what are “the powers”? the demonic in the new testament

Much has been said and written about the demonic forces that are mentioned sparsely throughout the New Testament. Perhaps it is no coincidence that we live in a world absolutely fascinated by the supernatural. Either way the topic of the demonic, or “the powers”, not only generates strong interest, it also has a powerful bearing on how we approach “spiritual warfare” (a topic I am soon to address on life.remixed).

The demonic is referred to many times in the New Testament. It would be impractical to list them all here. “The powers” on the other hand, often associated with the demonic, are only mentioned a handful of times in in the New Testament:

Is this what "the powers" refers to?

1. The apocalypses in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 – “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mark 13:24-25)

2. Romans 8 – “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (vv. 37-39)

3. Ephesians 6 (perhaps the most well-known) – “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (v.12)

4. 1 Peter 3 – “[Jesus Christ], who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” (v.22)

It is the powers, especially as mentioned in Ephesians 6, which are most often associated with spiritual warfare. What then are the powers?

There seems to be two main ways of understanding “the powers”.

The first is that they are personal angelic beings. This is the view held by many evangelicals, notably John Stott, Andrew Lincoln and Clinton Arnold. According to this view these beings torment believers, and we must do battle with them. Those who hold this perspective generally oppose any attempt to “demythologise” language about the demonic, and wish to preserve the notion of personal demonic beings.

The second perspective is that held by people like Walter Wink:

We might think of “demons” as the actual spirituality of systems and structures that have betrayed their divine vocations.  When an entire network of Powers becomes integrated around idolatrous values, we get what can be called the Domination System. [Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 27]

In this view the powers are not personal beings, but unjust systems opposed to God, and the cosmic and idolatrous forces, values and spiritualities that empower them.

This second position is of course not the standard evangelical line, and indeed many such folks have questioned whether it is an imposition of modern Western rationalism on the New Testament texts (that “demythologisation” I mentioned).

So which is it? How should we understand “the powers”? Which understanding makes more sense in light of the passages quoted above (when read contextually)? How might this affect our reading of “the demonic” in the New Testament, particularly the Synoptic Gospels? How might it affect our understanding of spiritual warfare?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the powers.


Posted on August 8, 2011, in Hermeneutics, New Testament and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. I think its a combination of both. Tim Gombis, wrote a fantastic book called “The Drama of Ephesians.” In which he identifies those powers and addresses the ways in which the church is to combat them. Walter Wink is a liberal who demythologise any kind of demonic happenance within the Scriptures as being a real form of personified evil and therefore discounts the demonic in its entirety.

    I have been / am involved in the deliverance ministry and seen first hand the manifestation of demonic spirits. This also includes myself being set free from a number of demonic strongholds. I also lived in a house that was haunted by a demonic spirit, one that was released through previous occupants hold a séance. (This experience was incredibly frightening and was one of the major events in my life that led me to becoming a Christian )

    A lot of time and energy is wasted in many circles of combating those powers through ineffective prayer – such as I bind you spirit of alcoholism,lust, porn, prostitution etc over this area. Indeed there is no example within Scripture of us having the authority to do this, nor examples of the early church doing it. Rather the way the church dis-empowers those strong holds in the area is by getting directly involved in ministering to the people – ministering to the individuals who are trapped in those cycles and strong holds. And yes, part of ministering those individuals may include personal deliverance from the demonic – which we do have Scriptural warrant to do.

    Finally the way the church and therefore us as individuals is to address and practice spiritual warfare is to live a life of holiness, which is a life marked by love. Part of this means to engage in areas of social injustice – which may include the political arena. The tension of this though requires us to ensure that the church its self doesn’t become politically motivated / driven – rather remains kingdom orientated.

    Good question to ask Matt. I look forward to others comments and your continuation of this topic.

  2. richardrglover

    Without thinking with any degree of thoroughness about it, I’m tempted to say ‘both.’

  3. I personally tend to go towards the first option. The problem is people often claim any negative thing that happens to them as from Satan and I think that is what has caused the second theory to be created. A Christian comedian of which I am a fan puts it well: YouTube brad stine Dayana everywhere and you will get what I mean.

  4. I believe that there are actual fallen angelic beings, now known as demons… that war against a humanity that is made in God’s image. I believe there is a hierarchy in this demonic order…. just as there is the the angelic order (archangels etc). It’s obvious there are systems of injustice/corruption/oppression in our world…. and yes, we are called to actively play a part in dismantling them. But I also believe that there are higher ‘ranking’ demonic forces that empower these systemic evils, so we are ‘warring’ against more than what we see with our own eyes. That said…. I don’t really concern myself with the demonic at all these days. I refuse to give it any time of day in my thoughts. I know that it’s there…. but it’s not going to win.

  5. Thanks for the comments so far guys. A further question – do you think the biblical texts (in particular the passages referring to “the powers”) support your position?

  6. I think any discussion of the powers also needs to include some of the OT passages, such is found in Daniel and Kings.

    However in regards to your latest question: In support of my own position, I will draw on the context of Paul’s prayers and lifestyle who at times did participate in the personal deliverance ministry and whose prayers and ministry shows us how to combat the spiritual powers and authorities.

    I will say with some caution – only because I’m thinking out loud here and haven’t developed this thought in regards to powers and authorities…. is that Paul has an over riding theme of unity. In Christ there is no distinction between gender, race, class and age…and perhaps within this framework the spiritual powers and authorities have been disbanded.

  7. Thought this was an interesting and timely piece.

    Zizek, in an article today on the ABC Religion & Ethics site, translates Ephesians 6:12 into today’s language:

    “Our struggle is not against concrete, corrupted individuals, but against those in power in general, against their authority, against the global order and the ideological mystification that sustains it.”

    Thoughts? How do you think this fits into Ephesians, its purpose and themes?

    Full article: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/08/08/3287944.htm

  8. Thomas Pearson

    I’d recommend a fantastic Christian book on the topic of spiritual darkness, powers, etc. called The Twilight Labyrinth, by a man named George Otis Jnr. Anyone else here read it?
    It would support the notion for ‘both’.

  9. Hey Matt. It’s a good question, but I wonder if it really matters that much which stance you take. I mean, the fact is we do battle against ‘powers’, which in some way shape or form come from ‘evil’ (anti-God), whether they are personal demons out to get us (control us, distract us, divide us, hinder us etc), or systems and authorities led, empowered and ruled by agents of that ‘evil’. I am in no doubt that evil exists in our world, in both contexts, and that as followers of Christ we need to do battle (fight against) as Jesus did. To set the captives free from both, but that’s another story.

  10. Haha, if it doesn’t matter then it’s probably not a good question after all.

    I do think though that how we understand the powers matters a lot. After all, it will define how we go about “spiritual warfare”. If the powers are demonic, or if they are ideological/systemic then the battle is very different. We can easily see this reflected in the difference between exorcists, who work in the area of demonisation, and poets, many of whom seek to reimagine and rephrase reality over-against dominant ideology.

    To answer “both”, as most have in the comments so far, is fine, except that it doesn’t help define “the powers”. Are the powers the systems themselves, distinct from demons, or are they the demons that empower the systems (as some have suggested)? They are not the same, and both answers will affect how we do the “battle”. Also, answering with the former does not necessarily mean one does not believe in personal demons (as is evidently the case with Wink).

  11. Ha ha indeed, that kinda came out wrong. Yes I agree that our understanding of this will determine how we ‘battle’, and I think our battle will take on many forms. Can the reference to ‘powers’ be about both? Can it refer to both the ‘powers’ that are the systems & authorities, and the ‘powers’ behind them, (the demonic forces)? Just curious. If so, then how we battle needs to be more encompassing of all our weapons: ie strategic, intercession, activism, prayer etc. I am thinking out loud. Often a bad move. cheers

Leave a Response

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: