Demonology and You

Nobody believes in the Devil nowadays.  That is one of the Devil’s favourite jokes.
-Robertson Davies, “Scottish Folklore and Opera,” in Happy Alchemy*

The special essay for my MA was “John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus on Demonology”.  The writing of this bit of comparative demonology brought me into contact with not only Cassian and Evagrius but also with the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the anonymous Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, Palladius’ Lausiac History, St. Augustine’s City of God, the Shepherd of Hermas, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, Origen’s De Principatibus and a variety of other Patristic writings.  In these writings, although there were points of variance**, I saw the fundamental interconnectedness of Patristic writers.

They all believed in demons, for one thing.

In the Patristic world, demons are out there.  They are fundamentally hostile and inhabit the air.  Their main action in the life of the Christian is to tempt/test us.  They want to distract Christians from prayer and lead them into sin.  One of the fundamentals of Christian demonology is the fact that demons cannot force people to sin.  Some people don’t realise this, and thus they brush off demonology as having nothing to do with them; clearly their sins are their own.

Yes, your sins are your own.  This does not negate the reality of demons seeking to entice you to omit the good and commit the wicked.  Indeed, if demons are real (which a worldview based on Scripture and tradition proclaims loud & clear), we should be on the guard against them; our sins are own responsibility, so we should be on our guard to avoid being enticed to lead life separate from God’s ways.

Therefore, we should be equipped to fight them.  We should know our weapons.  We should know our enemies.  We should also know what else we’re up against — for not all evil originates with demons.  According to John Cassian’s telling of the eight deadly vices in his Institutes, the will to sin is our own and the vices originate in our own sinful state; the traditional word for this, taken from St. Paul, is the flesh.  The other origin of evil is the world.  The world is full of enough wickedness stemming from other people’s evil and the wickedness of organisations and systems that the demons need not always tempt us.

However, knowledge of the battle is not readily available for the (post)modern Christian.  We are trapped between Frank Peretti and secular humanism.  What we need is a demonology for (post)moderns, something with both eyes open that takes Scripture seriously, does not deny science, but also peers into the wisdom of the Great Tradition, drawing out the teachings on Spiritual Warfare from the ancients, mediaevals, Reformers, and more, looking at liturgies, exorcisms, and training in the spiritual life.

I think a comparative analysis of John Cassian and Walter Wink (for example) would be interesting not only from a scholarly point of view but from the point of view of the average Christian seeking to live in a world surrounded by principalities and powers.  We need work that is not only scholarly but actually useful.  My approach to this question would be inherently Patristic, but there are other ways to deal with this issue with a Christian, biblical, honest approach.

And so I am glad to see that the Internet Monk has posed the following question to his Liturgical Gangstas:

How does the theme and practice of spiritual warfare relate to ministry in your tradition? Where are the boundaries of your own “comfort zones” in the practice of spiritual warfare?

In the post on his blog, we get thoughts on this very important question from the Eastern Orthodox, United Methodist, Southern Baptist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian perspectives.  Unsurprisingly, I liked the Eastern Orthodox and United Methodist best.  You should read the post.

The position that many of us have on the question of demonology is summed up well in that post by Matthew Johnson, United Methodist pastor:

I think attributing every kind of mistake or misfortune to Satan and his minions is ridiculous. However, I would be biblically remiss not to recognize that there are powers, there are principalities, there is a reality beyond my senses that is gruesome and violent in which there are beings who would love nothing more than to see the church and the members of the body of Christ fail.

Hopefully to come shall be more on demons, John Cassian, and you.

*Many thanks to Emily Martin for providing the quotation to me many moons past.

**Most notably the Origenist teachings about the Fall and Christology as embraced by Evagrius in opposition to Cassian & Augustine.

Evangelicals Eating Jesus

The Internet Monk recently wrote an excellent post entitled, “Your Mission: ‘Resacramentalize Evangelicalism.’”  Being raised Anglican, I’m not the primary audience of his post.  In it, he makes good points about what a sacrament is and how Evangelicals need to rediscover not simply “the sacraments” but the concept of God inhabiting the things that go on during public worship.

This reminded me of an essay I read in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century* (I posted on a different essay from the book here.)  The essay I thought of was, “Reclaiming Eucharistic Piety: A Postmodern Possibility for American Evangelicals?” by Joel Scandrett (pp. 155-169).

Scandrett begins his essay with the following quotation from John Wesley (one of the great gurus/saints of the Evangelical movement):

If, therefore, we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey God, then we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lord’s Supper; then we must never turn our backs on the feast for which our Lord has prepared for us.  We must neglect no occasion, which the good providence of God affords us, for this purpose.  This is the true rule: So often are we to receive as God gives us opportunity. (“The Duty of Constant Communion“)

Scandrett notes, “Wesley was devoted to weekly and sometimes (during the Christmas and Easter seasons) daily communion throughout his adult life.  For Wesley the Lord’s Supper was ‘the “grand channel” whereby the grace of the Spirit is conveyed to human souls, and . . . the first step in working out our salvation.'”**

However, the Free Methodist Church in Canada, the only direct successor to English Methodism remaining here since the Methodists joined the United Church, only requires the celebration of Holy Communion once a quarter.  Four times a year is nothing as compared to 52+!  An encouraging sign of rediscovering the original Methodists is the practice in many FM churches of at least monthly Communion.  I believe that such a resurgence is healthy and rooted in the very Articles of Religion of the Free Methodists, which state:

Water baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the sacraments of the church commanded by Christ. They are means of grace through faith, tokens of our profession of Christian faith, and signs of God’s gracious ministry toward us. By them, He works within us to quicken, strengthen, and confirm our faith.

The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of our redemption by Christ’s death. To those who rightly, worthily, and with faith receive it, the bread which we break is a partaking of the body of Christ; and likewise the cup of blessing is a partaking of the blood of Christ. The supper is also a sign of the love and unity that Christians have among themselves.

Christ, according to His promise, is really present in the sacrament. But His body is given, taken, and eaten only after a heavenly and spiritual manner. No change is effected in the element; the bread and wine are not literally the body and blood of Christ. Nor is the body and blood of Christ literally present with the elements. The elements are never to be considered objects of worship. The body of Christ is received and eaten in faith.

The Free Methodists, of course, are not alone in this practice of infrequent Communion.  Many of the denominations that call themselves “evangelical” and are descended from the same roots as the Free Methodists also partake of the Lord’s Supper rarely.  I had friends in High School who would receive Communion maybe twice a year.  If Wesley is right, they were missing out on the very medicine of immortality!

So come!  Rediscover the sacramental heritage of Wesley’s evangelicalism!  Encourage more frequent Communion at your local church.  Read Wesley’s reasons why.  Read some of the Reformation discussions of Communion.  Read the tales of those who have felt that their spiritual lives have profited from the practice of frequent partaking of Holy Communion.  If Christ is truly present in the sacrament, then take it to your comfort.

*Ed. Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A. Hall.  Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2002.

**Quoting Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), p. 202.