This small but important book by Hendrik Berkhof ushered in a wave of studies in this translation, and drew from it in his own famous work, The Politics of Jesus. : Christ and the Powers (John Howard Yoder) (): Hendrik Berkhof: Books. Hendrikus Berkhof was a professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Leiden. Berkhof The subject first published Christ and the Powers in which sought to understand the operation of spiritual and social forces especially in.

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I’d like to take a few posts to gather some notes and quotes from the book. In fact, Yoder mentions in his Translator’s Epilogue that his own treatment of the Powers in The Politics of Jesus “is little more than qnd expansion of Berkhof’s analysis. Berkhof focuses on the singular word exousiaegenerally translated as “Powers.

Having noted these texts Berkhof asks the obvious question: What was Paul imagining when he spoke of “the Powers”? Important to note here is that Paul didn’t invent this language. The Powers feature in Jewish apocalyptic literature e. There the Powers refer to categories of angelic beings.

And Paul does mention the Powers in lists that chgist angels Rom. The question Berkhof asks is if Paul shared this conception, conceiving of the Powers as personalized spiritual beings, or if Paul departed in significant ways from the Jewish apocalyptic tradition. To answer this question Berkhof begins with the famous bdrkhof from Romans 8: For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powersneither berhof nor depth, thr anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In examining this list Berkhof argues that Paul wasn’t conceiving of the Powers in any personalized sense. The Powers berkhoof listed with a group of fairly abstract forces, things like space height and depth and time present and future. The key phrase is “anything else in all creation. It is clear that these realities are not all thought of as persons, much less as angels. The fact that Paul could weave the names of angelic powers into such a berkohf of abstractions would indicate that his emphasis lies not on their personal-spiritual nature, but rather on In sum, Berkhof argues that Paul definitely saw the Powers, along with the Jewish apocalyptic tradition, as exerting influence upon the earth, upon human affairs in particular.

However, in a departure with the Jewish apocalyptic tradition Paul seems to downplay the personal, anthropomorphic aspects of the Powers. Berkhof finds additional evidence of this depersonalization of the Powers in the thought of Paul in an analysis of how the Powers relate to the word stoicheia.

Berkhof has us consider the relation of the Powers to stoicheia in Colossians 2: And powera disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over an by the cross. Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces [ stoicheia ] of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: Notice how Christ’s defeat of the Powers v.

The idea here is ordering. Stoicheia chrish a noun indicating something so ordered, the thing that sets up the order or the first thing in the order. From this idea–the thing that sets up or starts off an ordering– stoicheia could mean something like “fundamentals” or “basic elements” or “governing principles. Well, according to many of the ancients the forces that set up and ground the order of the world, universe and cosmos were spiritual beings.


Basically, the stoicheia were the cosmic and spiritual forces that structured and ordered the universe as well as being the forces that determined your fate. Suddenly it becomes clear why Paul connects the stoicheia with the Powers.

The stoicheia are examples of the Powers. Understanding that the stoicheia are Powers that Christ defeated we can return to the issue of how Paul imagined the Powers. Specifically, did Paul see the Powers as angelic beings?

If the stoicheia are Powers note how Paul characterizes them in Colossians 2.

The stoicheia are verse 8 associated with “philosophy” and “human tradition. The stoicheia are rules, regulations, traditions and moral philosophies. The Christians Paul is writing to are submitting to these stoicheiasomething that Paul describes as a captivity or bondage verse 8.

But Christ has defeated the Powers, among them these moral stoicheia. Consequently, there is freedom from the Powers. Paul wasn’t, it seems, thinking about the Powers as angelic beings. Paul seems to be thinking of the Powers more as structures that ordered the cosmos.

The concern in Colossians 2 is with the Powers that structured and ordered human moral affairs, things like traditions, regulations, rules, and moral philosophies. One conclusion we can take from all this is that Paul’s conception of the Powers was different from that found in Jewish apocalyptic thought.

Specifically, while Paul agreed that the Powers had influence upon human affairs Paul tended to deemphasize the personal, angelic nature of the Powers. In short, Berkhof argues, Paul was involved in a process of demythologization: Their angelic nature is–to say the least–not emphasized.

Romans 8 and the study of the stoicheia do not lead us to think of personal beings In short, the apocalypses think primarily of the principalities and powers as heavenly angels; Paul sees them as structures of earthy existence. Click for Part 2 of 3. One interesting addition, drawing from Yoder’s own discussion of stoicheia in Naming the Powers, is that the term also refers to the letters of the alphabet. As the smallest unit that orders writing, letters are an example of stoicheia.

Christ and the Powers by Hendrikus Berkhof

I am particularly fascinated by the readings of the text that this opens up. First, this meaning of stoicheia fits very nicely alongside Paul’s critique of those who would subject others to ‘the letter of the law’. I don’t have an informed opinion on what Paul might have primarily had in mind, but the term works equally well to critique an obsessive and narrow legalism, word and letter mysticism, and Greek atomism.

The notion is deeply grounded in Genesis. With this metaphysic in hand, one that Paul would presumably embrace even though he never elaborated it as such, stoicheia, as letters, can seamlessly refer to both the words of the law spoken by God, and the words of Creation spoken by God.

And in both cases, the problem is not that the words spoken by God are wicked and should be denied. It is instead that worshiping the words, like worshiping the angels, are examples of disordered worship. But all of this runs up against, or sits in deep tension with, the notion that Jesus is the living Word. That is a tension I would embrace. I find it strange that this comes so close to the fact that I have been reading and listening to Michael Hardin’s “the satan.

The fact that Paul could weave the names of angelic powers into such a list of abstractions would indicate that his emphasis lies not on their personal-spiritual nature Based on the same list, we could just as easily say: The way the list is composed should not by any stretch cause us to cast personal forces in an impersonal light or cast impersonal forces in a personal light.


The attempt to depersonalize exousiae based on precious little actual evidence in the text makes Berkhof’s reading feel strained. It’s hard not to see the old modernist preoccupations at work in these attempts to reimagine an abstract, clean, mechanistic universe, safely insulated from any accusations of “superstition”. Just re-reading Wink this week, who has very similar hang-ups around personalized powers. Along with this summary of Berkhof I’m really left wishing for a reading of “the powers” that is not so slavishly adherent to modernist neuroses.

To clarify a bit, this emphasis on demythologizing is more mine than Berkhof. I readily admit that my theological inclinations are to reconcile the biblical worldview with modernity.

So when I read this in Berkhof, that Paul had this tendency, I pulled it for my notes i. In short, Berkhof isn’t saying that Paul is engaged in project of demythologizing akin to, say, Bultmann. He’s just noting that Paul’s description of the Powers is more depersonalized than what is seen in other concurrent Jewish accounts. I’m not qualified to judge that claim. But from how I read Paul it does seem that his general frame of mind is that the Powers are structural orders of Creation rather than spirits with names.

As I read Wink, he is decidedly agnostic about this personal aspect, and about how realist or nominalist we should be about the forms. He definitely has his modernist sympathies, especially when he gets all psycho-analytical. But if pressed, I suspect that Wink would come down on the personal and realist side of things. Depending on whether you asked him before lunch, or after lunch: The point is about not being able to be separated from god’s love is it not?

It looks like to me that Paul is being more literary than scientific and is listing any kind of power one might conceive or imagine in the cultures he’s involved- whether personal or not. To make this an apologetic for Paul’s personal views doesn’t fit the force of the text imho.

Christ and the Powers

This speaks to your earlier series on Greg Boyd’s work and spiritual warfare. I think there are very good reasons to reject Boyd’s enthusiasm for angels and demons. Richard, I hear that you’d like to reconcile a biblical worldview with modernity but in this case it seems like the modernism gets the cake and eats it too wnd the biblical worldview is getting completely silenced.

I am open to the possibility that Paul’s account of the powers might be marginally less personalized than that of other Jewish thinkers of his time. But quoting that minor difference to build a case for demythologizing is like those Republican pundits who are fond of invoking the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. Why can’t the powers be both personal, named and fully identified with a human institution?

Why can’t human institutions be the product of a melding of wills–individual human wills, groups wills, as well as the wills of the spiritual beings that Paul apparently believes in? It seems to powegs the biblical worldview should not accept the forced choice between spiritual and material reality that is being dictated by modernism in this case.

I prefer, therefore, to regard them as the impersonal spiritual realities at the center of institutional life.

I hear that and understand those concerns. People might not like the liberal theological project, but I’m not doing it for people.

I’m working out my own salvation in fear and trembling. But at the end of the day I’m a powesr rather than a theologian. I have a rather low view of “rational argument” and its ability to persuade people. I think theological argument is often ad hoc.