Faith and Life
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In 2007 I read the book Ephesians: Free to Be One, by Stephen Motyer. This was an excellent thoughtful and critical study of this New Testament treatise. I was struck by the author's reflective approach and well-stated insights. He probes the cultural context and philosophical perspectives of Paul in the letter to the Ephesians.
This article is not strictly a review of this book. But I want to focus on one theme Motyer addresses that comes up in the Ephesian letter. The author uses a good modern format that provides an exegesis and thematic study of the book. He comments on each section, summarizes the points and then provides questions for study or review. He closes each section with a discussion on a pertinent historical or doctrinal matter related to the passage just studied.
One theme addressed in the book is the spiritual condition or position of the believers in Christ. This entails some references to the spiritual powers of evil. Motyer has some helpful comments here that resonated with my own perspectives and previous perceptions of Paul's comments in the letter.
In Ephesians 1:19b-23, Paul says,
"He demonstrated this power in the Messiah by raising Him from the dead and seating Him at His right hand in the heavens – far above every ruler and authority, power and dominion, and every title given, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put everything under his feet and appointed Him as head over everything for the church, which is His body, the fullness of the One who fills all things in every way." (HCSB).*
Principalities and Powers
Motyer provides an excellent exegesis and explanation of the "principalities and powers." He likewise makes some a propos comments on some currently rife, mis-guided speculation.
"Some see these as spiritual powers of evil, that is, the Devil and his armies of demons. Some even want to put them into a hierarchy or spiritual power-structure, with some more powerful than others, and a kind of 'chain of command' operating between them" (Emphasis mine).
Motyer systematically dismisses this approach, which has become more common in recent popular theology I hear in America. This mythological view of metaphysical evil is not indicated anywhere in biblical writings. Although they claim they find their schema in the Bible, if you really look at what these theorists present, you find they actually put together a rational schema through a series of logical deductions.
They develop a consistent military system or schema of hierarchy out of the incidental references like this one by Paul. From the particular terms he uses in this sentence, there is no indication, either in the terminology or the syntax of this sentence, that Paul had this in mind.
Now I know that various cultures have different ideas of the spirit world. I have no problem with someone expressing their ideas of what it might be like, or trying to work out possibilities for the unseen world. But I do mind people developing some deductive, rational theory, and then claiming that the Bible teaches it. Let's be honest about what we come up with, and overcome this petty arrogance that every idea I have must have come from the Bible. Can you never be wrong? They invert the principle "I believe what the Bible teaches," and actually wind up saying: "I believe this, so the Bible must teach it."
There was such a schema by the time of Christ in popular Jewish folklore. This appears in its most developed from in the Book of Enoch, called by some the First Book of Enoch. This work was never a part of the sacred writings of either the Jews or the Christians. It does appear, however, that it is referenced in the book of Jude and possibly the letter of 2 Peter.
Some modern rationalists have also organized a schema of the spirit-world. One can easily see that the view is based on a mis-guided focus on the fear of evil, rather than a focus on worship of God, which overcomes all evil. It seems amazing that they cannot see that this far-flying fancy of fear is just their science-fiction. How can they miss the gospel truth declared in the letter of 1 John that perfect love drives out fear.
Delivered From the Powers
Paul's point here, in fact, is not to describe for the Ephesian Christians some metaphysical system of organized evil spiritual powers, but on the contrary, specifically to tell them they have been delivered from any powers which might be. The Ephesians are assured that the power to overcome is theirs as they share with Christ in his exalted state at the right hand of God, with authority over such powers, whatever they may be (Eph 2:4-7).
The focus here is on the majesty and protective authority of the Risen Christ, positioned over all authorities, power structures or entities, whether "temporal" or "spiritual." Paul declares that those who are "in Christ" also have this liberating authority over the powers. Read it again.
Paul's reference to the "powers and principalities" in the letter to the Ephesians is incidental. Nowhere does Paul or any other writer in the New Testament or any character portrayed in the New Testament, ever attempt to actually teach us about the organization and authority structure of the spirit world. The desire of modern scientific rationalists to know such things does not make the information available.
The structures described in the various schemas I have seen reflect primarily a particular author's concept of an Imperial feudal authority structure, or an over-analyzed rationalist design of a metaphysical reality, with only a tenuous connection to a couple of terms that incidentally appear in some biblical passage that in fact talks about some other topic.
There is a common logical error in these rationalist modern schemes. I seem to always find these in fundamentalist thinkers who insist on imposing their rule that everything must be reduced to the modern scientific literalism of empirical "fact." Their error is to assume that everything in the biblical text, no matter how incidental or secondary, is there for the primary purpose of giving us information and facts about the objective metaphysical realities of the universe. This is a worldview-specific concept derived from the modern western cultural worldview.
In fact, rather than being a traditional given, this assumption that factual information in the primary point of any statement or story, arises from modern thought. This concept is imposed from an analytical, rationalist worldview, ironically derived from modern "secular" thought that seeks objective knowledge about the universe.
The biblical worldview, on the other hand, is commonly more practical, being relationship-oriented and focused on personal and social morality. Just as Jesus words still read today in the Gospels! The focus is not on information and organizations.
Truth, Not Empirical Data
This concept that facts are the focus of truth, and that information is the content of knowledge, is incompatible with the cultural worldview reflected in the biblical texts themselves. The ancient texts ought to be allowed to stand on their own.
The scriptures do not derive their authority from their submission to modern philosophical scientific or literary requirements, even if these requirements are imposed by modern well-meaning fundamentalist perspectives that claim to "defend" or represent the Bible. These so-called "religious" ideas are really culturally and historically limited concepts very recent in world history, and not universal in human thought or tradition.
The overwhelming and foundational focus and concern of the biblical culture worldview is relationships and moral character in those relationships. The purpose of the biblical texts does not appear to be to lay out "facts." This is a modern scientific, and linear rationalist approach. Modernists (whether liberal fundamentalist or secular) do not have the right to impose this requirement upon the ancient texts that arose out of a different context and have their own agenda.
In Ephesians 6:10-13, Paul again refers to spiritual powers:
"Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and by His vast strength. Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the tactics of the Devil. For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. This is why you must take up the full armor of God, so that you may be able to resist the evil day, and having prepared everything, to take your stand" (HCSB).*
Motyer first comments on the four terms used in this passage:
"Paul is probably not describing different types of demonic power with each of these phrases. He is just piling up names and descriptions.... One of them, the word translated 'powers" (which actually means 'world powers' or 'world rulers'), was used of the goddess Artemis in magic spells at this time."
This format of varied repetition is a well-documented literary technique for emphasis in Hebrew writing. It is found in other literary and rhetorical traditons as well.
A problem with the modern hierarchical concept of spiritual powers, devils and demons, is that it focuses on these incidental references as though they were the primary focus and purpose of the passage. Then they are over-analyzed and reorganized into a consistent schema. This is not Paul's focus.
Paul's focus is glory to God through the Risen Christ and encouragement of the Asian believers in their "place of power" in Christ.
In Ephesians 6, Paul describes the spiritual armor the Christian is to wear in his spiritual battle. It is obviously symbolic, though practical in application to the relationships of life. It seems odd that though the armor is obviously symbolic, the afore-mentioned theorists of the evil spirit-world armies insist that the spirit world references must be literal, while the armor is symbolic.
Motyer comments again on the spiritual powers in reference to the spiritual armor the Christian is instructed to "wear." He makes the following comments on the meaning of some pieces of the Christian "armor" (p 182).
6:14 "the belt of truth"
"'Truth' has a double meaning, and in both senses it forms our foundation-garment, underlying all the rest. ...
"in our heads, truth is a quality of our minds, affecting both what we know and the way we speak (see Eph. 1:13, 4:15, 20)...;
"in our hearts, truth is a quality of our character... (see Eph 4:24, 5:9)."
Motyer has grasped the biblical worldview perspective that truth is not "facts," but relational moral truth. This has to be the case, otherwise, Jesus cannot say "I am truth."
Jesus is not a fact. He is a person, a model of relationship and moral living. He is God in the human life, as the model of what is intended for the Kingdom of God.
Truth is dynamic – found in redeemed, sanctified (cleansed, corrected) relationships in our social living. These are the terms in which Jesus discusses what the Gospels call the "Kingdom of God," of the "Kingdom of Heaven."
Read again the words of Jesus in the Gospels, "The Kingdom if God is like ..." and experience the Life-Power he portrays and generates for his hearers. Let us stand with those ancient crowds in the marketplace, on the seashore and on the Galilean hills and experience the freeing challenge of faith and power over the evil that presses in upon us!
The information-society worldview simplistically assumes the primary purpose for any term, reference, comment or explanation is primarily to give us objective factual information about the universe. This is an alien modern worldview focus, imposed on the scriptural writings whose cultural worldview is not information-oriented, but relationship-oriented.
In the final section of the book, Paul comments on Prayer and its role in spiritual strength and spiritual warfare. Motyer again here has some helpful perspectives on the meaning of these principles (p 187).
"We do not find evil spirits attached to particular places. ... Here, Paul does not tell his readers to find the identity of the demon ruling Ephesus and to 'name' it as they pray against it. This does not seem to occur to him as a possible mission strategy. In fact, such advice would sound like the pagan magical practices which the Ephesians Christians had left behind."
"We do not find a 'hierarchy' of evil powers. Some people suggest that the four phrases in verse 12 are the levels of command in the devil's army, but this is not likely."
On the latter point, this would be expected only if Paul was a modern analytical rationalist of our era. The repetition of similar terminology and duplication of structure is a common, well-known pattern of Semitic writing. Hundreds of commentators on the Old Testament point this out, especially in poetry and song.
This emphasis by poetic repetiiton is a common oral-culture feature in not only Semitic but other cultures, even today. Paul's letters were read aloud to the congregations. He makes reference to this in some letters. They were not theological treatises pored over and analyzed and second-guessed for every little objective item of fact that could be found.
The letters were originally self-standing, unitary, personal statements on vividly-developed themes. These four phrases in Ephesians are likely emphases on the same statement. The four phrases constitute repetitions of poetic or rhetorical variation that sum up perceptions or experiences of the general evil influences or powers we may encounter in our spiritual and practical life.
It is hard to escape the analytical styles of our western rationalist empirical schooling. But Paul was speaking out of another time and culture to another time and culture. But Paul's work has integrity on its own, without subjecting it to the strictures and limitations of our own perspectives and our own analytical desires for titillating facts and metaphysical systems.
Keep in mind also that Paul's goal here seems to be encouragement.
The territorial idea of evil spirits as a "Kingdom" is based on an Imperial model of authority. The assumption of an Empire entails the limitations from that worldview, which leads to the cruelty and injustice we see in Empires. Empires around the world are organized around the power and authority of the state, not justice.
The same problems arise in the imperial models of the Kingdom of God, of the church and of social relationships. The model focuses on Authority, the basic feature of an Empire, not on Service, which Jesus and Paul emphasize.
The idea of a hierarchy of evil powers seems to arise from an over-analysis, looking for facts, assuming some Imperial, territorial order not actually indicated in these incidental references.
I see an evil result in expending so much energy focusing on evil, analyzing evil, describing evil, learning about the evil kingdom, or thinking up ways it might be organized. It seems to me that all that energy focused on evil would be just more energy in the universe that that very evil could access to enlarge its efforts!
I understand worship to center in what we give our attention and energies to. If we give our attention to evil, if we focus on our fear of evil, it seems to me that turns our focus from good, from god, from his presence among us, from the possibilities for good that we can both produce and take advantage of! Are we thereby empowering evil?
Abdicating to Evil
For those who are so afraid of the overwhelming power of evil that they spend all their time focusing on evil, aren't they just drawing back into a defensive position and allowing that evil free reign outside the fort? That does not sound like the picture of the Kingdom of God Jesus describes!
Authority over Evil
It certainly does not fit the model in Ephesians that Paul describes, in which we have already been freed, we are sitting with Jesus in power ABOVE the powers and able to aggressively limit their encroachment upon our lives and the lives of those whom we protect by our prayers and actions.
I like Paul's plan better!
* Scripture quotations are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible ® Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission.
See related reviews and articles on this site:
God and the Problem of Evil
Justice and Vengeance in Dante's Medieval World
Nephilim: The Truth is Here
A New Testament Window into First Century Jewish Literature
Spirit World in Cultural Comparisons
The Watchers are Judged (1 Enoch)
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First comments written 20 August 2007
Expanded 14-16 October 2007 and Posted on Thoughts and Resources 16 October 2007
Last updated 11 February 2009
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
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