By “neo-Anabaptist,” I mean such authors as John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, and I’m a fan. They’ve taught me a lot. But I’m not quite sure they get this one right.
Yoder is particularly responsible for restoring the notion of the “powers” to polite, Protestant conversation. At least, now we’re discussing the subject, whereas we used to politely ignore the verses as irrelevant and maybe even a little embarrassing. We were doing a silent Bultmann — demythologizing the Scriptures by ignoring the uncomfortable passages — all the while damning those who followed Bultmann.
Here’s Yoder on the powers —
[The powers are] religious structures (especially the religious undergirdings of stable ancient and primitive societies), intellectual structures (‘ologies and ‘isms), moral structures (codes and customs), political structures (the tyrant, the market, the school, the courts, race and nation). The totality is overwhelmingly broad. Nonetheless, even here with careful analysis we observe that it can be said of a these “structures” what the Apostle was saying concerning the powers:
(a) All these structures can be conceived of in their general essence as parts of a good creation. There could not be society or history, there could not be Man without the existence above him of religious, intellectual, moral and social structures. We cannot live without them. These structures are not and never have been a mere sum total of the individuals composing them. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. And this “more” is an invisible Power, even though we many not be used to speaking of it in personal or angelic terms.
(b) But these structures fail to serve man as they should. They do not enable him to live a genuinely free, human, loving life. They have absolutized themselves and they demand from the individual and society an unconditional loyalty. They harm and enslave man. We cannot live with them. Looking at the human situation from within, it is not possible to conceive how man once unconditionally subjected to these Powers can ever again become free.
(c) Man is lost in the world, in it structures, and in the current of its development. But nonetheless it is in this world that man has been preserved, that he has been able to be himself and thereby to await the redeeming work of God. His lostness and his survival are inseparable, both dependent upon the Powers.
Notice how Yoder acknowledges the reality and power of the powers, but implicitly denies any supernatural reality to them.
You see, if there is no spiritual, demonic power there, why does it take God hanging on the cross to defeat them? Surely, it’s obvious that God — the creator of the universe — can defeat merely human evil. Indeed, why die on the cross merely to overcome Nazism? Patton and Eisenhower handled that.
Ah, but if we admit that there’s a supernatural reality behind Nazism, then we realize that Patton and Eisenhower did not defeat the demon — they may have pushed the demon into hiding but it’s still there, awaiting its moment.
You see, the analysis changes. No longer are armies enough to win. They may not always even be that helpful. After all, Jesus defeated the powers through submission. He let God resurrect him — he didn’t resurrect himself.
And that leads to a very different way of looking at the world — a way that is much deeper and much more profound than mere pacifism. It’s not merely about turning the other cheek.
Rather (and Yoder does get this right, I believe) —
This discernment is not simply a way of helping the needy with their social problems, a kind of updated philanthropy, nor does it mean simply to guide individual Christians by helping them to do good deeds or to avoid sin. It is rather a part of the Christians’ proclamation that the church is under orders to make known to the Powers, as no other proclaimer can do, the fulfillment of the mysterious purposes of God (Eph. 3:10) by means of that Man in whom their rebellion has been broken and the pretensions they had raised have been demolished…
That Christ is Lord, a proclamation to which only individuals can respond, is nonetheless a social, political, structural fact which constitutes a challenge to the Powers.
And so, as much as we’d like to defeat the powers by digging wells and painting houses, it’s essential that we dig the wells and paint the houses all-the-while declaring — loudly — that Jesus is Lord.
Not “Jesus is the second member of the Godhead.” Not that “Jesus saves.” But “Jesus is the King to whom every knee must bow.”
It’s astonishing to us to read Eph 3 —
(Eph 3:8-12 ESV) 8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.
Paul wants a “mystery” declared “through the church” (v. 10). This mystery is to be declared to the powers! The church is tasked to announce a message to the demons! What message?
(Eph 3:6 ESV) 6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Huh? That’s it? That the Gentiles can be saved, too? That’s it??
Yes, that’s it. You see, the Gentiles had been servants of the powers (who were once “gods.”) That God was calling them out of the power of the darkness into the light of the gospel meant (and means) that God is taking Satan’s servants away, extending his Kingdom beyond Israel into the entire world.
And that means that Jesus is the king to whom every knee must bow. Every knee.
(Eph 2:1-3 ESV) And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
And that means that all gods are being dethroned, cast down, and defeated by the cross. But so long as there are people among the nations who’ve not accepted the gospels, the powers are empowered to do evil in this world.
Evangelism defeats the powers. Preaching the gospel defeats the powers. Submitting to the Spirit defeats the powers. That is, the powers are defeated by the cross, the gospel, and the Spirit.
And so, we see, Christus Victor makes quite a lot of sense. It’s not magic incantations and exorcisms. It’s conversions — and transformation of those converted into the image of Christ.