27 January 2008

exorcism and the early church

Graham Twelftree has established himself as an authority on the subject of miracles, with special expertise shown in the field of exorcism.  His latest contribution to the field, In the Name of Jesus: Exorcism among Early Christians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), is a continuation of the fine scholarship he has provided over the last two decades.  While I do not attempt to provide a thorough analysis here, I wanted to offer a brief summary of the book and allow further posts to draw out more specific comments.

This study is clearly one of the most comprehensive to examine the perspective of the early Christians in faith and practice surrounding exorcism.  Such a study is an interesting and insightful look at the emerging theology of the church, its specific historical background and context, and pattern of expectation for its adherents.  It is best that the reader understand this book to be the latest of three specific studies which Twelftree has given regarding Jesus and exorcism, so some of the arguments are either assumed or summarized in this present volume.  Still, it is of great benefit to those who study this period and those interested in the spiritual perspective(s) of the early church.

Twelftree begins by setting the background and context of the study (ch. 1), and then presents an examination of Jesus among other exorcists of his day (ch. 2).  This second chapter sets forth the various methods of ancient exorcism and offers an evaluation of how they may/may not be reflected in the ministry of Jesus.  What is always most striking about Jesus' approach to miracles/exorcism is that he refrains from any incantation or appeal to magical text or formula.  Rather, he moves of a certain power authority which is meant to reflect the Spirit (Finger) of God working through him.  Yet, this book is more about his followers and their practice of exorcism. . .

He continues this through the second section of the book: examining Paul (ch. 3); reviewing Q material (ch. 4); working through Mark (ch. 5), Luke-Acts (ch. 6), and Matthew (ch. 7); reading 1 Peter, Hebrews and James (ch. 8); and evaluating the Johannine material (ch. 9).  There are no real surprises in this material, although many readers who have not considered this material before might be caught off guard to learn that John's Gospel has no mention of exorcism at all.  Twelftree navigates the material well and makes solid points throughout, especially in working to understand John's unique perspective (which I think works with the overall uniqueness of the gospel's point of view).  What is always interesting is the way in which the New Testament material (especially the gospels) can be "read backwards" to provide a mirror into which we can see the communities which stood behind, influenced, and were influenced by these emerging texts.

The third part of the book moves into the Second Century literature.  While Twelftree examines a good number of writers, the rather limited treatment of exorcism makes for only brief overviews of the various writers.  He begins by looking at the Fathers, Apologists and Early Second Century writers (ch. 10) who (interestingly) do not offer much to say regarding exorcism.  As Twelftree notes, "In light of the view that exorcism was very important in the early church it is remarkable that, so far, we have not come across any interest in exorcism" (229).  Yet, when one turns to his evaluation of Mark's longer ending and the Later Second Century (ch. 11), the discussion of exorcism comes much closer to the forefront (even sparking texts which lead away from the gospel message - i.e., Mark's longer ending).  Twelftree then includes a chapter of those who were critical of Christianity and seeks to understand the practice of the church by those statements which were meant to refute such activity (ch. 12).

His final chapter brings together his conclusions and offers a "contemporary coda" (ch. 13).  While the conclusions he offers are sound and flow easily from his study, the contemporary turn to the book might leave some readers lacking.  While it is quite right to say that the point of exorcism in the early church is to focus upon Jesus, did we really go any further than C. S. Lewis' point about the demonic as is given on pg. 294?  I agree somewhat with Twelftree that (his final point of application) that a confronted darkness is a defeated darkness - but I would like more of the implications of that statement before committing to it.  From a study which seeks to understand the practice and teaching of the early church, I am wondering if there is anything which applies to the contemporary church in our movement of faith and practice in regards to exorcism.  This is not an idea relegated to the ancients.

In the end, such are minor quibbles to a wonderful study.  Perhaps Twelftree has covered this contemporary application in another of his works, but more is desired here.  As it is clear that exorcism played an important part of the gospel accounts and the early church, I would recommend Twelftree's book as a strong contribution to our overall understanding.


Nathan said...

Sounds like an interesting read. We never got that part of church history at my seminary. LOL


Anonymous said...

A great review. I actually found this book using your blog. It was a very helpful book in my studies on demonology in the Early Church and Gnosticism continued throughout the ages.

Also I would like to say that your blog is a very well constructed and thoughtful publication. I've been reading your posts randomly for the last few days and I like what I see.

Peace and May His Hand guide you.