Identifying the “dominions and powers”

In a previous post, I mentioned “the flesh, the world and the devil” as the forces that guide and shape our choices. Jacques Ellul, in his book The Subversion of Christianity, provides an analysis of the last of those forces: the demonic “dominions and powers” which Ellul summarises as follows:

The Bible refers to six evil powers: Mammon, the prince of this world, the prince of lies, Satan, the devil, and death.

“This is enough”, he continues. In other words, these six powers represent between them the full range of demonic power, characterised by their respective functions: “money, power, deception, accusation, division, and destruction”.

Ellul’s understanding of the precise nature of these powers is complex and subtle, and beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say he regards them as more than a mere personification of “evil principles”, while rejecting the traditional account of fallen angels. And all of them target their powers principally towards Christians and the church:

They deploy their full strength on Jesus Christ. They concentrate all the forces of evil on Christians. … [The devil] brings all his efforts to bear against those who carry grace and love in the world.

However, even if we prefer to stick more closely to the traditional account of an angelic rebellion against God at the beginning of creation, Ellul’s analyses of the various forms of the demonic are extremely helpful. So I summarise them here as a handy “cut and and keep” guide to understanding when the “powers and dominions” may be at work in situations we encounter:

  • Mammon: Mammon is “money imposing itself as a law of relationship”, of the spirit of “nothing for nothing” which is the antithesis of grace. It finds its way into the church not only where the church pursues self-enrichment, but also when an impoverished church becomes “so obsessed with its financial problems that all its other concerns and functions take second place”.
  • The prince of this world: “every expression of power on earth and in the course of human history” belongs to the domain of the “prince of this world”, to whom this world belongs even if only as a usurper while the true king is absent (a common theme in Jesus’ parables). The prince of this world enters the church whenever the church “is seduced by the ruling classes” or “obsessed with politics”.
  • The prince of lies: This is not simply a matter of our “petty everyday untruths”, but has to do specifically with lying about Jesus, of ascribing a false identity to him. This includes transforming Jesus into an idea, transforming him into an idol, or turning him into the possession of the church.
  • Satan: Satan is the accuser (or, in Ellul’s terms, simply “accusation”, “satan” with a small “S”), who is present whenever accusation is at work in the world and, especially, the church. The good news about Satan is that Jesus “watched [him] fall from heaven like a flash of lightning” (Luke 10:18). That is, there is no longer anyone in heaven to accuse us. Unlike in the days of Job, God will not hear any accusation against us. The only place where accusation remains is on the earth.
  • The devil: Again, the devil is present wherever there is “division, conflict, disruption, competition, combat, discord, disharmony, divorce, exclusion, maladjustment”, and “the church is [his] favourite prey”. The devil is also at work whenever we find a human enemy being treated as “not a human adversary, but as a demonic being”, so that “if we want finally to achieve justice, peace, liberty, etc., we must absolutely and completely eliminate the adversary”.

As I said before, many of us may wish to say that the last four in particular are simply different names for a single being. Fair enough, as long as we remember that (as Robert Bradshaw puts it) “the popular Evangelical view of Satan owes more to John Milton than to the teachings of Scripture”, and as long as we are alerted to the seductive powers that have attached themselves to these material realities of money, power and so on. Only then can we become those believers:

…who have the wisdom and strength to rob material realities of their seductive power, to unmask them for what they are, no more, and to put them in the service of God, diverting them totally from their own law.

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6 Responses to Identifying the “dominions and powers”

  1. John H says:

    And no, I don’t know what happened to “death” in Ellul’s analysis, either. He lists death as one of the powers, but then doesn’t mention it later in the chapter.

  2. Rick Ritchie says:

    Which one is responsible for inane TV programming? That’s what I want to know.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I read your blog from far away, and am enriched many times with stimulating writing. I’m intrigued by this post as I try to categorize the challenges I face in my life into one of these six. It also has application as we Californians struggle with our upcoming marriage amendment to our state constitution. While I think the idea of same-sex marriage could strengthen the gay communities and give benefit to many individuals, if a voter does not support it whole-heartedly they are branded as homophobic and hateful, in other words, “satan” above (although it could fit into other categories). Although I’m loathe to change God’s law of the man-woman lineup, I really struggle with this. On a side note, thanks for giving me some tools in which to confront some of the subtle pressures of everyday life, both in and out of the church.

  4. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » BBB-minus

  5. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Here be demons

  6. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Time for some “disciplinary terror”? Try again.

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