What is Baptismal Exorcism?
I adjure thee, thou unclean spirit, by the name of the Father † and of the Son † and of the Holy Ghost † that thou come out of and depart from this servant of Jesus Christ, (name), Amen.1
With those words, Martin Luther in his revised baptismal rite of 1526 commended the practice of baptismal exorcism to the churches of the Augsburg Confession. While the text might indicate exorcising an evil spirit to free the catechumen from bodily-demonic possession, this is not the baptismal exorcism’s intent. Distinct rites of exorcism for bodily-demonic possession existed in the medieval and Reformation periods. The exorcism, both in the ancient adult catechumenate and in the medieval infant rite, sought through baptism to reject Satan’s lordship in the catechumen’s life. As Luther’s epilogue to the 1523 baptismal rite indicated,
Remember, therefore, that it is no joke to take sides against the devil and not only to drive him away from the little child, but to burden the child with such a mighty and lifelong enemy. Remember too that it is very necessary to aid the poor child with all your heart and strong faith, earnestly to intercede for him that God, in accordance with this prayer, would not only free him from the power of the devil, but also strengthen him, so that he may nobly resist the devil in life and death.2
The ritual of baptismal exorcism functioned as one such form of imprecatory prayer against the devil, the world, and sinful human nature.
Luther’s 1523 baptismal rite (a translation of the prevailing medieval rite in Wittenberg) and his revised 1526 rite contained other prayers and rituals that aimed to renounce the lordship of the devil, sin, and evil in human life. These other prayers and rituals—the exsufflation or minor exorcism (blowing upon the catechumen), the ephphatha (touching the ears and nose with spittle), and the renunciation of the devil—point to a world that stands, in Heiko Oberman’s words, “between God and the devil,” 3 confronting the rule of evil and sin in the lives of those entering the rule and reign of God.
Yet, ritually exorcism had in the church’s practice a function that distinguished it from rituals like the exsufflation and the renunciation of the devil. The exsufflation—“Depart thou unclean spirit and give room for the Holy Spirit” 4 — is a mini-exorcism but does not identify the change of lordship for a specific catechumen. Likewise, the triple renunciation5 of the devil, the devil’s works or powers, and the devil’s ways reflects the change of lordship, but focuses upon the catechumen’s confession rather than God’s action through the Word, destroying the power and authority of sin and evil.6 As demonstrated in Luther’s, the exorcisms are prayer formulas of the Word, grounded in the biblical narrative of Jesus Christ’s lordship, that specifically address and command the devil to depart and relinquish all control, authority, and power over the catechumens who now adhere to the lordship of Jesus Christ.
A Brief History of Baptismal Exorcism
As with most of the elements in the Lutheran Reformation baptismal rites, the exorcisms were inherited from the medieval rites which, in turn, were collapsed forms of 4th century catechumenal practice. After the 4th century the catechumenate often included scrutinies (examinations) of the adult catechumens’ lives through repeated exorcisms. In the Gelasian Sacramentary (7th century) the exorcisms were collapsed down to three that immediately followed one another. The Gelasian included both formulas (adjurations/commands addressed to the devil) and prayers of exorcism. While some of the prayers fell out by Luther’s day, Luther translated the remaining formulas into German in 1523.7
Thematically, these imprecatory prayer formulas call for the devil to depart from the candidate at the command of Jesus Christ and implore the protection of the Holy Spirit through the cross of Christ traced on the child’s forehead. From Luther’s perspective, through the exorcisms God was acting against the devil, and the children, through their sponsors, were renouncing the devil. It was a renunciation worked by God, demonstrating Luther’s monergistic view of baptism. Luther retains the exorcisms because they are part of the tradition and they convey the power and nature of original sin.Yet, even more, they are prayers that God has promised to answer and, through which, God works his will against Satan. Thus, the prayerful faith of the church that God will act in baptism comes to expression in the exorcisms. In 1526, Luther reduces the exorcisms to the one noted earlier which he considered sufficient for baptism.
The majority of the 16thcentury baptismal rites retain Luther’s one exorcism, although some continue the tradition of three exorcisms.8 The south German rites, especially those influenced by Johannes Brenz, are the primary examples where exorcisms were omitted.9
On the other hand, the Reformed, including Zwingli, Bucer, and Calvin, all rejected baptismal exorcism as a papal remnant. Lutherans certainly considered it an adiaphora, neither commanded nor forbidden. Exorcism could only be understood by virtue of its relationship to baptism itself, that is, within the total context of the baptismal rite. It could never attain the status of an independent, liturgical action apart from what God accomplished in baptism. It was not of the esse of baptism, but of the bene esse. In the context of the baptismal rite, it expressed the nature of baptism as freedom from human bondage to sin, evil, and Satan. Thus, any advocacy that exorcism was not in accord with the evangelical message was considered an assault against the Lutheran understanding of sin and the bondage of the human will.
In the later sixteenth century exorcism became a matter of the confession of the gospel over against the Reformed. The first instance of the controversy began in Thuringia when Pastor George Merula omitted the exorcism and was dismissed from office for his refusal. In the 1580’s and 1590’s its use became a mark of confessional Lutheran orthodoxy and its omission a mark of Calvinist adherence. This controversy permeated Anhalt and Saxony and continued in Brandenburg and Prussia into the mid-17th century.10 By the end of the 18th century, the theological confession and ritual practices of Pietism and Rationalism drove the exorcism from Lutheran baptismal rites in nearly every Lutheran territory.11
While we might be quick to countenance such a move, the social imaginary that permeated medieval and Reformation life, one closer to a biblical social imaginary than our own, envisioned that demonic forces, such as the devil, were alive and well and bore down on humans to embrace sin and evil. Heiko Oberman expresses this social imaginary for Luther:
Luther’s world of thought is wholly distorted and apologetically misconstrued if his conception of the Devil is dismissed as a medieval phenomenon and only his faith in Christ retained as relevant or as the only decisive factor. Christ and the Devil were equally real to him: one was the perpetual intercessor for Christianity, the other a menace to mankind till the end. To argue that Luther never overcame the medieval belief in the Devil says far too little; he even intensified it and lent to it additional urgency: Christ and Satan wage a cosmic war for mastery over Church and world. No one can evade involvement in this struggle. Even for the believer there is no refuge—neither monastery nor the seclusion of the wilderness can offer him a chance for escape. The Devil is the omnipresent threat, and exactly for this reason the faithful need the proper weapons for survival
The most significant weapon was the Word. And the baptismal exorcism was a form of that Word waging battle against the Devil in his attempt to usurp lordship from Christ in the Christian’s life.
Is there a Place for Adjuring the Devil Today?
All this raises the question whether any benefit accrues from restoring a form of baptismal exorcism in Lutheran initiation rites today?13 First, restoring some form of baptismal exorcism would confess that all humans fall under the lordship of sin, evil, and demonic powers and that we are complicit in and culpable for our submission to their lordship. Second, it would re-awaken us to the possibility of the existence of spiritual forces outside of our empirical, scientifically-demonstrable universe, as many of our brothers and sisters in the southern hemisphere attest through a social imaginary recognizing their existence and influence. Third, baptismal exorcism would enable all catechumens who experience the rite to grasp the depth of their submission to sin and evil and provide a basis for reflection on the radical nature of conversion (renouncing the devil and adhering to Christ). Fourth, it emphasizes the priority of the divine activity (monergism), God’s grace expressed in Christ’s victory over sin and evil through the Word in baptism.
Are there potential drawbacks? Through the exorcism, without proper teaching, all catechumens could be seen as spiritually-demonically possessed in their bodies. Outside of a vigorous teaching on human sin and culpability (the bondage of the human will), people could understand that the devil and demonic powers, and not humans, are responsible for sin and evil. Finally, an exorcism formula could be understood magically as an incantation.
Nonetheless, in the desacralized and un-demonized universe which we have created for ourselves, I believe the benefits of a potential baptismal exorcism outweigh the drawbacks. The question then becomes: What form should it take? While the imprecatory formula of Luther is clear in intent, its direct frontal assault with the Word should be augmented so that it aims not only against the devil and demonic powers but the lordship of sin and all forms of evil. Likewise, it would be used best with a prayer for deliverance from the control of sin and evil. The exorcistic prayers of the Roman RCIA provide a good model.14 It also would best be used with an adhesion to Christ so that the transfer of lordship is expressed ritually. Finally, exorcism should be done in the context of clear catechesis expressing a biblical anthropology and the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone. In this way, all who participate in baptism will understand what it means to stand between God and the devil.
- ^Martin Luther, “Order of Baptism Newly Revised” (1526), in Luther’s Works, American Edition, Volume 53, edited by Ulrich S. Leupold (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), p. 108.
- ^Ibid., 102.
- ^Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (New York:Bantam, Doubleday, Dell Publishing, 1990), 104.
- ^Ibid, 96. The Alternate Form of Holy Baptism based on Luther’s 1526 baptismal rite in the Lutheran Service Book Agenda contains the exsufflation text without the ritual act of blowing upon the catechumen. It adds the Trinitarian name to the end of the text. See LSB Agenda (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 13.
- ^Both the ELCA’s Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 229, and the LCMS’s LSB, 270, contain the triple renunciation. The wording in LSB is that of the medieval and Lutheran Agendas. The wording in ELW more comprehensively accounts for evil and sin.
- ^As an aside, the fact that the renunciation is triple is probably a reflection of ritual conformity through its juxtaposition to the triple creedal confession. The earliest liturgical texts of the catechumenate contain the renunciation of sin and the devil, but all of them list a different number of things that are rejected. Apostolic Tradition lists Satan, service, and works; Chrysostom lists Satan, pomp, worship, and works; Ambrose lists the devil and his works, the world and its pleasures. See Edward Yarnold, The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation: The Origins of the R.C.I.A. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994), 18-20. Originally the renunciations took place alongside the pre-baptismal anointing with the oil of exorcism and prior to the catechumens’ return of the Creed on Holy Saturday. In the later medieval period the return of the Creed was dropped, the exorcistic anointing moved, and the renunciations moved immediately before the Triune creedal questions/confession. This juxtaposition probably led to the tripartite pattern.
- ^Martin Luther, “The Order of Baptism” (1523), LW vol. 53, 97-98.
- ^See Kent Burreson, “The Saving flood: The Medieval Origins, Historical Development, and Theological Import of the Sixteenth Century Lutheran Baptismal Rites,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 2002, 456-58.
- ^See Bodo Nischan, “The Exorcism Controversy and Baptism in the Late Reformation,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 18:1 (Spring 1987), 33.
- ^For a thorough examination of the history of this controversy, see Bodo Nischan, “The Exorcism Controversy and Baptism in the Late Reformation.” Bryan Spinks provides a summary of Nischan’s argument in Reformation and Modern Rituals and Theologies of Baptism: From Luther to Contemporary Practices, Liturgy, Worship, and Society Series (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2006), 21-23.
- ^Bodo Nischan, “The Exorcism Controversy and Baptism in the Late Reformation,” 46-47. Yet, as Bryan Spinks indicates [Ibid., 24-25], in the confessional revival of the 19th century the baptismal exorcism was restored to some baptismal rites. Interestingly, the 1856 Agenda prepared by C.F.W. Walther for the LCMS contains a footnote after the Flood Prayer and before the Gospel reading indicating that in many Lutheran territories the exorcism was used and providing the wording exactly as in Luther’s 1526 rite. Kirchen-Agende für Evangelisch-Lutherische Gemeindenungeänderter Augsburgischer Confession, 5 th edition (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1890.
- ^Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, 104.
- ^Neither Holy Baptism in ELW nor LSB’s Holy Baptism or the Alternate Form of Holy Baptism contain an imprecatory prayer/adjuration formula of exorcism (although the latter does contain the minor exorcism or exsufflation).
- ^See Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1988), 42-47, 84-86, 98-100, 106-108.