The Congregation at Duke University Chapel

"Powers" language in the Pauline Eplistles

A presentation by Mark Gass, Congregation member, on January 10, 2016.

For the ears, you can listen to an audio recording of this presentation and conversation.
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"Powers" language in the Pauline Epistles - Political Science for the 21st century?

Presented by Mark Gass, Congregation member


Today's Topic

We will examine some passages about the "powers" and "principalities" in the Pauline epistles. With help from:

Hendrik Berkhof - Christ and the Powers 1953 (tr. John Howard Yoder)

we will discuss what Paul meant by these terms and how they might help under the world order that is emerging in the 21st century.

Why Listen to Paul? A personal reflection

For example, was Paul's endorsement of the governing authority in Romans 13:1-2 influenced by his pride in being a Roman citizen? Compare with John 19:11

The interpretive challenge


Consider language like the following. Do we interpret this as spiritual beings (like angels), as some type of abstractions or as poetic metaphors?

Romans 8:38-39
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Col 1:15-17
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Gal 4:1-5
1 What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. 2 The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. 3 So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. 4 But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.

Antiquated Mythology?

Literalism vs reductionism.

Berkhof, writing in the early 1950s, sees it differently in light of the European experience of WWII.
p15 - "The renewed Significance of the Powers"

Berkhof on the Romans passage - p19


What do you think Paul means by "Powers" in this passage? Do you accept this teaching?

The Powers and Fallen Creation

Berkhof p 34

I would define a "power" as anything that coerces or influences someone to act under a motivation of self-interest.

But they do not operate simply by appealing to individuals. The Powers tend to establish an alternate ethic based on a shared self-interest.


Berkhof does not see the Powers as purely malevolent. Do you agree?

How do the powers appeal to individuals in order to determine their actions? Give general approaches and specific examples.

The Powers in Redemption

Col 2:13-15
13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

The Powers which control us by appealing to our self-interest, are totally at a loss to deal with an ethic of self-sacrifice.

Nor can they attack our isolation, because we are no longer alienated from God by our own guilt.

Discerning the Powers in the Emerging World Order of the 21st Century

In 1 Co 12:9-10, Paul talks about the gift of discerning the spirits. Let's see whether we can apply that gift to discerning the Powers at work in the 21st century.

Phillip Bobbit - Shield of Achilles - 2002 p. xxv on the "Market State".

Canossa in 1077 (Pope Gregory vs Henry IV) and Jihadism today show that the absolute power of states is not inevitable. So, for example, corporate dominance and anarchy are other possibilities.

The debate of "encryption backdoors" for law enforcement - is at the fault line between the two great forces of individualistic capitalism and state protection.


How should Christians feel about the "Market State"? Is the an ideal political and economic system from a Christian perspective?

Does this teaching about the Powers inform us in any way on the specific public policy question of encryption backdoors?

How does the media rank among the powers which condition or influence our lives?

To what extent are the powers of the 21st century evil? And how can Christians oppose them>

Is the exercise of political power consistent with following Christ? If so, under what conditions?

Is our current society more or less fragile than that of 100 years ago?

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