I'll apologize in advance for the length of the quotation, which is drawn from a favourite essay within a favourite book, Kolakowski's Modernity on Endless Trial, an anthology of selected essays written between 1973 and 1986. The essay, entitled, Politics and the Devil, commences with a brief discussion of the Christian doctrine of existence as a positive good, with evil, therefore, being wholly negative or privative in nature. The devil, then, cannot create either ex nihilo or de novo his own world-order, but must instead corrupt, debauch, deflect, or commandeer institutions or tendencies which have already legitimate purposes, moral and otherwise. Kolakowski's essay traces the moves and countermoves in the grand chess-match between God and the devil, wrought in the sphere of human freedom, as this impinges upon political affairs. We pick up his 'general history of their struggle' on the cusp of the transition to modernity:
One major task of the Enlightenment, among others, was to free politics from the fetters of religion. Since religion itself, by assuming so many political responsibilities and so much power, had become more and more contaminated with secular interests, more and more involved in military adventures, in diplomatic intrigues, and in amassing wealth for wealth's sake, the other part of the assignment was to purify Christianity itself and to reduce it to what was its proper business. This part was to be given to the Reform movement within the Church. Again, two sides of the same Roman coin.
The devil, as one should have expected, was operating relentlessly on both sides of the process, and quite successfully. Within in the Enlightenment proper, his idea was to convince people that it was not enough to liberate politics from religious control and to sever the State from the Church but that the progress of humanity consisted in forgetting its religious tradition altogether and, if necessary, doing it by violence. He gave the Enlightenment its anti-Christian shape and worked out, with the help of many fine and virtuous minds, the idea of humanism, which defined itself primarily by godlessness. Thereby it opened the door to the concept of politics as a sheer vying for power, power being a supreme good in itself; this went far beyond the Aristotelian tradition.
This was the easier and not very complicated half of the devil's job. Properly to wreck and to exploit the ideal of Christianity, which would have gotten rid of the secular pollution and returned it to its original purity, was a much harder task, but the devil proved to be up to the challenge.
The yearning after the innocence of the apostolic faith, after the unspoiled beginning of the New Time, was the most powerful ideological message of medieval popular heresies up to and including the great Reformation. And the destiny of the Reformation was to reveal how the devil took up the seemingly unassailable slogans of the poor Church, of the Church that makes no claims to worldly power and glory.
This happened within a few years after Luther's glamorous entree into European history
Since what Christianity is about is the salvation of the individual soul; and since, according to Luther, salvation is a matter of faith, which is God's gift; and since, further, neither a priest nor the Pope nor the Church as a whole has the power of forgiving our sins - and whatever is done by us without faith is a sin - the conclusion seems natural that the visible Church has nothing to do and should be abrogated. Various radicals of the Reformation drew this very conclusion and blamed Luther, who failed to do so, for his inconsistency. At the beginning, Luther thought only about mending the conscience of the Christian people and seemed to assume that the world, hopelessly corrupted and ruled by Satan, does not lend itself to reform. Once he decided to reform it nonetheless, he was compelled to make compromises, as no material is perfectly malleable, and if we want to mold it to our vision, we have to take into account its immutable qualities; that is, to renounce the ideal shape and think of a possible one, looking for a compromise between the dreamed-of product and the actual stuff we work on. We have to give up the radical dichotomy of "all or nothing" and try to improve the world, thus implicitly accepting that it can be improved and is not incurably rotten, after all. Still, while the Lutheran reform accepted the necessity of the visible Church, it broke with its divinely-protected continuity by doing away with the sacrament of priesthood and with the apostolic succession; it made the Church a branch of secular life. The conclusion was that the Church had to be subordinated to the secular authorities, and this is what was eventually to happen.
This was an impressive triumph of the devil. Starting with the attacks on the adulteration of Christianity with earthly passions and interests and on secular power of the Church, the Reformation ended up with the idea that perversely turned theocracy upside down: it made the Church a maidservant of secular authorities!
That was not all. The Church was supposed to be nationalized, and, as the reverse side of the same coin, secular authorities were sanctified and bestowed with a divine dignity. This hallowing of secular power encompassed all its facets, as we can see from Luther's famous tract on civil authority from 1523. (Snip)
That was not all. The Reformation not only secularized Christianity as an institution, it secularized it as a doctrine as well, which amounted to stabbing itself in its own heart, as no greater abomination could ever have been imagined by its founders. Here, the devil's performance was indeed spectacular. This is how he proceeded.
In order to restore the pristine purity of Christian life, the Reformation rejected outright the tradition preserved in the dogmatic pronouncements of the popes and Councils as a separate source of authority, next to the Bible; the Scriptures were supposed to be the only norm of faith. But then there was the question of who is authorized to to interpret it? In principle, anyone who listens to the voice of the Holy Ghost is capable of doing that. But then the Church, as an organized community, simply could not exist, because everyone, including heretics or the devil-possessed, would make claims to a special revelation or inspiration, and no binding canon could be enacted. Therefore the exegetes, having no support in the historically formed, continuous ecclesiastical authority, had no other instruments for interpreting the Holy Writ but their own reason, which was otherwise condemned, declared corrupt, and dominated by the devil. As a result, in glaring contradiction to its original intention, the Reformation produced the horrifying idea of rational religion; it was to become a hotbed of deism and rationalism. (Snip)
In other words, the devil transubstantiated the Reformation into the Enlightenment: not a mean achievement. God, in order to counteract the dangers of theocracy - that is, of the corruption of Christianity with secular power on the one hand and the stifling of human creative potential on the other - had to loosen the relationship between religion and politics and grant the latter a certain (institutional, we may guess, not moral) autonomy. The devil caught hold of this process and deflected it in two directions, which were eventually to converge: he favored nationalization (and this means secularization or devastation) of religion, and he gave the Enlightenment a strongly antireligious shape, thereby compelling politics to create its own rules ex nihilo and reducing it to the sheer thirst for power.