Having gone through references to Satan and other supernatural evil in the Apostolic Fathers over the previous ten posts, we are now in a position to draw some overall conclusions.
- Satan is mentioned by all, or nearly all, of the Apostolic Fathers.
- The number of virtually certain references to Satan in the Apostolic Fathers is at least 50, and the number of possible references is 71. A reasonable estimate of the number of references to Satan in the Apostolic Fathers is 59.
- Other forms of supernatural evil are mentioned by at least four Apostolic Fathers, and possibly by five.
- Language associated with Satan, demons, etc. is broadly consistent with that found in the New Testament.
- The Apostolic Fathers collectively support the notion of Satan as a supernatural, personal being.
- The Apostolic Fathers contain no evidence of controversy in the Church about Satan and other supernatural evil beings.
Those Apostolic Fathers who undoubtedly mention Satan are 1 Clement, 2 Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas. Those Apostolic Fathers for which legitimate uncertainty exists, but which in my judgment probably do mention Satan, are the fragments of Papias of Hierapolis, the Didache, and the Epistle to Diognetus. There is not one writer among the Apostolic Fathers who can be said conclusively not to have referred to Satan.1 A spreadsheet of all the relevant references can be downloaded here.
A virtually certain reference is defined as one which is supported by a clear scholarly consensus, with virtually no objections.2 Possible references are those for which there is some scholarly support but it is disputed, whether on text-critical or exegetical grounds. These are divided here into two categories: probable and improbable. According to my judgment, the number of probable references is 9,3 and the number of improbable references is 12.4 Thus, my overall estimate for the number of references to Satan in the Apostolic Fathers is 59.
The references to Satan are not, of course, evenly distributed across the Apostolic Fathers corpus: The Shepherd of Hermas singlehandedly accounts for nearly half the virtually certain references; the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas together comprise nearly two-thirds of the virtually certain references. Most other documents in the Apostolic Fathers have just one or two. Hence, Satan is a recurring theological theme in early post-apostolic Christian discourse but by no means a dominant theme.
Those Apostolic Fathers writings which almost certainly refer to other forms of supernatural evil (such as demons or bad angels) are Ignatius of Antioch, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the fragments of Papias of Hierapolis. In addition, in our analysis of the Didache we found that this document probably contains implicit references to supernatural evil in addition to Satan himself.
Those Apostolic Fathers who almost certainly do not refer to any form of supernatural evil other than Satan are 1 Clement, 2 Clement, Polycarp of Smyrna, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, and the Epistle to Diognetus. Hence, Satan receives more attention in the Apostolic Fathers than demons or bad angels. This is similar to what we find in the New Testament (at least outside the Synoptic Gospels).
Most of the terms and concepts used to describe Satan in the Apostolic Fathers (devil, Satan, evil one, ruler/lord, serpent, the concept of deceit, the verb energeō, the idea that the devil flees when resisted) are also found in the New Testament, although there is some innovation in terminology (e.g. the black one, the lawless one, the lord of this city). The same is true of terms and concepts used to describe other supernatural evil (angels of Satan, angelic rulers in the heavenly realms, angels whose arrangement came to nothing, demons as bodiless spirits, demons as potentially inhabiting humans).
In the Apostolic Fathers there is no attempt to systematize Satanological or demonological concepts. The ideas are taken over from the tradition and adapted to the writers' rhetorical and pastoral purposes but are not developed further. Systematization of these doctrines seems to occur for the first time in Justin Martyr.
Wherever a writer's references to Satan contain enough contextual detail to enable some understanding of how he conceived of Satan, it is clear that a supernatural, personal being is in view. We have seen this in the case of Ignatius of Antioch, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Epistle of Barnabas, Papias of Hierapolis (if fragment 23 is authentic), and the Shepherd of Hermas.
Admittedly, in some writings all references to Satan are too cursory to allow an exegetical assessment of whether the writer understood Satan to be a personal being or a personification. This would include 1 Clement, 2 Clement, Polycarp of Smyrna, the Didache, and the Epistle to Diognetus. However, in every case the language used is perfectly consistent with the notion of Satan as a supernatural, personal being. Furthermore, in some cases, known historical links between these writers and others who undoubtedly believed Satan to be a supernatural personal being (e.g. Polycarp's relationship with Ignatius) make it highly probable that their references to Satan are to be understood in the same way. Finally, there is little positive evidence in any of these writings suggesting the writer regards Satan as a personification.5
First, as in the New Testament, and as in the later apologetic and heresiological writings, no Apostolic Father mentions any disagreement in the Church about whether Satan or demons exist or about whether these are literal beings or figures of speech. Secondly, as in the New Testament, the way the writers introduce references to Satan and other supernatural evil beings is casual and unassuming. The writers do not attempt to define such beings, to justify making reference to them, or to prove that they exist. They consistently behave as though they are assuming that all their readers share the same beliefs as themselves in this matter.
In the period covered by the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers, different writers have different levels of emphasis on supernatural evil and invoke such ideas for different rhetorical purposes. Nevertheless, the basic concept of Satan, demons and angels good and bad - the underlying worldview - appears to have been unanimous in the Church throughout this period.
This creates a major problem for those who claim that the traditional Christian doctrine of Satan and evil is a distortion of the New Testament evidence. It is beyond dispute that the doctrine of Satan as a supernatural personal being was entrenched as Christian orthodoxy by the end of the second century, as is evident from the writings of such luminaries as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Theophilus of Antioch, and Clement of Alexandria. If this was the result of apostasy from earlier Christian teaching, we would expect to find evidence of controversy. We would expect to find writers defending their view of Satan against other competing doctrines. However, we find nothing of the kind.
The only natural conclusion is that the doctrine of Satan and supernatural evil became entrenched as Christian orthodoxy because it had been part of Christian teaching from the beginning. In other words, the reason why the writers of the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers appear to have believed Satan, demons and angels are real cosmic beings is because this is exactly what they did believe! Those who hold to traditional Church teaching on supernatural evil can rest assured that these ideas are present in Christian literature early and often.
One cannot help but regard as ingenious the hermeneutical approach of Rudolf Bultmann and his school, who frankly confess that the New Testament worldview regarded demons and spirits as real, but who regard this worldview as irreconcilable with modern science. They therefore embark on a programme of 'demythologization' of all mythical language in the New Testament (in their case, reinterpreting it in existentialist terms). Whatever one may make of Bultmann's conclusions, they are based upon an attempt to marry sound, historical-critical exegesis of ancient texts with a modern worldview.
Far less reputable is an approach which uses tendentious exegesis of texts about Satan and demons to recast early Christian writers in the image of the modern interpreter, thereby excising the spirit world from the text and artificially harmonizing these writings with a modern, scientific worldview. The starting point for any theology of Satan and demons that is truly Christian must be sound, grammatical-historical exegesis of the writings of the early Church.
- 1 The only text usually classified among the Apostolic Fathers that has not been discussed here is the Apology of Quadratus. The reason for the omission is obvious: this document survives only in a 49-word fragment preserved by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History. This fragment makes no mention of supernatural evil, but it would be absurd to try to infer anything from such a silence.
- 2 The 50 virtually certain references to Satan are: 1 Clement 51.1; 2 Clement 18.2; Ignatius to the Ephesians 10.3, 13.1, 17.1, 19,1; Ignatius to the Magnesians 1.2; Ignatius to the Trallians 4.2; 8.1; Ignatius to the Romans 5.3; 7.1; Ignatius to the Philadelphians 6.2; Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 9.1; Polycarp to the Philippians 7.1 (two); Martyrdom of Polycarp 2.4(3.1), 17.1 (two); Epistle of Barnabas 2.1, 2.10, 4.10, 4.13, 15.5, 18.1, 18.2, 20.1, 21.3; Hermas Mandates 4.3.4, 4.3.6, 5.1.3, 7.2 (two), 7.3, 9.9, 9.11, 11.3, 11.17, 12.2.2, 12.4.6 (two), 12.4.7, 12.5.1, 12.5.2 (two), 12.5.4, 12.6.1, 12.6.2 (two), 12.6.4, Hermas Similitudes 9.31.2.
- 3 Didache 8.2; Papias Fragment 23; Diognetus 12.6, 12.8; Hermas Mandates 7.3; Hermas Similitudes 1.3, 1.4, 1.6, 8.3.6.
- 4 2 Clement 20.4 (this text was not discussed in the post on 2 Clement but is considered to be a possible reference to Satan by Tuckett, C.M. (2012). 2 Clement: Introduction, Text, and Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 301. Since no scholar seems to have defended this view ardently, I left it out); Didache 16.4, lost ending; Epistle of Barnabas 9.4; Papias Fragment 13; Diognetus 12.3; Hermas Mandates 6.2.1, 6.2.4, 6.2.5, 6.2.7, 6.2.9, 6.2.10.
- 5 Some scholars have seen demythologizing tendencies in 1 Clement 3.4 and Didache 1.1. See our discussions of those two writings for arguments that these texts do not suggest that their authors held a demythologized view of Satan.