometer in which “two lengths” (the “mercury versus the empty part of the thermometer tube”) “battle it out” as though one can only advance at the expense of the other – as though if our freedom “increases”, God’s freedom must somehow “decrease”.

In reality, these two freedoms are not two simple “substances” pushing against one another, but two relational dynamics that are in fact both maximised together in heavenly relating – though divine freedom is never actually maximised since it is never threatened or reduced. Even if God restrains himself, this is his free choice, so his relational self-constraint is not a constraint of freedom. Self-constraint only limits the “freedom” of sin; self-constraint never limits the freedom of love, but is part of the freedom of love.

That is, biblically, freedom is either freedom as love, or “freedom” as self-negation that leads to slavery. Love is a “freeing” mode of being. In right-relating to others, we become ourselves, coming into our own identities as beings that are actualised when we are God-centred and others-centered.

That freedom, when used to choose to sin, not only leads to enslavement, but also leads to a place in which God’s sovereignty – which is never even remotely threatened – has an even easier task of pre-empting and predicting our actions.

Divine sovereignty even more easily contains our actions when we are in the prisons of repetitive sin than when we are relating rightly in freedom. It was less often sin and faithlessness that surprised Jesus, and more often righteousness and faith that surprised him. Even we can predict and pre-empt the actions of people who are trapped in sin – how much more can God predict and pre-empt their actions?”

Thank you Dr Knowles.