The Old Testament Church and Plague(s)

During the blizzard-like conditions of COVID-19’s spread, Christian writers have been thinking about ways to minister during a plague. Some appeal to Luther. Some about the ongoing urgency of preaching the gospel. Some discuss the tension among commitments to love neighbors, serve God, and obey civil magistrates. Some compare COVID-19 to an atomic bomb (seriously). And some describe at great length and with much unction how the church needs to respond redemptively.

Ed Stetzer may be the best example of evangelicals’ historical imagination during a major, worldwide illness. His is exclusively post-canonical:

Sociologist Rodney Stark explored one such one example where during a plague AD 251 swept through the Roman Empire decimating the population. In his Easter letter around AD 260, Dionysius wrote a tribute to the believers whose heroic efforts cost many of them their lives during the plague.

Pagans tended to flee the cities during plagues, but Christians were more likely to stay and minister to the suffering. According to Dionysius: “Most of our brother Christians showed unbonded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Needless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy.”

Dionysius added: “The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”

In Christians in the Age of Outrage I offered a more recent example of sacrificially living out the gospel in the midst of suffering. During the Fall of 1793, yellow fever gripped the city of Philadelphia. Historian Richard Newman writes that, “from the moment it began, the yellow fever epidemic was a public-health crisis. Thousands of citizens fled, hospitals became overwhelmed, and dead bodies rotted in homes.”

Within this crisis, it was the emerging black church under the leadership of Richard Allen which entered into the suffering. Some assumed that persons of African descent were immune to Yellow Fever, and the free black community was approached to provide help. Spurned by the church they had served and slandered by others, Allen and his church served the sick when others isolated themselves for fear of catching the disease.

…Through both examples, we are reminded that the gospel calls us to live sacrificially in the face of crisis.

If these Christian authors had the Old Testament background to the New Testament more in mind, what might they say about the mother of all plagues, the one that forms the background for the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, even the Mass. That plague, as Psalm 78 has it, was also at the center of the Exodus, the Old Testament redemptive historical event that inspired many of the modern world’s social justice activists:

42 They did not remember his power
or the day when he redeemed them from the foe,
43 when he performed his signs in Egypt
and his marvels in the fields of Zoan.
44 He turned their rivers to blood,
so that they could not drink of their streams.
45 He sent among them swarms of flies, which devoured them,
and frogs, which destroyed them.
46 He gave their crops to the destroying locust
and the fruit of their labor to the locust.
47 He destroyed their vines with hail
and their sycamores with frost.
48 He gave over their cattle to the hail
and their flocks to thunderbolts.
49 He let loose on them his burning anger,
wrath, indignation, and distress,
a company of destroying angels.
50 He made a path for his anger;
he did not spare them from death,
but gave their lives over to the plague.
51 He struck down every firstborn in Egypt,
the firstfruits of their strength in the tents of Ham.
52 Then he led out his people like sheep
and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.
53 He led them in safety, so that they were not afraid,
but the sea overwhelmed their enemies.
54 And he brought them to his holy land,
to the mountain which his right hand had won.

If Christians identified more with Old Testament saints than with modern humanitarians, then, would they be more inclined to view COVID-19 as God’s judgment on a neo-liberal, morally indifferent, systemically unjust society and a hypocritical evangelical church? You could even turn in this into God’s judgment on a nation’s president who is entirely without a moral compass.

Then again, invoking God’s righteous judgment on a wicked society is so Pat Robertson (though anti-Trump prophets are hardly Mr. Rogers).

Do Muslims and Jews Have This Problem?

In the mood of the season, I found a Youtu.be video with Frank Sinatra’s rendition of Hark, The Herald Angels Sing.

Maybe yours doesn’t but my mind boggled (again). Frank Sinatra, the singer alluded to in The Godfather, with real ties to the Rat Pack, and no model of family mores, is singing Charles Wesley (one of the original Methodists’ better verses). Again, the mind boggles.

This is how familiar Christmas is for Americans (and people in the West more generally). Not only did Sinatra sing Wesley. But producers in the recording industry believed that Frank singing a batch of Christmas songs would be a revenue enhancer. And these entertainment geniuses decided not only to include some of the secular and corny songs, like Jingle Bells, but also the sorts of material that Anglican cathedral choirs include in Lessons and Carols services.

Is your mind boggling yet?

Do Muslims have songs to sing about the birth of Muhammad? Do Jews sing about the birth of Abraham? One way to tell is to live in a Muslim or Jewish society during the holy days? How much religious music seeps out into the larger commercial world?

I don’t know (and am willing to learn from readers).

But one of the things that makes Christmas great (in all senses of the word) is that recording celebrities have put out so many albums and cds devoted to the birth of Jesus.

For the New Schoolers out there who like to chalk such cultural expressions up to the church’s (which one?) transformatalistizational powers, the pervasiveness of Christmas cheer is a sign of the longing that many people have the good news that the nativity narratives begin. Yes, we need more Christ and less Frank in Christmas, but for Americans to devote the better part of six weeks every year to the celebration of Christmas is an indication of Christianity’s abiding appeal.

For Old Schoolers, though, the relentless persistence of Christmas in all its schmaltz and devotion is an indication of how little discomfort Christians feel about making their own holiday an affair for Muslims, Jews, and secularists to enjoy or endure. Imagine thinking that Frank Sinatra’s Christmas albums would sell in Istanbul.

At the same time, Old Schoolers who know the history of the church calendar should not blame Roman Catholics for the ubiquity of Christmas sales and music. Protestants in the United States did not observe Christmas (minus some Episcopalians and Lutherans) until the late nineteenth century when department store entrepreneurs like New School Presbyterian, John Wanamaker, connected the dots between God’s gift to man in sending his son, and the gifts that Americans could give to friends and family to participate in that incarnational spirit.

Protestants made the world safe for Frank Sinatra singing Wesley, not the bishops.

When You Hear Covenant of Grace Do Your Thoughts Turn to "Ministry of Death"?

(Inspired by a mealtime conversation at OPC HQ.)

If a pastor or elder talked about Moses’ ministry as one of death, he might be the object of a committee investigation. If an inspired author of holy writ says it, we may want to pay heed.

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. (2 Corinthians 3:7-9 ESV)

Again, no matter what Turretin wrote, Paul’s comparison of the Mosaic Covenant to the gospel is one with which defenders of republication are trying to reckon. As Calvin explains, Paul doesn’t mean that Moses was chopped liver, but that the flattening attempt to render Mosaic administration a gracious development can significantly diminish the epoch-making work of Christ:

In the first place, he calls the law the ministry of death. Secondly, he says, that the doctrine of it was written in letters, and with ink. Thirdly, that it was engraven on stones. Fourthly, that it was not of perpetual duration; but, instead of this, its condition was temporary and fading. And, fifthly, he calls it the ministry of condemnation. To render the antitheses complete, it would have been necessary for him to employ as many corresponding clauses in reference to the gospel; but, he has merely spoken of it as being the ministry of the Spirit, and of righteousness, and as enduring for ever. If you examine the words, the correspondence is not complete, but so far as the matter itself is concerned, what is expressed is sufficient. For he had said that the Spirit giveth life, and farther, that men’s hearts served instead of stones, and disposition, in the place of ink.

Let us now briefly examine those attributes of the law and the gospel. Let us, however, bear in mind, that he is not speaking of the whole of the doctrine that is contained in the law and the Prophets; and farther, that he is not treating of what happened to the fathers under the Old Testament, but merely notices what belongs peculiarly to the ministry of Moses. The law was engraven on stones, and hence it was a literal doctrine. This defect of the law required to be corrected by the gospel, because it could not but be brittle, so long as it was merely engraven on tables of stone. The gospel, therefore, is a holy and inviolable covenant, because it was contracted by the Spirit of God, acting as security. From this, too, it follows, that the law was the ministry of condemnation and of death; for when men are instructed as to their duty, and hear it declared, that all who do not render satisfaction to the justice of God are cursed, (Deuteronomy 27:26,) they are convicted, as under sentence of sin and death. From the law, therefore, they derive nothing but a condemnation of this nature, because God there demands what is due to him, and at the same time confers no power to perform it. The gospel, on the other hand, by which men are regenerated, and are reconciled to God, through the free remission of their sins, is the ministry of righteousness, and, consequently, of life also.

Lo and behold, Calvin even seems to give room for — wait for it — a law-gospel hermeneutic:

. . . although the gospel is an occasion of condemnation to many, it is nevertheless, on good grounds, reckoned the doctrine of life, because it is the instrument of regeneration, and offers to us a free reconciliation with God. The law, on the other hand, as it simply prescribes the rule of a good life, does not renew men’s hearts to the obedience of righteousness, and denounces everlasting death upon transgressors, can do nothing but condemn. 392 Or if you prefer it in another way, the office of the law is to show us the disease, in such a way as to show us, at the same time, no hope of cure: the office of the gospel is, to bring a remedy to those that were past hope. For as the law leaves man to himself, it condemns him, of necessity, to death; while the gospel, bringing him to Christ, opens the gate of life. Thus, in one word, we find that it is an accidental property of the law, that is perpetual and inseparable, that it killeth; for as the Apostle says elsewhere, (Galatians 3:10,)

Inquiring minds are still inquiring, why is this threatening?

If the Mosaic Covenant Was So Gracious . . .

Why did the prophets bring so many lawsuits against God’s people? That was the thought I had after reading Peter Leithart:

Covenant lawsuits are embedded in Israel’s covenant-relation with Yahweh. The covenant sets up certain requirements for Israel, and positive and negative sanctions attach to these, blessings for faithfulness and curses for breaking covenant. When Israel goes astray, Yahweh sends his prophets as representatives of the divine court, and they read the charges against Israel, inform them the sentence, and urge them to repentance so that they can (cf. Judges 2:1ff; 6:8).

But then as a good flattener, Leithart portrays Paul as fulfilling the role of an OT prophet:

Paul’s letter is the lawsuit of Jesus against the Galatians, much like the letters to the seven churches in Rev 1-3. It has a structure similar to that of the prophetic lawsuits. Covenant lawsuits often begin with a historical recital of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel and the ways that they have fallen away. Paul begins Galatians with a long review of his relation to the Jerusalem church. Covenant lawsuits specify charges, and Paul brings specific complaints against the Galatians. Prophets warn of coming curses, and Paul pronounces curses against the troublers in Galatia.

Maybe. But where did the New Testament Christians assemble at a mountain and take an oath to do everything God commanded? Sure, the Ottomans’ conquest of the Christian cities in Asia minor could be construed as a form of Christians going into exile. But Turkey was not the promised land any more than Italy was.