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  • Martin B. Davie

‘In the midst of life, we are in death’ – theological reflections on the coronavirus pandemic.


This is the first part of an authorized abridged version of the original post by Martin B. Davie. To see the full article click here.


The purpose of these reflections is to consider how we might view the current coronavirus pandemic theologically from the perspective of a Christian understanding of God and his relationship to the world in general, and the human race in particular.


I am writing this because I believe that those, like myself, who feel that the senior leaders of the Church of England have failed thus far to produce an adequate theological response to the pandemic are under a moral obligation to spell out what we think such a response might look like. It is not enough to be critical of what they have said (or not said). We have also to provide them with the resources to say something better. This essay is my attempt to discharge this obligation

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Part I. God is responsible.


The first point that we have to be clear about when thinking theologically about the coronavirus pandemic is that God is responsible for it, just as he is responsible for all the other forms of illness and disease that exist in the world. This is the traditional Christian view of the matter that is expressed, for example, in the service for ‘The visitation of the sick’ in the Book of Common Prayer. This material for this service lays down that a Priest visiting a sick person should say:


‘Dearly beloved, know this, that Almighty God is the Lord of life and death, and of all things to them pertaining, as youth, strength, health, age, weakness, and sickness. Wherefore, whatsoever your sickness is, know you certainly that it is God’s visitation.’


Many Christians today would of course dispute this view of the matter saying God has no responsibility for coronavirus. A clear example of such an approach can be seen in Rosie Harper’s recent blog post entitled, ‘Covid-19, Theodicy and Common Grace.’


She writes: ‘… it doesn’t make any sense either to talk about God ‘allowing’ this virus for some greater purpose. There is a natural human search for meaning in the face of threat. We tell stories because the idea of something being random is hard to live with, but to tell a story in which God is in a battle with a virus and eventually wins, is at best nonsense and at worst blasphemous. Do we really believe that God allows Covid-19 to kill some people but not others? If so, how does God choose – by how hard the relatives pray? Personally, I’d go down the road ‘that sh*t happens’ – don’t blame God (or the Devil for that matter).’[1]


What Harper is suggesting is that God has no responsibility for coronavirus because there is no reason for its existence. What Harper fails to recognise, however, is that her idea is in fact the old pagan idea that that world is governed by blind fate. In Norse mythology [2], for example, the cosmos is not controlled by the gods, but by the Norns, the three blind spinners, who control what has been, what is, and what shall be, in a way that it is totally random and meaningless (which is why the spinners are blind). This is the view that Harper unconsciously affirms. A world view which orthodox Christians have traditionally always rejected and there are two reasons for this.


Firstly, the Bible is clear that there is no room for the operation of blind fate for the simple reason that everything that occurs is under the control of God. Isaiah 46:9-10 summarises the biblical account as a whole when God declares:


‘I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.'


The reason that God can declare the ‘end from the beginning’ is that he is the sovereign God who has a master plan for the world that he sees through to completion. God knows exactly what he is going to do, and he then does it.


Furthermore, as the following verses indicate, the Bible teaches there are no exceptions to this master plan. All things work out as God wills that they should.


Psalm 135:6 proclaims that one of the key things that distinguishes the Lord God of Israel from the powerless pseudo gods of the heathen is that God does precisely what he wants to do wherever he wants to do it:


‘Whatever the Lord pleases he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps’


Isaiah 45:7 tells us that all that happens, whether it be good or evil, is under God’s sovereign control:


‘I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I am the Lord, who does all these things.’


In Daniel 4:35 Daniel declares:


‘…all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing; and he [God] does according to his will in the host of the heavens and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him ‘What doest thou?’’


In Matthew 10:28-29 Jesus tells his disciples not to be fearful. Why not? Because not even one sparrow can fall without God their heavenly Father willing it and God numbers the very hairs of their heads. All is known to God. All is under God’s control.


Secondly, the testimony of Scripture is confirmed by the testimony of right reason. Reason teaches us that if God possess ‘infinite power, wisdom and goodness’ and is the ‘maker and preserver of all things both visible and invisible[3] then it follows that in making and preserving all things God will exercise his infinite power to ensure that what takes place will conform to what his infinite wisdom and goodness say should take place.


Accordingly, as the early Christian philosopher Boethius explains in a famous passage from his work The Consolation of Philosophy, reason teaches us that what the ancient world called fate is in fact the working out in history of providence – that is to say, the eternal decision in the mind of God about what should take place.[4]


In Boethius explanation as well as in Scripture, the working out in history of God’s plan is a very complex matter that involves many different agents, including the forces of nature, the actions of angels and demons, and the free actions of human beings.


As the Book of Job teaches, the complexity of God’s activity, and the fact that much of it is concealed from human view, means that human beings have no possibility of understanding in detail all that God is doing. In the words of H. H. Farmer, ‘...it must indeed be once and for all admitted that it is not possible for our minds to grasp how it should be possible for all events whatsoever to fall within the scope of the divine providence and be made ultimately subservient to His purpose. The mystery of it is inscrutable even to a monism which seeks to see everything as the result of the direct, unmediated activity of God, or as phases of the Absolute; but for theistic faith of the kind we are discussing, which is bound to attribute to man and his world a relative independence of God, it is even more so. That events should be really the result of the interplay of intramundane causes, including the choices of beings who are free to resist God, and yet also be controlled and directed by his manifold wisdom and sovereign will; that God has a purpose which He is working out in history, so that man can have genuine cooperative fellowship with Him here and now, yet which, being God’s purpose, transcends history altogether so that man cannot interpret adequately in terms of this life; that in spite of all the confusion and heartbreak, and frustration of life, the sins, follies, accidents, disasters, diseases, so indiscriminating in their incidence, so ruthless in their working out, every individual may, if he will, not in imagination but in fact, rest upon a love which numbers the very hairs of his head – that is a conception before which the intellect sinks down in complete paralysis.[5]


It is often suggested by critics of the Christian faith that our inability to give an exhaustive account of what God is doing and why discredits the knowledge we do claim to have about God and his actions. However, to echo the thought of Joseph Butler,[6] there is an ‘analogy’ or correspondence between our inability, in this life at least, to fully understand the actions of God and the limitations of our knowledge in general.


Reflection on our day to day human experience shows that we have been created by God as people who acquire knowledge gradually over time, and whose knowledge is always limited. There is no one, ever, who can truthfully say that they know all that there is to be known about any given topic. Furthermore, we do not regard this limitation of our knowledge as reason for saying that we don’t know anything at all. Thus, the fact that we cannot fully understand how the natural world works and that every discovery we make about it simply raises more questions, does not mean that scientific knowledge is illusory. There are things we do know, such as the fact that, contrary to the mistake made by little Jonny in the rhyme, H2O is not the same as H2SO4.[7]


In similar fashion, the fact that we develop in our understanding of God and his ways and that our understanding is always limited does not mean that we know nothing about God at all. There are things we do know about God and one of those things is his complete sovereignty over, and therefore responsibility for, all that takes place.


What all this means is from a Christian perspective we have to say that God is responsible for the coronavirus pandemic just as he is responsible for everything else. The pandemic exists because in his providence God has willed that it should. Furthermore, the outworking of his providence involves all the minutest details of the epidemic, including who gets sick and who doesn’t, who lives and who dies. As C S Lewis puts it in his book The Silver Chair, ‘there are no accidents. [8]


Objections to the belief that God is responsible for the coronavirus pandemic.


Three objections are often raised at this point. The first one is that although there is much about the origins and transmission of the Covid-19 virus that is not yet understood, the available evidence all seems to indicate that what has taken place can be explained in entirely this worldly terms without any need to posit a supernatural cause. Therefore, it is suggested, there is no room for the action of God.


The problem with this argument is that it restricts God’s activity to God’s miraculous activity. The Bible and the Christian tradition, by contrast, tell us that God works in two ways. Sometimes, for specific reasons, God acts in a miraculous way. However, for most of the time God acts through what Farmer calls ‘intramundane causes’ i.e. causes that involve the normal operation of the natural order and the decisions and actions of human beings.


We can see these two forms of divine working, for example, if we consider the births of Jesus and John the Baptist as recorded in Luke 1:5-2:7. The birth of Jesus took place through the miracle of the virginal conception, whereas John was born as a result of sexual intercourse between his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth. However, Luke makes clear that both births were equally a result of the will and action of God. What this means is that the fact that the emergence of Covid-19 seems to have been a natural event does not mean that God was not ultimately responsible for what took place. It simply means that God acted, as he normally does, in a non-miraculous way.


The second objection is that saying God is responsible means implying that God is just plain evil. The argument goes as follows. If someone deliberately caused the coronavirus pandemic, they would be evil. God deliberately caused the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore, he must be evil.


The problem with this argument is that it extrapolates from what would be true of a human being to what is true of God. A human being who deliberately caused a coronavirus pandemic would be evil because there would be no possible good reason for him or her to do so. However, given that we know that God is infinitely wise and good, and given that we are necessarily unable to understand all the reasons for God’s actions, it still makes perfectly good sense to say that God caused the coronavirus pandemic for reasons that are perfectly morally valid even though we don’t understand what those reasons are.


The third objection is that if God controls the pandemic this means we do not need to do anything. For example, we don’t need to observe social distancing in order to save lives because whatever we do (or don’t do) those who God wills to get sick and die will inevitably get sick and die. Similarly, we don’t need to pray for the sick, because, whether we pray or not, those who God wishes to get better will inevitably get better.


The problem with this argument is that ignores the fact that God chooses to act through the free agency of human beings. God has given human beings a responsible role to play in the achievement of his good purposes and so what we do matters. The fact that God will achieve his good purposes whatever we do, does not negate the fact that he has given us the responsibility to do certain things, including caring and praying for our neighbours, and that whether or not discharge this responsibility will have consequences for which God will hold us to account.


Pulling all this together means that we can say:

  • That God determines and controls all that happens in heaven and on earth,

  • That God is therefore responsible for, and in control of, all that happens in the coronavirus pandemic even if we are not able to understand why he willed it and what he is doing during the course of it,

  • That the responsibility God has does not negate our own responsibility as his human creatures to further God’s good purposes by praying for our neighbours and taking appropriate action to promote their well-being.


A final point that we need to note in this part of the essay is that, paradoxical though this may seem, absolving God of responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic is an approach that, if sufficiently thought through, can only lead to despair.


We can only absolve God of responsibility for the pandemic on two grounds.


First, that he is sovereign over everything except this pandemic. This is an idea that does not make sense. There is nothing about the pandemic that suggests that it, and it only, out of all the things that have ever been is out of God’s control.


Secondly, that he is not sovereign over anything at all. As we have seen, this second ground is contrary to Scripture and reason and, as I have indicated, it can only lead to despair. If God is not in control, then we can have no confidence at all that he will be able to fulfil his promises to save us, or creation as a whole.


If God is not in control we are back in the hands of meaningless, pitiless, blind fate. The Norns are in charge after all. It is from this bleak world view that the Christian belief in the sovereignty of God preserves us.

__________________

Martin Davie produces books, articles and regular book reviews which are published by Latimer Trust and by other bodies, in particular the Church of England Evangelical Council for which he is the theological consultant. The current focus of his work is on the debate about human sexuality, bishops and episcopal jurisdiction and the Athanasian Creed. He has a blog called: Reflections of an Anglican theologian and this can be found in mbarratt.davie.wordpress.com


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