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Christianity And The Witch Hunt Era (7/12)

* 1691: The Dutch theologian Balthasar Bekker published ‘Die Betooverde Wereld’, reprinted in English as ‘The World Bewitch’d’ (1695), an attack on beliefs in supernatural which was unparalleled in the 17th century.

On account of his denial of witches, demons, and the devil himself, Bekker was demoted from the ministry, and tried for blasphemy and teaching atheism. He found support among some Dutch regions (namely Amsterdam and the States of Holland), which kept his book in print and did not forbid him to teach.

In the preface, Bekker explains the fascinating process of personal Bible study by which he came to change entirely his beliefs regarding supernatural evil. Bekker’s rejection of the traditional beliefs of the church on this subject were not based on rationalist scepticism, but on their complete incompatibility with the Scriptures.

Bekker’s description of his gradual change of understanding displays no startling novelties of interpretation. On the contrary, his process of reasoning and his exposition of certain key passages matches that of the cautious Bible students who had preceded him, such as Reginald Scot, Johannes Weyer, Cornelius Loos, Samuel Harsnett, Thomas Ady, John Wagstaffe, John Webster, and Ludowick Muggleton.

Bekker was initially prompted by reflection on the obvious lack of power demonstrated by the pagan priests and magicians in the Bible, despite being commonly supposed to have been assisted by the devil working through them:

‘Having form’d a design to write upon the matter treated of in this Book, I begun Eight Years ago in my Preface to the Book of Comets, to give some hints of what I intend to explain here more particularly. I had chosen for the subject of my publick Sermons, the Prophecy of Daniel, when I was come to the 11th v. of the 2 Chapter, in which the Magicians confess, they were not capable of expounding the King’s Dreams; I drew from that Declaration, such inferences, as evidently show’d what must be believed concerning the extent of knowledge, ascribed to the Devil; afterwards judging it convenient to examine his power, and whether it extends as far as is ordinarily said; the first occasion I had of ascending the Pulpit, I took my Text on Exodus Chap.8. v. 18th, and examined why the Magicians could not as easily produce Lice, as Frogs and Serpents.’

Balthasar Bekker, ‘The World Bewitch’d’, pages 9-10, 1695

It will be realised that this is almost invariably the starting point of doubting the existence in supernatural evil. If the devil and his demons are so powerful and so involved with human life, why is it that those who are best equipped to be his tools so utterly incapable of demonstrating any power at all? Why is it that the Bible consistently ascribes all power to God and His agents alone, whilst explicitly denying and even ridiculing all claims to alternative sources of supernatural power?

Bekker’s first tentative steps into this subject were fortunately met with a positive response which encouraged him further, though his study of the matter was delayed:

‘The late Sieur de Tamininga, Lord of Belleingweer, a learned and pious Gentleman, heard my Sermon, and lik’d it extreamly; thinking that if what I had proposed, were printed, it would obtain the approbation of understanding persons, and inform the ignorant, He exhorted me himself several times to print that discourse, and imployed other persons to desire me to do it; but I was so taken up with other business, as may be judged by the Books I have published, and by the assistance I have assorded my friends in the Edition of theirs, that I could not answer his expectation so soon, thô I never absolutely denyed to do it.’

Balthasar Bekker, ‘The World Bewitch’d’, page 10, 1695

Later, Bekker investigated two of the other key texts which addressed directly the power of the devil and those supposedly in league with him. As he describes his studies, a predictable pattern of reasoning from the Scriptures begins to emerge:

‘Since that time, I preached twice again on the same matter, on occasion of the Witch of Endor, whom Saul went to consult, and of the Devil who tormented Job, many persons press’d it hard upon me, to publish my Opinion on this subject.’

Balthasar Bekker, ‘The World Bewitch’d’, page 10, 1695

As others had done before him, Bekker started to question the accuracy of certain common translations used to support beliefs in witchcraft:

‘In 1689, as I was explaining in the Hospital Church, the 19th and following verses of the 5th Chap. to the Galatians, I searched deeper into this matter, expounding the Greek word [Greek omitted] which the French and Dutch interpreters have translated Poisoning, and the English, Witchcraft.’

Balthasar Bekker, ‘The World Bewitch’d’, page 10, 1695

Anticipating the usual criticism of Christians who dared challenge ‘orthodox’ beliefs on the subject, Bekker urges this reader to understand that his position is not the result of any sympathy towards atheism:

‘As for the rest, though my intention and scope may be plainly perceived by the first Chapter; yet I shall add, that no Men in the World are more remote from any Atheistical Sentiments, more persuaded of the Divinity of the Holy Writ, and more disposed to render to God the Honour and Reverence due to him, than those, who as I am, are opposed to the common Opinion of the Power and Vertue of the Devil.’

Balthasar Bekker, ‘The World Bewitch’d’, page 19, 1695

Very importantly, Bekker makes an observation also made by a number of Christians who questioned the common teaching on demons, evil spirits, and the devil, which is that the very attribution of power to the devil such as most would ascribe, and the very accusation that disbelief in the devil is equivalent to atheism, in fact proves that the ‘orthodox’ doctrine of the devil is nothing less than polytheism:

‘It will especially seem strange, that I make so little account of the Devil, and endue him with such an inconsiderable Power. For matters have been carried so far, that some Men think it a piece of Piety to ascribe many Miraculous Effects to the Devil, and to hold for rash and impious People those that cannot believe, that he does what is testified by thousands of Witnesses. If any contradict their Opinion, he is taken for an Atheist, that is, such as denies the Existence of one God, tho’ he is only guilty of the Crime of not believing two, viz. a good and a bad.’

‘If any desire to put a new name upon me, in reference to my Opinions, I willingly yield to that of Monotheists, that is, who believes but one God, and one Saviour Jesus Christ; upon whose words I wholly trust, where he says, Fear not them who kills the Body, but fear him who can destroy both Soul and Body, Mat. 10. 28.’

Balthasar Bekker, ‘The World Bewitch’d’, page 23, 1695

Thomas Ady had made a similar argument (‘The Doctrine of Devils: Proved to be the Grand Apostasy of these Latter Times’, page 38, 41-42, 1676), and Bekker’s argument would be made later by Sir Isaac Newton.

Bekker’s scepticism continued to develop along the path already followed by his predecessors:

The common Opinion of the Devil, of his knowledge, power, and Operations, and of People which are accused of having commerce with him, began by little and little to become very suspitious by the help of natural light, which I have common with others, which was strengthened and purified by the Scripture; so after I had well examined it, I was in doubt, whether I ought to maintain it any longer, or abandon it, not only by Reason of the truth, but also because of the Piety which it seem’d to contradict: My Conscience it self compel’d me to it; for I was obliged to answer those that ask’d me, and to take care of my Conduct, because of the disposition I saw the People in.’

Balthasar Bekker, ‘The World Bewitch’d’, page 27, 1695

The section summaries provided in Bekker’s introduction give an excellent overview of his arguments, which are immediately seen to have much in common with other standard works rejecting a belief in witches, witchcraft, demons, evil spirits and the devil.

Firstly there is the issue of the origin of the doctrine:

‘1. IN the First Book I run over all the World, to find whence this Opinion has its Original. And for this purpose I have omitted neither time nor place.’

‘I make a search of all these things, First, in the Books of the Ancients, and afterwards in the Moderns of all Religions, and amongst all Nations, distinguishing them into Pagans, Jews, Mahometans and Christians, in reference to the present state of the World.’

‘By this means I show, that the primitive Christians since the Apostles, have insensibly introduced amongst them, many Opinions of Paganisin and Judaism, which have been increasing under Popery, till they attained to the heighest pitch, and that they had ascribed to the Angels, the Souls of the deceased, especially to the Devil, all the Miracles which the Pagans attributed to the Demons, the Devils, and inferior Gods, Chapter the 15th to the 21.’

‘I prove that these are thoughts that never were inspired to the Christians by the Holy Scripture, by reason that those who read it less, and understand it less, give more Credit to these sort of things, and because all the World is already prevented before they read it and meditate upon it.’

Balthasar Bekker, ‘The World Bewitch’d’, pages 28, 30-32, 1695

In the second book Bekker deals with the subject of spirits, including angels, and the identity of the devil in Scripture:

‘I pass farther and examine what is said in the Scripture concerning the Angels, with relation to some certain Persons, Nations, and Countries: And I conclude from thence, that what has ever been variously written upon this subject by particular Authors, is not founded upon Scripture, because all the passages made use of to ground those Opinions, speak but figuratively.’

‘At last coming to the Devil, and to the rest of evil Angels, I see that this name has been given as well to ill Men, as to evil Spirits, and even first to wicked Men.’

‘I shew, as to other passages of the Holy Writ, that they cannot be understood of evil Spirits, but only of ill Men; and of the works of God, not of those of the Devil; thô without hesitating, these passages are ordinarily applyed to the Devil. I maintain in the 22 Chapter, that it was a Man which brought David to number the People, Chap. 23. that the passage, wherein the fight of Michael against the Devil, is mention’d, is very obscure, and that there is a great uncertainty in the present Opinions upon that point, as all Divines grant; and that by consequence, nothing can be concluded from them, especially if it be supposed, as some learned do, that the Devil was but a meet Man.

I shew in Chap. 24. That the Spirit of Python that is spoken of in the 16th Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, can no ways be applied to the Devil. Neither does the famous History of Job, always alleged one of the first, as a proof of his power, being well examined in its whole extent, attribute to him the least part in the evils, which by the Providence of God, happen’d to that Holy Man.

As to the Angel of Satan which tormented St. Paul, I place him in the same rank with the fight against Michael, that is in uncertainty, there being no ground to pretend to a perfect understanding of this passage; and therefore I look upon it as insufficient to prove any thing which is the matter of the 25th Chapter.’

Balthasar Bekker, ‘The World Bewitch’d’, pages 50-51, 1695

In this same section Bekker made what would become the standard arguments against the ‘orthodox’ reading of the gospels, including the interpretation of those considered to be ‘possessed’ as in reality suffering from illness, and an argument from accommodation:

‘I see that the term of Diabolus, which we Translate Devil, is not found in any of the passages in which those Relations are contained; but only that of Dæmon, which I illustrate in the 26th Chapter. In the 27th I shew, that the most dangerous diseases, especially those of the Head, were usually ascribed to Demons, or even call’d by the name of Demons; and in the 28th, that our Saviour Jesus Christ, has not changed the usual way of speaking, but made use of them according to the custom of that time; neither did he always immediately confute all the errors, in the 29th and 30th Chapters; so that the cure of Demonia, was not properly an expulsion of Devils, but a miraculous cure of incurable Diseases.’

Balthasar Bekker, ‘The World Bewitch’d’, page 51, 1695

Bekker also dealt comprehensively with the usual passages appealed to in support of the ‘orthodox’ belief in satan, arguing (as others would later), that those passages which do not refer to a generic adversary or a personification of evil refer to malignant human beings:

‘I come after to other passages of Scripture, where neither the names of Devil, Satan, or Demon are made use of, but those of the Prince of the World, Prince of the power of the air; Prince of this Age, of Lordships, Powers, Dominions, and the like; And I shew that there is not the least cause to apply them to the Devil; but that the Stile of Scripture leads us of it self to understand by all these names a certain order of persons.’

Balthasar Bekker, ‘The World Bewitch’d’, page 53, 1695

In the third book Bekker addressed the history of witchcraft among various ancient people, and deals with the passages in the Bible which describe not only witchcraft and associated occult practices, but also the penalties for these activities. Bekker’s conclusion is that all are mere pretence:

‘The second Order of the passages of the Holy Writ upon this subject, consists of those that contain the express Laws, which condemn that sort of People, and forbid them the exercise of their Function; which I examine in the 8th and 9th Chapters. But I find no other Reasons for those Prohibitions and the punishments inflicted upon them, but their Idolatry and Cheats, both of which are Criminal, and not becoming the People of God.’

‘Thus I plainly shew, that the vulgar Opinion of Magick, and of its Dependencies, by no means proceed from the Sacred Writings, but on the contrary is altogether opposed to it. Afterwards we must consider what the Scripture says concerning those that practise that Art, and what Testimony it gives of their Actions.

This I do two ways, in the give following Chapters. The first by offering, in the 13th and 14th, the lively Picture which the Holy Writ gives of those Men in several places; and the second by showing what Opinion must be had to them according to the Character given them.’

‘Afterwards ’tis required to know what Judgment must be made of them, according to the Holy Writ which I show in the three following Chapters. In the 15th, I assert, that in whatever they did, they shewed neither real Power nor Virtue; that they knew nothing of what they ventur’d to foretel, and to discover as very much concealed; and that in reality they effected nothing of what they boaster of, or of what they undertook to effect; but then they applied themselves to deceive by outward semblances, wherein consisted the chief part of then Art.

Balthasar Bekker, ‘The World Bewitch’d’, pages 58, 60, 1695

In the fourth and final book, Bekker dealt at great length with the mass of alleged eyewitness testimony and personal experience which is commonly asserted to provide evidence of the ‘orthodox’ doctrine of supernatural evil, a challenge previously met by Reginald Scot, Richard Harsnet, Richard Bernard, Thomas Ady, John Webster, John Wagstaffe, and others:

‘I distinguish therefore those Instances into those, that any one may gather from his own experience, and into those that are grounded upon the relation of others; there’s no doubt but what one has experienc’d himself, must prevail over all the rest. But to omit nothing, I first show how far one may trust to his own experience, and afterwards how far we may rely upon the testimony of others. I dismiss the first of these questions, in the first eleven Chapters; and he Second in the 21 following, adding two others at the end as a conclusion of the whole.’

Balthasar Bekker, ‘The World Bewitch’d’, page 64, 1695

In this section Bekker demonstrated an admirable familiarity with the relevant historical material, and mades good use of the many cases of witchcraft or possession which were discovered to be either fraudulent or simply mistaken, as well as repeating arguments used by previous writers against trusting implicitly in confessions obtained under threats or force.

Five years later, in 1700, Bekker published a new edition entitled ‘The World Turn’d Upside Down’, which appears to have been commissioned by an English patron. It contains the same material as the previous book.

Bekker’s work has been viewed at length here for the reason that it was the most significant treatment of supernatural evil in the entire 17th century. Though it uses the same arguments which had been advanced for the last 100 years, its great value lies in the fact that it is arguably the book which addresses systematically the entire range of concepts and arguments concerning the subject.

In one single work, Bekker brought together a number of the arguments made by previous authors:

* The history and practice of magic described as mere fraud and entertainment, like Reginald Scot and Samuel Harsnett

* The same objections to confessions under threat or force were raised as by Cornelius Loos, Friedrich Spee von Lagenfield, Johannes Weyer, Thomas Ady and others

* Various logical fallacies and superstitions were addressed which were answered by Reginald Scot, Samuel Harsnett, John Cotta, Richard Bernard, Thomas Ady, and others

* The same arguments were made against alleged eye witness accounts of witchcraft as by Samuel Harsnett, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, John Cotta and Richard Bernard, and others

* The very existence of the devil was denied, as by Lodowick Muggleton and Thomas Hobbes

* The attribution of physical and mental pathologies to natural causes rather than to witchcraft or demons, similar to arguments made by Johannes Weyer, Edward Jordan, Tobias Tandler, John Cotta, Richard Bernard, Joseph Mede and Thomas Ady

* The impossibility of witches and witchcraft from Scripture and reason was demonstrated using the same arguments as Reginald Scot, Thomas Ady, Lodowick Muggleton, John Wagstaffe, John Webster, and others

Bekker’s work is also significant for the reason that it was widely influential. Although criticized by other Christian teachers, it successfully brought the rejection of supernatural evil into mainstream Christian theology.

Part eight.

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2 comments

  1. i have an essay due so, how does he impact society today?


    • He was instrumental in ending the witch hunts in Europe, and in contributing to the popularity of Cartesian philosophy.



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