In the Judeo-Christian tradition of Scripture there is a clear opposition and prohibition for the people of God to practice or encourage witchcraft (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:10; Micah 5:12; Galatians 5:19-20, Revelation 21:8). Under the law of Moses all witches or sorcerers who took up residence in the land of Israel were to be put to death. While the people of God don’t operate under Sinaitic Covenant any longer, and are called to love and announce the Good news of God to his enemies, under the New Covenant it is clear that God’s people are not to partner with witches or practitioners of magic learning or arts. The basic contrast between the aims of seeking dark and occult magic arts and seeking God are encompassed in Paul’s pointed separation of such incompatibilities:

Do not be mismatched with unbelievers; for what do righteousness and lawlessness share together, or what does light have in common with darkness? Or what harmony does Christ have with Belial, or what does a believer share with an unbeliever? Or what agreement does the temple of God have with idols? For we are the temple of the living God;

2 Corinthians 6:14-16 (NASB)

While that passage speaks about association with incompatible persons, it is the nature of their character and conduct which is highlighted. Simon Magus mentioned in Acts 8 is one illustration of a person involved in magic whose corrupt practices twisted his way of thinking about the Holy Spirit. He thought the power was something that could be bought, and he wanted to wield ‘power’ but on his own terms, and didn’t desire to be in a real relationship with God. His request to buy the power, which Peter rebuked, was only a surface level symptom of his deeper habit and mentality of magic.

Yet even with all these evident warnings and lessons in Scripture, it seems that certain portions of European church history produced some concerning, yet instructive, instances that show where Christians have missed the mark in that regard. While some instances of witchcraft involved condemning innocent people on mere suspicions of committing malevolent magic acts (and resulted in hysteria), there were also some true cases of the same kind of knowledge which is involved in witchcraft of the supposedly “benevolent” kind that certain Christians defended. And this is not even to consider the truly pagan witchcraft happening outside of the Christian world throughout the Middle Ages.1 Scripture, however, is clear there is no benevolent kind of magic, since God firmly condemns it.

It is an invalid argument to say that if fortune tellers or magic herbalists, for example, seemingly do no harm (and may never even endeavor to take malevolent action against another person) that it is therefore morally and spiritually permissible to practice their craft. That is because its very nature partakes of a supernatural source which is opposed to God. Where attempted magic is not wholly imaginative, the source of magical acts and pursuits are ultimately spiritual beings who are sworn enemies of the the Most High God. They offer their power not as an agent of God’s own power, as angels do, but as an alternative to it. God considered communion with such spirits a form of spiritual departure and unfaithfulness and vividly referred to it as “prostitution” in Leviticus 20:6, since it seeks idolatrously after an authority over one’s life other than God. And where magic is wholly imaginative (a placebo at best), its source is at minimum the sinful flesh of the individual set against submission to God and the Spirit of God (Galatians 5:17).

Scripture groups many magic and sorcery practices together, forbidding any Israelite to be “one who uses divination, a soothsayer, one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who consults the dead(Deuteronomy 18:10-11). Note in that passage that even the act of interpretation that follows a prescribed method (often according to a secret or “occult” source of knowledge), such as ascribing meaning to symbols contained in omens, is as much witchcraft (as a “craft” / practice) as the rest of the practices. By contrast to witchcraft, legitimate miracle-working is properly made possible and enabled only by God, who works in human vessels who submit themselves to God and are subject to him as sovereign. Such people are workers of God’s miracles, rather than practitioners of either their own power (some ‘innate’ magical ability) or a supposedly subservient diabolic power designed to serve the whim of the magician.

With this background in mind, let us look at some surprising developments where in the name of the pursuit of knowledge and learning in order to help people, esoteric and occult forms of wisdom associated with certain kinds of magic were pursued and approved of by certain practitioners in the church.

Magic Reappropriated in an Age of Learning

During the Renaissance period there was a huge boost of knowledge disseminated throughout Europe, involving a massive influx of renewed literary, artistic, scientific, mathematical, medical, and religious learning. While this produced some real advances and benefits, it also produced some very concerning trends. The erudite men who had gained such knowledge came to see that it created marvel among common people when certain ‘scientific’ feats were performed when they did not know the cause but the learned men did. This began to ‘go to their heads’ in that they sought more of such knowledge, telling themselves it was for the wielding of benevolent power. Among such learning there was a certain class of such knowledge that was deemed as more than science (at the time even theology was considered a ‘science’), but shockingly —in light of earlier sensibilities in the church— they considered it a division of magic. And not all of it was overly religious in its subject matter, but involved the learning of special knowledge to attain and practice it nonetheless.

Gabriel Naudé’s Defense of Supposedly ‘Benign’ Magic

There was an early 17th century Christian author named Gabriel Naudé, a notable librarian, who made it his aim to defend numerous authors who had come before him (Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa among them, vide infra) who were suspected of practicing magic. He composed a defense of those men in a book titled Apologie pour tous les grands personages faussement soupçonnez de magie (1625) (ET: “The history of magick by way of apology, for all the wise men who have unjustly been reputed magicians, from the Creation, to the present age“). In this book he wrote of “Magick and its species” (pg. 11) in which he made a “distinction of Magick into lawfull, and unlawfull or prohibited(13) categories.2

He introduces his argument by suggesting that since man was the pinnacle of God’s creation he was endowed with such capacity for knowledge that he could be found “ordering and regulating his extraordinary actions, either by the particular grace of Almighty God, or by the assistance of an Angel, or by that of a Daemon; or lastly, by his own industry and ability” (14), upon which he concludes “From these four different wayes, we infer four kinds of Magick: Divine, relating to the first; Theurgick, to the second; Geotick, to the third; and Naturall, to the last.” He includes the biblical miracles under “Divine magick” and claims “Magicians of this kind were Moses, Joshua, the Prophets, the Apostles, Gregory Thaumaturgus, and Simeon Stilites, those great Wonder-workers”. Thus far, we can note that his definitions were not at all standard in church teaching, though we shall see later he was not the first to invent this redefinition of terms.

Naudé goes on to explain how in his view even theurgic and natural magic are lawful pursuits for the Christian, and excludes only the demonic. The theurgic he calls “white magic,” which notably is familiar in many studies of the presence of magic and witchcraft in Europe involving the so-called “cunning folk” (wise folk) who were said only practice healing white magic. Owen Davies has even dedicated an entire volume on the latter, oft neglected, topic which is titled “Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History(2009). Thus Naudé is actually associating the pursuits of those whom he is considering with magic rather than denying they are magic. In the course of doing this, he apparently accomplishes the opposite of his aim of absolving the practitioners, whom he goes onto to name and defend, of being magicians, since he essentially says they all just practiced a benificent form of magic.

This is concerning not the least because, by attempting to define magic in a benign way that supposedly is compatible with the Christian faith, it leaves room for claims by other so-called practitioners of white magic or “cunning folk” (who were not Christian) as practicing legitimate spiritual and supernatural practices. It thus begins to collapse distinctions and even undermines the church’s own efforts to root out magic from its midst. In fact, the hypocrisy of Europe’s witch trials actually comes into sharper focus when one takes note of how in the majority of cases the people who were thought to be practicing harmful magic were the ones put on trial and killed; whereas any so-called benevolent practitioners of magic remained largely untouched and even occasionally sought out by Christians who wanted physical healing.

That is having it both ways, because witchcraft and magic is either compatible with the Christian faith or it is not. Muddling it with the miraculous is to confuse a distinction even the Bible makes between the magic of witchcraft, which was forbidden, and the wonder-working, miraculous power of God (none of which was pursued as “occult” knowledge or as ancient magic like contemporary Greek magical papyri endeavored to teach). In biblical terms, calling that divine miraculous power “magic” is a contradiction and is not supported anywhere in Scripture.

Earlier Instances of Esoteric / Occult Belief by Christians

In all the above belief though, Naudé was not a pioneer, since Catholics, and notably Jesuits, before him had sought higher forms of knowledge which they deemed occult – or hidden from the masses, as a prolonged quote below will show. Thus academic learning and a desire to avoid ignorance was used as a cover to pursue certain esoteric forms of knowledge.

The perversion of such classifications of “magick” as Naudé gives, and also the hubris required to take pride in its pursuit as a esoteric form of knowledge —inaccessible to the ignorant masses whom they would ‘guide’— becomes clear the more one reads on it. In the interest of that, I will quote from the work of Carlos Zayas-Gonzáles in his thesis which touches on the topic further (bold emphasis mine):

A new philosopher emerged during the early modern period (1450-1650), one who departed from the ancient philosophers to respond the demands of new times. This polymath, the early-modern scientist, possessed an academic and professional education, including natural philosophy, whose objects of inquiry were phenomena deemed wonderful because of their invisible causes effected in the spectator an emotional amazement. He was a layman many times, but many others he was a clergyman who even belonged to a religious order, Franciscan, Dominican, and the Society of Jesus. The presence of this philosopher correlates directly with the early modern conception of a regular but unstable and mysterious world, whose threefold ontological division placed a universal hierarchy of realms: natural, preternatural, and supernatural.

Placed at the limits of the ordinary, extraordinary phenomena occasionally distorted the natural laws causing admiration in spectators. The preternatural category thus embodied those phenomena that did not fit easily into the placid and well-studied routines of the natural world because their marvelous effects were visible, although their causes remained occult —hidden. This inherent but mysterious flexibility of the cosmos made preternatural occurrences so powerful; because of being unusual natural things not ascribed to the divine power, understanding their causes and working was beyond the common human knowledge.


By the sixteenth century, the association of the preternatural with demons fortified the distinction between this and the supernatural categories, astral agents, and other spirits. Because of the same invisible, spiritual matter was involved in their creation, demons possessed enough knowledge and power to act secretly upon natural objects, but were unable of performing genuine miracles. Furthermore, the influence of the magical side of Renaissance Neoplatonism, which promoted the concept of a spiritually elevated magic, reinforced the interest in occult causes in nature and preternatural marvels. Therefore, the magician, preternatural philosopher, and wise man, by means of natural power, could accomplish extraordinary and unusual things manipulating the sympathies and signatures of the world, linking macrocosm and microcosm. This implied the possible contact with spiritual agencies, either demonic or angelic, who aimed at this preternatural power on and knowledge of the hidden laws governing the world for carrying out marvels and then triggering the spectator’s admiration. However, the increasing concern about the activities of evil demons created an atmosphere of uncertainty that could be detrimental to a philosopher as well as to a religious order to which he belonged. The fact is that magic, licit and illicit, was evident during this time because of a strong sense of uncertainty, and it gained importance because of people’s experience of a huge need to solve and explain what they considered an unstable and dark world.

A new idea of purely natural magic emerged in the Renaissance, whose practitioners claimed to exclude the invocation of demons and promoted it with utmost care. Even though scholars and humanists distinguished between both magic and religion, there were blurry frontiers, yet natural magic had to do with religion. Even more, the lower and upper classes, Catholic and Protestant, were well acquainted with the mass of literature pertaining to supernatural facts. Scholars accepted natural magic as a supreme form of philosophy —that is science— except for Erasmus, who openly expressed his misgivings about magical practices and ideas. Practitioners used natural magic as a legal method to look for the invisible, occult forces with a mystical and esoteric sense. They proposed an empirical occultism whose basis was an ancient literary tradition, that is, an authoritative theoretical occultism whose concepts of speculative and natural philosophy drawn from works of leading intellectual figures, Christian writers included.”


The portrayal of this class of post-Renaissance man shows this knowledge as approached almost as an ordinary science would be, with no indication of scruples over danger of delving into esoteric knowledge. Zayas-Gonzáles goes on to note that the movement was started by Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) who promoted “medical magic to manipulate natural objects for desired physical effects”. He also notes Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), who was influenced by Kabbalistic teachings and Johannes Reuchlin’s Kabbalistic writings, sought a pursuit of knowledge which fancied the “natural philosopher a type of powerful magician,” and states, “This understanding made the magus able to handle for the humankind’s benefit of [sic] both the visible and occult properties of the celestial and terrestrial bodies, helped by diverse licit, powerful, spiritual substances using religious ceremonies” (73).

Reuchlin was Philip Melanchthon’s great uncle, and a masterful Hebrew scholar, yet had employed Jewish principles from the Kabbalah in a search of uncovering hidden knowledge and actively defended his pursuit publicly in his writings. Whether or not Reuchlin himself fully adopted an occult worldview or not, it certainly paved the way for Agrippa in his publication of De Occulta Philosophia (1531). [I might also note here that a modern day equivalent of looking for a hidden “Bible Code” (such as Michael Drosnin has promoted) by counting distances between Hebrew letters in the Hebrew Scripture could be considered equally esoteric and gnostic.]

Naudé knew that Reuchlin was known for his Jewish learning from the Kabbalah. In fact, because of his Kabbalistic hermeneutic employed in some of his published works Reuchlin was accused of heresy at one point. This, incidentally, shows the internal tensions within the early modern church between those who saw occult and esoteric knowledge (as the Kabbalah is widely acknowledged to contain) as ‘lawful’ while others clearly did not.

Attempting to Make Magic ‘Natural’

Returning to Naudé’s text, he says concerning his category of “Naturall Magick” that he saw as lawful:

“This is indeed the true effect of this kind of Magick, which the Persians called, anciently, Wisdom, the Greeks Philosophy, the Jews Cabbala; the Pythagoreans, Science of the formall numbers; and the Platonicks, the Soveraigne Remedy, which seats the soul in perfect Tranquillity, and preserves the body in a good Constitution by the faculty it hath of being able to reconcile the passive effects to the active vertues, and to make these elementary things here below, comply with the actions of the Stars and celestiall Bodies, or rather the Intelligences which guide them by materialls, proper and convenient for that purpose.” 

Gabriel Naudé, The history of magick by way of apology (Pg. 21)

After stating that this natural magic is “nothing else then a practical Physick, as Physick is a contemplative Magick” for which “it will not be hard to disentangle it out of an infinite web of Superstitions” he gives an astounding list of opinions about persons and practices who are supposedly safe of such supersitions (including Cornelius Agrippa and the practice of Chiromancy [palm reading!]):

These are no other than what are assign’d to Physick by Wendelinus, Combachius, and the subtle Algazel, and confirmed by Avicenna, who stating the parts of Naturall Philosophy attributes to it, first Medicine then Chymistry, Astronomy, Physiognomy and Oneiroscopy, to which may be added Chiromancy, Metoposcopy, Elioscopie, and Geomancy, that is, the three former to Phisiognomy, and the last, as Albertus Magnus, Vigenere, Dr. Flood, Pompanatius, and Agrippa, would have it, to Astrologie. All these parts, in regard they have some foundation in naturall causes, may be, as these Authors affirm, freely practised, and that without the suspicion of any other Magick then the Naturall such as is allow’d and approved by all, yet provided alwayes, that the professors confine themselves, the most strictly that may be; within the Limits of their Causes, without wandring into a million of ridiculous observations, such as but too too easily creep in to their mindes, who make it their employment.

Gabriel Naudé, The history of magick by way of apology (Pg. 22)

The thing is that this doesn’t look any different than pagan witchcraft. Many of those who practice witchcraft today also see themselves as seekers of knowledge, and not all of them as pursuing what they see as a malevolent aim. A so-called ‘green witch’ is someone who seeks supernatural healing through herbalism and connection with nature. Recipes for remedies (the origin of the idea of a ‘witches brew’) are sometimes collected and practiced in ritual fashion with incantations to attempt to achieve a beneficial result in witchcraft. This knowledge is seen as a beneficial pursuit which requires a secret knowledge of the right techniques to perform.

Accumulations of the knowledge of such techniques were even on occasion compiled into a bound magic book sometimes called a grimoire (French for ‘grammar’). Owen Davies, mentioned earlier, has dedicated an entire book to the study of the history of grimoires as a material evidence of the practice of witchcraft, titled “Grimoires: A History of Magic Books” (2010). It is known from the historical record that grimoires were used by certain people in the church as early as the Ars Notoria.

Jewish and Saracen texts also have been discussed in scholarly literature on this subject as sources of the introduction of magic to Christendom in the Middle Ages. Prior to the rapid increase of books which that came to the West once Constantinople fell in 1453 it is possible that the Crusades served as occasions for fresh points of contact with Muslim texts in various Middle Eastern languages.

Whatever the source, the point is that what we see in these instances in the church look no different than what a witch might possess and seek; and a witch might even argue they have as much ‘good will’ as the Christian who seeks hidden knowledge or arts for healing or general benificence. This should highlight the folly of approving such secret forms of knowledge (which have to be learned) as clearly outside the prescribed doctrine of the Church and in fact contrary to its service and worship of God.

A Brief Conclusion of Thoughts

As I have been reading more on the topic of magic, witchcraft, and Christianity in Europe I have realized this is only the tip of the iceberg of a major series of topics, which are all worth discussing further for greatest historical clarity and truth since there is a modern resurgence of not only neo-paganism but also witchcraft. It is true that the history of witchcraft (particularly in Europe) is indeed complicated by examples in witch trials of false accusations that certain people were witches who were not, and that in reality one could only be prosecuted in witch trials if you were seen as a Christian heretic (thus it only applied to those ostensibly already within the church).4 Yet what is surprising is that at the same time the church occasionally allowed real instances of magic go on in it (involving a perverted redefinition of what magic was), in direct contradiction of its impetus in other times and eras to exterminate all practitioners of magic. Ultimately such teachings did not prevail in the European church, but they had their heyday nonetheless.

Even so, I was encouraged to see that there were other voices in the church who called these things out for heresy; especially that Erasmus and other Christians questioned the categorizations of any “species” of knowledge considered “magic” being something a Christian should pursue. I think it may even be safe to say that the majority of the church condemned all forms of magic, yet somehow practice of supposed benign forms of magic and occult learning creeped into the church in certain pockets, which should serve as a warning to always be vigilant against such influences in the church of Christ.

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” — 1 Peter 5:8 (NKJV)

  1. One such detailed study can be found in Stephen A. Mitchell, Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages, The Middle Ages Series (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).
  2. Naudé, Gabriel, The history of magick by way of apology, for all the wise men who have unjustly been reputed magicians, from the Creation, to the present age. English Translation by John Davies.;view=fulltext
  4. Jews and Gypsies were almost never accused of witchcraft… The standard explanation of this phenomenon is that witchcraft was a heresy, and therefore one had to be a Christian to become a witch.” H. C. E. Midelfort, Witchhunting in Southwestern Germany; “Only a Christian could be a witch.” R H Robbins, Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology ↩︎