I remember being in seminary, reading through Stanley Grenz’s great systematic theology textbook [did I just use “great” and “systematic theology book in the same sentence? I have problems!] Theology for the Community of God, and first being introduced to the concept of “the powers.” It was a concept that was completely foreign to me at the time, but one that I connected with immediately and has left one of the more indelible marks on my theology.
In his section entitled, “Our Spiritual Co-Creatures,” Grenz lays out his theology for “The Structures of Existence.” He defines this oft-overlooked topic this way: “Those larger, suprahuman aspects or dimensions of reality which form the inescapable context for human life and which therefore condition individual and corporate existence” (p. 228). Closely paralleling our understanding of angels and demons – both topics that have fallen victim to the Enlightenment’s fixation of empiricism, it is no wonder that the structures are not talked about more often.
In the years since having been first introduced to this concept by Grenz, I have pursued the topic in more detail by reading authors who focus more specifically on the powers (Grenz was a good introduction). This pursuit has introduced me to the likes of Hendrick Berkhoff, John Howard Yoder, Walter Wink, and (just recently) William Stringfellow . . . among others. Interestingly, Lipscomb University, where I attended seminary, has two professors well-versed in this area – unfortunately I never had classes with them to discuss these matters further. (Lee Camp has written the widely read Mere Discipleship, and Richard Goode published Crashing Idols last year co-authored with Will Campbell)
Fortunately, the theological treatment of the powers is becoming more widely considered and addressed, though it remains largely written to academics and is overly theoretical (not that you ever move far beyond theory with this type of topic). As I enter into the heart of my D. Min studies, and begin searching for topics for my final project, I am giving special attention to this subject. I believe it has much to say to Christians today. The critical consideration of the larger powers and principalities behind reality is something few Christians have considered – especially those from “conservative” backgrounds. The conservative emphasis of personal piety and moralism has left this crucial rock unturned. This is where I turn to Jack Black, who teaches a little theology.
Simply stated, the powers and principalities are the -isms and -ologies at work in the world. They are Jack Black’s “man.” Yesterday most of us were privy to one of the most unique assemblies of powers in the Super Bowl. When I first read Grenz, my thoughts went almost immediately to sports. Sports, in Western culture, is an extremely vigilant power. The Super Bowl represents this power at its appex, combining the additional powers of capitalism, music, commercialism, and entertainment to mention but a few. The Super Bowl puts the powers and principalities on full display – flaunting themselves before the world.
Our attention to moralism and personal salvation is important and certainly has a vital role in the Christian narrative. However, we must never neglect the broader topic of the powers and authorities [stoicheia in Greek] that help shape the world around us. Our individuality gets sucked up into something as culturally significant as the Super Bowl, and, as Christians, we must seek to better understand the cosmic implications of the work of Christ and how he has “disarmed the principalities and powers” (Colossians 1:16) and how we wrestle “against principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12)
There is much to be said, written, thought through, and prayed through in relation to the powers and structures of existence in our world. We need a better and practical theology of “The Man” in our quest to live as aliens in a strange and foreign land.