I’ve recently been reading a book on the theology of evil. That’s an important topic in its own right, though regulars will know my position that the physical creation is neither intrinsically nor derivatively evil (see several 2011 posts on it starting here, and I’m still waiting and hoping for the publication of a proper paper on it). In this blog, majoring on creation doctrine rather than hamartology, I tend to follow the dictum of the late great guitarist John Martyn:
I don’t wanna know about evil
I only wanna know about love
One relatively minor aspect of the book struck me, as it has done before, and that is the prominence given to angelic personifications of power or authority, most notably by the apostle Paul. When I did my series Christological Creation, I noted with some surprise that Paul, when talking about the creation, says far more about these principalities than he does about the natural world (eg Rom 8.38-39). So I thought I would try to wrest them from their usual abode either in “demonology” or, more commonly, doctrinal oblivion. After all, Eddie Robinsom noted recently that he’s seldom, if ever, heard a sermon on the Book of Revelation: how many of us have heard one on these “powers and rulers”, despite maybe half a dozen mentions by Paul and allusions by other New Testament writers? Theological blind spots are often quite significant.
In this case, though, after a brief review of how the Bible deals with them, I want to focus on their intended role in the creation, which hardly seems to have been considered at all, in my limited experience. First, a word to those who may be thinking “angels, schmangels”. Since influential books by Hendrik Berkhof and G B Caird around the time of World War II (years which concentrated a lot of minds on the nature of evil) a prominent and useful stream of interpretation has viewed these powers not as “bad angels” but in terms of the political and other power structures. In this view, to quote John Stott:
Paul himself had begun to “demythologize” the concept of angels and demons, and that he sees them rather as structures of earthly existence and power, especially the state, but also tradition, law, economics and even religion.
In other words, it sees them as the effects of “collective psyche” beyond the power or control of the individual. What induces mildly disgruntled citizens to end up in a mob committing atrocities? Why do some ideas (remember the “Great Chain of Being“?) dominate cultures like a meme pandemic? What is it about politicians from Adolf Hitler to John F Kennedy that enables them to bend millions of ordinary people to their will? It surely doesn’t happen to the rest of us. I think it is quite a useful concept to see power and authority as something more than good or bad men gaining assent.
But Stott points out, and I think he is right, that this impersonal interpretation doesn’t do justice to the specific mention Paul makes of some of these powers being in “heavenly realms” (eg Eph 6.12), nor with the language of punishment associated with them (1 Cor 15.24, cf Isa 24.21). What is clear is that Paul is not simply tossing apocalyptic ideas about in the wind – that is not his style – but has developed some biblical ideas in a way that is coherent to him, though largely unfamiliar to us.
One such idea is that theme in Isaiah 21, that God’s judgement on the earth (24.1) involves punishing “the powers in heavens above and the kings on the earth below.” This clearly implies that whatever these powers are up to, it’s not some separate celestial rebellion but is intimately associated with what’s gone wrong in the world of men. That’s why, whether you accept them as personal angelic agencies or “demythologized” human phenomena they’re important theologically, and not to be quietly sidelined or left to the Charismatics busily “binding territorial demons” to no obvious effect.
To me, a good way of understanding how familar political and social “powers” might relate to angelic agencies “in the heavens” is by employing the concept of “participation”, or what we might call “correspondence”, that I explored a bit in the work of Owen Barfield. In some way there is a link between power exerted by these supra-human forces, and the powers and accountability of humans for their own treatment of others. Pilate has power, but only because it is given from above, and yet he is its accountable wielder, not merely its victim.
What convinces me of the importance of “the powers” is that they underpin maybe half of Paul’s theology of atonement, namely that associated with the concept of Christus Victor, which in slightly garbled form as the “ransom theory” was the main Patristic theory of salvation, and which is increasingly popular today. In Colossians 2.9ff Paul writes:
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority… When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
I would suggest that both key elements of the Cross are here – by it Christ disarms and triumphs over these mysterious powers, but the means by which he does it is substitutionary atonement for human sins. It would appear that, whatever they are, they’ve “got something over us” which the selfless and sacrificial death of Christ “disarms”. Other Scriptures, referring to Satan as the accuser as well as the tempter, hint that the vicious circle is that our sin is justly accused by him, resulting in our death. Since Satan is referred to as “the Prince of this world”, offering Jesus in the wilderness its power structures in return for worship, one supposes that he speaks on behalf of the authorities that Paul means here. Remove sin, and they no longer have us in their power.
But why do they exist in the first place? It seems to me the popular assumption rests on some Miltonian idea of a primordial rebellion in heaven leading to a bunch of wicked angels muscling in on human affairs by sheer main force, starting with a bit of agitprop in Eden involving a pantomine snake. But here, to me, is where it gets more interesting. In Colossians, Paul’s first mention of the powers is in ch 1.15ff:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.
Paul is clearly conflating, as he habitually does, every source of authority that matters to us, whether “the rulers, the authorities, the powers of this dark world” or “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” It would appear that the same phenomenological realities are involved, seen both from earthly and spiritual perspectives. And these authorites, all, were created as authorities under and for Christ – and presumably, since from ch2 we see they have a say in our affairs, they were created for the benefit of mankind, but have somehow gone wrong.
This explains what, otherwise, seems Paul’s (together with Peter’s, actually) apparently odd attitude to governments. Both commend obedience to Caesar, and to any other authorities whatever, as being created by God for man’s good, even though both Jewish and Gentile power structures were clearly antagonistic to the Gospel. Paul is seeing authority itself as an actual “thing”, an element of creation made for us, involving angelic powers with God-given dignity and hence worthy of respect, just like their human counterparts. In both Peter’s and Jude’s letters, concerning angelic powers, you find the same sense of respect for what God has ordained, even though they have fallen into evil and though God – who alone has the right – will punish them in time.
At this point, then, let me try to suggest (somewhat speculatively), the place of these powers in the business of the original creation, and how what God intended for good might have been perverted, not through a pre-creation war in heaven, but through the failure of mankind – the only creature (angels not excepted) made in God’s image.
I suggest that in the original economy of creation the “powers and principalities” were created, like the other angelic beings, as servants for the people created in the image of God, that is in his Son. “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” (Heb 1.14) That means that however personal their power (or impersonal – remember the true personhood of humanity is linked to our being in the divine image), it was intended to be under the control of sinless humanity.
As I noted in connection with Richard Middleton’s book the image of God was intended to be shown partly in the social structures – perhaps even we may say political structures – built as the population of the earth increased. It seems that arrangements for communal power and authority were built into that plan. What happens to that, then, in the eventuality of the reality of sin? Those heavenly/earthly powers were not withdrawn, any more than the ability to make fire or throw rocks was withdrawn. It remained as an invisible, but very powerful, force. Imagine that early man had possessed the power of nuclear fission – the power of authority structures are on that kind of level. Such an idea is consistent with the oldest mythologies of man – it is notable that in Mesopotamia, it was the descent of kingship from heaven that began cvilization.
Only, with sinful men taking the reins of power, one has what my book on evil called a “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” situation. Give the powers distorted instructions, and it’s the equivalent of a madman pressing the nuclear red button. Forget the need to give them guidance at all, and, like robots in a science fiction tale (I have in mind But Who Can Replace a Man? by Brian Aldiss) they are in danger of becoming autonomous. And so in this scenario, our oppression by the powers – a very real theme in Scripture – is the direct result of our misuse of them. The angelic Fall, if such it can be termed, may then be the result, rather then the cause, of our own, if one allows that perhaps even Satan’s original role as tempter was as something like a divine agent provocateur to stiffen Adam’s obedience.
Since we’ve recently discussed the age to come, what can be said about authorities and powers, and therefore authority and power itself, at that time? I suggest that the Cross of Christ does not so much redeem these powers, as render them unnecessary, for Christ himself will be the only source of authority, directly under God and directly for mankind sharing his image:
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.