Puritan Demonology In The Culture Of “The Godly”

Edwin E. M. Tay

Edwin E. M. Tay

The term “puritan” is of opprobrium that was first coined in England in the early 1560s. As a smear word, it carried the notions of censoriousness, conceit, and hypocrisy. Until today, its negative use remains. One dictionary defines the “puritan” as a person who is “extremely strict in morals and who regards pleasure as sinful.” The editors saw it necessary to qualify this definition with an indication of its derogatory connotation in parenthesis: “(usu derog).”

When applied, however, to the group of pastor-theologians from the Church of England who laboured for more extensive reformation of their national church in the late sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries, such derogatory connotations should be set aside. The Puritans, as these pastor-theologians are commonly called, were no self-righteous hypocrites who lacked a sense of humour. “Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were,” to use the title of Leland Ryken’s helpful book, were “worldly saints” who enjoyed all of life as God’s good gift (thus, worldly). They saw every sphere of this God-given life as the context for doxology and the pursuit of godliness (thus, saints).

The Puritan conception of the Christian life is rooted in the doctrine of God as sovereign Creator and Redeemer, and hence essentially positive in outlook. However, it was by no means naïve. Being deeply committed to the Scriptural account of the world, the Puritans were well aware that until Christ returns, the church is caught up in warfare against diabolic forces that seek to destroy the works of God. In Puritan literature such as sermons, theological treatises, pastoral tracts, personal diaries, and annotations of Scripture (what is today called Bible commentaries), Satan’s place in this warfare was amply accounted for.

Nowhere is the reality of spiritual warfare for the believer presented in more vivid and gripping a manner than in John Bunyan’s allegory of the Christian life, ‘Pilgrim’s Progress.’ It has been acknowledged that next to the Bible, no other English work has been as widely read since publication. Not only has it left its mark on English literary culture as possibly the forerunner of the English novel, but evangelical spirituality cannot be fully appreciated without it.

Originally published in two separate parts (1678 and 1684), it tells the story of the journey of Christian and Christiana from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, or as the title makes clear, “from this world to that which is to come.” There is no attempt by Bunyan to romanticize the believer’s pilgrimage to heaven. Fully acknowledging that it is a dangerous journey, Bunyan constructs a steady flow of obstructions and oppositions that come against the pilgrims in the course of his allegorical narrative.

Thus, Christian fights Apollyon, a hideous monster with dragon-like wings and from whose belly come fire and smoke. Great-Heart fights giants Grim, Despair, Maul, and Slay-Good, on behalf of the women under his care. In every battle, divine strength is the key to victory. These conflicts represent warfare with the devil, a very real personage for Bunyan.

Besides the devil and his forces, other obstacles are carefully woven into the narrative. Christian and Faithful face the pressures of Vanity Fair where hostility reaches breaking point with the martyrdom of Faithful. Mr Stand-Fast has to resist Madam Bubble who tries to entice him with her body, purse, and bed. Summing up everything for which she stands, Madam Bubble unashamedly declares, “I am the Mistress of the World, and men are made happy by me.” These obstacles represent the world and the spirit of worldliness that tempts the believer from the path of Christian discipleship.

In addition to the devil and the world, Bunyan adds a third obstacle to the increasing conflict: the flesh. This is depicted in the account of Christian and Hopeful leaving the rough road for the soft green of By-Path Meadow only to find that they are unable to resist Giant Despair or keep themselves out of Doubting Castle. The reason for the pilgrims’ sorry plight is explained regarding a twofold cause: self-indulgence and failure to fight the flesh.

Capturing this spiritual diagnosis in versified form, Bunyan comments: “The triumvirate of the devil, world, and flesh as enemies of the pilgrims is typical of Puritan teaching on the objects of Christian warfare. The Puritans were merely drawing upon what is familiar to the Christian tradition. In the context of Puritan writings, this triad is usually introduced in relation to the issue of temptation.” Referring to the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” [Matthew 6:13]), for instance, the Westminster Larger Catechism (1646) identifies Satan, the world, and the flesh as the sources of temptation against which believers are to pray.

The above account of spiritual warfare highlights two significant issues in Puritan demonology. First, the devil’s influence is conceived as intimately connected with the world and the flesh. Puritan belief that the devil is as real a creature as a man does not result in a demonology that is entirely dominated by the personage of the devil. The Puritans understood that the devil’s influence is to be coordinated with the world and the flesh as taught by Scripture and the tradition of the church.

Second, the nature of the triadic relationship is explicitly worked out with the devil as the archenemy of Christ who seeks the destruction of Christ’s followers by persistent appeals to their fleshly desires via the things of this world. Richard Baxter captures this dynamic in his usual, pithy construction when he asserts: “The flesh is the end of temptation […] the world is the matter of temptation; and the devil is the first mover, or efficient of it: and this is the trinity of enemies to Christ and us, which we renounce in baptism, and must constantly resist.”

Similarly, for Bunyan, the owner of Vanity Fair is Beelzebub, “the Chief Lord of this fair” who entices Christian and Faithful with what is sold there. When beckoned to purchase the tempting merchandise, they block their ears with their fingers, look to heaven and call out in the words of Psalm 119:37, “Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity.” Clearly, the pilgrims were wary of their fleshly desires and took measures not to arouse them. Just as Vanity Fair is Beelzebub’s instrument of allurement, so is the world Satan’s instrument of temptation for believers.

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