1-2-2 Satan In The Thought Of Irenaeus And Tertullian
Wrestling yet further with the problem they'd created, the "fathers"
then had to deal with the issue of how the death of Christ could destroy
or damage Satan. Origen, Irenaeus and Tertullian created the idea that
was developed and popularized later in novels and art- that God somehow
tricked Satan. The reasoning went that Satan demanded the blood of Jesus,
and so he made Jesus die- but unknown to Satan, Jesus was [supposedly]
God, and He rose from the grave. Not only is Jesus never defined as 'God'
in a trinitarian sense in the Bible; but the whole suggestion is purely
fictional. The blood of Jesus was not "paid" to anyone. And
an almighty God doesn't need to trick Satan in order to win a game. Again
we see that our view of God affects our view of Satan, and vice versa.
And we see too that a forced, unnatural and unBiblical view of the atonement
affects our view of Satan too. Gnostic and other criticism of 'Christianity'
focused easily and powerfully on these contradictions and begged questions;
and the "fathers" had to dig themselves yet deeper into a tortuous
and contradictory theology. They were pushed on the point of whether Satan
and his angels sinned at the same time and got thrown out of Heaven together;
and whether in fact Satan and his angels committed the same sin, or different
ones. Tertullian's answer was that Satan sinned by envy, and was thrown
out of Heaven for this. He then adjusted his view to say that Satan was
given some period of grace between his sin and his expulsion, during which
he corrupted some of the angels, and then they were thrown out after him.
Clement, by contrast, insisted Satan and the angels fell together, at
the same time. The answers of the "fathers" were totally fictional
and not tied in at all to any actual Biblical statements. And yet these
desperate men insisted they were guided to their views by God, and many
generations of Christendom has blindly followed them. Tertullian likewise
was pushed on the issue of whether Satan was an Angel, or another kind
of being- as the earlier church fathers had claimed. Tertullian amended
the party line to claim that actually, Satan was an Angel after all. He
was then pushed on the issue of how exactly Satan and the angels got down
to earth from Heaven. Seeing they had to travel through the air, Tertullian
claimed [Apol. 22] that the Devil and his angels had wings.
Irenaeus especially was influenced by the Jewish myths of the 'Watcher
angels' from the Book of Enoch. He even calls Satan 'Azazel' in his Against
Heretics just as Enoch does, showing how influenced he was by the
Jewish myths which Paul, Jude and Peter had warned so fervently against
accepting. Irenaeus also termed his opponents "angels of the Devil"
(Against Heretics 1.15.6), showing how convenient it is to apply
the myths of cosmic conflict to ones own enemies on earth.
Instead of recognizing that these were all merely speculations, Irenaeus
and Tertullian went on to insist that belief in Satan was a core doctrine
of Christianity. Tertullian insisted that at baptism, the candidate
must rebuke Satan (1). Effectively, Tertullian [later supported in this
by Hippolytus] were making their view of Satan a fundamental part of the
Christian faith; without accepting it, a person couldn't be baptized into
the Christian faith. The candidate had to state: "I renounce
you, Satan, and your angels". This was a far cry to the New Testament
accounts of men and women confessing their sins and being baptized
into Christ for the forgiveness of them. This kind of thinking was taken
to its ultimate term when much later, in 1668, Joseph Glanvill (a Fellow
of the Royal Society) claimed that to deny belief in a personal Devil
was logically to deny a belief in God, and was thus tantamount to atheism.
This is how far dualism leads- if the God of love is matched by a god
of evil, then to deny the god of evil is to deny the existence of the
God of love, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus. The Calvinist John
Edwards, in his 1695 publication Some thoughts concerning the several
causes and occasions of atheism, claimed that denying of the Devil
and demons' existence is a cause of atheism. This is all so sad, and such
a tragic perversion of Biblical Christianity- those of us who deny the
existence of a personal Satan as a result of careful Biblical and historical
research, those who believe in the ultimate almightiness of the one God,
believing this to such an extent that we see no room left for a personal
Devil to exist- are framed as effective atheists. And this isn't a thing
of the past- we hear of contemporary Christian leaders claiming that those
who deny the existence of a personal Devil are denying the very essence
of the Christian faith, and must be considered cult members rather than
Christians (3). This was just the kind of scaremongering demonization
of the theological opposition that began with the church fathers, and
continued through to Lutherans like August Pfeiffer, who in 1695 claimed
that a growing disbelief in the Devil would lead to the moral breakdown
of society (4). Yet a purely Biblical understanding of the Devil surely
promotes spirituality in morality- for the New Testament idea
that the real 'enemy' is our own internal human thinking and temptation
leads to a far fiercer private struggle against immorality in the deepest
heart of those who know what the Christian's real enemy actually is.
Tertullian And The Lord's Prayer
The Lord's prayer "deliver us from evil" began to be quite
arbitrarily translated by Tertullian as "deliver us from the evil
one", as if referring to a personal Satan. But the Greek text certainly
doesn't require this translation. In Greek, the phrase "from evil"
can be understood as either neuter ("the [abstract] evil") or
masculine, "the evil one", personifying the evil. God does lead
men and women to the time of evil / testing- Abraham commanded to offer
Isaac, and the testing of Israel by God in the desert are obvious examples.
It's observable that the Lord Jesus Himself prayed most parts of His model
prayer in His own life situations. "Your will be done... Deliver
us from evil" (Mt. 6:13; Lk. 11:4) were repeated by Him in Gethsemane,
when He asked for God's will to be done and not His, and yet He prayed
that the disciples would be delivered from evil (Jn. 17:15).
Paul's letters are full of allusion to the Gospel records, and those allusions
enable us to correctly interpret the passages alluded to. He uses the
same Greek words for "deliver" and "evil" when he
expresses his confidence that "the Lord shall deliver me from every
evil work, and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:18).
Paul likewise had his inspired mind on this phrase of the Lord's prayer
when he commented that the Lord Jesus died in order "that he might
deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God"
(Gal. 1:4; 2 Thess. 3:3). Clearly enough, Paul didn't understand "the
evil" to be a personal Satan, but rather the "evil" of
this world and those who seek to persecute believers. Perhaps the Lord
Jesus Himself based this part of His prayer on Old Testament passages
like 1 Chron. 4:10; Ps. 25:22; 26:11; 31:8; 34:22; 69:18; 78:35,42; 140:1
and Prov. 2:12; 6:24, which ask for 'deliverance' from evil people,
sin, distress, tribulation etc. here on earth. Not one of those passages
speaks of deliverance from a personal, superhuman Satan. Esther's prayer
in Es. 4:19 LXX is very similar- "Deliver us from the hand of the
evildoer", but that 'evildoer' was Haman, not any personal, superhuman
Satan. Even if we insist upon reading 'the evil one', "the evil one"
in the Old Testament was always "the evil man in Israel" (Dt.
17:12; 19:19; 22:21-24 cp. 1 Cor. 5:13)- never a superhuman being. And
there may be another allusion by the Lord to Gen. 48:16, where God is
called the One "who has redeemed me from all evil". As the Old
Testament 'word made flesh', the thinking of the Lord Jesus was constantly
reflective of Old Testament passages; but in every case here, the passages
He alluded to were not concerning a superhuman Devil figure.
God 'delivers from' "every trouble" (Ps. 54:7), persecutors
and enemies (Ps. 142:6; 69:14)- but as Ernst Lohmeyer notes, "There
is no instance of the [orthodox understanding of the] devil being called
'the evil one' in the Old Testament or in the Jewish writings" (5).
It's also been observed that every aspect of the Lord's prayer can be
interpreted with reference to the future coming of the Kingdom of God
on earth. Prayer for deliverance from evil, the time of testing (Gk.),
would then tally well with the Lord's exhortation to pray that we may
be delivered from the final time of evil coming on the earth (Lk. 21:36).
Another insight into this petition is that God does in fact lead men in
a downward spiral as well as in an upward spiral of relationship with
Him- Pharaoh would be the classic example. "Why do you make us err
from your ways?" was the lament of Israel to their God in Is. 63:17.
It is perhaps this situation more than any which we should fear- being
hardened in sin, drawing ever closer to the waterfall of destruction,
until we come to the point that the forces behind us are now too strong
to resist... Saul lying face down in the dirt of ancient Palestine the
night before his death would be the classic visual image of it. And the
Lord would be urging us to pray earnestly that we are not led in that
downward spiral (6). His conversation in Gethsemane, both with the disciples
and with His Father, had many points of contact with the text of the Lord's
Prayer. "Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation"
(Mt. 26:41) would perhaps be His equivalent of "lead us not into
temptation but deliver us from evil".
Tertullian went further in glossing the Lord's prayer to make it support
his ideas. He retranslated "Lead us not into temptation" (which
clearly implies God can lead us into the way of testing) as "Suffer
us not to be led [by Satan]". This is an interpretation rather than
a translation- the Scriptures didn't fit in with his ideas about Satan,
and so he twisted the translation to suit his views [as countless churchmen
have done since]. Dionysius of Alexandria likewise followed suite, adding
as a footnote to the text: "That means, let us not fall into temptation".
The desire to 'save' God from being the one who leads into temptation
was pathetic. C.F. Evans was a theologian who supports our understanding
of this passage. He observed: "St. Cyprian in his commentary on the
Lord's Prayer repeats Tertullian's gloss, "suffer us not to be led",
only not now as an explanation, but as part of the text of the prayer
itself, and two centuries later St. Augustine in his commentary on the
Prayer could write that many in his day prayed the petition in this form,
and that he had found it so in some Latin manuscripts... nevertheless
[Evans continues] in some of the great temptations of the Old Testament
God is himself said to be the tempter, and this is the plain meaning of
the words here" (7). This history of interpretation provides a window
into how false doctrine has entered the church. Tertullian failed to be
able to square the Lord's Prayer with his view of God and Satan. And so
he twisted the interpretation and the translation to imply that God cannot
lead men to the test, but Satan does. And then subsequent church 'fathers'
made out this interpretation to actually be the text itself- quite an
easy thing to do with illiterate congregations. The miracle is that God
has preserved His word faithfully so that even the amateur Bible student
can discover how these 'fathers' misled the church. Any serious student
of primary evidence from ancient times will be aware that so many histories,
biographies, accounts etc. have had parts of them lost in transmission,
whole volumes have disappeared, and often we are left with mere fragments
of original texts (8). The way the Bible quotes from within itself and
has no indication of 'lost' segments from the books is quite amazing-
it's been miraculously preserved by God because it is His word to us.
It is therefore for us to gratefully search it for truth rather than accepting
human tradition and interpretations as the word of God- for they are but
the word of men.
T.S. Eliot apparently quipped: "Christianity is always adapting
itself into something which can be believed" (9). And this is so
true. Especially in the difficult area of human suffering, God's justice,
responsibility for human sin... standard Christianity as a religion has
indeed adapted itself on the basis that its popularity will be increased
if it adopts views and beliefs which the world thinks are popular, acceptable
or simply 'cool'. This is how the pagan myths of a personal Satan got
entangled with Christianity. The only way out of the mess is surely to
read the Bible for ourselves, realizing that true, Biblical Christianity
isn't the same as the "mere Christianity" which exists as a
religion, one amongst many choices, in the world around us.
(1) J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (London: Longmans,
1972) pp. 31-38, 44, 399-409. See too H.A. Kelly, The Devil At Baptism
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985).
(2) Joseph Glanvill's paper, A Blow At Modern Sadducism, is
reviewed in Moody E. Prior, "Joseph Glanvill, witchcraft, and seventeenth-century
science", Modern Philology Vol. 30 pp. 167-193.
(3) See, e.g., statements from the Christian Apologetics And Research
Ministry, widespread on the internet. The Baptist position at the end
of the 20th century was just as extreme: "Any system of religious
belief that denies the literal reality and actual personality of Satan
is radically unChristian and unBiblical in nature and clearly under the
dominion of the very Devil whom it denies" - from "Does Satan
Really Exist?", Our Baptist Heritage, March / April 1993. Text published
(4) As quoted in Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy
And The Making Of Modernity 1650-1750 (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2001), p. 395.
(5) Ernst Lohmeyer, The Lord's Prayer, translated by John Bowden
(London: Collins, 1965) p. 214. Lohmeyer was an East German pastor, detained
and then murdered by the Communist authorities in 1946, after spending
years before that in suffering at the hands of the Nazis. Like Solzhenitsyn,
he saw evil up close in his own life, and his theological reflections
upon it are significant. He concurred with our own theses that belief
in one God precludes belief in a personal Satan, and that the root of
human evil is within the human heart. He bears quoting in this connection
at some length: "As long as this age lasts, in which good and evil
are mixed together, it can be said that evil reigns on earth. The manifold
kinds of evil action and evil happenings are manifestations of the one
evil which produces them [i.e.] men's hearts... the more strongly faith
in one God... the more dispensable becomes the thought and the more tenuous
the form of the [orthodox understanding of] the devil" (pp. 216,218).
(6) I have exemplified the theme of the 'downward spiral' at length in
the chapter of that title in Beyond Bible Basics (South Croydon:
(7) C.F. Evans, The Lord's Prayer (London: S.C.M., 1997) p.
(8) To give a few examples, documented in Martin Hengel, Acts And
The History Of Earliest Christianity (London: S.C.M., 1979) pp. 6,7.
The Greek historians Polybius and Diodore each wrote histories of the
world, coming to about 40 volumes each- according to references to and
quotations from the other volumes within their own extant writings. But
only about one third of Polybius' 40 volumes have survived, and only 16
of Diodore's volumes. Tacitus' Annals comprised 16 volumes, but
volumes 7-10 are missing. Likewise only four books of his 16 volume Histories
survive. Contrast this with the way the five books of Moses have been
preserved intact, as can be shown from an analysis of their structure,
and the way they are quoted from by later Scripture, whereas later Scripture
doesn't claim to quote any unknown works of Moses.
(9) Quoted in John Hick, The Myth Of God Incarnate (London:
S.C.M., 1977) ix.