God or Sovereign

Over the years of being in Church, I would hear preachers from time to time say something like, “God is sovereign”. When I was much younger it was not something that you heard often. In recent years, however, I am not only hearing this from preachers in the Brethren churches that I have attended, but I hear it over the radio, on the TV, on YouTube, and even from the mouths of ordinary every day Christian folk. I especially hear it whenever bad things happen to believers, and it comes as an exclamation or as a reason to not question God’s authority. It is often said in conjunction with statements like, “God is in control”. The interesting thing about declaring that God is sovereign is that this statement cannot be found in the Bible, or at least, in the King James Version bible that I grew up with. So, where did Christians get this from, and why do they keep saying it? Why is it important to declare God as sovereign? What does sovereign even mean? Isn’t it sufficient to just say God is God? Is being sovereign greater or better than being God? I will explore this idea and provide an answer to these questions.

Meaning and Etymology

Let’s first look at the word, “sovereign”. What does this word actually mean in the English language? If we check several online dictionaries, we see that sovereign can be used as a noun or an adjective. As a noun it can mean any of the following:

  1. A person exercising supreme authority; for example, a monarch, a king, a queen
  2. A British gold coin used from 1817 to 1914 that was formerly worth one pound sterling

As an adjective, sovereign means any of the following:

  1. Above or superior to all others; supreme; chief; greatest
  2. Supreme in power, rank or authority
  3. Excellent or outstanding
  4. Independent of outside authority [typically in reference to government]

Synonyms used for the word “sovereign” include: independent, autonomous, self-governing, free, monarch, ruler, king or queen, chief.

If we go a step further and investigate the etymology of “sovereign”, it is first used in the late thirteenth century, and comes from the Old French “soverain” meaning “ruler, superior, master”. It is used as an adjective since early fourteenth century, meaning “great, superior, supreme” from Old French “soverain” “highest, supreme, chief” from Vulgar Latin “supranus” “chief, principal”. It was also used to describe remedies or medicines as “potent in a high degree” from since the late fourteenth century.

So, as we can see the word “sovereign” in the English language has roots in Old French and Vulgar Latin, and basically gives the meaning of “supreme”, “highest”, “chief”, “master” or “ruler”. This seems perfectly sensible. If we apply this to God, it is perfectly in tune with everything else in the scriptures to say that he indeed is supreme, and the highest of any and all authority and power in heaven or on earth.

Bible Survey

Now that we know what sovereign means in the English language, let’s look at its usage in the English bibles available to us. If you do a word search for “sovereign” in your KJV bible, you will not find the word anywhere. However, what about other bible translations? Let’s have a look. Below is a search results at biblegateway.com of three words in all 57 English bibles and New Testaments available on their site. The three words I searched for are “sovereign”, “sovereignty” and “sovereignly”. Also, I only include results from the 66 books of the bible. So, I exclude results from Apocryphal books.

Bible Translation Edition/Year Published Sovereign Count Sovereignty Count Sovereignly Count
21st Century King James Version (KJ21) 1994 0 0 0
American Standard Version (ASV) 1901 0 1 0
Amplified Bible (AMP) 2015 13 7 2
Amplified Bible, Classic Edition (AMPC)) 1987 36 5 0
The Blue Red & Gold Letter Edition of the Holy Bible (BRG Bible) 2012 0 0 0
Christian Standard Bible (CSB) 2017 1 5 0
Common English Bible (CEB) 2011 0 0 0
Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) 1998 3 1 0
Contemporary English Version (CEV) 1995 0 0 0
Darby Translation 1890 1 2 0
Disciples’ Literal New Testament (DLNT) 2011 0 0 0
Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition (DRA) 1899 7 1 0
Easy-to-Read Version (ERV) 2006 0 0 0
Evangelical Heritage Version (EHV) 2019 0 0 0
English Standard Version (ESV) 2001 4 0 0
English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK) 2001 4 0 0
Expanded Bible (EXB) 2011 12 13 0
1599 Geneva Bible (GNV) 1599 0 0 0
God’s WORD Translation (GW) 1995 0 0 0
Good News Translation (GNT) 1992 270 0 0
Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) 1999 1 5 0
International Children’s Bible (ICB) 1986 0 0 0
International Standard Bible (ISV) 1995 9 6 0
J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS) 1960 2 1 0
King James Version (KJV) 1987 0 0 0
Authorized (King James) Version (AKJV) 1769 0 0 0
Lexham English Bible (LEB) 2012 7 5 0
Living Bible (TLB) 1971 5 0 0
The Message (MSG) 1993 32 4 3
Modern English Version (MEV) 2014 2 1 0
Mounce Reverse-Interlinear New Testament (MOUNCE) 2011 4 0 0
Names of God Bible (NOG) 2011 0 0 0
New American Bible (Revised Edition) (NABRE) 2010 20 6 0
New American Standard Bible (NASB) 1960 1 7 0
New Century Version (NCV) 2005 0 0 0
New English Translation (NET) 1996 332 10 0
New International Reader’s Version (NIRV) 1995 0 0 0
New International Version (NIV) 1973 295 2 0
New International Version – UK (NIVUK) 1979 295 2 0
New King James Version (NKJV) 1982 3 2 0
New Life Version (NLV) 1969 0 0 0
New Living Translation (NLT) 1996 287 4 0
New Matthew Bible (NMB) 2016 0 0 0
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) 1989 16 7 0
New Revised Standard Version, Anglicesed (NRSVA) 1989 16 7 0
New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition (NRSVACE) 1989 28 11 0
New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (NRSVCE) 1989 28 11 0
New Testament for Everyone (NTE) 2011 3 1 0
Orthodox Jewish Bible (OJB) 2002 3 6 0
The Passion Translation (TPT) 2017 12 1 0
Revised Geneva Translation 2019 0 0 0
Revised Standard Version 1946 4 1 0
Tree of Life Version (TLV) 2015 10 2 0
The Voice (VOICE) 2012 9 2 0
World English Bible n/a 0 1 0
Worldwide English (New Testament) (WE) 1969 0 0 0
Wycliffe Bible (WYC) 2001 107 0 0
Young’s Literal Translation (YLT) 1898 0 0 0

Reviewing the search results above, I have made the following analysis of the word “sovereign” in the 57 Bibles/New Testaments listed.

Occurrence range of “sovereign” Number of Bibles (out of 57) Percentage of Bibles
0 22 38.5%
1-10 19 33%
11-20 6 10.5%
21-30 2 3.5%
31-40 2 3.5%
41-50 0 0%
51-60 0 0%
61-70 0 0%
71-80 0 0%
81-90 0 0%
91-100 0 0%
100-199 1 2%
200-299 4 7%
300-399 1 2%

It is interesting to note that almost 40% of Bibles (22 in total) on biblegateway.com have no occurrences of the word “sovereign” in them at all, and that 11% of the Bibles (6 in total) have from 100 to over 300 occurrences of the word sovereign. That is so very strange. From one extreme to the next, Bibles differ yet all of them are translated from the same Hebrew and Greek sources (although I think the Wycliffe Bible was translated from the Latin Vulgate).

So, how can we account for such a wide variation? Starting with Bibles that contain over 100 occurrences of “sovereign”, there are a total of 6 of them: Good News Translation (GNT), New English Translation (NET), New International Version (NIV), New International Version – UK (NIVUK), New Living Translation (NLT), and Wycliffe Bible (WYC). With the exception of the Wycliffe Bible, the other five seems to have adopted the pattern translating “Adonai YHVH” as “Sovereign Lord”, whereas in the King James Version it is translated as “LORD GOD”. In the KJV, "Adonai" is translated to "Lord" and "YHVH" is translated to "GOD". In the GNT, NET, NIV, NIVUK and NLT, it is not “Adonai” that is translated to “Lord”, but rather "YHVH" (or Yehovah or Jehovah) is translated to “LORD”, instead "Adonai" is translated to "Sovereign". This is very different from the KJV.  The Wycliffe Bible has a different approach to the use of “sovereign” in its translation. It seems to be using “sovereign” for its dictionary meaning of “above or supreme to all others” and also referring to a ruler or monarch.

It is also interesting to note that most of the “sovereign” occurrences are in the Old Testament, with only about 3 to 6 instances in the New Testament in 4 of the 6 Bibles that have over 100 occurrences. If we include all the other bibles that have less “sovereign” occurrences, we will find that all the occurrences in the New Testament are low. If we look at the words that translate to “sovereign” in the Greek, we find that it is typically either “despotes” (meaning “Master”) or “dynastes” (meaning “Mighty” or “Authority”). The Amplified Bible is unique in that is constantly uses “Sovereign” in the square bracket explanations.

As I was going through all the search results, I could not help but notice that popular Bibles such as the NET Bible, the NLT Bible, the GNT Bible, the NIV, the NASRE, and the Amplified Bible all have high occurrences of “sovereign” and “sovereignty”. Considering how popular certain bibles, such as the NIV, Good News bible, NET and NLT have become, it is anecdotally evident that “Sovereign” has gained a lot of traction and acceptance from popularity.

Meaning changes

When we look at “Adonai” in the OT we see that that word occurs 434 times. It is the plural form of “adon”, which occurs 335 times, and has the meaning of “lord, master or owner”. “Adonai” as a plural form is almost exclusively used with singular verbs when referencing Yehovah God. “Adon” and “Adonai” are the same word with one being singular and the other plural. The meaning is the same. “Adon” has been used numerous times in scripture to refer to man. For example, in Genesis 18:12, Sarah refers to Abraham as “adon”. So, overall, the meaning is simple in that it denotes one who has ownership, power or authority over another person or entity. If this is the case, why did some bibles opt to use “Sovereign” instead of “Lord”? They even change YHVH to “Lord” instead of “God”. Isn’t this strange?

If we compare the meaning of “adonai” to the meaning of “sovereign”, we do find an overlap in the meanings. We found that “sovereign” means “supreme, highest, chief, master or ruler” and “adonai” means “lord, master or owner”. They both have the same meaning of “master”, but “sovereign” doesn’t mean “lord” or “owner”, and “Adonai” doesn’t mean “supreme” or “highest” or “chief” or “ruler”. They are not exactly synonyms in every context. They are really only loosely similar in meaning.

Psalm 47:2 says “For the LORD most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.”

We can find other scriptures that describe Yehovah God that are similar to Psalm 47:2, but this verse shows us that God is indeed “most high” and “King over all the earth”. These two expressions are synonyms for “sovereign”. “Supreme” is the same as “most high”, and a “king” is a “monarch”, which is the same as a “sovereign”. It may be fair to substitute “sovereign” in these cases, but how can anyone justify the use of “sovereign” to substitute for “Adonai”, which is normally translated “Lord”?

It seems to me that translators have been mixing the meanings of words. So, because God is “most high” and “King of all the earth”, he can be called “sovereign” and if he is “Adonai” then he is “master” and if he is “master”, then he can also be called “sovereign” so why not call him “sovereign” all the time. This is my speculation, but I don’t agree with the idea of mixing words and meanings. I prefer to just be honest and call things what they are. We need to stop making false associations. I believe that the Holy Spirit inspired each of the original writers of the books in the Bible to use the precise words that we see. We should translate them faithfully, not trying to impose our own meanings, theologies and philosophies unto them. I am not convinced that “Adonai” was intended to mean “Sovereign”. The meanings and applications of “sovereign” is too wide to be used, whereas the meaning of “Adonai” has a more precise meaning. They are not synonyms.

Calvinism influence

In the first chapter of the book, “The Sovereignty of God” by noted Calvinist Arthur E. Pink, the Sovereignty of God is defined as:

We mean the supremacy of God, the kingship of God, the god-hood of God. To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that God is God. To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is the Most High, doing according to His will in the army of Heaven, and among the inhabitants of the east, so that non can stay His hand or say unto Him what does Thou? (Daniel 4:35). To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is Almighty, the Possessor of all power in Heaven and earth, so that none can defeat His counsels, thwart His purpose, or resist his will (Psalm 115:3). To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is “The Governor amoung the nations” (Psalm 22:28), setting up kingdoms, overthrowing empires, and determining the course of dynasties as pleaseth Him best. To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is the “Only Potentate, the King of Kings, and Lord of lords” (1 timothy 6:15). Such is the God of the Bible.

It is amazing to me that Christians, who have adopted this concept of “God is Sovereign” have essentially redefined the meaning of sovereign, such that it is not sufficient any more to just say “God”. Mr. Pink has redefined what it means to be “God” and “sovereign”. He even says that “to say that God is Sovereign is to declare that God is God”. WOW! So, it isn’t enough to just say “God” now?! If you don’t say that “God is Sovereign”, you are not saying that God is God?! How does this make sense to anyone? It sounds very high and lofty, but all it is doing is condensing and conglomerating various qualities of God into one word and then exalting that word above every other word and even above the “God” himself. Isn’t this hijacking God’s place in his own word? Isn’t this making light of who God is and the name he has given us to call him by?

The definition that Mr. Pink provides essentially recreates/redefines the word “sovereign” (and its derivative, “sovereignty”) into something that it was never meant to represent in the English language, and by its new definition, it has no direct equivalent in Hebrew or Greek, because no one word in Hebrew or Koine Greek can be used to mean all the things that Pink redefines “sovereign” to mean. And now that he mixes up so many aspects of God into one word he can now use that word as the only word that must be used to properly refer to God.

Now, many Christians, pastors, scholars, priests, bishops and preachers have used “God is Sovereign” and the “Sovereignty of God” to say so many things about God that are clearly not true. They use it to justify the presence of sickness, murder, rape, all sorts of evil, and why… because “God is Sovereign” and thus “in control” and “nothing is outside of his power”. Yet, it remains that no verse in the Bible can be quoted as saying “God is Sovereign”. It is an entirely made up concept, as I have shown.

So, now, due to the influence of Calvinism, we have a dilemma where “sovereign” no longer means what it supposed to mean, that is, “supreme, highest, chief, master or ruler”, and it is no longer synonyms of “independent, autonomous, self-governing, free, monarch, ruler, king or queen”. It now means almost everything the Bible says about God, and it also means that God is God. Anyone who doesn’t agree with saying God is Sovereign is taking away from God who he is, and is viewed with suspicion. I guess the Holy Spirit needed our help to find a better word than all the various words he used to describe and define God in the Scriptures. The mere fact that someone has to preach to us and explain to us what “sovereign” now means shows that it is a fake word, made up to take us away from the richness of the God’s nature revealed in the scriptures. To me, it’s a word that traps us, because no one implicitly knows what it means. Thus, its meaning(s) can change from generation to generation, and our minds can be enslaved to think a certain way about God, and this is exactly what I see in Calvinism. To me, this word has become a tool of Calvinism to make us think a particular way about God, and if we reject that, Calvinists often label people as heretics.

God is

Have you ever searched the Bible for the expression “God is” and “Lord is”? You will find some very remarkable statements. I would like to highlight a few for you to meditate on how rich the scriptures can be, and how the Holy Spirit inspired men to use many different words that teach us about God, instead of the mutated word, “sovereign” as used in some popular bibles today:

  1. For the LORD thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God. (Deuteronomy 4: 24; Hebrews 12: 29)
  2. For the LORD thy God is a merciful God (Deuteronomy 4: 31)
  3. God is my strength and power: and he maketh my way perfect. (2 Samuel 22: 33)
  4. for the LORD your God is gracious and merciful (2 Chronicles 30:9; Psalm 116: 5)
  5. But the LORD is my defence; and my God is the rock of my refuge. (Psalm 94: 22)
  6. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid: for the LORD JEHOVAH is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation. (Isaiah 12: 2)
  7. The LORD our God is one LORD (Deuteronomy 6: 4; Mark 12: 29)
  8. For the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed (1 Samuel 2: 3)
  9. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. (Psalm 23: 1)
  10. The LORD is righteous (Psalm 129: 4)
  11. Praise the LORD; for the LORD is good: sing praises unto his name; for it is pleasant. (Psalm 135: 3)
  12. For I know that the LORD is great, and that our Lord is above all gods. (Psalm 135: 5)
  13. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. (John 4: 24)
  14. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace (1 Corinthians 14: 33)
  15. God is light, and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1: 5)
  16. God is love (1 John 4: 8 & 16)

These are just a few of the things that “God is”. My hope is that persons will realize that God is so much more than what we think he is, and that “Sovereign” was never meant to be used of the Holy Spirit to represent who Yehovah is. “God is Sovereign” has been added to Bibles in an attempt to add something to God that the Holy Spirit never intended. You may not agree with me, and you may think that I may be doing God a disservice and taking away “his sovereignty”. But I will ask you this, “How can I take away that which was never in the scriptures to begin with?” Be aware of your use of “sovereign” and “sovereignty” when talking about God. Please don’t use it to justify evil, sickness or suffering.

References

  1. The Hebrew Name of The Lord – Adonai. Site: https://hebrew4christians.com/Names_of_G-d/Adonai/adonai.html
  2. sovereign – Online Etymology Dictionary. Site: https://www.etymonline.com/word/sovereign
  3. sovereign – Merriam Webster Online Dictionary. Site: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sovereign
  4. sovereign – Lexico Online Dictionary. Site: https://www.lexico.com/definition/sovereign
  5. sovereign – Oxford Advanced Learners Online Dictionary. Site: https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/sovereign_1
  6. sovereign – The Free Dictionary. Site: https://www.thefreedictionary.com/sovereign