Now that we are in tornado season, I've been seeing more and more blog posts, articles, and comments about natural disasters and God's role in them. Last week John Piper wrote about a recent string of very destructive tornadoes and how God is in complete control of those tornadoes and all of nature. Piper supported his view with several verses, yet I found more than a few posts on other blogs questioning Piper's view (see examples here and here). Granted, there was more to Piper's post and the subsequent rebuttals than just God's control over natural events, however the objections to Piper's view underscored the belief that God does not cause natural events, especially natural disasters. In light of this, I want to discuss the doctrine of providence which will guide us to a scriptural understanding of God's role in nature (for simplicity's sake, I won't talk about God's interaction with men and women - we'll leave that beast for another time when I have more courage).
The Doctrine of Providence
The doctrine of providence concerns God's relation to and activity in his creation. It describes how God continually upholds all of creation, works through and with all things in creation, and guides all things towards his ultimate purpose. These elements of providence are called preservation, concurrence, and government, respectively, and, while I will discuss these three as distinct elements in providence, they are never separated from each other in effect. Rather, they reference three parallel views of growing scope in God's providence. Starting with the narrowest point of view, preservation refers to the existence and being of an element in creation. Then, widening our point of view, concurrence describes the action or activity of those elements in creation. Finally, at the widest point of view, government is concerned with the guidance of all things toward a specific purpose.
It would be remiss of me to mention God's providence without mentioning Christ. “In Jesus Christ, God has set up the relationship between himself and his creatures, promising to carry through his purpose in creation to its triumphal conclusion” (T.H.L. Parker, “The Providence of God,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology). The relationship between creation and God, as defined by God's providence, is made possible only in Christ and his mediation. Christ was active in creation and he is now active in sustaining that creation. Furthermore, from the widest view of world history to any individual event within history, things only have true, biblical significance in the light of Christ. And so, because of Christ, the ultimate direction of God's providence is towards the redemption of his people for the glory of God.
Deism and Pantheism
Before I discuss the three elements of providence, it is appropriate to say something about what providence is not. First, providence is not simply the foresight or foresight plus foreordination of God. These actions have to do with the prior activity of God, but providence is primarily concerned with the present and continual action by God to sustain and direct his creation. This isn't to say that these concepts aren't related to each other; they are related, but they are not the exact same thing. Second, misconceptions of God's providence generally fall, in varying degrees, towards either deism or pantheism.
Deism, elements of which I believe are far more prevalent in Christian circles today than pantheism, is the belief that God created the world and all of it's physical laws and then sat back and let it run. In other words, God wound up the world clock in creation and then left it to tick away under it's own devices. Technically, absolute deism can't be held by Christians (God could not have intervened in the world's affairs through the person and work of Jesus), but elements of deism often are. Many Christians believe that God only intervenes in the natural order of things when it is truly necessary (e.g., Jesus), or only when we would judge it as a positive action (e.g., a tornado dissipates just before it reaches your house). The view usually culminates in the understanding that God created everything with certain properties and features, set laws to govern creation, and then left creation to work out it's own destiny while only providing general oversight of these laws, but rarely, if at all, interfering with the specific elements in creation. In this belief, God does not direct or control a large majority of events that occur in the universe, but that the laws of nature are in sole control when causing events to happen.
Pantheism views God and nature as one. In this belief, there is no distinction between God and creation at all so that creation and providence are essentially the same thing. In other words, a tornado is God, an earthquake is God, the laws of nature are God, etc. There is no separation of creation and creator. This belief is held more by eastern mysticism and new age followers than Christians, but some elements of pantheism have still crept into some Christians' beliefs in more extreme forms of the doctrine of the immanence of God. But this belief leaves no room for anything separate from God. Anything seen as independent, in any sense of the word, from God is an illusion. The effects here mainly have to do with moral actors, which I'm not addressing in this post, however it must be said that pantheism has serious issues when attempting to address the problem of evil (i.e., theodicy).
To give you an example, we can see elements of both deism and pantheism in Piper's post and the rebuttals. First, I believe Piper's metaphor regarding the fingers of God being tornadoes could be confused as a pantheistic view. If there is no distinction between the creator and the creation, between God and the tornadoes, then we begin to walk down a path that isn't supported by scripture and runs into the problems of pantheism. From all accounts, Piper is not a pantheist and I don't believe it would be a stretch to say he would refute a pantheistic worldview with great resolve. However, with the limitations of impersonal blog posts and the time required to write them, the metaphor Piper used didn't give the nuance that a complete picture of God's providence deserves (nor do I believe it was his intention to create said picture). Regardless, you can see what pantheism would look like if Piper's metaphors were to be taken literally.
On the flip side, the reactions to Piper's post reflected elements of deistic views which, as opposed to Piper's post, I believe are in fact held by the authors as well as many other Christians. Their objections centered around their view that God can't be a part of something if any form of destruction, death, sin, or evil is involved. The tendency when defending deism is to quickly move towards the more difficult subject of God's providence with regard to us as moral agents, as the rebuttals do so when mentioning 9/11 and child predators, and to put responsibility solely upon the world's fallenness. Understandably, the effort here is to separate God from evil. The problem, though, is that this invites more serious issues regarding God's sovereignty and a lack of support from the Bible.
These two alternate views speak more to a world determined by fate on the one hand (pantheism), or by chance on the other (deism). But, as we will see, there is neither randomness nor impersonal deterministic fate with God. God is never surprised as to what happens, he is in control of all things, yet there are also secondary causes in play. When we step back and look at the biblical view of God's providence, we will see that the contrasting views of deism and pantheism are inconsistent both logically and scripturally.
In preservation, God's providence continually keeps and maintains all of the things he created, holding together the properties, abilities, and powers to which he gave them. These properties, abilities, and powers are real things and have real effects in and of themselves, and God upholds them so that they can continue in the way they were created. For example, this means that an apple continues to be an apple because God chooses to continually sustain and keep it so that it has all the properties of an apple. Additionally, even though God is the one who upholds those properties of the apple, they still remain the properties of the apple and are not properties of God (e.g. God upholds the taste of an apple, but the taste itself still belongs to the apple – you are not tasting God). However, if God ever withdrew this sustaining power, the apple would cease to exist.
Preservation is supported scripturally by numerous passages; here are a few. Nehemiah 9:6 says, “you are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you” (emphasis mine). Matthew 10:29 says, “are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” For “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27). After describing creation, Paul follows with God's providence in Colossians 1:17; “and he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Hebrews 1:3 says that Christ “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
The deist would disagree with preservation because they would say that God does not need to uphold anything. As described above, from their point of view God gave all the elements of nature their properties, placed the elements under laws, and then left everything to run on its own with full independence. This is wrong for three reasons. First, the foundation of this view is that God gave all elements in creation the ability to exist on their own apart from God and to be self-sustaining. However, these are incommunicable characteristics of God and have not been given to the created object. Second, this view separates God from creation and renders communion with God virtually impossible. Yet, Christianity can not exist without communion with God – God's continual presence in our lives and in the universe. Third, it is simply unbiblical. This view completely ignores scripture that directly addresses God's continual upholding of his creation.
Where preservation upholds the elements of creation, concurrence causes those elements to act. In concurrence, God's providence is the cooperation of God's power with all powers that he gave to creation, directing their distinctive properties so that they will act as they do. This implies two things. First, the powers of nature do not act by themselves independently, for God is also active in every action of creation. Second, “second causes” are real and should not be confused with the operative power of God.
This is a good place to introduce the idea of “primary cause” and “secondary causes” (sometimes called “first cause” and “second causes”). The primary cause is always God. It is God who first directs and causes all things to occur and it is God's will that supersedes all secondary causes. Secondary causes come from the properties given to the object by God in creation. These are the powers and properties that we see within the natural world. So, while the primary cause is not evident to us, the secondary causes usually are.
Let's return to our apple example. When an apple falls to the ground, who or what caused it to do so? God, as the primary cause did so, and the mass of the apple combined with the force of gravity, as secondary causes, did so. Both are 100% involved. As we discussed earlier, God continually preserves the secondary causes, the mass of the apple and the force of gravity, and thereby works through the secondary causes to bring about events. However, the mass of the apple is still a property of the apple and not of God, and the force of gravity is still a force of nature and not a force of God. So when an event in nature happens, we know immediately who is responsible. God is responsible as the primary cause, and the forces of nature are responsible as the secondary causes.
Is concurrence scriptural? Absolutely. Paul says that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). In Psalm 148:8 we read of “fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word!” And Psalm 135:6-7 says, “Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings froth the wind from his storehouses.” God causes the grass to grow (Psalm 104:14), the sun to rise, and the rain to fall (Matthew 5:45). Birds will not die apart from the will of God (Matthew 10:29), and even seemingly random or chance events are not outside of God's direction. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33).
“For to the snow he says, ‘Fall on the earth,’
likewise to the downpour, his mighty downpour...
By the breath of God ice is given,
and the broad waters are frozen fast.
He loads the thick cloud with moisture;
the clouds scatter his lightning.
They turn around and around by his guidance,
to accomplish all that he commands them
on the face of the habitable world.
Whether for correction or for his land
or for love, he causes it to happen.”
Concurrence is not a general providence where God doesn't determine the action of the created object but just stimulates the object to act, leaving it up to the object to determine it's specific action. If this were the case, then the created object would be superior to God and able to frustrate and override the plans of God. Created objects would be in control and divine providence would not exist. Also, concurrence is not a joint effort by God and creation. As mentioned in the apple example, an event is entirely of God and entirely of the created object. There is nothing that happens independent of God's will or independent of the activity of the object. Finally, in concurrence there is not an equality between the primary and secondary causes. The primary cause, God, always has priority over the secondary causes.
Preservation describes God's maintenance of all things, concurrence defines how God cooperates with secondary causes to bring about events, and government is how God directs those events towards his divine purpose. In government, God's providence continually rules over all creation to fulfill his eternal purpose, the glory of his name. God is king of his kingdom, which is the whole universe, and has complete divine sovereignty over it. His government of his kingdom is formed around the nature of all the things he has created so that the laws of nature act in a way that is shaped by his will. God has a purpose, and all things are directed towards that purpose. In the apple example, the apple falls for a reason and that reason is aligned with God's ultimate purpose. No matter how small the event, yes, even an apple falling from a tree, God has a purpose.
The idea of government is also evident in scripture. “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19). God “does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, 'What have you done?'” (Daniel 4:35). Acts 17:24-27 describes God as “Lord of heaven and earth, [who] does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.” Paul declares that “from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36) so that “God has put all things in subjection under [Christ's] feet” (1 Corinthians 15:27).
Hopefully now you have some direction as to how to answer our original question, “Does God control the weather?” The answer is yes, although a simple yes is not sufficient (as is the case for all questions surrounding God's providence). God continually sustains the laws of nature that cause weather. Whether it is a peaceful spring rain or a devastating natural disaster, God upholds the forces that cause these things. Additionally, God directs the complex forces of nature in such a way that those forces combine to produce the weather event. God is the primary cause, and all the meteorological forces are the secondary causes. Both God and those meteorological forces are completely involved. Through this action, though, the properties of the weather event remain attributable to that event. A hurricane is not the breath of God, an earthquake is not the shove of God, and, yes, a tornado is not the actual finger of God. Just as the taste of an apple remains the property of the apple, the destructive properties of natural disasters are their own properties and are not properties of God. And finally, God directs all things, which certainly includes the weather, towards his eternal purpose and for the glory of his name.