In his essay “Farewell to the Devil?”, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) examines and rebuts the argument presented by Swiss Catholic Theologian Herbert Haag, who asserts that Satan does not exist and that Satan was an idea that manifested ancient Jewish culture’s understanding of evil and sin. (Ratzinger, Farewell to the Devil? 197.) Haag’s thesis was written during the time of great cultural upheaval both in secular culture and in Catholic Culture as his book “Farewell to the Devil” would be printed after the Vatican II council. It should be no surprise that Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr. Sosa, has recently made comments that Satan is an analogy making very similar points as presented in Haag’s argument ( A comment that Fr. Sosa has since walked back a bit).
Ratzinger explains that this position is one that uses a methodology that is devoid of literary analysis of scripture but rather is a methodology that focuses on a false historicism (emphasis mine) that those of a different era are either stupid, naive, or both, so in effect, Haag’s position is based on the rhetoric fallacy of “poisoning the well” of the witness testimony of Jesus and the Apostles as it is presented in the New Testament. Haag’s thesis is refuted by Ratzinger by examining the New Testament in which Satan and Demons exist, and the Devil is not a synonym for sin which is claimed by Haag (Ratzinger, Ibid.).
It’s so glaringly obvious in the belief of those in scripture that both Satan and Demons exist that Haag had to admit this is a commonly held belief of those in 1st century Palestine. However, Haag argues that these people were victims of their understanding and culture during this period of time. Again, it’s important to reiterate that Haag’s position is based on his own cultural bias in which he has already assumed those in Jesus’ time are inferior to his own understanding. Naturally, this type of assertion is one of the most dangerous facets of a strict historical-critic exegesis and the use of historicism by modern scholars. Ratzinger does a good job acknowledging that it’s Haag’s bias that has predetermined his conclusion on this matter, Ratzinger writes, “Haag bids the devil farewell, not in his capacity as exegete or interpreter of Scripture, but rather as a contemporary, who considered the existence of a devil untenable (Ratzinger, 198).”
One of the key aspects in understanding Satan and Demons, after examining the role of the Old Testament as being dependent on the New Testament, is understood when Ratzinger writes, “The spiritual battle against the enslaving powers, the exorcism pronounced over a world blinded by demons, is an inseparable part of Jesus’ spiritual way that belongs to the heart of his own mission and of the mission of his disciples.” (Ratzinger, 202). Furthermore, Ratzinger indicates that our understanding of the faith must be rendered within the faith community. If it is to be determined that Satan is merely an analogy to sin or a sort of moral taboo then the Church’s sacramental life with the foundation of baptism would be moot. Ratzinger writes, “One must be able to take baptism at its word, especially in its central action. It indicates what takes place in becoming a Christian and what does not…exorcism and the renunciation of Satan are part of the central action of baptism.” (Ratzinger, 203.)
At the end of the essay, Ratzinger questions what Haag means that the Devil cannot be understood to exist by what we know in our modern age. In many respects, I believe the question of “Farewell to the Devil?” is one that originates in the metaphysical and spiritual and moves into the material, perhaps, there is to be understood better the sacred and the profane. A good measurement of whether something is contingent on faith testimony which is the essence of the faith is its relation to the Incarnation itself.
How does Satan, the demonic, and hell relate to the Incarnation? In the course of the history of the Church, the great heresies have always been misguided teachings on who is Jesus Christ. Satan and hell must be articles of faith as without those parts of revelation, it would render the Incarnation useless. If theologians eliminate Adam and Eve, the fall, hell, and then the slope—as we see today—leads to there being no such thing as sin, then those theologians have rendered Jesus Christ merely an ancient understanding of the world.
3 thoughts on “Farewell to the Devil?”
One of the devil’s favorite tricks is to convince people that he does not exist. (“I am not here. You do not see me. You do not hear me.”) One of his other favorite tricks is to try to convince people that he is Jesus Christ — and I must say that he is fairly adept at quoting Scriptures even if he doesn’t really comprehend the deeper meaning of them because his hate for God has blinded him to Truth. (That is why he is always a liar.).
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I am not a trained theologian and can only claim some rudimentary schooling in a Roman seminary which was curtailed due to various confusions! However, the strong point for me in that essay of Ratzinger – for whom I had the privilege of helping to serve at Mass in 2008 when he was Pope – is the idea of the Devil as the reverse image of the Holy Spirit:
“…The fact remains that this ‘in between’ is a real power, or, more precisely, a collection of powers and not just the sum of human selves. The category of the ‘in between’, which thus helps us to understand in a new way the nature of the devil, performs yet another, parallel service: it enables us to explain better the real contrary power that has likewise become ever more foreign to Western theology: the Holy Spirit. From this perspective, we
could say: He is that “In between” in which the Father and the Son are one as the one God; in the power of this ‘In between’, the Christian confronts that demonic ‘in between’ which
‘interferes’ everywhere and obstructs unity.”
The Holy Spirit is a Person, of course, and the essay describes the Devil as an “Unperson” (Ratzinger’s capitalisation emphasizes the reverse mirror image.) When I arrived in Barcelona as a Franciscan friar in 1991 for a year’s teaching work, I met the city’s Anglican chaplain at an ecumenical event and he was from the Evangelical wing of the CofE. I remember my shock when he asked me, out of the blue: “Do you believe in a personal Devil?” I had for so long regarded the Devil as some kind of abstract symbol that I had never even imagined that question. The force of the question and my equivocal confused response have remained a challenge ever since that moment.
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Interesting points and haven’t spoken to you in a long while. Hope you are well.
For my part, I see the Holy Spirit as the Love that binds the Father and the Son and also binds us to one another and God to man . . . and that which allows us to say that God is Himself, Love.
As the opposite, of the Holy Spirit, that would make of the devil that which divides us from God by hate which is the devil’s attribute. A personal devil? I suppose in times of weakness and when we are caught unawares that hatred which might spring to our minds and hearts might be characterized in a personal sense; though it is only a manifestation of that which is also universal.
Just a thought for what it’s worth and the 2 cents are refundable.
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