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The Origin and Nature of the Conflict with the Devil

The Origin and Nature of the Conflict with the Devil
© Illustration by Ilse Gort

When we examine the writings of John Calvin concerned with the origin of Satan, two points stand out. The sixteenth-century has been referred to as “the devil’s golden age1” and many of the writings on demonology of that period, particularly those of Luther’s disciples, were heavily influenced by popular superstition2. John Calvin’s writings, on the other hand, reflect little of the popular conception of devils and are remarkably free from superstition3.

The second point we notice is just how little he says about the origin of the devil. John Calvin recognises that Scripture does not provide us with enough material to present a comprehensive demonology and so, therefore, refuses to be drawn into philosophical speculation. This is illustrated by the way in which, in his ‘Commentary on Genesis,’ he identifies the serpent with Satan, and talks about his nature but not about his origin or fall, because it is not directly referred to in the text itself. Or again, if we look at his ‘Commentaries on Ezekiel’ and Isaiah, which are passages taken by some commentators to refer to the creation and fall of Satan, John Calvin refuses to speculate on this and limits his interpretation of the text to a literal application to the King of Tyre and the King of Babylon respectively. His approach to demonology is, therefore, best summed up in these words: “Some persons grumble that Scripture does not in numerous passages set forth systematically and clearly that fall of the devil’s, its cause, manner, time, and character. But because this has nothing to do with us, it was better not to say anything, or at least to touch upon it lightly, because it did not befit the Holy Spirit to feed our curiosity with empty histories to no effect. And we see that the Lord’s purpose was to teach nothing in his sacred oracles except what we should learn to our edification.”

This approach of John Calvin’s governs his whole attitude to demonology and is the basis on which he can reject both the popular superstitions which plagued Protestant conceptions of Satan and the excessive speculation about evil angels so characteristic of Catholic theology4.

When John Calvin does refer to the origin of the devil and demons, he does so to discredit dualism and to guard against the accusation of some, that Satan was created by God with his present evil nature. There is no room, in the theology of John Calvin, for the view of Satan being, as it were, the God of evil and darkness opposed to the God of righteousness and light. While John Calvin may not say much about the origin of the devil, what he does say leaves us in no doubt that Satan was created by God (and is, therefore, subservient to Him) and that his present evil nature cannot be attributed to God in any way. We are, thus, to content ourselves, as John Calvin puts it, with a “brief summary of the nature of devils: they were when first created angels of God, but by degeneration they ruined themselves and became the instruments of ruin for others.” This alone, John Calvin believes, is “profitable to know,” because this is all that can be deduced from Scripture. Where this is “plainly taught” in Scripture as in 2 Pet. 2:4 and Jude 6: “God has made known what is useful for us to know, that the devils were originally created to obey God, that they fell from grace through their own fault because they did not submit to God’s rule; and therefore that the wickedness which cleaves to them was accidental and not organic to their nature, so that it cannot be attributed to God.”

In other words, God did not spare those angels who sinned. They lost their original nature, and God punished their defection: “Jude means that they paid the penalty for despising the goodness of God and lapsing from their original vocation.” They, therefore “left their proper habitation” and the “dreadful picture of the penalty” as John Calvin saw it, is brought out in these words which also tell us a little more about their nature and even their situation since their rebellion: “Not only had they been free Spirits but also heavenly dominations: now they are held in the grip of perpetual bondage. Not only had they enjoyed the glorious light of God, but His splendour was reflected in them, that they might diffuse themselves, like the rays of the sun, to every corner of the earth. Now, however, they are plunged into darkness.”

Since they apostatised and lost their dignity, their condition is now miserable, wherever they may travel, they draw their chains after them, and remain involved in their own shades. Moreover, meanwhile, their final torment is put off to the last day.

We notice at this point that John Calvin in the above quotation is talking of “devils” in the plural. Scripture makes plain, he argues, “that there are not one, not two, nor a few foes, but great armies which wage war” against the Christian. However, as Christ is the Head of the Church and the fellowship of the Saints, so, in the theology of John Calvin, Satan is the head of the “impious and impiety itself” which includes fallen angels: Christ contrasts Himself with the devil who is head of all the reprobate. All the devils are rebel angels, but Scripture in many passages ascribe headship to one who gathers to destruction all the ungodly as in one body.

We begin to see here, in John Calvin’s theology, the idea of two kingdoms being opposed to each other: “the frequent mention of Satan or the devil in the singular denotes the empire of wickedness opposed to the Kingdom of Righteousness.” For clarification, we must also note that John Calvin interchanges his terminology using “Satan” and “the devil,” “devils” and “demons” to describe the same.

Satan and demons, then, were created by God to serve and obey Him. They were not evil at this point, as John Calvin, in accordance with Scripture, will not ascribe to God the creation of any evil or corrupt nature. Nature or creation did not wick the devil himself, nor was he or is he equal to God. The malice which John Calvin attributes to the devil’s nature came “not from his creation but from his perversion. For, whatever he has that is to be condemned he has derived from his revolt and fall.” Scripture makes it understandable, John Calvin argued, that Satan did not come forth in his present condition from God. To leave us in no doubt, John Calvin takes as his final authority the words of Christ Himself: For this reason, Christ declares that “when Satan lies, he speaks according to his own nature” and states the reason, because “he abode not in the truth” (John 8:44). Indeed, when Christ states that Satan “abode not in the truth,” he hints that he was once in it, and when he makes him “the father of lies,” he deprives him of imputing to God the fault which he brought upon himself.

The reason, therefore, that the devil is a liar, is because he chose to revolt from the truth. That he is a liar, to underline what has already been said, “arises not from his nature having always been contrary to truth, but because he fell from it by a voluntary fall.” We have made mention of the fact in Part Two that man sins of necessity but without compulsion. This, in fact, is rooted by John Calvin in the revolt of the devil himself, “who can only do evil, yet sins with his will.” In John Calvin’s theology, the term “necessity” always leaves room for the term “voluntary.5” To use a simple analogy to understand this concept in John Calvin, people, he points out, eat necessarily but also voluntarily.

Satan’s rebellion is seen as irrevocable in that he is “without any hope of release” as he was “long ago sentenced and doomed to Gehenna,” and, because of that, Satan is, therefore, the irreconcilable enemy of God. He aims to bring the whole of creation in rebellion against God, thus destroying the order that was the hallmark of creation before the Fall. Man is central in Satan’s strategy in bringing about this rebellion: Since he was the adversary of God he attempted to subvert the order established by Him, and because he could not drag God from His throne, he assailed a man, in whom His image shone.

As Satan is the “father of lies” we should not be surprised to learn that, for John Calvin, the whole of Satan’s strategy is based on falsehood. His attack on God’s truth is not just to injure God, but also to destroy man. In his Commentary on John, John Calvin emphasizes the point that God’s truth is the only source of life for the soul of man, and so, conversely, falsehood must lead to the death of the soul: It is not surprising that Satan tries so hard to extinguish the light of truth, for it is the only life of the soul. Hence the chief and most deadly weapon for killing the soul is a falsehood.

John Calvin’s “definition” of falsehood in this context, is quite simply “false conceptions about God.” This is one reason why John Calvin, although not untouched by them in certain areas, had such a low view of the pre-Christian philosophers. So successful is Satan in his use of falsehood that John Calvin believed their theologies were not free of Satan’s deceptions. His main concern, however, is to attack truth and so his use of falsehood centres primarily on God’s Word. This strategy of Satan’s will be examined in greater detail a little later. It is mentioned at this stage merely to underline the extent to which Satan, in his nature, is diametrically opposed to the things of God.

The overthrow of God, if that were possible, remains Satan’s ultimate objective. Hall, pursuing his theme of spiritual warfare, stresses that man is the battlefield upon which the spiritual battle is to be fought. It is man’s fate that will determine the success or failure of Satan’s “cunning and powerful campaign to overthrow God’s creation.”

One final point needs to be covered at this stage, although by now it is really self-evident, and that is John Calvin’s emphasis that Satan is a personal being. Arguing extensively from Scripture, he strongly emphasizes that both the devil and demons are “not impulses or affections of minds” but rather “minds or spirits endowed with sense, perception and understanding.” In the same passage, he then quotes other Scriptures, which he believed made it abundantly clear that we are dealing with a personal being rather than “evil inspirations.” As if that were not sufficient evidence he finally turns to the Scripture references which talk of the present and future punishment of the devil and his angels: How meaningless would these expressions be, that the devils are destined for eternal judgment, that fire has been prepared for them, that they are now tormented and tortured by Christ’s glory, if devils were non-existent!

The purpose of John Calvin labouring this point is twofold: to refute the remarkably modern-sounding psychological interpretation which was current even in his day and to ensure that the Christian should not be caught unaware which, John Calvin could see, was the inevitable consequence of a wrong view of the nature and being of Satan: But it was worthwhile to touch upon this point, also, lest any persons, entangled in that error, while thinking themselves without an enemy, become slacker and heedless about resisting.

1.
Hall, C. A. M. With the Spirit’s Sword. The Drama of Spiritual Warfare in the Theology of John Calvin, Zurich: P. G. Keller, 1963, p. 55.
2.
Ibid., p. 63. ‘The theological conception which Luther had of the “ancient foe” of God and man is to be divorced from that of some of his followers, They exaggerated it so ridiculously that they robbed his teaching of all usefulness.’
3.
For example: John Calvin went so far as to connect the devil with France’s extravagant finery, without actually talking in terms of the ‘clothing devil’ of the Lutherans Cf. ibid.., p. 64.
4.
For a fuller account of the historical/theological background of demonology see Hall, op. Cit., pp. 55-64.
5.
This distinction is also made by R. Niebuhr, albeit with different terminology who held that man sins ‘inevitably’ and ‘responsibly’. See The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. 1. (London: Nisbet & Co. 1942) pp. 266-276.
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