Christianity And The Witch Hunt Era (10/12)
* 1680-171?: Sir Isaac Newton wrote extensively on the subject of the devil, demons, witchcraft, and ghosts, his views gradually developing over a long duration. The first signs of his abandonment of the ‘orthodox’ position are found in his writings of the 1680s, whilst his latest and most mature comments on the subject are dated to some time after 1710.
Newton’s views appear to have commenced with his unorthodox reflections on the serpent in Genesis 3, in the 1680s:
‘The first example of this kind comes from another prophetic manuscript, Yahuda MS 9, which dates from the 1680s and thus helps establish a terminus a quo for Newton’s departure from the orthodox view. In this manuscript Newton moves beyond mere description to conscious explication. The first reference to a serpent in the Bible is found in the account of the first human sin committed in the Garden of Eden, and it is to this account that Newton turns when tracing the original of the serpentine imagery of the “spirit of error”. Newton saw the serpent that tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as symbolic of the fleshly lust for her husband that filled her heart.’
Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, page 5, November 2002
At this time Newton also expressed a disbelief in the existence of evil spirits:
The spirits of God of fals Prophets & of Antichrist are [in 1 John 4] plainly taken not for any substantial Spirits but for ye good or evil dispositions & true or fals perswasions of mens minds; & the spirits of all men who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is called in the singular number the spirit of Antichrist, & said to be come into the world as if it were an evil spirit wch was to reign therein & deceive all the followers of Antichrist. And such an evil spirit is the Dragon in the Apocalyps.’
Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, page 6, November 2002
From this position, Newton moved to a rejection of belief in demons, using arguments similar to those proposed by Muggleton, Bekker, and Hutchinson, including the argument of accommodated language:
‘Newton’s views on demons follow a similar pattern. The traditional Christian conception of demons holds that they are fallen angels subordinate to the chief fallen angel, Satan. Not so with Newton. As with his view on the devil, Newton began to dismiss the reality of demons from the 1680s. Yahuda MS 9, the same document in which Newton treats the devil as a symbol of the “spirit of error”, demonstrates this:
From this figure of putting serpents for spirits & spirits or Daemons for distempers of ye mind, came ye vulgar opinion of ye Jews & other eastern nations that mad men & lunaticks were possessed with evil spirits or Daemons. Whence Christ seems to have used this language not only as Prophet but also in compliance wth ye Jews way of speaking: so yt when he is said to cast out Devils it cannot be known by this phra those Devils may be nothing but diseases unles it can be proved by the circumstances that they are sp substantial spirits.
For Newton, therefore, demons were figures for disordered psychotic states. The cases of demon-possession in the Synoptic Gospels do not describe the activity of literal devils, but instead reflect the (mistaken) beliefs of first-century Jews.’
Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, page 7, November 2002
On this basis, Newton thoroughly rejected all beliefs in witches and witchcraft:
‘Newton goes on to say that
to beleive that men or weomen can really divine, charm, inchant, bewitch or converse with spirits is a superstition of the same nature wth beleiving that the idols of the gentils were not vanities but had spirits really seated in them.’
Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, page 7, November 2002
Like some other expositors, Newton understood demons in the Bible to refer simply to the false gods of the heathen, inventions of men which were mere idols, taking his definition directly from Scripture, and that the ‘orthodox’ understanding of demons was an early heresy imported from paganism:
‘For Newton belief in activity by evil spirits is equivalent to the conviction that the false gods or idols of the pagans were real, independent beings; both positions are equally untrue. There is no ambiguity in Newton’s position on the reality of idols; in one manuscript he declares flatly: “An Idol is nothing in the world, a vanity, +a lye, a fictitious power.” Newton shared with traditional exegesis the identification of the false gods of the Old Testament with demons. He departed radically from the traditional view in concluding that neither demons nor idols exist.’
‘Newton laid the blame for the rise of the pagan doctrines about demons in the Church at the door of his ecclesiastical nemesis Athanasius, whom he also saw as responsible for introducing Trinitarianism and the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. In his “Paradoxical questions concerning Athanasius”, Newton contends that Athanasius advanced the notion of a conscious existence of the soul in the intermediate state between death and resurrection.’
Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, pages 8-9, November 2002
Later than Muggleton, but earlier than Bekker, Newton came to the same conclusion as both of them – that the devil in Scripture was never the supernatural evil being of ‘orthodox’ theology, and that all temptation comes from the lust of the heart:
‘The logical corollary to Newton’s views on evil spirits is that those who claim to be tempted by a personal devil are deluded and provoked by their own fleshly imagination. Newton’s “Paradoxical questions concerning Athanasius,” an important manuscript held at the Clark Library dating from the early 1690s, makes this clear’
‘It is instructive that in these words, which he all but admits are laden with connotations of reflexivity, Newton tackles the problem of lust without any reference to a literal, external tempter. Newton well knew the source of sin from his own contests with the demons of his soul. It was not the devil who made him do it. Unlike the monks of old, Newton’s own battles with the devil were with himself.’
Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, pages 10-11, November 2002
Although his earliest writings on this subject date to the 1680s, Newton continued to hold and develop his views over time, with his last comments being written some time after 1710. Once formed in the 1680s, his views never changed:
‘Whatever its origins, Newton appears to have held to this position of a non-literal devil for the rest of his long life. In his later writings, the devil became an emblem of sin and opposition to the true God. At the beginning of his “Irenicum,” probably composed sometime after 1710, Newton writes that believers “are to forsake the Devil, that is, all fals Gods, & all manner of idolatry.” The meaning here is plain. Closely associated with the requirement to abandon idolatry is the need to forsake the “flesh” and the “lust of the flesh.” Newton’s aetiology of sin is human centred. Several times in the series of drafts that make up the “Irenicum”, Newton both reiterates his claim that the devil is idolatry and links this equation with a statement on the lusts of the flesh.’
‘Newton then continues to delimit the meaning of forsaking the devil in a most revealing way: “To forsake the Devil is to forsake the worship of Demons or Ghosts & of all fals Gods whatsoever collectively called the Devil.” The “Devil”, then, is a symbol of lust and an vivid hypostatization of idolatry in aggregate. This language cannot be reconciled with the orthodox position.’
Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, pages 11-12, November 2002
* 1737: Arthur Ashley Sykes, a friend and student of Newton, published ‘An enquiry into the meaning of demoniacks in the New Testament’. Starting by mentioning Joseph Mede’s exposition of the ‘doctrine of demons’, Sykes went further than Mede by explicitly rejecting a belief in the existence of demons in the orthodox sense (regarding those possessed by them as simply suffering from mental illness), and rejecting the devil as a supernatural evil being:
‘Satan is nothing else but Adversary, and is to be understood according to the Subject to which it is applied.’
‘Thus being bound of Satan means no more than that which was an Adversary to Health, be it what it would.’
‘Why then should we imagine the Devil, or the Prince of the Devils, to have been in her so many Years? Might not one have Grounds to think that he would have perverted her Mind, and not her Body; or have distorted her Soul, and not have made her Carcase crooked?’
‘Q. What then were those Possessions which are so frequent in the New Testament?
A. They appear all to be such Cases of Madness, or of Epilepsy, as all the Antients agreed in imputing to their Gods, or Demons. The New Testament Writers made use of the Terms and Language usual in their Times: And as the Hypotheses they then had in Philosophy equally served the Purpose of our Saviour in his great Designs, as the very exactest Truth would have done, it had been to no Purpose for him to have engaged in Disputes, or to have opposed the received Notions. His Cause would not have been in a better Way; nor would the Cause of the One God in Opposition to Vice, have been better promoted, by refuting the Demonology then received, than by using the common ordinary Language: it was enough that our Saviour shewed a Power over all that was before Him, and cured the Diseases with a Word, which to every body else were incurable.’
Arthur Ashley Sykes, ‘An enquiry into the meaning of demoniacks in the New Testament’, pages 54, 55, 70, 1737
Notable is Sykes’ use of the argument from accommodation of language, used by earlier opponents of the belief in demons as supernatural evil beings.
Later the same year, Sykes replied to objections raised against his arguments in a second book, entitled ‘A further enquiry into the meaning of Demoniacks in the New Testament. Wherein the Enquiry is vindicated against the Objections of the Revd. Mr. Twells, and of the Author of The essay in answer to it’.
* 1755: Richard Meade, an English physician, wrote ‘Medica Sacra; Or, A commentary on the most remarkable diseases, mentioned in the Holy Scriptures’. He claimed to be related to Joseph Mede, and provided medical care for Isaac Newton in his last illness, so it is not surprising to find his work reflecting the beliefs of both Mede and Newton on the subject of demons and other forms of supernatural evil. Indeed, he refers explicitly to Mede’s earlier work on the ‘doctrine of demons’, and uses Newton’s ‘Chronology’ when explaining how and when the pagan beliefs regarding demons found their way into Christianity.
Like Sykes and others before him, Meade understood those afflicted by demons in the New Testament to refer simply to those suffering from a variety of illnesses:
‘That the Doemoniacs [sic], daimonizomenoi [transliterated], mentioned in the gospels, laboured under a disease really natural, tho’ of an obstinate and difficult kind, appears to me very probable from the accounts given of them.’
Richard Meade, ‘Medica Sacra; Or, A commentary on the most remarkable diseases, mentioned in the Holy Scriptures’, page 73, 1755
* 1762: An anonymous work entitled ‘Anti-Canidia: or, Superstition Detected and Exposed’ attacked traditional beliefs on witchcraft, demons, ghosts, and all forms of supernatural evil (though the devil appears to remain .
Using arguments made consistently from Scripture, the author identified the passages long recognised as the keys to settling the issue, and addressed them competently.
Concerning the witch of Endor, the author wrote:
‘Though the circumstances of that story itself, as recorded in scripture, if fairly examined, will argue indeed the superstitious credulity, and prejudice of those times; but will by no means prove the real apparition of spirits; or the existence of magick powers, and witchcraft.’
‘Anti-Canidia’, page 8, 1762
The account of the witch of Endor is examined in detail, and many difficulties with the traditional understanding of the text are identified, difficulties which had been raised previously as early as Muggleton.
The title of the very next chapter expresses the views of the author explicitly:
‘C H A P. II.
That the scripture does not intend to teach the doctrine of witches, sorcerers or spirits, as of divine authority.’
‘Anti-Canidia’, page 12, 1762
In this chapter the by now well recognised argument of accommodation of language is used:
‘The sacred writings frequently adopt the use of vulgar language, and fall in with the ordinary prevailing notions of the times; without any intention to teach, support, or confirm such notions; or to give them the authority of divine revelation: but only to make them the more easily understood.’
‘Thus when the scripture describes Joshua at the battle of Gibeon+, commanding the sun and moon to stand still: it by no means implies the real motion or diurnal revolution of the sun: and philosophy has since sufficiently proved the old vulgar opinion about it to be erroneous and false, without any impeachment of the scripture veracity.
And thus too, when the brazen sea of Solomon is described, as a round vase ten cubits in iameter, and thirty in it’s circumference++: it is not meant to prove this to be the exact proportion of a circle’s diameter to its periphery: and almost every mechanick now knows to the contrary.
+ Chap. x. ver. 13.
++ I Kings vii. 23.’
‘Anti-Canidia’, pages 12, 13, 1762
The author also identifies the weakness of arguments merely inferred from Scripture, and identifies the necessity of supporting them either from Scripture or reason. If inferred arguments cannot be supported by Scripture and reason, then they should be dismissed:
‘We may farther observe, that arguments are frequently drawn from scripture, on many occasions, which in themselves are not direct and positive, but only consequential and presumptive. When these kinds of arguments are aided by natural reason, or tend to moral uses, they are just and conclusive: but applied to cases or things contrary to reason, or not subservient to moral ends; they are of no force or validity at all: and nothing less than direct and positive assertion of scripture can command our faith aud assent.
If then the apparition of spirits, or the power of witchcraft, be no where absolutely taught and eclared; and the notion itself be unreasonable, and without any tendency to moral uses: all arguments, from the contingent or occasional mention of them in scripture, are of this onsequential kind only; and of course inconclusive.’
‘Anti-Canidia’, page 14, 1762
Previously it has been noted that a rejection of beliefs in witchcraft and demon possession has often accompanied a rejection of beliefs in immortal souls and disembodied spirits, and such is also the case in this anonymous work, as the opening of the third chapter makes clear:
‘C H A P. III.
That the apparition of spirits is highly absurd and irrational.
The true ground of these prevailing fancies to this day, concerning ghosts and spirits, is, partly heir long and habitual establishment in the world; created at first by ignorance, and childish fear, in the days of illiterature and superstition; and propagated down to modern times, by the same weak causes.’
‘Anti-Canidia’, page 18, 1762
Very importantly, the author notes the incompatibility of the doctrine of animated disembodied souls with the doctrine of the resurrection:
‘The apostles urge in a special manner the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as the fundamental test of christian verity: but yet the return of spirits from the state of the dead; capable of visibility, speaking, walking, and the like human functions; is so near of kin to a real resurrection; so nearly equal to it in point of preternatural interposition; that, (when supposed common and familiar,) they render even that important miracle of our Saviour own resurrection undistinguishable, and almost equal to no proof at all of his divine power, and of the truth of the gospel religion.’
‘Anti-Canidia’, pages 20-21, 1762
In the fourth chapter, the author deals with the Scriptural teaching regarding witches and demons:
‘C H A P. IV.
The sense of scripture concerning witches and sorcerers farther considered. And of the demoniacks mentioned in the gospels.’
‘Anti-Canidia’, page 23, 1762
The argument of accommodation of language is used to explain references to demons and demon possession in the gospels, and examples of Christ’s use of accommodation are provided:
‘The New Testament, then, as we have observed of the Old, does not concern itself to rectify istakes, and false apprehensions, where the practice of religion itself is not interested in he error: (and a wrong belief implies not always a danger of wrong, and unrighteous practice.) s a farther confirmation of this observation; we find Peter, seeing the disciple, whom Jesus oved, following; saith to him, Lord! and what shall this man do? Jesus saith unto him; If I ill that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Then went this saying abroad among the rethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but if I ill that he tarry till I come; what is that to thee*?
* John xxi.
The like observations might be made, with respect to erroneous opinions, concerning the time itself of our Saviour’s second coming:–concerning the nature of the kingdom, which he came to establish, and which they supposed was to be a kingdom of this world:–and concerning also some other mistaken apprehensions, even among the apostles themselves; which easily apply themselves to the point we are proving.’
‘Anti-Canidia’, pages 24-25, 1762
Like many before him, the author identifies those supposedly possessed by demons as suffering from various illnesses (citing Richard Meade’s work in support of his argument), and asks again the challenging question asked repeatedly by those rejecting a belief in demon possession, why is it that demon possession was so frequent in the 1st century, and yet so rare since?
‘Yet a little reflexion on, and examination of the matter, will prove the falsity and impossibility of such an absurd and senseless opinion: and lead us to conclude, with a certain late illustrious physician*, that all those possessions were no other than common epileptick fits, or convulsive agitations, or some similar distemper;
* Dr. Mead De Morbis Sacris.
which mankind were then, and still are subject to.
For why do we so frequently read of demoniacks in the gospel, in our Saviour’s time; and yet find scarce any mention of them before, or any authentick accounts of them since that time; in contemporary authors of other countries? but only that demoniacal possession was a name given in Judea to certain epileptick or convulsive diseases; whose effects were obvious, but the causes of them were not understood by the people. We cannot surely suppose this a distemper providentially created, purely for the subject of part of our Saviour’s miracles.’
‘Anti-Canidia’, pages 25-26, 1762
The titles of subsequent chapters demonstrate the scope of the author’s objections and arguments against the usual defences of traditional belief in various forms of supernatural evil, as well as various superstitions:
* ‘C H A P. V.
That witchcraft and sorcery are highly absurd and irrational. The history of Simon Magus considered.’
* ‘C H A P. VI.
Magick, divinations, omens, &c. refuted and exposed.’
* C H A P. VII.
Charms, amulets, incantations, astrology, &c. refuted and exposed. Of the royal touch for the evil.’
* ‘C H A P. VIII.
The Pagan oracles, and Sybilline books, considered and exposed.’
The author’s conclusion is to be found in the opening of the last chapter:
‘C H A P. IX.
FROM all that has been said, we may fairly deduce, how plainly and forceably reason declares against the vulgar opinion about witches, demons, augurys, divinations, omens, prognostications, oracles, apparitions, spirits, and the whole tribe of such superstitious inventions. This is surely a sufficient ground for yielding at length to learning and wisdom; and for exploding with contempt all senseless and absurd conceits about them.’
‘Anti-Canidia’, pages 60-61, 1762
Although a short work of only 63 pages, this excellent book covers a great deal of ground, and is a powerful witness to the truth of Biblical teaching.
* 1758-1775: Various writings demonstrate that the ‘orthodox’ beliefs in witchcraft, demons and even the devil as a supernatural evil being were being challenged.
Nathaniel Lardner wrote ‘The case of the demoniacs mentioned in the New Testament: Four discourses upon Mark v. 19. with an appendix for farther illustrating the subject’ (1755), in which he argued against the literal existence of demons as supernatural beings. He mentions first having taught this position as early as 1742.
Hugh Farmer wrote ‘An inquiry into the nature and design of Christ’s temptation’ (1761), in which he argued that the satan by which Christ was tempted in the wilderness was not the ‘orthodox’ external satan of common belief. Farmer believed the temptation was a vision, expressing views found as early as Friedrich Spanheim the Elder’s ‘Dubia Evangelica’ (1634-1639), in which Spanheim describes and discusses various views of the temptation, specifically whether it was a literal event or a vision (Dubia LV), a topic much under discussion in the 17th century.
In his work ‘A dissertation on the Demoniacs in the Gospels’ (1775), Thomas Newton acknowledged that there were now two mainstream positions regarding the demons in the New Testament, the view that they were supernatural evil beings, and the view that they were simply descriptions of people suffering illnesses, using the language of the era. This acknowledgment of Newton is notable in that it marks a point at which the views long held by ‘unorthodox’ scholars such as Bekker and Muggleton had become accepted into mainstream thinking.
* 1788: Members of the ‘Temple Patrick Society’ published a 22 page record of a short debate on the subject of witchcraft (‘A Debate Proposed in the Temple Patrick Society, And Fully Discussed By The Members’, 1788). The full title shows the extent of the topic under discussion:
‘A Debate Proposed in the Temple Patrick Society, And Fully Discussed By The Members, Whether Witches, Wizards, Magicians, Sorcerers, &c. Had Supernatural Powers, And by Means of Intercourse with, or Assistance from invisible supernatural Agents, Had Knowledge of, and could Foretel future Events, With Power over the Inhabitants of this World, Or to perform Actions beyond the Power of human Nature’
‘A Debate Proposed in the Temple Patrick Society, And Fully Discussed By The Members’, 1788
The record is described as ‘THE SUBSTANCE OF TWO SPEECHES CONCERNING WITCHCRAFT’, and consists of two opposing cases, the first supporting the belief in witches and witchcraft, the second rejecting it. It is probable that only the opening case of each speaker is recorded.
The speaker against belief in witches and witchcraft presented what were by then the standard well established arguments:
* ‘That the polytheism of the Gentiles, as well as the mythology and fables of the Greeks, which abounded with enchantresses, tended to inspire and spread similar notions of witchcraft, is evident’ (page 7)
* ‘Women of birth and fortune were condemned for crimes they could not commit. The most ridiculous story supported by the least shadow of evidence was sufficient’ (page 11)
* ‘Every complaint had a similar cause, and all that beset the human body, was deemed the effect of witchcraft’ (page 12)
* ‘The doctrine of possession however, was still maintained by the church of Rome, and unnatural contortions, as well as extraordinary force, observable in persons under spasmodic diseases, was asserted to be the agency of devils. It was of little consequence that physicians, discovered these symptoms to proceed from natural causes…’ (page 12)
* ‘A girl of Turin being troubled with convulsions, the Jesuits made use of her for the purpose of trick’ (page 13)
* ‘The prince and nobility of Piedmont approved the doctor, and laugh heartily at the impostor so successfully detected. The two Jesuits were banished, and the girl was soon cured by proper medicine’ (page 14)
* ‘The sacred history, as well as the history of the impostors detected in all ages, clearly represent all pretenders to the faculty of bewitching, divining, or foretelling future events, as wicked execrable, impotent wretches’ (page 15)
* ‘Moses does not affirm that either witches or magicians did any real miracle in conformity to what he performed, only that they imitated him’ (page 17)
* ‘With respect to the witch of Endor, there is no proof, that she raised Samuel, or that the spirit of Samuel in his likeness, was raised by any means which she used. The contrary seems much more evident. She was, like all other witches a mere cheat, and dealt in trick and deception’ (page 18)
* ‘Thus I have endeavored to expose the absurdity of witchcraft, and to answer the common arguments in support of the power of magicians and witches’ (page 19)
* ‘Blame not witches, blame not wizards, magicians, sorcerers, or evil spirits, you are self witched, infatuated, depraved’ (page 20)
* ‘I believe that witches were cheats and imposed on the ignorant; that witchcraft consisted in trick and deception; that magicians, and all the classes I have mentioned were jugglers and deceivers. That they had not faculty either of themselves or by means of evil spirits, to injure mankind or do any thing beyond the power of nature, art, or science. That witchcraft and the actions ascribed to witches were false, delusive, and often self-contradictory, some times pretending to do good by means of evil spirits, and at other times a power of doing evil by good spirits’ (page 21)
It is perhaps illustrative of the new attitudes towards the subject that such debates were now public, and that the speakers against the traditional beliefs invariably had more to say than those in support of them.