I don’t want to make light of the recent tragedy that occurred in the Midwest, by trivializing it into a theological debate. However, I couldn’t help but notice the difference that I’ve often witnessed between a Reformed perspective on God’s sovereignty vs. a Charismatic perspective. In reality, it’s a theological difference that plays itself out in how each group views the sovereignty of God and ultimately reveals itself in their worldviews. For the former, God’s sovereignty is an Absolute absolute, and is never to be question; whereas for the latter it’s an absolute, BUT humans do possess the power to persuade or to bend his divine will through means like prayer.
From the Reformed perspective God’s sovereignty is a staple of their theology, and in many ways forms the backbone of their whole belief system. For instance, if God’s sovereignty was in any way compromised, the doctrines of limited atonement, and election somewhat fall apart. In other words, if God is not in complete control over all human events, from thunderstorms, to flowers budding in the spring, the rotation of planets around the sun, then God’s promised power is then compromised. Part of this perspective does stem from a strong reliance on the authority of scripture, and strict fundamentalist interpretations of bible passages. According to their strict interpretation, they see this develop from the creation of the universe in Genesis, to Exodus – where God brings about plagues, parts the Red Sea, and hardens Pharaoh’s heart. It continues into the book of Job – where God asks Job the rhetorical question regarding who controls even the waves in the ocean, “‘This far and no farther will you come. Here your proud waves must stop!’. The same theme continues into prophetic books like Daniel with God telling King Nebuchadnezzar – “Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.” Daniel 4. Until, Nebuchadnezzar recognizes the absolute sovereignty of God he is cast from his position of power and made to live like the wild animals, and eating grass. Later, Nebuchadnezzar, after being humbled comes to the same conclusion saying:
“34At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored.Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion;
his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
35 All the peoples of the earth
are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
with the powers of heaven
and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
or say to him: “What have you done?”
That leads me to my main point. Please read this article by John Piper, explaining the recent tornadoes that ravaged the Midwest:
The general theme of Reformed theology in regards to God’s Sovereignty becomes crystal clear when you read the article. To summarize, John Piper says, “Jesus rules the wind. The tornadoes were his.” Again, in Piper’s own words God is saying the following to America: “Come to me, he says, to America — to the devastated and to the smugly self-sufficient. Come to me, and I will give you hope and help now, and in the resurrection, more than you have ever lost.” In other words, as Reformed folks so often like to say, “Repent!”
Unfortunately, I often feel like this leaves very little room for things like science, and free will. For instance, is it possible that God, when speaking to Job about the waves in the ocean was referring to gravitational laws that he created which cause the waves to stop at a certain point when hitting the shore? Instead of literally meaning that he controls each and every wave? Is it possible that natural disasters and other events are just a product of weather patterns, and that God had to allow them to affect mankind after the fall from grace in the garden of Eden? Christians often think of the Garden of Eden as being heaven – part 1. However, we do find the serpent in the Garden, prior to the fall, who attempts to deceive Eve into not trusting God’s will. Therefore, I am not sure we can assume that the environment before the fall was problem free.
Now, let’s contrast this with the general Charismatic perspective. First off, let me be clear that the word ‘sovereignty’ is not often used in Charismatic circles. I don’t think that it’s necessarily done on purpose, but each group tends to have their own jargon that they use often. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the word sovereign, if it were used more often would necessitate a disclaimer to explain a more connotative definition of the word. Translation: They believe in the sovereignty of God, but do not believe that his will is necessarily always predetermined, nor without the possibility to change with much prayer, more righteous living, or petitioning to God. Now, some would claim that Pat Robertson is a rare breed and a man all to himself. I wouldn’t disagree when it comes to his propensity to almost always give his opinion on why storms or natural disasters occur. In that way, he really is a sort of Willard Scott of Charismatic Evangelical Christianity. Admittedly, Pat deviates here from his normal rendering of natural disasters. Typically he blames some immoral group of people for the destruction, as he did with the earthquake in Haiti by stating that they had made a pact with the devil. The pact, he confidently stated, was that in order to overthrow the evil french army of Napolean that had forced them into slavery they made a deal with the devil to help them obtain freedom. The earthquake was God’s eventual retribution for this horrible deal that they made.
So, I was actually shocked when he claims here that Tornadoes are not of God:
He makes a stark departure from his normal line of logic by blaming it solely on natural forces of nature, saying “If enough people were praying [God] would’ve intervened, you could pray, Jesus stilled the storm, you can still storms,”
The general concept that God’s will can be bent, or that his sovereignty is true with the exception of intervention or human petitioning is nothing new or unique. I think it’s fair to say that theological view of God is shared in many in Charismatic evangelical circles.
The most common proof text for this belief probably stems from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham pleads on behalf of the city to God to not destroy the city if enough righteous people are found there:
“25Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” 26 The LORD said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
Very often, the takeaway is that we can plead with God on our behalf and possibly change his mind. Here though is mainly where the contrast lies. There is typically plenty of overlap when it comes to both groups, acknowledging that God is responsible for natural disasters, or at least that he “allows” it to happen for different reasons. What is not shared in common is the belief that prayer is a vehicle partly designed for changing God’s mind. Many, who believe that it is would argue on behalf of stories like Abraham petitioning the Lord for Sodom and Gomorrah or David praying, fasting, and lying on the ground for after committing adultery and God taking the life of his newborn son. In the New Testament scripture like Philippians 4:6 also lend weight to their belief as well: “6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” One interesting thing to note about each of the Old Testament stories, however, is that although Abraham and David both petitioned God neither of their prayers were answered. Moreover, in it’s context, Philippians 4:6 is really more about why we should make our request known to God to quell our anxiousness more so than to ask God to change his mind. What that does not mean is that we don’t have access to God as a friend, to better know his will for our lives, or to pray for knowledge in all situations (good or bad).
As Christians we often quote the scriptures like – “for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I honestly believe that there’s often more power in admitting that we don’t know everything. That’s why I love doctrine, but am a little hesitant when I hear people speaking confidently about their “solid” theology. It’s important to understand God’s heart, so that we know how to interpret the bible. But, when we start pretending that we know why he sent each storm, I often wonder if it does more harm than good to our witness. Especially, when we can’t seem to agree on the meaning behind the storms. Maybe we should be more concerned about trusting him, his will, and our obedience, then the “why” behind everything that happens.