The Principalities and Powers, Part 1

Paul contends that with the death of Christ on the Cross, there was an overcoming of the Principalities and the Powers (Col. 2:15).  A great deal has been written on this subject over the last 60 years.1 What was for a long time either ignored, or regarded by liberal scholars as a mythological element in his thought, recaptured scholarly imagination after World War II when it seemed brutally and baldly clear that such entities as Paul describes had been let loose on the earth once more in civilization-destroying World Wars. Principalities and Powers are not themselves personal demonic figures, but are rather elements of the creation that in and of themselves bring order, authority, symmetry, and method to the world. Examples of Principalities and Powers would be the state, the family, the clan and tribe, and the nation. In the modern world, new examples of Principalities could be industry and the media. Each of these entities in a fallen creation cease to be subordinate to God as the creator, and attempt to establish their own hegemony and absoluteness. And, in each of these cases, the Principalities are linked to, and become subject to, personal demonic figures. Paul makes clear that in the ancient world, the Principalities were tutors and keepers of the world, and functioned often in a relatively benign way. With the coming of Christ, and with His death and resurrection, the Principalities and Powers are “disarmed and…triumphed over”, and again are called to take their rightful ruling place under the power of the now triumphant King.  While the war has been decisively won, this also initiated new phases of radical rebellion on the part of the Powers, and the church now lives by constant warfare and battle against these Powers through history (Ephesians 6:10-20). There are at least three phases of the conquest of the Principalities and the Powers through history that interest me here. There are many more, but one must necessarily simplify in order to say anything.

The first phase would involve the overcoming of the Powers of the Roman Empire, which was an absolute, and sovereign, and religious power. The Christians by refusing to submit to Emperor worship, eventually brought to the ground the most powerful Empire known in history to that time.  Eventually in the time of Constantine, the Christians ceased to be the persecuted, and assumed the mantle of authority. The principal weapon in this overcoming was generally Trinitarianism, and specifically, Christology. It was in this period that the great Ecumenical Councils defined these doctrines. The high Christology of the church rendered all ancient politics obsolete and impossible. There was, according to the church, only one place in all of history that divinity and humanity met in the same place, and even there, there was no confusion or mingling of those natures.2 That place was of course, in the man Christ Jesus.

Caesarism and all of ancient politics depended on a chain of being ontology. If one imagines a vertical sliding scale, the higher one goes, the more divinity that is included in that being. For Aristotle, the upper emporium of the sky is the realm of divine stuff.  The lower regions are common or vulgar.  Caesars were those who were budding gods, and would eventually ascend to the emporium. All rulers were more divine than any of their subjects. Politics were completely religious. But the theology of the church said that no man could be more divine than any other, or could in fact be divine.  Man being the “image of God” was not a god, but a created symbol or analogy to the Divine nature.  Only Jesus was the God-Man.  Rome, and all of ancient politics stumbled over this great witness (witness unto martyrdom; “martyr” is a Greek word that in fact means “witness”).  And here is a great irony that is now almost universally misunderstood. The origin of the “secular state” and of separation of church and state is to be found in the triumph of Christianity. Because of Christianity, the state is no longer ruled by gods, and these gods no longer rule over the absolute relgious realm, in which every department of life (including the temple, the family, and the economy) were under their rule.  Instead, the state is a limited sphere, is not divine, and cannot be sovereign, and the church is independent, and is a counter weight to the power of the state. Only the ascended Christ is sovereign and absolute. It is no accident, but rather the accumulated fruit of western Christian history, and political theology and philosophy, that the term “sovereign” never appears in the founding documents of the American Republic.

Next, over a very long period, the tribal peoples to the north were converted by the church and came into the fold. A unified new Christian civilization began to emerge, and the church became the most powerful force in the western world.  Then, another overcoming of the Powers became necessary (there are many others, but simplification is essential), and this was an ironic overcoming.  The church herself was transformed into a Power, and the church needed to be overcome (just as Paul states that the Law had become a Power to the Jews of his own day). The principle weapon in this conquest of the Powers was Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith.  Ancient politics functioned primarily by resting on an innate sense of the majesty and worshipfulness of those in authority. They were budding gods.  And while that element was by no means dead or gone in medieval and Reformation Europe (as can be seen particularly in the majesty of the French monarchy over the next 200 years after the Reformation, and the extensive use of the doctrine of “the divine right of kings”), it was greatly weakened. The church by Luther’s time enforced rule and authority by resting on the power of condemnation. Luther summed up late medievalism in his own person as one who was paralyzed by guilt, by the power of the law and all of its judicial authority.  God was an angry and condemning God, and the church was His representative on earth. The doctrine of justification by faith transformed this angry God into a receiving and merciful One, and thereby also undid the authority of the church that relied on the power of judicial guilt.  Just as the early church was granted the power to defy a great pagan empire, Luther awakened Europe to the power to defy the church in the name of the Gospel. It was as revolutionary as the overcoming of Rome, and was in a sense the second overcoming of Rome.

The implications of what Luther let loose are radical. There is a sense in which a negative critic like the great Roman Catholic philosopher, Jacque Maritain is right. The Reformation let loose in the world the power to defy, to be an individual, and to loosen the bonds that gave cohesion to society. There is a sense in which Luther is related to Descartes and Rousseau as Maritain insists, just as there is a sense in which the early Christians aided in the collapse of the Empire, and could thereby be accused of abetting the barbarians (as in fact they were accused).3) When the Powers are overcome, there is a level of disorder that is let loose, for the Powers indeed are governing powers. But further linear development becomes impossible in history without such destruction. One cannot possibly read either the prophets in the Old Testament or the book of Revelation in the New without it being abundantly clear that certain destructions are necessary if the Kingdom of God is to triumph in history.

We have now had 500 years of Protestantism in the world, and 2000 years of Christianity.  The net effect of this double conquest of the Powers is that the world has been both emptied of gods, and the world has been emptied of judicial authority.  The sense of awe and of majesty inspired in a world filled with the divine is gone.  Modern man is bored.  The sense of judicial and ethical and moral authority has also largely vacated the world.  Power is not authority, and it is now a public crisis for all secular powers in the Western world to ethically justify their actions, or even their existence.  Oddly, the emptiness of the modern world is a result of Christianity.  It has overcome the Powers that ruled the world in its minority before the Incarnation (Gal. 4:1-3).  We saw in the 20th century the paradox that when the Powers were overcome, it gave them license to return with a vengeance and with little to oppose them. The great secular ideologies of Fascism and Communism were the demonic comeback of the Powers after the Powers had been overcome.  It was almost as if the Powers restrained the Powers, and now there was no restraint.  Or perhaps what we saw was the great swan song of the Powers in the earth.  Perhaps it was an illustration of the passage from Revelation 12:12b.  “But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short.”

At any rate, what we are left with is only the Individual Man in his new importance and his new magnificence.  Ironically, this was given him because of the Incarnation. But he is now, with his declaration of independence, at one and the same time reduced to nothingness. Sartre, I suppose summed this up better than anyone with his version of atheistic existentialism when he understood with glaring penetration that man as the absolutized one, who longs to be God but cannot be, is “a useless passion,” a nothing.  He is reduced to a cipher.  His subjectivity is everything, and this is working itself out in new pantheisms, and in post modernity.  Old fashioned paganism and desires for divinity may be longed for, but they cannot be called up. They are dead.  And if Christ is rejected, man is dead along with them. There is no other alternative.

This is the reality that we see in the Western world.

Richard Bledsoe is a Theopolis Fellow and works as a chaplain in Boulder, Colorado.

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References   [ + ]

1. Berkhof, Christ and the Powers (Scottsdale, PA:Herald Press, 1962) Marva J. Dawn, Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2001
2. The Chalcedonian formulation reads that Christ is… “in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation…”
3. Jacque Maritain Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau, (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970
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