Coronavirus and Culture

A large crowd wearing masks commutes through Shinagawa Station in Tokyo, Tuesday, March 3, 2020. The Japanese government has indicated it sees the next couple of weeks as crucial to containing the spread of COVID-19, which began in China late last year. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

A long-time friend and trustee of the Center for Cultural Leadership requested that I conclude my recent COVID-19 interview series with a post about the virus and culture. Here are the previous entries:

COVID-19 and Legality: An Interview with Jeffery J. Ventrella

COVID-19 and Economics: An Interview with David L. Bahnsen

COVID-19 and Theology: An Interview with Brian G. Mattson

COVID-19 and Technology: An Interview with Kevin D. Johnson

To make the present post manageable, I listed and answered several questions I consider most germane to the cultural dimension of the crisis. I claim no expertise in epidemiology, virology, medicine, statistics, law, economics, or technology. I do, however, claim a modicum of knowledge in cultural theology, to which I have largely devoted my public life and ministry.

How has Coronavirus become a cultural phenomenon?

COVID-19 is not an aspect of creation (or nature) but rather a poisonous element introduced into it. It’s a part of a fallen culture, and therefore isn’t normative. I agree with Martin Luther that all such plagues are demonic and that a task of Christians must be to fight and conquer them. Coronavirus is anti-creational. Since Jesus is mediator of creation just as much as he is of redemption (Col. 1:12–20), our fight against a fallen creation is no less vital than our fight for lost souls. This assessment springs from a Christian worldview, which isn’t what our society currently embraces, to put it mildly.

COVID-19 is more a religious and cultural than a health and medical phenomenon inasmuch as the overwhelming social and political response to it has been contra-Christian: hysteria; fear; ecclesial timidity; and political bumbling, overreach, and deceit (notably from China). Viruses have no doubt been around since almost the Fall (even if humanity didn’t know what they were), and the most rapacious of them have wreaked havoc. As virology has progressed, scientists have learned that hygienic and social practices, as well as vaccines, have mitigated their effects. Smallpox is one example of a virus that has been virtually eliminated due to vaccine. The medical and health responses to virus have progressed. This is a blessing of God’s common grace in the world.

But sociopolitical responses have not paralleled this. Modern politics (and much of the populace) is driven by fear and power rather than faith and obedience. Because unbelieving man doesn’t live in light of eternity, but is generally naturalistic, he will at all costs — even draconian, depraved costs — attempt to preserve present life, which is all there is for him. He pits life against liberty, because in his unbelief he values security more than liberty-loving obedience. The lengths to which modern statists (and their citizen acolytes) will go to preserve their anti-Christian naturalism are harrowing.

Make no mistake: Every loss of life due to COVID-19 is tragic. So is every loss of liberty. Liberty is not less important than life, and to argue that a single life is worth the deprivation of liberty and the impoverishment and economic savaging of millions, including the poorest and least fortunate among us, undermines everything the U.S., seeded in implicit Christian truth, was founded to create. According to the Declaration of Independence, governments are established to secure the God-given, unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You don’t get to choose one and trash two.

Hysteria and statism have been two obvious (and depraved) cultural responses to Coronavirus. The cultural consequences have been more injurious than the health consequences.

How has Coronavirus already changed our culture?

The virus itself hasn’t changed our culture much, but our responses have. Here are several ways.

Information Revolution

First, the West was already deep within the Information Revolution, but “virtual” reality has escalated during the virus. Instantaneous communication that doesn’t require corporeal presence wasn’t invented by the Internet (remember telegraphs and telephones?), but the ease with which one can live almost his entire communicative life without corporeal contact with another human being is now routine — and further routinized by our cultural reaction to the virus.

Deprivation of liberty

Second, the “lockdown” and deprivation of individual liberty is unprecedented in the U.S. While one may argue that this deprivation is warranted in extraordinary times, he can’t credibly argue that it is anything short of historically breathtaking — just as its economic consequences have been breathtaking. “A shocking 16.8 million people filed for U.S. unemployment benefits in the last three weeks as the country shut down to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus,” reports Reuters. These numbers are utterly staggering, patently unsustainable, and socially catastrophic. No government can print enough money to counter massive unemployment. Political edicts that upend 16+ million lives in 3 weeks border on the malign, even if well-intentioned.

Economic implications

Third, The Federal Reserve is committed to unlimited checkbook funds to mitigate the economic collapse fostered by the politically coerced lockdown (euphemistically labeled “sheltering”). One can make a case that in the present advanced state of market economics some national entity like the Fed is necessary precisely for times like this, if not for other times. But this unprecedented level of cash production and infusion means that the Fed will be the largest player in the market. Can this still be a free market?

Will the consequences of the sociopolitical responses to Coronavirus  permanently find their way into our culture?

Let’s certainly hope not, at least for the most part. This crisis may have creditably sensitized us to more frequent hand washing and caution in bodily contact, but aside from that, we had better pray and hope that the responses to the virus are totally temporary and atypical.

Politicians have learned how swiftly and deftly they can seize liberty-crushing power in a crisis, and the most power-hungry among them might look for — or create — new crises in which to flex their coercive muscles again. Over the last 100 years biblical Christians and other sociopolitical conservatives have lamented the nearly inevitable tendency of politicians to grasp more government power during a crisis (war is an example) that they rarely relinquish long after the crisis had passed (remember when the TSA was instituted?). Draconian political decisions that seem “obvious” and “reasonable” in the heat of crisis usually end up as massive oppressive power grabs when evaluated in subsequent cold reality.

The question is not whether the state has the authority to protect life, especially during times of contagion. The question is whether the state in constitutional republics like ours has the authority to so deprive liberty in the pursuit of protecting life that it threatens both liberty and life. This is not a Coronavirus question. This is a constitutional (and biblical) question.

Will the church in particular be permanently molded by the Coronavirus phenomenon?

That would be a tragedy. Crowds compound contagion. Corporate worship entails crowds. Many churches understandably canceled public worship during the times of (alleged) high contagion. It is uncertain how many canceled due to political edicts forbidding assemblies.

While each of us should be cautious that legitimate church decisions in extraordinary times not become legitimate habits in ordinary times, it’s the responsibility of local church leadership to make decisions about whether temporarily to cancel public Lord’s Day worship. Local shepherds are charged to know and act on what’s best for their flock. They likely know slightly better than faraway secular politicians do.

The Ekklesia

Whatever our view about the advisability of canceling Sunday worship during the Coronavirus situation, however, it’s imperative to remember the following:

The biblical ekklesia is inherently a gathered community. We often hear the expression, “Christians are the church wherever they are”; and while this assertion can be correct, it can also be quite incorrect. Had you told the apostles that it was possible for the church to exist for a protracted time without weekly corporeal, flesh-and-blood communal worship, they would’ve looked at you as if you were a pagan. Ecclesial decisions we make in extraordinary times must not shape normative ecclesiology.

Civil disobedience?

In addition, in times of patent political overreach, it’s understandable that Christians begin to talk of civil disobedience. It’s imperative to understand that the Bible posits the civil magistrate as God’s minister (Rom. 13), even if he is far from Christian, and, by implication, it places strict limits on civil disobedience.

The Bible is deeply anti-revolutionary, but one of the great blessings of living in a constitutional republic, even a faltering one like ours, is that we can submit under protest, and we can work within a dynamic political system for responsible Christian change.

What we see playing out before our eyes is a response of rival religions to a lethal virus.

The rub comes when the state’s edicts rub against the church’s biblical obligations. Christians must steer a biblical course between religious rebellion (“The church doesn’t have to obey the state”) and obsequious quietism (“The church must always obey the state without protest”). The state has a vested interest in protecting human life within its jurisdiction, but it has an equally vested interest in protecting liberty, including religious and political liberty.

The church has a vested interest in protecting its God-required exercise of public Lord’s Day worship, but it has an equally vested interest in protecting its members’ health, including physical health. Each of these two spheres, the state and the church, should exercise its own protection prerogatives while respecting those of the other one.

But the decision about whether the church will meet for worship when the state has forbidden it to meet is a decision that only church leaders can (and must) make. They are responsible before God for their flock under their care, just as the civil ministers are responsible to God for the citizens under their care.

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Fortunately, sweeping political edicts prohibiting public worship are meeting resistance. The Alliance Defending Freedom is filing a lawsuit on behalf of Temple Baptist Church, Greenville, Mississippi, challenging the mayor’s order prohibiting even drive-in church services (how, pray tell, could a drive-in service compound contagion?). This legal pushback by churches against political overreach is not just biblical, which is the most important thing. It’s also good for the republic, which requires institutional checks and balances. Sphere sovereignty means church and state each has its own respective role and jurisdiction. When those jurisdictions rub up against each other, conflict ensues. That conflict is healthy.

Romans 13 does not give the state carte blanche authority to trample individual and ecclesial and economic liberty, even — perhaps especially — in times of crisis. And I do pity Christians who invoke that text to argue that the state trumps every other authority — they haven’t read the rest of their Bibles. In rendering to Caesar what is his, we dare not rob God what is His.

How should Christians respond culturally to the phenomenon, both now and after it recedes?

While Christian and non-Christian share the created reality and objective facts of the cosmos, they never encounter that reality and facts in a neutral way. There are no “private facts,” but there are no un-interpreted facts, either. Whether encountering Coronavirus or anything else, a Christian worldview encounters reality in submission to God‘s revelation, and a non-Christian worldview does not. Of course, neither Christians nor non-Christians are entirely consistent, but the notion that all rational people will naturally arrive at the same conclusion when assessing this virus or anything else is itself a reflection of a dangerously non-Christian worldview.

Henry Van Til once defined culture as “religion externalized,” and what we see playing out before our eyes is a response of rival religions to a lethal virus.

Politicization and reductionism

Angelo Codevilla’s The Character of Nations argues that politics and law gradually shape (or reshape) human thinking and behavior and in time an entire nation develops a character in line with its politics and law. A nation’s politics and law create a particular kind of person. Modern Americans have been culturally conditioned in recent decades by a radical anti-Christianity, and this conditioning is reflected in the present Coronavirus culture, from politicians to populace.

Joseph Boot, moreover, has called attention to the reductionist character of the pervasive naturalistic reactions:

We are dealing with this virus threat as though the harm from the disease can be measured primarily in immediate biological terms i.e. how many people get infected. But the great danger is that this reductionist perspective on human well-being creates a broader health and well-being disaster. Human beings are more than bio-chemical organisms. Our lives participate in a rich tapestry of created aspects, all of which affect our health and wellbeing.

The Christian worldview is inherently non-reductionistic. It refuses to reduce any assessment (virological or otherwise) to only one or two aspects of man’s being in God’s creational order. Christians are often accused of narrowness by secularists and neo-pagans. Precisely the opposite is true: alert Christians embrace a robust view of reality, while non-Christians are constantly reducing — and twisting — reality.

Media leftism

Most Christians, further, are aware of the pervasive Leftism of the modern media (and population), but the present Coronavirus hysteria highlights their even deeper and more pernicious defect. As non-Christians, their unbelief, anxiety, and pessimism ooze out of their journalistic fingertips. They don’t believe in a sovereign God; they don’t believe in the power of prayer; they don’t believe in the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in history. They are unwitting Satanic tools in fierce opposition to Jesus Christ’s gospel and the kingdom. The point is not that they can never speak the truth (of course they can, by God’s common grace), but they will tend always to skew reality in terms of their anti-Christian presuppositions. Always remember that the deepest problem with major Western media is not its Leftism, which is bad enough. Their major problem is their wicked heart of unbelief.

Therefore, any declamation on the Coronavirus and its effects and the human responses to them that specifically excludes God’s sovereign activity in history, the Bible as the final arbiter for action or inaction, the habit of Jesus Christ to reverse historical “trends,” and the power of prayer to make a dramatic difference in the situation is anti-Christian at its very core. This is true whether the declamation is politically liberal or “progressive” or conservative or libertarian. This doesn’t mean, as I noted above, that people holding anti-Christian presuppositions can never utter helpful things. It means that their entire framework is singularly unhelpful — and dead wrong.

We don’t have the luxury of being hard-core Christians in good times and soft-core humanists in bad times.

Jesus Christ is the risen Lord of the cosmos, and Christians’ calling is to press his kingdom (including fighting against Coronavirus and mistaken and sinful responses to it) and steward the earth for his glory until he returns and joins us in the new heaven on earth, wherein no sins — or viruses — dwell.


The Great(est?) Easter Poem

Seven Stanzas at Easter

John Updike (1932–2009)

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that-pierced-died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.


COVID-19 and Technology: An Interview with Kevin D. Johnson

The role of technology in the present COVID-19 crisis is indisputable. We decided to interview Kevin D. Johnson, a Senior Managing Consultant for one of the world’s leading IT firms, and Senior Fellow of Technology and Global Development for the Center for Cultural Leadership. He holds four masters degrees (an MBA, a Master’s in Accounting, a Master of Arts in Theology, and a Master of Science in Global Technology and Development) and is engaged in PhD. studies in the Innovation in Global Development program at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society specializing in the sociotechnical impact of artificial intelligence.

(This interview is the fourth in a series. The first was COVID-19 and Legality: An Interview with Jeffery J. Ventrella, the second was COVID-19 and Economics: An Interview with David L. Bahnsen, and the third was COVID-19 and Theology: An Interview with Brian G. Mattson.

PAS: Kevin, thank you so much for responding. Both positively and negatively, how has technology shaped the response, medically and otherwise, to the COVID-19 crisis?

KDJ: Technology has dramatically increased our ability to respond to a crisis like COVID-19, and it is being invoked on multiple fronts to help manage and resolve the crisis.  Mathematical models have been used to help experts provide estimates as to the extent of the crisis; large clusters of computers in the thousands are currently analyzing protein sequences searching for treatment solutions; banks have already capably lent out hundreds of millions of dollars of assistance to small businesses and others; emergency response personnel use technology to locate and help symptomatic people; doctors around the world cooperate and share knowledge about how to counteract the virus through the Internet, and they also provide treatment and care through tele-medicine; and governments keep people up to date through social media and more traditional media outlets. 

The sociotechnical impacts and uses of technology are so woven into our society that practically every action in reference to COVID-19 is technological in one way or another.  Additionally, as anyone online knows, people can talk to a much wider circle of friends, families, and others instantly and worldwide through social media in order to gauge the nature of the crisis and how to handle it.

Of course, the pervasiveness of technology in this crisis is not without its problems.  The sociotechnical impact of technology also signifies that human problems are going to be present in any use of technology, especially in a fallen world.  So, while social media remains a great gift by providing instant access to global information sources, it also carries with it several risks. Facebook has a way of equalizing voices so a kooky conspiracy theorist can speak just as loudly to what’s going on with the virus as a qualified medical expert might.  Unfortunately, some people will listen to and even promote conspiratorial wackiness and fake news.  Qualified experts should be consulted, and their contribution carefully evaluated and lifted above other voices when relevant.  However, even in the case of very capable experts, there is a danger in listening to them too much, since they speak from a position that is far different from the lived experience and capable judgment of the average American.  So, as usual, technology must be deployed and used with wisdom and discernment.

PAS: To put this in historical perspective, had COVID-19 appeared 50 years ago, how would our response have been different due to the comparatively primitive technology of the time?

KDJ: 50 years ago, our reaction to the crisis would have taken much longer to be effective and the virus would have been discovered long after it had already moved significantly throughout the population and killed a lot more people.  Medical science is significantly more advanced today than it was back then, and treatment options would have been much more limited.

The banking system in 1970 was much less robust than it is today thanks to technology and a host of other things we’ve learned since then, and COVID-19 probably would have caused something like the Great Depression with all the Nixon-era banking changes that struggled enough on their own to stabilize through the early seventies.  In short, the United States would have at least faced a repeat of the extent and impact of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic with additional economic issues and the Cold War in play at the time. 

Of course, there is also the chance that the virus wouldn’t have made it out of China since the nation was only just open to the West at the time, international travel to and from China was very limited, and a lot of the significant economic and urban development in China hadn’t happened yet sufficient to make the spread of the virus a global problem. After all, for China there was no global Belt and Road Initiative at the time that put countries like Italy and Iran at immediate risk. Had the virus been contained internally, the losses would have made the impact of Mao’s Great Leap even more devastating. 

Globalization has been both a boon to economic and technological progress as much as it presents our society with inherent weaknesses that are largely unintended consequences.

PAS: You’ve been critical of how some experts have (mis)used computer models during the crisis. What mistakes have they made?

KDJ: The epidemiological models that have been used to estimate the impact of the virus have received a lot of criticism in the last few weeks mostly because of the consistent overestimating that has been done in terms of the suggested mortality risks to the United States and the rest of the world. However, the models themselves are not really the problem.  Highly developed and constantly improving statistical epidemiological models have been in play since the early twentieth century and in fact simple mathematical models have been in use for things like smallpox mortality since at least 1766. 

The largest problem here is the lack and type of data in reference to COVID-19 more specifically.  The data used early on depended on sources that were less than reliable and presented without context such as official numbers from China and Italy and there simply wasn’t enough data to reliably forecast what was likely to happen in terms of the impact of COVID-19 on the United States.

There has also been some question as to when the virus appeared, since a lot of anecdotal accounts about a very heavy respiratory condition during the 2019 holiday season have been reported sufficiently to make national press, lending at least some question as to whether the data sets are really complete enough to accurately predict what’s going on with the virus.  Regardless, as each week goes by, more data improves the models currently in use, and that’s why we see the potential impact of the virus constantly reduced in the models more in line with what’s happening throughout the country.

Though it varies by state, health departments have in some cases only presented the public with minimal amounts of data when a lot more could be made available given what hospitals record every day about patients. Though hospitals across the country have received a steady influx of COVID-19 infected patients where affected, the hospital systems are not overloaded and, in many cases, have laid staff off due to canceling other normal medical procedures. 

Reporting COVID-19 deaths has also been problematic in line with the vagueness that attends complications in how the CDC reports influenza and pneumonia deaths together. The lack of transparency and availability concerning the complexity in the data that exists is problematic for the American people. 

The sociotechnical impact of these problems becomes clear once one realizes that the ambiguities present in the data and its reporting gives space for a development narrative that provides a cognitive frame advocating dramatic political changes, the political use of data on the part of politicians and others with motives that are less than pristine, and a potential abuse of the public trust.  Meanwhile, it allows Congress to pass an unprecedented $2 trillion bill while governors nationwide issue indefinite stay-at-home orders and the ceasing of large segments of the economy.

Additionally, even though the models themselves are stable and have stood the test of time, there are new methods that haven’t been employed that could invoke the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to better model how the virus might interact with society, where hot spots might appear throughout the country, and how COVID-19 might be effectively countered without having to shut down everything in sight.  More interdisciplinary work between data scientists who specialize in AI and epidemiologists who use standard epidemiological models needs to take place in order to more effectively counter the virus going forward.

The experts know about the limitations with their own models but somehow only the worst-case scenarios continue to be presented to a public that does not understand the models in play, their potential significance, and the strengths and weaknesses they present, while sweeping political changes are continuing to be made. Questioning the received opinion of Dr. Fauci and others results in article takedowns on platforms like and algorithmic notices of fake news on Facebook.

In short, we need a public that is more technologically savvy than we have now, and this is especially true in Christian circles where a fear of change and new technology still pervades social media conversations reminiscent of the overwrought concerns of authors like Nicholas Carr. 

AS: Now fast-forward 50 years. If a new virus appears in the US, how will the technology of the time likely combat it?

KDJ: The future is hard to predict, but here are some potential paths forward. 

First, we have a lot more information about people today in terms of who has contracted the virus versus the days of the 1918 Pandemic. Once the crisis is over, scholars will take a close look at the networks involved in how COVID-19 spread, why it flashed so quickly in a place like New York City, how communities were involved, whether herd immunity is really viable, and many other concerns not previously tested or examined due to the lack of data. Future responses will take all this in mind eventually.

As technology improves, the layers involved continually abstract themselves to enable new planes of innovative possibilities. When computers were first invented, their programming was hard-wired into the system. That means changes came only when hardware was switched out and replaced. Then, we moved to cards that were punched to tell computers what to do. Eventually, we started writing software, and change became only a matter of writing and running different programs. As a result, the technological rate of change only exponentially increased as innovation continued to change the nature of computing. 

Now, we’re working on having the computers write programs for us and extending our intelligence into the systems themselves. While this revolutionary change in programming was going on over the last 80 years, the actual physical architecture of the systems and its processors continued to miniaturize. So now, the smartphone in your pocket is millions of times more powerful than the computers that sent men to the Moon. The width between individual transistors in CPU’s is now moving toward a mere 10 or so atoms wide and getting smaller. Meanwhile, the systems grow in complexity at each level but are abstracted by higher levels as innovations are added making them easier to use and implement in society.

Development in artificial intelligence will likely move in a similar direction. All these layers of abstraction are filled with complexities that exponentially increase the value and function of the technology in play.  This is also part of the reason our economy has expanded so dramatically in the last 50 years. As AI becomes easier to use and more abstracted and transparent for your average person, less in the way of data scientists will be needed for normal people to adequately use the power of AI to do things like track and estimate the impact of a virus like COVID-19. The bottom line of all this means that we will respond faster, more accurately, and more capably to a crisis like the one we face today with COVID-19.

PAS: Finally, can you mention a few leading truisms of a distinctly Christian approach to technology? How have Christians made mistakes in their assumptions about and suspicions of technology?

KDJ: One mistake I’ve already hinted at is a sort of neo-Luddism of Christians that are increasingly negative and fearful of new technology and the changes they bring to our society. The original Luddites were fearful of technology and its implications for society.  This includes people who say we should stay away from social media, that participating on social media is a waste of time, that children shouldn’t spend time online and instead should play outside; and perhaps the worst example is found in recent conspiracy theorists wildly trying to blame COVID-19 on the presence of 5G technology. 

As Christians, however, we know that technology is a gift from God and that its use is inherent to Christian religion.  We come to the Lord’s Supper with a table that’s been made by human hands, bread cooked in an oven, and wine stomped out from the vine — all processes of both ancient and modern technology today. 

Another problem: Christians who think that participating in social media or the Internet is somehow not a part of real life, as if “virtual” means something that isn’t real. “Virtual reality” is a sort of misnomer that for some implies an experience that is less real, when the truth is that it’s just a different type of experience that one has in engaging on the Internet versus face-to-face contact experienced elsewhere.  Christians need to think with a Christian mind and consider that all our experiences in the world are real and they all call for contextual considerations depending on the nature of the experience in question. Most recently, the move toward church services online is a place where getting this right is essential.

Our true position in Christ is being seated in the heavenlies with him by the power and work of the Holy Spirit. That’s a victorious posture we hold now and not just later, a mystical presence that is real even though it’s imperceptible to our own senses. Likewise, we don’t lose physicality when meeting together online and being one in Christ carries with it both physical and spiritual implications that some forget when the mode of worship changes to something different than what we’re used to doing. 

When we gather virtually in worship via Zoom or some other platform, we’re not less physically connected to one another. All we’ve done is increase the physical distance between us. Of course, when the church meets together in more normal circumstances, the biblical dictate and command is to always be present in worship in one place with one another. But these are extraordinary times that deserve the full attention of our theological understanding of worship both on and offline.  The Holy Spirit is still there, still with us as we’re in Christ, and we’re still held by the Father as we worship together even when doing so with a web browser on the Internet.

The outcry in some online groups about having to do church online and the potential danger to our religious freedoms is interesting because it has been long and loud since the crisis made clear that staying home would be a safer strategy for all involved, at least for the time being.

However, you see very few people complaining about how they can’t go into work anymore at the office, and that we need to preserve the right to do so. Few seem to be disappointed that they get to stay home and maybe half work, if they work at all, nor are they unhappy because they can login to work from their laptop at home and somehow miss the water cooler sessions. In my view, that posture is telling in that it speaks to how many times we as Christians might mistakenly maintain our own interests, rights, and privileges above other important concerns, like the safety of the community and loving our neighbors as ourselves.


Our Lord’s Crucifixion as Exaltation

Years ago I was asked to deliver a Good Friday evening message. The pastor of the host church made great pains to apprise me that the service was to highlight the “bitter herb” of our Lord’s death, and there was to be no sense of joy or rejoicing, which would be appropriate only later, on Easter Sunday. He also told me that his church gravitated toward and was filled with very “broken” people, overcome with hardship and grief. I inferred that his “bitter herb” Good Friday meeting was designed to appeal to these people. I thought at the time, and am increasingly convinced, that this approach is tragically one-sided, and it robbed his members of a glorious, inspiring biblical truth about the crucifixion: The crucifixion is about grief and humiliation, but it is equally about joy and exaltation.

We don’t often think that at his death, Jesus Christ was exalted, but he was. It’s easier to understand his death as humiliation. For example, we read of our Lord in Philippians 2:8,

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

In Gethsemane, he agonized in prayer, contemplating his substitutionary suffering for sinners. On the Cross itself, he suffered as no other person has every suffered, not only because of the excruciating pain of crucifixion, but because the sins of the world were placed on him (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24). “It is difficult for modern people to appreciate the immense shame attached to this public humiliation.”[1] But this cruel shame could not compare with the unspeakable load of sin-sacrifice that he carried.  The crucifixion was a horrific humiliation the world has never seen or will ever see again.

The exaltation of attracting the world

But is no less an exaltation than a humiliation. To focus on the crucifixion only as a “bitter herb” is seriously to distort the biblical picture. Jesus himself made this clear when he declared

“And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” (Jn. 12:32)

The Bible uses spatial metaphors to depict both humiliation and exaltation. Isaiah declared (6:1):

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple.

In Psalm 138:6 we read: 

Though the LORD is on high,

Yet He regards the lowly;

But the proud He knows from afar.

Examples could be multiplied. Lowness is the place of humility, and highness is the place of exaltation. So when Jesus prophesied that he would be lifted up in death, he was asserting that he would be exalted.

The universality of the gospel

The exaltation of the crucifixion consists first in its salvific magnetism to the world. While crucifixion as an act is repellant, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is attractive. How? It saves the world (Jn. 3:16; 1 Jn. 4:14). The gospel is not a message of universalism (that all people will ultimately be saved; this is obviously false), but it is a message of universality. The gospel is designed for all people everywhere, to reverse the sin that entered history at Eden. If sin is universal, so is the Cross.[2]

This is why Paul’s parallel between the first Adam and the second Adam (Jesus Christ) in Romans 5:12-21 is so vital. Adam acted for the entire race, and so did Jesus Christ.

Therefore, as through one man’s [Adam’s] offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s [Jesus Christ’s] righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life (v. 18).

The Paul who teaches election so uncompromisingly in Romans 9 can hardly be teaching that just as Adam’s sinful act condemned everybody, so Christ’s righteous act of the Cross justified everybody without qualification. Here is the contrast: “But the free gift is not like the offense” (v. 15, emphasis added). Adam’s unrighteous act enslaved all his posterity to sin; but Christ’s righteous act doesn’t enslave all his posterity; it gifts. We become servants of righteousness only by an act of faith (Rom. 6:10–18). The Cross presents us with the incomparable gift. Sin dehumanizes and removes man’s will from the picture (2 Tim. 2:26). Righteousness restores man’s will to obey. It re-humanizes us. The message of the exalted Cross goes out to all humanity.

We must look this truth squarely in the eye without flinching. The Bible teaches both corporate election (Israel [Isa. 45:4], the new covenant church [Col. 3:12]) as well as individual election (Eph. 1:5). God chooses his people to salvation, and they can choose him only because he chose them first (Jn. 15:16; 1 Jn. 4:19).

Election is not the gospel

But election is not the gospel, and it is never preached as the gospel in the Bible: “Truly, these times of ignorance [pre-Christian era] God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent” (Ac. 17:30). “And He Himself [Jesus Christ] is the propitiation [an atonement that appeases] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2). “And He [Jesus] said to them [his apostles], ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15). The effects of the gospel are selective, but the preaching of the gospel is indiscriminate. We can (and should) tell every human: “Jesus died for you, and if you repent and trust in him, he will save you.”

The crucifixion is exaltation in that it graphically displays to the world that God in Jesus Christ is saving nothing less than the world.

The exaltation of trouncing and humiliating the principalities and powers

Second, the crucifixion exalted Christ in that he disarmed and humiliated the Satanic powers. Listen to Colossians 2:14b–15:

And He [Jesus] has taken it [the old covenant] out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.

The Bible teaches that fallen beings stand just behind the curtain of the visible world and do the bidding of their arch-master Satan (Eph. 6:11–12). Though sinners are responsible for their evil lives, they play the role scripted and directed by their unseen diabolical puppet masters.[3] Until Jesus Christ came, they had capacious freedom of operation first unleashed in Eden. They were the usurping rulers of the world.

It seemed that Jesus was the one lowered and humiliated at the crucifixion. What the watching world — and Satan himself — did not yet know is that it was Satan and his entire usurping empire that was dispossessed and humiliated at the Cross. The Cross inaugurated the new (and final) world order.

But Jesus came to bind this insurrection and plunder this demonic house (Mt. 12:26–30). Jesus engaged in “cosmic politics”:[4] he dethroned the demonic powers that had usurped God’s earthly throne in Eden. He crushed Satan’s head on the Cross. To add another metaphor: he kicked out the squatting diabolical landlord. While at his resurrection he publicly gained victory over the enslaving power of sin, at the Cross he disarmed the ruling powers of sin.

The real behind-the-curtain humiliation

Jesus made a “public spectacle” in vanquishing the demonic powers. At first glance, this is hard to understand, because to anyone viewing the crucifixion that day, it was Jesus the Messiah who was disarmed and humiliated. He was the public spectacle.

However, his deepest work that day was not to save individual sinners, but to break the powers that enslaved sinners so that they could not be saved. Christ’s death saves sinners not just by paying the ransom for their sin but also, in doing this, breaking the power of Satan to enslave: “[T]he debacle of Satan is the first meaning of Jesus Christ.”[5]

It seemed that Jesus was the one lowered and humiliated at the crucifixion. What the watching world — and Satan himself — did not yet know is that it was Satan and his entire usurping empire that was dispossessed and humiliated at the Cross. The Cross inaugurated the new (and final) world order.

The theology of the cross and glory

Martin Luther famously contrasted a theology of the Cross with a theology of glory.[6] By theology of the Cross he meant the gospel arising from the suffering and humiliation of the Cross, fostering a deep helplessness in sinners by which they can turn in their grief to Jesus Christ and him alone. A theology of glory, by contrast, was the gospel of late medieval Rome, a gospel of pride in good works and great pomp and joy in the church and in human achievement. Suffering and sacrifice are at the heart of the gospel, and if we lack them, we lack the gospel and the Christian Faith.

This taxonomy is not incorrect, but it is incomplete, like certain parts of Luther’s other theology. Yes, the sinner must see his helplessness before God, and his hope in nothing else but the crucified (and risen and reigning and returning) Christ. But the gospel isn’t just a message of individual salvation; it’s also the message of the abolition of the old global order of Satan and the powers and the installation of the new godly global order. It’s a message not just of individual suffering and humility but also of cosmic healing and victory. This is the new Christic order.

Man is saved because of that new order. And it can be the message of individual salvation only because it’s the message of global salvation. It is the message of the exalted One on the Cross, who draws all humanity, and who vanquishes and humiliates the Satanic powers. The gospel is not just a theology of the Cross. It is a gospel of glory, and it can be a theology of the Cross precisely because it is a theology of glory. Above I cited Philippians 2:8 about our Lord’s crucifixion as humiliation. But now note verses 9–11 —

Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The crucifixion as humiliation stands in closest proximity to crucifixion as exaltation. It would be convenient to assume this exaltation happened only at the resurrection or ascension, and it certainly happened at both. But Paul doesn’t say precisely when the exaltation happened, and from the two passages we’ve considered, we have reason to believe it was on the Cross that Jesus was exalted: “It was through Jesus’ work [on the Cross] that God made him known as the one who is Lord.”[7]

The theology of the Cross is the theology of glory. Better yet: the Cross is the glory (Gal. 4:16). The crucifixion is exaltation.

Order here

[1] Douglas R. A. Hare, “Cross, Crucify,” in The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible, Donald E. Gowan, ed. (Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 97.

[2] By “cross,” the biblical writers often mean more than the crucifixion; they mean the entire complex of redemption, including the resurrection. When Paul wrote that he boasted only the Cross (Gal. 6:14), or preached only the crucifixion (1 Cor. 2:2), he did not mean that he excluded the resurrection, without which there can be no salvation (1 Cor. 15:1–4; 16–19).

[3] E. Gordon Rupp, Principalities & Powers (London: Wyvern Books, 1965).

[4] Lewis B. Smedes, All Things Made New (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 33.

[5] Ibid., 34.

[6] Martin Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation,” Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Timothy F. Lull, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 42–45.

[7] John G. Gibbs, Creation and Redemption (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971), 85.


COVID-19 and Theology: An Interview with Brian G. Mattson

Theology is vital, especially in times of social crisis. Brian G. Mattson is a public theologian, in fact, Senior Scholar of Public Theology for the Center for Cultural Leadership as well as an adjunct professor at Westminster Theological Seminary. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen, has written several books, and lectures on theology and culture. We thought his theological insights would be valuable at this time.

 (This interview is the third in a series. The first was COVID-19 and Legality: An Interview with Jeffery J. Ventrella and the second was COVID-19 and Economics: An Interview with David L. Bahnsen).

Brian’s theological answers are below:

PAS: Brian, thank you so much for responding. What is the (or at least a) Christian theological framework for understanding contagion crises in general, and COVID-19 in particular? Is there such a framework?

BGM: Thanks for the questions, Andrew.

When we speak of “understanding” contagions we should ask what we mean by “understanding.” There are many different dimensions: are we wanting to “understand” the science of the thing (how it works, is transmitted, etc.)? Surely, yes. But I suspect most people want to “understand” in the sense of what is the meaning of this pestilence? Is there a message in all of this? Is there something we should be learning about ourselves and the world we inhabit? And that right there is a distinctly Christian framework! We believe the universe is personal, not abstract and random. God is a speaking — “communicative” — God, and as his image bearers we intuitively know and yearn for… a word, and interpretation, a meaning behind it all. As Christians, we affirm that there is, in fact, meaning in historical events even if we “see through a glass dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12) and cannot comprehensively understand God’s grander purposes. But we do know that for believers, suffering produces the fruits of perseverance, character, and hope (Rom. 5:3-4).

Christian theology is of inestimable value in another way. The Bible teaches us to understand that creation is under a curse — it “groans” (Rom.8) as it awaits its destiny in the world to come. Creation is not working perfectly as designed, and that is a result of Adam and Eve’s (and our —Rom. 5:12ff) primal sin (Gen. 3). Disease and pestilence are not, therefore, random and meaningless “bad things happen,” or things inherent in the way the world is. And that really is a meaningful difference between a Christian framework and other alternatives. Because pestilence is something of a (mysterious) intrusion into God’s created order, it means that it can also someday be removed. And that is exactly what God promises fully in the end (Rev. 21:4). And we know that this is the heart of God because that is exactly what he began to do when he first appeared! In our current situation, who cannot be moved by Mark’s account, in the very first chapter of his gospel, describing the immense crowds of afflicted people flocking to Jesus for healing? He has come to overturn sin, the curse, and death, and the message of Mark 1 is directly pertinent for people today: be just like those crowds. Flee to Jesus! He is our ultimate healing, for he will rescue us from death itself.

Many world religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Gnosticism, “Christian” Science, etc.) view the natural world as little more than a death trap: the “wheel of existence” with its endless pain and suffering. In these religions, the world is something to be spiritually transcended. This place is a lost cause, and we’re trying to check out any way we can. Christianity is, by contrast, a world-affirming religion: God created it “very good,” and promises, through the work of our resurrected Lord, its restoration from the wreckage human beings have made of it (Rom. 8:18-21).

PAS: Is there a distinctly Christian way of viewing this crisis? Or should Christians view it basically as non-Christians do?

BGM: Well, I’ve already begun to answer that. But I’ll answer again, and then say a bit more. Yes. There is a distinctly Christian way of viewing this crisis.

A non-Christian perspective can view this crisis as random and meaningless, which produces fear and panic. Or it can view this crisis as some kind of mechanical inevitability, like cosmic karma paying us in full for our sins (non-believers believe in judgment, too — only it is something like “Mother Earth” meting it out), which produces despair. Moreover, many secular perspectives view this world and this life as all there is, so the fear of loss of life is an ultimate existential fear.

Christians, on the other hand, are equipped to understand that God has purposes (it isn’t random); that he is not a cold, distant, silent, and mute machine dispensing what we’ve got coming, but a merciful Father who calls us to cry out to him in our need; and that in Christ Jesus we have no ultimate existential fear of death. I think that is quite a distinct way of viewing this crisis.

PAS: This is not the first time Christianity has been forced to deal with such crises. Is there anything in the Christian reaction to past contagion crises that can guide us in the present one?

BGM: Yes, with some caveats. Roman Christians in early centuries were noted (literally: contemporary people wrote about it!) for their selfless behavior during times of pestilence. While the elite nobility all fled the city for the countryside, Christians remained and fearlessly nursed the afflicted back to health. In Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity he points out that many sufferers simply needed basic nursing care, and the help of Christian believers led to survival rates far above what they would have been otherwise.

This is the theology I spoke of a moment ago put into action. As Christians, we believe God has good purposes, sickness is a remnant of the old order of sin and death that Christ has overcome, and that we need not fear death. Therefore, we are called and equipped to move toward the crisis, not away from it!

The caveat is that we know much more about these contagions than did our Christian forebears, and so our “moving toward” the crisis looks a bit different. Since we know all about viral transmission, our engagement in the current time might look like … non-engagement. That is, staying away from our neighbors! Now, that’s counterintuitive, to be sure. But I would point out that one of the reasons that is an ethical Christian response is because we have a robust system of medical provision in our society. Hospitals themselves began as uniquely Christian institutions (Christians essentially invented them), and we should think of it as such: we have successfully outsourced our moral impulse and expertise to our medical institutions. Our job is certainly to help people get the help they need when they need it, but also to get out of the way of those who have taken up the noble calling as medical professionals! In short, shelter-in-place is a directive with real moral weight.

PAS: Reactions from Christian theologians have ranged from (in essence), “It’s indisputably God’s judgment” (Joseph Pipa) to “There’s no theodicy here, but we can privately lament” (N. T. Wright). Is either of these views correct? If not, are there other valid options?

BGM: The answer is, of course, “Yes.” Always beware of the false dichotomy! We have already seen how pestilence is a judgment of God dating all the way back to Genesis 3 — it is the result of human sin and the resulting curse and “fallenness” of creation (c.f., Rom. 5:12ff). More than that, the Bible has many examples of God’s using plague and pestilence as particular judgments against particular people (e.g., the plagues of Egypt, snakes in the wilderness, etc.).

However, I would point out that those instances are recorded and interpreted for us in the Bible; that is, God has disclosed to us his particular reasons for those particular judgments. In our post-Apostolic age, we have no such direct knowledge of God’s mind, and it is presumptuous to dogmatically say, “This (and not that) is why.”

I personally would like to confidently make something of the “coincidence” that this pestilence arose right around the time that China finally imprisoned Pastor Wang Yi for his fearless proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Could this be God’s judgment for that injustice? Certainly. Can I make dogmatic declarations of that kind? No. Likewise with those tying this contagion, say, to abortion-on-demand and a myriad of other injustices.

Jesus himself teaches us how to interpret disasters of this sort. We read in Luke 13:1-5:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.

The conclusion here is that, yes, these things are judgments (note that the action-item in both cases is repentance) but the very last thing one may do is use it to self-righteously point at “those people.” As in, “Those people deserved it.” “God is angry with those people.” Jesus clearly teaches that contagions of this sort should prompt self-examination and repentance. C.S. Lewis had it right, I think, when he said that pain is “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” And, I’m sorry to burst any bubbles: we’re deaf, too.

So, yes. It is indisputably a judgment of God (at the least, we know, in the general sense because of Genesis 3, even if we do not know the particular purpose in this moment), and yes, the solution is for YOU to turn to the Lord in repentance. Again, Mark would tell us: flee to Jesus!

And the other option you mention is correct as well. We are called to lament — by which I charitably take Professor Wright to mean what I am saying immediately above, that we do not know the particulars of what has prompted this plague and thus cannot give any dogmatic “explanation” for our suffering — and to cry out to God. That’s precisely what Jesus calls us to do: repent. That means turning to him. Setting our minds and our hearts and our affections and our afflictions and our burdens and our pleas on God. And I’m grateful that N.T. Wright has pointed us again to the Psalms, which give us a language and vocabulary by which to do precisely that.

PAS: Finally, Brian, what counsel, as a public theologian, would offer Christians navigating this crisis?

BGM: In addition to meditating and thinking on the things I’ve discussed here, I would counsel people to take advantage of their social distancing to do what Jesus calls us to do: turn to God in reading and prayer. Additionally, be sober-minded; resist the perennial urge to jump to premature conclusions (you, nor I, are likely experts in epidemiology and there is no shortage of armchair experts) and — worst of all — to use current events as a useful tool for particular political agendas. This might take tuning out of Twitter for awhile. People are suffering and dying, and I caution you that not everything is about who occupies the White House.

Everything is about Him who sits on the throne above, however — He who conquered sin and death in his cross and resurrection. May your (unusual) celebration of Holy Week give you the perspective needed to persevere, and to build up your character and hope (Rom. 5:3-4).


Culture-Reclaiming Kingdom Unity Is the Right Unity

There are no atheists in foxholes, or so goes the adage. There are also no sectarians (unwarranted church dividers) in foxholes. Secondary theological differences seem not just a silly triviality but also a dangerous luxury when your very life is at stake. This is one reason there’s traditionally been ecumenism (broad Christian unity and cooperation) on foreign mission fields. If a major problem of the 16th – 19th centuries was a kingdom-impeding sectarianism, the problem in the 20th century has been in the other direction: false unity.

The Ecumenical Movement of the early 20th century, driven partly by the growing encroachments of cultural secularism, was championed by Nathan Söderblom, whose now well-worn coinage “doctrine divides but service unites” became its theme.[1] The kind of unity the Movement sought was an organizational unity that depended on lowest-common denominator theological cooperation. That organization became the (in)famous World Council of Churches. In time this marginalization of doctrine wedded to the Leftist Social(ist) Gospel turned the WCC into a hotbed of pro-Marxist propaganda at the very time Marxist regimes were advancing in — and enslaving — the Third World.[2]

False Disunity

The quest for Christian unity in the face of Satanic onslaught isn’t wrong. Amid his early kingdom-advancing exorcism ministry, Jesus declared to his disciples, “[H]e who is not against us is on our side” (Mk. 9:50). Christians on the right side of kingdom work needn’t be of our tribe to be doing the right work. It’s a pity our forebears often missed this point, and we’re paying a heavy price for it today.

The Thirty Years’ War in Europe (1618–1648), pitting Roman Catholics, Calvinists, and Lutherans against each other, all entangled in regional politics, resulted in 8 million deaths. An exhausted continent welcomed an end to the horror, the brokered Peace of Westphalia. This treaty, among other provisions, vested national rulers with the authority to establish the religion of their country. This led, in turn, to religious toleration, because nobody wanted a rerun of 1618–1648.[3]  It’s a textbook example of a treaty that solved problems while creating others: it ended the war and fostered religious liberty, but it marginalized Christianity and paved the way for modern secular nation-states. Today’s statism is partly the consequence of this treaty, for in treating religion ( = Christianity) as relatively unimportant and the state as very important, religion as a cultural force withered, while the state flourished. This was a terrible price to pay for peace, but it would never have happened had not there been the pervasive, dangerous church-state union, and even more, had Christians been able to live together peacefully in their own separate churches within a broadly Christian culture. Such a peaceful arrangement wasn’t even a consideration at the time and formally came about only with the nonsectarian founding of the United States.     

True Unity

Today radical secularism and neo-paganism  threaten the very heart and soul of Christianity in the West. Stand publicly for Christian sexual standards and you could lose your business. Oppose same-sex “marriage” on social media and you might get de-platformed. Maintain Christian dating standards on your Christian college campus and you could lose your accreditation.  The New Barbarians aren’t targeting only Protestants (or evangelicals or Roman Catholics or fundamentalists); their assault is nonsectarian — they’re targeting Bible-believing Christians. (Note: there can be no liberal or “progressive” Christians.) The impulse to unite for not only repelling the attack but also retaking lost cultural territory isn’t merely a necessity — it’s a biblical imperative. “I am a companion of all who fear You, [a]nd of those who keep Your precepts (Ps. 119:63). “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph. 4:4–6).

We unite for a Christian society under the victorious banner of Jesus Christ our King. We need not agree on many things to agree on that.

Christians should stand shoulder-to-shoulder to repel this Satanic flood, but we mustn’t make the false ecumenical mistakes of the past. Doctrine is vital, but the doctrine at the heart of the Faith, summarized in the Apostles Creed, not denominational distinctives like baptism, church government, or sign gifts. There can be no compromise on doctrines without which the Faith couldn’t exist. [4]

Perhaps even more vital is the true ground motive of the Faith: a heart turned totally toward the Triune God and its willingness to smash all idolatries and all obstacles to Christ’s biblical kingdom being established in the earth.[5] Christianity requires theology, but a heart given totally to God and his kingdom precedes theology.


Such orthodox Christians can stand boldly together, not uniting in a single church (worshipping in their own distinctive churches) yet uniting in the great social battles for Christian culture: religious and political and economic liberty, the dignity of human life, biblical sexuality, and the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all of life and society. We unite for a Christian society under the victorious banner of Jesus Christ our King. We need not agree on many things to agree on that.

[1] Jaroslav Pelikan, Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (Since 1700) (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 303.

[2] Ernst W. Lefever, The Irony of Virtue (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998), 69–73.

[3] No author, “Westphalia, Peace of,” The Westminster Dictionary of Church History, Jerald C. Brauer, ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 862–863.

[4] Thomas Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 55–68.

[5] Herman  Dooyeweerd, In the Twilight of Western Thought (Ancaster, Ontario, Canada: Paideia Press, 2012), 101.

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COVID-19 and Economics: An Interview with David L. Bahnsen

In light of the economic tumult as a result of the Coronavirus and the political responses to it, we asked David L. Bahnsen, Founder, Managing Partner, and Chief Investment Officer of The Bahnsen Group, a bi-coastal private wealth management firm managing over $2.1 billion in client assets, if he’d share with the Center for Cultural Leadership his ideas on the economic side of the crisis. He regularly offers his financial opinion on major news media, and from the beginning of this crisis has addressed it on national outlets. (This interview is the second in a series. The first was COVID-19 and Legality: An Interview with Jeffery J. Ventrella.) David kindly agreed, and the interview is below:

PAS: David, thanks for taking time out of your hectic schedule to answer some questions. Can you start by summarizing the leading lines of the economic fallout from the Coronavirus crisis, whether from the virus itself or the political response to it? Simply put: what’s happening, and why?

DLB: Economically, what is happening is that the government (federal and most states) have essentially shut down the economy, or a large portion of the output from it, as a part of their treatment for the coronavirus pandemic. On the supply side, productivity going into Q2 will be suppressed across most sectors, and on the demand side, consumption (which drives 70% of American economic activity) will be horrifically compressed.

PAS: This is the second time in your career you’ve been caught in the middle of a global financial meltdown, the first, of course, being the 2007-2008 home mortgage crisis, about which you wrote Crisis of Responsibility: Our Cultural Addiction to Blame and How You Can Cure It. This latest one seems to have a different — and more severe —­ feel. Beyond the fact that the sources of the two crises are so obviously divergent, how does this crisis differ from the last one?

DLB: It is actually the third, as I also count the 9/11 experience (and subsequent recession, all in the same period of time as a post-tech bubble burst) as a significant one as well (at the beginning of my investment career).  In all three cases there are various similarities and various divergences. 

Clearly, the rapidity of this is historically noteworthy. The stock market’s drop was the fastest on record (in terms of number of days). The 2008-9 crisis was more structural and less transitory – there was (then) a very genuine question of the solvency of the nation’s financial system (and the world’s!). Here, there is virtually an overnight removal of global demand, which most believe will come back (in either an L-shape, U-shape, or V-shape) when circumstances allow. The banks are solvent. The financial system is heavily liquefied. The bones of the economy are solvent, and the state of the economy coming into this mess was really quite strong.

PAS: The latest Coronavirus stimulus package is by far the largest in US history. You’ve read the entire document, and you’ve helpfully laid out its four main provisions. Stepping back, what are the broad aspects of this stimulus that people need to understand? What is the Fed doing, and how will this change our economy?

DLB:  Well, the stimulus and the Fed interventions are technically separate things, but a large part of the stimulus is crucially inter-connected to the Fed. That piece is the $400 billion of equity capital the Treasury will put up for business lending, which allows the Fed to lever up to 10x in their liquidity conventions (so essentially a $4 trillion pile of liquidity to back business and consumer assets). But the broader parts of the CARES ACT itself that most will comprehend easier are (a) Direct payments to taxpayers, and (b) Support to businesses via “forgivable loans.” At $350 billion, that second piece is what Treasury is most counting on to keep payrolls going through this distressed time.

The short-term benefits are likely to be profound, but there are a lot of questions around implementation and execution. The long-term implications (more on the Fed side than anything), would take a book.  In fact, that’s not a bad idea.

PAS: I’ve noticed in your interviews that unlike other economists you’ve been reluctant to make too many forecasts. I was reminded of a sobering quote from a book you and I both love, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow: “An unbiased appreciation of uncertainty is a cornerstone of rationality.” Is there a danger in a crisis like this of wanting certainty so badly that we make bad economic (and other) decisions?  

DLB: Sure, particularly for investors. But the same is true for everyone in some capacity. The coronavirus did not create the uncertainty of life in this fallen world; it revealed it (or re-revealed it). The threat of health pandemics (like all “tail risk,” for those who understand probability distributions and bell-shaped curves) – the threat of terrorists hijacking planes – the threat of major financial institution failures – these threats exist every day on this side of Eden and this side of Glory. How one deals with the reality of these uncertainties, and calculates various risk/reward propositions, is the essence of “human action” (i.e. – economics).

PAS: In your estimation, what decisions, both political and personal, would draw this economic crisis to its swiftest close?

DLB:  A firm determination at the right time that the health aspects were in a position to let the economic aspects normalize. It’s really that simple. 

PAS: Finally, David, your advice to your clients has basically been, “Don’t panic. Stay clam. Stay the course.” What general life, as well as basic economic, advice would give the Average Joe and Jane during this crisis?

DLB:  My advice has been much more nuanced to clients, and more in depth on a case by case basis.  But you are certainly right, the details of the advice follow the foundation of staying calm and avoiding panic. I would give that advice any day, anytime, as I don’t believe people make the best decisions in life when they are in a state of panic. 

As life advice, I recommend proceeding through every step of this trauma with gratitude. We all have things that ought to evoke a holistic sense of gratitude. 

Economically, experiences like this reinforce the need for healthy balance sheets, defensive income statements, diversification, and more. In this case, that applies to our personal finances and decision-making AND one’s investment portfolio.


COVID-19 and Legality: An Interview with Jeffery J. Ventrella

Jeffery J. Ventrella, J.D., Ph.D.

In light of the momentous and unprecedented political responses to the Coronavirus, we asked Jeffery J. Ventrella, J.D., Ph.D., Senior Counsel and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs & Training for the Alliance Defending Freedom, if he’d consent to a Center for Cultural Leadership interview. He kindly agreed, and the interview is below:

PAS: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Jeff. Can you start by furnishing a summary of the legal landscape in the response of civil government (federal, state, and local) to the Coronavirus crisis? What major decisions are being made, and what have their effects been thus far?

JJV:  Thank you for this important opportunity.  First, we ought not to derive our principles, legal or otherwise, from a crisis or moral quandary.  In this current situation we see a more marked conflict between freedoms duly protected by our legal structure.  Thankfully, the Founders of this republic understood and created enduring structures that both promote human flourishing as well as recognize humanity’s fallen nature, which impedes that flourishing.  Those structures vest authority under God to the States derived from the people, including the “police power.”  States, not the federal system, have the duty to protect and promote the common good, including the health of its own citizens.  Critiquing the President’s action or inaction, is misplaced.  The primary obligation lies the several States. 

The federal system, however controls immigration policy and funding hopefully coordinating with the States and their several efforts.  To date, those efforts – social distancing, restrictions on gatherings, and “shelter in place” directives – are designed to “flatten the curve” of the virus’s spread.  While the data regarding the impact of these efforts on the virus are debatable, we are seeing demonstrable economic impact that in the long run is not sustainable and will precipitate unintended, but potentially dramatic harm.

PAS: Are there Constitutional and other legal grounds for these decisions? Are some valid while others invalid? Some simply questionable? 

JJV: The basis for “shelter in place” gubernatorial executive orders rests solidly in the “police power” reserved to the States.  Now, the rub occurs because such measures may impact, impede, and potentially interfere with other fundamental rights also protected constitutionally, such as speech and the exercise of religion.  That in itself, while inconvenient, is not axiomatically unbiblical nor unlawful.  However, if a measure specifically targets a particular right, such as religious services or gatherings, instead of applying the measure to (say) all public gatherings, it is pernicious and likely unconstitutional. 

Now, despite some social media sloganeering, the fundamental rights of speech and religious exercise are not absolute and thus they can be subject to the police power to some extent even in non-emergent contexts:  one cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre; one may ardently and religiously believe in child sacrifice or polygamy, but may not – under ordered liberty – exercise those beliefs.

What is currently developing in this emergent context explores the limits of those measures and the clashes they create.  While a general prohibition on gathering of more than 10 people may be valid under the current legal doctrine and circumstances, restricting clergy from one-on-one in person counseling, or visiting dying patients, as some hospitals are reportedly doing – whether of COVID or not – raises deep and troubling constitutional questions.

PAS: We see examples here and there of jurisdictional conflicts between the federal government and state government and between the latter and municipal government. Does this conflict signal a robust federalism?

JJV:  Yes, these sorts of conflicts are actually good because they reinvigorate the functions and structures of government.  Theologically, these tensions remind us of the Christian social doctrines of sphere sovereignty and subsidiarity, both of which triggered great growth, innovation, and flourishing in Christendom and greater Western Civilization. 

Also, the emergent nature of some federal actions – relating to remedial efforts such as equipment production and pharmaceutical development – have slashed regulatory red tape thereby precipitating a liberalization of the market – this may be a silver lining of sorts by showing that society really didn’t need the encumbering and now fetid fetters of an over-regulated Administrate State.

PAS: Governments the world over have enacted legislation or implemented orders giving sweeping civil-rights-curtailing power to their executive branch. Is there a downside to these decisions?

JJV:  Any time an even well-intended but stifling national power is exerted, risk exists.  Why?  Because law – all law – is pedagogical and teaches.  People who rightly submit to a necessary State action can become habitually submissive.  Rather than being citizens who participate in democratic governance, they functionally become subjects who bow on impulse, without testing whether the purpose of the regulatory imposition remains valid, necessary, or immoral.  In contrast, the US Founders understood that consolidating power is deeply problematic because men are not angels, as Madison quipped.

On the other hand, there apparently are signs that in Europe the tethers of the European Union may be weakening. 

PAS: Putting on your cultural theologian hat, do you find the potential for protracted prohibition of churches to meet for public worship a troublesome prospect?

JJV:  If a ban on church qua church assemblies occurs, that is both ungodly and unconstitutional.  A temporary ban on gatherings in view of extant public health considerations may be a valid exercise of police power.  However, to constrict a constitutionally protected right such as religious gatherings, that state action must be narrowly tailored and utilize the least restrictive means – and they must not be permanent, theologically or constitutionally.  

Aside from the legality of protracted bans on assembly, this move precipitates other risks.  First, being face to face as Christians provides the context for optimal joyfulness says the Apostle John and violates the directive to gather.  Second, a “virtual” life as normative tends to reduce the Christian Faith to mere idea, merely mediated digitally. 

PAS: Finally, Jeff, what broad legal advice would you give Christian leaders at this time?

JJV:  The most sound advice can be found at no cost from ADF’s Church Ministry: here leaders can find webinars, resources, and for member churches, free legal counsel to help navigate – while not spreading the virus, we must spread the Word in a biblically faithful way, loving our neighbors, honoring the State, and obeying Christ.  Churches must be both lawful and prudent, honoring the State and obeying God.