A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 6:10-12. 2). Principalities and powers.
I have thus far assumed that by ‘principalities and powers’ Paul was alluding to personal, demonic intelligences. There is an increasingly fashionable theory among recent and contemporary theologians, however, that he was alluding rather to structures of thought (tradition, convention, law, authority, even religion), especially as embodied in the state and its institutions. Although a number of German theologians were debating this possibility in the 1930s, in the English-speaking world it has been a post-war discussion. So popular has it become that I think it is necessary first to trace its development and then to subject it to a critique.
In 1952 Gordon Rupp’s book *Principalities and Powers* appeared, sub-titled ‘Studies in the Christian conflict in history’. Writing in the aftermath of World War 2 he contrasted modern man’s ‘failure of nerve’ with the early Christians’ ‘exultant confidence’ and stubborn truculence’ in the face of evil,’ and attributed the latter to their certainty about the victory of Jesus over the principalities and powers. By this expression, borrowed form late Jewish apocalyptic thought, Paul meant ‘supernatural cosmic forces, a vast hierarchy of angelic and demonic beings who inhabited the stars and…were the arbiters of human destiny’, enslaving men ‘beneath a cosmic totalitarianism’. But Dr Rupp went on to apply the concept to ‘the little people’ who in every era have ‘felt themselves to be no more than the playthings of great historical forces’, now in the middle ages, now in the industrial revolution, and now in the twentieth century in which they feel the victims of ‘great economic and sociological pressures’. He concluded: ‘Down the centuries the principalities and powers have assumed many disguises. Terrifying and deadly they are, sometimes sprawling across the earth in some gigantic despotism, at times narrowed down to one single impulse in the mind of one individual man. But the fight is on. For believers fighting there is the certainty of struggle to the end. But there is also the assurance of victory.’ Dr Rupp writes rather as a historian than a theologian. Without any exegetical argument he simply transfers the expression ‘principalities and powers’ to economic, social and political forces.
The following year the Dutch original of Hendrik Berkhof’s monograph *Christ and the powers* was published, following a lecture delivered in Germany in 1950. Its English translation by John Howard Yoder appeared in America in 1962. Professor Berkhof’s thesis is that, although Paul borrowed the vocabulary of the powers from the Jewish apocalyptic, his understanding of them was different: ‘In comparison to the apocalypticists a certain “demythologizing” has taken place in Paul’s thought. In short, the apocalypses think primarily of the principalities and powers as heavenly angels; Paul sees them as structures of earthly existence.’ He concedes that Paul *may* have ‘conceived of the Powers as personal beings’, yet ‘this aspect is so secondary that it makes little difference whether he did or not’. So he expresses his conclusion that ‘we must set aside the thought that Paul’s “Powers” are angels’. He identifies them with the *stoicheia tou kosmou* (‘elemental spirits of the universe’) of Galatians 4:3, 9, and Colossians 2:8 and 20, translates the expression ‘world powers’ and suggests that these are seen in human traditions and religious and ethical rules.’
Dr Berkhof goes on to elaborate his understanding of Paul’s teaching on the Powers in relation to the creation, the fall, the redemption, and the role of the church. The Powers (tradition, morality, justice and order) were created by God, but have become tyrannical and objects of worship. So they both preserve and corrupt society. ‘The state, politics, class, social struggle, national interest, public opinion, accepted morality, the ideas of decency, humanity, democracy’ – all these unify men, while separating them from the true God. Yet Christ has overcome them, for by his cross and resurrection they have been ‘unmasked as false gods’, and ‘the power of illusion’ has been struck from their hands. In consequence, Christians ‘see through the deception of the Powers’ and question their legitimacy, while others emboldened by the church refuse to let themselves be enslaved or intimidated. Thus the Powers are ‘christianized’ (i.e. limited to the modest, instrumental role God intended) or ‘neutralized’. More particularly, ‘the Holy Spirit “shrinks” the Powers before the eye of faith’, so that the discerning believer sees them in their true, creaturely proportions (whether nationalism, the state, money, convention or militarism) and avoids deifying the world. More positively, the church both announces to the Powers by the quality and unity of her life ‘that their unbroken dominion has come to an end’ and wages a defensive war against them in order ‘to hold…their seduction and their enslavement at a distance’. This announcement is Dr. Berkhof’s explanation of Ephesians 3:10 and the defensive war of 6:10-17.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Ephesians: Being a Christian. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.