Retrieving our Reformed Heritage on Spiritual Warfare — Theology and Practice

To adapt Mark’s Noll’s famous remark, the scandal of systematic-theological treatments on spiritual warfare today in contemporary Reformed systematic theology is that there are none. That is to say, in relation to doctrine regarding angels and/or demons, a theological exposition of spiritual warfare scarcely plays any part in the scholarship of Reformed doctrine today. On the other hand, theologically controversial treatments on spiritual warfare abound across the evangelical spectrum that are rife with heterodox theology and practices. Such theological treatments have gained popular support across various evangelical circles. Two examples involve the idea that (1) demons understood as real spiritual beings do not exist but are only real in the sense that vice, hatred, and collective anti-Christian antipathy become expressions of certain institutional structures of society. On this view, spiritual warfare strictly has to do with socially de-constructing and re-constructing more justly this or that structure of society (e.g., Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination by Walter Wink); and (2) demons are literal spiritual beings and our spiritual warfare involves Christians taking authority over evil spirits through things like prayer-walking and by exorcising them from people, objects, and regions through the means of deliverance ministry. Such practices are believed to enable societal repentance and godly revival (e.g., Breaking Spiritual Strongholds in Your City by C. Peter Wagner; The Bondage Breaker by Neil T. Anderson). The foregoing proposals for spiritual warfare will be cited as a foil for what the actual concern of this paper is and advocates: retrieving the Reformed heritage on angels and demons offers evangelicals one way of strengthening our orthodoxy and orthopraxy in the domain of warfare.

An examination of the angelology/demonology in the doctrinal accounts produced by early Reformation theologians through the era of High Orthodoxy (early 18th century) reveals their keen concern for the spiritual warfare that surrounds and assaults God’s people. It stands as a highly underappreciated fact that in their writings, the Reformers addressed with great energy the seriousness of spiritual warfare and its practical implications for believers. In regard to spiritual warfare, my paper looks at the doctrinal work of two Reformers of the early Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin, and two Reformers of the later Dutch Reformation movement in the era of High Orthodoxy, Petrus van Mastricht and Wilhelmus à Brakel. What the writings of all four of these theologians have in common involve a call for spiritual preparedness and tactical advice to do battle against the temptations, tricks, and attacks of Satan and his devils. I am advocating for today’s evangelicals to recall these earlier themes in angelology and demonology and diligently apply this knowledge to their faith and practice as they engage the enemy.