Volume 41 - Issue 3
Philosophical Approaches to the Devilby Benjamin W. McCraw and Robert Arp, eds.
Routledge is one of the top academic philosophy publishers around today and their Routledge Studies in the Philosophy of Religion series has published excellent work by some of the best scholars in philosophy of religion today, including J. P. Moreland and William Hasker. Their most recent book in this series, Philosophical Approaches to the Devil, is a unique and interesting addition. Editors Benjamin W. McCraw and Robert Arp claim in their introduction that though there have been many volumes devoted to historical, cultural, and theological treatments of the Devil, this edited collection of newly written papers “engage[s] specially in philosophical argument, debate, and dialogue involving conceptions of the Devil and related ideas” (p. 10). Thus, they take this book as filling “an important intellectual gap, giving the Devil his philosophical due, so to speak” (p. 11).
I think this book can be more specifically described as a very broad array of philosophical essays that deal either directly, or sometimes much more tangentially, with the concept of the Devil. McCraw and Arp divide this collection of papers into four main sections. The first section looks at differing conceptions of the Devil. The second section deals with medieval and modern perspectives on the Devil. The third and fourth sections deal with epistemological issues and social or moral issues concerning the Devil.
I don’t think this is the sort of book most of us would pick up. But I think reading books we wouldn’t normally investigate can sometimes get us to think differently and more profitably about a subject than we had ever thought of before. In this vein, I think the Philosophical Approaches to the Devil is worth one’s time. In what follows, I will highlight a few of the essays to give a flavor of the helpful philosophical discussion within.
In the first section of the book Siobhan Lyons’s cultural and literary essay on the Devil was very enlightening. Starting with Milton and going through various Romantic thinkers up to Nietzsche, Lyons traces out how the concept of the Devil transformed from being thought of primarily as a villain to being thought of as a misunderstood and tragic hero. This is very illuminating given the rise in popularity of tragic heroes and anti-heroes within literature and pop culture today. I think Lyons helpfully shows how this conception of the Devil has been very socially influential.
In the second section of the book the most outstanding essay came from notable Anselm scholar Katherin A. Rogers in her “The Devil and St. Anselm.” This all too short essay covers Anselm’s famous work on the Devil and makes the case that it is really more “a case study on the mechanics of free will, rather than a discussion of Satanic goings on” (p. 71). She offers careful exegesis and insightful analysis that indeed has implications for issues including freedom, temptation, and moral responsibility. Another interesting historical essay in this section is David Reiter’s essay on Jonathan Edwards’s understanding of hell. Reiter makes the case that Edwards understood God’s punishment of the damned as being mainly rooted, not in a principle of retribution, but in a principle of teleology. Reiter argues that Edwards understood a principle of retribution to be subsumed under this broader teleological rationale for hell.
The third section of this collection contains Paul McNamara’s “A Theist’s Nightmare,” written as something of a Socratic dialogue. His main character (called Bob) retells a nightmare to a counselor (called Doc) where Bob is presented with a lecture that offers a panoply of arguments for the existence of “the supreme evil being”—which incidentally is almost exactly analogous to his philosophy professor’s arguments for the existence of God. Bob is concerned that this supreme evil being must indeed exist. Fortunately for old Bob, Doc points out that though the two lectures are mirror images of each other, the conclusions can’t both be true, namely that God exists and the supreme evil being exists. Thus, “If the reasoning is parallel in both cases, and the conclusions are incompatible, then the reasoning itself has gotta be flawed” (p. 131). This gives Bob great comfort as evidence that the supreme evil being does not exist. Note that Bob is seemingly comforted despite the fact that the philosophical arguments for the existence of God are also disposed of as well! This is an interesting argument but one wonders what McNamara would say to a parallel argument from evil—i.e., an argument from good where a supreme evil being probably doesn’t exist because of the existence of good in the world. Would he accept that this shows that the usual argument from evil against the existence of God is also equally flawed?
In the last section of this book, T. Ryan Byerly has an interesting essay examining the immorality of Satan’s temptations of Eve and Jesus. I’m not sure what I think of Byerly’s conclusions, but he convinced me that we philosophers and theologians probably have not thought sufficiently about the nature of temptation. Again, this is what makes a book like this so valuable: introducing us to thinking in new beneficial ways about already familiar concepts.
As with most edited volumes, the essays within Philosophical Approaches to the Devil are of lesser and greater quality. The only essay that I found of very poor quality was the very last one by editor Robert Arp. His paper attempted to argue against the existence, not only of the Devil, but also of God. Fine and well. But it seemed to me that Arp’s essay was more of a rant than providing much in the way of substantive argumentation. Rather than a reflection of Arp’s abilities, we have here a classic case in which an editor would have been wiser not to include his own work in a volume he is editing.
A collection of philosophical essays on the Devil is probably not the sort of reading most of us would jump into. But I greatly appreciate a well-written book that pushes me to see anew a seemingly already familiar subject. I believe Philosophical Approaches to the Devil rightly highlights our need to mine old subjects, including the Devil, in new ways.
James C. McGlothlin
James C. McGlothlin
Bethlehem College & Seminary
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Other Articles in this Issue
This article works toward a “theology of writing” in order to inform and encourage Christian writers, helping them to consider not just what they write but why they write, and in whose image they write...