The development of the views and practices of the church during the Middle Ages, the Reformation and early post-Reformation times with regard to the demonic and especially the question of possession and exorcism is marked both by continuity and discontinuity in relation to the New Testament and the early church as presented in Dr. Skarsaune’s paper. In this brief historical overview of the period of the Middle Ages up until the 19th century we shall primarily concentrate on the questions that were raised in the first paper. To deal with the problem of evil and the church’s response to it in all its aspects would lead us beyond the confines of this paper.
I have checked several modern dictionaries and encyclopediae with reference to the terms devil, demon, and exorcism. Common to most of them is the assumption that modern people, even in the church, cannot any longer believe in the existence and influence of created noncorporeal spiritual beings, neither angels nor demons, and that the demons or the demonic is a mythological expression of what is often called the “transpersonal evil”. “Exorcism” – if the term is used at all – is then understood as a prayer for redemption from the effects of impersonal evil forces. Some dictionaries admit, almost as a footnote, that in evangelical and Pentecostal circles there is still a belief in demons and possession, and that exorcism is practised, but this is not seen as a challenge to contemporary theological reflection. We should therefore be aware that we in this consultation with our biblical and historical presuppositions are in severe conflict with the mainstream of Protestant theology today.
However, these same sources make it very clear that the modern denial of the existence of the devil and demons is a post-Enlightenment phenomenon. The prestigious Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart says that all the time until Western Enlightenment “wurde a priori an der Existenz von Dämonen nicht gezweifelt, der Glaube an die creatio invisibilium schloss sie mit ein” (“the existence of demons was a priori not doubted; faith in the creation of invisible things included them”). (1)
We have seen that a major tradition from the ancient church was to regard the gods of the pagans as demons masquerading as gods. The reality of it was, however, that the demons were “middle beings” (Zwischenwesen) between God and human beings. They were created but did not have a physical body. The devil was generally seen as having been created before humans as one of the angels but had fallen due to the sin of pride. This fall had happened before the fall of humans. It was also assumed that it was possible for humans to have contact both with angels and fallen angels (the devil and demons). The biblical basis for some of these thoughts was weak, two of the major Old Testament texts that were used, could obviously not carry the burden of proof. Isa. 14:12-14 which was understood as referring to the primordial fall of Lucifer does not refer to him at all. Gen 6:1-4 became the basis for much speculation about the ability of demons to procreate sexually through the mediacy of humans, either by taking on the form of a male (incubus) or female (succubus). Neither view can be biblically substantiated..
Especially through the writings of Augustine (2) the understanding of the early church was communicated to the theologians of the Middle Ages. The demons are both similar to God (in their immortality) and to humans, but differently from humans they are not capable of doing good, and are therefore qualitatively inferior to humans. In the large works of medieval theologians the doctrine of angels and demons is dealt with in the framework of the doctrine of creation. (3)
During the Middle Ages, however, many instances of popular religion drawn from non-Christian sources influenced ordinary people’s views of Satan and the demons. Pagan notions of spiritual subterranean beings and others were often mixed with the biblical concepts. The result was often a perversion of the biblical message. Grotesque images of the devil with horn and hoofs, which do not originate in Christianity, dominated the popular phantasy. These images have been preserved with remarkable strength up until our own time, and have been used – consciously or unconsciously – as an excuse to discard the existence of the devil altogether as mythical.. An important reason why the church in the West today has great difficulties in communicating the biblical understanding, is the fact that people understand the Christian doctrine and practice on the basis of non-Christian ideas.
Compared to the ancient church the numbers of exorcisms and their significance seem to have diminished in the Middle Ages, at least according to our sources. One reason may be that after Constantine more and more people were baptized, and the number of unbaptized pagans was reduced (to the pre-baptismal exorcism, see below).
However, the encounter with paganism in newly converted peoples, as e.g. the Germanic tribes once again raised the question of the power encounter between Christ and pagan gods. Historians of the Middle Ages speak about the significance of this “power encounter” for the christianisation of the new tribes. It could be a Christian who through his/her ability to do miracles proved to be in possession of supernatural power, or it could be through a direct confrontation with the power of the old gods. In a famous historical epos, saga, written by the Icelandic medieval historian Snorre Sturlason (4) the Norwegian Christian king Olav (later St. Olav!) meets a leader of the pre-Christian pagan cult Dale-Gudbrand, who said about Olav:
“He will offer us a different faith than the one we had before, and break all our gods to pieces, and he says that he has a different god who is much greater and more powerful. It is a wonder that the earth does not break open under him when he dares speak thus, and that our gods allow him to walk. But I think that when we carry Tor (the Norse god of thunder) out of the “hov” (the temple) that is with us; he who stands here in the farm and always has helped us, so that he can see Olav and his men, then Olav’s god will melt, and he himself and his men, so that they will become nothing”. (5)
Skarsaune comments that king Olav’s answer is similar to that of an ancient apologist:
“You frighten us with your god, who is blind and deaf and neither can save himself nor others, and who cannot move an inch without somebody carrying him. But now I believe that it is not long before something bad happens to him. Look up, and see toward the East, where our god comes with a great light!”
One of Olav’s men then struck the idol so that it fell down, and “mice as big as cats, and lizards and snakes” ran out of it. The peasants who had opposed Olav were so frightened that they ran away, but later Dale-Gudbrand returned and drew the only possible conclusion: “We have suffered great damage to our god. But since he was unable to help us, we will now believe in the god that you believe in – and then all of them received the Christian faith”.
Skarsaune (5) comments that king Olav here follows the missionary pattern of Boniface, the apostle of the Germans, who almost three hundred years earlier had done a similar thing when he chopped down a holy oak in Geismar. It is not a miracle as such that takes place here, since the destruction of the tree and the idol takes place through the use of human physical force (differently from a miraculous “falling down” of a tree in Ethiopia in a similar power encounter in our time), but the point is that the fear that the pagans have for their gods and sacred objects is removed in the confrontation with the Christians and their God. Their “gods” are revealed to have no positive power whatsoever, but are rather tied to the evil forces (“mice, snakes”). Christ is seen as superior to the former gods.
Skarsaune also points out that the same sources talk about a kind of “exorcistic cleansing of the land”. “At the time of Olav Tryggvason (another Norwegian Christian king) there were two good friends in Iceland whose names were Torhall and Siduhall. “One morning before they rose Torhall lay laughing by himself. His friend asked him why he laughed. Torhall answered that he saw many tombs stand open and the “landvetter” (spiritual beings in Norse mythology and in popular religion) preparing to leave; they had their day of departure today”. Where Christianity advances, it becomes difficult for the evil powers to stay, so they are forced to leave. (7)
This fight between Christ and the evil forces of paganism is also often reflected in the Nordic fairy tales, where the evil forces, often symbolized by “trolls” and other beings burst at sunrise, are driven away by the Lord’s prayer, or the cross, or cannot stand the smell of “the blood of a Christian man”.
It is often assumed that the encounter with paganism in the newly converted tribes also led to a change in the popular Christian view of demonic influence. “A new element is the thought of a close connection, almost identification of humans and demons. An expression of this is the concept of a common flight of witches and demons”. (8) It is important to note, however, that this view was rejected by the official church. These thoughts would, however, later towards the end of the Middle Ages in the 15th century and the pre-Enlightenment era in Europe develop into the witch hysteria that led to the execution of several thousand “witches” (maybe as much as 40-50 000, but not millions as is sometimes claimed).
The witch hunt is often held against the church (both Catholic and Protestant) as an almost inevitable result of the church’s doctrine of the devil and demons. Several studies have been done of this very sad incident in European history. Some facts should, however, be brought forward in order to correct some aspects of the common picture. Again I am indebted to an article by Skarsaune. (9)
Contrary to popular opinion Skarsaune shows that, 1) the witch hunt in Europe did not belong in the Middle Ages, but in the Renaissance and the post-Reformation (or pre-Enlightenment) period. The main period in Europe is the time from ca. 1580-1680. Before and after this one hundred years period there were few witch-processes. During most of the Middle Ages the official doctrine of the church – and its leadership and leading theologians – looked upon faith in witches and witchcraft as superstition. This view became again dominant at the beginning of the 18th century and the witch hunt stopped as quickly as it began.2) The typical witch was not a young beautiful woman. They were mostly old, and about one fifth were men. 3) The court cases were not initiated by the church, but were held before secular courts. The charges against the witches most often came from the local community, not from the ecclesiastical authorities. It concerned often marginal peoples in marginal areas (e.g. mountain areas in the Alps, Pyrenees and – Norway), not in the central areas as e.g in Rome or the other cities of Europe. Priests played often little or no role in the cases, but could sometimes be drawn upon as “spiritual experts”. 4) The inquisition in Spain played a surprising role: It was the investigations and reports of a Spanish inquisitor which made an end to the witch hunt in Spain! He could reveal that it was founded on superstition and that the charges were false!
The reasons for the witch hunt have been discussed by many. There may be many social, economical and psychological reasons, but the church has also a responsibility because it during this period accepted a “witch doctrine” that made secular courts take the accusations seriously. The understanding of witchcraft was a combination of different ideas, many of them of non-Christian origin, as e.g. the concept of magic, of an implicit or explicit covenant between humans and demons, and a projection of fear and anxiety. The theological justification was expressed in the infamous literary work Malleus Maleficarum (Witch Hammer) from 1487.
Skarsaune has suggested that one of the reasons why the witch hunt appeared in the pre-modern period, just before the breakthrough of the Enlightenment, during a period of a profound world view change, was that belief in and fear of evil powers persisted in popular religion while faith in God’s supernatural power to protect against these powers faded. In any case, there is no Christian justification for violent persecution of “witches”, and there is also no necessary connection between a biblical understanding of the devil and the demons and this hysteria that gripped some areas of Europe during this time. Any church participation in this persecution must be deeply deplored.
The Reformation did not significantly alter the world view of the Middle Ages. In several of Luther’s works there are references to Satan and demons. But also in this area the reformer had a more biblical orientation, although several of the medieval ideas persisted. (10)
Humans are in their sinfulness subject to powers of corruption, which are the flesh, the world and the devil. They are often mentioned together for they are allies in their efforts to lead people to damnation. Satan, who is the prince of this world, does his work through human sinful nature. He seduces and tempts humans and keeps them in bondage to sin. Luther emphasizes that evil not only is a power which has caught humanity, but is an effect of a personal evil will. This evil will is the origin of sin and it catches the will of individual people as well as of the whole of humanity.
Luther’s radical view of Satan had his background in his own experience of the terrible reality of Satan. “By the grace of God I have come to know a lot about Satan,” Luther says. Luther takes Satan and evil more seriously than his contemporaries, because he had come to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour. He sees Satan at work in disasters, disease, spiritual struggle (“Anfechtungen”), suffering and death. He is the great adversary of God and Christ. Satan is behind persecutions of Christians. He perverts the Word of God and the gospel. His seduction leads to the heresies of the sects and the papacy.
The fight between God and Satan runs through all of history, and in this fight it is not possible to be neutral. In this respect humans have no free will: Either they are in the power of Satan or the power of God. In a famous picture he describes how a human being is as an animal on which either God or the devil rides. The riders fight between themselves for control of the animal. It is God who through Jesus Christ rescues people out of the power of the devil. The main weapon in this struggle is the gospel, the Word of God.
However, there is no absolute dualism, Satan can only operate within the limits set by God’s omnipotence. At last Christ will return and destroy Satan. Until then Satan has to serve God’s purpose for the world. Satan is seen also as an instrument of the law and the wrath of God (as in the Old Testament). Strangely, Luther may call the devil “God’s devil”, because he is completely subject to God’s power. Satan therefore has double role: He is God’s enemy at the same time as he is God’s instrument. Satan tempts people to fall away from God. God uses this to test people’s faith in order to strengthen it (cp. the temptation of Jesus; to tempt and to test is the same word in the Bible, but the purpose is different).
Luther also holds on to the reality of the demons. He thought that one could and should drive the evil spirits out of the possessed by prayer. He was, however, critical of the Roman Catholic methods and especially the use of blessed water and other holy objects. (11) Thus it was not the practice in itself but the magical elements that he reacted against. Luther’s famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress” is a testimony to Luther’s realistic conception of Satan and the evil spirits as well as to his triumphant sense of victory in Christ.
We know of one case of possession from the time of the reformation which clearly shows the attitude of the reformers. Johannes Bugenhagen, the man who introduced the reformation in Denmark-Norway and consecrated the first Lutheran superintendent (bishop) there, wrote a letter to the theologians in Wittenberg, among them Luther, where he describes his meeting with a possessed girl in Lübeck. The detailed description of this case corresponds wholly with other cases of possession known from history. Luther himself refers to the letter from Bugenhagen and accepts the possession as a fact. (12)
Although the Lutheran Confessions (which even today are theologically authoritative as norma normata (norm normed, i.e. by the Bible) for the Lutheran churches!) according to my knowledge do not mention possession and exorcism, they very clearly express in many places the biblical and traditional view of the devil and the way to fight him and guard against him. The Word of God, (13) the name of God, (14) and prayer (15) drive him away. It is of special interest to note that Luther understands the Lord’s prayer, and especially the prayer “Deliver us from evil”, as directed against the devil as well as to God.
It is not possible to outline the various views and practices within the whole reformation movement and later Protestant churches, but we would like to present one “case” taken from a North European setting, namely the Danish-Norwegian Lutheran Church.
The exorcism in connection with baptism was kept in the church down through the centuries. As infant baptism became more and more common, the exorcism beame part of the ritual for infant baptism. This ritual was kept in the Danish-Norwegian church for many years after the reformation. The words were: “Depart (literally: Go out) you evil spirit, and give room for the Holy Spirit”. It was removed in 1783 after some controversy. This was at the time of the Enlightenment and the accompanying rationalism in theology. A renunciation of the devil and all his works was, however, retained in the liturgy and is still used today.
In 1547 the bishop Peder Palladius held a lecture for pastors where he gave them guidance as to how to ascertain whether a person is possessed and how to drive out the evil spirit. The latter should be done by reading of Scripture, and the use of the same exorcism that was used at baptism. There are a few examples of possession from the history of this church (not to be confused with witches), but it was a very rare event.
In the Church Ritual of 1685 guidelines for the treatment of possession are put forth.:
“If the pastor is called to someone who is held to be possessed, or in any other way is tormented by the Devil, one must not at all decline it; but he ought to, according to the duty of the office, in the name of the Lord, after serious prayer and calling upon God, go to the sick (sic!) and investigate his condition”. (16) The pastor is not to assume that possession occurs often “for … such examples are at the present time rare in Christendom”, but he should also not think “that we now are totally free from these attacks by Satan”. Together with doctors and other pastors whom the bishop appoints the pastor of the area should evaluate the case, whether it is a natural disease or whether the person is “bodily possessed by the devil, so that he either rules and governs in the whole body and all its members, as well as mind, reason and the attributes of the soul, or if he only has conquered for himself one or other limb on the body, in which he lives and lets his power be seen, as he did with the dumb in the Gospel, Luk. 11:14.”
The Ritual further makes it plain that it might be difficult to discern the spirits, but that a servant of God does not easily err if he seeks the guidance of God and tests the case on the Word of God. Possession can either be caused by the possessed himself if he has made a pact with Satan or in any other way voluntarily has given himself to his service by sin or ungodliness, or it can be undeserved. The bishop should write a special prayer for the possessed to be prayed by the pastor and the relatives of the possessed.
Even though this ritual in some respects may seem a little strange to Christians today, it still reflects a biblical view of possession and exorcism. It shows that the Reformation church in Denmark-Norway did not look upon possession as a phenomenon that only belonged to the past, but reckoned it as a rare possibility to be handled by the servants of the church according to the word of the Lord.
It would have been proper to present and discuss in some length the forms and reasons for the post-Enlightenment theological rejection of the reality of a personal devil and demons. It would, however, take us too far into Western intellectual history and a discussion of the whole western rationalistic “scientific” world view. Suffice it here to refer to RGG4 which says that faith in demons were rejected with theological arguments, and that “in gegenwärtigem Protestantismus überwiegt eine rein sprachlich-bildliche gelegentliche Verwendung des Dämonenbegriffes” (“in contemporary Protestantism dominates a linguistic-metaphorical use of the demon concept”).
This is, however, different in the Roman Catholic Church (and the Orthodox Church as well). (17) It may be a matter to ponder why the Catholic tradition has been more able to keep the biblical and ecclesial tradition in this area – in spite of all later accretions – than the Protestant churches.
In its dogmas the Roman Catholic Church holds on to the substance of the views expressed during the Middle Ages and in the 16th century (Council of Trent)”The doctrine of spiritual, noncorporeal beings in the form of (fallen) angels is presented as a truth of faith”. (18)
This applies also in a similar fashion to possession and exorcism. Exorcism is seen as a prayer to God to restrain the power of the demons over men and things. It is a sign of man’s redemption, and the loss of Satan’s power. (19)
Already from the third century the church has instituted the office of the exorcist, which in ecclesiastical language is a cleric who has received the third of the four minor orders. “The order of exorcist invests the one who receives it with power and authority over evil spirits, deputing him to perform the exorcisms that are part of liturgical function”. It is noteworthy that this office is not part of the priestly office instituted as a sacrament, but is an ecclesiastical institution. The exorcist originally performed the exorcisms in the context of baptism.
The Catholic Church is, however, well aware that originally in the early church exorcisms of energumens (people possessed by evil spirits) were performed both by lay people and clerics. “This was true even after the institution of the order of the exorcist.” This practice has changed over the years and “today the use of the power of exorcism is restricted by ecclesiastical law.” The rite of solemn exorcism requires special permission which is given only to priests of piety and prudence. There is a need for “personal victory over the temptations of the evil spirits in those who receive the power to expel them from others”.
As far as the understanding of possession is concerned, the Catholic Church distinguishes between diabolical obsession which is a “hostile action of the devil or an evil spirit besetting anyone from without” (cp. 2 Cor. 12:7-8), and “diabolical possession” which is “the state of a person whose body has fallen under the control of the devil or a demon”.
The great theologians of the Middle Ages (Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure) maintain that what occurs in possession is the “entrance of the demon into the human body, the faculties (physical) of which he proceeds to control.” The soul, however, cannot be entered or overcome and thus remains free. Though its functions in respect to the body it informs, are, as it were, suspended.
The signs of possession were developed in the 17th century by P. Thyräus. He emphasized that the physical indications like spastic movements and hysterical convulsions were not to be considered decisive by themselves, but that the true criteria were knowledge of secret things and the knowledge of languages not learned by the possessed. All writers also mention lack of memory as a criterion. This means that it precluded normal human consciousness. It is also mentioned that maybe in the final analysis the effect of the exorcism settles the question.
As to why God permits possession, the Catholic Church has no final answer, but possession is an indication of the fact that God has not totally annihilated the evil spirits and that they remain capable of disturbing the normal processes of created matter. At the same time exorcism is the ultimate weapon against the inroads of Satan.
As far as the practice of exorcism is concerned, there is the “Roman Ritual for Exorcism” (Rituale Romanum) which was issued in 1614 and still is valid and in use in official exorcisms in the Catholic Church. (20) The rules that must be strictly followed contain instructions for the exorcist, prayers, biblical texts and formulas, and practices that should be used. Some of these go back to the 4th century, others may seem to border on magic and have been developed over hundreds of years of exorcistic practice in the church. The following could be mentioned:
The exorcist, who needs permission from the bishop, should be characterized by piety, prudence and personal integrity, he should not trust his own power, but rely on the power of God.
The exorcist is not to too easily believe that someone is possessed by an evil spirit. He has to know the signs that make him able to distinguish between those who are possessed and those who suffer from a physical disease. In addition to the signs mentioned above, physical strength that goes beyond the age or ordinary condition of the possessed is mentioned. The exorcist should also be aware that the evil spirits use lies and deceit to lead him astray and that they only manifest themselves under pressure and otherwise let the person who is possessed look like he is not possessed to bring the exorcism to a halt. The exorcist should, however, not stop until he sees signs of deliverance.
Some spirits reveal that they have received the power over the possessed because of occult practices. This must not lead the exorcist to use similar means. He is not supposed to practice anything that is based on superstition. The exorcist is also warned against leading conversations with the evil spirit or ask unnecessary questions, especially not about hidden things and future events. Curiosity is dangerous. He should not believe the spirit even if it claims to be the soul of a saint or dead person or a good angel. The questions that may be asked concern the number and names of the spirits, when they entered the possessed and why they got power over him. The spirits should be treated with contempt.
The exorcism itself should be carried out with a command with authority, great faith, humility and eagerness. The exorcist should give no medicine to the possessed. That should be left to the doctors.
Then there are also some moral considerations. If the possessed is a woman, the exorcist need to have present some well reputed women who may hold the possessed when she is tormented and convulsed by the evil spirit. These women should be patient and belong to the family of the possessed. The exorcist should be aware of the risk of scandal and avoid saying or doing anything that may harm himself or others.
During the exorcism itself he should rather use the words of the Bible than his own or anybody else’s . He should command the spirit to admit if it occupied the possessed because of any magic or sorcery symbol or occult document. If the exorcism is to succeed these things have to be turned over. If there are outside the body of the possessed, the evil spirit has to tell where it is. When the exorcist finds it, it should be burned.
If the possessed is delivered from the evil spirit, he should be advised to avoid sinful acts and thoughts. If he does not do this, he may give the evil spirit an opportunity to return and possess him anew.
These relatively detailed instructions in the Roman Ritual represent a long experience with exorcism and warn against dangers and mistakes which often have occurred when inexperienced Christians perform exorcisms on their own.
Even though from a Biblical perspective there are some errors in the Roman Ritual as a result of the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine about the Virgin Mary, the eucharist and the use of various symbols, there is no doubt that it still holds great value as a guide for discerning possession and the practice of exorcism. This value is mostly due to the fact that it represents a tradition that goes all the way back to New Testament times and has stood the test in the encounter with possession in different areas and at different times.
When we now are about to say a word to the evangelical churches about the theme “Deliver Us From Evil”, we will do well in listening to the history of the universal church, in its Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant form, and learn both from its mistakes and its successes. Only as we evaluate the history in light of the Scriptures and the experience of the church today, will be able to find a way forward.
I am well aware of the limitations of this historical survey, especially that it is too oriented towards Western church history. I believe that similar studies of the other Protestant churches, the Orthodox churches, and the churches in other parts of the world will reveal some of the same main views and experiences. There is a need for more serious historical work in this area, for Christ’s victory and power over Satan and his demons is a demonstration to the church and the world today as it was in the New Testament and in the history of the church. The missiological significance of this can hardly be overestimated in a time yearning for evidence of God’s existence and absolute power.
4. Snorre: Norges kongesagaer, Oslo 1988, discussed in Oskar Skarsaune: “Misjonstenkningen i oldtiden og middelalderen”, in: Berentsen, Jan-Martin; Engelsviken, Tormod; Jørgensen, Knud (eds.): Missiologi i dag, Oslo 1994, pp. 89-109.
15. Large Catechism, Explanation of the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer “Deliver Us From Evil”, 113. Luther says that this prayer in the Greek text sounds: “Deliver us from or guard us against the evil one. It looks as if it is directed against the devil, as if it will combine everything in one sum and direct the whole of the Lord’s prayer against our archenemy. For it is him who will prevent all that we pray for: the name and honour of God, the kingdom of God and God’s will, the daily bread, a clear and happy conscience, etc. (my own translation).
17. Some modern Western Roman Catholic theologians may be slightly embarrassed by the official church doctrine on possession and exorcism. A similar embarrassment is seldom found in the Orthodox churches.