A Commentary by John Stott

Ephesians 6:10-12.  2). Principalities and powers (continued).

In his later two-volume work, however, I get the distinct impression that Dr. Barth is willing to allow Paul a continuing ‘mythological’ or ‘superstitious’ (as he thinks it) belief in supernatural powers. He seems to be seeking some kind of uneasy compromise between the two interpretations. Thus, ‘Paul denotes the angelic or demonic beings that reside in heavens’, although there is a ‘direct association of these heavenly principalities and powers with structures and institutions of life on  earth’. Again, ‘the “principalities and powers” are at the same time intangible spiritual entities and concrete historical , social or psychic structures or institutions’.

My first reaction to this attempted reconstruction, of which I have given four examples, is to admire its ingenuity. The scholars concerned have used great skill in their determination to make Paul’s obscure references to heavenly powers speak relevantly to our own earthly situations. Hence the attraction of this theory, which a number of authors of evangelical persuasion have also begun to adopt. But hence also its suspicious character. For some are sharing with us with great candour the two embarrassments which led them to embrace it. First, they say, the traditional interpretation reflected an archaic world-view, with angels and demons, not far removed from spooks and poltergeists. Secondly, they could find in the New Testament no allusion to social structures, which have become a significant modern preoccupation. Then suddenly a new theory is proposed which solves both problems simultaneously. We lose the demons and gain the structures, for the principalities and powers are structures in disguise!

It would be wrong, however, to reject the new theory because we may suspect the presuppositions which have led people to propound or accept it. What is needed on both sides is more serious exegetical work, for the new theory is ‘not proven’ and has failed, I would judge, to convince a majority of exegetes. All I can attempt here is an introductory critique. It is true that the vocabulary  of ‘principalities and powers’ (*archai* and *exousiai*) is sometimes used in the New Testament of political authorities. For example, the Jewish priests sought some means to hand Jesus over ‘to the authority and jurisdiction (*arche* and *exousia*) of the governor’ (LK.2:20). In that verse the words are singular. Also Jesus warned his followers that they would be brought before ‘the rulers and authorities’, while Paul told his readers to be ‘submissive to rulers and authorities, or ‘to the governing authorities’ (Lk.12:11; Tit,3:1;Rom.13:1-3), in all of which verses the words *exousiai* and *archai* or *archontes* occur together and in the plural. Moreover, in each case the context makes it unambiguously clear that human authorities are in view.

In other contexts, however, in which the same words are normally translated ‘principalities and powers’, it is by no means clear that the reference is to political structures or judicial authorities. On the contrary, the *a priori* assumption of generations of interpreters has been that they refer to spiritual beings. That they are given the same names and titles as human rulers need not surprise us, since they ‘were thought of as having a political organization’ and are ‘rulers and functionaries of the spirit world’. I confess to finding the reconstructions of the new theorists not only ingenious, but artificial to the point of being contrived.