what are “the powers”? the demonic in the new testament
Much has been said and written about the demonic forces that are mentioned sparsely throughout the New Testament. Perhaps it is no coincidence that we live in a world absolutely fascinated by the supernatural. Either way the topic of the demonic, or “the powers”, not only generates strong interest, it also has a powerful bearing on how we approach “spiritual warfare” (a topic I am soon to address on life.remixed).
The demonic is referred to many times in the New Testament. It would be impractical to list them all here. “The powers” on the other hand, often associated with the demonic, are only mentioned a handful of times in in the New Testament:
1. The apocalypses in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 – “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mark 13:24-25)
2. Romans 8 – “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (vv. 37-39)
3. Ephesians 6 (perhaps the most well-known) – “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.” (v.12)
4. 1 Peter 3 – “[Jesus Christ], who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” (v.22)
It is the powers, especially as mentioned in Ephesians 6, which are most often associated with spiritual warfare. What then are the powers?
There seems to be two main ways of understanding “the powers”.
The first is that they are personal angelic beings. This is the view held by many evangelicals, notably John Stott, Andrew Lincoln and Clinton Arnold. According to this view these beings torment believers, and we must do battle with them. Those who hold this perspective generally oppose any attempt to “demythologise” language about the demonic, and wish to preserve the notion of personal demonic beings.
The second perspective is that held by people like Walter Wink:
We might think of “demons” as the actual spirituality of systems and structures that have betrayed their divine vocations. When an entire network of Powers becomes integrated around idolatrous values, we get what can be called the Domination System. [Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 27]
In this view the powers are not personal beings, but unjust systems opposed to God, and the cosmic and idolatrous forces, values and spiritualities that empower them.
This second position is of course not the standard evangelical line, and indeed many such folks have questioned whether it is an imposition of modern Western rationalism on the New Testament texts (that “demythologisation” I mentioned).
So which is it? How should we understand “the powers”? Which understanding makes more sense in light of the passages quoted above (when read contextually)? How might this affect our reading of “the demonic” in the New Testament, particularly the Synoptic Gospels? How might it affect our understanding of spiritual warfare?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the powers.
Posted on August 8, 2011, in Hermeneutics, New Testament and tagged Andrew Lincoln, Clinton Arnold, Demonic, Demons, Ephesians 6, Idolatry, John Stott, Spiritual Warfare, The Powers, Walter Wink. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.