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The spirit that always denies?

by
13 April 2017

Dominic Walker looks at the evolution of ideas about the devil

The Prince of the World

Adam Kotsko

Stanford University Press £19.99

(978-1-5036-0020-1)

Church Times Bookshop £17.99

 

IN THIS book, Adam Kotsko, Assistant Professor of Humanities at Shimer College, Chicago has undertaken an in-depth study of the developing place of the devil in Christian theology throughout the ages. He does so by exploring various evolving paradigms — the Deuteron­omistic, the prophetic, the apoca­lyptic, the Patristic and monastic, and the medieval theological — and concludes with looking towards a new paradigm for today.

The first part of the book Kotsko describes as the “Genealogy of the Devil”, in which he traces the devel­opment of the devil from the Hebrew biblical tradition into the Christian tradition. He writes: “Fundamentally, it shows how the biblical God went from being the vindicator and liberator of the oppressed to being a cruel ruler who delights in inflicting suffering on his friends and enemies alike. In other words it is the story of how God became the devil.”

In the second part of the book, the “Life of the Devil”, the author de­­scribes the paradoxical figure of the devil, who emerges out of this great reversal so that the fully developed devil in Christianity is both God’s ultimate enemy and also his servant who does his will.

Kotsko cites as the main ante­cedents of the devil in the Hebrew scriptures both Pharaoh and Antiochus Epiphanes stating that when Antiochus destroyed the temple, “it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that was the day the devil was born.” Turning to the Christian tradition, the devil is seen as the archetypal enemy in the Gospels and in Paul’s writings, and as the one who is behind the heresies in the Early Church.

The book examines how the medi­eval understanding of God departs from that of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, so that Jews, heretics, pagans, Muslims, and women are allied with the devil and viewed as enemies of God. The author claims that this understanding of the demonic, also reflected in Luther’s anti-Semitism and the witch-hunts, is essentially the same devil as has been handed down to contemporary Western culture.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted; it is theologically tightly argued and in places spiritually un­comfortable. It contains numerous references to the Fathers and other theologians and writers, and reflects on political and cultural influences, but it also challenges its readers to consider what a suitable paradigm for spiritual opposition is today, and to recognise our secular demons.

 

The Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS is a former Bishop of Monmouth.

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