1-4 Satan From The Reformation Onwards
The Reformation led to the divide between Protestant and Catholic Christianity.
This divide was bitter, and both sides eagerly demonized the other as
in league with a superhuman Devil, because they were convinced that God
was on their side, and their enemies therefore were of the Devil. This
justified all manner of war, persecution and demonization. Protestants
insisted that the Pope was Antichrist, whilst Catholics spoke of exorcising
the demons of Protestantism. Martin Luther, leader of the Reformation,
was obsessed with the theme of the Devil, throwing ink at him, breaking
wind to scare him away, and ever eager to vent his obsession about the
Devil in terms of his demonization of the Catholics (1). Significantly,
even Luther recognized that the passage about "war in heaven"
in Rev. 12 didn't refer to anything that happened in Eden, but rather
was a description of Christian persecution at the hands of their enemies.
Luther believed the common idea about Satan being hurled out of Heaven
in Eden, but he recognized that Rev. 12 couldn't be used to support the
idea (2). We discuss Revelation 12 in more detail in section
5-32. Catholic response was no less obsessive; the catechism of Canisius,
a Catholic response to Luther's Greater Catechism of 1529, mentions
Satan more often than it does Jesus (67 times compared to 63 times) (3).
The Council of Trent blamed Protestantism on the Devil.
Calvin and the later Protestant reformers continued Luther's obsession
with the Devil. Like the apocryphal Jewish writings discussed in section
1-1-2, Calvin re-interpreted basic Bible passages as referring to
the Devil when the Biblical text itself says nothing about the Devil.
Thus Ex. 10:27; Rom. 9:17 etc. make it clear that God hardened
Pharaoh's heart; but Calvin claimed that "Satan confirmed [Pharaoh]
in the obstinacy of his breast" (Institutes Of The Christian
2.4.2-5, Commentary on Matthew 6:13). So obsessive was the belief in
the Devil that it became utterly fundamental doctrine for both
Catholics and Protestants. But as always, a minority protested and held
to the original teaching of Scripture. In 1642, Joseph Mede concluded
that the language of 'demons' refers to mental illnesses rather than
evil beings controlled by a personal Satan: "Joseph Mede denied that
the demons of the New Testament should be equated with Satan, writing:
"I am perswaded (till I shall heare better reason to the contrary) that
these Daemoniacks were no other than such as we call mad-men and
lunaticks; at least that we comprehend them under those names" (Diatribae. Discourses on divers texts of Scripture, delivered upon severall occasions).
The claim has even been made that as a result of his Bible translation
work, William Tyndale was led to reject the idea that Satan is a
personal being, seeing the word means simply 'an adversary'. Nick
Stephens suggests that Tyndale's 1530 book The Man Of Sin rejects the orthodox view of Satan as a fallen Angel. G.H. Williams documents the united Catholic
and Protestant persecution of the Italian Anabaptists around Venice because
they denied both the existence of a superhuman Devil and the Trinity (4).
It's significant that these two false doctrines tend to hang together-
we will see later that Isaac Newton ended up denying both of them. We
discuss the logical connections between them in Chapter 6. The Italian
Anabaptists were forerunners of the protestors against the orthodox Devil
doctrine which we discuss in section 1-5. One of the Anabaptists' critics, Urbanus Rhegius, complained that they "denied the existence of the Devil" (5).
The rise of the nation state led to a spirit of conflict and war, often
between nominally Christian nations; the evidence reflected in art and
iconography from the period demonstrates how popular was the use of the
Devil image in order to demonize the opposition. This spirit of the age
led to the witch craze, during which over 100,000 people were murdered
during the 16th and 17th centuries. Anyone seen as differing from society
was demonized. The huge interest in the Devil in this period is reflected
in the many plays and novels about him at the time- not least the popular
legends and stories about Faust and Mephistopheles.
Eventually the period known as the Enlightenment dawned, along with the
recognition that the blood letting of the "witch craze" really
had to stop. The Catholics began to stress their view that human nature
is good and perfectible- again, minimizing sin and the struggle of the
individual against evil. German Protestants like Schliermacher became
caught up in a desire for rational explanation, doubtless influenced by
the scientific revolution going on. He concluded that shifting blame from
humanity to Satan explains nothing, stressing that it is illogical to
believe that a Devil can somehow thwart God's plans; and hence he came
to reject the notion of a superhuman Devil (The Christian Faith
126.96.36.199). Soren Kierkegaard followed suite, arguing that the idea of a
superhuman Devil trivializes the personal import of the problem of sin
and evil. Shelley likewise came close to the truth when he asked: "What
need have we of a Devil, when we have humanity?" (6).
The Russian classical authors, Dostoevsky especially, were deeply concerned
with the question of evil and sin. Dostoevsky's The Possessed
, or The Devils, is all about the struggle within Nikolaj Stavrogin
between doing evil, and taking guilt, at the same time battling with self-deception.
This was Dostoevsky's understanding of Satan. When asked whether the Devil
really exists, Stavrogin replies: "I see him just as plainly as I
see you... And sometimes I do not know who is real, he or I" (7).
The same theme is developed in Dostoevsky's magnum opus, The Brothers
Karamazov. In book 5, Ivan explains to Alyosha that man has "created
[the Devil], he has created him in his own image and likeness" (8).
Ivan comes to the conclusion that the Devil is he himself, "but
only one side of me" (p. 775). In other words, the true Devil is
merely a projection of Ivan's unconscious.
All this said, however comforting it is to know that other minds have
concluded as I have, it's apparent that belief in a personal Satan persisted;
and that in practice, society refused to take serious responsibility for
their behaviour and sinfulness. The two world wars of the 20th century
and the path of global self-destruction upon which humanity is now firmly
embarked indicate clearly enough that the Biblical view of Satan,
sin and evil was not grasped nor accepted, even if in some minds the pagan
myth of a superhuman personal Satan was indeed rejected. Good and evil
have been reduced to psychological phenomena, "sin" is virtually
no more than a historical concept. Western intellectual circles are very
pone to being gripped by endless intellectual and theological fads; and
the rejection of the superhuman Satan myth, whilst correct and welcome,
is no more than a passing fad. It's not enough to deconstruct a wrong
view; the true understanding must be grasped and lived by.
(1) This is all documented in detail in J.M. Todd, Luther: A Life
(New York: Crossroads, 1982).
(2) References in S.P. Revard, The War In Heaven (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1980) p. 109.
(3) J. Delumeau, Catholics Between Luther And Voltaire (London:
Burns & Oates, 1977) p. 173.
(4) G.H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Fortress,
1962) pp. 202,562.
(5) As recorded in the summary of opposition to the Anabaptists in Alfred Coutts, Hans Dencl 1495-1527: Humanist and Heretic (Edinburgh: MacNiven & Wallace, 1927).
(6) Shelley, Defence Of Poetry (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill,
1965) p. 60.
(7) Feodyor Dostoevsky, The Possessed , translated by R. Pevear
and L. Volokhonsky (London: Random House / Vintage, 2005) p. 697.
(8) Feodyor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translated by
R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990)