The Early Church and Satan in Scripture

Several theories exist to detail the origin and fall of Satan (1). The one chosen here is that which I take to best agree with the testimony of the early church since Scripture has nearly nothing to say about it. Taking that position may cause some readers to not wholly agree with the conclusions given here. However, this essay, as with the whole work, seeks to understand the matter as the most ancient audience would have, and because of this paradigm, we’ll delve into pseudepigraphical as well as apocryphal (deuteron-canonical) literature.

Regarding Satan’s origin and fall, first, from the Scriptures, Isaiah 14:12–15 has been interpreted from early centuries as a tale of the devil’s rebellion. From this passage, we comprehend why Satan is often referred to as “Lucifer” despite Isaiah stating that he wrote of the king of Babylon. In the first-half of the third century, Origen, while acknowledging that the context of Isaiah’s passage referred to the Babylonian king, stated that no human being is ever said to have fallen from heaven as Isaiah recorded (On First Principles 4.3.9). From this and other points, Origen suggested that the person under discussion could not have been exclusively the king of Babylon. This person was Satan, and Origen linked Isaiah’s “fallen from heaven” reference to what Christ had said in Luke’s Gospel, “Behold, I see Satan fallen from heaven like lightning” (Luke 10:18)(2). In Isaiah’s passage, Origen saw a deeper meaning than the original context of the verses, which early Christians were often given to doing (e.g. Matthew’s Gospel). The allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures is seen in Origen and other early Christian writers, and one can also note that it didn’t originate with Christian interpreters but is also seen in the writings of the Jewish philosopher, Philo (ca. 25 BC–AD 50).

The devil, while evil, was just like all other created beings whether celestial or carnal. He was capable of good only because the created beings such as angels and man had the ability to choose to do well, but Satan hadn’t. He had freedom of will, but would not recognize good and virtue, but chose evil. Origen wrote that Satan had once walked in God’s paradise between the cherubim. Therefore, once upon a time, he suggests, Satan was good (On First Principles 1.8.3) (3). Origen wrote that he had “adduced from the prophets” this truth. Given his reference to the garden (“Paradise”) and to cherubim, Origen had in mind Ezekiel 28:11–15 (cf. On First Principles 1.5.4). We must also hold that since Origen saw a greater truth in Isaiah’s passage that he’d also have used the same hermeneutic in the Ezekiel passage.

The verse in Ezekiel was also a passage that early church theologians held to be descriptive of Satan’s fall(4). Writing in the mid-fourth-century, Cyril of Jerusalem read Ezekiel’s passage demonstrated that Satan was once an archangel(5) based on the description of the figure Ezekiel gave. Though an archangel, he became “Satan” by becoming God’s adversary—Satan meaning “adversary” (Cat. Lect. 2.4). Toward the close of the fourth century, Ambrose of Milan employed the Ezekiel passage to communicate Satan’s origin as being in Eden, God’s garden. Despite Ezekiel clearly speaking about the king of Tyre, Ambrose believed that the king of Tyre stood for the devil (On Paradise 2.9). Before the first quarter of the fifth century, Jerome and Augustine also saw Satan in Ezekiel’s verses(6).

When a more modern hermeneutic is used, such as the historical-critical method, examining both Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s verses would utterly dismiss the ancient Christian interpretation held of these two passages as speaking about Satan. Nevertheless, the ancient church saw in these verses a greater truth than the immediate context, and that was that Satan was once sinless but gave himself over to vanity and pride. From these two prophets and the interpretations assigned to their passages, Satan was a) an archangel, b) blameless, c) in Eden from creation, and d) eventually rebelled.

The name Lucifer literally means “day star,” and the Scriptures demonstrate that stars were often communicated to have been angels in certain contexts (Job 38:7; Revelation 12:3–4). Satan’s station was exalted and high, but he relinquished it when he sinned. Isaiah and Ezekiel, through an ancient church perspective, inform us that he did, in fact, fall and was cast from heaven. We might be prone to think that his only sin here given these two prophets’ descriptions was pride. However, there is more to the story, and following this post, we’ll look at more.

  1. See chapter two of Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995).
  2. On First Principles 1.5.5; cf. Augustine, Explanations of the Psalms 39.18; Christian Instruction 3.37. See, also, the discussion in Jon Carman, “The Falling Star and the Rising Son: Luke 10:17–24 and Second Temple ‘Satan’ Traditions,” Stone-Campbell Journal 17, no. 2 (Fall 2014): 221–31.
  3. Irenaeus also held that Satan was a fallen angel and once good (On Apostolic Preaching 16–17).
  4. The earliest citation linking the Ezekiel passage to Satan’s fall is from Tertullian who flourished around AD 200 (Against Marcion 2.10).
  5. Gregory the Great agrees that the angel under discussion here is an archangel (Gospel Homilies 34).
  6. Jerome, Homilies on Psalms 14; Augustine, City of God 11.15. Augustine’s passage here includes Isaiah’s mentioned above, and he also gave the point that the devil once existed without sin until he rebelled against God.

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.

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