Did the Early Church Fathers Believe in Spiritual Warfare?

The early Church fathers took spiritual warfare very seriously. They believed that Satanic forces were involved in every external or internal evil event which destroys, debilitates, or deforms men. Consider these quotes:

Athenagoras (133-190 AD) summarized the early Church’s cosmology as follows: “The Maker and Framer of the world distributed and appointed….a multitude of angels and ministers…to occupy themselves about the elements, and the heav­ens, and the world, and the things in it, and the godly ordering of them all…. Just as with men, who have freedom of choice as to both virtue and vice….so is it among the angels. Some, free agents, you will observe, such as they were created by God, continued in those things for which God had made and over which He had ordained them; but some outraged both the constitution of their nature and the government entrusted to them.” A PLEA FOR THE CHRISTIANS, 10.

Athenagorus further believed that Satan, as “the (spirit) prince of (earthly) matter exercises a control and management contrary to the good that is in God” (A Plea, 25). Thrice Jesus called Satan the archon (ruler or prince) of this material creation (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Paul likewise called Satan the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4) and the archon (ruler or prince) of the power of the air (Ephesians 2:2). As theologian Greg Boyd has sagely noted, “Athenagorus concluded that everything in nature that obviously looks contrary to God’s character appears that way because it is contrary to God. It didn’t arise from the omni-benevo­lent hand of the Creator (as the atheists of his day and ours object) but was rather due to the activity of an evil ‘ruling prince’ and ‘the demons his followers'” (A Plea, 25).

Tertullian (160-225 AD) wrote that “[d]iseases and other grievous calamities” were demons on the attack, whose “great business is the ruin of mankind.” Whenever “poison in the breeze blights the apples and the grain while in the flower, or kills them in the bud, or destroys them when they have reached maturity…” the fingerprints of evil spirits becomes clear (Apology 22).

Gregory of Nysa (335-395 AD) states it more simply: “In this visible world…nothing can be achieved except through invisible forces” (Dialogues, IV.5).

Origen (184-254 AD) wrote that every fiber of nature was under the direct care of “invisible husbandmen and guardians” (Against Celsus, 8.31). “Natural” evil came from certain spirits rebelling against their creator. Origen taught that the destructive horsemen of disaster, death, pestilence, war, and famine were not “natural” in God’s creation, but were rather the result of fallen angels on the attack (Against Celsus, 8.31). These rebel forces were “the cause of plagues…barrenness…tempests… [and] similar calamities” (Against Celsus,1.31).

Origen, in fact, allegorized all Old Testament warfare as types of New Testament spiritual warfare. But instead of externally battling wicked men, we are instead called to internally battle wicked impulses.

Commenting on the brutal wars in which Joshua was involved, Origen says:

“The Jews who read these events, I am speaking of the Jews according to the appearance, who is circumcised in his body, and ignores the true Jew who is circumcised in his heart; this [physical] Jew does not find ought except description of wars, killing of enemies, and victory of the Israelites who plundered the possession of the foreigners and pagans, under the guidance of Joshua….

While the Jew according to the heart, that is the Christian who follows Jesus, the Son of God, and NOT Joshua the Son of Nun, understands these events as representing the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. He says, ‘Today also my master Jesus Christ fights the powers of the evil and drives them out from the towns which they occupied before. He drives them out of our souls. He kills the kings who reigned over them, so that sin will not reign over us. As our souls become free from the reign of sin they become a temple of the Lord and of the God’s Kingdom, hearing the words, ‘The kingdom of God is within you'”…. Homilies on Joshua 13.1[125]

“Unless those carnal wars (of the Old Testament) were a symbol of spiritual wars, I do not think that the Jewish historical books would ever have been passed down by the apostles to be read by Christ’s followers in their churches… Thus, the apostle, being aware that physical wars have become personal battles of the soul against spiritual adversaries, gives orders to the soldiers of Christ like a military commander when he says, ‘Put on the armor of God so as to be able to hold your ground against the wiles of the devil'” (Eph. 6:11). (Hom 15.1 [138]).

“[A Christian] affirms that even now my Lord Jesus Christ wars against opposing powers and casts out of their cities, that is, out of our souls, those who used to occupy them. And he destroys the kings who were ruling in our souls ‘that sin may no longer reign in us,’ [citing Rom. 6:12] so that, after he abolishes the king of sin from the city of our soul, our soul may become the city of God and God may reign in it, and it may be proclaimed to us, ‘Behold, the kingdom of God is within you'” [citing Luke 17:21] (Hom 13.1 [125].

Origen originated this allegorizing dynamic, which Jacob Boehme would so brilliantly summarize over a thousand years later: “Every man, within himself has Moses and the Israelites, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the Patriarchs and the kingdom of heaven and hell. Thus, the events described in the Bible, and looked upon by the pious as being things of a past history, are actually descriptions of eternal processes taking place in the constitution of man himself.”

Origen allegorized spiritual battle as warfare of the human heart. “This warfare must be conducted by the Christian not with physical weapons, but with prayers, meditation on the Word of God, good deeds and good thoughts. Only in this way is the Christian able to withstand the works of the Devil, all the while invoking the help of Jesus Christ” (Hom 16.5).

Origen repeatedly stresses that a Christian reads with circumcised heart and thus “understands that all these things are mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (Hom 13.1 [125].

Origen says that literal (dead letter) Bible readings, at least in these warfare texts, is equivalent to heresy. Origen charges that reading Joshua’s warfare texts literally is “teaching cruelty” (Hom 11.6 [119]). Literalists “make malicious charges against our Lord and Savior, who commands the kingdom of heaven, which he had promised to those who believe in him, to be seized through violence” (Hom. 12.2 [121]). Without the “deeper understanding” of an allegorical reading, literalists, in Origen’s view, produce “perverse doctrines beautified by the assertions of a splendid discourse. . . [that]. . . . introduce into the churches sects not fitting to us, and to pollute all the church of the Lord” (Hom 7.7 [83]).

So, Origen sees “the promised land enemies” not as hostile humans but as carnal and/or Satanic IMPULSES. These enemies represent NOT flesh and blood foes, but rather terroristic thoughts, malicious mentalities, lustful strongholds, deadly ideas, and sinful mindsets. This alone is where ANY level of violence is spiritually permitted– on our own inner toxic impulses and lethal ideas, NEVER on humans made in the image of God.

This sole and very narrow redefinition of spiritual violence is certainly approved by Paul in the following passages:

“For godly sorrow worketh repentance unto salvation, ‘a repentance’ which bringeth no regret: but the sorrow of the world worketh death. For behold, this selfsame thing, that ye were made sorry after a godly sort, what earnest care it wrought in you, yea what clearing of yourselves, yea what indignation, yea what awe, yea what longing, yea what zeal, yea what avenging! In everything ye approved yourselves to be pure in the matter.” 2 Corinthians 7:10-11.

“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh (for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but mighty before God to the casting down of strongholds), casting down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ; and being in readiness to avenge all disobedience, when your obedience shall be made full.” 2 Corinthians 10:3-6.

So, spiritual violence under Origen’s and Paul’s reading becomes a very different dynamic altogether. We are called to a muscular weakness which externally presents as an external lamb but inwardly roars as a righteous lion. What evil then IS our MUSCULAR MEEKNESS called to maul and mangle? Simply put, it demolishes the things in our own minds and hearts which keep us from knowing and experiencing God directly. These include self-willed choices, mental strongholds, and vain imaginations.

But, violence against other humans made in the divine image of God is forever prohibited by thought or deed.

Instead, we are to flood our enemies with forgiveness. We throttle them with tenderness. We overcome them with an opposite spirit. We resist them with non-retaliation. We maul them with meekness. We capture them with the love of God. We ambush them with the awe of the Lord. We bombard them with bounteous blessings.

I think Origen was on to something wonderful here.