A Reformed Demonology?

The rather measured and restrained work by John Livingston Nevius (1829-1893), Demon Possession and Allied Themes; Being an Inductive Study of Phenomena of Our Own Times, delivers exactly what the title promises, though what it promises is rather unusual by the author's own admission.

Nevius was a Presbyterian missionary with a Dutch Reformed background. He graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1853 with the high regard for science but firm commitment to the supreme authority, pristine integrity, and complete trustworthiness of Scripture instilled in the students by the faculty he studied under (Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge, for starters). Upon graduating he was promptly ordained and then went straight to China with his new wife in cramped quarters on a leaky old merchant ship out of Boston. He would serve there the rest of his life--over forty years--with just a handful of interludes due mostly to his wife's uneven health.

The Nevius Plan

Nevius is best remembered today for the "Nevius Plan" of mission work. In brief, he believed the missionary's task was nothing else but the old school task of preaching the gospel to all kinds of people at every opportunity and building up a self-propagating, self-governing, and self-supporting indigenous church. To do this required a robust program of systematic Bible study alongside evangelism in order to train up local leaders to rule and minister effectively.

Nevius's focus on a thorough indigenization of Christianity on the mission field was outside the box in his generation (and still is in some respects). Nevius did not believe we should be creating or maintaining lines of dependence that placed the missionary or mission team or mission agency--all foreign entities--at the center of the work. Yet he was also wary of dumping the Bible on people without instruction. He thought the word ought to be ministered to people by preachers and teachers who lived it out in their lives and served it up in the local language. Missionaries were to be so heavily invested and deeply devoted to their work that they lived and traveled lightly in the world.

Perhaps the great irony of his life's work is that his plan was never adopted in China. He published his views in Chinese Recorder and Missionary Journal in 1885 (subsequently published as a short volume under the title The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, 1899). He was then invited to share the plan at length with missionaries to Korea at a formative time in the development of that new mission. The missionaries there fully embraced it and today the Nevius Plan is widely cited as a critical factor in the rapid indigenization of Christianity and Presbyterianism on the peninsula. Back in China, his plan was never really adopted until it was eventually hijacked by the Communist Party and twisted to support their anti-foreigner campaign.


Reformed Demonology

While on the field in China, however, he also witnessed and received numerous reports of supposed cases of demon possession. In Demon Possession and Allied Themes, Nevius attempts to sort through his observation of such a case on the field and reports of similar occurrences by others serving in China and elsewhere around the world. Prurient interest in demons was not his motive; rather, "the prosecution of his missionary work in China . . . repeatedly forced" this question on him, "so that if became absolutely necessary to examine it, and to form an intelligent opinion respecting it" (ix). As such, "this is not a work of the imagination." His object is simply to "present a truthful statement of facts, confident that from such a course, nothing but good can come to the cause either of science or religion" (x).

The facts were that he did encounter and receive reports of apparent demon possession in the field and the Chinese people understood these cases to be just what the appeared to be for as long as their history was known. When they heard the gospel accounts of instances of demon possession, this was something very familiar to them even though it was completely unfamiliar to the Western missionaries working among them.

Chinese converts were a bit baffled by this, and Nevius felt compelled to offer some answer. He was initially skeptical and confesses "it was my hope when I began to investigate the subject of so-called 'demon-possession' that the Scriptures and modern science would furnish the means of showing the Chinese, that these phenomena need not be referred to demons." His final report, which was published just after his death, reflects this intention.

The first third or more of the work relates supposed instances of possession and similar occurrences drawn mostly from China (and most often from Chinese reports), but also from other mission fields in the world. He then launches into an extended analysis considering evolutionary, pathological, and psychological theories of the facts he has established, before turning to "the biblical theory." One might wonder whether some of these reports are reliable or whether more of them might have a psychological explanation than Nevius permitted. Nevertheless, he is quit aware not all reports are credible and that there is a real difference between mental illness and demon possession.

He is also aware that demon possession and similar phenomena "are taught clearly and unmistakably in both the Old and New Testaments" and that "these teachings are not occasional and incidental, but underlie all Biblical history and Biblical doctrines" (243). He then draws out the apologetic issue at stake with commendable clarity and precision, in my estimation. (Perhaps I can return to a bit of that in a future post.)

Nevius's Reformed demonology, if you will, is cautious. As noted, he focuses on establishing just the descriptive facts as far as he is able and then considers all the available explanations known to him. He does not take accounts at face value but neither does he lightly dismiss what seems credible. His central task is to bring it all under the judgment of Scripture. Having set out to convince the Chinese that supposed cases of demon-possession were in fact something else, however, "the result has been quite the contrary" (262).

Distinguishing between demon-induced temptation and demon possession, Nevius reasons that Christians are frequent objects of the former but never the latter since believers are indwelled by the Spirit of Christ who dispossesses Satan and his kingdom. He even indulges a bit of speculation that demon possession is more common in those parts of the world where the gospel has not made much progress, and that they "appear to our view, with comparatively few exceptions, only as the epoch when the advancing tide of aggressive Christianity comes into contact and collisions with the storm-tossed sea of heathenism" (278).



Nevius's arguments are not unfamiliar to contemporary readers, but they are both better constructed and more measured than those frequently encountered in popular literature on this topic--all the more commendable given the pioneering nature of his study. Demon Possession and Allied Themes is not just an interesting mission artifact but also a solid piece of theology with an apologetic pay-off. It is not a complete demonology. It is, however, a model of discretion in dealing with reports of this sort; it is also a thoroughly Reformed contribution to the field by a man working through his cessationist convictions on the mission field while addressing an increasingly anti-supernatural intelligentsia in America (see Newbold's New World review, 1897) who could do little more with this work than thank him for the effort and smirk at what its supposedly simple-minded, creed-determined conclusions.