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 at: www.worldmissions.org/Clipper/Doctrine.

(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: C.A.T., 1999)

(7) C.F. Evans, The Lord's Prayer (London: S.C.M., 1997) p. 64.

(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.

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