Is John Piper's Interpretation of Tornadoes Correct?

John ArmstrongDivine Providence, Gospel/Good News

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!