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.