Adapted from remarks delivered at the spring 2002 Conference of the Southern California Center for Christian Studies, March 9, at California State University, Fullerton. Presented in RazorMouth in four parts.
Let me preface my chief remarks today with an important qualifier. I believe we need to tread with both charity and caution in addressing the momentous issues raised by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. After reading Roger Wagner’s summarizing assessment in Penpoint,1 I wrote and commended him on how sensitively and judiciously he’d addressed these issues. Often, these qualities are in short supply in our camp. Too frequently we’re known for spouting off at the mouth and thinking only later.
I called Steve Schlissel at Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn not long after the attacks and asked for his candid assessment. He replied with something like: “I’m not sure what to think. We’re still too close to the event, and it’s a tragedy of such massive proportions, that I’m not sure I can get my mind fully around it yet.” That, too, was a sensitive and judicious answer.
The Bible is infallible, but we are not infallible.2 We could use a little less strident pontification, and more gracious humility.3 Where the Bible speaks, the argument is over; but sometimes the Bible doesn’t speak with clarity on certain specific issues like this one. In these cases, we must glean wisdom from its pages. And we sometimes make mistakes when we do this. Well, maybe you don’t, but I do. So if you disagree with my conclusions, I’ll try not to be offended. I’m known to have been wrong on occasion; so take the wheat, and gently cast aside the chaff.
In enumerating my assessment of these tragedies, however, I can’t in good conscience avoid gently criticizing some of my Christian brothers and political conservatives, not just the secular left, who are almost always wrong about everything. We can’t sweep under the rug errors in our own midst, while highlighting the errors of The Bad Guys. The Bad Guys are bad, but the Good Guys need to do better.
Let me remind you finally that the Bible stands in judgment over all political ideologies, all political parties, and all political strategies. We are called first to fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Word, not to some political agenda. With that, let me plunge right in.
Pinpointing God’s Judgment
From some quarters subsequent to Sept. 11, we heard that God had nothing to so with this horrific event. Apparently it caught him napping, or at least he watched it with great apprehension.
We must dispose of this sentiment quickly. God is a sovereign God. We don’t understand his mysterious ways, but we must never deny his sovereign will. The great temptation for man when he doesn’t understand God’s ways is to attempt to change God’s character. This is true with the so-called “Open Theism” view.4 The God whom the Bible reveals just doesn’t suit the Open Theists, so they reshape God into man’s image. But our God did know about 9-11; and it was a part of his plan, even though we don’t understand how. I’m assuming nobody here believes differently, so I won’t spend any more time on it.
But there was (I believe) a mistaken response that hits a little closer to home. We’ve been hearing (from both the left and the right) that America deserves these attacks, or at least “had them coming.”
According to the far left, the United States deserves this tragedy because of our “raping” the environment, our “imperialism” in the rest of the world, our WASP culture, our homophobia, our misogyny, our racism, and our corporate idolatry. The far left has little good to say about America.
Ironically, there were similar charges from the far Christian right.5 They, too, have little good to say about America, though for different reasons. According to these brethren, the sins for which we were judged are abortion, homosexuality, pornography, socialism, and so on. These are, to be sure, grievous sins; God hates them, and our nation truly deserves his judgment (what nation and who doesn’t?). But I think we must be a little less audacious in identifying that judgment. In times like this, the seduction to be donning the mantle of prophet is powerful indeed.
Some have been breathless to conclude that 9-11 was God’s judgment on America. For example, a generally perceptive minister, a good and godly man, trumpeted:
This [9-11 attack] is what it looks like when a people drink from the cup of God’s wrath. Throughout Scripture, God frequently speaks of striking the pundits, seers and prophets of an idolatrous and wicked people with this kind of judicial blindness, with this kind of blind stupor. There are many things about this whole event that are screamingly obvious, and yet virtually no one is willing to say them in public. So we must understand that this is what it looks like when a people drink from the cup of God’s judgments.6
Perhaps I’m obtuse or spiritually bankrupt or (in the writer’s words) struck with “judicial blindness” and suffering a “kind of blind stupor,” but it’s not “screamingly obvious” to me. The fact is, I don’t know exactly what God’s up to. He as sovereign has the authority and ability to do what he wants, but I do not have the right or ability to know why. I shudder when I recall seeing the TV images of those two towers collapse and the jagged wound in the side of the Pentagon, but I can’t claim to know exactly what God’s rationale was — and (I might add) nobody else knows either. We’re just not privy to God’s secret counsels.
The problem wouldn’t be so bad were it simply a mistake of judgment. But these people, implicitly at least, claim to be reading God’s mind, even though they probably don’t realize this. Will we continue to indulge those who claim to know the mind of God infallibly apart from his revealed Word, the Bible? It seems (I say it charitably) that our camp is rife with people who seem to know just what God is up to in every disaster — or in every supposed, impending disaster.
Don’t misunderstand: I do sympathize with these folks’ sense of justice, by which some of them glory in what they perceive as God’s judgment. We should indeed praise God for his justice, no less than for his love. His justice and his love are equally ultimate, and we may not play the one against the other.7
Yet, I’m reminded of Paul’s command in 1 Cor. 4:5: “[J]udge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God.” Here Paul speaks of those judging his own apostleship, but his general point is that we may not preempt God’s final judgment. We are both creatures and depraved, both finite and sinful. We suffer incomplete and often mistaken knowledge. Unless the Bible states it, we’d better be careful about claiming infallibility for it. We have a completed Bible, but we don’t have a “prophetic” interpretation of it.
Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson immediately assured us that, because of their evil, the abortionists and the ACLU were partly responsible for these attacks. Well, we can be sure that America deserves God’s judgment because of toleration of these groups’ sins. All sinners deserve God’s judgment (Rom. 6:23). The hands of abortionists are filled with the blood of the innocent, and the ACLU is wildly guilty of supporting the miscarriage of justice. But God didn’t tell us it’s on account of these particular sinners that this event was part of his plan.
Now here’s a vital point: There is an epistemological price to pay for a completed canon of Scripture. That price is a lack of accessibility to the precise mind of God on anything other than what Scripture reveals.8
Now, were we to transport ourselves back to Sinai or Corinth 2000-3000 years ago, we’d be in the presence of God’s men, his prophets, who received somewhat regular, immediate revelations from him. But we’d lack a completed, final, written revelation such as we today have in the Bible. Unless you’re willing to acknowledge there’s some continuing inspiration or revelation today (and here I disagree with my dear charismatic brothers), we’ll have to be content with the Bible.
Content with the Bible? It has an almost irreverent ring to it. It should suffice us to love and obey God’s written Word, his gospel and his law. This may mean that we don’t have infallible knowledge about the reason for human disasters. But it does mean that we have God’s final, sufficient revelation to us for all we need to know for faith and practice. We should exult in this revelation, and not seek some greater or deeper revelation.
I’m reminded of the elderly, sainted Christian lady who once commented: “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me. It’s the parts I do understand but don’t obey, that bother me.” Similarly, I’m not concerned that I don’t know just how the Sept. 11 attacks fit into God’s plan. I am concerned that I act in accord with his written Word in light of those attacks. Speculation (of course) is a lot easier, and more exciting, than simple obedience.
The United States does suffer from grievous wickedness. Our job is to work to change it, by preaching the gospel and applying the faith in all areas of life, not issue prophecies on what God’s intentions are (beyond what he declares in his objective Word).
As a Christian, I didn’t rejoice over the many lives lost on 9-11. I’m sure there were evil folks who died, including the terrorists themselves; but they were humans, made in the image of God. Here we can agree with Francis Schaeffer — our fellow humans may be sinners, but they are not zeros. They are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect — the law requires that we love our neighbor as ourselves (Jas. 2:8). We must not hate our neighbor in our heart (Lev. 19:17). Make no mistake: God hates wickedness and the wicked (Ps. 11:5), but we must never forget the truth of Ezekiel 33:11, “As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways.”
The Lord has pleasure in the wicked’s repentance, not in taking their lives, though in his justice he sometimes does this.
I think that sometimes there are too many Jonahs in our midst. They seem to squeal with delight whenever there is hint of tragedy for the ungodly. And they seem to pout when God manifests his longsuffering to us poor sinners. This, I believe, is an antinomian stance. We must stand with God’s law against such collective vindictiveness. Let’s pray for the salvation of many precious souls as a result of this tragedy. To say we must be either warm-hearted Arminians or frozen-chosen Calvinists is to posit a false dilemma. Let’s be fervent, warm-hearted Calvinists. Let us pray and work for revival.
On the other hand, we should perhaps not judge too harshly these folks I’ve been mentioning. In the passion of the hours and days following the attacks, they were outraged — we were all outraged — in perhaps an unprecedented way, so unspeakable were these murders. In such situations, we grope for things to say; and we often do not say them prudently. When that time comes, I believe it’s better, if we can, to be silent and pray and ponder. One publication that announced 9-11 as God’s judgment wrote:
Because we wanted to speak before Americans successfully retreated back into their normal befogged state, this meant that we had to turn the issue [of our publication] around fairly quickly, at least for us.
Perhaps it would have been better to run the risk of tardiness than indulge in impetuosity.
Tomorrow: Part 2: Getting to the root of the debate over pluralism.
1. The February 2002 issue: “September 11, 2001 and the Providence of Our Sovereign God.”
2. I agree with Cornelius Van Til: “No interpretation [of Scripture] as such may be said to be infallible. There is an ever deeper insight into the truth of Scripture promised to the church if it submits its efforts at interpretation to the Scripture itself.” A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1969), 162.
3. Unless I miss my guess, this issue of modest epistemological claims will be at the center of the theological agenda in Bible-believing circles. We have a revival of a sort of “Christian rationalism” in the works of Gordon Clark, Norman Geisler, John Robbins, and Carl F. H. Henry. See Henry’s rigorous logos epistemology in God, Revelation and Authority (Waco, Texas: Word, 1979), 3:164-247, especially 212. This is countered by a less audacious (and, I would suggest, distinctly more reverent) epistemology in John Frame, Vern Poythress, and Cornelius Van Til. See the latter’s An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1974), 165. The theological debates among the orthodox (it seems to me) will hinge as much on epistemology as on theology itself. If you’re dog-certain you’re correct in your views right down to the last detail, and that you know what’s in God’s mind with absolute certainty, you’ll be less inclined to remain open to revise your views. But the Bible, not our interpretation of it, is infallible. Less audacious epistemologies preserve, in practice, a higher view of Scripture.
4. See Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001). I need to mention that the Open Theists do have some good arguments against a very hard, static Calvinism, which distorts the image of God in the Bible no less than the Open Theists themselves do. For a balanced view from a thoughtful Calvinist, see John M. Frame, No Other God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2001).
5. For a fundamentalist example, see John E. Ashbrook, “America Before Her Judge,” Ohio Bible Fellowship Visitor, November 2001. For a more balanced Reformed perspective (in my view), see Jeffrey A. Ziegler’s “Of War, Judgment, and Hope,” Christian Statesman, November-December 2001, 15-23, 3-6.
6. Douglas Wilson, “God Struck America,” Credenda Agenda Vol. 13, No. 4.
7. I like Ernst Kevan’s description of God’s character as “holy love,” in What the Scriptures Teach (London: Evangelical Press, 1966), 12-13.
8. I’m not denying revelation in creation. But I do see the Bible as presenting a fuller, more comprehensive revelation that works in tandem with natural revelation. See Cornelius Van Til, “Nature and Scripture,” in N. B. Stonehouse and Paul Woolley, eds., The Infallible Word (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Guardian, 1946), 255-275.