Saturday, March 10, 2012

Tornadoes and Reformed Theology

There is a lot to admire about John Piper. He is a great preacher and an inspiring writer. He pastors a church in Minnesota that I understand is a fine church, although I have not been there.

John Piper is a leader in the Reformed Theology movement, a Calvinist who teaches that the election of God is unconditional, that grace is irresistible, and that the sovereignty of God is the ultimate determiner of all things.

Unlike many in the Reformed movement, Dr. Piper is, so far as I can tell, remarkably consistent. It is this consistency that leads him to the conclusion that deadly tornadoes are the intentional work of God, as he himself has explained here in his blog.

To say that Dr. Piper is consistent is not to say that I agree with him or find his consistency to be logical. The idea that God sent tornadoes because people in rural Kentucky and Indiana had failed to repent is, to me, highly inconsistent with much of what we know about God from scripture. God is love. God is patient, not desiring that anyone perish.

The search for an answer to every natural disaster is an exercise in futility, at least if we are bound to find a specific divine cause for each individual event. The consistent Calvinist concludes, each time a storm strikes or an inebriated driver kills a child or cancer comes, that God is sovereign and therefore God has sent the storm or the drunk or the tumor. Once that conclusion is reached, the spiritual and mental gymnastics that must be done to tie the unthinkable to the will of God usually goes through the Book of Job and the New Testament call to repent.

I believe in the requirement of repentence. I treasure the Book of Job.

I believe, however, that we live in a fallen world. To say that God is sovereign ruler does not, to my way of thinking, mean that God exercises sovereignty in every event. I believe that the world fell in spite of the will of God, not because of it. It is worth remembering that the big wind that struck Job's children was not sent by God. To put it another way, God does exercise sovereignty in choosing to allow the consequences of human choice to play out. To intervene every time we err or choose and simply ordain a result that would not otherwise follow would be to eliminate much of scripture's call on us to choose rightly. God also sometimes chooses - again as demonstrated by the Book of Job - to withhold His hand and to allow evil to exact its pound of flesh.

I know the discussion of determinism and the clash between free will and Calvinistic ideas of God's sovereignty are weighty concepts. I know that both sides of the debate can find support in individual passages of scripture taken in isolation. I think the Bible taken as a whole, especially in light of the character and consistent actions of Jesus, does not support the Reformed view.

I believe, moreover, that a theology that forces its consistent proponents like Dr. Piper to blog that "[i]f a tornado twists at 175 miles an hour and stays on the ground like a massive lawnmower for 50 miles, God gave the command..." is so incompatible with the God I know that I must reject it. I believe that God can send and has sent big winds; it is fallacious to conclude that all big winds therefore result from God's choice. I have thrown many baseballs in my life; that does not mean that I had anything to do with any of the pitches thrown today in Arizona or Florida or anywhere else.

We live in a fallen world. It is a world where evil and storms and disease and poor choices and intentional disregard for the ways of God flourish. It is a world over which God is sovereign and which God will ultimately end, but in the meantime, harsh winds blow.

I do not blame God for that.


GlobalStew said...

First of all, let me say that I love reading your blog. I am thankful for the grace of God expressed in your keen mind, wisdom and love for scripture. I love that you love the church and have a high regard for God's word. You have important things to say and people are listening.

I enjoyed reading this post and wanted to share some thoughts on your critic of reform theology and its response to suffering and evil in the world.

As way of background, I come from a church background that did not embrace or celebrate the sovereignty of God and for much of my adult life, I found this concept to be a very hard truth to accept for many of the reasons you pointed out in this post. How could a God who was in charge of everything allow cancer? How could a loving God allow a child to die in a car accident? It seemed crazy to me.

Yet when we begin to think that "the God I know would never allow this", we have taken the first step to discovering that God is not who we think he is. That is when we can begin to explore the wonder of his sovereignty. Seeking to know him as he is and not as we have reduced him to be.

Though God's sovereignty can be intially difficult to accept, ultimately, it is the only solid ground to stand on in this fallen world. His sovereign power to redeem the suffering we experience in this world is our only true hope and comfort. The truth is, if God is not sovereign, then we are in trouble!

God is in control. The tornadoes are indeed part of God's master plan. The cross reminds us that God can bring the greatest good from the greatest evil. No pain(cancer, tornadoes, terrorism, etc) is therefore sensless. God will one day defeat evil forever. Without God's sovereignty, the question of evil remains unresolved.

We serve a God who is big enough to have unknown reasons for allowing evil things to take place and big enough to defeat evil for good. For me, the doctrine of God's sovereignty is not about debate points for reform theology or anything of that nature. God's sovereignty is a haven of rest and assurance in the midst of turbulent times.

lyn, we don't know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, but we know what the reason isn't, what it can't be. It can't be that God doesn't love us. It can't be that God doesn't care-look at the cross. God so loved us and hates suffering that he is willing to come down and get involved in it. This to me is comforting because at the cross, all suffering is redeemed.

Again, I'm grateful for this post. Really greatful. I have so much to learn as a follower of Christ and I need to read more blogs like this to sharpen my mind as I seek to be more like Christ. Thanks for reminding us about Jesus.

Joshua Rugema

Lyn said...

Josh, I absolutely believe in the sovereignty of God. I absolutely agree with your statements about what God "allows." I absolutely agree that we don't understand God fully and we don't know all the reasons for things. I absolutely agree that God can and does bring good out of evil. And I absolutely agree that God is capable of sending a tornado and has, at times in history as recorded by scripture, send storms. But none of those things requires the jump that Piper makes to say that God sent the specific tornado in question. God allowed it, redeems it, and indeed could have chosen to sent it; still, logic does not demand that we go to the conclusion that God definitely sends every tornado, drunk driver, and tumor. What God "allows" (as opposed to "causes" a la Piper) is not just a semantic difference - God has given us free choice which has resulted in our fallen world, and that fall has consequences. God undoubtedly has unknown reasons for many things, but God's unknown reasons are not going to make Him act contrary to His nature as revealed to us in Christ and in scripture.

GlobalStew said...

While Piper and I hold many things in common, I find his comments on the "cause" of the tornadoes particularly unhelpful. I appreciate Piper and his ferocious commitment to the gospel, but there was much in what he wrote that was muddled and that probably did very little to win people over to his position. I for one wouldn't have approached this issue in the same way.

Having said that, I find Job 42 to be especially helpful in unpacking God's sovereignty, suffering, repentance, and redemption of said suffering. Let me explain.

Job’s response to the Lord (Job 42:1-6) is not, “Now I get it. Now I understand,” but hearty repentance. He even summarizes God’s argument back to him: “You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ ” (Job 42:3). Without a trace of self-justification, Job responds, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3). Job is now certain that in the end, none of God’s plans can be thwarted (Job 42:2). Do you see that? God in total control of Job's suffering from beginning to end. Totally sovereign.

In fact, God’s massive self-disclosure in words to Job has revealed so much more of God that Job contrasts his present seeing of God with what he had only heard about him in the past—which of course reminds us that very often in Scripture God enables us to “see” him by disclosing himself in words. “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). This is not saying that Job's three friends were right after all. Job is not now admitting to large swaths of hidden guilt that ostensibly brought on his suffering, but to the guilt of demanding that God provide him with a thorough explanation for his suffering.

In the final analysis, Job's wealth is restored (and doubled), he is given a new family, and all of the old honor in which he was held is restored and increased. God's redemption of his suffering has come full circle.

In my view, one of the points of the book of Job is that in the end the people of God are vindicated. God is just. Similarly, Christians are not asked to accept suffering without vindication, death and self-denial without promise of heaven. Evil may now be mysterious, but it will not be triumphant. We are not spiritual masochists who can only be fulfilled by suffering. If there is any sense in which we delight in sufferings, it is that we delight to follow the Lord Jesus who suffered. Even He did not delight in sufferings! To me, this is what makes Piper's comments especially unhelpful.

Lyn said...

Josh, I agree with almost all of that. I too love Job 42. But you have to read the first two chapters of Job to understand it - God is NOT the one who sends the afflictions on to Job; instead, God allows Satan to do that.

GlobalStew said...

I agree.