Engaging the Powers, a study of Scriptural Themes
by Denis Carter SSC
based of the works of John Barton, and Walter Wink
outline of the study
Below are the audio .mp4 and texts files of the 1st session recorded on the 24th February 2021
The Powers in mythological context
The Myth of Redemptive Violence.
The Origin of the Domination System (Kosmos)
Naming the Domination System (Kosmos Aion Sarx)
The Powers, (Created Good, fallen, Redeemed)
Unmasking the System (Delusional Idolatry)
Jesus and the Reign of God (equality, healing, non-violence sacrifice)
Victory of the Cross (breaking the spiral of violence)
What are the ‘Powers?’
what do we understand as the powers?
In the bible the term is used many times to describe forces at work in the world that control and influence humanity, society and world events.
The ancients used the term to mean a merging of both spiritual and material forces. But there is no definition or explanation of the meaning any where in the scriptures. And modern western scholars have always tried to interpret the powers, principalities and elements as merely spiritual.
Gods, Angels, Demons Ghosts and spirits, were understood and accepted by the ancients as the elements that determined all life.
Eph.3:8- 11. I, who am less than the least of all the saints have been entrusted with this special grace, not only of proclaiming to the pagans the infinite treasure of Christ
but also of explaining how the mystery is to be dispensed. Through all the ages, this has been kept hidden in God, the creator of everything. Why?
So that the Sovereignties and Powers should learn only now, through the Church, how comprehensive God’s wisdom really is, exactly according to the plan which he had had from all eternity in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We tend to think that the ancients believed in these sovereignties and powers, as a way to explain the world they did not understand, as we do today, with our more mature science and better tech.
But maybe the reality is that they were much more in touch with the elements of the universe than we are.
Is it hard for us to see the principalities and powers as anything but imagination and not real forces.
Then how to explain the great popular interest in the occult, in stories of demonic battles, magic, witches and the like. It is almost as if there is a great psychological need in us for these to be true.
There is a major gap between ourselves and the writers of the Biblical texts in their world view and the meaning of these words. It is a gap that we as students of the scriptures and of our God really must bridge. We cannot interpret the scriptures using our modern world view of science and nature. We must go back to understand the meaning of the world as they did and to see the world as they did.
Doing that will change our understanding of the power of the Scriptures and revolutionise our belief in God and humanity’s relationship with our creator.
The Language of Power in the new Testament.
Archai kai exousiai = principalities and powers, is seen throughout the New Testament, arche’ referrers to human rulers 8 times and to divine rulers about 24 times.
Archon is used for the Prince of Demons and for Jewish leaders in Matthew and John
Matt. 20: 25, Acts 4:8, 4:26, Rulers and kings, elders (Archontes)
Mk. 10:42 hoi dukountes archien (those who supposedly rule and great men.
Rom. 8:38 (Archai), Angels and principalities
Acts 4:7, 1Cor.1:24, Luke 9:1, Rev. 17:13 Powers = Dynamin,
World Rulers = Kosmo kratoras.
Acts 26:12. Exousias= Authority. In the New Testament, 85% of its use is about a structural dimension of existence. The majority of its use is not about spiritual beings but ideological justification, political and religious legitimisation and delegated permission for authority.
The Greek terms are somewhat fluid and meaning can change according to context and could and were used in referring to both temporal/ human and spiritual powers.
There are many more references but we will get to them later as we discuss the scriptures in the light of the meaning of these words in their context.
Unfortunately, for too long there has been a common translation of all these terms to be spiritual while these terms in use by the Greeks and others of the time, always referred to an incumbent in office, or the structure of power , government, kingdom, realm or dominion.
Dynamis= Power. Mostly used for military or political power. By extension also used for the angelic army or host of God, heavenly hosts. In some of the disputed texts of Paul, 1Cor. 15:24, Eph. 1:21, and 1 Peter 3;22. the use could mean evil power. So in later writings of both Christian, orthodox and Gnostics we see a focus on the spiritual dimension of the powers no longer being agents of God but God’s enemies, evil spirits / powers in a cosmic struggle with God.
Rom. 8:38-39. For I am certain of this: neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, or height or depth, nor any created thing, can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Myth of Redemptive Violence.
It is a modern bias to separate the physical from the spiritual, but for the ancients reality was a seamless robe, a continuous interactive reality.
The physical matter, spiritual energy, life force, nature, the world, was understood as being part of the whole of creation. Not separate bits but a unified whole, interconnected with the creator.
Different cultures and times, thought and reason came up with variations and differing creation stories to explain the way things worked.
A common thread for almost all of humanity around the planet, is the notion of a supreme creator.
Some peoples developed an idea of a group of deities, ruled by a Father God . The minor gods were responsible for different aspects of the world and nature. Gods that controlled the seas, the air, the land, fertility, war, death-life of creatures and tribes and ethnic groups.
But nearly always there was a ruling deity over the minor gods that existed in a kingdom beyond this world outside of our perception of time and space.
For some of the earliest civilisations this physical world was thought to be a mirror of the spiritual that worked both ways. Events in the heavens were mirrored on earth, wars on earth were extensions of the cosmic wars between the deities. The actions of the gods influenced and determined the events on earth. Ritual actions here influenced the gods to look with favour, on a particular people and on their desires. Sometimes the rituals were an attempt to control the gods as in trying to claim the god for their own exclusive protection. [what god is as great as our God?] there are many variations of that idea in the OT.
Violence is the dominant force today as it has been for thousands of years. It a religion with it’s own rules and rituals.
It demands total obedience even to the devotees willing to die to uphold the myth that violence is the way to peace. Violence seems to be accepted as the only way since it appears to work. The threat of violent retaliation keeps the peace. It is the nature of the world.
Where does this idea come from?
We must go back to the origin of the oldest religion in the world to Mesopotamia, the time of Babylon and their creation stories, such as the Enuma Elish,an epic saga of the creation of the world (Kosmos). The story of Tiamat and Marduk. [The texts we have today are dated to about 1250 BC but they are much, much older. There are significant similarities with the Hindu creation stories which may predate it, with the Norse sagas and Japanese myths].
Jesus taught that we should love our enemies, But the ancient world of Mesopotamia taught extermination of one’s enemies is the only solution.
For them violence was the central dynamic of existence. Life is cruel, nature is violent, the earth is violent, floods earthquakes, volcanoes, storms. Chaos threatened every one’s attempt to bring some semblance of order to their lives. From this perception the creation myth of Tiamat and Marduk is told to explain the violence of the cosmos. Tiamat, the primeval serpent, the female symbol of chaos and evil. Marduk, a minor god is elected to defeat Tiamat in exchange he becomes the ruler of the Gods. From the murder of Tiamat by Marduk and the dismemberment of her body, physical creation comes into existence. A prisoner god is murdered, his blood is mixed with the soil making humans to become the slaves of the gods. Chaos is defeated by Marduk and order is established, a paradox in that it was through the violence and chaos of war that the rule of Evil, Violence and Chaos is defeated. So existence is created from evil and the actions of an evil, violent god. In this myth the primal force of nature is evil.
Violence was seen to work and was and is worshipped.
In this creation story, humans are made from an act of evil, it is in our blood to be violent and to kill. We are made by a god from the blood of a murdered god. We are not responsible for evil in the world but the product of evil. The human task then, is to produce food to be sacrificed to the gods by way of the representatives of the gods, the priests and the king. Sometimes that sacrificial food is a human being. The king is through ritual to re-enact the war of the gods to constantly bring order out of chaos. There must be a death to bring peace, the king must subdue or destroy all enemies to maintain order and dominance. The system of dominance politics is a cosmic rule and can only be maintained through constant conflict and expansion of the rule. The basic ideology of the domination system is that the gods favour the conqueror. People exist to serve and perpetuate the power of the gods through conflict and war. Through the idea that might is right.
The Hebrew exiles in Babylon [Modern Iraq] were well aware of this creation story in the Enuma Elish and the Gilgamesh Epic, but it was alien to their experience of their God, Yahweh.
Up until this point in time they had no coherent creation story. For the Hebrew people their history begins with Abram and Sarai, obeying the voice of God to leave their city culture and become nomadic, to spend the rest of their lives as wanderers with a vague promise of becoming a nation and to be settled in a land that would be their home.
Their God was active, involved personally in their lives and communicated with them. Yahweh/ Elohim treated them as children and cared for them, even if at times punishing them as a parent punishes a wilful child.
For the Hebrew people the created world was designed and maintained by God. They took the Babylonian Myth and turned it on it’s head. The cosmos was created by a loving God that made everything good. There was no evil, chaos was not evil, just formless.
The chaos of an unformed cosmos was overcome by a word of love not violence. The elements of the myths were used to explain the problem of evil in the world, through the stories of the garden of Eden and Adam and Eve. Gilgamesh in that epic, searches for immortality and finds the Garden of Eden with a couple of immortals living there. They gained their immortality through the snake/ serpent, but are not able to have children, since procreation of immortals would be a disaster and unsustainable for the world.
It follows logic that if everything was made good, there is a problem. There really was evil in the world, there was the reality of death. It was obvious that some people were destructive and bad and the forces of nature seemed to have no care for humanity,so who or what made evil?
The ideal paradise created by a good and caring God became corrupted. For the Hebrew people their experience of Yahweh, showed that the troubles they faced came from their own disobedience of God’s Law, they were to blame.
It is widely accepted now by most Scripture scholars that it is during the exile period [6th- 5th Century BC] that reflection on the origins of the Hebrew people started to take shape and recorded their folk memory of their history. What little written records of the times of Moses, the Judges, prophets and kings were organised and collated, The editors not wanting to lose anything from the different traditions, included what they had, to the effect that some of the texts seem to either contradict or jar in style and content. In the book of Exodus, Yahweh is thought of as a god of war and as a god of thunder. Ex. 15:1-15. 19.
What these texts show is the reality that as a people they were always in conflict with the the surrounding populations, as they tried to remain faithful to the covenant with God and at the same time adapt to and claim the land they occupied. And when they resorted to the same tactics of their enemies they lost. [as when they entered the promised land to become farmers, they adopted the local fertility gods.]
In-spite of what seems to contradict, what emerges is the understanding that they were a people that their God, Yahweh/ Elohim, adopted and claimed, so that they would be different from all other people, in their way of life and relationship with each other and God.
Take a look at modern myths of redemptive violence. The cartoons and films of the early and mid 20th Century. Popey and Bluto, Tom and Jerry, the Cowboy and Indians, the war films
Superman (Kal El, a Jewish name),
1938 With Hitler’s rise in Europe with his anti-Semitic words and the negative stereotypes of Jewish people, pushed Siegel and Shuster to make a hero that defended the weak. They often would portray Superman, an other world being, protecting the weak and those who were mistreated. He was a hero the world needed as World War II began in Europe
Captain America, an enhanced human, Batman a vigilante, highly trained in martial arts and technology , Green Lantern, a human given super powers by aliens, Captain Marvel taken to another world infused with alien energy, and so on. All of them as individuals or together fight superior forces, to restore order from the chaos of super evil villains.
The Babylonian Myth of redemptive violence is alive and thriving, evil violence is overcome by the hero’s violence, a just might against a bad might. Little Popeye defeats the bigger villain Bluto, Little Jerry mouse always gets the better of Tom the Cat. It goes on and on, a never ending of fight after fight, revenge and retaliation, between indestructible adversaries. Battle after Battle in a never ending War.
In every story the formula is the same, the hero in trying to defend the weak, is almost defeated and villain appears to have won and gloats but the hero escapes and in the last moments beats the enemy and order is restored. In psychological terms we the onlooker initially identifies with the hero. But we are able to project our anger and violence and live out our repressed feeling with the aggressor while he seems to be winning. And when the hero finally wins we can reassert our self control and salvation is guaranteed by identifying with the hero.