Christ and the Powers: Part 3, To Resist the Powers Means to Deideologize Life

This is the last post of three sketching out some of the arguments made by Hendrik Berkhof in his seminal work Christ and the Powers, published in English 1962 and translated by John Howard Yoder.

In the last post we summarized Berkhof's view that the Powers were initially created by Christ and for Christ and will be, in the end, reconciled back to Christ (Col. 1.15-20). Thus Berkhof argues that the Powers are not inherently and intrinsically evil they are, rather, fallen and in rebellion to the Lordship of Christ.

So how is the church to relate to the Powers in their fallen and satanic state?

To begin, Berkhof makes the argument that the mere existence of the church is an act of defiance and resistance to the Powers. Resistance occurs where there are people confessing Jesus as Lord of all in the face of the Powers. Berkhof:
[T]he very presence of the church in a world ruled by the Powers is a superlatively positive and aggressive fact...All resistance and every attack against the gods of this age will be unfruitful, unless the church is resistance and attack, unless she demonstrates in her life and fellowship how men can live freed from the Powers.
To resist the Powers means that the church is to exhibit in her life the rule and reign of Jesus Christ over against the "gods of this age." In her life the church rejects the Powers of mammon, nationalism, injustice, prejudice, and oppression. These Powers are unmasked, delegitimized and rejected in the church as she confesses Jesus as Lord of all.  In confessing and living under the lordship of Jesus in the face of the Powers the church "builds a new world in the shell of the old." The church isn't seeking the overthrow and eradication of the Powers but is, rather, creating locations where the legitimacy of the Powers is routinely questioned and where new patterns of social, moral, political and economic relations are established under the lordship of Jesus in the Kingdom of God. And when this happens, when the territory of the Powers is circumscribed in the world by the existence of the Kingdom of God, the church creates a crisis for the Powers:
Just by being simply the church, she is the instrument whereby Christ brings to crisis the rule of the Powers even far outside her borders.
All this goes to the point made in the last post. Resistance to the Powers is about idolatry, resistance is about rejecting the divine ultimacy of the Powers where we live our lives under their direction and rule.

How, then, are we to combat this idolatry?

Berkhof argues that we must "Christianize" the Powers.

Now that suggestion might start freaking some of you out as it sounds like the way we might, say, make a nation come under the lordship of Jesus would be to make a "Christian nation." But that isn't what Berkhof is suggesting.

By "Christianizing" the Powers Berkhof means shrinking them down to size. Again, the Powers serve legitimate functions in staving off general chaos and social disintegration. Cultures, value systems and social contracts (laws, politics) have some positive functions. But they only function well when they are, well, functionaries, tools of service that aid human flourishing. The problem is that the Powers are now ascendant and "in charge" of the world. Humans are serving the Powers--nations, religions, corporations, "our way of life"--rather than the Powers serving us. The created order has been reversed. In the language of Paul we have "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles." As creatures we are worshiping other created things, things we ourselves made, things like America. We built America and now we worship it, live for it, die for it and kill for it. We built this corporation and now we worship it, live for it, die for it and kill for it. We built this religious denomination and now we worship it, live for it, die for it and kill for it.

Just because it doesn't look like a Golden Calf doesn't mean it isn't a Golden Calf. Today Golden Calves look a lot like national flags, political parties, stock market portfolios and church buildings.

So the way you "Christianize" these Powers, according to Berkhof, it to knock them off their thrones, to shrink them back to their proper size, to return to them to their proper function as servants of the greater good. Berkhof's summary of this:
From this discernment there springs forth a basically different way of dealing with creaturely reality. The Holy Spirit "shrinks" the Powers before the eyes of faith. They may have inflated themselves to omnipotent total value systems, but the believer sees them in their true proportion, as nothing more than one segment of creation, existing because of the Creator, and limited by other creatures...In faith life is seen and accepted in its smallness and modesty...

That [the Powers] are "Christianized" means they are made instrumental, made modest; one could even say "neutralized."... [T]he Powers are relativized, made modest. They no longer pretend to offer an inspiring center for all of life...[The church strives] to neutralize the Powers and de-ideologize life...
I like those phrases.

The Holy Spirits shrinks the Powers before the eyes of faith.

To resist the Powers means to de-ideologize life.

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6 thoughts on “Christ and the Powers: Part 3, To Resist the Powers Means to Deideologize Life”

  1. Amen.

    I found VAL's reference to G.K. Beale, yesterday, really interesting as well. When you add to this the notion that we become what we worship, it creates a number of additional bridges into thinking about social collectives. I'm particularly intrigued by a mash-up of this kind of instrumentalizing approach to the Powers, the notion that we become what we worship (collectively as well as individually), and Jonathan Haidt's notion of social bodies as a kind of super-organism that is united through moral perception and moral action. Put that in your head, let it stew, and then read Genesis 1-2 in the context of an ancient world where these morally-empowered super-organisms were forming around people who created, and posed as, gods. Good times!

  2. I'm glad the Beale reference hit home.

    Regarding Genesis (and at the risk of coming across as a book merchant) have any of you read John Walton's work? The Lost World of Genesis, and, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament?

    Quickly, his thesis is that the opening book of Genesis is primarily a functional cosmology and not an ontological one: what things are for as opposed to how they got there. This connects well with the de-mythologizing theme in the current conversation. The lights in the sky are not gods, but a sort of clock put there by God -- that sort of thing.

  3. Another image: The powers are emperors who, elegantly attired (they think), vainly strut about their realms to the general applause of the populace who, in ignorance or fear, play along with the sartorial pretense, while the church comprises colonies of children in these occupied territories that exclaim, "Er, actually His Highness is buck naked!" and challenge others to see.

  4. I think this is especially timely, considering the national mood in the wake of the government shutdown.

  5. I find much to agree with in Berkhof, but I find his solution of "Christianizing" the powers to be a sort of non-solution in today's climate. It is one thing for the Spirit to shrink the Powers in the eyes of faith, but the Powers certainly have no obligation to agree. To put things another way: how does one convince an idol that it is not a god?

    I may be following Kierkegaard a bit here when he says that the ethical cannot fathom the religious. Or, to put it another way, the rational has not the tools to understand the supra-rational; it just looks like another form of the irrational.

    As far as irrationalities go, we are surrounded by pop-psychologies of empowerment. Can the empowered unpower?

  6. Ok, partway through and this is a wonderfully concise and helpful book. I've heard some of this in very general terms, but it is great to see it laid out precisely. I'm intrigued by the notion of "ordering" as a kind of instrumental attitude, but one that is not simply about using something to reach an arbitrary end. This seems to transfer to the attitude toward the powers. I think I'm going to start thinking about this and talking about this as 'functional' instead of 'instrumental', drawing a contrast between ordering something in a way that honors it and makes it productive, instead of simply using it in any way that is desired. Anyway, thanks for the great recommendation!

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