The Devil’s Mousetrap: A Good Friday Meditation

I do not know your opinion of Peter Lombard’s Sentences, but it is one of the texts that we read each year in our medieval seminar. He compiled and wrote them (c. 1155–58) for his theological students in Paris. They became the textbook of the high and late medieval church. Students studied them to learn the great Christian tradition, and anyone who would be a teacher of theology had to lecture on them in part or in whole. At the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) they became the official theological textbook of the Western church. Professors (Roman and Protestant) were still lecturing and commenting upon them in the late sixteenth century.

As in years past, this year I was struck again by a passage in book 3 of the Sentences.1 The Lombard writes,

And so we were redeemed by him in whom the prince of this world found nothing. Hence Augustine, conveying the cause and manner of our redemption, says ‘The devil found nothing in Christ by which he should die, but Christ willed to die for the Father’s will; he had no cause for death from sin, but tasted death from obedience and righteousness, and by it delivered us from slavery to the devil.’2

Then Lombard quotes a most fascinating passage from Augustine’s sermon on John 5:5–14, on the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes.

But the Redeemer came and was triumphant over the deceiver. And what did our Redeemer do to him who had us captive? For our price he tendered his cross as a mousetrap (muscipulam); there he placed his blood as bait (escam). For Satan was able to shed his blood, [but] he did not deserve to drink it. And in the cross he shed blood not of a debtor—he was commanded to restore the debtors—he poured out the blood of the innocent; he was commanded to withdraw from the guilty. Obviously, he poured out his blood to this end: that he might obliterate our sins.3

J. N. D. Kelly says, “Augustine is inclined to dramatize” the atonement “by using colorful language which gives a misleading impression of his true thought.”4  Augustine’s “authentic” view, argues Kelly, was that the “Devil owned no rights in the strict sense, over mankind.” When we sinned, we “passed into his power,” which God permitted.5 Christ earned the forgiveness of our sins by his sacrifice, thereby restoring God’s favor to us. But in the act of the atonement, Christ was “placed . . . in Satan’s hands, and when the latter overreached himself by seizing the divine prey, with the arrogance and greed which were characteristic of him, he was justly constrained, as a penalty, to deliver up mankind.”6 Nevertheless, Kelly is right to say that, for Augustine, “redemption lies in the expiatory sacrifice offered for us by Christ, in His passion.”7

It seems clear that Satan knew the cross was his end. Thus, in the temptation of Christ (Matt 4:1–11), Satan sought to seduce Jesus away from the cross. When Peter tried to dissuade our Lord from his cross, Jesus rebuked him by calling him “Satan” (Matt 16:23).

Nevertheless, it is also clear that Satan did all he could to murder our Lord Jesus. As Pharaoh sought to murder Israelite children (Exod 1:8–22), Satan, through Herod, sought to murder our Lord in his infancy (Matt 2:1–18). Our Lord evaded murderous plots against himself (e.g., Matt 26:4; John 5:18; 7:1, 19; 8:37).

It seems that two things are true simultaneously. The murderer Satan knew that the cross meant his own downfall, once for all; but he is so evil and so full of hatred for God that he could not resist the apparent opportunity to murder Jesus.

Hence the brilliance of Augustine’s metaphor. The mouse thinks that he is going to get one thing but, in fact, should he take the bait, he gets something else. So it was with Satan. He could not help himself. Christ indeed baited him with his own blood, which he shed freely for our sake. What Satan in that moment saw as his triumph was really a trap. Mousetrap is a fitting metaphor—or perhaps rattrap might be even more fitting?

The power of the image is that our Lord was in charge at every step. Though he was the Paschal (Passover) victim, he was orchestrating his death. Even as he was redeeming us as the sacrifice, our Passover Lamb, he was conquering the evil one. We need not pick between these truths. They are complementary.8

On Good Friday it is encouraging to remember that, for all the schemes of the evil one, our Lord Jesus had his own eternal plan, which he was bound by an eternal covenant with the Father to execute. He set his face toward Golgotha and never turned away. Sinner, knowing what he did about the wrath of God, about what he was to endure, he loved you that much that he went to that awful mousetrap. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

Death could not hold Christ the Righteous One, but it has conquered the father of lies. Let him rage and lie, and should he trouble you, pick a lowly mousetrap, shake it at him, and laugh.


  1. Peter Lombard, The Sentences, trans. Giulio Silano, 4 vol. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2008), 3.19.5.
  2. Augustine, De peccatori merits sea de baptismo parvulorum, 2.31.51. See Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and on the Baptism of Infants,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 65.
  3. My translation. Sed venit Redemptor, et victus est deceptor. Et quid fecit Redemptor noster captivatori nostro? Ad pretium nostrum tetendit muscipulam crucem suam; posuit ibi quasi escam sanguinem suum. Ille autem potuit sanguinem istum fundere, non meruit bibere. Et in eo quod fudit sanguinem non debitoris, iussus est reddere debitores; fudit sanguinem innocentis, iussus est recedere a nocentibus. Ille quippe sanguinem suum ad hoc fudit, ut peccata nostra deleret. Augustine, Sermo 130. See Augustine of Hippo, “Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament,” in Saint Augustin: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. R. G. MacMullen, vol. 6, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 499.
  4. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 5th rev. ed. (London: Bloomsbury, 1977), 391.
  5. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 391.
  6. Kelly, 392.
  7. Kelly, 392.
  8. It might be edifying to note that the mouse trap imagery found a home in Calvin’s rhetoric. He employed it in another but equally instructive context. In the 1559 Institutes (4.12.12), writing about the over-realized eschatology (i.e., wanting too much heaven now) of the Donatists and the Anabaptists, he observed “this bond remains firm among Christians, all his powers are powerless to do harm, the mousetraps (muscipulae) of his treachery are weakened, and his schemes of subversions vanish away.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011); John Calvin, Institutio Christianae Religionis (Berolini: Gustavum Eichler, 1834).

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    • I imagine a mousetrap in the twelfth century had no spring. It probably was wooden or woven of wood with a one way opening of some type. I believe metallurgy technology for a spring dates to about the early fourteenth century and was first used in firearms to ignite the gunpowder. The bait would be put inside and the mouse would check in, but, as the Eagles put it, not check out. I don’t mean to be a smart aleck, but l don’t think Lombard’s era could have had a spring loaded mousetrap, but Christ is risen indeed.

      • I enjoyed the article, the connection to ransom theory, and Kelly’s interpretation of Augustine’s view.

        As for old mousetraps, one source says springs in the 16th century weren’t strong enough to crush. But they did have a similar “snap trap” with teeth that killed the mice.

        Maybe as far back as 2600 BC, Egyptians made non-lethal traps. I didn’t find much in-between then and the 4th century, but there likely existed various “dead-fall” traps in between. It’s possible they existed and crushed mice in the 4th century, but I’m guessing non-lethal would be more common.

  1. Wow ! Thank you Dr. Clark. It’s all so amazing and what Augustine says is over the top in a good way. I’m always struck by John 10. I lay down My life, no one takes it from Me. I have the power to lay it down and I have the power to take it up again, no one takes it from Me.
    And of course Genesis 3:15. A bruised heal, but the opponent a crushed head.

    I can just see Satan reaching up to take some of Christ life giving blood he purposed to spill, yet restricted from having one drop of it.
    Awesome article.

  2. 4 volumes, and expensive too! Do you use a book of selected readings in class, or is there a recommended resource for gaining exposure, apart from making a 4 volume purchase?

    • Brian,

      Here’s the course syllabus.

      We read selections. I encourage them to buy the volumes since, once they go out of print, they will be very hard to find for some years.

      The students who don’t buy the volumes (2/3 of this year’s class) are on their own to find the readings. They share the library copy. We doing the course as tutorial so that helps (since the students show up one at a time) but it’s not ideal. The original price was more reasonable but inflation is real.

  3. It makes me think of the story of Absalom. Absalom’s rebellion ended when he was pierced through while hanging from a tree. The devil must have thought to himself after that event, “If only I can take the Messiah, hang him from a tree, and pierce him through, then I will win this time.” He took the bait and did himself in.


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