Satan(?) in Reformed Theology
November 5, 2008 7:13 AM   Subscribe

In Reformed Theology, what is the role of Satan? There is talk of foreordination and foreknowledge and absolute sovereignty of God so I don't understand Satan's creation and necessity in this theological framework. Can anybody explain the view or John Calvin's view?
posted by snap_dragon to Religion & Philosophy (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Something pretty basic to the Reformed tradition is that there isn't much that it is "necessary" in the theological framework other than God Himself. The tradition starts from God's sovereignty, which means that God could have done it a different way if He had wanted to, but that for reasons of His own, He has chosen to make this world. So could God have created a world without Satan? Sure. Could he have created a world that looks very much like this one, including the rest of His plan for redemption, without Satan? I don't see why not.

The Reformed answer to "Why did God do x this way?" is "For His own glory." So the followup question concerning Satan is "How does Satan glorify God?"

I'd draw your attention to Romans 9. There, Paul says the following:

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

That's a pretty unpopular passage, but it gets at the core of the Reformed tradition: God does what God wills, and none has the standing to call Him unjust. God created Satan that His glory in triumphing over evil might be all the more complete. Satan isn't responsible for human sin, we are. Though the Serpent makes an appearance in the Garden, there's no reason to believe that Adam and Eve would never have fallen if the Serpent hadn't been there.

In short, Satan doesn't really do a whole lot of work in the Reformed tradition, or, honestly, in most other confessional Christian traditions (Catholicism, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Orthodoxy). Calvin, in discussing the Fall, references Satan's existence and role in the story, but lays the blame squarely on Adam and his rebellion. We believe that he is real, as Scripture doesn't seem to give any other options there, but Scripture makes it equally clear that evil comes from within the human heart, not from without, that the children of God are the enemies of Satan (Gen. 3), and that Satan is destroyed in the end (Rev. 20).

Does that answer your question?
posted by valkyryn at 7:36 AM on November 5, 2008 [6 favorites]

God created Satan that His glory in triumphing over evil might be all the more complete.

Bingo. You can think of Satan almost like a literary device that God used to make the story more poignant (but of course if you believe he is real than you know he's much more than just that).

My pastor likes to use the metaphors relating to "lostness" - and Satan is the device by which the characterization of the lostness of humanity was brought into the story. Examples include Luke 15 - the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (prodigal) son. Each of those stories follows the general theme:

1. Things are fine.
2. Something gets lost.
3. Drop everything go out and search for lost thing. (although you'll note this didn't happen in the 3rd parable)
4. Find lost thing.
5. Much celebrating.

The point is that you never would have gotten to Much Celebrating or had much reason for it or really felt a deep soul motivation for it without something being lost first. There is joy in the "lostness" of that same item - a joy that wasn't there before it was lost and then found again. It makes it that much more loved.

Because of Satan, sin entered the world and we became lost. And then we were found. And soon we get to celebrate.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:19 AM on November 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

allkindsoftime, I'd agree with the caveat that though your metaphor is illustrative it remains a metaphor. There are some who would say that Satan is merely a literary device that the Bible uses, not a real entity. Someone from the Reformed tradition would be uncomfortable with the assertion that Satan is not real.

There's also a minor quibble with your last paragraph. Satan had a role to play in the Fall, but the Fall didn't happen because of Satan. It happened because of Adam; Satan was merely a contributor.

I'm not saying that you support either of those positions, just trying to clarify the record.
posted by valkyryn at 10:19 AM on November 5, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks, does indeed shed some light. I appreciate that. (Also thanks to allkindsoftime)
posted by snap_dragon at 10:30 AM on November 5, 2008

Agreed valkyryn - I would be one of those uncomfortable with such an assertion. Also agreed with your minor quibble, man was complicit and is to blame for his sin, but Satan did play a necessary role.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:06 PM on November 5, 2008

In short, Satan doesn't really do a whole lot of work in the Reformed tradition

Absolutely incorrect. The merest glance at Calvin's Institutes will show that Satan is a very active and insistent presence in the Calvinist system. 'An enemy relentlessly threatens us, an enemy who is the very embodiment of rash boldness, of military prowess, of crafty wiles, of untiring zeal and haste, of every conceivable weapon and of skill in the science of warfare.' (Institutes 1.14.13.) 'He opposes the truth of God with falsehoods, he obscures the light with darkness, he entangles men's minds in errors, he stirs up hatred, he kindles contention and combats, everything to the end that he may overturn God's kingdom and plunge men with himself into eternal death.' (Institutes 1.14.15.)

Now it is true, of course, that Satan is not an independent agent but -- just like everything else in the world -- is subject to God's sovereignty and cannot do anything without God's permission. Calvin makes this very clear. 'Satan is clearly under God's power, and is so ruled by his bidding as to be compelled to render him service.' (Institutes 1.14.17.) By his will and by his nature, Satan is utterly opposed to God, 'but because God holds him bound and restrained with the bridle of his power, he carries out only those things which have been divinely permitted to him, and so he obeys his Creator, whether he will or not, because he is compelled to yield him service wherever God impels him.' (Institutes 1.14.17.)

So if Satan leads us astray, it is because God permits him to lead us astray. But this does not mean that Satan can simply be written out of the story. Seen from the divine perspective, Satan exists to reveal God's glory and to play his part in the working out of God's purpose, but seen from our limited human perspective, Satan is a malignant force constantly working to destroy us. To brush him aside -- 'Satan doesn't really do a whole lot of work' -- is massively to underestimate the harm that he is capable of doing us.

So what is that harm? What exactly is Satan's role in the divine scheme of things? Calvin argues that because of the Fall, our human nature is corrupted. Our understanding is darkened so that we cannot distinguish clearly between good and evil; our will is depraved so that we do not desire good things as we should. And it is because of this that Satan can enter our hearts and take possession of us. Following Augustine, Calvin compares the human will to a horse awaiting its rider's command. 'If God sits astride it, then, like a moderate and skilled rider, he guides it properly .. But if the Devil saddles it, he violently drives it far from the trail, forces it into ditches, tumbles it over cliffs, and goads it into obstinacy and fierceness.' (Institutes 2.4.1.) If God does not make us worthy to be guided by his Spirit (= election), he abandons us to Satan (= reprobation), and then our will freely and obediently submits to Satan's instructions.

A lot of the misreading of Calvin, I think, comes from people who approach him as a systematic theologian, looking for a key to the whole system. Approached in this way, it is pretty clear that God's sovereignty is the mainspring of the Calvinist machinery, and it is very easy to come up with an interpretation in which God rules supreme and Satan really doesn't matter very much. I think this is profoundly mistaken. Approach Calvin without any preconceptions about the 'key to the system' and it very quickly becomes clear that, like most other people in sixteenth-century Europe, he had a highly developed cosmology of angels and devils. Theologians tend to be rather embarrassed by this and don't discuss it much. (One notable exception is Paul Helm, who has a good chapter on angels in John Calvin's Ideas, 2004.) Historians, however, have fewer inhibitions about discussing weird and wacky belief systems, and some excellent work has been done by the likes of Stuart Clark (Thinking with Demons, 1997) and Nathan Johnstone (The Devil and Demonism in Early Modern England, 2006). This leaves absolutely no doubt that a literal belief in the reality of demonic power was a major component of early modern Protestantism.
posted by verstegan at 3:08 PM on November 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

verstegan, I'm not trying to write Satan out of the story. Far from it, I insist upon his reality and power. I believe in, as you say, "the reality of demonic power." But compared to, say, the Pentecostal tradition, which has a very active role for spirits, Satan's theological role in the Reformed tradition is somewhat more muted. By "do a lot of work" I don't mean that Satan is not active and malignant, but that his role is not strictly theologically necessary as it seems to be in some Christian traditions and many stereotypical mischaracterizations of Christianity.

In short, and as I said above, though God has chosen to use Satan as an instrument, and though Satan is real and dangerous, Satan's power over us derives from our own corruption. The view I was attempting to combat was some kind of Manichean duality.
posted by valkyryn at 4:15 PM on November 5, 2008

This is one of the most interesting and informative theological discussions I've seen on MeFi. Thanks to valkyryn, allkindsoftime, and verstegan, and of course to snap_dragon for asking such a good question.
posted by languagehat at 7:43 AM on November 6, 2008

Response by poster: Cool....I am delighted that I ask interesting questions and get such great feedback. Thanks, and all
posted by snap_dragon at 1:48 PM on November 6, 2008

« Older Can I connect to a SQL Server 2000 database using...   |   po-tay-to, po-tah-to Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.