There are no real unprecedented times

I read an article recently that asked the question, how are we to live in what feel like unprecedented times? I like the way that question was framed because of the care that was taken with it. Times may feel unprecedented, but in reality, the Bible is clear enough ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

I am just not so convinced that we do live in unprecedented times. I can concede on one level, as the article suggests, that every period in history is an utterly unique time. In a sense, that is true. This exact set of circumstances, surrounding this exact set of people, has never happened before. But, in an altogether different sense, there really is nothing unique about our times at all.

I am always surprised by the number of Christians who seem to think that this or that politicians, or political position, means that Christian people now face some unprecedented challenge. And, as someone who holds a degree in politics, I know what it can be like to so focus on that area of life and study that it can seem, in the moment, very little else matters quite so much. But perhaps it is also the fact that I hold history, religious studies and theology degrees too that I have come to see how easily we over-focus on the political present and lose perspective.

The truth is, very rarely is any moment properly unprecedented. Believers have faced challenges to their Christianity, and found times of both ease and severe discomfort, ever since they were called Christians. Those who think the COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented time in history seem to forget more recent history of the SARS and MERS in East Asia, the Spanish Flu epidemic and smallpox all coming about within the last few hundred years. The plague ran rampant in Europe before all of them. Pandemics and Epidemics are, in one sense, nothing new.

And the church having to navigate civic life and non-believing governments is an issue as old as the church itself. ‘Honour the Emperor’ (1 Peter 2:17) and submitting to the authorities (Romans 13:1-7) are not new for us. And it isn’t as if those to whom Peter and Paul were telling the church to submit and honour were particularly great. They were autocratic despots who were not exactly steeped in any sort of North American libertarianism. Indeed, we do have to recognise that libertarianism – legitimate as it is for a believer to hold that political view – is not a biblical concept that believers must defend. So, when governments tend towards authoritarianism, we don’t have any particular biblical grounds to disobey them on that ground of itself. The Apostles simply didn’t give us a get-out-of-autocratic-government-for-free card. They submitted to authoritarian leaders and haven’t put any controls on our submission to authorities except when they overtly press us to disobey God.

There are frequently claims that we live in unprecedented times and we need to work out from biblical principles, entirely on our own, what we must do. But I think Ecclesiastes 1:9 is right: ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. Both the latter part of Daniel (chapters 7 onwards) and most of Revelation seem to suggest that these things will roll around and around again. Leaders and empires will rise and fall. Wars will start and end. There will be times of peace and times of hostility. There will be good and bad that attends almost everything until the Lord returns to make all things new.

In that sense, these times are both precedented and unprecedented. They are precedented in the sense that very little of what we see is new. Any student of history will tell you that these stories keep rolling around. We are not really facing ultimately unique situations but are seeing the reality of human nature play out again and again. In another sense, times are always unprecedented. There is always new technology, new circumstances and new people involved. Some of the details may be slightly different to the times these things have happened before. But in an ultimate sense, there is nothing new. There is nothing unprecedented about very much at all.

Which suggests the question of how we ought to live in unprecedented times is the wrong one. Rather, we ought to be asking, how should Christians live in this time at this cultural moment? And the answer is simple: faithfully, just like other believers who have lived in similar times and similar cultural moments. There is nothing more demanded of us from the Lord than that we seek to live faithful lives to him in whatever time and culture he has placed us. And, despite how it may feel, there are many others throughout history who have lived in similar situations, which means there are a wealth of people we can learn from.

Whilst times may often feel unprecedented, I question whether there are many truly unprecedented times. I don’t doubt there are unique things that happen and circumstances to navigate, but they usually have enough in common with earlier threats and concerns in other times and places such that we haven’t been left in an utterly unique situation that cannot be navigated. In the end, there is nothing new under the sun.