Christ and the Powers | Reflections & Notes

Hendrik Berkhof, John Howard Yoder [translator]. Christ and the Powers. Herald Press, 1962. Originally published in 1953 under the title Christus en de Machten, by G. F. Callenbach N. V. of Nijkerk, The Netherlands. (79 pages)


Christ and the Powers was one of the first books that challenged my early mythological assumptions about Christianity. The Platonic and dualistic worldview that encapsulated my nascent Christian expression immediately after my conversion (not that I understood it this way in high school), held strong for several years; heaven and hell, demons and angels, this world and that world, saved or unsaved, etc. Berkhof’s insights were a significant paradigm shift in that theology, a foundation laid to which I am still indebted to this day.

In sum, the emerging Christian religion “demythologized” the worldviews of the early adherents of this religion allowing a new perspective on the human condition. This one–quite significant–shift allowed followers of Jesus to subvert the human systems and structures of existence through their “this world” view of redemption and salvation. In a world of democracy, capitalism, and digital technologies, this kind of “demythologization” is desperately needed, for they are “Powers” to which our humanity is subject. We can–we must?–still imagine again, what it would be like to be subject to Christ, rather than these “Powers.”


Translator’s Preface

…the task of Christian scholarship is to study the biblical sources before and not after making a decision about their relevance… (6)

1. The Powers as a Challenge to Christian Thought


The Apostle Paul repeatedly alludes to cosmic powers which play a definite role in relation to his faith in Christ. For the present we must let this vague phrase suffice to describe the realities we are about to study. Paul calls them “Powers” (exousiae) [εξουσις] in addition to various other names. (13)

…various sorts of (14) Powers, or various functions, or various names for more or less inclusive classifications. (15)

The Renewed Significance of the Powers

In the last century little attention was devoted to this part of Paul’s faith and thought. Either one read therein the confirmation of a conventional orthodox doctrine about angels and devils, or else they were seen as vestiges of antiquated mythology in Paul’s thought,… (15)

…we do find a very distinct relatedness to certain lines of thought in the Jewish apocalyptic writings of Paul’s time and the immediately preceding years. These writings, devoted to the exposition of heavenly mysteries, conceive of the “powers,” “thrones,” and the like as classes of angels located on higher or lower levels in the heavens. (16)

We may therefore conclude that Paul’s “Powers” terminology is not of his own invention. … We may in fact definitely assume that details in this terminology, which sound obtuse and even meaningless, were then clear and significant. (17)

Thus the problem arises, whether or not to what degree he gave to them a content differing from what they currently meant. …let us summarize what was essential to the view of the Powers found in the apocalyptic and rabbinic writings. Two things were always true of the Powers: (1) they are personal, spiritual beings and (2) they influence events on earth, especially events within nature. … We must read from the words of Paul himself what the Powers meant to him; only then may we say whether and to what extent he shared current conceptions. (17)

2. Paul’s Conception of the Powers

cf. Romans 8:38.

…then all the list is summed up under the heading “creatures.” Obviously Paul means to name a number of realities, which are a part of our earthly existence, and whose role is one of domination. (18)

cf. 1 Corinthians 3:22; 2:8

It seems evident, and is almost always said by commentators, that “rulers of this age” in this verse are not men, but superearthly realities identical with the “Powers” of which Paul speaks elsewhere. Here–in contrast to Romans 8:38 f.–they have a definitely personal aspect; they crucified the Lord of glory. Yet at the same time Paul’s accent still seems to fall on the relation between the Powers and human history. (19)

cf. Colossians 2:8, 14ff., 20ff.

…stoicheia [στοιχεια]… For the present let us translate broadly–“world powers.” The powers rule over human life outside of Christ. They are manifested in human traditions (verse 8), in public opinion which threatens to entice the Christians in Colossae away from Christ. (20) … All of this may be summed up as “prescriptions and doctrines of men.” … In verse 14 these structures are spoken of as the way in which the principalities and powers rule over men; or rather the powers are the structures. (21)

…it is obvious that for Paul the Powers are something quite different from what the Jewish apocalyptic circles had in mind. …it shows that in 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 earthly existence. (23)

Powers and Angels

But even should we be convinced that this “personal” way of speaking should be taken in full seriousness, it is still obvious that the pagan religious context, within which the personal character of these beings was most meaningful, is absent for him. (24)

For what would we have to think of the “Powers” if we also thought of them as angels? Are they then good angels? Most have answered in the affirmative. But then what shall we do with the texts which speak of victory over, or combat with the Powers? How shall we understand that “all rule and all authority and power must be dethroned” as enemies? 1 Corinthians 15:24. If, on the other hand, we were to think of the fallen angels, how should we then explain the positive statements, which throw light upon their relation to creation, preservation, and reconciliation? more broadly, how could we connect “angels,” as Paul does the Powers, to “present and future, life and death,” “touch not, taste not?” There are too many difficulties to permit a careful theologian to think of taking seriously all that Paul says as describing the nature and function of angels. (25)

| The conclusion is obvious; we must set aside the (25) thought that Paul’s “Powers” are angels. (26)

…we remember that the word angelos [αγγελος] means more generally “messenger.” It points not to a category of beings but to a function. (26)

3. The Powers and the Fallen Creation

cf. Colossians 1:15-17

Paul’s use of four names is a definite allusion to the angelic hierarchy, (27) which was imagined in terms which were apparently related to those in Enoch. … Paul does not reject the Powers as pagan imaginings. (28)

Creation has a visible foreground, which is bound together with and dependent on an invisible background. (28)

We read, “All things have their being in Him.” The Greek verb is synhesteken [συνεστηκεν], related to our word “system.” Christ–and not the Powers themselves–is the system of creation. In subjection to Him, who is “head” and “beginning” (verse 18), everything is in its proper, divinely intended place. Then the Powers serve as the invisible weight-bearing substratum of the world, as the un-(28)derpinnings of creation. By no means does Paul think of the Powers as evil in themselves. They are the linkage between God’s love and visible human experience. (29)

The Powers and the Fall

When Paul writes that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, not even the Powers, he presupposes that the nature of the Powers would be to do just that, to separate us from love. (30)

The Powers which rule our life, though not divine, exercise their dominion from above. We ourselves say, even more literally, that “something is in the air.” (32)

…in every realm of life these Powers which unify men, yet separate them from God. The state, politics, class, social struggle, national interest, public opinion, accepted morality, the ideas of decency, humanity, democracy–these give unity and direction to thousands of lives. Yet precisely by giving unity and direction they separate these many lives from (32) the true God; they let us believe that we have found the meaning of existence, whereas they really estrange us from true meaning. (33)

The Powers and Conservation

Thus in the world alienated from God the Powers have a very positive function. They keep men alive. (34)

4. The Powers in Redemption

When Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead, and since then wherever this saving event is proclaimed, the domination of the world powers is at an end. (36)

Atonement here is not only (as elsewhere) a redemption of the sinner from guilt, but especially liberation from slavery and the powers of fate. (37)

Now that the true God appears on earth in Christ, it becomes apparent that the Powers are inimical to Him, acting not as His instruments but as His adversaries. (38)

The concrete evidence of this triumph is that at the cross Christ has “disarmed” the Powers. The weapon from which they heretofore derived their strength is struck out of their hands. (39)

The Powers and Consummation

cf. 1 Corinthians 15:19

Here Paul uses [the words “or in heaven”] as meaning a restoration of proper relationships. In this sense the Powers as well are object [sic] of God’s plan of redemption. (41)

Such statements indicate strongly that Powers are present even in the consummation, that there also there shall be formed and ordered life, but in such a way that these forms and orders are nothing more than the undergirding of the perfected communion between God (41) and His creation. (42)

What function (42) could such a finitude of life possibly have in the age to come? (43)

The Limitation of the Powers

5. The Church and the Powers

All that God has created is good; nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving. 1 Timothy 4:4. The believer does not flee the world, but he avoids deifying it. (49)

…we do not belong to the nation, the state, the technique, the future, the money, but all this is ours, given us by God as means of living a worthy life before God and in fellowship with our neighbor. (50)

All resistance and every attack against the gods of this age will be unfruitful, unless the church herself is resistance and attack, unless she demonstrates in her life and fellowship how men can live freed from the Powers. (51)

The arms named (truth, righteousness, the readiness of the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the Word of God) show that Paul is not contemplating an offensive against the Powers. Though surely the believer must assure his defense against them, he can do this only by standing simply, by his faith. He is not called to do more than he can do by simply believing. His duty is not to bring the Powers to their knees. This is Jesus Christ’s own task. He has taken care of this thus far and will continue to do so. (52)

| We are responsible for the defense, just because He takes care of the offense. Ours is to hold the Powers, their seduction and their enslavement, at a distance, “to be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (verse 11, cf. 13). The figurative allusion to weapons points to this defensive role. Girdle, breastplate, shoes, shield, helmet, and sword (macharia, the short sword) are all defensive arms. Lance, spear, bow, and arrows are not named. They are not needed; these are the weapons Christ Himself bears. Our weapon is to stay close by Him and thus to remain out of the reach of the drawing power of the Powers. (52)

6. Crisis and Christianization of 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. (53)

We must not fail to recognize that the proclamation of Christ as Lord over the Powers can with time lead to directly opposite, fatal results. (54)

The desacralizing of the world cannot be undone. The Powers once dethroned cannot return as if nothing had happened. (54)

What solution can there be to this crisis? One possibility is secularization. In such a life many Powers have a certain place, but no single one plays a total, unifying role: life goes on with no center. Thus may be characterized the life of today’s “cultured world.” The Powers of a humanistic ideal of personality, of a decent human existence, of public morality, of Mammon, Eros, and technology, limit and presuppose one another, maintaining a certain tolerable equilibrium. (55)

…the restoration of the Powers cannot be a solution. The artificiality and the grimness of their reign robs human life of such essential values that there are still millions of persons for whom the price of their restoration is higher than they are ready to pay. The crisis of our culture is such that men can hold their ground in several ways, none of which, however, leads to a solution in keeping with our nature and purpose. We suffer from a “thirst that can never be slaked at a spring we might find here below.” (57)

It can happen that Christ’s church, by her preaching, her presence, and the patterns of life obtaining within her fellowship, may represent such a mighty witness and so forcefully address the consciences of men far beyond her borders, that they generally orient themselves by this reality, tacitly accepting it as a landmark. They do so because they know of no better guarantor of a decent life, of mercy, freedom, justice, and humanity than a certain general acknowledgment of the sovereignty of Christ, or (as they prefer to say it) of “Christianity” and “Christian values.” (58)

…”Christianization” of the Powers. … It can mean no more than that the Powers, instead of being ideological centers, are what God meant them to be: helps; instruments, giving shape and direction to the genuine life of man as child of God and as neighbor. | That they are “Christianized” means they are made instrumental, made modest; one could even say “neutralized.” (58)

In the economic and technical realms “Christianizing” will mean the subjection of their resources to serve man as defined by the divine intention. In the educational realm “Christianization” will mean warding off ideologies and offering to children a view of God’s redeeming works and of His will for their lives. In law it will mean that legislation and execution will be based on what God in His Word calls good and evil. … But in every case the Powers are relativized, made modest. They no longer pretend to offer an inspiring center for all of life. In this world one tacitly assumes that the center is somewhere else, above the Powers, and that life receives its inspiration and its hope from a higher sphere. This awareness, however vague and however unconscious it may be, enables one to bear the fact that the Powers have been dethroned. One understands intuitively that only thus can life’s livability be assured. (59)

For “Christianization” is itself a form, indeed the only legitimate form, of secularization. (60)

“Christianization” is inconceivable apart from the prophetic, living testimony of a vital church in word, deed, and presence. … To strive to neutralize the Powers and de-ideologize life by seeking to shore up the prophetic message with coercive measures, in order thereby to enthrone Christ without passing by the detour of preaching and conversion, will achieve too much and thereby too little. This would but replace one Power by another–in this case by a Christian ideology–whose legalistic character would tend to veil from sight the Lord’s salvation and to degenerate into hypocrisy. (61)

…we are called…to be a church which in word and deed lives from the fact that Christ has overcome the Powers, and which holds them at arm’s length by virtue of this faith. (61)

In this sense the (61) church is ultimately responsible for the contemporary cultural crisis. (62)

Neutraliza-(62)tion without the living prophecy of the church is only the more threatening. (63)

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