God's tornadoes: when I stopped taking John Piper seriously

I imagine it’s no surprise that a Methodist pastor would consider the dean of the Neo-Calvinist movement, John Piper, to be a theological adversary. Followers of John Wesley and John Calvin have been arguing for centuries. But there’s a basic difference between Piper and someone like the fundamentalist rock star Pat Robertson. Robertson has said so many outlandish things that I can’t take him seriously. My only concern with Robertson is that every time he gets in the news, thousands of non-believers make up their minds more thoroughly that they will never consider Christianity. My concern with Piper is that he might be right about God, because he is right on a number of things, but it’s sometimes hard to fathom how the God I know and love is the same God who talks to John Piper. Then Piper said something last month that made me stop taking him seriously except as a threat to Christian evangelism.

A month ago, about 90 different tornadoes ravaged the Midwest and devastated many small towns, likely populated by people who share John Piper’s more fundamentalist religious views. So Piper got onto his blog and wrote a piece in which he summoned together half a dozen Biblical passages about “God” and “wind” to “prove” that the tornadoes were sent by God as a “divine warning” to our country. I wonder how many newly homeless Calvinists in Indiana felt kicked in the stomach after reading this post.

I recognize that Piper is passionate about promoting his high view of God’s sovereignty. In our scientific age, we have more or less given scientific laws domain over “nature,” relegating God’s status to a one-time watchmaker-creator who set everything up and stepped aside only to intervene very rarely in history from an outsider vantage point. I share Piper’s view that God is constantly intimately involved with every molecule of creation. As Colossians 1:17 says, “In Him all things hold together.” But this doesn’t give any pastor the authority to explain why tragedies happen the way they do. A major part of God’s sovereignty is His mystery.

Piper quotes a verse about the mystery of God to support his piece that actually judges him for having written it: “Oh the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor?” Well apparently those judgments aren’t unsearchable to John Piper! Herein lies the paradox of Piper’s theology. He seeks to explain everything about God’s motives and then when his explanations make God look like a mean tyrant, he falls back on the “who can understand God’s ways” passages that ought to have dissuaded him from explaining the unexplainable in the first place.

There’s no reason why those tornadoes had to be a divine warning. They could simply be part of an intricate interplay of awesome, terrible natural forces that God reigns over and has His own more informed reasons for not intervening to stop. Now I don’t think it’s inappropriate for Christians to interpret God’s creation in terms of our personal relationship with Him. Each day’s sunshine and the rain might very well contribute to an important spiritual epiphany that God specifically wants me to have at that moment in time even if He has a greater macroscopic purpose that they’re a part of. But no pastor has the authority to tell people that God wrecked their homes to send a message to their country.

I have done a fair number of hospital visits as a pastor and a chaplain. I have seen some people healed in ways that were not medically explainable. I have seen others die while never faltering in their trust in God. I know that God reigns over both circumstances though I cannot explain why things happen how they do. I would never tell the family of someone who died of cancer: let that be God’s warning for you to repent and accept Christ, which I consider analogous to what Piper said about the tornadoes. Is he so committed to promoting his theology that he’s lost any sense of pastoral sensitivity?

I will close by quoting Piper himself because he actually makes my point quite eloquently and concisely: “We are not God’s counselors. Nor can we fathom all his judgments. That was the lesson of Job. Let us beware therefore of reading the hand of providence with too much certainty or specificity.” Exactly. Read your own words, Dr. Piper. And please stop saying things publicly that harden the hearts of non-believers against the evangelism of those who actually care about reaching them.

P.S. Nowhere in Luke 13 does Jesus refer to Pilate’s murder of the Galileans or the Siloam tower’s fall as a “divine warning.” He simply says that “unless you repent, you too will all perish,” which is true because the wages of sin are death.

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About Morgan Guyton

I’m the director of the NOLA Wesley Foundation, which is the United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola University in New Orleans, LA.

  • http://djfick.wordpress.com Post Tenebras Lux

    I see you are catching up from your Lenten break :)

    Although I am becoming increasingly frustrated with the seemingly “over-the-top” blogs/tweets/etc. by those within my theological camp, I must also admit that I share Piper’s basic theological tenet behind the aforementioned blog post, namely his interpretation of Luke 13. I didn’t go back and re-read Piper’s post, so I can’t be sure if this was specifically explicated in that post.

    How do you think we should reconcile the apparent Pauline dichotomy of Col. 1:17 and Rom 11:33ff?

    • Morgan Guyton

      Piper referenced the Luke passage. I’m looking at it right now and I’m having trouble seeing how Jesus is calling the fallen tower a warning from God. He’s basically just saying that the wages of sin is death. You really have to eisegete to make the tower incident an act of divine providence. The other thing I would say is that we do not have the same interpretive authority that Jesus has nor are we in the same pastoral context as he was in responding to the people who shared the news about Pilate’s murder of the Galileans.

      Regarding Romans 11:33ff, if we read it in context, it occurs in direct response to v. 32: “He has bound all to disobedience so that he may have mercy on all.” This is very similar to the way that Isaiah 55:8-9 (my ways are above your ways) follows a verse about God’s mercy in Isaiah 55:7 even though it’s often prooftexted out of context to explicate a seeming lack of mercy on the part of God.

      God’s sovereignty may mean that he’s more exacting in his vengeance than we’re comfortable with, but it may also mean that he’s more merciful than we think he should be. I think perhaps “your side” resolves this question too confidently on the side of vengeance and “my side” resolves it too confidently on the side of mercy.

      If we get to the end and God’s mercy offends us and seems to mock our faithfulness as workers who feel like we got to the vineyard at dawn (even if we’ve drilled “justification by faith” into our heads as part of that faithfulness), will we walk out on the party like the prodigal’s older brother? I know that I will struggle if the opposite is true and I find that God condemns eternally people whom I see as being “on the bubble.”

      • http://djfick.wordpress.com Post Tenebras Lux

        As I’ve been thinking more about Luke 13, I think that eisegesis is a strong word to use regarding the possibility of an inferred “divine warning.” If, as Col 1:17 indicates, God holds all things together, how is the situation in Luke 13 not an act of divine providence, and how is “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” not a divine warning?

        • Morgan Guyton

          That word “repent” is interesting, because the Greek metanoe does not mean, “Say you’re sorry and really change your behavior,” as we were taught in sixth grade Sunday school. It’s also not short-hand for whatever “4 spiritual laws pamphlet prayer” you want to splice together out of passages from Romans. Its meaning is something like be forever changed, enter a new reality, etc. Metanoe and basilea (kingdom) are often used together paradigmatically (e.g. “Repent for the kingdom is at hand”). So I interpret Jesus’ words to say “Life is short; enter the kingdom now; since you might get hit by a tower tomorrow.” Certainly Jesus uses the tower tragedy as a warning rhetorically, but I don’t know that we can say assertively God made it fall specifically to be a warning. It’s one thing to say we need to be sharing the gospel every day with people because we never know when a bridge is going to collapse on their drive home; it’s another thing to say God made the bridge collapse because He’s pissed off and I know because I’ve got special gnostic access to His inner thoughts.

  • http://illustratingperspective.wordpress.com Denise

    Shortly before your Lent break I “found” you through your article “Persecution & Epistemic Closure” on Red Letter Christians. (I don’t know how many people I’ve showed that article to since. Loved it!) Now reading this, I am deeply encouraged by your perspective. I look forward to catching up on more of your writing.

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  • Paul Hansen

    Excellent post about a controversy that won’t go away soon. It echoes my concern over interpreting ‘sovereignty’ as ‘theistic determinism’, and in this respect J Piper appears to be consonant with RC Sproul. Mystery must remain a part of that Sovereignty doctrine, or people might go crazy with revulsion or guilt, or both. Job’s friends asked whether some sin was the cause of his condition, but I’m not sure that “spiritual” sin is shown (conclusively) to cause physical calamity as a normal way God judges. Of course, what God chooses to do is not subject to our nomological principles or expectations. But this difficulty does call for an honest effort to make sense (if we can) of “proof texts” that indicate God’s control over nature. It also invites a discussion of what Jesus meant when he told someone “Your faith has made you whole.”

    • maguyton@gmail.com

      I think it’s fair to say that God’s wrath about our pollution might be responsible for climate change but his wrath about other sins comes out in the consequences of those sins. That’s what I get from Romans 1. The degeneration of sin itself is God’s wrathful response to it.

  • pl1224

    In writing his piece, Mr. Piper may have thought he was successfully donning the mantle of the high-minded theologian, but he certainly failed in the decent, compassionate human being department.


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