Providence and Purpose in Pandemic

Before this pandemic I would imagine that most Christians knew very little about how the Church has responded to pandemics and plagues in the past. In recent months however I have seen an increasing number of articles highlighting how Christians have always had to deal with what they would have called plagues. Moreover, the way Christians have lived during plagues has been relatively uniform across history. Rodney Stark highlights how striking the Christian attitudes to plagues in the first three centuries were in contrast to their Pagan neighbours. Christians largely did not flee from plagues as their Pagan neighbours did. They stayed and cared for the sick. So striking was this that Emperor Julian the Apostate encouraged Pagan priests that they should do likewise.[1] Another example is Martin Luther’s advice to the ministers in Breslau when faced with the plague. Luther is firm in his emphasis on the Christian duty to serve neighbour. Luther therefore advises that it is only permissible to flee if by doing so you are not neglecting your obligations to serve others who are in need or those you have a particular duty too (e.g. parents). Luther’s advice also makes reference to limiting unnecessary contact with others to prevent spreading the plague and commends the wisdom of using medical means of prevention.[2] Today, we are in fair agreement with Christians of the past about what we ought to be doing at a time of pandemic. As always Christians are serving others, not spurning medical advice and living out our hope in the face of death.

However, there is another component to the Christian response to plague in times past that I have seen little of in the current pandemic. Christians of the past were much more ready to speak of God’s providence and purpose even in calamity. It was taken for granted by Christians in the past that God has something to do with plagues; indeed that God sent the plague and had a purpose in it. The Book of Common Prayer provides us with a prime example of this conviction. In its ‘Prayers and Thanksgivings’ it contains a prayer and a corresponding thanksgiving with the subheadingIn the time of any common Plague or Sickness’. The prayer reads as follows:

O Almighty God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also in the time of King David, didst slay with the plague of Pestilence threescore and ten thousand; and yet remembering thy mercy did save the rest: Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[3]

Notice, it is taken for granted that God had something to do with the plague. It is a part of God’s providence. God’s sovereign ordering of the world. Secondly, it is within God’s purview to withdraw the plague. Further, the implication of the two Old Testament examples is also that plagues are (at least sometimes) an expression of God’s judgement or chastisement. It is taken for granted too then that God has a purpose in plagues. Now some will say this is a prayer not a book of systematic theology. Are we not reading too much into this prayer? But, in response we could assemble numerous other examples of Christians of the past speaking of plagues in similar categories: God’s providence, judgement and chastisement.[4] Nevertheless, Christians of the past also readily acknowledged that God’s providence is not an open book for us to read.[5] We cannot always see what God’s purpose is in any calamity. However, they would assert that God is sovereign over these events and has a holy and good purpose in them.

There is no doubt that to some today these categories seem inappropriate, unhelpful and even unchristian ways of thinking about the current pandemic. Tom Wright, for example, has written one of a number of recent books seeking to make sense of the pandemic. In ‘God and the Pandemic’ Wright is at pains to head off what he sees as two bad interpretations of the pandemic. First, that it is a sign of the immanent return of Christ.[6] He rightly emphasises that there have always been plagues and mentions historical examples. Secondly, Wright believes it is wrong to try to discern a purpose in this pandemic. Wright is correct to note that Christians have often clumsily acted like Job’s comforters in denouncing one particular sin as the cause of plague or other calamity.[7] More, Christians have sometimes erroneously assumed a one-to-one correlation between those who suffer and God’s judgement as the Pharisees did with the man born blind (John 9).[8] However, Wright concludes in consequence that it is the wrong question to ask for the purpose behind this? [9] Wright also says in his earlier article in Time Magazine that those who seek such answers are being overly ‘rationalistic’. Not everything has an explanation. Moreover, in many places he goes to great pains to exonerate God of having anything to do with the pandemic. For example, Wright interprets Romans 8:28 as accenting human cooperation with God in bringing about good rather than God’s providential accomplishing of his good purposes in all things.[10]  Where does this leave us?  Wright concludes with a plea for the recovery of lament as a biblical category of Christian prayer; something which is undoubtedly neglected. He also asserts that the incarnation shows us a God who suffers with us (an issue I have addressed elsewhere[11]). Yet, all this is surely inadequate because it leaves us still with no purpose in the current pandemic.

In the Bible there is no purposeless evil. Certainly, this is a controversial claim to make but also one that many throughout the history of the Church have upheld and defended biblically.[12] One biblical example of God’s sovereign purposes in evil events is found in the life of Joseph. At the end of the narrative after reconciliation with his brothers when they were afraid that Joseph would take revenge on them Joseph said to them:

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. Genesis 50:20 (NASB)

Joseph asserts that the same events (the brothers selling him into slavery) that were meant for evil by the brothers were meant for good by God. The thing that differs is the intention. The brothers intended evil, God intended good. God’s providence encompasses the evil actions of Joseph’s brothers and even extends to restraining them from their intention to kill Joseph (Gen 37). In other words, God is meticulously sovereign over all events including evil ones. Another striking biblical example of this would be the events of the crucifixion. In Acts 4:24-28 when the early Church prays they confess that the diverse parties involved in the crucifixion – the Jews, the Romans, Herod and Pontius Pilate – only did ‘whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur’ (Acts 4:28 NASB). Here as in numerous other places in scripture God’s providential hand is clearly behind events in which those who are acting have evil intentions, yet his intentions remain holy and good.[13] But, does this not make God the author of sin? Historically, Reformed theologians have defended against this claim by making the distinction between God’s active will and permissive will. God is not the author of sin in the same way that he is the author of our salvation. Rather God permits evil at the hands of other agents (who are nevertheless held responsible for acting freely on the desires of their hearts). Louis Berkhof clarifies in the following section:

The decree respecting sin is not an efficient but a permissive decree, or a decree to permit, in distinction from a decree to produce, sin by divine efficiency... The problem of God’s relation to sin remains a mystery for us, which we are not able to solve. It may be said, however, that His decree to permit sin, while it renders the entrance of sin into the world certain, does not mean that He takes delight in it; but only that He deemed it wise, for the purpose of His self-revelation, to permit moral evil, however abhorrent it may be to His nature.[14]

All of this means that we can make the claim that in permitting the current pandemic God has a purpose which is holy and good. Indeed in a certain sense we can say that God sent this pandemic. I am not arguing at this point that we can discern all of God’s purposes in this pandemic. We are rarely in the position that Joseph and the brothers were in of being able to look back and see God’s providential hand. We cannot see how God intends this current ‘bitter providence’[15] for good, particularly as we grieve with those who have lost loved ones or livelihood as a result. Moreover, we should certainly be cautious about jumping to conclusions about what God’s hidden purposes might be in this season.

However, with those who experienced plagues in the past I think we need to say that God does have a purpose which is holy and good that he is accomplishing in the current pandemic. Moreover, it is inadequate to say that God allowed this to happen but he has no purpose for it.

John Piper concurs when he writes:

The coronavirus was sent, therefore, by God. This is not a season for sentimental views of God. It is a bitter season. And God ordained it. God governs it. He will end it. No part of it is outside his sway. Life and death are in his hand. [16]

In conclusion, our duty is certainly to continue to serve our neighbours, heed medical advice and live out our hope in Christ in the face of death as Christians have always done when faced with plagues. But in my view, we also need to be able to speak about a God who ‘works all things according to the counsel of his will’ (Ephesians 1:11) and whose purposes are holy and good even in this bitter season. In other words we confess our faith in a God who is sovereign even over pandemics.

 

FOOTNOTES

[1] Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity, (HarperOne, 2011) p.118

[2] Martin Luther, ‘To John Hess November 1527’

[3] Book of Common Prayer 1662

[4] Another example from our Anglican heritage is found in the Book of Homilies. Homily IX ‘An Exhortation against the Fear of Death’ where sickness is spoken of in terms of God’s fatherly discipline.

[5] See for example John Flavel’s, The Mystery of Providence, (Monergism Books), (Ebook) location 116

[6] Tom Wright ‘God and the Pandemic’ (SPCK, London, 2020) p.5

[7] Ibid. p.8

[8] Ibid. pp.9-10

[9] Ibid. p.58

[10] Ibid. p.48

[11] Ibid.p.52 and p.56  I have addressed the issue of God’s suffering in two earlier Fulcrum articles: Why we need a God who does not suffer and Why we need a God who suffers impassibly.

[12] John Calvin is perhaps the most well-known in defending this view (See Institutes Book I Chapter XVII). However, this view is also implicit in the Anglican formularies; the Articles of Religion and the Book of Common Prayer.

[13] Michael Horton writes ‘That nothing comes to pass (including the sinful actions of human beings) apart from God’s sovereign governance is attested in many passages, including Genesis 50:20; Daniel 4:34-37; Acts 2:23; and Ephesians 1:11. In fact, an implication of God’s omniscience is that the future is determined. God knows the future exhaustively because he has decreed the future exhaustively. ‘  The Christian Faith, (Zondervan, 2011),  p.309

[14] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, 1949)  Ebook location 2399

[15] I borrow the phrase ‘bitter providence’ from John Piper Coronavirus and Christ, (Crossway, 2020), p.37

[16] Ibid. p.42

Leave a comment