A basic Christian primer on sex, marriage and family life. Article 10 – Intersex and Transgender.

In the remaining four articles in this basic Christian primer series we shall be considering four issues which raise challenges for traditional Christian sexual ethics. These issues are intersex and transgender, sex outside marriage, divorce and re-marriage and birth control and infertility treatment. In each article we shall consider the challenges that these issues pose to traditional Christian sexual ethics and how Christians should respond to these challenges, both theologically and pastorally.

The challenge of intersex and transgender

In this series we have noted that traditional Christian sexual ethics is based on the premise that human beings have been created by God as embodied creatures who are either male or female. Today, however, this premise is being challenged on two grounds.

First, it is being challenged on the grounds that experience tells that the human race is not neatly divided into those who are male and those who are female. There are also, it is argued, intersex people who don’t fit into either of these two categories, and our thinking about what it means to be human has to be expanded to take this fact into account.

Secondly, it is being challenged on the grounds that there are transgender people whose personal identity or ‘gender’ does not accord with the sex of their bodies. There are, it is claimed, people with male bodies whose true gender is female and vice versa and there are also people with male and female bodies whose gender is neither male nor female but comes under some other category such as intergender, genderfluid or pangender.

The remainder of this article will respond to each of these challenges in turn.

Intersex

In relation to the first challenge it is important for Christians to acknowledge that there are a very small number of people (some 0.018% of live births) who genuinely are ‘intersex’ in the sense that they combine both male and female elements in their physiology. For example, there are people with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome who are genetically male in that they have XY chromosomes, but who do not form male genitalia, but instead typically have a vaginal opening and clitoris indistinguishable from those present in females.

It is also important to note, however, that those people who are intersex do not constitute a third type of human being alongside those who are male and female. They are instead people in whom some form disorder has occurred which has prevented them from developing as male and female in the normal way intended by God for his human creatures. The reason for saying that a disorder has occurred is because the physical characteristics that make people intersex have no good purpose of their own and typically prevent the good ends that human sexual differentiation is meant to achieve, namely sexual intercourse and sexual reproduction.

However, even if there has been a disorder in their sexual development, people with intersex conditions are still human beings just like everyone else. The question this raises is how they should live before God in a way that bears witness to God’s creation of humanity as male and female.

Where someone is genetically male or female, but there is an abnormality in the way their body has developed, the most appropriate way forward would seem to be for them to live out their basic genetic male or female sexual identity as fully as possible with appropriate spiritual, psychological and medical support.  In those extremely rare cases where people have a mixture of male and female elements in both their genetic and in their bodily characteristics a possible way forward that would make theological sense would be for the people concerned to honour God’s creation of human beings as male or female by living as a man or a woman while acknowledging the presence of elements of the opposite sex in their bodily make up.

Transgender

In relation to transgender it is important for Christians to recognise that gender dysphoria (a sense of distress caused by a mismatch between one’s psychological and emotional sense of identity and one’s biological sense) is a real and very distressing phenomenon. However, the idea that it right for people to seek to relieve their distress by assuming an identity that is at variance with the sex of their body is deeply problematic for four reasons.

  • First, it goes against reason for someone to claim that they have an identity which differs from that of their body. The nature of human beings as unions of souls and bodies  means that it always true that I am my body and my body is me. It follows that if my body is male or female then I am male or female.
  • Secondly, if someone assumes an identity which differs from who that of their body, they are refusing to accept the identity which has been given to them by God when he created them. By so doing they are committing the basic sin of refusing to say to God ‘thy will be done’  (Matthew 6:10).
  • Thirdly, for someone to assume an identity different from that of their body goes against the teaching of the Bible in Deuteronomy 22:5 and 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 that people should not live in a way that goes against the sex they have been given by God.
  • Fourthly there is a growing body of evidence that calls into question the claim that embracing an alternate identity will necessarily bring the relief from mental anguish that those suffering from gender dysphoria are seeking. The evidence suggests that a large number of people who have adopted a new identity will continue to suffer from mental distress even to the point of committing suicide.

In the light of these four problems the best way forward for people with gender dysphoria has to be for them to be able to reach the where they can come to terms with the truth of their identity and are able to embrace it as a good gift from God.

Being people of truth and love

In the case of both intersex and transgender the pastoral calling of Christians is to be people of truth love. As people of truth they are called to be those who help others to understand their true, God given, identities. As people of love, they are called to walk with them on what can often be a long and painful journey to accepting and living out these true identities.

M B Davie 27.4.2020

A basic Christian primer on sex, marriage and family life. Article 9 – the relationship of husband and wife in marriage.

In the previous article in this series we noted that there are two vocations to which God calls human beings, marriage and singleness, and both of these vocations involve a call to the kind of friendship which God gives to us and calls us then to give to others.

In this article we shall go on to explore what the Bible teaches us about the particular shape of the relationship of friendship between husband and wife in Christian marriage. What we shall see is that this relationship has three key features. First it is a relationship marked by equality, Secondly, it is a relationship that is marked by submission. Thirdly, it is relationship that involves spiritual warfare.

Equality

According to Genesis 2, the marriage between Adam and Eve, which is the basis for all subsequent marriages, was a relationship between two people who were equal to each other in their possession of a shared humanity. The reason that Eve was the fit companion for Adam was because, although she was  different from him in being female rather than male, she was equal to him as another human being made in the image and likeness of God.

In line with what is said in Genesis, the New Testament declares that Christian marriage is also to be marked by equality between husband and wife in three ways.

First, a Christian marriage is a marriage between two people who have the same standing before God. As human beings they are made in the image and likeness of God just like Adam and Eve, and as Christians they are also joint recipients of the divine blessing promised by God to the descendants of Abraham and delivered by Christ to all who have faith in him (Galatians 3:28-29).

Secondly, a Christian marriage is one in which the same standard of sexual conduct is required of both parties. In  first-century  Greco-Roman culture a double standard of sexual conduct was in force. Wives were expected to be sexually faithful to their husbands, but men were free to have sex outside marriage. The New Testament, by contrast, declares that the requirement for sexual fidelity in marriage laid down in Genesis 2:24 applies to men just as much as to women. That is why men are told to ‘abstain from unchastity’ (1 Thessalonians 4:4), why Paul forbids men having sex with prostitutes (1 Corinthians 6:12-20), and why a bishop has to be a ‘one woman man’ (1 Timothy 5:9) just as a good Roman wife was expected to be a ‘one man woman.’

Thirdly, a Christian marriage is one in which there is equality between men and women with regard to sexual intercourse. Paul makes this point in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, in which he tells husbands and wives that mutual, satisfying, sexual relations must be an important part of their life together. Marital sex, he says, should be frequent and reciprocal, and one spouse should not deny sex to the other.

Submission

The New Testament further teaches that Christian marriage is to be marked by submission. The key passage in this regard is  Ephesians 5:21-33:

‘Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.’

What this passage tells us is that God calls men and women to live together in marriage in an ordered form of mutual submission. The husband is to submit his own desires to the well-being of his wife and family by providing them with servant leadership modelled on Christ’s care for his people. The wife is to support him in this role and be willing to obey him when he exercises it, not because he is better or smarter than she is, but out of reverence for Christ and as a witness to the Church’s call to submit to him.

Spiritual warfare

The New Testament teaches that the Christian life involves warfare against spiritual powers who are opposed to God (see Ephesians 6:10-20). Nowadays we do not tend to think of marriage in this connection. However, our ancestors in the sixteenth century were wiser than we are in this respect. They were aware that a marriage will inevitably attract the assaults of the devil. As the Reformation homily ‘Of the State of Matrimony’ warns married Christians:

‘…the devil will assay all things, to interrupt and hinder your hearts and godly purpose, if you will give him any entry. For he will either labour to break this godly knot, once begun betwixt you, or else at the least he will labour to encumber it with divers griefs and displeasures. And this is his principal craft: to work dissension of hearts of the one from the other; that whereas there is now a pleasant and sweet love between you, he will in the stead thereof, bring in most bitter and unpleasant discord.’

This being the case, how should Christian couples fight back? The answer the homily gives is that they should fight back through a conscious and serious effort to maintain unity and love combined with constant prayer for the help of the Spirit:

‘…married persons must apply their minds in most earnest wise, to concord, and must crave continually of God, the help of his Holy Spirit, so to rule their hearts, and to knit their minds together, that they may not be dissevered, by any division of discord.’

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

The purpose of these reflections .

As I indicated at the end of last week’s blog, I have now reached a mid-point in my ‘Basic Christian primer on sex. marriage, and family life.’ This week I am going to take a week’s break from producing the primer in order to consider instead 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.

The reason I am doing this is 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.

This is a lengthy essay because I feel there is a need for a substantial piece of theological reflection on the current situation which draws on what we learn from the Bible, the Prayer Book and the wider Christian tradition about how to understand it and respond appropriately to it.  A brief comment or blog post simply would not provide the kind of resource piece which I think orthodox Anglicans need at the moment.

Part I  God is responsible.

The contemporary rejection of God’s responsibility.

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. They would say that God has no responsibility for coronavirus. A clear example of such an approach is the blog recently published by Rosie Harper entitled  ‘Covid-19, Theodicy and Common Grace.’  In it 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 shit 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. In her words, all we can say is that ‘shit happens.’  What Harper fails to recognise, however, is that her idea that ‘shit happens’ is in fact the old pagan idea that that world is governed by blind fate.

In Norse mythology, 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).[2] It is this view of the world that Harper is unconsciously affirming, but it is a view of the world that orthodox Christians have traditionally always rejected.

The reasons why Christians believe in God’s sovereign control over what happens in the world.

The reason they have rejected it is for two reasons.

The first and most important reason is that 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.

‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.’

All is known to  God. All is under God’s control.

  • In Romans 8:28 Paul teaches that as Christians: ‘We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.’
  • In Ephesians 1:11 Paul likewise declares that the salvation of the Christians in Ephesus is the outworking of the plan of God ‘who accomplishes all things according to the purpose of his will.’

It should also be noted that Biblical passages such as Psalm 104 and Job 38-41 make it clear that God’s control extends throughout the whole of the natural order. What we call the operations of the laws of nature are in the hands of God. They operate because God wills that they should.

The second reason is that 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.

‘The coming into being of all things, the whole course of development in things that change, every sort of thing that moves in any wise, receives its due cause, order, and form from the steadfastness of the Divine mind. This mind, calm in the citadel of its own essential simplicity, has decreed that the method of its rule shall be manifold. Viewed in the very purity of the Divine intelligence, this method is called providence; but viewed in regard to those things which it moves and disposes, it is what the ancients called fate. That these two are different will easily be clear to anyone who passes in review their respective efficacies. Providence is the Divine reason itself, seated in the Supreme Being, which disposes all things; fate is the disposition inherent in all things which move, through which providence joins all things in their proper order. Providence embraces all things, however different, however infinite; fate sets in motion separately individual things, and assigns to them severally their position, form, and time.

So, the unfolding of this temporal order unified into the [be] fore view of the Divine mind is providence, while the same unity broken up and unfolded in time is fate. And although these are different yet is there a dependence between them; for the order of destiny issues from the essential simplicity of providence. For as the artificer, forming in his mind beforehand the idea of the thing to be made, carries out his design, and develops from moment to moment what he had before seen in a single instant as a whole, so God in His providence ordains all things as parts of a single unchanging whole, but carries out these very ordinances by fate in a time of manifold unity. So whether fate is accomplished by Divine spirits as the ministers of providence, or by a soul, or by the service of all nature—whether by the celestial motion of the stars, by the efficacy of angels, or by the many-sided cunning of demons—whether by all or by some of these the destined series is woven, this, at least, is manifest: that providence is the fixed and simple form of destined events, fate their shifting series in order of time, as by the disposal of the Divine simplicity they are to take place.’[4]

In this quotation, as also 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 Gods 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 objection 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 the vast majority 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 what ever 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 we 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.

Part II  Theological lessons from the pandemic.

As I have already noted, precisely what God is doing in our world, and why he is doing it, is something that for the most part we do not understand. In this world, as Paul says, we ‘know in part.’ It is only in the world to come that we shall ‘understand fully’ (1 Corinthians 13:12).

The coronavirus pandemic fits into this general pattern. We do not know why he wished it to take place, what precisely he is doing in the midst of it, or what form(s) of good he will bring out of it. Proper Christian humility means admitting that we know none of these things.  One day we will, but at the moment we do not.

One lesson we cannot learn.

Nevertheless, I would argue that there are two important lessons that we can take away from the pandemic. However, before we move on to these, it is important to emphasise one lesson that we definitely cannot take away from the pandemic, namely the idea that all disease and death is a direct punishment for sin.

In Scripture God does on occasion inflict disease and death as a direct punishment for sin. The paradigmatic example of this is the ten plagues visited by God upon Egypt in response to Pharaoh’s refusal to ‘let the people of Israel go out of his land’ (Exodus 7:14-12-26).

However, in the Old Testament the entire Book of Job is an extended argument against the idea  that one can make a simplistic equation between someone suffering from disease and disaster and their being punished by God for sin. This is what Job’s three ‘comforters’ argue at length and God’s reply to them is to say: ‘you have not spoken of me what is right’ (Job 42:7).

If we turn to the New Testament we find that Jesus never identifies the deaths he reverses, and the diseases and handicaps he cures, as punishments for sin, and specifically denies that this is the case in the story of the man who was blind from birth:

‘ As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him’’  (John 9:1-3).

As I have already said, we simply do not know in detail what God is doing in the coronavirus pandemic and  since in Scripture disease, and death as result of disease, is not either always or generally said to be a direct punishment for a person’s sin, we cannot say that this is the case during the present pandemic.

It follows that if someone asks us ‘Why did God allow X or Y to get sick or die?’ the only honest answer we can give is that while there will have been a reason we do not what that reason was. Unlike Job’s comforters, we must not make the mistake of claiming a knowledge that we do not possess. ‘The secret things belong to the Lord out God’ (Deuteronomy 29:29) and we are not God.

Lesson 1: We need to care for our neighbours whilst also protecting ourselves and others.

The first lesson we can take away from the pandemic is that we have an obligation to aid our neighbour, but that we also have an obligation to take proper precautions to protect ourselves and others when we do so.

Both these points are well made by Martin Luther in a treatise he wrote in 1527 on the issue of ‘Whether one may flee from a deadly plague.’

According to Luther it is never legitimate to simply abandon our neighbours when they need our help because it is the service that we offer (or fail to offer) to our neighbours that is the acid test of our willingness to serve Christ. He writes:

‘This I well know, that if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness, everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly become a servant or helper. Everyone would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but everyone would come running. And yet they don’t hear what Christ himself says, ‘As you did to one of the least, you did it to me’ [Matt. 25:40]. When he speaks of the greatest commandment he says, ‘The other commandment is like unto it, you shall love your neighbour as yourself ‘ [Matt. 22:39]. There you hear that the command to love your neighbour is equal to the greatest commandment to love God, and that what you do or fail to do for your neighbour means doing the same to God. If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, verywell, you have your sick neighbour close at hand. Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him, not outwardly but in his word. If you do not wish or care to serve your neighbour you can be sure that if Christ lay there instead you would not do so either and would let him lie there. Those are nothing but illusions on your part which puff you up with vain pride, namely, that you would really serve Christ if he were there in person. Those are nothing but lies; whoever wants to serve Christ in person would surely  serve his neighbour as well. This is said as an admonition and encouragement against fear and a disgraceful flight to which the devil would tempt us so that we would disregard God’s command in our dealings with our neighbour and so we would fall into sin on the left hand.’[9]

However, insists Luther, we can also fall into sin if we do not also take the necessary steps to protect ourselves and others:

‘Others sin on the right hand. They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but light heartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them, he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health.

If one makes no use of intelligence or medicine when he could do so without detriment to his neighbour, such a person injures his body and must beware lest he become a suicide in God’s eyes. By the same reasoning a person might forego eating and drinking, clothing and shelter, and boldly proclaim his faith that if God wanted to preserve him from starvation and cold, he could do so without food and clothing. Actually, that would be suicide. It is even more shameful for a person to pay no heed to his own body and to fail to protect it against the plague the best he is able, and then to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if he had taken care of his body as he should have. He is thus responsible before God for his neighbour’s death and is a murderer many times over. Indeed, such people behave as though a house were burning in the city and nobody were trying to put the fire out. Instead they give leeway to the flames so that the whole city is consumed, saying that if God so willed, he could save the city without water to quench the fire.

No, my dear friends, that is no good. Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbour does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? You ought to think this way: “Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore, I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbour needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.’ [10]

Furthermore, says Luther, the same principle also applies to those who have been sick and have recovered.

‘Moreover, he who has contracted the disease and recovered should keep away from others and not admit them into his presence unless it be necessary. Though one should aid him in his time of need, as previously pointed out, he in turn should, after his recovery, so act toward others that no one becomes unnecessarily endangered on his account and so cause another’s death. “Whoever loves danger,” says the wise man, “will perish by it” [Ecclesiasticus. 3:26]. If the people in a city were to show themselves bold in their faith when a neighbour’s need so demands, and cautious when no emergency exists, and if everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate. But if some are too panicky and desert their neighbours in their plight, and if some are so foolish as not to take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday, and many will die. On both counts this is a grievous offense to God and to man.’ [11]

What all this means for us today is that caring for our neighbours while obeying the government’s injunctions to ‘Stay at home – Protect the NHS – Save lives’ is not just a legal obligation, but from a theological perspective is an integral part of what having a God-fearing faith means in our current situation.

Lesson 2: In the midst of life we are in death.

The second lesson we need to learn is the one that is set out in ‘The Order for the Burial of the Dead’ in the Book of Common Prayer.  In this service the Priest says at the graveside:

‘Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.

In the midst of life, we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?’ 

The opening words in this quotation are taken from Job 14:1 and they are then summarised by the words that follow, ‘in the midst of life we are in death.’

The important thing to note here is that these words are not just referring to life in a time of pandemic. They are referring to what is generally true for all human beings at all times and everywhere.

The present coronavirus pandemic is serious, frightening, and deeply tragic for those who lose family members and friends. However, it does not represent a fundamental change in the human situation. Death was in the world before the outbreak of the pandemic and it will still be in the world after the pandemic is over. Even if we keep ourselves safe from Covid-19 this does not mean we are safe from death. If we do not die of coronavirus then we will eventually die of something else. The mortality rate is, and always will be, 100%.  G K Chesterton called it the ‘ultimate statistic’  – 1 out of 1 dies.  What the coronavirus pandemic does is focus our minds on this stark reality. To use an image from Lewis, the pandemic is like God using a megaphone to recall us to this basic truth.[12]

However, even if we accept the truth that death stalks every human being this still leaves open the question ‘What’s wrong with death?’   Why is it something for which we should seek succour?

To answer this question from a Christian perspective we need to turn to some words of Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians. Paul writes:

‘For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.’ (2 Corinthians 5:1-4)

In these verses Paul expresses his preference that Jesus will return before Paul dies so that he does not need to endure the nakedness that is a consequence of death but will move directly to a state of resurrection.

‘Nakedness’ here means a disembodied state after death in which the soul exists without a body. Why this is a state which Paul wishes to avoid is because of the nature of the human creatures God has brought into existence. Men and women have been created by God to exist as a microcosm of the universe as a whole by being a combination of both the material and the spiritual parts of the created order. Unlike angels (who are purely spiritual) or rocks (which are purely material), human beings are created by God to be an integrated union  of a soul and a body and therefore both spiritual and material at the same time. What is wrong with death is that it sunders this God given union

As Philip Hughes explains in his commentary on these verses:

‘The body, so far from being a dungeon of the soul, is essential, in accordance with the scheme of creation, for the full expression of the personal and potential faculties of humanity. The soul of man is able to express itself adequately only in conjunction with the specially prepared instrument of the body. Without a body man ceases to be truly and properly man. ‘We are burdened with this corruptible body says Augustine; but knowing that the cause of this  burdensomeness is not the nature and substance of the body, but its corruption we do not desire to be deprived of the body, but to be to be clothed with its immortality’….

At death the soul is separated from the body, and man’s integral nature is disrupted. This important aspect of the disintegrating character of death explains the apostle’s desire that Christ should return during his lifetime so that he might experience the change into the likeness of Christ’s body of glory (Philippians 3:21) without first having to undergo the experience of ‘nakedness’ which results from the separation of soul and body at death.’[13]

To be put it simply, to live fully as a human being is to live before God as an embodied being. Death renders this impossible. Therefore, death is an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26) to the good purposes of God for the men and women he has made.

For this reason, death needs to be overcome so that God’s good purposes can be achieved. However, this is not something that humanity can achieve by itself. Medical science can postpone death, but it cannot not abolish it. Medical science can heal bodies, but it cannot not render them immortal. Medical science can even temporarily bring bodies on the brink of death back to life, but it cannot give them eternal life. As I have already said, death will always win in the end.

Furthermore, humanity faces an additional problem, which the Prayer Book refers to it when it talks about God being ‘justly displeased’ with us. The problem is that, even if our bodies could be freed from corruption and rendered immortal, it would still be impossible for us to live on in the perfect communion with God and all God’s people for which we were created due to the fact that our souls  are corrupted by sin.

The soul is the conscious, rational, willing, element of our humanity that decides to act in particular ways. The problem is that, to quote the Prayer Book once again, all of us have decided to act in a way that means:

‘We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.’

As human beings we have an ineradicable sense that there is good and there is evil, and that good is to be preferred to evil. When we are honest with ourselves, we also know that, as the Prayer Book declares , we have time and again chosen what is evil rather than what is good. We are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves (Mark 12:28-34) and we do not do either.

This failure is desperately serious because the only thing that makes sense of the human sense of an absolute obligation to do what is good is that that the God who created us is absolutely good. However, as C S Lewis notes, this means that God:

‘…must hate most of what we do. This is the terrible fix we are in. If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day and are not in the least likely to do any better to-morrow, and so our case is hopeless again. We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. God is the only comfort; he is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves his enemies.’ [14]

Human beings, even those who are currently free from coronavirus, therefore face an urgent twofold problem. Our bodies are subject to death and therefore we need God’s help, but we have corrupt souls and therefore God, being absolutely good, must necessarily regard us with extreme displeasure. To put the same twofold problem another way, ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23) because sin cuts us off from God, the source of all life, whether material or spiritual, and therefore we are subject to a double death, the physical death of the body and the spiritual death of the soul. [15]

At this point, someone may well say. ‘But I thought Christians believe that God is love…‘ This is true. Christians do, indeed, believe that ‘God is love’ ( 1 John 4:16). However, God is both absolutely loving and absolutely good and as Augustine says, reflecting on Paul’s affirmation that God loves us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8), this means that:

‘….in in a manner wondrous and divine, he loved us even when he hated us. for he hated us when we were such as he had not made us, and yet because our iniquity had not destroyed his work in every respect, he knew in regard to each one of us, to hate what we had made, and love what he had made.’ [16]

What God has done for us.

The good news which the Christian Church celebrates every year in Holy Week and Easter is that, because God loves us even while he hates what we have become, he has come among us in the person of Jesus Christ to free us from the twin forces of sin and death. If we ask why he had to come among us in Christ to achieve this, a helpful answer is given by Luther in his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians. In this commentary Luther considers how God saves us from the ‘curse of the law,’  a biblical term which is shorthand for being the objects of God’s displeasure because of sin and  therefore subject to the double death of the body and the soul.

Commenting on Paul’s word  in Galatians 3:13 (‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree’’) Luther explains first of all that in order for us to be saved from the curse our saviour had to be God himself:

‘And here ye see how necessary a thing it is to believe and confess the article of the divinity of Christ: which when Arius denied, he must needs also deny the article of our redemption. For to overcome the sin of the world, death, the curse, and the wrath of God in himself, is not the work of any creature, but of the divine power. Therefore, he which in himself should overcome these, must needs be truly and naturally God. For against this mighty power of sin, death and the curse (which of itself reigneth throughout the world and in the whole creature), it was necessary to set a more high and mighty power. But besides the sovereign and divine power, no such power can be found. Wherefore, to abolish sin, to destroy death, to take away the curse in himself, and to give righteousness, to bring life to light, and to give the blessing (that is, to reduce these things to nothing and to create these), are the works of the divine power only and alone.’ [17]

However, as Luther goes on to explain, God’s power only became effective for our salvation because in Jesus he took our human nature upon him, identified himself with our sinfulness, and endured the curse which we deserve.  He writes:

‘Let us therefore receive this most sweet doctrine and full of comfort, with thanksgiving and with an assured faith, which teacheth that Christ being made a curse for us (that is, a sinner subject to the wrath of God), did put upon him our person, and laid our sins upon his own shoulders, saying: I have committed the sins which all men have committed. Therefore, he was made a curse indeed according to the law, not for himself, but (as Paul saith) for us. For unless he had taken upon himself my sins and thine, and the sins of the whole world, the law had no right over him, which condemneth none but sinners only, and holdeth them under the curse. Wherefore he could neither have been made a curse or die, since the only cause of the curse and death is sin, from the which he was free. But because he had taken upon himself our sins, not by constraint, but of his own good will, it behoved him to bear the punishment and wrath of God: not for his own person (which was just and invincible, and therefore could be found in no wise guilty), but for our person.

So, making a happy exchange with us, he took upon him our sinful person, and gave unto us his innocent and victorious person: wherewith we being now clothed, are freed from the curse of the law. For Christ was willingly made a curse for us, saying: As touching my own person, both as human and divine, I am blessed and need nothing; but I will empty myself and will put upon me your person, that is to say, your human nature, and I will walk in the same among you, and will suffer death to deliver you from death. Now he thus bearing the sin of the whole world in our person, was taken, suffered, was crucified and put to death, and became a curse for us. But because he was a person divine and everlasting, it was impossible that death should hold him. Wherefore there is neither sin nor death in him anymore, but mere righteousness, life and everlasting blessedness. ‘ [18]

In his Dogmatics in Outline, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth reiterates the point made by Luther. He declares:

‘God Himself, in Jesus Christ His Son, at once true God and true man, takes the place of condemned man. God’s judgement is executed, God’s law takes its course, but in such a way that what man had to suffer is suffered by this One, who as God’s Son stands for all others. Such is the lordship of Jesus Christ, who stands for us before God, by taking upon himself what belongs to us. In Him God makes hImself liable, at the point at which we are accursed and guilty and lost. He it is in His Son, who in the person of this crucified man bears on Golgotha all that ought to be laid on us. And in this way, he makes an end of the curse.’[19]

Why did God cross the frontier into our world? So that by taking our nature upon him and thus identifying himself with us he might bear the curse that our sins deserve. By so doing he broke the power of sin and death and inaugurated for us the new life of righteousness and everlasting blessedness that is manifested in his resurrection and his  subsequent  ascension to the right hand of God.

When Article XI of the Thirty-Nine Articles declares ‘We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and not for our own works of deservings’ it points us back to the truth I have just outlined. Why does God account us righteous in his sight and therefore eternally blessed? Because in Jesus God crossed the frontier into our world, took our sinfulness and consequent double death  upon him, and gave us his righteousness instead. When we respond to the gospel in faith, we accept what God has done for us and it thereby becomes ours. In the words of St. Paul ‘since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood to be received by faith’ (Romans 3:23-25).

As Irenaeus famously put it, Jesus ‘became what we are, that we might become what he himself is.’ [20]

Furthermore, when God created human beings, he created us to rule over world as his stewards. That is key part of what it means to be created in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). Our sinfulness means that we have not been able to play this role properly and the whole of the created order has failed to achieve its proper goal as a result. The good news is that by saving us God has made it possible for us to one day fulfil this role properly and so at the end of time not only we ourselves, but the whole of creation will become what we were always meant to be (see Romans 8:18-25).

What we need to be saying today.

The truths that we have looked at in this reflection mean that senior church leaders, and all Christians as and when they have the opportunity, need to bear witness to five key things in the present crisis, using digital media, traditional print media,[21] and even by talking directly to people when they have the chance.

First, unlike Elvis, God has not left the building. God is still, both de jure and de facto, the king of the world he has made.  God has been, is and will always be, in control of all that happens and therefore, however bad things get, we need not despair and think we have been left in the hands of blind fate. The Norns are not in charge. God is.

Secondly, God’s total sovereignty means that God is in charge of all aspects of the coronavirus crisis. It has not come as a surprise to him. He knows the good ends he wants to bring out of it, and he will infallibly bring them about.

The fact that we cannot understand what he is doing, and why he is doing it, should not cause us concern. It would be foolish to think that as finite mortals we could in this world understand these things.  However, our lack of understanding does not mean that we cannot trust  that God knows what he is doing,

To use a transport analogy, we are like passengers on a bus driven by someone whose knowledge and expertise we have absolute reason to trust. The fact that he is taking us on a route that we did not expect should not cause us to panic. Because we know the driver, we can trust that he will get us to where we need to go when we need to get there.

Thirdly, although our understanding is limited, what we do know is that it is not right to say or imply that what happens to individuals during the coronavirus pandemic is a direct punishment by God for their sins. That is information known to God alone and it is both uncharitable and presumptuous to act as if it were otherwise.

Fourthly, we need to continue to serve our neighbours in this time of plague as many Christians are already doing. As  Luther teaches us, we have a Christian obligation both to care for our neighbours to the greatest extent that we can, both by prayer and other forms of loving action,  and also to take the necessary steps to protect ourselves and others when we do so.

Fifthly, the unique and particular responsibility of Christians at this time is to proclaim the truth that the fundamental human situation has not changed because of Covid-19.

What we face now and will still face when the current pandemic is over, is the double death of the body and the soul consequent upon our ruptured relationship with God. The efforts of medical science, heroic though they undoubtedly are, are incapable of changing that situation.

Our sins are un-making us and only our Creator, against whom we have sinned, has the power to undo this process. The good news of Holy Week and Easter is that he has undone it through the death and resurrection  of Jesus Christ. By so doing he saved us and, as we have seen, he has also redeemed the world.

It is this good news that we are called to proclaim today just as much as ever. Paul’s words to Timothy therefore apply just as much to us today as they did in the equally  plague ridden first century world in which they were first written:

‘I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom:preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching’ (2 Timothy 4:2).

As a glimpse at the media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic shows, the national conversation in this country about the pandemic is currently a conversation about the medical and economic dimensions of the matter. What is being discussed is how the pandemic can be addressed through the use of medical science without wrecking the economy in the process. What is being ignored is the spiritual dimension of the pandemic – what it tells us about our relationship with God. 

The task of the Church, and particularly its senior leaders, is to seek to bring God into the conversation  by being willing to talk publicly about the issues discussed in this essay. The Church and its leaders need to witness to the nation through deeds of love (as is already happening), but deeds alone are not enough. There needs to be a bold and articulate verbal witness as well.

M B Davie 7.4.2020


[1] Rosie Harper, ‘Covid-19, Theodicy and Common Grace,’ in ViaMedia.News, 30 March 2020 at https://viamedia.news/2020/03/30/covid-19-theodicy-and-common-grace/.

[2] For more on the Norns see Gwendolyn Taunton, Fate and the Twilight of the Gods: The Norns and an   Exegesis of Voluspa ( Manticore Press, 2018)

[3] The Thirty Nine Articles, Article I.

[4] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, Bk IV.6  in H R James, The Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius, (London: Elliot Stock, 1897), kindle edition, p.110. 

[5] H H Farmer, The World and God (London: Nisbet, 1935), pp.100-101.

[6] Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion: Natural and Revealed to the Constitution and Course of Nature(Oxford: Clarendon press, 1897) at https://archive.org/details/worksofjosephbut00butluoft/mode/2up

[7] ‘Little Jonny’s dead and gone. We shan’t see him no more. For what he though was H2O was H2SO4.’

[8] C S Lewis, The Silver Chair (Harmondsworth: Puffin, 1968) , p. 135.

[9] Martin Luther, ‘‘Whether one may flee from a deadly plague,’  at https://blogs.lcms.org/wp content/uploads/2020/03/Plague-blogLW.pdf

[10] Martin Luther, ‘Whether on may flee from a deadly plague.’

[11] Martin Luther, ‘Whether one may flee from a deadly plague.’

[12] See C S Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Glasgow: Fount, 1978), p.83.

[13] Philip Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), pp.170-171.

[14] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Fount, 1984), p.37.

[15] For helpful discussions of the relationship between sin and physical death see Lewis, The Problem of Pain,  pp.69-73 and Athanasius, The Incarnation of the Word of God (London: Geoffrey Bless, 1944), pp. 29-32.

[16] Augustine, Tract in John, 110.

[17] Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1978), p.274.

[18] Luther, pp.275-276.

[19] Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (London: SCM, 1985)   pp.118-119.

[20] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk 5, Preface.

[21] One of the worrying aspects of the Church of England’s response to the pandemic is its almost total emphasis on the use of new digital media, an emphasis which ignores the needs of the very large number of people who still do not have access to, or prefer not to use, the internet.  The use of traditional print media  is still vitally important, but is something that the Church is largely ignoring in its rush to go digital.