Gospel frameworks for understanding exorcism

I have started my doctoral research, and had my first supervision last week. I am so conscious of my brain having atrophied for the last decade or so (since writing my book), but it has been a joy to start to engage with intellectually stretching material. It is like an infusion of oxygen into my soul; now I just have to work out how to breathe again. I thought I’d share a discovery with you, which has come from looking at Graham Twelftree’s work, and which is about how to understand exorcism in the gospels.

Before the extract from my paper let me spell out the conceptual issue which is going to be one of the main themes that I shall be pursuing over the coming years. Exorcism necessarily talks about the demonic, for exorcism is about the expulsion of the demonic from someone suffering (“ἐκβάλλω” is the word used in the gospels, meaning to cast out or expel). What is it that is being cast out? To give a framework for seeking an answer to that question, when the Christian tradition uses the language of the demonic is it a) describing the effect of an intelligent, malevolent entity, or b) describing a disorder that is taking place within the suffering person? My working assumption is that most often the answer is b) but that it is essential to retain the possibility of a), as that is what the tradition has stated down the ages: sometimes there really is a malevolent entity that needs to be dealt with. (Also, as an aside, the scientistic/materialistic insistence on the unreality of the intangible needs to be opposed! Oops, my prejudices are showing.)

What I have discovered is that within the gospels themselves, that is, from the earliest practice of Christian exorcism, both a) and b) have been understood to be part of Christian ministry. Which I didn’t know, and which I find quite exciting.

~~~

That Jesus himself was a practicing exorcist is not a controversial claim1. According to Twelftree, “Exorcism was a form of healing used when demons or evil spirits were thought to have entered a person and to be responsible for sickness and was the attempt to control and cast out or expel evil spiritual beings or demons from people.”2 With regard to Jesus in particular, “From the sayings and narrative material in the Synoptic Gospels I have surveyed it would seem that we could only conclude that exorcism was a part of the ministry of the historical Jesus.”3 In his subsequent work, ‘In the Name of Jesus’4, Twelftree writes in more detail that exorcisms “loom large as one of the most obvious and important aspects of his ministry”, adding “We know of no other healer in antiquity for whom this was true.”5

However this still leaves much that needs to be explored if we are to understand the nature and variety of exorcism as practiced by Jesus and the early church:
1. Styles of Exorcism: “there was probably a range of kinds of exorcisms and exorcists that would have been known to the early Christians”6. A key distinction was between a magical exorcist, wherein the exorcism is conducted through the use of particular words and phrases, and a charismatic exorcist, wherein the exorcism is accomplished through the personal force and ‘power-authority’ of a particular individual. Twelftree concludes that, although there are some moments when it would seem that Jesus is using the set phrases of a magical exorcist7 he is best characterised as a charismatic exorcist: “Jesus used the emphatic “I”, for which I can find no parallel in any other incantation or exorcism story in the ancient world. It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that, in light of his statement that he was operating by the power-authority of the Spirit or finger of God, Jesus was particularly confident in his ability to use or even be identified with that power source… Jesus deliberately draws attention to himself and his own resources in his ability to expel the demon.”
2. Different gospel emphases: there is a marked difference between the presentation of Jesus’ struggle with the Enemy (the devil, satan, demons8) between the Synoptic gospels on the one hand, and the Johannine literature on the other. Mark’s gospel treats this aspect of Jesus’ ministry as central and paradigmatic, including by making it the first reported act of ministry in Jesus’ life9; in contrast, in the Gospel of John, there are no exorcisms at all. Part of the explanation for this lies in the different motivations for each Gospel writer. Following Bauckham10 I accept that the accounts given in the gospels are rooted in eyewitness testimony, and that Mark in particular is rooted in the stories told by St Peter in prison in Rome in the mid-60s AD. “Mark views exorcism as a battle in which people illegitimately held by Satan are taken, so that Satan is seen to be overthrown.”11 John’s gospel is composed at a later date and is conditioned by a much more developed theological perspective. For our purposes the most important Johannine distinctive is that the defeat of the Enemy is focussed upon the moment of crucifixion (“now is the ruler of this world cast down” – Jn 12.31), and this is presented as the climax of a stupendous cosmic drama. “In a single act involving the heavenly realm, Satan is to be dealt with directly, without recourse to his malevolent minions on earth. In this way the Fourth Evangelist is able to affirm that the lies of Satan’s control of this world is far more pervasive than the possession of individual people, and that the defeat of Satan requires more than isolated activity by Jesus.”12 In sum, for both Mark and John the struggle with the Enemy is central, but in Mark this is accomplished through the healing through exorcism of individual people whereas in John it is accomplished through defeating the Enemy by the one climactic act of crucifixion and resurrection.
3. Exorcisms in the early church: it seems clear that Jesus commissioned his disciples and gave them authority to carry out exorcisms (Mark 3.15, 6.7) but that the different communities gave contrasting emphases to this ministry. In particular the tradition associated with Mark’s gospel and centred on Rome gave most importance to exorcism as a continuing practice.13 This was a form of charismatic exorcism in which the power-authority invoked to compel the demon was that of Jesus himself.
4. Conversion as defeating the Enemy: In the Johannine tradition, in contrast to the Markan, “Satan is not confronted in the form of sickness caused by demons but in the form of unbelief inspired by the father of lies. So exorcism is not the response to the demon possession; truth is its antidote.”14 Thus the crucial way in which the Christian community continued its struggle against the Enemy was by apologetics and through conversion of new believers, “the demonic is confronted not by exorcism but by truth.”15 In other words, “perhaps because of an increasing intellectual sophistication, … an understanding that the demonic could be doctrinal and dealt with and defeated other than through exorcism.”16

Bringing those four elements together it is fair to say that within the emphasis upon Jesus as an exorcist and one who defeats the Enemy there lie different patterns of behaviour rooted in different spiritual frameworks. These do not need to be understood as contradictions, and have not been within the mainstream Christian tradition17 What they have in common is that the struggle with the Enemy is seen as a characteristic of Christian ministry and that there is a duty placed upon the church to continue this struggle ‘in the name of Jesus’. In doing so the church is continuing the ministry of ‘Inaugurating the Kingdom’.

Footnotes:

1See Twelftree, G. H. (1993) Jesus the Exorcist : a contribution to the study of the historical Jesus. Tübingen: Mohr (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament. 2. Reihe, 54); hereinafter JtE.

2JtE, p13.

3JtE, p137.

4Twelftree, G. H. (2014) In the name of Jesus: exorcism among early Christians. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic; hereinafter NoJ.

5NoJ, p46

6NoJ, p35 and following.

7“Be silent!”, Mark 1.25 and parallels.

8The metaphysical status of all these and associated terms will be considered in detail in a later chapter.

9Mark 1.21-28

10Bauckham, R. (2006) Jesus and the Eyewitnesses : the gospels as eyewitness testimony. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

11NoJ, p114

12NoJ, p196.

13NoJ, p289 inter alia.

14NoJ, p282

15NoJ, p283.

16NoJ, p290.

17See subsequent chapters…

Diagnosing the demonic (research plan)

I am hoping to start a PhD at the University of Bristol from January. This is the research plan that I have submitted.

Bristol PhD application (part-time/half-time)
Research plan

Diagnosing the demonic

A conceptual comparison of the metaphysical frameworks employed in the Ministry of Deliverance and in Psychiatric Diagnosis

The overall aim of the research is to understand and clarify the nature of the difference between the psychiatric diagnosis carried out by medical professionals and the spiritual discernment carried out by ordained clergy in the ministry of deliverance. There is an existing conversation within the field of psychiatry that is metaphysical in character and I would like to bring insights from the Christian tradition into that conversation: when there are strange, troubling or unexplained phenomena that affect individuals or groups what are the criteria that are presently used to distinguish the greater applicability of one field of expertise rather than another to a particular situation? Are they the correct criteria to use? I would like to more precisely delineate the boundary between the professional competences involved, with a view to enabling a greater facility between deliverance ministers and consultant psychiatrists in multi-disciplinary teams.

The research is essentially an exploration in metaphysics, ie what are the philosophical presuppositions within which the different experiences are interpreted and understood? What is actually going on when certain words are used in particular contexts? The principal philosopher with whom my research will engage is PMS Hacker, and this in two ways. Firstly, the methodological framework within which the work will be undertaken is conceptual analysis, as understood within the analytical tradition following Wittgenstein and elucidated by Hacker, most especially in his commentary on the Philosophical Investigations. I shall rely upon the Wittgensteinian conception of philosophical practice as a tool for dissolving conceptual confusions. Secondly, the research will include a sustained engagement with Hacker’s recently concluded Study of Human Nature, especially volume 4 on the language of good and evil.

The research plan involves four phases of work. The first two phases are essentially a task of exploring and explaining the different frameworks used in a) deliverance ministry and b) psychiatric diagnosis. The research will therefore look at how particular words and phrases are used in each area before engaging in the more fundamental work of elucidation and the dissolution of conceptual confusions – within each of the two fields. The third phase of work will engage principally with Hacker’s Study of Human Nature, situating that work within the present debates in the philosophy of psychiatry, and drawing on Hacker’s critiques to comment upon both deliverance ministry and contemporary psychiatric practice. The final phase of work will then seek to synthesise the insights generated into a systematic account of the languages of psychiatric diagnosis and deliverance ministry, with a view to comparing these different frameworks and assessing their variable viability and potential for creative engagement with each other. I would hope, at the end of the research, to be able to articulate the areas within which one field of expertise is more suitable for dealing with unusual phenomena rather than another, and why.

Phase 1: The metaphysics of deliverance ministry
(what is meant by the demonic in the Christian tradition?)

In this first substantial part of the research I will set out the practice of deliverance ministry as presently undertaken within the Church of England, setting out the philosophical tradition within which this work takes place.

I will start by sketching out the metaphysics of contemporary practice in deliverance ministry, in the light of the review above (distinguishing poltergeists, ghosts, place memories, unquiet dead, possession experiences), using the work Deliverance edited by Michael Perry as the key text, supplemented by more recent work by Gabriel Amorth, Tom Clammer and Francis Young amongst others. These texts are the materials used for the training of deliverance ministers, and which therefore provide the best guides to the use of language in this ministry. I will highlight a) the variety of metaphysical presuppositions involved in the different areas of the work, and b) the interface with medical expertise in present practice;
I will then look at some contrasting areas from church history where language similar to that used in deliverance ministry is deployed, especially the language of the demonic. This will begin with a review of Jesus’ actions as recorded in the New Testament, which are taken as normative and paradigmatic for deliverance ministry: Jesus’ own ministry of exorcism, the use of exorcism by the disciples, and the language of ‘principalities and powers’ especially by St Paul. Here I would want to use in particular the work of Graham Twelftree and Walter Wink;
I will then seek to elucidate the understanding of demons in the early church looking especially at the desert fathers and the way in which this language was used in the development of the seven deadly sins (eg ‘the noonday demon’ as a way of talking about the sin of accidie). I would here engage specifically with the work of Christopher C H Cook and Olivier Clement;
I will then look at the way in which Augustine adapted the classical understanding of the cure of souls (using rhetoric as a form of therapy, to regulate the emotions) looking at the work of Paul Kolbet and Martha Nussbaum;
I will lastly look at the way Aquinas understood the language of deliverance ministry, looking most especially at his understanding of angels and demons in the Summa Theologica part 1a, and his overall understanding of the nature of good and evil. Aquinas has a status and authority within the Catholic tradition (including the Church of England) which makes his understandings definitive for the practice of deliverance ministry, although I will seek to engage with the critical literature also on these points, especially Herbert McCabe and Fergus Kerr.

Phase 2: The practice and metaphysics of psychiatric diagnosis
(how does psychiatry understand the demonic?)
For this area of work I would seek to understand contemporary psychiatric practice, taking the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) as representative of the mainstream of that practice, with a particular focus on those areas which have the strongest overlap with exemplary deliverance issues such as demonic possession (depression and schizophrenia, and possibly manic/bi-polar disorders).

As with deliverance ministry I would begin with a review of the present practice of psychiatric diagnosis, using the DSM as an authoritative text, with a view to elucidating the philosophical presuppositions within that tradition, in other words, how is the language of psychiatry used in the specific, relevant contexts? If permitted I would very much like to audit some of the lectures (medical training) offered within the University of Bristol in this area as this will enable my understanding to be informed by contemporary practitioners;
I would then seek to explore contemporary critiques and developments of the DSM framework from various perspectives, firstly by looking especially at the appropriateness of the use of the ‘medical model’ as a metaphysical framework within which to consider mental disorders, engaging with the work of Szasz and the secondary literature around his critique, and also drawing on M O’Connor Drury’s work ‘The Danger of Words’ as he was a student of Wittgenstein who became a professional psychiatrist;
I will then look specifically at the understanding of depression and schizophrenia within the DSM and engaging with criticisms of the DSM in this area, both by medical practitioners (Mary Boyle) and by philosophers (Louis Sass)
I will lastly consider the work of the Critical Psychiatry Network (especially the writings of Joanna Moncrieff, but also Lucy Johnstone, David Healy and others) and in particular the recent development of the Power-Threat-Meaning Framework which is conceptually very different to the DSM framework. The work of Bill Fulford in relation to Values-Based Medicine is likely to be relevant.

Phase 3: PMS Hacker’s Study of Human Nature
Once the groundwork of the first two phases has been set out, this will lead into a detailed engagement with the work of PMS Hacker. This will take the form of a detailed commentary on five volumes:
firstly his critique of cognitive neuroscience in his work with Maxwell Bennett, the Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. This will clarify the inter-relationship of mind and body and especially how this can be applied to the practice of the DSM, for example, what does it mean to say that a feeling of sadness (depression) is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain? Is such a comment meaningful?;
secondly I would take each of the four volumes of his recently concluded Study of Human Nature, beginning with the Categorial Framework which considers rationality and explanation with respect to human behaviour, which is relevant to considerations of human will – and therefore what it means for a human will to be ‘possessed’ or impaired;
Hacker’s Volume 2, The Intellectual Powers, looking especially at the nature of belief and the way in which imagination interacts with reason, and therefore the importance of the metaphysical (narrative) framework within which phenomena are intepreted;
in Volume 3, The Passions, Hacker engages with human emotions that are considered sins within the Christian tradition (eg envy) and I shall here compare his treatment with that outlined in my earlier research;
finally, and most importantly, in volume 4, The Moral Powers, Hacker considers the nature of good and evil, and human meaning in the face of death. Considering his arguments here will feed directly into the considerations of the language of the demonic considered in the first two phases of my research.

Phase 4: Synthesis
Once these three phases are complete I would then seek to do the more synthetic work and attempt a detailed conversation, looking at human behaviour from different aspects, exploring how the different metaphysical frameworks might interact and critique each other, and therefore how the language and practices within psychiatry and within deliverance ministry might better understand each other. I would hope to be able to clarify the nature of each discipline in such a way that collaborative working across the disciplines might be facilitated.

Timetable
I would expect each stage of the work set out above in phases one and two (each bullet point) to require some 4-6 weeks of work, resulting in around 5,000 words of suitable material. Assuming a January 2022 start I would expect phase one to last until the summer of 2022; phase two to take through to Easter 2023. Phase 3, the engagement with the work of Hacker, will take longer for each section, at least four months for each volume. This is therefore likely to take until the Christmas of 2024 – at least two and a half years after the start of the research.

Researching Church understandings of Mental Health care

the spiritual mindFollowing encouragement from the church hierarchy, in January this year I began a Professional Doctorate in Practical Theology through the Cambridge Theological Federation. It has taken me a while to get back up to speed academically – quote from my supervisor ‘this sounds too much like a blogpost’ – but things are falling into place, and I’m starting to feel that a part of my soul that has been locked in a box for about twenty years is emerging slowly into the light once again.

My area of interest is to do with the overlap between psychiatric care and spiritual care, with, possibly, a particular focus on deliverance ministry. I’m particularly interested in the conceptual foundations of psychiatric diagnosis (ie what are psychiatrists actually doing when they diagnose someone) and comparing and contrasting that with the Christian notion of the cure of souls, so: where do they correspond or overlap, where do they contradict or have tensions? I’m very interested in the Critical Psychiatry Network, and a big fan of Joanna Moncrieff’s work. The trigger for the research was a series of particular pastoral problems both in the parishes here and more widely, hence the ‘Practical Theology’ part. I’m hoping, at the end, to have something which will be of distinct practical use for my fellow clergy.

I’ve now handed in my first essay – 7000 words on John Swinton’s Spirituality and Mental Health Care – and I might put some of that up on the blog. Yet what I need to do most is to start journalling my research; as my supervisor puts it, don’t get it right, get it written! So there will be a significant increase in both the number of blogposts and their academic calibre! I’m looking at depression next.