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The Church Militant, by Graham R. Smith

22 June 2018

Peter Forster on the devil and demons in Charismatic theology

ORIGINATING in a Ph.D. thesis, this book offers a well-researched account of the concept of spiritual warfare, as understood in the Church of England over the past 50 years.

Alongside analysis of key figures such as Michael Harper, David Watson, and Michael Green, there is a helpful digest of various parochial case studies. These set out in detail the largely beneficial pastoral impact of recent Charismatic renewal in the Church of England. Perhaps another writer would have given more attention to the problematic impact of Charismatic renewal in some situations.

Beyond the limited sociological and historical analysis of the first half of the book, its main energy is in the theological discussion of the nature of evil, and of the devil (and associated demons). This circles around two linked issues: is the devil to be regarded as a personal figure, and, if so, where did he come from?

There is a sharp division over the origin of the devil. Is he a “fallen” angel, who abused his freedom much as Adam and Eve are portrayed as having done? This was the predominant belief in Judaic thought at the time of Jesus, and it makes a minor appearance in the New Testament itself, although mainly by allusion.

In the patristic period, and until after the Reformation, this was the main explanation in the Christian tradition of the origin of evil. More recently, Karl Barth leading, this has been disputed: how could an angel, created as part of God’s good creation, become evil?

Some writers, such as Walter Wink and Amos Yong, have accepted Barth’s critique, but have tried to explain why evil nevertheless manifests itself in such vivid and quasi-personal ways. Evil is best seen as a godless emptiness that has complex ways of taking form in the experience of societies and individuals.

Smith ultimately opts for the view of the devil, and his associated demons, as fallen angels. The essential nature of evil as rebellion is particularly persuasive for him.

This reviewer is less convinced, and prefers to avoid the danger of rationalising the presence of evil in the world. The Genesis story portrays this threatening presence in the figure of the snake, whose origin is a mystery. This book makes no reference to the snake of Genesis 3.

These reservations aside, this is a very worthwhile study of a neglected subject, and not least for clergy who will wrestle with its issues in their ministry.

Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

The Church Militant: Spiritual warfare in the Anglican Charismatic renewal
Graham R. Smith
Pickwick Publications £29

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