It has now been close to twelve months since COVID-19 was officially declared to be a worldwide pandemic. During this time, we have seen—amongst many other things—international air travel come to a halt, the cruise line industry virtually destroyed, and church services in every country have either ceased meeting in person, or been greatly interrupted. What can we learn from those who have gone before us in this regard?[1]

One of the most helpful resources I have recently discovered on the topic at hand is that by Theodore Beza—John Calvin’s successor in Geneva (1519-1605)—whose short, A Learned Treatise of the Plague, has recently been republished by Canon Press (2020) and Ben Castle who worked from the English translation of Beza’s Latin original. What follows is a summary of Beza’s most pertinent points.

Beza versus the ‘Hyper-Calvinists’

Hyper-Calvinists had begun to teach that plagues were not naturally infectious but sovereign judgements of God upon individuals.

During Beza’s time certain men of what we might label as a ‘hyper-Calvinist’ persuasion had begun to teach that plagues were not naturally infectious. Instead, they were sovereign judgements of God upon individuals. This meant that, according to these people, the healthy should flee from these people rather than offer assistance. In response, Beza wanted them to stay (‘tarry’) and so fulfil their duty of love to neighbour, by helping those in need, by being careful to not become infected themselves.

Is a Plague Naturally Infectious?

Beza rightly discerned that this was the crucial question as to whether one should flee or remain from a city presently besieged by plague. While the hyper-Calvinists believed that sickness was by the direct hand of God alone, Beza objected that this would mean that we have nothing at all to learn from non-Christian doctors and physicians.

What’s more, Beza argued, they failed to discern between primary and secondary causes: “For who can deny that many diseases are contracted by handling and touching, some of which are deadly and others less so?” It was like going into battle without armour because God alone—as a primary cause—would determine whether we will live or die by the second cause of being struck by an arrow.

While Beza acknowledged that we are sometimes tempted to wrongly put all of our trust in doctors and not in the LORD (c.f. 2Chron 16:12), he also believed it was wrong to not use natural means to ward off sickness or death—especially in neglecting to care for one’s family (c.f. 1 Tim. 5:8) was to sin against God (See also 2Kings 20:7). As Beza states:

…we must use those things which, God himself going before, nature tells us are ordained by him to prolong our life so long as it shall please him. Which if we do not, we shall rightly be deemed to tempt and most grievously offend God.

Those who claim that plagues are infectious do so because the Bible describes them as being caused by the “hand of God (2Sam 24:14-15) or the “word of God” (1Chron 21) or the “arrows of God” (Psalm 31; 91:5-6). But these are just metaphors to describe how God uses the natural laws of nature or the service of angels. As Beza states:

Surely then, it belongs to physicians to search out the nature of diseases, so far as they depend upon the laws of nature, which we often see performed by them with such good success and certainty that they can predict both them and what issue they are likely to come to.

There are lots of places in Scripture where someone is said to become sick with plague but an angel is not involved

The hyper-Calvinists, however, argued that plagues are not naturally infectious but directly sent by God’s angels (Ps 88; 1 Chron 21; Eze 9; Is 37:36; Rev 16:1-2). While Beza grants that sometimes God does uses angels as his instruments in sending plagues, he also asks what is stopping the angels themselves from using natural means to enact God’s judgment?

In conclusion, Beza asks, “If these sicknesses were predetermined by God in a fixed manner, then why are people healed by natural remedies?” What’s more, there are lots of places in Scripture where someone is said to become sick with plague but an angel is not involved (e.g. Hezekiah in Isaiah 38 as well as numerous instances in the Psalms).

Beza also observes that throughout Scripture there are numerous examples where it is the right and godly response to flee from imminent danger—for example, David fleeing Saul and later on his son Absalom; Elijah feeling from Jezebel, as well Christ’s words in Matthew 10:23: “If they persecute you in one city, flee to another.”

Pastoral Implications

Beza was especially mindful of the practical implications of what he was saying. These included:

Magistrates have a particular responsibility to do all they can to stop the spread of a plague.

  1. Plagues should be used as an occasion for men to bring themselves to the judgment seat of God and examine whether or not there is sin in their lives from which they should repent.
  2. Christians should prayerfully and wisely discern before God whether they should flee a plague or stay and help. They should do this without a “doubtful conscience” but taking all things into consideration and in the light of Biblical principles.
  3. Citizens of a country and city have a duty to their “estate and calling”—whether that be in civil or ecclesiastical positions within society—to consider the greater good of one’s community; not reflexively flee for the sake of personal safety.
  4. Magistrates have a particular responsibility to do all they can to stop the spread of a plague.
  5. Husbands and wives have a special bond and responsibility to not forsake one another during a time of sickness, even at great risk to themselves.
  6. Those who remain and seek to care for the sick should not be rash and put themselves into positions which endanger themselves becoming infected.
  7. Finally, ministers of the Gospel have a sacred responsibility to stir Christ’s body to repentance towards God in life and doctrine, and to love towards one another—which is the true prevention against further calamities.

Applications for COVID-19

As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “there is nothing new under the sun”. Everything that is has been before. Believers in the past have had to endure similar trials and hardships which we are currently experiencing today. While in many ways significantly different to the theological climate Christians face today, Beza’s short treatise provides a stimulating impetus on how to respond to plagues such as COVID-19 with godly faith rather than irrational fear.

[1] For an excellent overview of the topic, see Peter Barnes, “Plagues throughout History and Some Christian Responses”, Reformed Theological Review, Vol. 79, No. 2 (2020).