Is The Devil Real? The Bible’s Take Contra Friedrich Schleiermacher’s

Alexandre Cabanel’s Fallen Angel, 1868

Is the Devil real; some refer to this as: is the Devil personal? Yes, I personally think the Devil is real. I can only arrive at this conclusion based upon the Dominical affirmation and teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is important, I think, because the biblical reality not only asserts that this is the case, but it frames the ‘spiritual battle’ Jesus Christ undertook, and the same battle that his church continues to undertake, as the church militant, in such terms that are clear that our battle is not ‘against flesh and blood, but against the rulers and powers and principalities’ that inhabit the ‘air’ as it were (read the whole Epistle to the Ephesians). None of this is to mention, of course, the most pivotal section of scripture in the whole of the Bible (it could be argued) in regard to the Fall. Genesis:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

We have other references in the Old Testament that refer to the ‘spiritual battle’, particularly in Daniel 10; note:

12 Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. 13 But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia. 14 Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come.”. . . 20 So he said, “Do you know why I have come to you? Soon I will return to fight against the prince of Persia, and when I go, the prince of Greece will come; 21 but first I will tell you what is written in the Book of Truth. (No one supports me against them except Michael, your prince.)

And then of course the infamous battle that Jesus had with the Devil in the wilderness (a recapitulation of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness) in Matthew (and the Synoptic attestation):

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

If we didn’t have the Old Testament witnesses the New Testament account of Jesus’s battle wouldn’t make sense, for one thing. For another thing what we do have in the ‘spiritual battle’ that Jesus undertook in the wilderness and the victory he won (think Irenaeus and recapitulation as far as hermeneutical and soteriological method) is not ‘parabolic’ in literary form but historical prose; in other words its intention is to detail a concrete event with theological depth per the reality of the euaggelion, per the Gospel reality that Jesus is in the incarnation. In other words, the reality of the Devil to this account in Matthew (and Mark) is just as central to the canonical narrative as is Genesis 3 with our first introduction to the Devil. There is a continuity of salvation-history in regard to the character and function of the Devil from the first Adam to the second Adam (to pick up on the Pauline motif cf. Rom. 5), and his role in introducing humanity to an evil that he had already partaken of. This is not to suggest that the Devil is evil, like in a Manichean or dualist sense, or that he helps explain the origin of evil—this would only exceed the bounds and thrust us into a mode of speculation that we dare not engage in as those committed to a revelational theology—but it is to recognize through attention to the text’s development that the Devil ought to be understood in a realist and at least ontic sense insofar as he has agency and volition in his textuality.

In short, the text, I contend, wants us to believe that the Devil is a real entity who is maliciously oriented against God and his purposes in Jesus Christ. The text wants us to think that the Devil wants to undo what God has done, and is doing in and through the resurrection power of the risen Christ in the human and created order in general. The text, as we think this canonically, wants us to think that the Devil is real; has agency, ‘prowls around like a roaring lion’; is leader of a cohort that has been made a public spectacle of at the cross of Christ; is ‘accuser of the brethren’ cast down from heaven in warfare with the heavenly host, that soon, along with the rest of death will be put under the Christ’s foot once and for all never to be heard of again. In other words, the text wants us to think that the Devil, with all his ‘being’ wants to destroy the good and very good creation and recreation of God in Jesus Christ; not to mention all of those who are participants in Christ’s life by the Spirit.

I write all of the above to get to Friedrich Schleiermacher; just who you were waiting for! Most evangelical and Reformed Christians couldn’t give two cents for what Schleiermacher thinks; I get that. Nevertheless, I think it is interesting, if not important, to understand where someone as giant and genius as Schleiermacher stood on such things. His theology of the devil is actually pretty scant, and as he notes (as you will see) unnecessary for a Christian theology. Clearly he reflects the ‘enlightened’ thinking of his times, and presupposes upon the developing ‘higher criticism’ of his day. You will see this reflected in what he has to say about the non-importance of the devil relative to scriptural teaching and Christian living. As you read him along with me here, what I opened up with above will become clear; you will see why I wrote what I did in anticipation of what Schleiermacher thinks. He writes:

Thus, even if only a few scriptural passages treat of the devil, or even if all the passages actually cited here and those otherwise still reputable for the purpose treat the devil, all grounds for taking up this notion as an enduring component in our presentation of Christian faith-doctrine would be lacking to us. Accordingly, all grounds would also be lacking for defining the notion so much more closely that everything that is ascribed to the devil could also really be considered together. This is so, for in Christ and his disciples this notion was not used as one that would be derived from the Sacred Scriptures of the old covenant, nor even as on that would be acquired from divine revelation by any pathway whatsoever. Rather, it arose from the common life of that time, thus in the same way in which it more or less arises in all of us, despite our complete ignorance as to the existence of such a being. Moreover, that wherefrom we are to be redeemed remains the same, whether the devil exists or not, and that whereby we are redeemed also remains the same. Thus, the very question concerning the existence of the devil is also no question for Christian theology at all. Rather, it is a cosmological question, in the broadest sense of the word, exactly the same as that concerning the nature of the firmament and of heavenly bodies. Moreover, in a presentation of faith-doctrine we actually have just as little to affirm as to deny on this topic, and likewise we can just as little be required to hold a dispute over that notion in a presentation of faith-doctrine as to provide a grounding for it. What the biblical deposit shows is nothing more than that the notion was a confluence of two or three very different components among the Jewish people themselves. The first component is the servant of God who locates the whereabouts of wickedness, and who has a certain rank and work among the other angels, but of whom there can be no talk of being cast out from being near God. The other main component is the basically evil being of oriental dualism, modified in such a way that the Jews alone would have been in a position to adopt the new version.[1]

Schleiermacher, clearly, was under the influence of his times; as such the Bible was undergoing a radical displacement in regard to being a trustworthy gateway into the strange world operative under the strictures of supernatural reality, as he attempted to theologize.

There are many today, Christians even, who have little time to ponder whether or not the devil is real; many believe we have enough concrete expressions of evil, systemically and personally, to take up our time and attention. But according to the brief survey of Scripture I offered previously this is errant. The Bible, contra Schleiermacher wants us to think that we are engaged in a real life battle with a ‘personal’ satan who seeks to not only destroy our souls, but the souls of every person for whom Christ died; and along with that the rest of creation as that is tied to our stewardship.

From a personal perspective I have experienced all types of spiritual warfare, in fact I’ve experienced some right now as I’ve come to type this post. I’ve had encounters with tangible contact points with the kingdom of darkness, been exposed to people who are demon-possessed, and confronted such realties in the name of the living Christ. This is why this is important; because it’s a real life struggle that each of us as soldiers of Christ faces on a daily basis. Maybe one positive point we could take from Schleiermacher, in a recontextualized way, is that we don’t want to give the devil too much of our time and focus; but along with the Apostle Paul we don’t want to be ‘ignorant of his devices’ or reality either!

Further, I wouldn’t want to close this post without noting that the ‘spiritual’, just as the resurrection of Christ illustrates, is disembodied, per se. In other words, even though the devil is a ‘spirity’ entity (as are his cohorts) does not mean, as we can infer from Scripture, that his means are always or mostly of the so called ‘paranormal’ sort. Typically, especially in the Western enclave, his most heinous manifestations of evil are very material in orientation. We see this extended into space and time in terms of economic, sexual, physical forms of violence and abuse; in systemic and structural ways. But we ought to remember, nonetheless, that standing behind such ‘beastly’ action is indeed the kingdom of darkness in all its grossness. Devil be damned!

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. –Ephesians 6.10-12

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete. –II Corinthians 10.3-6

 

[1] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith Volume One, trans. by Terrence N. Tice, Catherine L Kelsey, and Edwina Lawler (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 242-43.

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