Still Our Ancient Foe

For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

-- From “A Might Fortress Is Our God” by Martin Luther

Martin Luther may not have actually flung an inkwell at the devil while holed up at Wartburg Castle, notwithstanding a telltale stain on the wall of his room there.  He certainly entertained a lively belief in the existence of the devil, whom he blamed for many of the torments he suffered in life.  These included a variety of physical and mental ailments, including a chronic case of constipation that Luther attributed to a devil lodged in his bowels.  He was also afflicted with insomnia, indigestion, hemorrhoids, bouts of depression, dizzy spells, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, angina, kidney and gallstones and a discharge from the ears.  “The maladies I suffer are not natural,” he wrote, “but devil’s spells.”  Luther believed the devil sent flies to vex him while he read (Satan is referred to in the New Testament as Beelzebub, which means “lord of the flies” in Hebrew).  Luther found that it helped to have a nightcap before bed so he could sleep through the devil’s taunts in the darkness.  Satan was particularly bothersome while Luther was translating the Bible into German during his stay at Wartburg Castle.  His statement that he had “driven away the devil with ink” may have given rise to the story about flinging the inkwell.

Luther’s preoccupation with Satan may strike modern readers as bizarre, if not outright insane; however, he was hardly alone in entertaining a lively belief in the devil.  From its inception, Christianity has always given the devil his due.  Three of the gospels give an account of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted by the devil.  The Desert Fathers returned to the wilderness in the third and fourth centuries and found the devil still there waiting for them.  Most notable in this regard was St. Anthony the Great, who seems to have enjoyed robust health (he lived to age 105), but he was tormented by the devil in other ways.  According to Athanasius, his biographer, St. Anthony was variously afflicted with boredom, laziness and lustful fantasies and was once savagely beaten.  At one point Anthony saw a heavenly light in the tomb where he lived and called out reproachfully, “Where were you when I needed you?”

How are we to account for the tribulations of Luther, Anthony and so many others who believed they had wrestled with the devil?  Here we might resort to a principle known as “Ockham’s razor,” attributable to a 14th-century Franciscan friar named William of Ockham, who argued that the simplest explanation is usually the best.  In this case, why resort to a supernatural explanation if an ordinary one would do?  For example, Luther’s poor health might simply be due to the fact that he ate too much and drank too much and generally took poor care of himself; indeed, he might have dislodged the demon in his bowels simply by adding more fiber to his diet.   As for St. Anthony, boredom, laziness and lust are exactly what you would expect if you shut yourself up in a tomb and subsisted on bread and water for years on end.

How to account for Satan at all?  Although he popped up from time to time in the Old Testament, he really didn’t come into his own until Christianity set God on the straight and narrow.  An itinerant rabbi from Nazareth was resurrected as the Only Begotten Son, and being his Father’s son, he was deemed to be without sin.  So who was left to take the rap for all the evil in the world, to say nothing of constipation and boredom?  “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning,” Jesus told his disciples, acknowledging that there is a black sheep in even the best of families.  Now we could always say the devil made us do it.  But, of course, that doesn’t really explain anything.  We can tell ourselves we were made in God’s image, but Satan is clearly made in ours.

Luke 10:18   

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