A tornado hit downtown Minneapolis yesterday afternoon, destroying parts of the Minneapolis Convention Center and the Central Lutheran Church next door. It happened that strong winds were sweeping across the nation, knocking down trees in Central Park and dramatizing an earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska.

But John Piper, on his blog this morning, focused on another aspect of the Minneapolis calamity: it hit the Convention Center right as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America commenced its discussion of whether or not to allow homosexuals into the ranks of their ministry. After laying out the strange circumstances of the tornado, he says he will “venture an interpretation of this Providence with some Biblical warrant.” Oh no.

Without even talking about the actual “interpretation,” I have a problem with this. I have read and respected Piper on several subjects, but we all know where things go when evangelicals start interpreting cataclysmic events as heavenly signs. Piper’s interpretation isn’t even hedged with “maybe” or “could be”; it baldly states God’s opinion and reactionary behavior as a matter of fact. “The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin," Piper writes. "Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction. Reaffirm the great Lutheran heritage of allegiance to the truth and authority of Scripture.”  

It doesn’t require disbelief in a personal, engaged God to believe that nobody should be attributing the wind to His feelings on a particular theological issue. I don’t care if you neatly line up Scripture references, as Piper has done, you are still not God. (To their credit, Piper's commenters weren't impressed, either.) Andy Crouch says it best in this passage of his wonderful book Culture Making:

“All efforts to pin down the details of where and when we can say that God is working in history are fraught with the danger of self-deception, if not outright blasphemy. The commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain seems especially to apply to human attempts to recruit God for one cultural movement or another. The warning that “history is written by the winners” should caution us that any attempt to discern God’s activity in particular historical events runs the risk of self-justification, claiming after the fact that God was on our side all along.”

 
About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He studies intellectual history at New York University; his writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

  • nathan

    I’ve posted some of my thoughts of this elsewhere, but I mean, really, c’mon. Piper’s blog is dripping with humility in his handling of this. There’s no glee, no joy, and while he doesn’t offer those qualifiers you’re so desperate to find, his words qualify themselves.

    It’s a gentle reminder as he says, not an end-all.

    If God is in control of nature, then there are times that we can be reminded to meditate and pray. Just like last week and this http://twitter.com/JohnPiper/status/3231980112

    Piper would be the first to say that he doesn’t know the mind of God, but there are certain things we can discern from Scripture, if that’s our basis, and we should constantly be taken back to that basis in the face of calamity.

    It helps so much when Christians devour their own though, so much.

  • http://www.patrolmag.com/harris Alisa

    I’ve noticed that it has rained on almost every gay marriage OR anti-gay-marriage rally I’ve covered. I remember when I went to Albany for one it was pouring the whole way there and I departed from my usual Presby skepticism of signs and tried to interpret the weather as a sign. Then everything cleared up at the last minute, which was then interpreted in the rally as a blessing from God. And I realized it was all kind of silly. It is tempting to interpret the weather as a sign but I actually think it’s kind of pagan. Reminds me of the ancient Greeks looking to the birds for signs.

  • http://www.patrolmag.com/sessions David Sessions

    I don’t care about the nature of the reminder, whether it’s gentle or harsh or humble or something else. It’s a principle that no one takes seriously enough: you do not know what God meant by the weather or if he meant anything, and it’s arrogance (if not blasphemy) to claim you do. “Humility” is no excuse to say things you have no authority to say.

    And sorry Nathan, but I don’t do wagon-circling. It’s not about being angry or tearing anyone down, but some things have to be said. Constant self-critique is the only way for any nation, institution, or church to maintain its standards.

  • Nick

    I think your interpretation of Piper’s note is misleading. He doesn’t baldly state anything. He just notes an interesting correlation and then cites some Scripture. Here is his conclusion:

    “Conclusion: The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction. Reaffirm the great Lutheran heritage of allegiance to the truth and authority of Scripture. Turn back from distorting the grace of God into sensuality. Rejoice in the pardon of the cross of Christ and its power to transform left and right wing sinners.”

    Nowhere does he say “God is striking down the gays”. He simply says there might be a connection and that these sorts of things serve as a gentle but firm warning. God is alive to John Piper, and active in the world today. If anything, this “controversial” observation highlights the vibrancy of his faith.

    Piper’s teaching has changed my life. He’s the Apostle Paul of our generation. He’s certainly no Pat Robertson.

    It would have been appropriate of you to at least have tried to understand where Piper was coming from on this.

    Instead, this note comes off as exhibitionist and arrogant.

  • nathan

    turn the constant self-critique both ways then David,

    I mean Piper’s first two points,
    1. The unrepentant practice of homosexual behavior (like other sins) will exclude a person from the kingdom of God.

    The unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)

    2. The church has always embraced those who forsake sexual sin but who still struggle with homosexual desires, rejoicing with them that all our fallen, sinful, disordered lives (all of us, no exceptions) are forgiven if we turn to Christ in faith.

    Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:11)

    I believe are pretty biblical, but few publications, including Patrol, are willing to actually hold professing Christians to that text.

    What standards are we maintaining David?

    Because it’s far too easy to criticize Christians coming from the right, and examine their potential shortcomings in pronouncements, but very difficult to hold that same standard for Christians coming from the other side of the aisle.

    Constant self-critique needs to be in place for both sides of it, whether that’s Jim Wallis, John Piper, or Derek Webb.

  • http://www.patrolmag.com/sessions David Sessions

    Nick: Once again, the content of the interpretation is beside the point. And he does make his claim with absolute certainty: “The tornado in Minneapolis is a gentle but firm warning.” I’m sticking up for a pretty simple point: humans beings don’t have the right to say God meant X by last night’s weather. I’m okay with people believing that if they want, but I can’t stand by expressing it in writing as fact.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003407077758 GhanAnxg

      I want to finish my thguhot here. If God treated us fairly Jesus would have never died on the cross. and we would have never been offered salvation. I praise God that He loves me, He never fails me and He goes to plan B and on. Look ho w He blessed Israel, they sinned and went away from God countless times, but He was faithful and loved them any way. Romans 5:8 But God commended His love toward us, in that while we were sinners Christ died for us. Praise be to God!

  • Nick

    David, you are misinterpreting what he’s saying. He’s saying it’s a reminder, he’s not saying the Lutheran meeting CAUSED the tornado.

  • http://www.patrolmag.com/sessions David Sessions

    Nick: It’s obvious from the way he lays out the tornado story that he thinks it was a divinely-instigated omen. And even if we say it was just a “reminder,” doesn’t that strike you as either shamanistic or completely trite?

  • Jordan

    If we want to attribute events like this to God, when weather is supposedly a sign of His judgment, then can we attribute the times when weather kills Christians to Him as well? The bible says He sends the rain on the just and unjust. Seems to me that we can’t use the weather as a sign of God’s opinion on a matter.

  • Nick

    This is what seems unfair to me:

    You are drawing what you deem an “obvious” conclusion and then likening John Piper to Pat Robinson and the other crazies.

    I know this is something that concerns you, as well it should. We should analyze what Piper is saying. But the way you so concretely communicate your “indirect-but-I-think-it’s-obvious-don’t-you?” conclusions seems at best unfair, and at worst, a bit slanderous to me.

  • http://www.patrolmag.com/sessions David Sessions

    Jordan: You won’t get away with asking that question of Calvinists, because they’ll say yes it goes both ways. But I’m willing to concede that Piper may have simply meant (though his overtones suggest otherwise) that when bad things happen at precise moments, it’s a good time to reflect on where we are and what we’re doing. I could accept that, even if I thought it was a bit silly to talk about the weather in such a way. Worst of all, it hits too close to previous incidents where Christian leaders have made outrageous statements that stick in our cultural memory for decades.

  • Naomi

    The knee-jerk responses above seem to interpret this blog post as a personal attack on Piper. I’ve long been a fan of John Piper and I appreciate his passionate perspectives, but I’m with David on this one. Piper is definitely stating that the weather was a message from God. Yes, his post was written in non-inflammatory language. He does not mock or hate on gays. I fact, the whole tone of his post is rather restrained.

    HOWEVER.

    David’s point is that no one can claim to know the mind of God, and that it’s foolish to claim otherwise. Piper makes an interpretation of a message we’re supposed to be getting out of the tornado, and he states it as a fact. Can the tornado remind us to follow God more closely? Of course it can. But to say that was the purpose God sent it is presumptuous. I admire Piper, but hardly think he is infallible, and my opinion of his perspective here hardly alters my good opinion of many of his other ideas.

  • http://www.patrolmag.com/sessions David Sessions

    Naomi: Thank you for noting that this wasn’t a personal attack on Piper. The mention of the Falwell incident was not a mean-spirited comparison (I do not at all conflate them), just a “reminder” of how this kind of talk can go wrong.

  • Nick

    Piper is hardly claiming to know the mind of God. This is getting ridiculous.

  • http://www.patrolmag.com/sessions David Sessions

    I agree. I don’t think he’s saying he knows what God was thinking there. But it sounds that way (as Piper’s commenters confirm), and I just think we should avoid that kind of anecdotal preaching altogether.

  • nathan

    Also, while we might not know the entire depths of the minds of God, we do have the revelation of His word, which do set certain standards of living and acceptable behavior, which is where Piper did draw his reference.

  • Jordan

    I also think this kind of preaching can perpetuate the perspective that God is a vengeful God. And don’t go quoting the old testament to prove that He is. Sorry, we live in a new covenant time. I don’t listen to much of Piper’s teaching but would assume, from what I’ve heard, he does preach grace. But this specific topic and way of interpreting “God’s intentions” is dangerous and paints a picture of God to the world that we need to fear Him (the bad kind of fear, like when a women fears her abusive husband). The gospel is good news, not “turn from your ways or God will drop a tornado on your ass.” I’m not saying God doesn’t use the weather to being judgment. I am saying that it’s not our job to figure that out and it’s dangerous to do so.

  • Nick

    You can say what you want about the nature of God. But this verse, quoted by Piper in his blog post, is part of the new covenant:

    “The unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God. Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)

    God is a God of love, but he is a God of justice and judgment as well. His nature hasn’t changed since Old Testament times, the way we relate to him has. Through Jesus Christ, we have access to the Father. But that doesn’t mean the father is a teddy bear.

  • http://ottorinophc.blogspot.com micah

    i think that piper’s point, whether he made it well or not, is that all disasters—and evil happenings (such as the jews from the luke 13 passage who were killed while sacrificing)—are, in part, a call from God to repent. all calamities (as we know from Job) are allowed—if not sent in a sense—from God. so, yes, Piper’s right in a broad sense that it is a warning to ELCA. and indeed, it is a warning to all of us to repent of sin. if we are to take scripture as true, then we certainly must interpret all things that happen in history as being part of the will of God. that in one way or another, God is at work. i haven’t read crouch’s book, but to deny that God is always at work through all things is blasphemy as well. and indeed, this is piper’s only point: the tornado is, among other things, a call to “ELCA and all of us” to repent.

    now, to david’s point that piper should have hedged his comments for the purpose of being more culturally sensible (if i interpret you correctly). i think it’s interesting that in the end of luke 12 (same context) jesus scolds the people for not understanding the times. understanding the times (and living accordingly) takes some element of conviction. for piper to qualify his statements with “maybes” (especially for the sake of ingratiating himself to culture at large) would, i think, effectively neuter the conviction of his statement. is it possible that piper is wrong? i think it would be for him to say that the tornado was ONLY there for the ELCA, but i see no problem in saying that it certainly was, in part, an envoy reminding us to repent.

    moreover, one major difference between the statements of piper and falwell is that falwell indicated 9/11 was judgment (if i’m not mistaken), whereas piper says it is a warning. there is a significant difference between those two things. and i think it’s sloppy not to recognize the difference.

    i’m all about being culturally sensible but not at the cost of being biblically unfaithful. piper’s statement, while culturally unfashionable, is biblically true. and it is piper’s job especially (as a church leader) to remind us of these truths.

  • http://ProdigalPaul.com Paul Burkhart

    Wow. I did not expect so much David bashing here. I really expected all us twenty-something Christians to knee-jerk ourselves against this kind of declaration of the purpose of weather. But no. It seems that “Piperism” is firmly rooted in the twentysomething blogosphere. Could it be that we actually love Piper more than we hate what’s so wrong with much of evangelicalism? Perhaps. Now, I love Piper. He was a shaping force for me early on. I’ve since “moved on”, in a sense, to other heroes, but I know he still plays a huge role in many people’s lives.

    And I also know that the God of the Bible is a God that is not distant, but near, who uses the physical world to communicate himself (and yes, His emotions) to others. But, when he chooses to do so in the weather, Biblical writers are able to properly ascribe these events to God only by way of special revelation. God tells them, with the authority of Scripture, “Hey, I did this because they sinned.” This kind of special revelation is not still in effect on this side of the canon.
    So, though God still acts in the weather, I’m sure, it’s His prerogative as to when, where, and how, and I think on the basis of Scripture, we actually have LESS of a right now to figure which of those events are “signs” and which aren’t.

    I hope this is helpful.

  • http://ottorinophc.blogspot.com micah

    also, jordan…there is an important difference to parse between the evil that is in the world (i.e., rain falling on the just and unjust) and judgment. romans 8 makes it clear that the evil that befalls christians is not a condemning “judgment” at all. this is certainly a distinction piper would make, and i also think it’s part of the reason he doesn’t believe this tornado should be described as judgment as much as a call (to all of us) to repentance.

  • http://www.patrolmag.com/sessions David Sessions

    Paul: I think also that “figuring our which of those events are ‘signs’ and which are not” is a needless distraction from the issue at hand, a sort of red herring. If you need the weather on your side, it suggests your belief or argument isn’t sufficiently persuasive on its own. I would hope everyone at the Lutheran convention firmly believes in the rightness or wrongness of gays in the ministry regardless of what happens in the sky.

  • Nick

    As a Journalism major, I’d like to emphasize that I wasn’t bashing David, I was disagreeing with what he wrote. There is a big difference. None of this was personal, and he knows that. I consider David a friend, and I am a fan of the Magazine.

    Paul, just out of curiosity, I’m wondering who the “heroes’ you’ve “moved on” to are. Perhaps Rob Bell, or Brian McLaren?

  • http://www.patrolmag.com/harris Alisa

    One of the interesting things about Piper’s post is how he seems to set it up like a Scriptural syllogism. It feels like he’s saying A=B, B=C, therefore A=C. (Roughly, Jesus controls the winds. Jesus once said a natural calamity was a call to repent. Therefore we can interpret this particular wind as Jesus calling us – or more accurately, THEM – to repent.) But I see a big difference between saying “The God who controls the weather once told us how to interpret a particular weather phenomenon” and “I know how to interpret weather phenomenon.” That seems like a big logical leap to me.

  • Rob

    My thoughts on this have been stated elsewhere, and many of them have been repeated much better than I stated them above. Suffice to say that I am in full agreement with David on this one.

    I find Luke 13:1-5 to be quite helpful here:

    “There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”

    Far be it from us to assign “reasons” to the weather or any calamities. Such is an act of <i>hubris</i> at which the ancient Greeks themselves would have blushed, no matter how understated or seemingly “humble” the words are spoken. I am willing only to grant that we can draw from yesterday’s tornadoes a very general reminder that God is sovereign and rather powerful. Otherwise, if only for the sake of consistency, we’re going to have to begin assigning reasons why tornadoes destroyed Union College, or why the Baptist seminary in New Orleans flooded during Katrina while the French Quarter remained safe, or, for that matter, why my Episcopal church hasn’t been consumed by some calamity of nature. As if the ELCA is more wicked than the rest of us, as if we are not all subject to the wrath of God “except we repent,” as Christ warned those who (somewhat like Piper?) sought to discern God’s just judgment in the disaster at Siloam.

    A more appropriate response is: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.”

  • Rob

    *It’s interesting to note that Piper cites Luke 13 and STILL draws his specific conclusion.

  • Sean

    Most of the above comments have been a bit ridiculous. David I agree with your thoughts on this. My wife was stung by an insect last week and we spent a couple of hours in the ER. Was this a sign from God? I doubt it b/c where she was stung there were people their waving their arms frantically and probably pissed the insect off and she happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

    There are plenty more examples: all the genocides that are happening in the world, droughts, earthquakes, floods, and on and on. There is no stopping this.

    Piper is not a prophet and no matter how nicely put his response to this is it isn’t helpful to say ‘this happened b/c you are doing something sinful’ or whatever.

    Piper said that he saw it and yet did nothing to help those people or see if there was anyway he or his ministry could help with the danages.

  • Rob

    Excellent comment, Sean. I particularly like your last sentence. What is the point of interpreting a particular natural phenomenon? Repent likewise and “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Rather than wasting time penning a hubristic and ultimately silly blog post, he could have/should have prayed for the victims and sought to lend material aid.

    That would have been a worthy example for all of us. Now, the reasonable amongst us are forced to, at best, qualify his statements (which is impossible in this case) or rightly condemn them.

  • http://cinemacomment.blogspot.com Jay U

    I interpret this blog conversation as a pox on John Piper. God’s judgment upon him will take the form of this post, which will begin to eat away at his credibility due to his poor attempt at Biblical interpretation.

    More Harold Bloom was needed to accurately interpret that tornado. Gosh Darn the man who says otherwise, lest he be confronted with a cyclone of calamity that whisks away his children, wives and livestock,,,, oh yeah, I guess that Job didn’t deserve his tornado… Faulty logic on my part.

    Maybe that was God’s way of showing favor on those Lutherans for being open enough to consider including some of his creation.

  • http://ProdigalPaul.com/blog Paul Burkhart

    I just checked these comments again. Nick, I have no idea if you’ll get this. No, my new heroes are not Bell and McClaren, although in today’s climate I can see why that would be the concern. No. My current heroes are guys like Matt Chandler, Tim Keller, and (uh-oh) N.T. Wright.

  • Rob

    I <3 N.T. Wright, though I’m not sure he’s in my theological heroes list yet.

  • Jason

    Although many of these posts have been intriguing, I want to caution all above that it is borderline (if not flagrant) gossip. I wonder…how many of you have posted similar responses on John Piper’s own blog? (Doing this, of course, does not justify all your words, but it is rather an illustration of your integrity in posting here, yet not there.) Further, Christ calls us to love (though not necessarily agree), and I don’t see much of the former amidst your presentation of the latter. Please advise, and keep all your consciences clear before both God and man.

  • Bart

    I am a part of the Piper fan club. But I also can see through the lens of Scripture (namely the examples spelled out in Jesus’ commentary on the tower disaster and the Book of Job) that Piper is wrong. Although there is a sovereign Providence, it is not the part of man to interpret this as punishment for a sin (Job again). I do admire Piper greatly for his orthodox stance against Gnosticism by defending physical everyday actions as noble. However, the gifts of Spirit argument aside, one should not play the part of arrogant phophetic interpreter (Piper didn’t get a direct message from God, did he?) Saying that he has some mysterious or secret intuition and insight smacks of Gnosticism in our own live.

    If he keeps doing this, then Rob, Shane, and David will have every right to lump him together with blathering fools Robertson, Falwell, et al. I do hope that he will not.

  • ds

    Piper seems to fall into a long tradition here. Lincoln interpreted the Civil War as a punishment for the nation’s sin of slavery. Fair, but perhaps the war was instead a punishment against the nation’s growing sin of materialism and consumerism. It turns out that such attempts at ‘interpreting’ acts of natural evil inevitably end up enshrining one’s own priorities and prejudices in lofty religious language, masquerading your concerns as the concerns of God. It seems like bad history and dangerous theology. Some days, perhaps, a storm is just a storm.

  • http://quovadis.soultopology.com Jody

    “He’s [John Piper] the Apostle Paul of our generation.”

    I hope this was a veiled attempt at sarcasm. Really.

  • John Wofford

    Jay U,

    You may not read this, but your post made me laugh. In a good way. Thank you.

    I think the back and forth about the issue is silly, but I (like most everybody else) don’t endorse what Piper said. It stung, frankly, and I’m sorry it was said. Even so, I don’t want it to appear as if I’m lashing out, or questioning his commitment to Jesus. He’s following his convictions (even if they make no sense to me). I can’t expect any more of any person, and would hope no more expected of me in return.

  • Albert

    Well said DS. One has to apply Scripture according the context being dealt with. Job and the Tower of Siloam should be the ones used to address this issue.

  • nathan

    here’s the follow-up, maybe it’ll not force you to lump it in with Falwell.

    i feel like it deserves a post alongside the original.
    http://www.desiringgod.org/Blog/1968_clarifying_the_tornado/

  • http://www.krogermix.com Karl Kroger

    Thanks for the article David.
    I thought Greg Boyd’s response was amazing!
    http://www.gregboyd.org/blog/did-god-send-a-tornado-to-warn-the-elca/

    With regard to Piper’s follow up, with all due respect I think he’s attempting to cover his ass for making such an outlandish theological interpretation. Now he says he was just saying that everything should prompt us to think of Christ and repent. I don’t think that was what he was going for in his original post. If it was, he did a really poor job of communicating that message.

  • Joe

    I think David’s point is right on, but also had to add that Piperr DID say he would “venture an interpretation” which does provide some contextual wiggle room.

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