The Coronavirus and the 16th Century

Seeing the Unseen

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On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Since then, civic leaders have encouraged social distancing by asking people to stay at home and discouraging large gatherings. For the past few months, this disease has prowled around our minds, raising questions and stoking dark emotions. Even though this outbreak presents serious challenges to our faith and institutions, it is worth pointing out that this is not the first time Christians have encountered harmful contagious diseases.

In the 16th century, a typical town or city in Europe experienced an outbreak of plague once every 10 years. Their epidemiological context was worse than ours; their hospitals were not as clean, their doctors were not as knowledgeable, and their cures were not as powerful as ours are today. In response, many Reformers asked and answered basic questions about how to be a faithful Christian during such times. Their sober-minded advice is still relevant today. 

Should I avoid people?

First  they asked, "Should I avoid people during an outbreak?" Social avoidance came in two dominant forms in the 16th century. The first was flight. The most common advice given during the plague was to run away quickly, to a far off place, and to stay away as long as possible, advice captured in the Latin phrase cito, longe, tarde.

On the one hand, the Reformers celebrated those who remained in infected places to minister to the sick. They highlighted biblical and historical examples where such people put themselves in harm's way in order to comfort others. On the other hand, the Reformers revealed that these people were the exception and not the rule in the terms they used. Johannes Brenz, the reformer in Württemberg, ascribed "heroic virtue" to these quasi-martyrs; and, for Martin Luther, these heroes had "firm faith." Most people did not have such courageous dispositions and had, what Luther called, "milk faith;" they wanted to get as far away as possible from pestilential danger.

For this second group of people, the Reformers recommended flight as a viable option. For support, they cited biblical examples where the prophets, disciples, and even Jesus avoided death in specific instances. For guidance, they relied on the concept of calling. Luther challenged pastors to stay and minister to their flocks, secular rulers to stay and govern their lands, and all others to stay and honor their familial duties. The Reformation's emphasis on calling, or vocation, illuminated for whom and to what extent people were required to remain in hazardous situations. In discussing calling, Luther also made an important concession: if these duties could be met via substitutes (that is, if one could fulfill them without having to be physically present) then one could flee for safer lands.

The second dominant form of social avoidance in the 16th century was quarantine, measures mandated by civic authorities that separated the sick from the healthy. Many people objected that these measures violated the law of charity by prohibiting healthy people from providing for the afflicted. The Reformers reminded people that the law of charity applied equally to the healthy and the sick. Just as the healthy were expected to minister to the sick, so the sick should love those in good health by reducing the amount of contact between them. For the Reformers, the equal application of the law of charity justified quarantine. Furthermore, the Reformers cited Levitical laws regarding leprosy to show that social avoidance could be practiced for the greater good of the community in accordance with God's law.

On the topic of social avoidance, the Reformers were nuanced. They advised people to flee or to respect quarantines but not from an ethic centered on self-preservation. Rather, their moral advice was filtered through the law of charity and a renewed emphasis on calling.

Is God in control?

The Reformers also dealt with the question, "Is God in control during outbreaks?" There were two extreme positions that they argued against in the 16th century. The first position claimed that there was no God and that everything that happened in the world resulted from chance and matter.

The Reformers countered with an expansive theology of providence that included divine control over sickness. God sent plagues against Egypt during the Exodus and against Israel after King David had taken an unlawful census. But God could also miraculously protect people from such outbreaks as happened with the Israelites in Egypt. Divine control over sickness was revealed most dramatically in Jesus's ability to heal people in the Gospels. Against this first position, the Reformers emphatically argued in favor of God's active providence.

The second extreme position claimed that God only worked directly and supernaturally when it came to the plague; applied more broadly, it denied that God utilized nature or medicine. In Geneva, for example, Theodore Beza, Calvin's successor, had to defend the plague's communicability against biblical literalists. These people thought to themselves, "If God wants me to get sick, then I'll get sick. There's no point in avoiding infected places or listening to doctors or taking medicine. My health is completely in God's hands."

Beza argued that even though God could directly intervene in the world's affairs, he often did not. God worked through nature. In the 16th century, this argument encouraged Christians to embrace insights and theories gleaned from nature by scientists and doctors. It also encouraged them to use natural (i.e. non-superstitious) remedies to treat the plague, so long as the stricken did not rely on them exclusively.

How should I feel?

Lastly, the Reformers dealt with the psychological effects of epidemic disease. Early modern physicians knew even less about contagious diseases than we do. They were only just beginning to flesh out a theory of contagion, something that would only be confirmed with certainty in the 19th century. For them, transmissible diseases were mysterious, a characteristic that elicited a number of different emotions, the foremost being fear.

The Reformers warned people about the dangers of excessive fear. Fear led to moral compromise, which at the time included abandoning their familial and civic obligations, scapegoating minorities, and turning to superstitious beliefs and practices. In his sermon on Psalm 91, Andreas Osiander, the reformer in Nuremberg, put it best when he wrote, "We should fear inordinate fear more than death itself … since (the former) can lead us into unrighteousness and hysteria." Some Reformers added a demonological layer to their analysis of fear. Luther, for example, claimed that fear gave devils greater opportunity to tempt believers.

Though the Reformers chastised excessive fear, they recognized that a certain measure of fear was natural. According to Brenz, Jesus experienced fear in the Garden of Gethsemane, but he did so without sinning. His example served as a reminder that fear—just like hunger, poverty, and thirst—would always be a part of the human experience. But it also exemplified what people should do with that fear: persevere in obedience and cling to God in faith.

Conclusions

How do the Reformers, separated from our era by 500 years, aid our struggle with COVID-19? They inject our moral discourse with nuance and provide signposts by which we can navigate the complexities of a global pandemic. For example, in times of plague they acknowledged God's ability to work beyond and through nature. Therefore, we can pray that God would miraculously protect and heal people from this disease while simultaneously basing our actions on the most up-to-date epidemiological and medical data.

The Reformers also endorsed the social distancing measures of their day while acknowledging that the proper functioning of society required that people uphold their familial and civic obligations. Their balanced approach guides us on how to be faithful Christians while still respecting recommendations provided by the medical community. Luther's advice on finding adequate substitutes is particularly helpful, especially on the question of worship. Meeting virtually for Sabbath worship is a huge blessing that the Reformers could not have imagined. Through technology, we have the ability to gather virtually to sing, hear God's word, and pray for one another. As far as temporary measures go, this is a huge blessing (though nothing compares to being physically present with fellow believers).

The Reformers also acknowledged that fear was a natural response while warning against the dangers of excessive fear. COVID-19 is bad enough as a biological parasite without it becoming a carrier for our fallen prejudices and inclinations. Today, these manifest in xenophobia, racism, hoarding, and the like. Fear can be our first emotion, but it cannot be our last. We must move from a place of fear to faith so that we can demand from ourselves the radical acts of love and mercy that these times require.

The Reformers, however, did not answer all of the questions that plague the church during these challenging times, and they had their own blindspots. Many of the Reformers, for example, clung to the idea that plagues were sent to punish specific sins or groups. In a polemical milieu that rewarded insults and demonizing, the Reformers blamed outbreaks on their Catholic and Spiritualist contemporaries. Over the past 500 years, we have hopefully grown less self-righteous and abusive and can sidestep questions of blame for efforts of cooperation.

Lastly, Luther's concession for substitutes has a major flaw: it requires material advantages. How do those without access to disposable wealth or technology participate in worship when gatherings over 50 are being discouraged? How about those who, because of their economic need, are unable to work virtually and are required to place themselves in perilous situations for meager wages that were appalling even before this current pandemic? How about small-business owners, responsible for rent and their employees, who will not be able to ride out the closures and economic downturn of the next few months? What about the homeless, exposed to every careless cough and left without a refuge?

Today, God calls the church to be a brighter light than its younger self by suffusing her obedience with humility, unity, mercy, and justice. To do so, we'll have to forsake fear and embrace the joy of obedience by doing what we should always have been doing: praying, worshiping, and serving.

About the Author

Fred Kim lives in New York, N.Y. He completed his Ph.D. in Medieval and Reformation History at Union Theological Seminary in 2019. He currently teaches at the Geneva School of Manhattan and is an elder at Good New Church.

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Comments

In Canada, the governments, both federal and provincial are making provisions for the poor and those who are laid off during the crisis, so that they won't be expelled from their homes because they can't pay their rent or mortgage, and so that they can feed their families. Parliament has been convened to ratify those measures.  

I'm sorry to hear that not all governments are as effective in dealing with the crisis.

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