Jesus and the Powers– A Review

Jesus and the Powers– A Review April 18, 2024

Hot off the presses (released in late March 2024) comes this book by Tom Wright and Mike Bird, boldly going where previous Evangelicals have been loathe to go— namely into politics.   The book is not difficult to read, and is under 200 pages (178 to be more precise), and does a good job of teasing the mind into active thought on this subject.  It is not merely a cautionary word about the problems with Christian nationalism in its various forms, the attempt to blend one’s Christian beliefs with certain forms of democratic or autocratic governments (never mind that there are no democracies mentioned in the Bible, only kingdoms of one sort or another).  It is a Reformed theology critique of the issue, with a certain advocacy of secular liberal democracies as the least objectionable form of government.  Not surprisingly, the book is zooming up the Amazon charts in this election season in America, and elsewhere.   When I asked Mike who wrote what, he replied. “Tom wrote the chapter on the powers, an earlier chapter reworks his stuff from other projects.  I wrote the intro and the final three chapters, but even then Tom had a heavy hand in commenting and shaping the contents. So it’s very much a joint effort.”

So what do I think of this book and its advocacy of Christians ‘building for the kingdom’ a phrase that pops up a great deal in this book (see e.g. p. 89)?   The first thing to say is that it is odd that there is not a clear definition to be found in the book of what is meant by ‘kingdom’/basileia. In a following blog post I address this issue with Mike in our dialogue about the book.  I found this problematic on several counts, not the least of which is that when that Greek word is used to refer to something in the ministry of Jesus or Paul it regularly has a verbal sense, referring to God’s saving activity in Christ, or the results of such saving activity (love, joy, peace patience etc.)  but what it does not refer to is a Christian’s view of government, including secular governments.   And when it refers to something in the future ‘coming on earth as it is in heaven’ it refers to a dominion of God in Christ on earth that believers can enter, inherit, obtain… or miss out on if they do not behave. Again, it does not refer to a Christian’s view of a non-divine process, or outcome.  It doesn’t tell us how to relate to the secular ‘powers that be’.

Of more direct relevance to the subject of this book is the brief discussion of Rom. 13 of how all authority and power ultimately comes from God, and so governing authorities should be respected, and taxes should be paid (see also 1 Pet. 3).

There is also something of a discussion of the powers and principalities that are not human governments, and I was not fully satisfied with that either. The powers of darkness are not merely forces (may the force be with you), they are malevolent beings in the case of Satan and his demons, or benevolent ones if we are referring to angels.  They are part of the created order, and so can indeed be called creatures, beings God made.  On this I’d say, read Mike Heiser’s (may he rest in peace) The Unseen Realm.

There were also issues related to how exactly God’s sovereignty should be viewed, or more to the point granted that God is almighty, how exactly does he exercise his power and authority?  Does he ever delegate some power and authority to angels and humans?  Do they have the power of contrary choice, such that they could choose to to violate God’s will, and sin?  These questions are necessary to ask because if we deny that the last sentence speaks to the reality of things, if the reality is that God has pre-determined all things, or at least all sorts of things and persons in advance and we admit there is wickedness and evil, even supernatural evil in the world, how does one avoid making God the author of evil and sin?   My answer would be with a theology that allows for viable secondary choices, and the human and angelic ability, by God’s grace, to have the power of contrary choices.  Humans and angels are the source of sin and evil in the world— and definitely not God.   So again, the sovereignty of God needs to be defined carefully and how it works before one makes broad statements about God raising up and bringing down rulers.  For example, did God really raise up Adolph Hitler, a man who had power and authority and ruled with an iron hand,  to judge the Jews before and during WWII?  My answer to that would be HELL NO!    But I digress.   I would agree that all legitimate power and authority comes from God.

Jesus’ dominion is not ‘of this world’ meaning not like human dominions and notice that Jesus absolutely repudiates the idea of his disciples fighting for his kingdom, like merely human kings and their subjects to.  The rejection of violence comes up not only in the discussion in John 18 with Pilate but it also is perfectly evident in Jesus’ ‘those who live by the sword, die by the sword’. and Jesus’ rebuke of Peter for cutting off Malchus’ ear, which he miraculously reattached.  Jesus committed his disciples to absolute non-violence when it comes to his dominion (see p. 71). If only the Crusaders had actually paid attention to Jesus on this matter.  Tertullian was later to say ‘when Christ disarmed Peter, he disarmed all Christians’.  Yes there were many early Christians who felt they should not join the Roman army, and for that matter should not do violence against another human being for whom Christ died.  It is good to see that Tom and Mike see Col. 3.12-17 as an example of Paul implementing the teaching of the Sermon on the Mt. (pp.67-68).

Here are a few of the more interesting lines from the book:

“God.. raises up kings and empires [and] directs the affairs of government through divine providence [and] gives us government as a feature of common grace.” (p. 151).  But in what sense, and to what degree does God direct the affairs of government through his providence? For instance, did God direct the British Bible Makers, authorized by the King, to produce a Slave Bible for its slave-holding colonies which deleted all the passages that suggested that there was a strong critique of slavery in both the OT and NT, and highlighted all the passages which could be seen as favoring slavery?  No, no, no.

Here’s an interesting critique of Christian nationalism: “Christian nationalism is impoverished as it seeks a kingdom without a cross. It pursues a victory without mercy. It acclaims God’s love of power rather than the power of God’s love. We must remember that Jesus refused those who wanted ‘to make him a king’ by force just as much as he refused to become king by calling upon ‘twelve legions of angels'” (p. 136).

Or even better “Christianity is a global religion, not the religious expression of an ethnic identity. The church includes Romans but not all Romans. The church includes Slavs but not all Slavs”. (p. 135.).  Unfortunately, Christian nationalism, whether in its American or Hungarian or Russian forms involves a specific denial of Gal. 3.28 and an affirmation of an ethnic identity that the group wants sanctioned and supported by government at the expense of other ethnicities, other religions etc.

“The logical implication of religious freedom for Christians is religious freedom for all people irrespective of their religion or lack thereof.”  (p.132).

Here it is worth quoting the word of God himself in Hosea 8.4 “They made kings but not through me…”  This clearly implies that as John Wycliffe insisted, not all authority, not all government is something that God raised up, and Christians must be discerning as to which authorities and governments one should submit too as legitimate. (see the discussion on pp. 114-15).  Prov. 8.15-16 comes into play at this juncture where God says “By me kings reign, and rulers declare what is just. By me rulers rule… all who govern rightly.” Notice the provisos in each case.  Notice it does not say ‘By me kings do wickedness, or govern unjustly.’

One of the odder remarks can be found on p. 60 where Tom, talking about the structures of governance says “As with everything else in God’s creation, once they stop being worshipped they stop being demonic”.  Now I would take this cryptic remark to mean that Tom does not think the ‘principalities and  powers are actually beings, but just fallen structures that are valorized as if they were.   I don’t agree.  Walter Wink was wrong about this.  And what would it mean to say the powers are defeated and then reconciled if they are not beings? (Col. 2.13-15).  However on p. 52 he refers to the demons mentioned in 1 Cor. 10 as “malevolent discarnate beings bent on corrupting and distorting human life and work– eager to recruit humans to their deadly pursuits.” (p.52). On the previous page he calls them. supernatural quasi-personal forces which stand behind human rulers.

Early on there is a discussion based on Ps. 8 that God always intended humans to rule on earth as God’s surrogates (pp. 42ff.). What is not discussed is the early theocracy and the rejection of theocracy in 1 Samuel, with which God was not at all pleased.  This is odd.

Check out the dialogue and the reflection on sovereignty that follows this blog post seriatim.





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