In the previous column, I mentioned the challenge faced by conservative Christians who, for a couple of reasons, may downplay the significance of spiritual warfare in Christian discipleship.
How do we get the balance right in taking seriously the New Testament’s teaching on this matter without succumbing to an unbiblical overemphasis on the powers and principalities?
In her book Powers, Principalities, and the Spirit, Esther Acolatse interacts with scholarship from around the world and considers different treatments of the powers and principalities, including Rudolph Bultmann, Karl Barth, and Walter Wink, who linked the powers to systemic evil and injustice.
Acolatse’s project is driven by a desire for unity among churches across the world, and she recognizes one of the most significant barriers between churches in the North Atlantic/West and the global South: “differing beliefs about the principalities and powers” (1). Churches on either side of this barrier suffer in regards to pastoral ministry:
On the one hand, there is a belief in and valorization of—and even over involvement with—these powers, mainly in the Christian south, and especially where Christianity meets primal religions, and people in general believe in evil spirit beings. On the other hand, in the North and West, people commonly undervalue, disbelieve in, and sometimes flatly dismiss these powers and their ability to permeate and affect what is assumed to be the material world. (3)
Acolatse is not arguing that the global South has it all right and the West all wrong, or vice versa (although she does oppose both the demythologizing project of the Enlightenment and also the syncretistic dualism of some in the South). She believes both sides of the church need to move toward each other, under the authority of the biblical text.
In interpreting the language of the powers in Scripture—which also means, especially in the churches of the global South, interpreting miracles and the manifestations of the Holy Spirit—neither the extreme dualism of the South’s hermeneutics of the powers with its extreme supernaturalism of the Spirit, nor the monism or rationalism of the West, characterized by the Enlightenment ideology and its resulting demythologizing project, adequately undergirds pastoral theology and practice in a global church. (2)
To put it another way:
Accounts of evil from the global South currently lack appropriate attention to personal complicity and guilt, as well as structural dimensions; but accounts from the global North also emphasize the individual and structural dimensions without giving sufficient attention to extra-human components. (8)
The problem in both cases is something akin to syncretism. Whether we are in North America or the global South, we will tend to incorporate the biblical language about powers and principalities into frameworks or within worldviews that are foreign to Scripture. Enlightenment ideology affects North American readings, while dualism affects the global South.
For both the West and the global South, then, a particular worldview has become the framework for accessing and interpreting Scripture, especially as it relates to understanding the language of powers in the New Testament—and even the work of the Spirit. Often these Scripture passages are subordinated to the competing worldviews rather than allowing Scripture to disrupt and transform the worldviews and thus the cultures that read it. (11)
But, some will say, none of us can approach the biblical text free of cultural bias. No one is purely objective in reading Scripture. That’s true, and Acolatse does not deny that our cultural background and location will affect our interpretation of the biblical text. But cultural influence is not and should not be determinative. We cannot fall back onto cultural preference in order to escape clear Scriptural teaching. The Bible must trump even our most beloved biases:
A reading that privileges worldview over Scripture and interrogates it to the point of dismembering its validity for kerygma and practice, renders it otiose as the basis of revelation and religion. It is in this way that we may ask the question whether we are fleeing from the Spirit when we are faced with biblical realism, the world picture that the Bible paints for us about the reality to which the prophets and apostles and martyrs attest. (11)
In seeking to interrogate our worldview, Acolatse offers a challenge both to Bible readers in the West and also to those in the global South. For those in the West, here comes a stinging indictment:
Could it be that in the West the presence of the demonic is muted not because demons have ceased to exist or never were, but for the precise reason that no one fights against nothing? Perhaps, as long as lukewarm faith exists, perhaps the demons need not be troubled nor trouble themselves. While the purpose of the Christian life is not to irritate demons and incur their wrath through spiritual attacks, a quasi Christianity that is washed out and bears little resemblance to what is epitomized in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles and demonstrated in the account of Jesus in the Gospels is also bankrupt in holiness and power. It is probable that the lack of knowledge and experience of the presence of the demonic in modern times—through to our current times—has made it easy to turn Christianity into a primarily cerebral morality-infusing code for civilizing humanity, rather than the life-transforming, Satan-crushing, God-glorifying powerful religion or lifestyle that was intended. (77)
Later she turns her sights on the global South:
In the places where belief in the spiritual and other otherworldly existence characterizes common life, people tend to valorize the pervasive nature of the powers and to overspiritualize every issue, seeing demons everywhere. (93)
What do we need? Acolatse answers, “A critical balance in which churches in the West and in other contexts can be in meaningful dialogue with each other about the powers.” (94)
To that end, in the next column, I will provide an overview of the New Testament’s teaching on spiritual warfare within the overarching story of Scripture.