Book Review: Christ and the Powers

By far, one of the most formative books contributing to my understanding of theology has to be Stanley Grenz’s Theology for the Community of God. I was first introduced to this systematic treatment in my undergraduate years at Lipscomb by Randy Harris. Upon my second go-round with symstematic on the graduate level, we again visited Grenz’s work. It has much to offer young theologians in training, and I will forever be indebted to him for this work. I still refer often to it today in my own studies and preparation for things.

One section I have been particularly interested in since I reread it for my graduate class has to do with what Grenz refers to as “structures of existence.” In perspective with the rest of the book, Grenz’s treatment is rather brief, but it was my first exposure to the concept of “principalities and powers” mentioned in the New Testament by Paul. It had always been an idea I had conveniently glossed over in my studies. However, the words are there in black and white. What was Paul referring to in these cases?

In subsequent years, my interest in the subject has grown. I have barely touched the surface in my own thinking on the subject, but have been enticed to pursue further. That is what has brought me to the book I am reviewing here. Reading a work by someone named Hendrik Berkhof makes you feel important. What a great German name.

I came across Christ and the Powers via Grenz’s work on “structures of existence.” In the bulk of Grenz’s work in this area, Berkhof’s book was quoted. I recently found further reference to Berkhof’s book in dabbling in John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus (which is on deck on my reading list) and Lee Camp’s Mere Discipleship (which is in the hole on that same list). I placed an order to Amazon back last year and had about 10 dollars left to spend, so I looked this book up and recieved it shortly thereafter in the mail.

Few books had left me with the anticipation that this one did. It sat on my shelf for awhile as I prepared to read it, and I have remained eager to see Berkhof’s perspective. Recieving the copy in the mail, I came to find out that John Howard Yoder was actually the one who translated the original Dutch text into English. Because of the translation, the book is a little challenging to read, and must be done so deliberately. It’s stature was not what I had expected, a small booklet of just over 70 pages, but they were filled with challenging words.

In Christ and the Powers, Berkhof broke new ground in Christian thinking. Originally written in 1953, the background of communism and Nazism is ever-pervasive throughout the work. Here, Berkhof treats a subject that had, until this publication, gone nearly unnoticed in the greater theological discourse. What about the powers, pricipalities, and supernatural “structures of existence” that Paul talks about? What of them? What is their role? What is their place in theology? These are the questions Berkhof sets out to pursue.

Berkhof begins by stating his cause for an overlooked topic. He lays out the text to which this subject pertains: Romans 8: 38 f.; 1 Corinthians 2: 8; 15: 24 – 26; Ephesians 1: 20 f.; 2: 1f.; 3: 10; 6: 12; Colossians 1: 16; and 2:15. By placing these texts side by side and exploring what Paul may have intended in his use of language here, Berkhof states, “We rather have the impression that Paul means to suggest broadly, by the variety of expressions, the number and diversity of the Powers.”

Berkhof concludes that Paul is using language the people were not unfamiliar with; however, he implies a deepened understanding of what already may have been culturally in place.

He spends some time defending the fact that the “powers” are not to be identified with angels and demons. Indeed, the Powers are something altogether different. After examining each pertinent text, Berkhof’s conclusion is, the Powers were intended to be understood on their own ground, independent of other groups they have been grouped alongside before.

Upon determining their uniqueness, Berkhof sets out to discuss some of the qualities of the Powers. He concludes that the Powers were created by God in the original context of creation, but have been manipulated and contaminated upon the Fall. “In fact, they have become gods (Galatians 4: 8), behaving as though they were the ultimate ground of being, and demanding from men an appropriate worship.” (30). They have ceased being a productive and important means to an end, and have, in fact, become and end in themselves. This, in Berhkof’s opionion, is from whence Paul’s confrontation with the Powers stems.

However, neither have the Powers been left unaffected by the redeeming work of Christ. In his fourth chapter, Berkhof addresses Christ’s affect on the Powers: he “made a public example of them,” he “triumphed over them,” and he “disarmed” them. What, then, is the role of the powers in the post-Resurrection era? Berkhof presents a “limitation of the Powers” paradigm wherein the already/not yet tension is displayed. “The term is an effort to combine the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet.’ THe Powers are still present; but wherever Christ is preached and believed in, a limit has been set to their working. The limit is the sign of the promise of their defeat.” (43)

For Berkhof, the central limiting role is focused on the role of the church. The church is to be a counter-cultural voice identifying the role of the Powers. “Where the victorious kingship of Christ is confessed, there prevails a consistent unbelief in the utility of military power, and national or international armament is at the most grudgingly accepted as a bitter duty of responsible citzenship. Anxiety before the fearsom future gives way to a simple carefulness, since we know that the future as well is in God’s hands.” (49).

Berkhof offers a helpful reminder to the church as to our role in the world: “we must constantly remind ourselves: we do not belong ot 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). And I’m not sure there’s a more timey message for “American” Christians living in our world today. Americanism is pershaps the Power more alive and well in the church today. When the church loses their prophetic voice in this matter, they have lost their impact. Perhaps that is what has happened. “Clairvoyant and warning words and deeds aimed at state or nation are meaningful only in so far as they spring from a church whose inner life is itself her proclamation of God’s manifold wisdom to the ‘Powers in the air.'” (51). From my perspective such an inner life is missing from our churches in regards to this central message.

In the final chapter of Berhkof’s short work, he discusses the Christian options for interaction with the Powers. He argues against what he calls “secularization” “The Powers of a humanistic ideal of personality, of a dcent human existence, of public morality, of Mammon, Eros, and technology, limit and presuppose one another, mantaining a certain tolerable equilibrium. Obviously, this balance is extremely unstable. The scales can tip in either direction.” (55). At one end of the secularization continuum, Berkhof is fearful of “nihilism” where deity is altogether removed from the picture. On the other end of the continuum lies an attempt of “restoration of the powers.” As examples of this fault, Berkhof cites the German situation of the day where Nazism and Fascism has so quickly spread its horrendous ideology about seeking what Berkhof refers to as “a coup de tat to regain their control.” Each attempt in this direction becomes an insatiable ambition, and we ultimately “suffer from ‘a thirst that can never be slaked at a spring we might find here below.'” (57).

The objective, as Berkhof sets it forth, is the “Christianization” of the Powers. “It can mean 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.” (58).

Too often Christians look to the Powers themselves, rather than to the one who is in Power. Christ’s imploration surely must be for us to re-understand the powers around us and how they are forcing us into places we should not be. Berkhof challenges us as Paul challenges us: “to be a church hich in word and deed lives from teh fact that Christ has overcome the Powers, and which holds them at arm’s length by virtue of this faith.” (61).

In some of his final words on communism, Berkhof leaves us with an important perspective on the Powers, “The idealist who considers communism harmless misunderstands completely the strength of the Powers. The pessimist who considers communism incorrigible misunderstands completely the lordship of Christ. The living, prophesying Christian church goes her own way despite optimism and pessimism alike.” (63 – 64).

As this incoherent rambling probably shows, I found Berkhof’s book to be a challenge. It it brief, but its brevity says nothing of it’s depth. Berkhof has laid the groundwork for much work ahead on the topic of the Powers. In today’s world of terrorism – the new -ism, it is becoming even more important for us to revisit our understanding of the -isms and what role we allow them to play in our churches and in our individual faith capity. In the translator’s epilogue, Yoder acknowledges his work to be the broadening of Berkhof’s beginning. I look forward to plodding on and giving myself more fodder for discussion on this topic. Berkhof is a challenge, but a must read in this area.

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