ImagesFor the record, I have warm personal regard for Dr. John Piper. I have known him for at least 25 years. He spoke at several events for me in Wheaton and I did the same for him in Minneapolis. I respect him for his integrity, courage and godly perseverance through trials and deep challenges. I believe that he has helped multitudes discover a great and awesome God. I also believe he has impacted thousands of young Christians to grow in deeply personal ways. But I believe John does get some things wrong. I have avoided saying this in the past because I do not like to challenge the views of people that I know and love. While bloggers near and far can jump on John Piper's oft-quoted statements I am loathe to join in these criticisms precisely because of my past relationship with John. I place real value upon this past relationship with a brother in Christ even though John and I are not close friends now. (We are not enemies either so please do not read anything else into that statement.)

Just as my own writing is public so is John's. And just as my writing can and should be critiqued so should John's. At first I didn't like to read a critique of my writing but I have slowly come to embrace both the need and the importance of disagreement and honest review. I despise misrepresentation and dishonest, harsh and mean-spirited criticism. (Who doesn't?) This is true for all Christian writers unless they have no feelings. (Lord, deliver me from such people with no feeling!)

So long as public critiques are charitable, honest and reasonable I am prepared to argue that they are worthwhile. John's very public statements often create a firestorm of response precisely because he has such a passionate following. His own passion and certitude about so much that he writes invites deep loyalty and profound disagreement. If you read blogs and follow John at all, and I confess that I read very few of his day-to-day posts these days, then you know that John frequently writes things that spread like wildfire across the web because they are provocative in nature and he has a huge following. Perhaps, and I say this very cautiously, writers like John should especially be critiqued by those of us who care about him and believe the influence that he has upon large numbers of people includes serious responsibility. It is in this spirit that I engage with Dr. Piper's response to the tornadoes that devastated towns and killed people this past weekend. Here is how Piper's March 5 blog post on these tornadoes begins:

Why would God reach down his hand and drag his fierce fingers across rural America killing at least 38 people with 90 tornadoes in 12 states, and leaving some small towns with scarcely a building standing, including churches?

If God has a quarrel with America, wouldn’t Washington, D.C., or Las Vegas, or Minneapolis, or Hollywood be a more likely place to show his displeasure?

We do not ascribe such independent power to Mother Nature or to the devil. God alone has the last say in where and how the wind blows. If a tornado twists at 175 miles an hour and stays on the ground like a massive lawnmower for 50 miles, God gave the command.

John goes on to quote five texts and asks, "Why Maryville and not Minneapolis? Why Henryville and not Hollywood?" As you can see from the blog, if you read it, he provides three responses to his own question and then nobly and appropriately appeals to his readers to give personal help for the victims through Samaritan's Purse. He rightly calls upon all of us to turn from sin and flee to Christ for forgiveness. I have nothing but respect for these words of counsel. 

But a problem remains in Dr. Piper's post. Should a pastor actually speak with such certitude about "God reach

[ing] down his hand and drag[ing] his fierce fingers across rural America killing at least 38 people with 90 tornadoes in 12 states, and leaving some small towns with scarcely a building standing, including churches?" This is the problem. And the problem is not new in American church history. John Piper's hero, Jonathan Edwards, clearly spoke in this manner. Early American Calvinism, in its Puritan forms, produced an abundance of this kind of sermonizing and speech. Fast days and calls for revival were filled with references to divine displeasure that were rooted in storms and crop failures. These events were interpreted as "clear" proof of God's judgment. This created a whole genre of sermons and literature that are one with Piper's contemporary jeremiads. 

Let me be quick to say that John Piper's deepest desire is to represent God as a sovereign, all-powerful and "big" God. He wants his readers to desire God for God's sake, not for their puny self-interests. His well-known thesis about "desiring God" has been taught and retaught for nearly three decades. He is essentially right in his thesis. (I have doubts about how his thesis is applied and the reductionism it creates theologically but that would be material for another post.)

How big is your faith? How big is your view of your inheritance in Christ? How big is God when you face tragedy? These are vitally important questions. Your answer will depend on how big and infinite your God really is and whether or not you allow yourself to experience this great, awesome, sovereign God. As your God becomes bigger your faith goes deeper and your trust will grow. John and I agree on this central point

Indiana-tornado-e1331003832412-300x249Where John and I disagree, however, is in the way he takes one part of the biblical narrative, namely the biblical teaching on divine sovereignty, and makes it into a system of ideas that have God "reach[ing] down his hand and drag[ing] his fingers" in taking life and destroying towns. Even the august Westminster Confession of Faith, which is not weak-kneed Calvinism to say the least, speaks of divine sovereignty in such a way as to make sure the reader understands that God is not the author of anything evil. Thus this question about people being killed by God in storms raises another question: Is this act of taking lives in storms good or evil? Be careful how easily you answer this question. I believe there is great mystery here, a mystery that Scripture does not address in the plain ways that Dr. Piper assumes. Simply put I too believe in a big, sovereign and awesome God but I am not as ready as John Piper to assign everything that happens in nature and everyday life to God's direct action. Here is, I believe, the real problem.

I went back to some patristic writers yesterday and read statement after statement which affirmed that God is active in all nature. As I read I discovered, however, a balance that I believe is missing in John Piper's Calvinism. One of the most brilliant thinkers in the early church notes that most occurrences in the world are of the "intermediate kind (whether they are mournful or otherwise) and thus they are not brought about by God." Notice the reference here to agency in the little word by. This same theologian adds, regarding events in divine providence, "Yet, neither do they happen without him." He goes on to say that God permits evil powers to operate and nature to oppose the good. He concludes, "Holy Scripture teaches us to receive all that happens as though sent by God knowing that without Him no event occurs" (italics are all mine). Notice the cautious way he speaks by saying "as though sent by God." Piper throws such ancient caution to the wind. 

Another example, from an early church theologian, has to do with murder. He says God made the man who murders another because he is his Creator yet God did not make him a murderer. God "permits" (a commonly used word in patristic writers from what I can tell) this evil of murder but he does so in order that good might come, or that light might shine in the darkness. For this reason God does not "immediately" punish sinners. Why? God is patient, very patient. He is loving toward all that he has made and he reveals that love in his Son. Love best defines God's actions, even in mysterious storms that he permits for reasons we do not know and may never understand, because "God is love." 

Another early church writer, Arnobius (c. 305), sums up well what I believe is a much better way to understand this vexing question about storms, suffering and death:

They will ask, "Why, then, does not the Almighty God take away these evils? Why does he allow them to exist and to go on without ceasing through all the ages?" . . . We must answer that we do not know these things (italics mine). 

What I believe Dr. Piper misses in his zeal for divine sovereignty, and in his excessive preoccupation with putting God at the center of storms and lightning strikes, is divine mystery. As Arnobius said, "We must answer that we do not know these things." 

Mystery is a great word. In the Greek New Testament it means "a sacred secret." The greatest mystery of all has been revealed, namely God's loving plan to save the world in and through Jesus Christ (Rom. 16:25; Eph. 1:9; 3:9; Col. 1:26-27; 2:2; 4:3). But while this great mystery has been revealed we all too easily feel certain that this is easy to grasp. But the very reality of God himself, and his mysterious ways, transcends human reason and comprehension. Dr. Piper believes all of this I am quite sure. But he goes too far in using proof texts to argue for God's direct involvement in disasters. Here is his problem, at least in my estimation: The human mind cannot grasp such things thus we should understand that the human mind is grasped by the divine majesty in revealing the love of Christ to us by the Spirit. In attempting to make God very big Dr. Piper has made the gospel reasonable and simple, even reducible to human ideas about truth. I know this might shock your system if you love Dr. Piper's way of teaching but this is a real problem. It is repeated by Dr. Piper time and time again through an extreme form of Calvinism. (John Calvin himself was extreme at some points, especially when he taught double-predestination!)

Martin Luther got this much better when he taught Deus revelatus sed absconditus ("God revealed but still hidden"). Orthodoxy has cultivated what it calls apaphatic theology, which is a theology that stresses divine inaccessibility. And the Catholic Karl Rahner (1904-84) got this right in the 20th century by stressing the role of mystery. Vatican II and Pope John Paul II favored the language of "mystery" (singular) as opposed to older ideas about the "mysteries" (plural). For Karl Rahner there was ultimately only one mystery. (This is why I made reference to the way in which Piper's teaching detracts us from the gospel itself.) Rahner said the only mystery was that of the tripersonal God who through Christ's saving work and he mission of he Holy Spirit invites us to share the divine life

What I wish for Dr. Piper, and those who follow his teaching with such love and high regard, is a recovery of this singular mystery. I am quite sure they all believe they have this base covered. I am not so sanguine about this claim. When I read such bold statements about God reaching down his hand to kill people in rural America I have to at least ask this question: "Have you missed the one great mystery and thereby majored on applying your doctrine of divine providence as if this is the central mystery rather than the mystery of God's revealed love for all mankind in Jesus Christ?" What people in America needed to hear following these storms was not what Piper said on Monday but what Rahner wrote several decades ago.

A wonderfully insightful and pastoral response to Piper's blog, written by my friend Michael Mercer, should also be read at the Internet Monk site. It is titled: "Obsessed with Tornadoes Disorder." I found it to be the best response on the web among published reactions to Piper's post. 

I believe most people already have an understanding that the God of Christians is harsh and mean. When the mystery of the good news is buried in the subtext of a message like Dr. Piper's March 5 blog then the greatest mystery of all becomes a non-mystery. What is left is a debate about God's hand in storms. Now the blogworld throws bombs back and forth debating Piper's post, pro and con. This is a sad and a truly needless debate if we understood that there is one great (singular) mystery and this mystery has been revealed in Christ — God's purpose is to save the world in his Son!

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  1. Doug P Baker March 7, 2012 at 7:48 am

    John, Thanks for a very clear headed and ballanced critique. And thanks mostly for insisting that the focus should remain on that one great mystery. There is a time for squabbling over controversies about how God’s providence works in the good and bad events, but when towns around me are flattened by tornadoes is not the time. In the midst of death and destruction, people need to be reminded that the answer to all tragedy is to be found in the love of God that is offered us in Christ Jesus. Chosing this as the opportunity to push our theological party platform is ill-timed. Unlike John Piper’s response to the tornadoes, your answer seems much more to reflect the heart of a pastor and caretaker.

  2. Chris Criminger March 7, 2012 at 8:06 am

    Wow John,
    Relevant, fair-handed, and to the point. I suspect those who are huge fans of John Piper will take issue with what you say. Maybe there is a larger context to soften John’s words which would make them more palatable? All I can say is despite Piper’s views, your view I believe is both pastoraly responsible and theologicaly credible.
    Henryville is close to us and so this issue hits very close to home to me. I would highly recommend a new kind of apologetic on these issues from Dinesh D’Souza’s book “God Forsaken.” Dinesh tries to help Christians think both deeper and at times differently on some of these issues. He has a whole chapter worth the read on what about killer storms? His bottom line answer is life on this planet happens because of the shifting plates and how God designed this earth for life. There will be storms and and some people will be in the line
    of fire of those storms. He speaks as one from India and a American that often people from third world countries view storms very differently than how secular Americans do. When tragedies happen, rather than turning people away from God, they often turn people towards God. Now there is a mystery of faith.

  3. Jim Henderson March 7, 2012 at 8:31 am

    You are so much more measured and exercise beautiful restraint – you express what so many intuit but lack the theological courage to say.
    What I believe Dr. Piper misses in his zeal for divine sovereignty, and in his excessive preoccupation with putting God at the center of storms and lightning strikes, is divine mystery.

  4. John Paul Todd March 7, 2012 at 8:42 am

    Doug has expressed my own appreciation adequately. The more I read of the Christian op-eds such as this and Dr. Mohler’s at SBTS to which you recently responded, I am convinced that 1) far too many evangelical leaders are doing this from privileged ‘bully pultpits’ than should be. Far too many have failed to adjust to the reality of the public square and the need to refrain from pressing their own agenda (system) rather than speaking from a humble spirit of dialogue seeking a balanced understanding from the Biblical narrative. And 2) I think that of the rest of us, few have the tools and/or motivation to critique such leaders and therefore exercise disciplined restraint, letting those of you that usually do such a fine job and have a much larger and broader audience speak to the issues.
    Piper “takes one part of the biblical narrative, namely the biblical teaching on divine sovereignty, and makes it into a system of ideas that have God ‘reach[ing] down his hand and drag[ing] his fingers’ in taking life and destroying towns.” I think you have put your finger here on the larger principle that is at stake here. In advocating both the mission and unity of the universal Church as you do, you rightly discern how this continues to focus on the things that divide rather on the things we should all agree on. The challenge for all of us is clearly to seek “the mind of Christ”. Looking forward to your event on the 26th and praying that this mind would indeed characterize all who participate.

  5. John H. Armstrong March 7, 2012 at 8:51 am

    Chris Criminger makes reference to a book that I would love to read. I share this view of storms and natural occurrences. This does not make God less sovereign but rather means that he is free of external control and faithfully defined by His great love.
    Is God angry and hostile towards us, all of us or even some of us? Or is he loving and merciful? Your answer to these questions must precede everything else that you say about God. In Jesus we have the answer clearly written in bold letters. “God is love.”
    Only when you have said this should you speak, with utter seriousness, about judgment in the next age. And that judgment will be rendered by the man Christ Jesus, not you and me. Our problem is that we keep telling the world that God is primarily about judgment. John 3:16-17 profoundly altered this thinking for me about 20 years ago.

  6. March 9, 2012 at 11:38 am

    John –
    I appreciate your chaste engagement with this significant issue. I also appreciate your obvious concern to be theologically (biblically) and pastorally responsible. I have a couple of questions/comments that I would offer as a response to your critique of Piper (whose ministry I appreciate, as you do).
    (1) As one who knows Piper’s ministry, you are surely aware of his commitment to put biblical words around mystery. Whether it is election or the weather, divine mystery is not best preserved by saying human words about it, but by repeating biblical words, even when those biblical affirmations cannot be understood. I see Piper exercising this commitment in what you dismiss as “proof texting.” The claim in these texts, and therefore in Piper’s post, is that God controls the wind. We can debate direct or secondary causation – but the point of these Scriptures is sovereign control. That Piper affirms, and in so doing serve the mystery you and he both care to guard.
    (2) Along those lines, you make the comment that Piper’s main problem is “reducing the gospel to human ideas about truth.” It found it interesting therefore that in your post you preferred patristic and Roman Catholic words about the gospel to Piper’s biblical words. To allow Karl Rahner to supply your category for mystery (as love) and then to be able to define that love in unbiblical terms (such as Rahner’s “anonymous Christian” who achieves salvation outside of Christ, but not outside of God’s love?!) seems to considerably weaken the ground of your critique. If Piper’s focus is God’s Godness and Rahner’s focus is God’s love, surely Piper’s is the more comprehensive and irreducible ascription.
    (3) Furthermore, you suggest that Piper has missed or minimized the patience and love of God toward sinners in his interpretation of the tornado. But each of Piper’s three “reasons” calls us to repent, rejoice in and receive the great mystery of the love of God – a love so great that He does not “immediately” punish us but calls us, even through the wind, to turn to Him.
    (4) Finally, it seems a bit of an unwarranted leap to move from (a)a tornado caused destruction (b) destruction is evil, therefore (c) to say God caused the tornado is to make Him the author of evil. I am curious about the reason(s) you would label the tornado as evil. It seems our emotional reaction to human pain and suffering could cause us to make moral/ethical judgments that Scripture does not share. I am sure the comment section on a blog post is not the place to sort all this out. But I do think the question is worth asking. Could it be that we are staring at the problem of evil from the wrong “side” – from the human rather than the divine perspective (as dimly as we can see it in Scripture)? If the God-wardness of the intent has anything to do with whether an action is good or evil, can we charge God wit evil in anything that He does?
    I do not expect a response – though I would welcome it. I hope these reflections can be used to sharpen your thinking in the future, as your post has (I believe) sharpened mine.

  7. Jennifer March 9, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    One comment on your first point – I think that it is far more important to preserve and use biblical *ideas* than it is to use biblical *words*. Language and the way it is used changes, and insisting on using certain words may come to actually *misrepresent* the ideas they were meant to express.

  8. Chris Criminger March 9, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    Hi everyone,
    Three quick comments:
    1. On the “Patheos” list under “Evangelical”, Roger Olson is having an ongoing discussion about Piper’s views.
    2. I think John put his finger on this issue when he said in regards to tornadoes, are they all controlled by God’s direct action?
    3. I was talking to a Calvinist minister about this issue today and whether or not everything had to be under God’s direct action? His comment to me was if everything is not, then aren’t we going the deist route? I’m curious how others would respond to this?

  9. John H. Armstrong March 10, 2012 at 7:11 am

    Ironically, it was in a Puritan context, like that of Piper’s view, where deism arose with a passion.

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