Christ and the Powers was translated from the Dutch by John Howard Yoder. Berkhof's treatment of the Powers in the NT letters of Paul was foundational for Yoder's own treatment of the Powers in his seminal book The Politics of Jesus. In fact, Yoder mentions in his Translator's Epilogue that his own treatment of the Powers in The Politics of Jesus "is little more than an expansion of Berkhof's analysis." In short, Christ and the Powers, published in Dutch in 1953 and in English in 1962, is one of the seminal works in NT studies regarding "the principalities and powers."
In the work I've summarized on this blog I've focused on the pair "the principalities and powers" (archai kai exousiai). Berkhof focuses on the singular word exousiae, generally translated as "Powers." Berkoff starts by noting the nine instances of exousiae in the Pauline letters: Rom. 8.38-39, 1 Cor. 2.8, 1 Cor. 15.24-26, Eph. 1.20, Eph. 2.1-2, Eph. 3.10, Eph. 6.12, Col. 1.16, Col. 2.15.
Having noted these texts Berkhof asks the obvious question: What was Paul imagining when he spoke of "the Powers"?
Important to note here is that Paul didn't invent this language. The Powers feature in Jewish apocalyptic literature (e.g., the book of Enoch). There the Powers refer to categories of angelic beings. And Paul does mention the Powers in lists that include angels (Rom. 8.38). The question Berkhof asks is if Paul shared this conception, conceiving of the Powers as personalized spiritual beings, or if Paul departed in significant ways from the Jewish apocalyptic tradition.
To answer this question Berkhof begins with the famous text from Romans 8:
Romans 8.37-39In examining this list Berkhof argues that Paul wasn't conceiving of the Powers in any personalized sense. The Powers are listed with a group of fairly abstract forces, things like space (height and depth) and time (present and future). The key phrase is "anything else in all creation." In short, Paul seems to be listing created realities that exert influence and domination upon earth. Berkhof's assessment:
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
[A]ll the list is summed up under the heading "creatures." Obviously Paul means to name a number of realities, which are a part of our earthy existence, and whose role is one of domination...It is clear that these realities are not all thought of as persons, much less as angels. The fact that Paul could weave the names of angelic powers into such a list of abstractions would indicate that his emphasis lies not on their personal-spiritual nature, but rather on...the fact that these Powers condition earthly life.In sum, Berkhof argues that Paul definitely saw the Powers, along with the Jewish apocalyptic tradition, as exerting influence upon the earth, upon human affairs in particular. However, in a departure with the Jewish apocalyptic tradition Paul seems to downplay the personal, anthropomorphic aspects of the Powers.
Berkhof finds additional evidence of this depersonalization of the Powers in the thought of Paul in an analysis of how the Powers relate to the word stoicheia. Berkhof has us consider the relation of the Powers to stoicheia in Colossians 2:
Colossians 2.8, 15-17, 20-21Notice how Christ's defeat of the Powers (v. 15) is embedded in a discussion of the stoicheia, translated by the NIV as "elemental spiritual forces." Other translations of stoicheia:
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces [stoicheia] of this world rather than on Christ...
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ...
Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces [stoicheia] of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?
ESV:Obviously, there is some interpretive variation here and it goes to the point Berkhof is trying to make. Stoicheia comes from the Greek root στοιχέω, a verb which means to order in rows or to walk/march in a line. The idea here is ordering. Stoicheia is a noun indicating something so ordered, the thing that sets up the order or the first thing in the order. From this idea--the thing that sets up or starts off an ordering--stoicheia could mean something like "fundamentals" or "basic elements" or "governing principles."
"elemental spirits of the world"
"the rudiments of the world"
"the elementary principles of the world"
"the elemental spirits of the universe"
That explains translations like "elementary principles" and "rudiments." Where does "elemental spirits" come from? Well, according to many of the ancients the forces that set up and ground the order of the world, universe and cosmos were spiritual beings. Alternatively, the forces that ordered a person's life/fate were the stars and planets. Basically, the stoicheia were the cosmic and spiritual forces that structured and ordered the universe as well as being the forces that determined your fate. Suddenly it becomes clear why Paul connects the stoicheia with the Powers. The stoicheia are examples of the Powers.
Understanding that the stoicheia are Powers that Christ defeated we can return to the issue of how Paul imagined the Powers. Specifically, did Paul see the Powers as angelic beings?
If the stoicheia are Powers note how Paul characterizes them in Colossians 2. The stoicheia are (verse 8) associated with "philosophy" and "human tradition." The stoicheia are associated (verses 20-21) with moral regulations like “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”.
In short, these stoicheia are ordering the moral/ethical realm. The stoicheia are rules, regulations, traditions and moral philosophies. The Christians Paul is writing to are submitting to these stoicheia, something that Paul describes as a captivity or bondage (verse 8). But Christ has defeated the Powers, among them these moral stoicheia. Consequently, there is freedom from the Powers. Thus Paul's conclusion: "Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day."
The point in all this is to note that Paul's conception of the Powers (like the stoicheia) was fairly abstract. Paul wasn't, it seems, thinking about the Powers as angelic beings. Paul seems to be thinking of the Powers more as structures that ordered the cosmos. The concern in Colossians 2 is with the Powers that structured and ordered human moral affairs, things like traditions, regulations, rules, and moral philosophies.
One conclusion we can take from all this is that Paul's conception of the Powers was different from that found in Jewish apocalyptic thought. Specifically, while Paul agreed that the Powers had influence upon human affairs Paul tended to deemphasize the personal, angelic nature of the Powers. In short, Berkhof argues, Paul was involved in a process of demythologization:
[The Powers are] the framework of creation, the canvas which invisibly supports the tableau of the life of men and society.Click for Part 2 of 3
[I]t is obvious that for Paul the Powers are something quite different from what Jewish apocalyptic had in mind..Their angelic nature is--to say the least--not emphasized. Romans 8 and the study of the stoicheia do not lead us to think of personal beings...[I]n comparison to the apocalypticists a certain "demythologizing" has taken place in Paul's thought. In short, the apocalypses think primarily of the principalities and powers as heavenly angels; Paul sees them as structures of earthy existence.