The new principalities and powers #1: Picturing ‘big evil’

The language of ‘principalities and powers’ confuses me. Sure, the New Testament uses it, and it is very clear that whatever lies behind the language has been trounced by Jesus’ death and resurrection. And whatever anyone might mean by ‘principalities and powers’ has been defeated at the cross, so there is no need for anyone to fear whatever it is any more. They are safe ‘in Christ’: they have found a permanent resting place, secure in the Father’s hand. Nothing—nothing at all—can separate them from the love of God found in Christ Jesus.

So there is absolutely no reason to even inquire any further. It’s like the doctor telling me, “You had a cancer. It would have killed you. But we got it. And we got it all.” Perhaps it would have been nice for him to tell me what it was, but I don’t really care. The only real use for knowing that it was a megaloblastoneurocytoplasmiccarcinoma is to give me a label that can be thrown easily into casual conversation. If my friend said, “I have a little sniffle”, I could then reply, “Well, I had a megaloblastoneurocytoplasmiccarcinoma. But anyway, it’s gone.”

But just say, for whatever reason, we want to get at whatever lies behind this New Testament language —just in case I need to throw something else into the conversation with my sniffly friend. What then?

If I was a medieval man (that is, in more than just the penchant for wearing frilly shirts and silly little shorts that balloon out at the hips), of course, the ‘principalities and powers’ would mean the vast array of demons and spirits that inhabited the gap between myself and God—God who always seems so ‘beyond’, way up there in the heavens, not down here in my messy world. Such medieval pictures of the other world didn’t die: they were fuelled by our poets (your Dantes, Miltons, and even your CS Lewises) throughout the ages down to today. Don’t you love the dramatic conflict that drives the (so-80s) novels of Frank Peretti? In such pictures, we humans are just minor blemishes in a universe in which forces much larger than us battle it out at a cosmic level. The future of our world depends on this outcome. Scary stuff!

But I don’t have to start listening to lute music, sit at long trestle tables and eat straight off the mutton leg to see this picture of the universe. Some of the literature that was being read at the time of the New Testament also depicted such wars in heaven. And then there was the world of magic that was rife at the time, brimming over with such cosmic forces. When the Apostle Paul pictured the ‘principalities and powers’ as being dragged along in chains after being defeated at the cross (Col 2:15), many people in his audience would have breathed a huge sigh of cosmic relief: “You have a sniffle? Man, I’ve just been given my life back! I think I can breathe, at last!”

But there is another story being told about these ‘principalities and powers’—especially since the 20th century’s infamous ideological monstrosities filled the world with so much blood and so many ghosts. There are those who speak of the ‘principalities and powers’ as if they are supra-political. It’s sort of like the sum of all evil that is possible when human institutions—good gifts of God in themselves (Rom 13:1-8)—are so grossly distorted by human sin. In this picture, human beings are not just minor blemishes, but major contributors to the cancer that makes the cosmos groan. After all, isn’t this what was happening when the forces of ‘Jew’ and ‘Gentile’ gathered together to throw off the shackles of the Lord and his anointed (Psa 2, Acts 4:23-28)? Sure, it was real, historical, flesh-and-blood people who did the job, and, no doubt, they did it out of very human motives. But, from the ‘apocalyptic’ perspective (that is, when we see things God’s way), this was sinful humanity, manipulating institutions meant for our good (institutions such as leadership, camaraderie and justice) in order to put to death the Son of God. God incarnate was murdered by sin incarnate.

It makes you wonder: is this a new world now—a world beyond first-century apocalypticism and magic? (Perhaps it’s even beyond balloon trousers!) Do we live in a world beyond ideological bloodshed? Who knows? But we do live in a new world—a new day. What will ‘principalities and powers’ mean to many in the 21st century?

2 thoughts on “The new principalities and powers #1: Picturing ‘big evil’

  1. Hey Bolty, I too have struggled with how to understand the whole P & P thing, particularly John Howard Yoder’s take.

    You say that the P & Ps involve real flesh-and-blood people using good things for ill. How does that square with:

    For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:12 ESV)

  2. Can I suggest reference to three books by Walter Wink (a Jesus Seminar contributor):


  3. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, 1992

  4. Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence, 1986

  5. Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament, 1984

    These tomes are substantial, and I have only read summaries, but I understand they critique many of the governmental, business and ngo agencies that drive the material benefit of the few at the cost of many.

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