The spread of a novel coronavirus that has co-opted the year 2020 has in one way or another affected almost every single living person on the planet. Between the news media and the disruptions to our daily lives reminding us all day, every day, do any of us need yet another perspective on that outbreak?
Not really. Instead, we must be alerted to an even more pervasive, more insidious, oft-underestimated, and yet more lethal pathogen that hijacked our whole race from its beginning: what we can reasonably call another coronavirus.
First, let’s break down the compound word coronavirus. Both words “corona” and “virus” each have multiple definitions and usages. “Corona” is a Latin word which originally meant “garland, crown,” derived from the Greek transliterated korone, meaning “crown, or curved object.” The Latin word appeared as early as 1555, but the Greek word is much older. “Virus” also was a Latin word meaning “slime” or “poisonous liquid,” a portmanteau of an Old English word wase, meaning “marsh,” and the Greek transliterated ios, meaning “poison.” The ancient Romans did not yet have the science of microscopy, so they called infections “viruses.”
Usually when we speak of a virus, we refer to an ultramicroscopic infectious agent, metabolically inert, whose only purpose is to propagate between living organisms and replicate within the cells of their hosts. It is either the simplest living thing known, or the most complex non-living thing, depending how we view what attributes comprise biological life. Another definition of virus that we use less often is a corrupting influence on morals or the intellect.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are four main sub-groupings of coronaviruses, known as alpha, beta, gamma and delta, and among those, there are at least seven different coronaviruses that can infect humans. COVID-19, for example, is the name of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that is called SARS-CoV-2, whose pathogenesis is believed to be Wuhan, China.
A “biothreat” is defined as a threat posed by a harmful biological agent, and this particular coronavirus is a biothreat that has swept the world. But the much older, long-established coronavirus is what we may call a “pneumathreat”: it is not a biological threat, rather it is a spiritual threat. This threat causes eternal death rather than temporal death. There is nothing novel about it. This coronavirus is hereditary to every living person in every age of time, passed on from not only one but both parents. We need no outside influence to contract it, yet it is highly contagious, as many of us continue to effortlessly transmit it to each other. With a virtually infinite R0, this pneumathreat has a 100-percent infection rate and a 100-percent mortality rate.
Tertullian (circa A.D. 160-220) was an early Christian philosopher from Carthage, the major city of the Roman province of Africa, which ancient city is in modern Tunisia. Tertullian became the teacher of Cyprian (circa A.D. 200-258), who was the predecessor of Augustine (A.D. 354-430), who further developed Latin theology. So there is lineage to show that Tertullian initiated the North African tradition in Christian thought which culminated in Augustine’s work. Many of Tertullian’s writings in their own right influenced Western theology long after the Patristic period. He is thought to have been a lawyer and one of his many interests included medical science. Before him, the ancient Romans, namely Seneca, Epicetus and Cicero, all studied some basics of medicine as part of their liberal education, and they all tended to use medical metaphors, in keeping with a tradition introduced by Plato and Aristotle (S. Fernández, Cristo médico (1999), pp. 16-26. Plutarch and writers of the Second Sophistic also frequently used medical metaphors.) These intellects described philosophy, a word that is literally defined as “the love of wisdom,” as the painful but necessary medicine for the passions and diseases of the soul (S. Fernández, Cristo médico (1999), pp. 24-25; R. Foucault, History of Sexuality (1986), 3:55; Robert Grant, Early Christianity and Society (1977), p. 80).
In addition to representing the genesis of the Latin theological scholarship, Tertullian adopted and expanded earlier philosophers’ metaphoric method within the context of Christian apologetics, employing vivid imagery from medical science and also from the discipline of law to communicate rich theological truth. Tertullian knew that we cannot arrive at a saving knowledge of God on the journey of learning wisdom. Rather, the only true “philosophy,” that is, love of wisdom, begins with the fear of the Lord, therefore the fear of the Lord is the mainspring of true wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). The Christian’s uncompromising presupposition is that God is true and so also his Word is true, and this necessarily guides his thinking on everything else. A modern theologian believes one of Tertullian’s greatest contributions is “a greater sense of the antithesis between Christian and non-Christian thought” (John Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (2015), p. 97).
Tertullian expounded on Paul the Apostle’s teaching in Romans, that God presents himself to the minds of men in a way that makes his existence inescapable to every person alive in his world:
“The object of our worship is the One God, He who by His commanding word, His arranging wisdom, His mighty power, brought forth from nothing this entire mass of our world, with all its array of elements, bodies, spirits, for the glory of His majesty; whence also the Greeks have bestowed on it the name of Kosmos. The eye cannot see Him, though He is (spiritually) visible. He is incomprehensible, though in grace He is manifested. He is beyond our utmost thought, though our human faculties conceive of Him. He is therefore equally real and great. But that which, in the ordinary sense, can be seen and handled and conceived, is inferior to the eyes by which it is taken in, and the hands by which it is tainted, and the faculties by which it is discovered; but that which is infinite is known only to itself. This it is which gives some notion of God, while yet beyond all our conceptions — our very incapacity of fully grasping Him affords us the idea of what He really is. He is presented to our minds in His transcendent greatness, as at once known and unknown. And this is the crowning guilt of men, that they will not recognize One, of whom they cannot possibly be ignorant. Would you have the proof from the works of His hands, so numerous and so great, which both contain you and sustain you, which minister at once to your enjoyment, and strike you with awe; or would you rather have it from the testimony of the soul itself? Though under the oppressive bondage of the body, though led astray by depraving customs, though enervated by lusts and passions, though in slavery to false gods; yet, whenever the soul comes to itself, as out of a surfeit, or a sleep, or a sickness, and attains something of its natural soundness, it speaks of God; using no other word, because this is the peculiar name of the true God. God is great and good — Which may God give, are the words on every lip. It bears witness, too, that God is judge, exclaiming, God sees, and, I commend myself to God, and, God will repay me. O noble testimony of the soul by nature Christian! Then, too, in using such words as these, it looks not to the Capitol, but to the heavens. It knows that there is the throne of the living God, as from Him and from thence itself came down.”
(Tertullian, Apology, chapter 17, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3)
Tertullian made great contributions although his theology wasn’t perfect, as Dr. John Frame points out:
“He is one of the first to develop the doctrine of original sin. A traducianist [This is opposed to creationism, the view that God creates a new soul out of nothing when the body is conceived], he believes that a person’s soul is inherited from his parents, as is his body. So our union with Adam through our parents transmits to us an uncontrollable subjection to temptation. But how was it possible for Adam to sin in the first place? Here Tertullian turns to speculation: the soul is a mixture of being and nonbeing, and the nonbeing introduces the possibility of sin. God does not prevent sin from taking place, because (as Justin [Martyr] and Irenaeus said) man has free will in the sense of autexousion. Here, in my judgment, Tertullian is not consistent with his intention to reason in accord with the rule of faith. He confuses the metaphysical with the ethical, explaining sin as a metaphysical derangement, a lack of being.”
(A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, p. 99)
Notwithstanding, Tertullian’s reflection on Romans 1:18-25 was biblically cogent when he declared, “This is the crowning guilt of men, that they will not recognize One, of whom they cannot possibly be ignorant.” God’s works provide abundant proofs that he is, and the inner testimony of the human soul moves us to acknowledge that God is ruler and judge of all. With such an ineluctable preponderance found in the ubiquity of nature, it is madness to deny God yet when our hearts are darkened by sin, we suppress this truth in unrighteousness (Psalm 14:1-3, 19:1-6, Romans 1:18-32).
Our true and actual coronavirus is a synecdoche of what Tertullian called this “crowning guilt.” The whole world, being under the law of our great King, is held accountable for royal unbelief — even a “cosmic treason,” as the 18th-century New England theologian Jonathan Edwards described even the smallest sin before a holy God.
Many distinctive strains of this virus have surfaced over the ages, some more virulent than others, some more subtle, some more sophisticated, and some have mutated to adapt and survive in their environments. But they all basically operate with a common pathology in that they markedly break down a host organism in the same etiological manner: we knew that God exists and as our creator and provider, he deserves our honor and praise, although in our sinful disposition we did not honor him or give thanks to him. The outcome of unbelief is idolatry, confusing the creature as the object of our worship rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Our two-pronged failure to honor the Lord and to thank the Lord has entwined a double helix of death within our spirit’s nuclei.
The index case of this pathogen is found with our first parents, Adam and Eve. Adam sinned against God, and as our “federal head,” he represents all his progeny, therefore his sin is imputed, or counted to all of us. Whether or not that is “fair” is another theological discussion, but the objective fact of the Lord’s revelation to us found in Scripture is that Adam’s sin indeed spread to all of us and so we are born with it (Romans 5:8-21, I Corinthians 15:22, Ephesians 2:1-5, Colossians 2:13). So the entire human race is a perpetual vector for this hereditary disease.
Trying to cure this coronavirus simply by treating its symptoms proves as a futile methodology. Superficial treatment may conceal the effects of the disease, but it will continue to ravage its host from the inside out unless the force which causes the illness is neutralized. The only antidote for this poison, this virus, is truth, defined as that which corresponds to reality, not from man’s perspective, but from the mind of God: the truth of God’s self-disclosure. Our only hope is to be inoculated with the truth of who God is, that is, not as we deny him or imagine him, but who he reveals himself to be (Psalm 50:21, John 17:3, I John 5:20).
During the final years of the Kingdom of Judah, the prophet Jeremiah lamented, (Jeremiah 8:22) “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored?”
Yes, there is a balm in Gilead for this blight within us all. This balm is not produced by any terrestrial corporation vying for government funding to contrive a vaccine. This Gileadean balm is patented and paid by the uninfected blood of a person who is Lord of another world. The physician in his grace overpowers our futile attempts to slap away his hand which alone administers the cure to our inherited-yet-self-inflicted ailment.
Light instantly kills this coronavirus: “a divine and supernatural light, immediately imparted to the soul by the spirit of God, shown to be both a scriptural and rational doctrine,” as Edwards once wrote. The poison of unbelief cannot withstand the searing refulgence of Spiritual illumination that burns down with the heat of a thousand suns (cf. John 1:1-9, 3:16-21, 6:63, Ephesians 1:17-18, II Corinthians 3:7-12, 4:6-7, I John 5:20). We must gain the person of Christ by grace alone through faith alone, as we receive the message of the gospel: the power of salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16, 10:8-18).
Every one of us still carries this particular coronavirus, which is epithetical to our indwelling sin nature that Scripture inarguably diagnoses. Light has no fellowship with darkness although both exist (II Corinthians 6:14-18, I John 1:5-6). Those who have been cured of the poison of sin are daily susceptible to reactivation, for though we are rescued from the power of sin and the penalty of sin, we are not yet rescued from the presence of sin (Romans 7:21-25, I John 1:7-9). Whenever and however we sin, the fundamental reason is that we have basically failed to acknowledge God and thank God: to believe he is who he declares he is and his promises to us (Psalm 78:17-22, Romans 8:1-8, 14:23, I Corinthians 10:31, Ephesians 2:8-10, Hebrews 3:12). In sinning, Christians act outside our Christian character that is our new Spiritual nature (Romans 6:1-4, 8:9-11, Galatians 5:1, 16-25). In sinning, Christians behave with vestigial unbelief, although that unbelief no longer defines us as those “in Christ” (I John 5:1-5, 19-21).
As God’s image-bearers, the pinnacle of his created order, he fashioned us to reflect his image in truth and righteousness, but that image has been marred, disfigured by sin. The Spirit is about the work of restoring that image in us so that we can become who we already are, who God really created us to be, as King David celebrated,
“Yet you have made him [man] a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.”
And we find that restoration in Christ, David’s own royal descendant and the light of the world, for,
(Hebrews 2:9-10) “we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
In another of Tertullian’s tracts, De Corona, a discussion of the merits of customary wearing of laurel crowns in various social settings of the ancient world, he made some comments that are apposite:
“The reality must always correspond with the image. If, perhaps, you object that Christ Himself was crowned, to that you will get the brief reply: Be you too crowned, as He was; you have full permission. Yet even that crown of insolent ungodliness was not of any decree of the Jewish people. It was a device of the Roman soldiers, taken from the practice of the world …”
(The Chaplet, or De Corona, Chapter 9, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3)
Yet ultimately, Christ’s crown was not even a decree of the Romans, but of God himself (Isaiah 53:10, cf. Acts 3:15), who redeems our lives from the pit, who crowns us with steadfast love and mercy, an unfading crown laid up for us which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award on that day to all who have longed and hoped for his return (Psalm 103:4, II Timothy 4:8).
“For your gift of God the Spirit, pow’r to make our lives anew,
pledge of life and hope of glory, Savior we would worship you.
Crowning gift of resurrection sent from your ascended throne,
fullness of the very Godhead, come to make your life our own.
He who in creation’s dawning brooded on the lifeless deep,
still across our nature’s darkness moves to wake our souls from sleep,
moves to stir, to draw, to quicken, thrusts us through with sense of sin;
brings to birth and seals and fills us— saving Advocate within.”
(Edith Margaret Clarkson, 1959)
Only one King wore our tarnished tiara of guilt in order that we could have the coruscant corona of righteousness to one day cast before his throne while offering the praise,
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”