Clinton Arnold wrote 3 Crucial Questions About Spiritual Warfare two decades ago. Yet it remains the single best written resource on the topic to place into the hands of Christian believers.
Arnold cuts through both overheated rhetoric about ‘spiritual warfare’ and entrenched refusal to contemplate that reality by bearing down on just three questions:
√ What is Spiritual Warfare?
√ Can a Christian be Demon-Possessed?
√ Are We Called to Engage Territorial Spirits?
In the process he brings to bear careful exegetical consideration, attention to how the early Christian church engaged similar issues, and a pastoral concern honed by the author’s own experience in cultural contexts where demonic activity seems less alien than in the West. The result is superb.
Working from first principles, Arnold demonstrates how Jesus engaged the reality of conflict as the normal condition of human life in this age. Consequently, spiritual warfare is not principally a specialized ministry but rather the circumstance and the responsibility of every believer. Yet the well-informed Christian will understand that the conflict is an uneven match. God’s sovereignty over his world is not threatened by the reality of Satanic blowback. Satan’s reign is conditioned both territorially and temporally. In the light of Jesus’ vanquishing of Satan’s power, the latter’s reign will eventually end here and end altogether.
So spiritual warfare is a given in the life of Christian individuals and communities. Why, then, the resistance to the language and the substance of such conflict?
Arnold deals patiently and fairly with ‘6 common objectives to emphasizing spiritual warfare today’. Since the 1970s, the English-speaking world has become awash with bizarre claims about ministries that do—at the risk of considerable understatement—‘emphasize’ spiritual warfare. Too often, the most high-profile among them are personality-driven and theologically impoverished.
The author is adept at re-shaping a biblically informed model for spiritual warfare for those who believe that truth matters enough—even amid the urgencies of wartime—to linger long in the understanding and embrace of it.
The New Testament (special attention is given to the Apostle Paul’s instruction in the letter to the Ephesians) teaches that Christians are assaulted not by one enemy, but rather by three: the world (the ways of the world), the devil (the ruler of the king of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient), and the flesh (the cravings of our sinful nature).
Together, this triad of unequal adversaries present the Christian with a complex rather than a simple conflict. As we engage it individually and in community, we discover that ‘spiritual warfare is a way of characterizing our common struggle as Christians’. Because parasitic re-positioning of actual truth is one source of defeat, Arnold pays particular attention to ‘common christological heresies’ on his way to a sane fleshing-out of how individuals and small groups of Christian might do battle with their real rather than their imagined adversaries.
At this point in Arnold’s book (as in this early stage of this short review), the reader could be forgiven for imagining that Arnold had metaphorized spiritual warfare down to its vanishing point in run-of-the-mill Christian ethical formation. This is certainly not the case, as his response to the second of three crucial questions will show.
As he engages the second crucial question (‘Can a Christian be Demon-Possessed?’), the trajectory of Clinton’s argument reaches its most valuable point.
When faced with the New Testament’s plethora of demon-encounter narratives and exhortations, the thoughtful Christian usually takes one of three paths:
√ S/he dismisses the stories about demons altogether.
√ S/he reinterprets the stories about demons.
√ S/he accepts the stories as what really happened.
Arnold chooses neither of these three paths and attempts to lead his reader through a more subtle consideration and towards a more faithful response.
A cautious survey of the language common to the discussion ensues. English Bible translations and, therefore, English-language discussion of biblical texts inexplicably settles into the language of ‘possession’ or ‘ownership’. In consequence, the question becomes whether a Christian can be owned or possessed by a demon. Many Christians will state that this absolutely cannot take place, given the reality of God’s redemption and therefore ownership of the Christian.
Arnold allows that ‘I wholeheartedly agree with this conclusion. A Christian cannot be owned and controlled by a demon.’
However, this is not to speak the language of the biblical texts, which usually employs the more flexible term daimonizomai (δαιμονίζομαι). This word can be understood to mean ‘tormented’, ‘vexed’, or ‘troubled’ by a demon. After engaging the pertinent texts and a number of examples from history, Arnold re-frames the question thus: ‘Can Christians come under a high degree of influence by a demonic spirit?’ … ‘Is it possible for Christians to yield control of their bodies to a demonic spirit in the same way that they yield to the power of sin?’
To such questions—which no longer joust with the more absolute concept of demonic possession—Arnold gives his ‘yes’.
This conclusion is followed by pastoral examples of how a believer can find himself in such troubled straits, with practical counsel on how to deal with demons, and with instruction on extremes that are to be avoided.
From the in-principle considerations of his first two ‘crucial questions’, Arnold then moves on to the contemporary issue raised by tactics that purport to engage ‘territorial spirits’. Though his introduction expresses appreciation for one of the leading advocates of the movement, Arnold is critical of one of its premises.
He endorses the notion that territorial spirits, as generally understood exist.
Nevertheless, ‘In spite of the widespread consciousness of the people of God throughout history of the existence of high-ranking hostile angels, we do not find them naming the powers, rebuking them, binding them, or trying to cast them out of a region.’
For reasons based in the biblical record and the testimony of the early church, the author is dubious that the tactics of ‘Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare’ have the theological and historical pedigree that they claim. However, Arnold credits its practitioners’ concern for the lost and suggests alternative ways of ministering to a city that do not involve human beings ‘taking authority over’ the purported demonic lords of a region or a city.
By wearing his scholarship lightly, Clinton Arnold has produced a carefully reasoned, popularly (or semi-popularly) accessible manual to a matter that is intrinsic to the very idea of the Christian life in a contested world. At the same time, he has provided a meeting space for people of good will who will gather thoughtfully around a matter that has provided inexhaustibly divisive among contemporary churches.
Two decades on, 3 Crucial Questions About Spiritual Warfare is still the place for English-language readers to begin.