Luther, Plagues, and Christian Responsibility

Kenneth W. Brewer

All across the world today, people are dying, schools have been closed, and universities have transitioned to distance learning as students are sent to their homes due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The public are told to physically distance themselves from other people, stay inside their homes as much as possible, wash their hands for twenty seconds, and not touch their face. People are not going to work, working from home, or being laid off from their jobs. Restaurants, bars, theaters, and many businesses are closed. The stock market has tumbled to new lows. Travel bans have been declared. Countries have closed their borders. Churches have closed or transitioned to live-streaming. Fear and panic are palpable in the hearts of many. This has led to the hoarding of food and other items. Some people are keeping guns close at hand, afraid that someone or a mob might break in and take their valuables (toilet paper?). Media and several people around me have commented, “We have never seen anything like this!” This is true for most of us today. History reminds us, however, that humanity has experienced numerous lethal plagues, some killing vast numbers of people.

How should Christians respond to an epidemic that is deadly?

That was the question that Martin Luther tackled when the bubonic plague broke out in his university town of Wittenberg in August 1527, in a letter entitled, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague” (all citations are from Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 3rd ed., ed. Timothy Lull and William Russell [Fortress, 2012], 475–87). People died. The university closed. Students were sent home. Worse, people did not possess the medical resources and scientific knowledge that we have today. People knew neither how the virus spread nor how to cure it. Most people believed that God was randomly exacting wrath and punishment on sinful humanity or that the devil and evil spirits were responsible for such devastation. Luther actually embraced both views, but he also offered some insightful reflections and instructions to those suffering under a deadly plague.

On the one hand, Luther does not condemn those who flee from a deadly plague but commends those who stay as having strong faith. He notes that running away from death is not wrong in itself and offers several examples from Scripture. Those who stay and help others are not to look with contempt on those who choose to flee.

On the other hand, Luther thinks that certain professions are obligated to help those suffering a deadly plague. First, he notes that those in pastoral ministry are obligated to offer spiritual counsel, comfort, preaching, and the sacraments to those who are suffering and dying. He cites John 10:11 to support his claim: “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, but the hireling sees the wolf coming and flees.” Second, those in public office and governing authorities are also under obligation to help. Luther cites Rom 13:4 to underpin his view: “The governing authorities are God’s ministers for your own good.” Third, Luther asserts that those in professions that serve the public have a duty to do their job. He notes that physicians, hospitals, nurses, police, and the like must attend to the sick and dying and keep law and order in society. Finally, Luther states that we are all mandated to love and care for our neighbor even at personal risk: “Now if a deadly epidemic strikes, we should stay where we are, make our preparations, and take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together … so that we cannot desert one another or flee from one another.” Luther admonishes that we are duty-bound to help those who are sick or dying, or those in need of food, clothing, shelter, or other items vital to human life and flourishing. Christ calls everyone to serve their neighbor.

In addition, Luther offered some wise practical advice and precautions. He urges that we not set aside the use of medicine or our intelligence. We are to take good care of our bodies and attend to healthy practices: “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.” Those infected should keep to themselves and not mingle with others on penalty of death! Luther closes by offering advice on the care of our souls during a deadly plague. People should listen to sermons, read God’s word, and prepare for the possibility of one’s death by confessing their sins and partaking the Lord’s Supper.

I never thought that Luther’s treatise would be relevant or that it would offer some good advice. But then again, I have never experienced a worldwide deadly virus until now.

Posted Mar 30, 2020

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