Powers (in Ephesians)

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The “Powers” in Ephesians and the Bible: A Brief Overview

The powers (also called “principalities and powers”) are often taken to refer to the whole gamut of forces opposing God, from Satan or the devil to demons possessing and tormenting individuals. Others view the powers more specifically as God-ordained yet fallen structures of reality that undergird but also undermine human life.

In the NT Ephesians offers one of the largest inventories of terms for such powers. Devil (diabolos) rather than Satan is the designation for the chief evil power (4:27; 6:11; cf. also 2:2, where three terms for this power are listed: the aeon of this world; the ruler of the authority of the air; the spirit now at work among the sons of disobedience). The list of the other rulers and authorities (3:10) is rather exhaustive. It includes every rule and authority and power and lordship and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come (1:21). Ephesians 6:12 lists the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic potentates of this darkness, the spiritual aspects (or forces; lit., spiritualities) of evil in the heavenlies. One might conceivably add to this list coming ages (approaching or attacking aeons, 2:7), darkness (5:11), and less likely the width and length and height and depth (3:18).

The interest in the powers is not unique to Ephesians. Prime examples are the Gospels, especially Jesus’ conflict with Satan and his acts of expelling demons, and of course, the Revelation of John. Of immediate interest for this study are the Pauline writings, where the powers are depicted variously. On one hand, Paul views them as evil: the rulers of this age are responsible for the crucifixion of Christ (1 Cor. 2:6-8). They try but ultimately fail to come between believers and God (Rom. 8:38), since they have been defeated by the cross (Col. 2:15) and will be vanquished completely at the final victory of Christ (1 Cor. 15:24). But even if the powers are experienced presently as hostile, they were originally created by Christ (Col. 1:16) and are to be shown due respect and deference (Rom. 13:3; Titus 3:1; for full discussion of the whole range of powers, see, e.g., Grundmann, 1964; Schlier, 1961; esp. Wink, 1984).

Several questions are raised immediately. Are these texts reflecting the same view of the powers, or are there various powers? Are they always spiritual or angelic, or might they sometimes be human and/or structural? In other words, are they always personal beings, or are they sometimes spiritual forces most easily but nevertheless only metaphorically spoken of in personalistic terms? Are they always evil, or do they sometimes do God’s bidding?

The search for clarity is encumbered by this ambiguity in the scriptural data. The matter is compounded by significant shifts in understanding over the centuries, shifts that have left their mark on the biblical record. Early on it appears that “the satan” could refer to a human “adversary” (e.g., 2 Sam. 19:22; 1 Kings 11:14; Ps. 109:6) or to a heavenly “accuser” (cf. Job 1–2; Zech. 3:1-2; in Num. 22:22, 32, “the satan” is a divine messenger). In short, he is not always depicted as unmitigated personified evil. Only in the few centuries leading up to the time of Christ did an elaborate demonology develop in Judaism. Perhaps under the influence of a Persian dualism, evil angelic powers were understood to be at war with good angelic powers (for specific literature, see Finger and Swartley: 10-2; Hamilton: 987-8; Kuemmerlin- McLean: 138-40; Reese: 140-2). “Satan” became a proper name for God’s evil competitor (e.g., Jubilees 23:29; Assump. Moses 10.1; other names: “the devil,” “Beliar,” “Beelzebub,” “Mastema,” and so on).

By whatever name, the devil was understood to be the “ringleader” (Hamilton) of a hierarchy of demonic angels. NT writers reflect some of this diversity of views. Throughout the NT the “chief adversary” is variously called “Satan,” “devil,” “prince of this world,” “god of this world,” “Beelzebul” the ruler of demons, or “Belial.” Demons, most often noted in the synoptic Gospels, are mentioned throughout the NT.

How does this relate to the powers? As indicated above, it is not always clear whether “rulers and authorities” refers to demonic forces or to “structures” that, however much fallen, undergird human social existence. For the most part, NT writers shared with the larger Jewish community a view of Satan or the devil as the chief commandant of the evil forces wreaking havoc in the affairs of humanity. At the same time, they did not draw clear lines between personal and impersonal forces, celestial powers, and earthly rulers (e.g., 1 Cor 2:6-8), or demonic forces and divinely created if “fallen” structures of human life (Cullmann: 95-114; Wink, 1984; 1986; Yoder, 1994:136-8).

This possible double reference is illustrated in the way the Greek term stoicheia (Gal. 4:3, 9; Col. 2:8, 20; Heb. 5:12; 2 Pet. 3:10, 12) is variously translated as, e.g., “elements,” “ruling spirits,” “ABCs,” and “elementary truths.” The NRSV alone translates the same term as “elementary spirits” in Galatians 4, as “basic elements” in Hebrews 5, and as “elements” in 2 Peter 3. No doubt some of this ambiguity comes about because ancients, Jews and Gentiles alike, saw much of reality as deeply affected by “spirit” or “spirits,” both good and evil. Human life was believed to take place, individually and corporately, in a highly charged spiritual force field or “atmosphere.”

The approach taken in this commentary intends to respect this ambiguity and implicit comprehensiveness. Ephesians well reflects such comprehensiveness. I noted above that in the NT, Ephesians has the largest number of terms for the powers. This conforms, on one hand, to the ornate style of Ephesians (Introduction), and we should thus be careful not to see this as an inventory of the powers. At the same time, such abundance of terms is surely intended to leave out nothing. Just as God is gathering up all things in Christ (1:10), so the body of that Christ is to engage all powers—all forces resisting God’s saving initiative, whether personal or impersonal, structural, systemic, or spiritual. The pointed demand in 5:3—6:9 for an alternative culture in both society and home, leading up to the summons to battle with the powers in 6:10, makes it crystal clear: though blood and flesh are not the enemy (6:12) the struggle takes place in the everyday material contexts of faithful living.

A Variety of Interpretations

Contemporary interpretations of the powers and thus also of Ephesians can be placed on a continuum or spectrum reflecting the diversity of signals in the Scriptures. At the one end is the view of the church’s mission as “spiritual warfare” with personal demonic forces. Evangelism and exorcism are the means. At the other end of the spectrum is the view of the powers as primarily impersonal social and cultural forces, structures, and institutions that bring war, violence, and oppression. Public witness, prophetic critique, and political activism are the means of struggle. Most Christians likely find them- selves somewhere between these poles. In believers church circles, a majority likely tends to the second pole, given the emphasis in recent years on active peacemaking and restorative justice. But a significant segment also believes the mission of the church includes vigorous spiritual warfare against Satan and his demonic hordes. The texts relating to powers are read largely through the lenses of these perspectives.

One can illustrate this diversity among scholars in the believers church tradition. Clinton Arnold, a scholar with Mennonite Brethren roots who has made important contributions to the study of Ephesians and of the powers, defines the “principalities and powers” as “angelic beings, both good and evil, but most commonly in reference to the realm of Satan” (1992a:467). His scholarly work on Ephesians reflects this understanding of the powers as personal beings (1989; 1992; see also Best, 1998:178-9; Lincoln: 444), as does his more popular work on spiritual warfare (1997). This approach is consistent with that taken by the so-called Third Wave movement in mission, dubbed so by one of its leading proponents, C. Peter Wagner (1988; he distinguishes this movement from earlier Pentecostalism and Charismatic renewals). The Third Wave is perhaps best known for its stress on spiritual warfare against “territorial spirits.” (For fuller discussions with an exorcistic view of the church’s mission in dealing with the powers, see, e.g., Arnold, 1992; 1997; Boyd; Page; Wagner, 1991; Warner, 1988; 1991).

Another representative of the believers church tradition, John H. Yoder, offers a quite different interpretation, one just as intentionally biblical. Building on the work of Hendrikus Berkhof’s Christ and the Powers, which he translated from the Dutch in 1962, Yoder views the powers mentioned in the NT as an “overwhelmingly broad totality,”

religious structures (especially the religious undergirdings of stable ancient and primitive societies), intellectual structures (-ologies, and -isms), moral structures (codes and customs), political structures (the tyrant, the market, the school, the courts, race, and nation). (J. H. Yoder, 1994:142-3; 1964:8-14)

Berkhof and Yoder are echoed more recently in the influential writings of Walter Wink, who defines the powers as

legitimations, seats of authority, hierarchical systems, ideological justifica- tions, and punitive sanctions which their human incumbents exercise and which transcend these incumbents in both time and power. (Wink, 1984:85)
In the biblical view, they are both visible and invisible, earthly and heav- enly, spiritual and institutional. The powers possess an outer, physical manifestation (buildings, portfolios, personnel, trucks, fax machines) and an inner spirituality, corporate culture, or collective personality (Wink, 1992:3; see also 1998; 1998a).
They are linked together in a bewilderingly complex network, in what we can call the Domination System (Wink, 1998:36).

Similarly, speaking out of the experience of the war in former Yugoslavia, Miroslav Volf calls the powers

all-pervasive low-intensity evil . . ., the interiority of warped institutions, structures, and systems . . . under which many suffer but for which no one is responsible and about which all complain but no one can target. (87)

Such an interpretation draws attention to how pervasive and insidious these powers are. As social, political, and economic realities, the powers are diffused throughout the culture. Their demonic character rests more in their capacity to control the imaginations and behavior of human beings, individually and communally, than on their transcendent nature or personal agency. Unlike the earlier interpretation, this one rests heavily on Colossians 1:16, where Christ is declared the creator of the powers. Yoder draws the inference succinctly: given that the powers are “in their general essence . . . parts of a good creation, . . . we cannot live without them.” In their fallen state, and in the absolute claims they place on individuals and society, “we cannot live with them” (1994:143). As Wink puts it repeatedly, “The Powers are good; the Powers are fallen; the Powers will be redeemed” (1992:65; 1998:51; cf. Yoder, 1985:114). It is clear that judgment and transformation are more appropriate categories of response to such powers than exorcism. To be sure, judgment and transformation are also understood as spiritual undertakings. (McClain: 38-47, 89-136, e.g., employs the vocabulary of exorcism for such critical engagement with the powers so conceived. For similar interpretation of the powers, see, e.g., Cochrane; Eller, 1987; Ellul, 1976:151-60; McGill: 47-52, 86-93; Macgregor; Mott: 3-21; Mouw: 85-116; Schlier, 1961; re Ephesians in particular, see, e.g., Barth: 800-3; Russell: 119-21; Schlier, 1971:291; Schnackenburg: 272.)

It is obvious that both “worldview” (cf. Wink, 1992:3-10; 1988:13-56) and rootage in various Christian traditions (McAlpine: 3-6) affect both the reading of the Bible and its interpretation in relation to the present task and mission of the church. Thomas McAlpine has identified these with the following typology as reflected in his chapter headings:

• Transformation by Osmosis: The Reformed Tradition
• Over Against: The Anabaptist Tradition
• Expect a Miracle: The Third Wave Tradition
• Sociological Bible: The Social Science Tradition

His typology is helpful in identifying the variety of stances, but his nomenclature is less helpful. For example, present-day Anabaptists find themselves in every one of these categories (as his discussion of scholarship shows; see his extensive bibliography, including among “Anabaptist” types several leading Catholic scholars, thus raising further doubts about his categories).

Clearly Christians are at quite different points in their view of the powers and in the task that implies for the church. Often the whole gamut of perspectives is found in one congregation. Worldviews coexist in traditions, indeed, even as unreconciled perspectives within one person. Sometimes these differences are defined as those between what we might call supernaturalists and materialists, the former typically the ones claiming to be biblical. McAlpine remarks somewhat whimsically but insightfully,

Appeals to simply “believe the Bible” are not very helpful here. For example, Genesis 1 speaks both of a solid firmament which keeps the rainwater in place and in which the stars are placed and of the beasts of the field. Our [present-day] pictures of the world contain the beasts of the field, but include the firmament only with major adjustments. Are the principalities and powers more like the firmament, or the beasts of the field? There is hard theological work to be done on the area. (78)

McAlpine argues that common ground is the best place to do such work. He suggests that to find common ground is itself a struggle against the powers, and for that reason it is critically important to the mission of the church (86). Gayle Gerber Koontz, in reflecting on the divisiveness the strong differences in perspective have often introduced into the church, makes much the same point:

Should we not rather pray that God would form us together into one body whose head is Christ, a body not weakened by divisions resulting from carelessly narrow theological definitions, but one which can stand together strong in faith, hope and love in the face of demonic powers? (1988:93; emphasis added)
Contemporary experience of the demonic in all its forms and formlessness points us—all of us—to this need for extraordinary faith and courage (1988:99; emphasis added).

Whereas McAlpine and Gerber Koontz are speaking to the church’s mission today, they reflect a core concern in Ephesians. Any restrictive definition of the powers undervalues and thereby defeats the central argument in Ephesians, that God’s design is to gather up all things. A full appreciation and a faithful translation for our day of what the author of Ephesians has in mind requires that we not force an exclusive choice between an exorcistic and a prophetic view of evil and the church’s response to it.

Early readers would have related their understanding of the powers to the practices of astrology or magic, in which the rulers of evil and darkness were conjured up to work their power (so Arnold and Best, correctly). But they would also have understood the powers as referring to realities we today quite rightly identify as cultural, social, and political dimensions of dehumanization and oppression (so Volf, Wink, and Yoder, correctly). The task is to remain alert to the demonic features of these dimensions of human individual and social life and to see the struggle against them as fundamentally spiritual. Strugglers with the powers must guard against downplaying or underestimating the spiritual oppression of individuals and families. They must guard just as vigilantly against underestimating the spiritual nature of the –anities, -ali- ties, -ologies, -isms, -doms, and –hoods (cf. Yoder, 1964:8, n.1).

Ephesians assumes that a variety of gifts will dictate how this struggle is undertaken. The author shows little interest in the mechanics of either how the powers affect human life or how they are to be combated. Ephesians does show, however, a very marked interest in wisdom (1:8, 17-23; 3:10, 14-19; 5:15-17), in nonconformity (4:17—5:17), in worship (1:3-14; 3:14-21; 5:18-21), and in standing against (6:10-20). The letter stresses the practical and communal exercise of truth, justice, peace, and the word of God, and finally prayer. These enable believers to preach the good news (6:14-20), which in Ephesians is most centrally the overcoming of enmity within the human community and with God (as in Eph. 2–3!).

In Ephesians, the greatest evidence of the demonic lies in the existence of disobedience to God’s will for humanity (2:1-10), in the hostile and exclusionary divisions in the human community (2:11-22; 3:1-13), and in the darkness of a culture blind to the gravity of license, greed, and falsity (4:17—5:21). We know, as does the author of Ephesians, that the larger culturally experienced forces are the chief culprits in nurturing such hostilities. That is why the alternative cultural forces of truth, justice, and peace are so important. When these are wielded by a community that is in Christ—that has put on the new human—then its very life is exorcistic, casting out evil.

Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld