I must admit that studying the Powers from a classical Reformed tradition is challenging because the image that modern Christianity has portrayed of the Devil and the Powers may not resemble at all the popular and theological images of the Devil in the sixteenth century. I will discuss briefly what the Heidelberg says about the Powers, and later I will compare it to Open theist Gregory Boyd’s position.
The Powers in the Heidelberg Catechism
There are not many references of the Devil in the Heidelberg Catechism, though we may have a glimpse of how the writers of the Catechism understood the figure of Devil/the Powers and their work in the world. In Q&A 1 of the Catechism where the author talks about our only comfort in life and death, we are told that Jesus Christ “has set [us] free from all the power of the Devil.” This is the first reference that exists in the Catechism regarding the Devil, and as one sees, the Devil is presented as an oppressor (or tyrant) by having unfair power over humanity. Because of this oppression it is that Jesus Christ was sent to free us from such power, as the Scriptures state in 1 John 3:8, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work,” and in Hebrews 2:14-15, “By his death he [Christ] might break the power of him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” Besides, part of the Q&A 34 seems to resemble Q&A 1 regarding the Devil’s figure when the Catechism affirms that our Lord Jesus Christ “has freed us from all the power of the devil to make us his own possession.” This is in accordance with Colossians 1:13 that has put it in this way: “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.”
Similar to the to the image of an oppressor, the Devil is also presented as an instigator. That is someone who instigates people to revolt. The Catechism affirms, in that sense, “But man, at the instigation of the devil, in deliberate disobedience robbed himself and all his descendants of these gifts” (Q&A 9). This image is based on Genesis 3:13 which presents the Serpent (a figure of the Devil in the OT) as a deceiver.
By the end of the Catechism, another image is presented to us: the Devil as an enemy: “Moreover, our sworn enemies — the devil, the world, and our own flesh — do not cease to attack us” (Q&A 127). Other references to the Devil or the Powers are the Q&A 32 where we are told that as members of the church we are enabled to fight against the Devil: “Because I am a member of Christ by faith so that I may as king fight with a free and good conscience against sin and the devil in this life.” We are also told, we “must avoid all lying and deceit as the Devil’s own works, under penalty of God’s heavy wrath” (Q&A 112), and pray God to “destroy the works of the devil, every power that raises itself against you, and every conspiracy against your holy Word” (Q&A 123).
One may notice that the three main images (Tyrant or oppressor, instigator, and enemy) that the Heidelberg Catechism presents of the Devil have, in some way, royal meanings. A tyrant usually has been understood as a king or governor who has used his power to oppress his people; an instigator usually has been understood as a figure of power that makes people to revolt against established authority, and an enemy usually is an entity that opposes completely against another entity that holds authority. Even more interesting is the use of the singular to refer to the Devil as an irreconcilable and sworn enemy of God and humanity. This is significant since the Catechism seems to personalize (or quasi-personalize) the figure of Devil.
Something noteworthy to mention is the fact that when the Heidelberg Catechism was written, talking about the Devil and the Powers was a popular topic in the popular culture. Reformers, however, discussed little of the figure of the Devil and the origin of evil. Without overgeneralizing, I think one may claim that the Catechism reflects mainly Calvin’s understanding of the Powers. Hence, for Calvin, the Devil is a “formidable foe” (Institutes 1.14.13), a perpetual enemy of humankind (Institutes 1.14.15), and a depraved God’s creature (Institutes 1.14.16), among other things. Calvin refers to the Devil as “he” and totally personalizes him. The Devil is then a personal being whom God initially created good but later got corrupted. Calvin also identifies him as the ruler or governor of this world who actively opposes to God and Christ’s kingdom.
The Powers according to Gregory Boyd
One of the modern theologians who has explored the figure of the Devil is Gregory Boyd with his book titled, God at War. He seems to reject Calvin’s understanding of God’s providence. Part of the aspects we may rescue from Boyd’s understanding of the Powers is the personalization and the reality of those entities in the world. Although I disagree with Boyd’s interpretation of God’s providence and other topics, he makes a good point by calling the church to not ignore the reality of the evil forces in the world. Dr. Tom Boogaart in his class lecture about Boyd’s God at War book and his understanding of the Devil, states:
[For Boyd, the Devil] is not a member of the divine council. He is a malicious adversary against God. This maliciousness lays the foundation for absorbing the chaotic features of Leviathan and the other monsters, referred to in the Bible and in the surrounding cultures. Satan seeks to possess and control, and power to possess is the basis for finding Satan present in the Old Testament. The snake can be interpreted as symbolizing or embodying Satan. The fall of kings such as Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar, referred to in Isaiah14 and Ezekiel 28, can be understood as the fall of Satan who has taken possession of them, and Satan’s fall at this historical time a re-actualization of Satan’s fall at the beginning of time. Here is Boyd’s summary of the OT witness on conflict in the created order: Whether it be portrayed as Leviathan, Rahab, Yamm, Behemoth, hostile waters or wayward rebellious gods (e.g., prince of Persia, Chemosh, Satan), or whether it is portrayed as a battle that took place before the creation or this world or as something that is taking place in the present, the OT clearly assumes that something profoundly sinister has entered God’s good creation and now perpetually threatens the world. Not all is well in creation .
In opposition to the Heidelberg Catechism, Boyd’s seems to claim that the Powers might disrupt God’s purposes and plans with the world, or at least, they cause God’s purposes delayed (Cf. 9). For Boyd, the Scripture presupposes the existence of the fallen Powers (the Devil and the demons). Besides, Boyd is strongly opposed to the idea of identifying the Powers or the fallen angels as “social structures” as Wink suggests or depersonalizing the fallen angels at all. The fallen angels, for Boyd, are creatures who went against God’s will (p.58). They were created without evil, but in their free will, they sinned against God. This view is fundamental for Boyd in order to assert that in the same way there is a kingdom of God, there is also a kingdom of the Devil that fights against God’s purposes in the world. Hence, there are two kingdoms that are in warfare, and humanity is in the middle of it. Based on this reasoning, Boyd states, “There is no suggestion in the Gospels that Jesus believed that demons or evil angels were carrying out a secret providential plan of God, despite themselves. Rather, Jesus treated each case of demonization as an instance of spiritual rape: an alien force had illegitimately and cruelly invaded a person’s being” (p. 201). This position reflects, in some way, the Heidelberg Catechism’s position that the Devil (and by extrapolation, the Powers as well) are sworn enemies of God and humankind.
When one compares Boyd’s understanding of the identity of Devil with the Heidelberg Catechism, one might think they contradict each other in this respect. The surprising aspect is that their understanding of the Devil is kind of similar: the Devil as a personal (or at least or quasi-personal) entity that opposes strongly against God and his mission in the world. The Catechism does not seem to identify the Devil or the Powers with social structures at all, quite the opposite; it personalizes them. Boyd does the same thing. The problem I see when comparing Boyd with the Catechism is that the Heidelberg Catechism speaks very little of the Devil and the references to it are a few. It has a scriptural support that helps to understand better what the writer of the Catechism meant when claimed that the Devil was an enemy, for example. Thus, the problem arises when Boyd rejects important doctrines held by the Catechism such as the Reformed understanding of the providence of God. Besides, Boyd also discusses doctrines that are disputed in Christian circles. This situation makes harder to compare both positions adequately.
One may say that both the Catechism and Boyd recognize the figure of the Devil as a real entity and not as a social structure. Boyd’s basic position regarding the reality of the Devil and the Powers seems not to be in opposition with the Heidelberg; however, Boyd’s assumptions and implications frequently are in contradiction with the Heidelberg Catechism. Part of this situation is because of Boyd’s position to accept what others who think differently have to say about the topic and take a radical side. Boyd struggles with that.
In the popular culture, the discussions about the Devil, the origin of evil, and the Powers, for example, is not something new. However, the theological discussions are few as people might think. The origin of evil is a difficult topic to discuss, and it is usually discussed in relation to other topics. Revelation 12:9-10 is an interesting verse because it lets us identify who the Devil is. Revelation 12 tells us about an episode of the Dragon and the Woman. The verses say:
The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down.“
It does not matter if one thinks this episode is literal or an allegory, something important here is that this verse identifies the Great Dragon as the Serpent, and at the same time, it identifies the Serpent with the Devil. One may conclude from the passage that the Devil is an accuser and a deceiver. The last phrase “who accuses them before God day and night” suggests that the Devil might also have access to the Divine Council in order to accuse Christians before God. This verse is also significant since it lets us personalize, or at least quasi-personalize, the Devil. Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14 could also be good passages to analyze the figure of the Devil.
Another scriptural reference that personalizes the Devil is Luke 10:17-8. When Jesus sent the seventy-two disciples, they prayed for people and submitted demons in his name. When these disciples brought the news to Jesus, he replied to them with this: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” The first deduction we may see here is that Jesus did not surprise because the demons were submitted in his name. His reply also shows that for Jesus, the Devil was a real figure, a personalized entity.
Hence, the Devil is not a symbol of evil or concept, but a personal entity that is real, though he is not human. From Matthew 4:1-11, one notices that the Devil appeared before Jesus and tempted him. Verse 3 is usually omitted when we retell this story. In this passage, Jesus was not tempted in his mind or spirit. The Scripture does not say that he had these thoughts, for example. Instead, verse 3 affirms that “the tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’” One of the things one may conclude is that the figure of the Devil appeared before Jesus to tempt him. The passage not only suggests that he is real but also, he can be seen, he can talk, he can think, etc.
The purpose of the Devil is trying to destroy God’s plans and overthrow his purposes. The Apostle Peter tells us to be sober-minded and watchful. “Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (v. 5:8). From here, one might note the Devil is also an intelligent creature, since in these verses we are advised to be watchful. Also, the phrase “seeking someone to” denotes that he intentionally is doing the search.
Regarding the Devil and the Powers, I agree with Boyd and the Catechism about personalizing the Devil and the Powers and identifying them as irreconcilable enemies of God. I think they are proactive in harming God’s work, God’s people, and God’s creation. The Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6:11-12 states,
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
As I understand this passage, Paul makes emphasis on the difference between the Powers and human beings or any animals made of blood and flesh. He does not identify here the Powers, but at least say what they are not. In fact, in the Reformation Study Bible, one finds an interesting comment. It states that rules, authorities, cosmic powers and spiritual forces are “terms [that] refer to powerful spiritual beings that make up the power of the air ruled by Satan.” Therefore, the Devil and the Powers are spiritual beings.
As a conclusion, The Devil is not only a sworn enemy but also a deceiver (2 Cor. 11:4), tempter (Matt. 4:8), murderer (John 8:44), deceiver (Rev. 12:9), accuser (Rev. 12:10). Because I strongly agree with Calvin’s understanding of the Devil and the Powers, and I consider Boyd’s understanding of the Devil gives a new perspective on the topic, one should not forget that God’s purposes are unchangeable so the Devil or the Powers cannot overthrow those purposes, though they may oppose them fiercely. At the end, the Devil and the Powers were defeated by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross so that Christ could impart his victory over the evil one on the people of God.