Powers, Weakness and the Tabernacling of God

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802847706
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 3/28/2001
  • Pages: 176
  • Product dimensions: 6.01 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
1. The Principalities and Powers: Created, Fallen, and Then? 1
2. The Tabernacling of God and a Theology of Weakness 35
3. Churches Being, and Acting as, Fallen Powers 73
4. What, Then, Shall the Church Be? Images of Weakness 123
Questions for Reflection and Communal Conversation 165
Works Cited 168
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First Chapter

Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God


By Marva J. Dawn

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2001 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-4770-6


Chapter One

The Principalities and Powers: Created, Fallen, and Then?

Many events preceding our world's successful entry into the twenty-first century demonstrate the ubiquitous and ambiguous use made of the biblical notion of "the principalities and powers," both in societal and in religious discourse. Though a spiritual aspect is not usually on the surface when the language of "powers" is invoked, the immensity of these forces' influence suggests that the entities being discussed are more than merely human.

For example, just after Thanksgiving in 1999 somewhere between forty and sixty thousand peaceful marchers in Seattle, Washington, protested against the economic powers symbolized by the World Trade Organization. News commentators denounced the political powers of Osama bin Laden, whose threats of terrorism disrupted or disquieted many vacationers' plans, especially after one of his operatives was arrested in Seattle for possessing a very large bomb with the kind of exploding device used in the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City. And in religious circles, fundamentalists of various sorts spoke of the millennial turn in apocalyptic terms and prepared for the last great battle against the powers of evil, usually perceived as personalized demons.

In all three cases, one contributor that greatly influenced people's attitudes toward these events was the power of the media; for example, the nature of the protests in Seattle was outrageously misrepresented. Television stations kept repeating video coverage of a small group of ruffians (not related to the major protests) who smashed windows and looted. Meanwhile, not one television newscast or newspaper report mentioned that there were more than sixty teach-ins offering hundreds of hours of workshops; that the Beneroya concert hall (used by the Seattle Symphony) was sold out for several teach-ins and speeches on peacekeeping and justice building; or that approximately forty different nonviolence training sessions were held by such groups as the Western Washington Fellowship of Reconciliation and New Society Trainers. My own brother and other nonviolent activists turned away as many as twenty people as they stood in front of stores to prevent vandalism and looting. These peaceful protesters knew that the power of violence is larger than the persons perpetrating it and sucks many into its tornadic funnel.

As Tom Yoder Neufeld observes in citing John Howard Yoder, Hendrik Berkhof, Walter Wink, and Miroslav Volf, these well-known commentators offer interpretation of the "powers" language that

draws attention to how pervasive and insidious these powers are. As social, political, and economic realities the powers are diffused throughout the culture. Their demonic character rests not so much in their transcendent nature or personal agency, as in their capacity to control the imaginations and behavior of human beings, individually and communally.

Why should we study the concept of "the powers" here, once more, now? The terminology seems to be pervasive again and reasonably well understood, thanks to the major efforts of Walter Wink. In my own past writings I have discussed the notion of "the powers" in order to raise ethical questions regarding issues that are not dealt with adequately if they are treated only on a material level, rather than with the spiritual response such evil requires.

In this book I am particularly concerned to broaden the notion of "the powers" beyond Wink's emphasis on violence and to look especially at how this broader understanding will help us critique the misdirections churches are taking as they follow the methods of the culture around them. To do this, we will

elaborate why "powers" language was lost in Christianity and how it was recovered;

sketch an overview of the biblical description of the principalities and powers;

outline various hermeneutical moves for appropriating the concept of "the powers" for present understandings;

and consider briefly the churches' stance against other cultural powers.

Chapter 3 will offer examples of the principalities' fallen manifestations in churches in this new millennium. In Chapters 2 and 4 we will look positively at the Church's call to weakness as the locus of God's tabernacling and at what churches could be if they choose that weakness in order to resist the temptations of fallen powers.

The Recovery of the "Powers" Language

In a compelling chapter, "Christ and the Powers of Death," William Stringfellow commented in 1964 on the fact that the concept of "the principalities and powers" seemed to be lost in churches, but not outside of them (50-51). He told the story of one day when he spoke about the meaning of the principalities at the Business School of Harvard University after having discussed the matter earlier with students at the Divinity School. He noted that, though the students of the business school were not theologically trained, they "displayed an awareness, intelligence, and insight with respect to what principalities are and what are the issues between principalities and human beings." In contrast, the divinity students thought the biblical terms were "archaic imagery having no reference to contemporary realities" (51). The students' reactions confirmed Stringfellow's recognition that the powers as a fallen, living reality (52) can be equated not only with institutions (55-57) but also with images (53-55) and ideologies (57-59).

The language of "the powers" fell out of use during the time of the Reformation, when various apocalyptic sects made Martin Luther and John Calvin cautious about eschatology. Then came a trend toward a non cosmic and subjective conception of Christ's kingdom, a movement in which Friedrich Schleiermacher, Adolf von Harnack, Ernst Troeltsch, Johannes Weiss, and Albert Schweitzer were key figures. It is important to note this change: misunderstandings concerning the powers by certain groups induced the Reformers to exclude the language; in contrast, the later scholars rejected the concept itself because the work of Christ was reduced to inward dimensions. Both of these problems continue today and need to be addressed.

The notion of "the powers" began to be recalled, however, when there was no other way to name the extremity of events in the years surrounding World Wars I and II. One of the most widely influential leaders in restoring the vocabulary of "the powers" in theological discussion was Karl Barth, although his work was preceded by that of Johann Christoph Blumhardt and his son, Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt. The Blumhardts' witness that the lordship of Christ includes the social and political aspects of life had been largely unheard or misunderstood in their own time at the turn of the century, but began to be comprehended in the aftermath of World War I.

Several years before the first scholarly treatments of the concept of "the principalities and powers," Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in 1932, "How can one close one's eyes at the fact that the demons themselves have taken over rule of the world, that it is the powers of darkness who have here made an awful conspiracy." Those who were trying to find language to describe the horrors of the times returned to the concept of "the principalities and powers" to express what went beyond modern psychological explanations.

Similarly, in the era of nuclear weapons and the cold war, the concept of "the principalities and powers" began to be used to describe the precarious situation of the world. For example, James W Douglass insisted that "The 'powers' referred to by St. Paul are moving the world inexorably toward a global death. To deny that such is the obvious direction of the world is to succumb to idealism."

Indeed, the horrors of modern Western civilization have required a closer look at the principalities and powers in order to formulate more realistically an effective Christian ethic for these times. Amos Wilder of Harvard asserted that the concept of "the powers," rather than obfuscating or impeding the relevance of New Testament eschatology or Christology, instead emphasizes the urgency of applying the gospel to the world of power structures in which we live.

As the language of "powers" has been reintroduced to name the evils of our times, however, it has also been reduced in various ways - merely to "personal beings" or "demons," as popularized by the novelist Frank Peretti, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, to institutions and structures, without regard for overarching supernatural dimensions. It is essential to recover here the larger frame of reference in the biblical record. The immense scope of the powers is suggested by William Stringfellow in An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, in which he offers the following descriptions of the principalities:

legion in species, number, variety, and name;

creatures that are fallen (meaning that they thrive in chaos, confusion, and competition);

an inverse dominion (one that works backwards - not to foster life, but to dehumanize);

not benign, but aggressive;

causing all to be victims (with or without their knowledge);

capturing leaders as acolytes enthralled by their own enslavement;

engaged in rivalry with each other since their very survival is always at stake;

and creating a new morality of survival.

What ARE the Powers?

It is not possible in one short chapter to show adequately the wide divergence in interpretations of biblical passages concerning the principalities and powers. Both because the language is used in a wide variety of ways in the New Testament texts and because of differing presuppositions on the part of scholars, there is extensive disagreement over such aspects as the nature or essence of the powers, how and when the powers might be defeated, and whether the powers will be ultimately destroyed or reconciled. We will consider only a few of the debates that are crucial for our purposes here.

The most important biblical texts concerning the powers offer us this sketch:

Colossians 1:16 The powers are created for good. Romans 8:19-22 As part of the fallen creation, the powers share in its brokenness, participate in its destructions, overstep their proper bounds, and groan for release. Romans 8:38-39 No matter how strong, the powers cannot separate us from God's love for us in Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:25-26 Death is one of the cosmic enemies to be subjected to Christ. Colossians 2:13b-15 Christ disarmed the powers, exposed them, and triumphed over them. 1 Peter 3:22 Powers and authorities (grouped here with angels, which prevents us from losing sight of their larger dimensions beyond earthly materiality) are made subject to Christ. 1 Corinthians 2:8 The other side of the dialectic is given here: that earthly rulers (principalities) crucified the Lord of glory. This text also underscores the powers' functioning in religious, as well as political, spheres. This alerts us to the disturbing fact that churches today can similarly be principalities acting for evil instead of good. Ephesians 6:10-20 We must stand against the powers and resist them by means of the armor of God. (This text is so critically important that we will consider it extensively in Chapter 4.)

What kinds of truth does the imagery of the powers convey? This question has been clouded over by centuries of medieval and modern art and literature that interpreted the biblical concept graphically (and often erroneously). One thing seems sure, however. Oscar Cullmann stressed that the invariable mentioning of the powers in a decisive place in all of the earliest formulations of faith (which provide the only objective criterion for determining what the first Christians considered essential) must cause us to recognize the importance for the early Church of Christ's victory over the powers. 13 I believe that it is crucial for churches in this new millennium to recover this doctrine - essential for the earliest Christians! - if we want to fulfill our true identity as Church.

Why Recognizing the Powers Is Essential Today

During the time when scholars were first recovering the notion of "the principalities and powers," James S. Stewart suggested in a path-breaking article still relevant today that something vital had been lost in Christian anthropology by the reduction of the concept to mere apocalyptic imagination.

Stewart claimed, first of all, that the sense of a cosmic battle manifested visibly on the stage of world events had been lost. More significant, he continued, was the loss with respect to the doctrine of the atonement. Theologies stressing only the revelatory dimension of Christ's death have not taken seriously the New Testament focus on the demonic nature of the evil from which humankind must be redeemed. Thus, a basic component of the Christian gospel has been sidelined as extraneous. Stewart underlined this New Testament concentration as follows:

The really tragic force of the dilemma of history and of the human predicament is not answered by any theology which speaks of the Cross as a revelation of love and mercy - and goes no further. But the primitive proclamation went much further. It spoke of an objective transaction which had changed the human situation and indeed the universe, the kosmos itself. It spoke of the decisive irrevocable defeat of the powers of darkness. It spoke of the Cross ... as the place where three factors had met and interlocked: the design of man, the will of Jesus, the predestination of God.... [T]his three-fold drama can be understood only when the New Testament teaching on the invisible cosmic powers ... is taken seriously and given due weight. (294-95)

This emphasis in Stewart is critical for my purposes here, for contemporary reductions of the doctrine of the atonement display the working of the powers themselves to diminish our understanding of the powers (as will be discussed in Chapter 3).

Stewart then analyzed the various elements of visible historic forces - namely, the religious leaders, Jewish and Roman politics, and the crowd (i.e., social forces) - which served as agents of more sinister invisible powers (295-96). Next, he showed why the concept of "the principalities and powers" is essential for understanding the incarnation, life, teaching, and ministry of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. Only by meeting the cosmic forces on the ground of history where they were entrenched could Jesus break their power (297-99).

Finally, Stewart asserted that the only valid doctrine of the atonement could be one that is linked to a full New Testament Christology recognizing that God reconciled the world in Christ. Thus, the concept of "the principalities and powers" effectively eliminates dualism since the New Testament emphasizes, especially in Philippians and Colossians, that Christ has conquered the powers and displays his lordship over them (299-300).

Stewart's article underscores the importance for theological and biblical studies of restoring the concept of "the principalities and powers," but it does not contribute to helping us know how the question of the nature of the powers should be answered in the twenty-first century. We will look at several prominent approaches to that question next.

The Range of Perspectives before Walter Wink

Cullmann's and Stewart's work underscored the critical importance of the concept of "the principalities and powers" for the Church's doctrine and life. But the difficult question remains of how the hermeneutical gap between this essential emphasis in the early Church and current theological directions can be bridged. Throughout the past fifty years interpretations of the notion of the "powers" have been spread between two poles. On one side were such scholars as Rudolf Bultmann, Ernst Kasemann, G. H. C. MacGregor, and Amos Wilder, all of whom agreed that the concept of "the principalities and powers" must be demythologized, though MacGregor and Wilder rejected the specific demythologizing of Bultmann. Most notably, in the first volume of his Theology of the New Testament, Bultmann calls the biblical statements about the powers "mythological" and asserts that the powers have no existence except for those who let them be significant.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God by Marva J. Dawn Copyright © 2001 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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