Satan by Jeffrey Burton Russell

Satan: The Early Christian TraditionSatan: The Early Christian Tradition by Jeffrey Burton Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this second book in the series that began with The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity, Jeffrey Burton Russell picks up the story of the Devil where the New Testament left it and carries it on to the time of St. Augustine in the 5th century.

The “story” he’s telling is actually that of the development of the “concept” of the Devil, a term that he is at pains to distinguish from that of “idea”. For Russell, while an idea “is intellectual and closely defined, a concept includes the affective as well as the analytical and has hazier boundaries”. He thinks that a concept changes over time, remaining current and valid only so long as people find it useful. A concept may or may not correspond to something in objective reality.

I’m not sure that I accept Russell’s distinction between ideas and concepts, but he does make clear how he uses these terms, so I was fine with it in reading the book. One interesting point is that Russell himself believes in the Devil, in Satan, as a really existing person who is responsible for the evil in the universe. This means that the author has some serious skin in the game of this subject, and it more than explains why he has devoted at least four volumes to examining the history of Satan. For if there really is such a being as Satan, surely there could be few facts as important in all our lives—and our post-lives.

But Russell doesn’t spend time trying to convince the reader of Satan’s existence. He merely leaves us with the question of why people are gassed to death in concentration camps and why children are napalmed. If we believe in God even hypothetically, then we’ve got a problem explaining those things. Instead, Russell traces those historical figures who have been the most influential in fleshing out our image of Satan, sketching in their diabology and examining the logical and doctrinal problems raised by their positions. For any picture of Satan creates logical problems. As God came to be seen as all-good, then the cause of cosmic evil had to be outsourced. That role went to Satan. But, as Russell observes, blaming Satan for the existence of evil doesn’t really work, because God created Satan, and presumably Satan cannot operate without God’s permission or acquiescence. If the universe is truly run by God, then the buck stops with him, no matter how many intermediaries there may be in the cosmic bureaucracy.

The church fathers and their theological successors all grappled with the problem in various ways. Russell outlines the teachings on Satan of the apostolic fathers, the so-called apologetic fathers who succeeded them, Irenaeus, Tertullian, the scholars of Alexandria, the monks of the desert, and finally the great theologian Augustine. These thinkers shifted back and forth with questions about whether Satan was the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and if not what their relationship was; whether Satan was involved with the story of the Watchers, an early account of angels falling to Earth; whether demons are in fact fallen angels; when Satan fell; what sin caused him to fall; and so on. As orthodoxy was gradually defined, some of these thinkers would find themselves anathematized, the upstanding Christian of today becoming the heretic of tomorrow.

Augustine, fighting off educated pagans and heretics, developed the most comprehensive and systematic theology, including an account of Satan. As Neil Forsyth says in his book The Old Enemy, Augustine finally created a coherent Christian theology that was able to withstand the attacks of critics from all sides, and it was built around the ancient myth of the enemy of the king of the gods. But Augustine was still not able to make it entirely consistent, and he wavered between a free-will and a predestinarian view of the human spirit. The question remains unresolved today.

Even though I’m very interested in this topic material, I find Russell’s style dry and lacking in humor. Evil is a grim topic, but that doesn’t mean the prose needs to be grim. But he doesn’t flinch from the difficulties and contradictions in the idea, and lays out the various logical issues clearly and comprehensively. Even though I found the reading a bit tough my copy of the book is now heavily highlighted.

Evil acts occur all the time; we perpetrate them ourselves. Why? It’s a really good, important question, and for millions of people right up to the present day the answer has a name: Satan. And if he isn’t real, then he’s doing a damn good job for someone who doesn’t exist.

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