The concept of spiritual warfare is based on the belief that Satan and demons are real beings whose primary mission is to thwart God's purposes on earth, specifically to prevent non-believers from placing faith in Christ and to prevent Christians from being effective disciples of Jesus.
In classical theological terms spiritual warfare has been understood as a metaphor that broadly covers the individual Christian's struggle with sin and temptation. Spiritual conflict (less than "war") exists throughout Christian thought and practices (e.g. prayer). However, since the late Twentieth century, the term spiritual warfare has been popularized in such a way that it is frequently equated with the interaction of persons with the angelic and demonic realms in positive or negative ways (e.g. exorcism).
The metaphors in the Bible evoke images of conflict and spiritual struggle in the life of the Christian. One of the evocative images that is associated with these conflict metaphors is found in the New Testament in the Epistle to the Ephesians. This letter is traditionally ascribed to the authorship of the apostle Paul. In that letter Paul gives instruction to his readers on the spiritual life in the context of conflict. He illustrates his points by alluding to the armour and weapons of a Roman centurion. The various pieces of armour are likened by way of analogy to the shield of faith, sword of the spirit, helmet of salvation and so forth.
In the New Testament, apostle Paul says:
or though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 NIVF
In Ephesians 6:10-20, he describes the spiritual armor, introducing it as follows:
ut on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Ephesians 6:11-13 NIV
The Christian Church in all of its major traditions - Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Ancient Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant - has confessed on the basis of biblical revelation the reality (or ontological existence) of a fallen angel known as the Devil and Satan. This affirmation is reinforced in the writings of the Church Fathers, in the councils and creeds of the early church, and in the later confessional documents of the Christian denominations.
The classic position of the Christian Church is that Satan and other fallen beings now known as demons, are spiritual entities that exist and sometimes manifest their presence in the world. These entities have as their primary focus the spiritual deception of humanity. Their primary mission is to thwart God's purposes on earth, specifically to prevent non-believers from placing faith in Christ and to prevent Christians from being effective disciples of Jesus. Satan is referred to as "the father of lies" (John 8:44) and as "the accuser of our brothers" (Revelation 12:10).
Biblical passages that highlight the demonic are principally found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles. Paul's epistles focus on the victory of Christ over principalities and powers. The Book of Revelation portrays the casting down of Satan from heaven and his being bound forever due to the triumph of Christ in the resurrection. Other passages concerning demons and angels are scattered throughout both the Old and New Testament. Outside of the biblical canon, demonology is found in the pseudepigraphal writings, such as the First Book of Enoch, and in the post-New Testament writings of the early fathers such as The Didache, The Shepherd of Hermas, Ignatius' epistle to the Ephesians, and Origen's Contra Celsum.
The classic response of the Church in its various traditions has been to positively confess and proclaim the supremacy and victory of Christ in his resurrection from the dead over all things including the Devil, demons or fallen angels. In the early church the rite of exorcism took various forms including prayer, laying on of hands, fasting and sprinkling holy water. Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian attest to the importance of invoking the name of Christ against a demon.
Other early rites involved demon-repelling prior to a candidate undergoing baptism. The candidate would participate in various rituals intended to cleanse demonic influences (Clementine Recognitions). During the rite of baptism the candidate would publicly renounce Satan, while the water was consecrated. The sign of the cross developed as a demon-repelling device.
In the Roman Catholic tradition the rite of exorcism was placed under strict guidelines by Pope Paul V in the Roman Ritual (12, 13). Further definition came in the early Twentieth century from Pope Pius XI.
Reformation and Post-Reformation
The practice of exorcism was also known among the first generation of teachers and pastors in the Lutheran Reformation. Johannes Bugenhagen Pomeranus was the pastor of the Wittenberg town church and officiated at Martin Luther's wedding. In a letter addressed to Luther and Melanchthon dated November 1530, Pomeranus recounted his experience of dealing with a young girl who showed signs of demon possession. Pomeranus' method involved counselling the girl concerning her previous baptismal vows, he invoked the name of Christ and prayed with her. (Letter reproduced in Montgomery, Principalities and Powers).
The Anglican-Puritan writer William Gurnall wrote a lengthy three-volume work The Christian in Complete Armour that was published between 1662 and 1665. In this work Gurnall stressed the place of reading Scripture, prayer and the name of Christ.
Contemporary Roman Catholic
In modern times the views of individual Roman Catholics have tended to divide into traditional and "new-shape Catholic" understandings of the subject. An example of the new-shape perspective, which offers a theologically liberal and unsupernatural view of the demonic is found in the work of the Dominican scholar Richard Woods' The Devil.
The traditional outlook is represented by Father Gabriele Amorth who has written two instructive books on his personal experiences as an exorcist for the Vatican: An Exorcist Tells His Story, and An Exorcist: More Stories. Francis MacNutt, who was a priest within the Roman Catholic Charismatic movement, has also addressed the problem of the demonic in his writings about healing.
In the American revival tradition among evangelicals prominent preachers such as D. L. Moody, Billy Sunday, R. A. Torrey and Billy Graham have all affirmed their belief in the existence of the demonic and had occasions to recount some of their own spiritual warfare encounters. In the Nineteenth century one of the major evangelical authorities on demon possession was the missionary to China, John Livingston Nevius.
During the late Twentieth century evangelical writers such as Mark Bubeck and Merrill Unger presented their theological and pastoral response to demonic phenomena. The problem of demon possession and spiritual warfare became the subject of a Christian Medical Association symposium that was held in 1975. This symposium brought together a range of evangelical scholars in biblical studies, theology, psychology, anthropology, and missiology (see Montgomery, Demon Possession).
One of the very significant German writers is the Lutheran Kurt Koch whose work has influenced much of both evangelical and charismatic thought in the late Twentieth century. The impact of his ideas has been recently examined by the folklore specialist Bill Ellis.
Interest in spiritual warfare increased markedly after the release of the film The Exorcist in 1973.
Pentecostal and Charismatic Perspectives
Spiritual warfare has become a prominent feature in some pentecostal and charismatic churches. The concept is well embedded in Pentecostal history particularly through Jessie Penn-Lewis' book War on the Saints arising from the Welsh Revival in the early Twentieth century. Other Pentecostal and charismatic pastors include Don Basham and Derek Prince who have emphasized claiming the power of the blood of Christ.
The concept of spiritual warfare has been applied by Pentecostals to the Christian's spiritual growth in holiness or what is technically called sanctification. A preacher may discern that parishioners are experiencing obstacles in their faith, prayer life and general spiritual well-being. That process of discernment may yield an awareness of spiritual oppression caused by a combination of personal sin and demonic influence. The obstacles are then removed through prayer, delivering a parishioner from demonic possession, and breaking down false beliefs about God. Dr. Ed Murphy is the author of a modern 600 page tome on the subject from the point of view of deliverance ministry entitled The Handbook of Spiritual Warfare.
Pentecostals and Charismatics have also applied the concept in the task of evangelism and worldwide missions. Former missionaries such as Charles Kraft and C. Peter Wagner have emphasized the problem of demonology on the world mission fields, and the need to drive demons out.
A popular fictional portrayal of spiritual warfare is found in the novels “This Present Darkness” and “Piercing the Darkness” by Frank E. Peretti
Controversy and Assessments
From inside the evangelical tradition a number of concerns have been raised about the current emphasis on spiritual warfare. Robert Guelich of Fuller Theological Seminary has questioned the extent to which spiritual warfare has shifted from its basic moorings as a metaphor for the Christian life. Guelich is disturbed to find spiritual warfare metamorphosing into "spiritual combat" techniques where Christians seek power over demons. Guelich argues that Paul's writings in the Epistle to the Ephesians is focused on proclaiming the peace of God and nowhere specifies any techniques for battling demons. He also finds that the novels of Frank Peretti are seriously at odds with both the gospel narratives on demons and Pauline teaching.
Missions specialists such A. Scott Moreau and Paul Hiebert have detected traces of animist thought encroaching on both evangelical and charismatic discourses about the demonic and spiritual warfare. Hiebert indicates that a dualist cosmology now appears in some spiritual warfare texts and it is based on the Greco-Roman mystery religions and Zoroastrian myths. However, Hiebert also chastises other evangelicals who have absorbed the modern secular outlook and have have tended to downplay or even ignore the demonic. Hiebert speaks of the flaw of the excluded middle in the thinking of some evangelicals who have a cosmology of God in heaven and humans on earth, but have ignored the "middle" realm of the angelic and demonic.
The excesses of unsubstantiated allegations made in the Satanic Ritual Abuse phenomena of the 1980s and 1990s has also prompted critical reviews. Some apologists in the Christian countercult movement have expressed concerns that spiritual warfare techniques seem at times to have been based on spurious stories and anecdotes without careful discernment and reflection. Some of these general concerns have been expressed by apologists like Elliot Miller (Christian Research Institute), and Bob and Gretchen Passantino in various articles published in the Christian Research Journal. Others, such as Mike Hertenstein and Jon Trott, have called into question the claims of alleged ex-Satanists like Mike Warnke and Lauren Stratford whose stories have subsequently influenced many popular books about spiritual warfare and the occult. Bill Ellis' work Raising the Devil has detected the presence of folkloric stories about the occult and demons circulating in evangelical and charismatic circles, which later become accepted as unquestioned facts.
In 2000 an international collaborative attempt was made by evangelicals and charismatics in the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization to reach some common agreement about spiritual warfare. The conference gathered in Nairobi, Kenya, and yielded a consultation document as well as many technical papers published as the book Deliver Us From Evil.
Other perspectives that move in a therapeutic line include Christian author William Bandlwin, PhD in his popular book Spirit Releasement Therapy, and healer and author Ken Page uses a similar approach. There is also M. Scott Peck's acceptance of the reality of demons with remedial help framed in a healing psychotherapeutic framework in his book People of the lies.
See also Territorial Spirit.