Scripture and providence in R2K theology: ne'er the twain shall meet...

(David) Few things written by advocates of the radical two-kingdom (R2K) view more clearly demonstrate the disconnect between R2K thought and the life of faith than this 2009 blog post by Scott Clark.

In a post entitled, "Interpreting Providence," Clark takes John Piper to task for interpreting an August 2009 tornado strike on an Evangelical Lutheran church in Minneapolis as divine warning against the ELCA's voting to embrace homosexual practice on the day of the tornado in a convention center next door to the church struck by the tornado.

Clark writes of seeking to draw lessons from such providential acts,

...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. 

Clark claims that both history and biblical revelation teach us not to intepret providence. Only what God explicitly says in Scripture can be repeated. 

Thus, interpreting providence is speaking what God has not spoken. It exceeds Scripture and presumes upon the hidden things of God. Clark writes,

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. 

This is a striking statement by Clark: We're not to interpret God's intentions in providence because doing so is legitimate only for "canonical actors." Because we're not characters in Scripture we should not seek to interpret acts of providence outside the pages of Scripture. We would have to live in the pages of Scripture in order to safely interpret the meaning of providence in our lives....

Yet providence encompasses all earthly matters, including even the clouds in the sky. Thus, Jesus says to the Pharisees, 

"When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times?"

The Pharisees refuse to discern the spiritual signs of the times despite discerning the weather by looking at the sky. Both are matters of providence and both are to be interpreted by the wise according to Christ. 

Does Scott Clark's refusal to interpret providence extend even to the appearance of the sky? Does he refuse a raincoat when dark clouds appear out of his desire never to interpret providence? Does he reject providence as a guide in relationships? Did he resolutely ignore providential occurrences in his pursuit of his wife--her smiles and attractiveness, his internal response to such things? Does he deny his children advice based on God's providence in their lives: their gifts and abilities, their friendships, their God-given opportunities? Does he advise students without regard for providence's bestowal of gifts, circumstances and opportunities?

Or is it that Clark simply shies away from interpreting providence spiritually, that he ignores it only when it comes to spiritual judgments--discerning times and diagnosing sin? Clark can't live as he says we must: refusing to interpret providence is impossible for any  sentient human being. Even pagans read providence when it comes to raincoats and umbrellas. What Clark actually seems to reject is not interpretation of providence as a whole but only in light of Scripture. Providence can be interpreted secularly but not religiously.

The tragedy of Clark's position is that far from enhancing respect for Scripture, it denies Scriptural relevance at precisely those points where we most need it. Scripture is a "lamp to our feet and a light to our path." But the paths we travel are providentially arranged, including even the path that leads to eternal life. If we are forbidden to interpret providence, then we are required to reject Scripture as a guide in every one of those paths. Scripture thus becomes a mind game, an intellectual pursuit, a world we enter rather than a lamp and a guide to understanding God's providence in our world.

Finally, despite the R2K aversion to speaking prophetically to the sins of culture, Scripture does not gag the Christian when it comes to interpreting judgment from acts of providence. When Jesus asks His disciples if the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices were worse sinners than other Galileans, the answer is obviously, "No." No, there is no evidence they were worse sinners.

Apply the same question to the victims of AIDS, to churches struck by tornadoes... The answer in many cases will be the same as the answer Jesus expected from His disciples: no, there's no evidence that man was a greater sinner than anyone else; no there's no evidence that church was more heretical and sinful than any other church.

But when the answer is, "Yes, that church is wicked, moreso than most churches in Minneapolis, yes there was great wickedness done in that building on that day," then only the fool refuses to see the hand of judgment in a tornado strike.

This is the folly of the R2K position. At precisely those moments when Biblical understanding and courage demand that the Christian speak--especially, that the shepherd of Christ's flock speak words of warning--these trainers-of-shepherds require their disciples to shut up, to keep silence, to allow God to speak for Himself and not presume to be His messengers.

This is cowardice, plain and simple. 

Comments

Where's the LIKE button??

Yep, cowardice in the guise of "spiritual propriety." I mean, they're SCHOLARS (ahem, ahem) after all!

The R2K Theology really seems to be at odds with the practical outworkings of the doctrine of the incarnation. This is combined with an almost dispensational view of history where somehow we're living in an age when we can't know that anything is God's judgment. If consistent, I can't imagine this leading to a different view of history than Nihilism. That's not to say that wisdom isn't required in interpreting the actions of history. There's certainly a ditch on the other side of the road, but I don't think Piper is anywhere near it.

I vivdly remember the day in one of my theology classes at Denver Semiinary when I dared to suggest that AIDS might just be God's judgment.

One woman sitting a couple of rows in front of me and to my left shook her head rather violently, several interrupted to answer - and no one spoke to me after class.

Kamilla

The arguments against the position in this well-written post always seem to be full of straw men, mocking, and going to absolutes, definitely in the service of the fear of man, rather than in the biblical spirit of fearing God alone.

"If a calamity occurs in a city has not the LORD done it?" Amos 3:6

The sad fact is that this on this matter many R2K folks cannot even bring themselves up to the level of repeating Scripture.

They would not have made very good Puritans.

Which says something, I think.

It's one thing to say we can misread providence, and that our readings of providence are not always accurate. True enough.

We need to be careful in our judgments, too. The tower of Siloam didn't fall on people because they were more guilty. Unless we repent, we will all likewise perish.

That said, the judgment of God is already being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.

The Lord works devastations in the earth.

This world, and all that happens in it, are not products of random happenstance. God has purpose in all that he does. He displays his justice in giving many what they deserve, and his mercy into giving his elect the opposite of what they deserve.

If we're not allowed to interpret providence, then we should never thank God for answered prayer or other mercies that come our way.

Sure, it's possible to misinterpret providence. We must always make allowance for that possibility. But if we followed Clark's strictures, it would conduce to a piety of studied ingratitude.

In fact, Clark's position borders on a practical Deism, where we thank God for providential past actions (recorded in Scripture), but we dare not thank God for providential actions in the present lest we misconstrue his providence. But that, in effect, reduces Christian piety to Deist piety.

Dear Steve,

You're right. It sucks the immediacy of faith right out the door. "Oh, to have been born a canonical actor," is the cry of our hearts when we learn that we can't apply Scripture to providence in our own lives.

Your brother in Christ,

David

James 5:14-16

Is any among you sick? He must rest assured that his sickness has nothing to do with his sin. However, since the elders are there anyway, he might just as well use the opportunity to confess his sins and be forgiven.

I have stumbled upon a land of demigods. They have insight into scripture and the ways of God that no mere mortal could ever hope to attain.

I wonder how R2K guys would respond to this.

>>I wonder how R2K guys would respond to this.

Ineffectively.

Proverbs 4:19

It's easy to respond to the tornado at that church. There are 100's if not 1000s of ELCA churches. Are we to say that God has blessed their decision because most of them have not suffered tornado hits?

AIDS is different. There, as a natural, God-given consequence of sin, there is a good chance that sodomy will cause death.

Gideon's experiment was better for showing whether Providence was at work:

6:36 And Gideon said unto God, If thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said,

6:37 Behold, I will put a fleece of wool in the floor; and if the dew be on the fleece only, and it be dry upon all the earth beside, then shall I know that thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said.

6:38 And it was so: for he rose up early on the morrow, and thrust the fleece together, and wringed the dew out of the fleece, a bowl full of water.

6:39 And Gideon said unto God, Let not thine anger be hot against me, and I will speak but this once: let me prove, I pray thee, but this once with the fleece; let it now be dry only upon the fleece, and upon all the ground let there be dew.

6:40 And God did so that night: for it was dry upon the fleece only, and there was dew on all the ground.

R. Scott Clark, of course, has been accused by a colleague, or a peer at least, of being a practical deist.

"A problem that often bedevils Reformed spirituality is what Larry Wilson has pegged as the tendency of the Reformed to fall into "practical deism": God is out there and we are down here with our theology, lacking vital communion with and connection to our gracious covenant God."
http://opc.org/os.html?article_id=157

"Clark takes issue with my reference to "practical deism," about which I believe all the Reformed must ever be watchful: the temptation to see God in His sovereignty as "up there" and the means "down here" in such a way that the vital spiritual link is severed. The sovereign Spirit must always make effectual the means appointed, and we must wait on him in prayer for that."
http://opc.org/os.html?article_id=164

BTW, there's a basic difference between *seeking* providential signs, and thanking God for apparent special providences that come our way. In the latter case we're simply acknowledging God's mercy in our lives. It's an act of recognition and gratitude.

Of course, we could be mistaken in our interpretation of events, but we shouldn't use that possibility as an excuse to doubt and question every apparent special providence in our lives. That attitude would be unfaithful and ungrateful.

Surely we expect God to work in the lives of the elect, even if we can't predict the ways in which he will act.

The emphasis in comments here has largely been on the judgment-in-light-of-providence theme. But the problem is bigger than this. Reading judgment from acts of providence may be the most debated form of recognizing God's will in providence, but Scott Clark rejects any attempt to read the will of God in light of providence.

Functional deism? I think so. At the very least it demonstrates an impoverished view of the Spirit's work in the Christian life.

But this isn't simply a traditional two-kingdom view. The traditional two-kingdom view suggests Scripture can't be applied to the kingdoms of the world but must be limited to the Kingdom of Christ. What Clark advocates is a two-kingdom view in which two kingdoms are distributed throughout even the Christian life. We cannot "read" providence in our own lives in light of the Word because doing so seeks to pierce the hidden things of God. There are, thus, effectively two kingdoms at work within us, one of which is spiritual and thus amenable to interpretation in light of Scripture and one of which is not clearly addressed by Scripture and therefore not to be interpreted in light of God's providential desires.

This leaves us unable, for instance, to draw spiritual lessons from a failed investment or a death or serious illness. It makes seeking the will of God in courtship a dicey endeavor--unless there's clear sin in the one we're courting, God doesn't want us to read His will from smiles, looks, our attractions, etc.

I suspect Clark doesn't deny us the right to apply secular wisdom to such acts of providence, only spiritual.

How do we understand Job in light of this? Is the book entirely babble, all altogether wrong until God appears? Or are there correct and incorrect interpretations of God's providential acts in the initial chapters of Job?

Clark's position in this matter is deeply troubling, and focusing on whether providence can or should be read as judgment keeps us from the even more disturbing implications of his claims.

My previous comment misinterpreted the blog's statement that:

"an August 2009 tornado strike on an Evangelical Lutheran church in Minneapolis as divine warning against the ELCA's voting to embrace homosexual practice on the day of the tornado in the very church struck by the tornado."

I didn't notice that this was the entire denomination voting in a convention nextdoor to the church, not just one of many churches voting individually for homosexuality. The tornado hit during the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's national convention in the Minneapolis Convention Center. The convention used Central Lutheran across the street as its church. Both buildings were slightly damaged; nearby buildings were not. Piper said,

"Conclusion: The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us." http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/the-tornado-the-lutherans-and-homosexuality

Thus, this does look providential rather than coincidental.

Dear Eric,

I edited the second paragraph to make the link more clear. Thanks for pointing out my confusing wording.

Love in Christ,

David

I would think that the point would be that it's hard to definitively prove what God's providence means in a particular situation. The article itself even acknowledges that bad things happening to bad people is not evidence for a particular judgment from God. If Jesus says that, should we not be careful in interpreting the signs?

So a tornado hits a convention where one denomination was considering affirming LGBT. That sounds like obvious providence, but they are only one on a long list of denominations and organizations that affirm LGBT.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT-affirming_Christian_denominations

Does God send tornadoes to all of them? If so, well, that would be a pretty big indicator of providence. Affirm LGBT, get a tornado. You couldn't argue with it.

But God sends a tornado to only one on the list. Doesn't rule out that it was a judgement, but it doesn't exactly affirm it either. Indeed, a one-off sign is ambiguous, and could fall into the "Not necessarily providence" position outlined in the article. It begs the question of "Which should we give the more authority to? The one time God sent the tornado or the many times he didn't?" Indeed, looked at that way, we could "assume" that the many times God did not punish a LGBT church as the providence shown rule, and the one time the tornado came as a fluke we shouldn't pay attention to.

I mean, do you see why it's so hard ascribing something to providence?

Add new comment