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1-5 The Protestors:

Resistance To The Popular Concept Of The Devil

The Biblical conclusions of my next chapter are that the words 'Satan' [adversary] and 'Devil' [false accuser] are simply words which can be used in Scripture with no negative connotation; and that at times they essentially refer to the greatest 'adversary' we face, namely sin. Further, the idea of a personal Satan, a fallen angel, is simply not found in the Bible text. It is Scriptural study alone which is the basis for my conclusions, and I hope I would stand by them even with the whole world against me. For many readers these conclusions will be startling and concerning. But it should be appreciated that I am far from alone in having come to these understandings. Well known Christian writers and thinkers have come to just the same conclusions.

In fact, there has always been protest at the popular view. David Joris in the 16th century was a noted example of rejecting belief in a personal Devil, along with others, especially amongst the Anabaptists (1). There were a whole group of such thinkers in the 17th century- Jacob Bauthumley, Lodowick Muggleton, Anthonie van Dale, Thomas Hobbes [in Leviathan, 1651], Balthassar Bekker [in The World Bewitched, 1693] and others. Isaac Newton began with the standard view of the Devil, but over time [along with his rejection of the trinity, infant sprinkling and the immortal soul] he came to reject it. Frank Manuel comments: "the Devil seems to have been metamorphosed into a symbol for lusts of the flesh and his reality becomes far more questionable" (2). Noted Newton scholar Stephen Snobelen has since confirmed this in numerous articles, based on the more recent release of more of Newton's theological manuscripts. He also has brought to light that Newton came to understand demons not as literal beings, but rather as an example of how the language of the day is used in the New Testament- in this case, to describe those afflicted with mental illness. Joseph Mede, in his Apostasy Of The Latter Times advocated the same conclusion. I referenced in section 1-4-1 that perhaps even John Milton himself didn't actually hold the orthodox view, and was [when properly interpreted] actually ridiculing the whole idea as absurd. The 18th century saw similar protests- e.g. from Arthur Ashley Sykes and Richard Mead. The 19th century likewise, with John Simpson [The Meaning Of Satan, 1804 (3)], John Epps [The Devil, 1842], John Thomas [Elpis Israel, 1848], Robert Roberts [The Evil One, 1882] and others.

Separated from the dogmas and traditions of the old world, and yet maintaining a fervent faith in Biblical Christianity, there were many 19th century immigrants to America who started to search the Scriptures for truth. After the first edition of this book was published, a Canadian friend drew my attention to a book by Walter Balfour, published in Charlestown in 1827 (4). This lengthy study comes to the same conclusions as I do throughout this book. Balfour came to identical positions regarding basic Bible teaching about Satan, demons and the nature of sin and evil; and interpreted passages like Job 1 in the same way as I do. There's an uncanny similarity at times in our style and phrasing; I can only take comfort from the fact that independent minds, separated by time, background, geography and circumstance, have come to the same understanding. As I've laboured before, it's no unbearably hard thing for me to stand with my back to the world over the Satan issue; but to not have to stand totally alone is indeed some degree of  comfort and confirmation.

These and other independent Christian thinkers stood against the huge weight of tradition and combined Protestant and Catholic dogma. In more recent times, both academics and thoughtful Christians have bravely followed in their line of thinking. Sadly, the view is widely held that thinking about religious matters is for the experts, the priest, the pastor, the academic theologian; and no amateur Bible student, as it were, can have a valid opinion. This, however, misses the whole point of the Biblical revelation- that the Bible is God's word to all His people, and it is for us each and every one to study and reflect upon it, and draw conclusions which we hold in absolute personal integrity. Thus Gregory of Nysa, one of the founding fathers of the popular Christian view of the Devil, actually lamented that ordinary working people within the Christian congregation had an active interest in theological issues. He wrote: "Everywhere in the city is full of it, the alleyways, the streets... if you ask about the rate of exchange, you get a lecture on the Created and the Uncreated. You ask the price of a loaf of bread, and you are told by way of reply that the Father is superior, the Son subordinate. You inquire whether the public bath is a convenient one, and he replies that the Son was made out of nothing" (5). The spirit of "Every man a Bible student" was far from the early fathers. They wished [as many pastors and religious leaders do today] to confine the study of God, the formulation of doctrinal understanding, to their own small elite. They were over confident of their own abilities and authority. Which leaves us with a hard job of clearing away the mess they've left, and getting down to the real message of the Bible. Thank God that He preserved the actual text of the Bible for us, and that we have it in our own languages now to study.


Our survey of the history of the Satan idea hasn't been pure history- I've added my comments as we've gone through. But the general pattern of that history, the development, changes and accretions to the idea, are clear in outline to the most phlegmatic and disengaged historian. The Bible speaks of "the faith", "the Gospel", as a set of doctrines, a deposit of truth which has been delivered to the believer (Eph. 4:4-6)- "the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3 ASV). That truth cannot be added to nor subtracted from, as the Bible itself makes clear- especially in the appeals of Paul and Peter to maintain the purity of the one faith. This means that a vitally true doctrine cannot become 'added' to that body of truth. Jaroslav Pelikan correctly reflected: "What can it mean for a doctrine to 'become' part of the Catholic faith, which is, by definition, universal both in space and in time?" (6). And yet it's apparent that the doctrine of a personal Devil is something which has been created, ex-nihilo so far as the Bible is concerned; and then has been added to and developed over time into something quite unrecognizable in the actual Biblical text. It therefore has to be rejected as a Christian doctrine. If it was unknown to Abraham, Jesus, Paul... it should be unacceptable to us.


(1) Documented in Auke Jelsma, Frontiers Of The Reformation: Dissidence And Orthodoxy In Sixteenth-Century Europe (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), pp. 25-39. Point 4 of the Anabaptist Confession of Faith in Venice in around 1550 was that "There is no other Devil than human prudence, for no creature of God is hostile to him but this". The entire document can be seen in Earl Morse Wilbur, A History Of Unitarianism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952) Vol. 2 p. 98.

(2) Frank E. Manuel, The Religion Of Isaac Newton (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), p. 64. Elsewhere, Manuel shows how Newton rejected the idea that demons were literal beings- rather he interpreted the references to them as the language of the day to describe mental illness- see Frank E. Manuel. Isaac Newton: Historian (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963) p. 149.

(3) More recently reprinted in 1999 by Grammata Press (B.C., Canada).

(4) Walter Balfour, An Inquiry Into The Scriptural Doctrine Concerning The Devil And Satan (Charlestown, MS: Davidson, 1827), digitized on Google books.
(5) As quoted in G. Bowersock, P. Brown, O. Grabar Late Antiquity: A Guide To The Postclassical World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) p. 69.

(6) Jaroslav Pelikan, The Development Of Christian Doctrine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969) p. 39.