Apparently a bizarre and unforeseen tornado struck Minneapolis recently. According to this post by John Piper, it hit an ELCA (mainline) Lutheran Church just as they were about to consider ecclesiastical policy regarding homosexuality. John offers a somewhat restrained interpretation of providence, suggesting that there is a link between the tornado and the policy, that God was sending a message to the mainline Lutherans regarding their move toward downplaying the biblical doctrine that homosexuality is sin. As a follow up, Justin Taylor’s comments caution us not to giggle or roll our eyes. Justin is partly right, we should not giggle. I’ve been in a tornado (Omaha, 1975!) and they are nothing to snicker at and neither is the wrath of God a laughing matter. I reserve the right, however, to roll my eyes, not over the matter of sin nor over the error of the ELCA (and the rest of the mainline liberal and “evangelical” churches) in ignoring the clear biblical teaching regarding homosexuality. We’ve had extensive discussions on the blog about the biblical teaching concerning homosexuality. We’ve even discussed the pastoral obligations Christians have to receive sinners graciously in Christ’s church (which is nothing if not a hospital for sinners).
We’ve also had discussions, however, about the problems associated with interpreting providence, first under the heading of knowing the will of God and also in response to the bridge collapse in the Twin Cities. As I pointed out in those places both as a matter of history and, more fundamentally, as a matter of biblical revelation, we are clearly taught not to try to interpret providence. It is a temptation that we must resist. When God has not revealed himself (either explicitly or by “good and necessary inference” from Scripture) we should be silent. The plain fact is that we don’t know why a tornado struck that steeple just at that moment. It is fascinating, and surely it is sobering, just as a cancer diagnosis is sobering. But think of the difficulties attached to interpreting providence. I grew up in Tornado Alley. Like snow, humidity, and hail, they were a natural fact. When the “Big One” hit Omaha in 1975 or an even bigger one hit Grand Island (Neb) the next year, was that a message from God? Was God particularly displeased with the sinners in Omaha and Grand Island? When a tornado hits a lonely farmhouse in Kansas or even wipes out an entire town (Greensburg, Kan) does that mean that God was particularly displeased with them?
What makes me roll my eyes is not the wrath of God or the folly of denying his instruction regarding sin and grace but the presumption of those who think they can know the “hidden things” of God (Deut. 29:29). The great thing to know here is that we don’t NEED to try to interpret providence. God’s Word has spoken clearly and unequivocally about the sin of homosexuality and the foolishness and blindness of ecclesiastical functionaries who arrogate authority to themselves that God has not given. Anyone remember the minor prophets? They had a thing or two to say to the church of their day about this very thing. The mainliners are committing suicide spiritually and practically by rejecting God’s Word in favor of whatever is fashionable (evangelicals take note!) and they’ve been doing it for more than a century.
We don’t need to add gravity to the Word by appealing to interpretations of providence which, in the nature of the case, is ambiguous. Piper may be right, but he may not be right. The truth is that God knows the end from the beginning. We cannot even begin to fathom what that means. God knows from eternity. He knows in a single act. He knows comprehensively. He knows intuitively. He knows freely. He knows sovereignly. He knows easily, effortlessly. He knows in a way that we can try to describe (apprehend) but in a way that we can never comprehend. One of the biggest problems with proposed interpretations of providence is this: not only do they directly contradict the express teaching of our Lord, but they also entail an insufficient appreciation for the majesty of God. I know it sounds odd to challenge John Piper on a theme like this, but that’s what is ironic. God’s ways are mysterious. They are far beyond our finding out. We’re not canonical actors. God doesn’t reveal to us the meaning of this earthquake, that flood, or that tornado. He just doesn’t. We don’t have what the classical Reformed and Lutheran theologians called “Archetypal theology,” i.e., we don’t know what God knows, the way he knows it. We have “ectypal theology,” i.e. we have “analogical” (their word) theology. God gives us analogues of his knowledge, but our intellects never intersect with his. We’re not capable of knowing what God knows, the way He knows it. Such knowledge would destroy us.
There is another problem. I’ve seen cases where a given interpretation of providence becomes binding, a kind of extra-canonical word from God, a fence around the law as it were. In such a case, Christians are no longer bound only the Word (which has to be interpreted, applied, and confessed by Christ’s church) but to the interpretation of natural revelation beyond that given in the Word. Rom. 1 teaches us the general meaning of natural revelation, but, beyond that we have no inspired interpretation and certainly not of particular episodes. The human lust to know that which we should not, to seek that which is hidden from us, is ancient and deadly. Whoever knows “God’s will for your life” is a very powerful person indeed: ask the victims of the Word-faith and Kansas City prophets (etc).
The meaning of a particular providence is hidden from us. If God wanted us to know the meaning of a particular providence, he would tell us but He hasn’t, has He? I don’t know that John is wrong, but I don’t know that he’s right. That’s just the point: I don’t have to know. We have the Word. Sola Scriptura.