In my blog post A Lutheran Take on Exorcism and the Demonic, I discussed the work of Dr. Robert Bennett, who has written two books on the subject and who has experience with exorcising demons. We heard from him at the Rural and Small Town Ministries conference I attended and I wanted to pass on to you what I learned.
In the real-life case that inspired the book and movie The Exorcist, the family of the child who seemed to be possessed by the devil first consulted a Lutheran pastor, who was flummoxed by the levitating furniture, ominous noises, and other weird phenomena he was witnessing, recommended that the family consult a Catholic priest.
But, actually, Lutherans have a long history of dealing with demonic possession. Luther discussed it at length and dealt with several cases personally. The founder of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, who cast out some demons himself, mentions this task almost casually in a list of the ordinary duties that pastors have to perform. The great LCMS dogmatician Francis Pieper discusses it. So do early pastoral theology textbooks.
That changed the middle of the 20th century with the rise of interest in psychology and its role in pastoral counseling. But more recently, according to Dr. Bennett, attention to demonic affliction and the pastor’s role in combatting it has come back. He cites Pastoral Care under the Cross by my good friend Richard Eyer. And though modern theologians have downplayed such overt supernaturalism, that is changing too. Dr. Bennett quoted Helmut Thielicke, no less, who takes demonic possession and exorcism dead seriously.
Dr. Bennett had associated exorcism with Catholics and Pentecostalists until he worked in Madagascar, site of one of the largest and fastest-growing Lutheran churches in the world, where Lutheran pastors casting out demons is commonplace. Dr. Bennett tells about his experiences there and how he has applied them here in his book I Am Not Afraid: Demon Possession and Spiritual Warfare. He followed that book with a sequel: Afraid: Demon Possession and Spiritual Warfare in America.
Dr. Bennett stressed that demonic affliction and casting out those demons are not necessarily like the movies. That is, possession by the devil doesn’t usually involve heads spinning in a full circle and projective vomiting. Nor does expelling the devil require a specific ritual and the approval of a bishop.
Jesus is the true exorcist, Dr. Bennett observed, and where He is, demons are defeated. Thus, demons are cast out not so much by elaborate rituals but by the Word of God and prayer.
In fact, the ordinary resources of the Christian life have great power against devils. The liturgy is filled with exorcism. Dr. Bennett cites Confession and Absolution, both the corporate rite in the Divine Service, and the individual version, which is a powerful weapon in the Lutheran pastor’s arsenal when the afflicted person is lucid.
The Lord’s Prayer is an effective text to use against devils. So are hymns. Dr. Bennett showed us half a page of hymn numbers from the Lutheran Service Book that are “exorcistic hymns.” (For example, the appropriately numbered “p. 666”: “O, Little Flock, Fear Not the Foe.” And, of course, Baptism and Holy Communion.
But how do we know if a particular case is really “possession” and not just mental illness? Well, said Dr. Bennett, mental illness is certainly real. The devil, he observed, attacks us at our weakest point. It may be our mental condition. Or our financial worries. Or our ambitions. Or our fears.
The devil, said Dr. Bennet, works primarily by means of lies. (“You are not worth saving.” “Your life is worthless.” “God cannot love someone like you.”)
Can Christians be possessed by a devil? It’s hard to understand how that can be, but Luther and Walther thought they could, and in the course of pastoral care, pastors deal with church members with these problems. Certainly, the devil attacks Christians, and possession is only an extreme manifestation of how the devil torments us.
Again, we should not expect all of this to look like the movies. Luther talked about demonic depression and demons causing people to commit suicide. (Luther said that suicide is not the unforgivable sin, as in Catholicism, since he ascribed suicide to demonic activity for which the victim is not culpable.)
Exorcisms tend not to be dramatic, as in the movies. Dr. Bennett told of several cases in which he and other pastors dealt with “haunted house” kinds of apparitions by simply using the traditional “House Blessing” that is in the Lutheran pastor’s book of services. The pastor would go through each room, reading the Bible verses and praying the prayers. Dr. Bennett also made use of the exorcistic hymns. And this tends to get rid of lurking spirits.
In one case, he performed a house blessing for a family that had been terrified of the “ghosts” that seemed to be haunting them–to the point of consulting New Age ghost-busters who assured them that these were nice ghosts. Afterwards, the family was disappointed that “nothing had happened.” But the “ghosts” were never heard from again. The devils that were impersonating the souls of the dead had been driven away, though in an undramatic, non-sensationalistic way.
See also Dr. Bennett’s blog.
And another book by a Lutheran exorcist, Harold Ristau, My First Exorcism: What the Devil Taught a Lutheran Pastor about Counter-Cultural Spirituality(with an introduction by the great John Kleinig). See my post on that book here.
Interestingly, the “favorite exorcist” of Pope Francis is reportedly a Lutheran pastor in Argentina. When the Pope was a cardinal in Argentina, his home country, he would call on Pastor Manuel Acuña of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Buenos Aires to do exorcisms when the local bishops would not give permission for the Catholic rite.
Photo: Screenshot from video of Lutherans in Madagascar performing an exorcism, by Robert Bennet via YouTube. See the entire video here.