Mapping the Powers: Clues from Ellul

Augustus of Prima Porta (Vatican Museums)
Photo by Till Niermann
(via Wikimedia Commons)
Just what are the "principalities and powers" that play a piovtal role in the New Testament writings, particularly in the Pauline corpus? Are these concepts simply arcane and outmoded notions from an ancient worldview? Or do they speak to our times and situations in a particularly accute way? These are questions that have preoccupied me for some time. At long last, I'm beginning to give some closer attention to the works of the French social thinker and theologian Jacques Ellul (1912-1994), whose multifaceted, interdisciplinary corpus had much to say on these questions. To that end, I've been working through Marva Dawn's fine collection of early essays from this major 20th century dialectical thinker.

Sources and Trajectories: Eight Articles by Jacques Ellul that Set the Stage, Trans. & Ed. by Marva J. Dawn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eeerdmans, 1997).

This volume draws together eight early essays from the French Reformed thinker, pieces chosen not so much for their quality nor their persuasiveness as for the paradigmatic ways they exhibit Ellul's key insights and concerns in germinal form. Especially helpful are Dawn's excurses interspersed between the essays. In a section following the first essay, a piece from 1946, Dawn offers a precis of Ellul's doctrine of the powers -- the topic of her doctoral dissertation (pp. 23-27). Ellul approaches this trope as both a biblical theologian and as a social theorist. Indeed, Dawn argues, the theme of the principalities shows the ways Ellul's myriad research interests connect and interpenetrate. My first quote comes from the essay itself, which surveys the "Problems of Civilization." He characterizes the powers, in modern terms, as persistent and ineluctable structures of society; note how their operations transcend and transfuse the actions of individual agents:

These forces are identical throughout the world; they are common to all civilization; they are independent of human will; they have a reality not easily separable from their temporary form (pp. 19-20).

The principalities, in and of themselves, are mysterious; to my mind, their reality (if we concede it) invites some sort of metaphysical speculation, however nebulous, though not everyone wants to goes there. On that score, it would seem, Ellul remains cautious: What he seeks is an inventory of these forces -- perhaps we might call it a phenomenological description -- rather than a full explanation of exactly what the devil they are (sorry, couldn't resist that) and why they even exist. Fundamentally though, Dawn claims, Ellul perceives the powers as spiritually rooted, whatever that might mean; for this reason, perceiving and properly naming them is especially difficult under the conditions of modernity, wherein spiritual matters, to the extent they are even acknowledged at all, tend to be hived off from the material realities thought to constitute the "real" world.

In a later text that Dawn quotes here -- The Ethics of Freedom (1976) -- Ellul offers a typology of theories that might account for the principalities and powers; he does not adhere dogmatically to any one of these interpretations. The first option would be some version of classical supernaturalism: "Are they demons in the most elemental and traditional sense?" he wonders (p. 24). If you think no contemporary, empirically minded thinker would entertain such a possibility, you might want to read some of the later writings of M. Scott Peck (I'm not vouching for his work per se, but merely lifting him up as a modern psychologist who took demonology seriously and claimed to have some first-hand experiences to back up this interest.)

The second option is stated somewhat vaguely: "Are they less precise powers (thrones and dominions) which still have an existence, reality, and, as one might say, objectivity of their own (ibid.)?" I wonder if such an idea, which might remain squarely within the confines of naturalism, finds expression, say, in Reinhold Niebuhr's powerful critique of collective egoism in his Moral Man and Immoral Society, or in other works rooted in the tradition of modern ideology critique (an important source for Ellul's own work too, as Dawn explains).

Perhaps, as a third option, the powers can be seen as projections of disordered and distorted human dispositions that come to be reified as external forces.

Ellul explains this option thusly:

In this case the powers are not objective realities which influence man from without. They exist only as the determination of man which allows them to exist in their subjugating otherness and transcendence (ibid.)

The fourth option is the most prosaic, but perhaps also the most commonplace interpretation of all:

Or, finally, at the far end of the scale, are the powers simply a figure of speech common to the Jewish-Hellenistic world, so that they merely represent cultural beliefs and have no true validity (ibid.)?

For his part, according to Dawn, Ellul situates his viewpoint somewhere between the second and third options. The powers, in his view, exhibit a two-fold character, or internal and expternal aspects. On the one hand, the powers are no mere abstractions, but present themselves as existentially impactful, lived realities within our common experience. On the other hand, though we experience them as alien, hostile, acting in and through human agents but in ways that contravene our individual and collective interests.

In that second vein, Ellul cites -- with approval -- the work of Karl Barth and Oscar Cullmann as lifting up the pernicious character of the principalities and powers, both in their ancient and modern incarnations. I discussed this matter -- all too briefly -- in an essay, where I touched upon Barth's discussion of Mammon in the later lecture fragments published in English as The Christian Life. (For more on this, see "Christ vs. Mammon: Tanner and Barth on Economics and Theological Method," in Karl Barth in Conversation, ed. David Congdon & W. Travis McMaken, Wipf & Stock, 2014, chap. 7. If you wish, you can order a copy of the volume here. Be assured no one put me up to plugging this book: Scout's honor.)



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