Book Review: Jesus and the Powers, by N.T. Wright & Michael F. Bird

In Jesus and the Powers: Christian Political Witness in an Age of Totalitarian Terror and Dysfunctional Democracies, New Testament scholars N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird take on two major tasks: (1) to summarize the biblical data about political power and its spiritual components, and (2) to lay out a practical theology to guide Christians in making decisions about how to interact with the political sphere.

From a libertarian Christian vantagepoint, there is much to commend in this book. For one, as exceptional New Testament scholars, Wright and Bird pick up on many of the biblical emphases on justice and for being led by a concern for the least of these. In addition, as proponents of the western tradition of liberal democracy, many of their political values overlap with libertarian ones. Indeed, the classical liberal tradition paved the way for its more consistent formulation in libertarianism.

However, there are also significant flaws in the book which deserve our attention.

What are the Powers?

In the New Testament, powers and principalities (Gk. arche and exousia) are terms used, often in tandem, to refer to rulers over geographical regions. These terms are applied to earthly powers, to spiritual forces, and sometimes perhaps both. In Luke 12:11 and Titus 3:1, they describe earthly political forces. In Ephesians 3:10, they refer to the spiritual forces “in the heavenly places” to whom the “wisdom of God might now be made known through the church” (NASB). However, most of the other New Testament uses of these terms fall into something of a gray area. Will Christ abolish all spiritual or earthly powers and principalities at the end of the age (1 Corinthians 15:24)? Is He now seated “in the heavenly places above all” spiritual or earthly “powers and principalities” (Ephesians 1:21)? Is Christ the head and creator of all powers and principalities in heaven or on the earth (Colossians 1:16, 2:10)? And most importantly for our subject, did Christ’s crucifixion disarm the earthly or spiritual powers and principalities (Colossians 2:15)?

How one answers these questions will have a significant impact upon how they answer questions down the line. This is especially important when it comes to passages that speak of the defeat or reconciliation of the powers. Wright and Bird make Paul’s discussion of the powers in Colossians perhaps the centerpiece of their biblical theology of the powers. In this epistle, Paul says that by Christ “all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominions, or rulers, or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him” (1:16, NASB) and that through His incarnation and crucifixion, “all things” have been “reconcile[d]” to Him–”whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (1:20, NASB).

But this raises two difficulties. First of all, is Paul referring to the demonic spiritual forces that rule over political systems behind the curtains or to the human political systems themselves? If he means the demonic forces, are we to understand that these spiritual beings are now working on behalf of God instead of against Him? Is Paul teaching a form of present universal salvation that extends even to rebellious angelic beings? If the latter, then shouldn’t we expect the political orders of all places and times post-crucifixion to be far more friendly to Christians, even christocentric in their orientation?

The second difficulty is one of timing. Paul speaks of Jesus reconciling all things to Himself, but to what extent is that true in the present? Has the cross totally reconciled all things right now, or only partially? If totally, then why would Paul write to Christians decades after Jesus’ crucifixion that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12, NASB)?

In a recent interview with Doug Stuart on the Libertarian Christian Podcast, Bird clarified his definition of the powers in this way:
“[They are entities that] inhabit that realm between the heavenlies and the echelons of political power. So you can’t simply immanentize it [and say] that it merely means the political apparatus… But neither can it be spiritualized into angels, demons, and rebellious spirits. It’s the whole constellation of those things–how they’re in cahoots with each other, how the political forces are merely puppets often for the dark powers of our times and the kind of coalition between them.”

The Powers from a Biblical Perspective

Bird and Wright conclude that this constellation between demons and political forces, “the structures of governance, the tendons and ligaments of complex human society, are in principle [now] reconciled.” In short, they are optimistic that, because of Christ’s defeat of the powers on the cross, Christians can now feel quite comfortable participating in and even over the political system where they live (does this imply that God was not sovereign over political forces and spiritual powers before the cross?). One might term Wright and Bird’s view of the evil nature of the powers the “subjective” view because they write that “once [the powers] stop being worshiped they stop being demonic.”

However, there are two insurmountable biblical problems with this conclusion.

The first is that the powers are still in operation and are still opposed to God. This is abundantly clear throughout the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 15:24-28, Paul writes that at the end, Jesus will deliver “the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority [archen] and power [exousian].” In other words, the full reconciliation of the powers will not take place until the final judgment–and it will be accomplished by their destruction. The cross began this process, but it did conclude it.

This is context with the book of Revelation, potentially the latest written book of the New Testament, where Satan is still presented as behind political authority even after the death and resurrection of Jesus (cf. Revelation 12:5 to Revelation 13:1 and Luke 4:6). Where Bird and Wright take the subjective view of the wickedness of the powers, Revelation seems to present a more objective view–the dragon summons the beast of civil government and causes it to resemble him (cf. Revelation 13:1, 4; 12:3).

In other words, the reports of the reconciliation of the powers have been greatly exaggerated by Wright and Bird.

Secondly, even if political power were not still inextricably tangled up with satanic power, its chief tool–violence–is unacceptable for Christians to utilize. Libertarian Christians have held different views about the appropriateness of violence, but even at the most permissive extreme, the initiation of force against peaceful people (taxation, fining and jailing nonviolent “offenders,” the maintenance of the military industrial complex, etc.) would all be morally verboten. This is because libertarianism represents the most basic ethical requirement of natural law, often called the silver rule: do not do to others what you would not have them do to you. Libertarians call this the Non-Aggression Principle–it is wrong to initiate violence against peaceful people. Libertarian Christians add to the Non-Aggression Principle the biblical notion that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, therefore His servants do not go to war like the soldiers of earthly kingdoms (John 18:36). Christians who take fairly literally the commands of Jesus to turn the other cheek when struck, love one’s enemies, and always return good for the evil that’s done to you would go even further than the NAP into some form of pacifism, as the chart below illustrates.

force chart

The political ethic promoted by Bird and Wright meets neither the biblical nor the baseline silver rule ethic of libertarianism. It is historically Christian, however, in the sense that it’s consistent with post-Constantinian Christendom (though softened by Bird and Wright’s broad acceptance of enlightenment liberalism).

Peter proclaims a concept similar to Paul’s idea of the reconciliation of the powers, writing that Jesus “is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him” (1 Peter 3:22, NASB). Nevertheless, in this very same letter Peter also calls Christians “exiles,” (1:1) and “foreigners and strangers” (2:11) in the world in which they inhabit. He also places a divide between Christians and human political institutions (1:13), charging Jesus followers to remember that they are technically free from these authorities but should choose to make peace with them whenever possible through obedience in order to silence outside criticism (2:15-16). Finally, he exhorts Christians who are abused by those in authority to “not insult in return” and “not threaten” but follow the example of Jesus who “entrust[ed] Himself to Him who judges righteously” (2:23). In short, Peter sees Christians as still living in a hostile world marked by violence that we must practice thoughtful and nonviolent separation from, awaiting the final fulfillment of Jesus’ subjection of the powers to Himself. Bird and Wright actually speak to this Christian value of nonviolence with great moral clarity, but only in the context of their opposition to violent social revolution: “even to consider the prospect of violence as permissible or divinely sanctioned enters into a morally fraught space.”

On the other hand, Peter also speaks of the practical benefits of human political institutions–when they work properly they punish those who do evil and enable those who do good. These benefits are not lost on Wright and Bird, who make this function the centerpiece of their argument that the state serves the purposes of God. Some of the biblical support which they marshall for these arguments are fairly uncontroversial. For instance, the Old Testament prophets wrote of God’s use of the empires of Babylon and Assyria to punish wayward Judah and Israel (see Isaiah 10:5-19 and 2 Kings 24:2).

Other passages they cite are of more questionable support to their position. For instance, much is made of John 19:11 where Jesus told Pilate “You would have no authority over Me at all, if it had not been given to you from above; for this reason the one [singular] who handed Me over to you has the greater sin” (NASB). Bird and Wright conclude from this that, “Jesus, the Word incarnate, the Son of Man, the Messiah, acknowledges that the pagan governor Pontius Pilate has a God-given authority over him… Of course, Jesus adds a vital rider. Those to whom authority and responsibility are given will be held accountable…”

There are at least three problems with this interpretation:

  1. Jesus’ primary point is not that Pilate will be held accountable, but that he will be held to much less account than the one who turned Jesus over to him. This raises another question.
  2. Who is the one who will primarily be held to account? In Wright and Bird’s reading, “it will be blamed on those mainly responsible, in other words (we assume) the chief priests who have presented Pilate with a strange prisoner and an even stranger set of charges against him.” But were the chief priests not also appointed by God, and even more directly? Why then would they receive more blame than Pilate?
  3. Wright and Bird assume that the one who gave Pilate his authority is different from the one (and remember that this is a singular verbal form) who handed Jesus over to him. But since there is manifold witness throughout the Bible that corrupt spiritual powers pull the strings behind political authorities, why not conclude that the power from above who gave Pilate his power is the same one who gave Jesus over to him–the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2)?

But even if we take their interpretation as broadly correct–that indeed God is ultimately in authority even though Satan is not without influence–this would not necessarily lead us to seeing participating in the violence of the state as a worthy Christian calling. Another of their major prooftexts–Romans 13–presents the Roman magistrate as an [unknowing] servant of God who avenges against evildoers. However, this follows Romans 12, which commands Christians to leave all vengeance to God, choosing to forsake violence and live peaceably with all men.

Testing Their Practical Political Theology Against the Witness of Scripture

All of this biblical theology leads us to a practical political theology, though Wright and Bird’s logic here is not as tight as they’d like to think. This was recently demonstrated when Michael Bird engaged in a conversation with Christian Nationalist Stephen Wolfe on the radio show Unbelievable! In it, Bird admitted that his belief in democracy means that “government works best with the consent of the governed. If you want to introduce something like sabbath observance, like… no trading on Sunday, that’s fine if it meets with the consensus of the governed. But if the governed don’t want it, it’s going to be a hard sell to impose it.” In other words, forcing one’s religious views on others is okay so long as a significant proportion of the governed are okay with it. This is just Christian Nationalism with more steps. Democracy has barely a whisper of an answer to Christian Nationalism if all it can say is, “okay, but you’re going to need more votes.” This is just a kinder, gentler monopoly on violence.

But if Wright and Bird’s realized eschatology about the reconciliation of the powers is correct, why bother with democracy at all? Shouldn’t the powers’ reconciliation mean that we are living in a new age of Christian hegemony that rejects freedom of religion? Bird and Wright’s answer is that freedom of religion is neighbor love:
“In order to love our ‘neighbor’, we must allow our neighbor to be beside us and yet be different from us. Our neighbor has permission to be ‘other’ than us. That requires us permitting and even celebrating the freedom of others to find happiness, fulfillment, flourishing, purpose and meaning in ways that we might disagree with or disapprove of. Unless their happiness is to the direct detriment of our own, our neighbor is free to be who they are, how they are, where they there, whenever they are.”

But Christian Nationalists have a different application of neighbor love. For instance, Torba and Isker write that actually “Christian Nationalism is loving your neighbor” (Christian Nationalism: A Biblical Guide For Taking Dominion And Discipling Nations). Stephen Wolfe elaborates on what neighbor love looks like to him, which is a nation ordering its laws and customs “in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good.” In other words, Christian Nationalists see secularism as leading to more sin and more rejection of Christianity–both of which all Christians would acknowledge are undesirable.

How do we resolve this conflict? Christian Nationalists think that a structured religious order that punishes sin is the purpose of governance; Bird and Wright are more influenced by Jesus’ compassion for the weak in building their more secularized political theology–tempering their support of democracy with some built-in rights protections wherein “LGBTQ+ people have the right to be themselves, Muslims can be Muslims, and Christians can be Christians, Socialists can be Socialists, Greenies can be Greenies.” While this model is certainly better than the Christian Nationalist one, the best approach is actually to take the biblical witness more seriously than our modern political values.

How Shall We Then Live?

Keeping in mind a biblical framework that rejects violence and acknowledges that the powers are still operational and in opposition to Christ, how should Christians approach political involvement? Bird and Wright actually do give us a partial answer, though without realizing it. In their promotion of a liberal order (not liberal as in left-wing, but in the classical liberal sense of supporting individual rights),, they quote Galston approvingly in his definition of political tolerance as, “the refusal to use coercive state power to impose one’s views on others, and therefore a commitment to moral competition through recruitment and persuasion alone.”

They also highlight the danger of our modern partisan power-grabbing:

“Sure, limiting the freedoms of your political rivals sounds terrific, as long as your political tribe remains permanently in power. But the erasure of liberties will come back to haunt you when political power lands in the hands of another political tribe, one that is perhaps nefarious, nationalistic and nakedly undemocratic. Then you will be wishing for limits on state power and the general freedom of the citizenry.”

Despite their eight negative references to “anarchy” throughout the book, the previous two citations lead us directly to it when applied consistently. What is the refusal to use state power to impose one’s views on others? What is a commitment to “persuasion” alone? What is the logical outworking of not giving the state any power against peaceful people that it could then turn and use against you? It is anarchy–the philosophy that no one has a legitimate right to rule over others and that no person or organization has the right to initiate violence against peaceful people. This is not to say that there can be no systems in place to promote the libertarian Non-Aggression Principle–after all, human beings have a right to self-defense. However, the kind of system that Bird and Wright promote–one tempered by Christian concerns for social justice and order but which is nevertheless given significant leeway to initiate force against nonviolent actors–is paradoxical and ultimately unethical.

In short, if Christians are to be politically active, it ought to be as a witness to those in power to respect human rights and to exercise their use of force to be consistent with basic human rights as reflected in the silver rule and the NAP. However, we must also always keep in mind that the closer we get to state power, the closer we get to its violence and the potential of enslavement under the wicked spiritual powers which pull the strings of state power. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s always wrong to vote, protest, write your senators, or perhaps even run for city council. But tread lightly.

Wright and Bird fear that this kind of rejection of force and suspicion of those who wield it will be a handicap on Christians that will dampen our vocation and witness. They speak condescendingly of nonviolent Christians as moral cowards “hiding and huddled together in the catacombs for fear of being seduced by political power.” That will not do!:

“The people who change history must make history. If you want to build for the kingdom, then you have to build something: relationships, alliances, advocacy, food banks, para-church ministries, youth clubs, foreign aid programmes. You need to be in the room where it happens.”

It’s worth noting that with the possible exception of the last, every single one of these examples does not require the use of government theft through taxation or any kind of violence to accomplish.

There’s more than one way to change the world. One of Christian Nationalists’ favorite pejorative for a Christianity that rejects Christendom is Pietism–a religious movement of people who believed that following Jesus was more important than forcing one’s faith on others. Many great Pietists have also built hospitals and orphanages as expressions of God’s love. Do Bird and Wright really believe, as Christian Nationalists do, that these are subpar expressions of Christianity in the world because they do not involve the initiation of violent force against our peaceful neighbors?

This doesn’t mean that there are no complicated gray areas for libertarian Christians–and especially for libertarian Christians who are also pacifists! In societies with large, intrusive governments, it’s easy for libertarian Christians to find things to petition the state about without violating our code of ethics–we can write our congressperson to tell them to stop bombing civilians overseas, stealing from citizens, and caging people who smoke marijuana.

But what should Christians do when governance isn’t even living up to its bare minimum natural function of enforcing the Non-Aggression Principle? Let’s take America’s history of slavery as an example. Slavery was a violation of the NAP, so libertarians wouldn’t have a problem with governance threatening those who hold slaves, but Christians who understood Jesus’ to be promoting nonviolence might have had more complicated feelings about supporting even this form of reactive government violence.

Perhaps if the state had removed its protection for this institution, and if Christians had been consistent in offering aid to runaway slaves, proclaiming the gospel’s anti-slavery dimensions to slaveholders, and refusing to buy products made from slave labor, slavery would have in short order fallen away. But perhaps not. The abolition of slavery might have required the threat of force, even lethal force, against slaveholders from the government. If so, should Christians have supported this potential expansion of government violence? In short, is there ever a time when Christians should be advocating for more violence instead of less? What about a more contemporary issue like abortion? Is it sufficient for Christians to love their neighbors considering abortion, care for them, and try to change their minds; or must our love be backed by an advocacy for policy that might punish those who perform or even seek abortions?

Peripheral examples like these offer a legitimate challenge to libertarian Christ followers who recognize a legitimate role for secular force but also reject participation in violence for themselves. But Wright and Bird make violence too easy for Christians. They see the initiation of force as legitimate so long as its goals are admirable and the legitimated monopoly on force supports it–but intentions and authority are not sufficient to morally justify an action. Like all decent moral people, Bird and Wright understand this very clearly when it comes to individuals, but their inability to imagine a good world that doesn’t require the initiation of violence against peaceful people clouds their moral judgment when it comes to the state.

From the perspective of natural law, if an action would be immoral for an individual civilian to engage in, it would also be immoral for a mob or a dictator to do it. From the perspective of Jesus’ kingdom ethics, if an action cannot be argued to be consistent with enemy love, it is not a Christian action. But the model proposed by Wright and Bird fall far below either one of these standards. They also ignore or re-interpret the relevant biblical witness to diminish its relevance to these important questions. While there is much that could be commended in Jesus and the Powers, and I would certainly be quite pleased to see its more moderate statism being preached from Southern Baptist pulpits than the more extreme form that is all too common, it is both insufficiently biblical and insufficiently liberal to be a guide to the difficult questions it seeks to answer.

If you didn’t catch Doug Stuart’s interview with Mike Bird on the Libertarian Christian Podcast, check it out here!

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