Principalities and Powers in Ephesians

Wed, 27/04/2022 - 11:22 -- James Oakley
Nicholas Roerich, Battle in the Heavens

I'm greatly enjoying reading Against Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Beings in Relation to Communal Identity and the Moral Discourse of Ephesians by Daniel Darko (published 2020 by Hippo Books).

He explores the significance of the spiritual powers in Paul's letter to the Ephesians, suggesting that we in the West often don't feel the full force of the letter's message because we are not atuned to see this as important.

Here are a few jottings from chapter 1, the introduction.

Readers of Ephesians tend to prioritise the words on the page above the worldview into which the letter was written. That worldview predates a modern Western one, and the Enlightenment. Modern readers are instinctively suspicious of the language of spiritual powers. We don’t need to agree with the cosmology of Ephesians, but we do have to understand it. “Understanding the worldview of the ancient text is crucial to deciphering the conditions, socio-religious feature and ultimate aims of religious communities.” (Page 2)

We don’t read any English text as if the syntax and grammar alone will enable us to understand them. “It is important to examine texts like Ephesians against the cultural background, worldview and pre-conversion belief systems of its earliest readers – this will enable us to probe and identify prescriptions on how new believers may navigate their new identity as Christ followers in their socio-religious context.” (Page 3)

1.1 Recalling Changing Trends in Philosophical Thought on Spirit Cosmology

How have we got to where we have, with the prevailing worldviews in western thought? “The belief in the transcendent powers in established religious traditions – mysticism or superstitious practices – was common place in the ancient world. The dominant world concept was one that perceived spiritual beings as active both in the celestial and terrestrial realms.” (Page 4).

But then came scholasticism with the assumption things need to make sense rationally. The Reformation coincided with the Enlightenment, both of which stressed that we need to understand the world – so we need a rational faith. The Enlightenment moved to see humanity as at the centre of the world, rather than a God who is creator.

“The prism with which we read is the prism of our world / worldview. We do not need to accept the world concept of the Greco-Roman author and readers, but intellectual honesty demands that we venture to understand and appreciate their worldview if we want to understand the message of ancient texts written for Christians in Asia Minor.” (Page 5)

1.2 Review of Scholarship on Principalities and Powers

The longstanding reading always used to be that the "principalities and powers" in Ephesians were personal beings in the spirit realm.

After World War II, German theologians began a trend of seeing them as a pictorial way of referring to the battles and enemies we face, almost hypostasising the law, sin, death and suffering.

Clinton Arnold (who supervised some of Darko's studies) published a key monograph in 1989 that “leads to the conclusion that the terminologies for the ‘powers’ refer to personal evil spiritual forces, and it is the way that early readers would have understood them” (Page 12). “Arnold posits that, ‘the whole of the epistle is moving in this direction. It focuses on the unseen dimension of Christian existence, envisioning a host of evil spiritual forces under the leadership of the devil continuing to assai believers and causing them to fall’. He suggests that evidence from magic, astrology and cultic practices of the ancient world be adduced in the quest to understand the nature of these powers, the dreadful conditions of the readers of Ephesians and authorial aims to mitigate that.” (Page 12)

1.3 Central Issues of Inquiry

So this book will move through three stages.

1. Try to reconstruct the cosmology of the author and the readers, to get an approximate one where the portrait of spiritual beings in the letter makes sense.

2. Others have studied the nature of the spiritual powers; go beyond this to look at their role – including the three persons of the Trinity in this. Make sure we understand the letter against the backdrop of “the interface of material and spiritual dimensions of the world” (Page 13).

3. Look at how the role of the spiritual powers shapes our understanding of communal identity in the letter, and the “moral aspirations” of how that group behaves. Other studies have looked at the relationships between Jew and Gentile, and between Christians and outsiders, as well as at relationships within the church in general. It’s time to add to that the “prominence and significance of spirit cosmology” (Page 13).

1.4 Spiritual Beings in the Literary Structure and Rhetorical Framework

Structurally, 1:3-14 and 6:10-20 bracket the letter.

“The opening paragraph accentuates ‘every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms’ accorded in Christ as the basis for an elaborate eulogy – invocation of God’s blessings to evoke gratitude and a cause for praise (1:3-14). Moreover, the closing of the body of the letter makes a passionate plea to frame Christian living as spiritual warfare, requiring vigilance, discipline and virtue in utmost readiness to withstand the stratagems of evil spiritual forces (6:10-20). The opening and ending in the literary structure bookends the rest of the discourse with spiritual overtones and highlights activities of spiritual beings.” (Page 14)

Study of Greco-Roman letter writing suggests that the closing section of a letter draws its main themes together and invites the required response, which suggests 6:10-20 is especially important.

Andrew Lincoln has identified 6:10-20 as serving the role of peroratio, which serves as a summing up section of a rhetorical appeal. Whichever ancient author you look at to define this stage in a piece of rhetoric, all the features are present in 6:10-20.

“If we accept Lincoln’s observation, then it would not be far-fetched to surmise that the peroratio encapsulates what the author seeks to convey in the preceding discourse regarding the nature and posture towards Christian living, necessitating readiness and vigilance in the spiritual battle.” (Page 16)

1.5 Structure of the Book

“This book is structured to explore spirit cosmology of the world behind Ephesians (Greek, Roman and Jewish) prior to a careful study of the role of spiritual beings in Ephesians. The study of the text is followed by reconstruction of parallel spirit cosmology in Africa in an attempt to strip the findings of esoteric imaginations to concretize how Christ followers in Asia Minor would have received the message being conveyed.” (16)

Chapter 2: Asia Minor / Roman empire spirit cosmology.

Chapter 3: Spirit beings in Jewish thought (and so, in Paul’s)

Chapter 4: Ephesians 1-3

Chapter 5: Ephesians 4-6

Chapter 6: Africa [The author lives in Ghana, and will engage with African theologians to see how an African Traditional worldview enables Ephesians to be heard.]

Chapter 7: Key findings, and proposals

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