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May 22 Book Reviews

Faith in the Time of Plague: Selected Writings from the Reformation and Post-Reformation

Faith in the Time of Plague: Selected Writings from the Reformation and Post-Reformation

Stephen M. Coleman and Todd M. Rester, Eds.

Reviewed by: Jeffrey Sodergren

Faith in the Time of Plague: Selected Writings from the Reformation and Post-Reformation, edited by Stephen M. Coleman and Todd M. Rester. Westminster Seminary Press, 2021. Hardcover, 400 pages, $19.49. Reviewed by OP member Jeffrey Sodergren, MD.

The Word of God is a sure comfort in the midst of trials. Yet, we should not neglect church history as another source of encouragement, as we consider how our Christian forebears persevered through trials similar to those we currently face. Faith in the Time of Plague: Selected Writings from the Reformation and Post-Reformation provides a reminder from church history that is greatly helpful at the present time. Just as our faithful predecessors persevered despite multiple bubonic plague outbreaks during and after the time of the Reformation, we can be confident that our God will also sustain us during COVID-19.

The articles included by editors Stephen Coleman and Todd Rester, both professors at Westminster Theological Seminary, are richly steeped in the Word of God. Their authors advocate a continued love of God and neighbor during catastrophic circumstances. And what a treasury of biblical wisdom is here! Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, having himself survived the plague, navigates the question whether it is permissible to flee an area infested by plague. In “Pestilied” (Plague Hymn), Ulrich Zwingli gives an account of his reliance on God while almost dying from plague during a 1519 outbreak in Zurich. Martin Luther wrote his article while he remained in Wittenberg to care for plague victims. Zacharias Ursinus provides the thorough analysis in his Godly Meditation on Death that one would expect from the author of the Heidelberg Catechism.

Other authors, many of whom are translated here into English for the first time, despite being less familiar to current audiences, prove themselves worthy to stand alongside their more illustrious contemporaries. Dutch reformer Gisbertus Voetius provides a comprehensive review of contemporary plague theology and practice in his Treatise on the Plague, citing a list of resources impressive even by modern standards. Johannes Hoornbeeck, another Dutch Reformer, emphasizes the Christian’s response in heart and mind during a plague outbreak, appropriate actions to care for the sick, and to properly respect the dead. I would challenge anyone not to be moved while reading John Rawlet’s “Letter to My Mother,” written to encourage his mother’s faith after his expected death in the 1665 Great Plague of London.

The preface written by editors Coleman and Rester includes a historical overview of the plague in early modern Europe and briefly summarizes the relevant theological and ethical issues. In his foreword, Mayo Clinic vaccine researcher Gregory Poland describes many parallels between Reformation plague and the present-day pandemic. Peter Lillback’s introduction observes that Christian compassion to those suffering and dying during prior epidemics has drawn many to the church and includes a list of additional Reformation-era plague writings. Many of the Reformation-era authors referenced On Mortality, written during a third-century plague by church father Cyprian of Carthage as a guide to the correct Christian response, and the decision to include it here as an appendix is an excellent one. I have only one minor criticism: some words and phrases are rendered only in their original Hebrew and Greek. I would have preferred the editors to provide a translation, either as a footnote or parenthetically.

I recommend this book without reservation. As the world enters its third year of COVID-19, both individual Christians and the church as a whole will benefit from the biblical wisdom and applications contained in these articles. My prayer is that the church, despite the circumstances of our current trial, would follow the example of our Reformation-era predecessors and continue to persevere in faith and to increase in love for both God and neighbor.

 

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