THE DOCTRINE OF DEMONS

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I am delighted to introduce you to a new title, The Doctrine of Demons by Edward Langton.

The Doctrine of Demons is an authoritative study of the Christian belief in demons, a belief evident in the earliest records of the Church and which continued without any significant disruption for more than eighteen hundred years. This ancient tradition, reflected in the literature, architecture and folklore of Christian culture was rejected in the post-Enlightenment era by an increasingly secular Church, and is now treated therein as a ‘dead theological category’. It is a remarkable book that provides the reader with an insight into an area of spiritual life that has been neglected by the Church at large for many years.

The belief in angels and demons as traditionally understood within the Christian Church is the primary subject of this book. Edward Langton sets out the teaching of the Church on the nature of demons, and their relationship with humanity, as understood and established within the various traditions of Christian thought from the fifth century onward. He achieves this objective admirably, and his work has influenced students of the subject ever since its original publication, in 1934, as the second part of Supernatural, his broader study of Christian doctrines concerning supernatural beings. From its very beginning, both angels and demons have featured prominently within the Christian Church. Indeed, narratives of the activities of demons in the lives of the faithful abound in both the Old and the New Testaments. But questions arise: ‘what are demons?’, Where do they come from and what do they do? We know that the word ‘demon’ is rendered from the Greek word daimon, which has several meanings in ancient Greek. The word could denote the spirit controlling one’s fate, one’s ‘genius’ – Plato uses the word ‘daimonion’ in this sense to describe the ‘genius’ of Socrates – but it could also signify one of the lesser divinities outside of the pantheon of Olympian gods. From the time of Homer the word generally referred to a minor divinity, whilst Hesiod, describes daimones as being souls of those who lived in the Golden Age, and who were frequently dangerous and unpredictable. Thus from a very early time daemons were understood to be dualistic in nature – they could be either good or evil.

In similar fashion, the Latin form, daemon, or daemonium, borrowed from the Greek, refers, much like the Greek, to the numerous ‘lesser’ divine beings who were understood to reside between the gods and mortals and who were frequently dangerous and unpredictable. Thus from a very early time daemons were understood to be dualistic in nature – they could be either good or evil. Langton, referring to Isidore of Seville, suggests the term demon is derived from a word which he says means: “skilled in the knowledge of things.” However, through the latter part of the age of antiquity this concept gradually changed as a consequence of the spread of ‘dualism’ – a doctrine originiating in Zoroastrian  which proposed two equal and opposing forces of Light and Dark, of Good and Evil. As a result of this doctrine the ambiguous Graeco-Roman ‘daemons’ found themselves irreversibly placed on the side of Evil. Consequently many Christian writers, apart from a few informed scholars such as Isidore, adopted the term in the negative sense of signifying an ‘evil spirit’, with all of the adverse connotations that derive therefrom. Thus, from the early years of our common era the terms ‘evil spirit’ and ‘demon’ became synonymous. It is one of the merits of Langton’s work that he dispels this confusion and sheds much needed light on the whole question of demons, demonic possession and related matters.

He begins his survey by discussing the teachings of various authorities who, from the fifth century onward, have presented Church doctrine on the subject of demons. The first of these is Gregory the Great, who informs us that demons were angels who, following Satan, the chief of angels, rebelled against God and as a consequence were cast out of heaven to wander in the dark realms between heaven and earth. Langton adds that according to John of Damascus the Devil, (described elsewhere as “Satan,” “Behemoth,” “Leviathan,” and “the Dragon,”), is an angelic power who was created a good spirit, made for good ends, and not wicked by nature, but in the operation of his own free will he lost the original integrity of his nature, and rebelled against God. He was the first to depart from good and become evil, and convinced a large number of other angels to follow him. These rebellious angels, together with their subsequent off-spring, are what we know today as demons. It should be noted that demons, when all is said and done, are essentially ‘fallen angels’ retaining many of the powers and capabilities they had before their ‘fall’. Langton further informs us that St Bernard taught that because of their ‘fall’ the numbers of the dwellers in heaven were significantly diminished, and that their places are to be taken by the redeemed souls of men – implying that for this reason a real animosity exists between demons and humanity. He adds that there is a wide range of opinion concerning this view. Having described the perceived origins of demons he proceeds to discuss the impact that demons had upon the widespread monastic communities throughout the medieval world. To the monks of the Middle-Ages, whose retirement from the world afforded an opportunity of concentrating their attention upon the spiritual realities of life, demons were very real and ever-present beings.

Medieval literature is full of stories exemplifying the monk’s consciousness of the omnipresence of demons, and the variety of their operations against the monks who were endeavouring to escape from demonic control, and as a consequence were especially the object of the demonic malevolence. The attacks made upon the monks were incessant and insidious, especially when engaging in spiritual disciplines. Thus demons were believed to swarm around the monasteries and haunt the sacred precincts, and within the cloisters the Superiors were the special objects of attack. This baneful affliction spread through the medieval world to engage not only with the monks, but with the entire population.

The author next considers demonic possession in the form of Witchcraft. He focuses particularly upon its manifestation during the Middle-Ages. He discusses the traditional attitude of the Church which was typically one of opposition to every species of pagan magic and witchcraft; an antagonism, he suggests, inherited  in all probability from the Law of Moses, best summed up in the words: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” (Exodus 22:18). This injunction was held by the Jewish priests and Rabbis and later by the Church hierarchy and secular rulers, as a sufficient warrant for witch-persecution. He makes the point that such an attitude was not unusual in the classical world; that in many places sorcery and witchcraft were never acceptable, and that in the pre-Christian Graeco-Roman world witchcraft was generally heavily proscribed. He illustrates this with an account of Ancient Rome, which almost from the beginning of its existence introduced laws against the exponents of sorcery and witchcraft, who were often seen as a threat to society. Indeed, the earliest code of Roman Law; the Twelve Tablets, introduced in the mid-fifth century BC, forbade people from engaging in sorcery, witchcraft and other such practices, as they were understood to be harmful to others. The punishment for their crimes, which include manipulation, enchantment, necromancy, poisoning and murder was severe, even by Roman standards. This notwithstanding, the author demonstrates how senselessly brutal was the treatment by the late medieval Church treated of those accused of witchcraft. He discusses various reports and accounts that show how most ‘confessed’ witches were ordinary folk who only confessed to their absurd crimes under the tender mercies of their torturer. Doubtless, a small minority, were witches in the definitive sense–engaging in the depraved side of human nature–but by far the majority who suffered the rack and stake were innocent.

The author closes this chapter by saying that at no period in the history of the Church does there appear to have been a darker reign of evil than that which exhausted itself in an orgy of pointless bloodshed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It could be said that in a perverse way such sustained and systematic cruelty demonstrated without a shadow of doubt the presence of demonic possession within human society. In discussing diabolic possession he reminds us that far from being a manifestation of medieval neurosis or hysteria—which was doubtless common enough—it had  been a part of Church life since biblical times, and that Jesus and His disciples recognised diabolic possession and initiated methods and protocols to eradicate it. Furthermore, as the Church grew it evolved a special order of exorcists to deal with occurrences of demonic oppression and possession. He continues with a particularly interesting discussion about the role and nature of exorcism as a sure antidote to the affliction of demonic possession.

The latter part of his book is concerned with the effects of the Reformation, which had been a revolt against corrupt forms of belief and religious practice that gradually polluted the medieval Church. Initially it brought little immediate change within the beliefs associated with the doctrine of demons as the reformed churches continued with tried and tested methods, and prosecuted the witch-persecutions with great enthusiasm. However, change was to come, it came with the freedom of thought that developed in the late seventeenth century with the Enlightenment. With it began the great exploration of the material world through the emergence of scientific method, and a whole new world of emerging ideas and values.

Since the Enlightenment, the belief in the existence of evil spirits, indeed of any spirits, has progressively declined. The concept of ‘evil’ has increasingly been dismissed as archaic and irrational by the ‘modern’ secular world. Indeed, many people no longer accept ‘evil’ in the moral sense, preferring instead to look at it as a psychological manifestation of a biological dysfunction. In short, the nature and dynamics of evil has to all intents and purposes become a specialised branch of clinical psychology, and indeed, in many instances rightly so. However, even though the biological factors influencing behaviour are very important there is far more to this subject than biochemical influences upon human psychology. Indeed, from our perspective, recognition and acceptance of the spiritual dimension of human existence is fundamental to a balanced understanding of this subject. In more recent times many anthropologists, following the principles of Enlightenment philosophy, have tended  to associate humanity’s obsessive fixation on spirits and their invariably unwelcome intrusion into human life, with animistic beliefs.

Indeed, the exponents of the animistic theory suggest that primitive humanity could do no other than explain things on the basis of personal experience. Thus, as the body was actuated by a selfconscious spirit, so it was accepted were the bodies of all other creatures. As there was no clear line of separation between the human, animal, and vegetable kingdoms, it was further accepted that not only other creatures but also places such as mountains, trees, watercourses, etc., were similarly possessed of spirits. Furthermore, sickness and diseases of all kinds were explained as being caused through the action of malevolent spirits. Yet, in spite of the best efforts of the secular sciences to the contrary, the recognition of the existence of the world of spirits persists within the hearts and minds of humankind. Clearly, this world of spirits was and is still, understood to be a dangerous place that connects with our world in unpredictable ways, and more often than not to the disadvantage and misfortune of humankind.  Thus, before the advent of the Enlightenment in the late seventeenth century, people who were afflicted by such spirits had no recourse but to seek assistance from specialist individuals who were known to be conversant with the spiritual world, be they ancient magi, priests, monastics, contemplatives, shamans, mediums or their like. Such people, rather than psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists, functioned as intermediaries, interceding with, or exorcising spirits on behalf of the community and its members. With these distinctions kept in mind, and approaching the text without prejudice, Edward Langton’s book is well worth studying.

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