Notes on Demons & The Powers: Part 4, The Language of the Powers

Let's return to the question raised in the first post of this series: What are we to do with the passages about demons in the bible?

I, personally, find Walter Wink's work in his book Naming the Powers a good place to start in answering this question. Specifically, in Naming the Powers Wink presents us with an exhaustive word study examining how the biblical authors describe "the powers." I'll be summarizing Wink's analysis.

The phrase archai kai exousiai--translated "principalities and powers"--occurs ten times in the New Testament. In the gospel of Luke, the only occurrences of the phrase in the gospels, the pairing "principalities and powers" occurs twice. In both occurrences the phrase refers to human political institutions:

Luke 12:11
"When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say...

Luke 20:20
Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be honest. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.
The other eight occurrences of archai kai exousiai occur in the epistles:
1 Corinthians 15.24
Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.

Colossians 1.16
For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.

Colossians 2.10
...and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.

Colossians 2.15
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Ephesians 1.21
...far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.

Ephesians 3.10
His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms...

Ephesians 6.12
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Titus 3.1
Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good...
One notices a couple of things about these passages. First, there are times when the language of the powers is referring to "spiritual" agents (e.g., Eph. 6.12). And on other occasions the power is clearly human, generally a political power (e.g., Titus 3.1). But most of the passages tend to blend the two. For example, Colossians 1.16 clearly refers to both visible and invisible powers, powers in heaven and on earth.

The other thing that one notices is that the language of the powers often occurs in longer lists. In the New Testament these lists include: Chief priests, rulers, people, scribes, synagogues, kingdoms, thrones, angels, authority, glory, majesty, dominion, life, and death. What we see in these lists and associations related to the powers is the continued conflation of the physical and the spiritual.

In any conversation about demons this insight is critical. Too often, church people latch onto Ephesians 6.12 to justify fanciful notions of "spiritual warfare." No doubt, Ephesians 6.12 is singling out "heavenly" powers. However, we cannot understand this language without coming to grips with how conflated, mixed and blended the physical is with the spiritual when the biblical writers refer to "the powers." That is, the notion that demons are disembodied spirits, disconnected from physical manifestations of power and authority, is a distortion of the biblical understanding. As we've seen, the notion of power, even demonic power, is much more closely aligned with politics than with anything we find in the fictions of Hollywood or Frank Peretti novels. If you want to imagine a demon think of City Hall. Don't think of the Exorcist.

But that might lean too far the other way, too close to the demythologizing position. The "spiritual" or "demonic" isn't wholly collapsible into the political or physical manifestations of power. That is what I've been pushing against in the last two installments.

So we are trying to thread a needle here. And I think Wink's work helps us make some progress. We've observed that the biblical language of the powers is a lot more fluid and broad. "The powers" encompass both the physical and the spiritual, invoking them together. In short, no conversation about the demonic can occur without a conversation about a physical manifestation of power, very often a political power.

On to Part 5

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