Review: Coleman and Rester, Eds., Faith in the Time of Plague

The past two-and-a-half years of COVID-19 fears, restrictions, and dissensions have led to strenuous circumstances for many professions and vocations. The callings of pastors and ministers have been no exception. It has been especially difficult for sessions, consistories, diaconates, and congregations in general, as they have had to navigate thorny paths while remaining faithful to the Scriptures and, in particular, the Great Commission.

Elders have been forced to make decisions they never thought they would have to make regarding church closures and openings, social distancing, outdoor services, live streaming, and visitations of both the sick and the healthy. Deacons have had to discover ways to carry out mercy ministry during times when close contact was not only difficult, but in some states and locales, restricted by edict. Pastors and congregants alike have been forced to think deeply about the most practical theological matters concerning the ministry of the Word and Sacraments, as well as Christian fellowship.

As arduous and seemingly unique as this process has been, as the Preacher says, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9). Thus, it is important to be aware of Church history, for we are not the first Christians to live through times such as these. Christians have been thinking through such issues all throughout the history of the Church. Indeed, many of our Protestant and Reformed theologians have written on and even experienced such issues firsthand.

This makes the volume Faith in the Time of Plague: Selected Writings from the Reformation and Post-Reformation (2021) an invaluable resource for the Church today. In it, editor Stephen M. Coleman and editor-translator Todd M. Rester have compiled, contextualized, and provided numerous primary readings from many 16th and 17th-century Protestant and Reformed theologians and pastors.

It will perhaps surprise the reader to know that most of our Reformed forefathers dealt with not only similar circumstances to our own, but also with far worse in both quality and quantity than our recent pandemic. During the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, as the Bubonic Plague swept through Europe several times, up to 25 percent of populations were wiped out.1  Hardly a Protestant Reformer remained untouched by the Plague in one way or another. Several great minds of the Reformation died from the plague, including Johannes Oecolampadius (1482–1531) and Franciscus Junius (1545–1602), with several others surviving the disease. 2

The reader of Faith in the Time of Plague is provided access to Theodore Beza’s (1519–1605) “A Learned Treatise on the Plague,” written from the perspective of one who not only taught and ministered during the Plague, but also suffered from it himself. Beza is followed by the French Protestant Andre Rivet (1572–1651), who wrote his “Letter to a Friend,” as an overview of what fellow theologians said concerning the Plague and how to continue to minister faithfully amid ravaging pestilence. He died of the Plague fifteen years after writing the letter.

Dutch Reformed theologian Gisbertus Voetius’ (1589–1676) “A Treatise on the Plague” provides both a comprehensive view of the Plague and how to respond spiritually. He closed his treatise with these words, “Conquer the fear of death and you will conquer the fear of the plague.”3 Following Voetius’ work is that of his student, the lesser-known, yet no less influential in the Dutch Further Reformation, Johannes Hoornbeeck (1617–66). In his “Theological Dissertation on the Plague,” Hoornbeeck wrote with scholastic clarity concerning how to think about the Plague and respond pastorally.

Next is a hymn written by the Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) when he suffered from and believed that he was dying of the Plague. Following Zwingli is Martin Luther’s (1483– 1546) “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” After Luther’s treatise is the Swiss Reformed theologian of Zurich, Ludwig Lavatar (1527–86), who wrote “The Merciful Hands of the Lord,” as a commentary of 1 Chronicles 21:9–15 regarding the pestilence brought on by King David’s sin resulting in the death of 70,000 of his men.

A short commentary on Philippians 2:30 written by the Italian-born Reformed theologian Jerome Zanchi (1516–90) is provided. Zanchi, who followed Zacharius Ursinus (1534–83) as professor of theology in Heidelberg, defended the idea that pastors ought not expose themselves to unnecessary danger in ministering to the sick. In doing so, he used the example of Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75), who upon visiting a woman with the Plague, contracted the disease and gave it to his wife and two children, who subsequently died from it.4

Possibly the finest addition to this volume is Ursinus’ “A Godly Meditation on Death.” The author of the Heidelberg Catechism wrote his meditation from the perspective of a preacher preparing his hearers for death. In it, Ursinus clearly and powerfully preached the gospel for the comfort, edification, and assurance of his audience. Preachers and laypeople alike will find this gospel presentation particularly encouraging.

The seventeenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot, (1562–1633) in his “On Flight in Persecution or Plague,” unsurprisingly offered a “middle way” for the minister who was unsure whether to flee or continue to serve his flock in the face of adversity.5

The final Reformation-period document in this volume is a letter from English pastor John Rawlet (1642–86), written to his mother supposing he would die of the Plague before seeing her again. Although he did not die, and it was never read by his mother, this unique letter is full of warmth and appreciation for her and her guidance in the Christian faith. Supposing he would be dead when she read it, Rawlet encouraged her in the providence of God and in the hope of the love and goodness of God in all circumstances, including her son’s death.

Provided in the Appendix is a treatise by Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) which was cited by nearly every author in this volume. Concerning Cyprian’s “On Mortality,” Rivet wrote,

Humbling themselves under the hand of God, and considering that, for their good, God either inflicts or is about to inflict chastisements and trials, the use and benefit of which we gather from the Word of God and our own experience, even in these times of mortality and pestilence. These are the sorts of benefits harvested from the exquisite work by Cyprian the Martyr, On the Mortality, [composed] on a similar occasion for the use of the ancient church and placed before our eyes. I would desire that little book frequently set in the hand, day and night, of those who in this current situation are excessively anxious or worried.6

The most common topic discussed in nearly all of the featured theologians is whether or not “fleeing” or “withdrawing” from the Plague is permissible. They often refer to the Rule of Charity—that is, the love shown in Jesus’ parable by the good Samaritan, or the example of Christ himself, the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. The authors of the primary writings generally made use of similar arguments. The most common notion presented is that for those who hold a public office, whether a pastor or a magistrate, neither are permitted to leave their stations given to them by God.

They cite examples from Scripture, particularly regarding how the Old and New Testament saints responded in times of persecution, famine, war, and pestilence. Additionally, they made made use of examples from Ancient Church history, especially the writings of Cyprian, Terutullian (d. 220), Augustine (d. 430), and Eusebius (d. 339), as well as the examples of Ignatius of Antioch (d. 108), Athanasius (d. 373), and Chrysostom (d. 407). Notably, they also understood the arguments made by other Protestant and Reformed theologians, particularly those featured in this volume.

The editors of this volume have provided a great service making these primary sources available in readily accessible English translation. The volume is also mercifully footnoted rather than stashing the notes at the end. Faith in the Time of Plague is both encouraging and edifying and is thus recommended for all who labor within the church, as well as for those who sit in the pews. It will cause pastors, sessions, consistories, and diaconates to carefully consider the last two-and-a-half years, not in a vacuum, but with proper historical, biblical, and Reformed theological perspective.    

©Scott McDermand II. All Rights Reserved.

Notes

1 Eds. Stephen M. Coleman and Todd M. Rester, Faith in the Time of Plague: Selected Writings from the Reformation and Post-Reformation (Glenside: Westminster Seminary Press), xxiv.

2 Ibid, 85.

3 Ibid, 122.

4 Ibid, 239.

5 Ibid, 293–4

6 Ibid, 35.

Resources

    Post authored by:

  • Scott McDermand II
    Author Image

    Scott McDermand II is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Bad Axe, Michigan. He graduated from San Diego State University (B.A., History) and earned masters degrees at Westminster Seminary California (M.A., Historical Theology; M.Div). He serves on the board of directors of the Heidelberg Reformation Association as secretary. He has a passion for preaching and teaching the Word of God, Biblical theology, Church History, and enjoying fellowship with the people of First Presbyterian Church, Bad Axe, MI. In his free time, he enjoys baseball, reading, classical music, eating whatever his wife cooks for him, and walking their two dogs.

    More by Scott McDermand II ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


3 comments

  1. Good article, Scott. Sounds like a book I’d like to read.

    Brother, it is good to see your contribution here. I hope you and your family and church are doing well!

  2. I will look forward to reading the book. Perhaps this would be a good time to consider again the career of Benjamin Morgan Palmer (first moderator of the Southern Presbyterian Church, in 1861), who lost most of his children to yellow fever during his 56 years of ministry in New Orleans, and said that he was a member of the “Can’t Get Away Club,” consisting of ministers and others who could send their families away from the pestilential city, but remained in New Orleans to minister (and he visited 30 or more people daily during the pandemic). He also learned from his grief over the loss of the several children, and said of them, “I never knew before how strong grace is, nor how easy it is for faith to walk upon the sea. My dead children have been my teachers, and I bow with awe before them.” He later compiled a small volume of remembrances of the, entitled “The Broken Home: or, Lessons in Sorrow.”

  3. Interesting contrast between Plague and pandemic addressed by John Kelly, Senior Research Editor at Dictionary(dot)com:

    “ The plague causes serious, and often fatal, infections. It is responsible for some of the deadliest epidemics in history, such as the Black Death noted above. Thanks to modern medicine, however, the plague is now extremely rare and not a great risk to many people anymore.”

    “ We make the distinction between the coronavirus vs. plague because, in a time of crisis and uncertainty, it can be important to use words carefully and sensitively, speaking about matters accurately and ensuring we don’t cause any panic. And we’ll be here, not judging but explaining, helping to bring clarity and understanding to scary, confusing words.”

Comments are closed.