Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Satan: The Early Christian Tradition

The second book in religious historian Jeffrey Burton Russell’s five-volume biography of the Devil, aptly titled Satan, picks up where The Devil left off, covering the “early Christian tradition” and its vigorous debates over the nature of God, the devil and the universe. Russell makes the compelling argument, across his work, that you cannot separate your vision of the devil from your vision of god and the universe, for the problem of evil – what he calls radical evil – so directly imposes on these concepts. If our God, as the Christian tradition has it, is benevolent and all-powerful, then why do so many suffer needlessly? “A perfect solution still evades us,” Russell tells us, “for we have usually ended up either saving the goodness of God at the expense of his power, or his power at the expense of his goodness.” But an atheist cannot dodge the problem of evil any more than a theist can, for how you comprehend evil will bear directly on the criminal justice system, for example, and the kind of punishment – retributive or rehabilitative? – you view as desirable. Satan, like the four other books in the series, is dedicated to the study of the concept of the devil, with the underlying supposition being that there is great utility in understanding how a concept evolves over time. And whether you ultimately believe in the metaphysical propositions discussed here is of less importance than the fact that entire societies once did, and therefore to understand the past – as historians aspire to do – we must familiarize ourselves with the relevant metaphysical debates.

In the early days of Christianity, before there was an established body of interpretive thought, heated debates arose about important theological questions raised – but not answered – in the New Testament. The earliest and most powerful challenge to the emerging orthodoxy was Gnosticism, which broke with Christianity in viewing the material world as essentially good.

Gnosticism was focused on gnōsis, a “knowledge” obtained not by study or meditation, but through revelation. Gnosis was essentially knowledge of self: Gnōthi seauton: “know thyself.” Gnosticism was a spiritual, self-centered religion of psychological depth and sophistication, whose purpose was to raise the spiritual level of the self through gnsos. The Gnostic believed that through revelation he became privy to secrets not shared by the uninitiated and that these secrets could be passed on to and by only a chosen few. […] The Gnostics were striving almost desperately for a convincing theodicy, to the point that a later Christian writer argued that their central error had been to torment themselves past reason with the problem of evil. What united the various Gnostic sects was the belief that the world is completely evil and cannot be redeemed.

In this division of existence into a positive, spiritual realm and a degraded and evil material realm, the Gnostics anticipated the Manichaeism of the third century AD, which took these divisions as foundational. The appeal, in both cases, is the same: if the material world is evil, God is not responsible for human suffering. The flaw in this formulation, especially as the church elders were concerned, was what it said about the Devil: that he had a realm of his own, under his complete dominion. “Gnostic emphasis upon the power of the Devil caused the fathers to react by defining his power carefully; Gnostic stress upon the evil of the material world elicited their defense of the essential goodness of the world created by God.”

The Gnostic heresy, as it came to be known, found its most vocal and powerful opponent in Tertullian, a Carthaginian convert to Christianity who took up this problem of evil directly, with dire consequences for the future of the faith. The material world is good, according to Tertullian, but attachment to the material world is not, for that leads only to neglect of the spiritual. It was human sin, he insisted, that deformed the material world, and human beings, endowed with free will, sin voluntarily. Here is Russell’s gloss on Tertullian’s diabology:

Evil is not an independent principle. Yet it exists. Where does it come from? From two sources: the sin of Satan and his angels, and the sin of humans. God granted us freedom, which is in itself a great good, but of our own free will we misuse freedom, bringing about evil. The source of all the evil in the world is free-will sin. Thus the Devil and sinners “have perverted God’s gifts.”

It is from Tertullian that we get the famous distinction between saeculum, the cosmos that is good, and saecularia, the worldly affairs that corrupt and distract, but he also bequeathed Christianity a quasi-totalitarian instinct by insisting that good people may inadvertently do the work of the Devil, that their sins and even their minor heresies were a matter not of private but of public concern.

Tertullian raised again the dangerous doctrine characterizing certain people as soldiers in Satan’s vast army. Not only that. He moved a step back from the discernment of spirits, the idea that one can distinguish between God’s work and the Devil’s by their fruits. By insisting instead that good lives lived by heretics and infidels cannot actually be good but are always disguised works of the Devil, Tertullian and the other fathers laid the basis for centuries of persecution of Jews, heretics, and witches.

Note, here as well, that religions possess no monopoly on the instinct to persecute heresy, and the difference between the Salem witch trials and Soviet show trials is one of rationale only. In another era, Stalin would have been a marvelous Grand Inquisitor.

I have deliberately left out of my review the more positive responses of Christian thought to the problem of evil. Russell includes long sections on the evolving role of Christ’s Passion, original sin and baptism, and how these were used to wrest from the evident evils of the material world the possibility of redemption. These, too, justify his work, and help shed light on one of today’s central social problems: we are quick to identify sin and heresy, and uncertain of how to offer grace.