Book Reviews

Book Review: Faith in the Time of Plague (eds. Stephen Coleman & Todd Rester)

It can be easy to think of the Reformers and Post-Reformers primarily as stuffy “theobros” who studied all week for the one Sunday sermon and spent the rest of their time wrote writing heavy books only seminary students would read. But that isn’t true. Many of them preached more than one sermon a week, and they cared for their churches.

Wars and famines are, in a sense, avoidable if you can leave the location and run away. But fever is not so easy to escape. One person in a family can get it and live, and entire household can get sick and half survive. How do you comfort your church family, or your congregation if you are a pastor, when they stand in the midst of a plague? Not just when one family is tasting death, but when it sweeps through and touches everyone’s lives?

The writings in Faith in the Time of Plague come from pastors in Germany, Netherlands, British Isles, and others, ranging from the 16th and 17th centuries. This book consists of letters, sermons, treatises, and even a hymn.

The plague is a trial, and the Lord is calling people to repent, and these pastors called their churches to repentance. At the same time, some of these pastor-theologians, while they stayed with their congregations, told their flocks that it was permissible to flee (there are differing perspectives on how to work out such practical details). Plagues are contagious, but don’t stay if you are able to leave. As we saw with COVID-19, there were those who took every precaution with any sickness, and those who doubted that there was a plague at all. They didn’t take medicine and spent time around many other people. Those two ditches are nothing new.

The Contents

Every chapter begins with an introduction explaining the historical situation of the author when he wrote. Part One is a translated pamphlet from 1655 titled “Variorum tractatus theologic de peste,” meaning “Various theological treatises on pestilence” (Beza, Rivet, Voetius, Hoornbeeck). Part Two consists of works from Reformation and Post-Reformation writers (Zwingli, Luther, Ursinus, etc.).

Concerning Zwingli’s Plague Hymn, they note the flow of his hymn as moving from the illness’ onset (stanza 1), Zwingli’s intense suffering and near-death experience (stanza 2), and His joy over his “unexpected recovery and for the opportunity to live another day in service to God” (stanza 3, p. 185). The authors note that Zwingli’s hymn is not focused on “Zwingli the sufferer” but on “God the Savior… the principal actor throughout” (185). They write (I have excluded Zwingli’s text),

God protects the vulnerable;
God heals the wounded;
God consoles the sorrowful;
God fights for the weak;
God saves the sinful.
The speaker, by contrast, is largely passive. His faculties increasingly fail him; in his weakness and helplessness, the poet is left with nothing but his faith in Christ, and the chief expression of that faith, namely prayer. (185–186)

Yet his joy is “in knowing that his life is in the hands of a God who is sovereign and who, having triumphed over Death in his risen Son, is able to deliver from the same those who belong to him” (186).

Martin Luther wrote about whether one may flee from a deadly plague, but also included other practical details concerning the sacrament, calling on the pastor who should come quickly enough while the one who is ill is still in their right mind, cemetery and burial matters, take the necessary medicine, and help your neighbor if they need it, whereas the ill should not come into contact with others unless necessary.

John Rawlet, a minor figure in church history, upon getting ill, wrote a long letter to his mother. It was never sent to her because he became well again. His letter is full of theology and borders on the poetic. He writes to comfort his mother in what would be the aftermath of his (seemingly certain) death. He reminds her that God’s actions and things which come to pass are from his infinite wisdom and goodness. And if Rawlet were to die, this same God is there to comfort, console, and encourage his mother and would help her to see God as the true source of her happiness. He exhorts her to look to God in the midst of her grief to be grateful for all the years she did have with her son and to know that they will again meet and be together for all eternity in the presence of the infinitely wise and good God.

There are two appendices at the end of the book. The second is a short prayer and thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer in 1662. The first is a letter from Cyprian called On Mortality about a plague which swept through Carthage in the third century. He reminds Christians in the city that the trials they endure are not outside of God’s control. Being a Christian does not exclude you from hardships, but unlike unbelievers (who also have their own hardships), our trials benefit us and shape us into Christ’s image. Hardships—like plagues—show us what is really going on inside of us. Do we faithfully endure as our Savior once did for us before he entered his glory? We are not looking forward to an eternal death, but a temporary one leading to eternal life.

Recommended?

This is a good resource for pastors who long to have more perspective in a COVID-19 world (which is thankfully quieting down for now) and for church historians, students, and any laypeople with the same interest. This isn’t always the easiest read, but to see varied perspectives on plagues—something that basically shut our world down for almost two years—is of great benefit to own.

Lagniappe

    • Editors: Stephen M. Coleman and Todd M. Rester
    • Hardcover: 361 pages
    • Publisher: Westminster Seminary Press (October 21, 2021)

Buy it on Amazon or from Westminster Seminary Press

Disclosure: I received this book free from Westminster Seminary Press. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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