Was the Oil Spill an Act of God?

Rick Warren tweeted earlier today, “When people call an ocean oil spill caused by human drilling ‘an Act of God,’ THAT, friends, is taking God’s name in vain!”

To my surprise, I enjoy a lot of what Warren tweets, but in this case I think he has it precisely backwards. Failing to attribute to God complete sovereignty over all of the events of His world—even the “accidental” ones for which man is at some level responsible—is to rob God of His glory.

Amos wrote a few thousand years ago, “Does disaster [רָעָה] come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?” (Amos 3:6). Amos was speaking of intentional disaster (an invading army seeking to overtake a city), not events resulting accidentally or from carelessness like an oil spill. If the former is rightly attributed to God, certainly the latter would be as well.

Job’s response to the loss of his children by a great wind bringing the house down upon them was, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).

Both of these biblical writers saw God as the ultimate actor behind natural disasters and the evil of men.

And let us not forget that the cross itself, with all its evil, was an act of God (Acts 2:23; 3:18; 4:27–28).

What’s interesting here is not that Warren rejects God’s active sovereignty over evil, but that he’ll be speaking at this year’s Desiring God National Conference, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God. John Piper has been strongly criticized for his decision to invite Warren, but he’s defended it on a couple of occasions. In one of the videos, Piper maintained, “[Warren] would be probably theologically more at home with where I am than where an Arminian is.” After following Warren on Twitter for the last several months, I have my doubts.

It’s well known that Piper differs sharply with Warren on this point. When evil men intentionally caused mass destruction by flying planes into the Twin Towers, Piper insisted that it is utterly unbiblical to say, “God did not cause the calamity.” Scores of additional examples could be provided, but that’s unnecessary. What’s clear is that Warren is nowhere near Piper on this issue. I do hope that changes as a result of their interaction.

Update: Someone called to my attention that Warren may have been using “Act of God” to refer not to the theological concept but the legal term as used by insurance companies, etc. to indicate that no one can be held responsible for the calamitous event. If that’s the case—and it seems likely since he did capitalize the term—then his tweet was intended to convey that it’s inappropriate to escape responsibility for one’s actions by putting the responsibility on God, with which I’d certainly agree. I haven’t followed the details of the oil spill closely enough to know if the original incident was due to negligence or not, so I don’t have much of an opinion on this (the proper?) interpretation of Warren’s tweet.

Two observations:

  1. I’m not sure what Warren’s opinion is on whether the oil spill was an act of God in the theological sense. My comments above may or may not apply. But I’ll give Warren the benefit of the doubt and assume they don’t until I have more evidence than a misreading of a tweet!
  2. The term “Act of God” in its legal sense may be an unfortunate one and lead to a faulty view of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Something’s being an act of God in no way removes man’s responsibility for it (assuming man was in some way involved either by choice or negligence). Everything is ultimately an act of God, so to apply the term to unfavorable events in order to free man of responsibility is potentially confusing.

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3 Responses to Was the Oil Spill an Act of God?

  1. Sara Harvey June 12, 2010 at 6:01 pm #

    I'm think this is one for the "mystery" category. God is sovereign, but the world took a bent for chaos (because of us) and has not stopped tilting that way … He must call/We must come. Mystery. He keeps/We must continue. It's both true, artfully and intentionally woven into Scripture. It's all there. It doesn't order "scientifically," but God's a person, a "not-us," and He doesn't fit under a pin. Thoughts?

    • Phil Gons June 11, 2010 at 11:04 pm #

      Hey, Sara. Thanks for your thoughts.

      I agree that there’s mystery when it comes to God’s sovereignty. But I think we need to be careful to put the mystery in the right spot. His calling and our coming are not parallel activities. Scripture explains how they relate. We come because He calls; it’s not the other way around, nor is it some unknown relationship. I’m not sure there’s much of a mystery between the two. In the same way, we continue because He keeps. Again, I’m not sure this qualifies for the category of mystery, at least not in the fullest sense of the term.

      I agree that we ought not think that we need to have God completely figured out. But where I think Scripture puts the mystery is in relating God’s absolute sovereignty over all things (He both ordains them and effects them) with His holding men culpable for those actions. To our finite minds, it would seem that God can only call men to account for their actions if they weren’t foreordained and if He didn’t harden us, turn our hearts, stir up our spirits, or otherwise “interfere” with the free exercise of our will. But my reading of Scripture leads me to believe that such is not the case. God can and does both harden and call to account the one hardened. He turns the hearts of men and then judges them for what their hearts lead them to do. This is true mystery indeed.

  2. Sara Harvey July 17, 2010 at 11:55 pm #

    My theater! :)

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