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Practices of Power: Revisiting the Principality and Powers in the Pauline Letters.

Practices of Power: Revisiting the Principality and Powers in the Pauline Letters. By Robert Ewusie Moses. Emerging Scholars Series. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014. Pp. xi + 293. $59.

In this revised dissertation, Moses proposes "practice" as a category for understanding and analyzing the world of spiritual powers presumed in the Pauline letters. These hostile forces--summarized comprehensively as "principalities" and "powers" (dynameis)--refer to spiritual entities with intellect and will (e.g., Satan, demons), and to personifications of abstract nouns (e.g., Sin and Death). M. asserts that, for Paul, these malevolent spiritual forces permeate all aspects of existence: cosmic, personal, political, and social. The apostle's varying terminology, including his use of personification, conveys the mysterious quality of these realities, as well as the fact that they defy perception and classification. Nevertheless, they are real.

M.'s unique contribution is to approach "Paul's view of the powers through investigating the actual practices that Paul recommended to the early congregations in his letters" (5). He defines "practices of power" as those activities that deliver and safeguard believers from the malevolent spiritual forces. Examples include baptism, proclamation of the gospel, and discipline of erring members. There are also practices that expose people--nonbelievers and even believers--to enslavement to the evil powers, such as partaking in pagan sacrificial meals, and--for Gentile believers--taking on practices of the Jewish Law.

Drawing on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and Pierre Bourdieu, M. highlights two elements inherent in Paul's promotion of certain practices. First, practices are bound up in narratives--in this case, the narrative of what God has done through Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit. In particular, M. highlights the story of the cross, where Jesus encountered, unmasked, and defeated the principalities and powers (see Col 2:15). Second, practices are to inculcate habituated dispositions that enable believers to orient their lives in order to be safeguarded from the powers from which they have been delivered. Crucial for M. is that reception of the Christian gospel brings with it a new epistemology (2 Cor 5:16), one that includes recognition of the spiritual powers for what they are and do. It is this recognition--ongoing in its significance--that modern, demythologizing treatments fail to take into account.

The heart of M.'s book is his extended study of key Pauline texts. In chapter 4, M. analyzes Romans 5-8 for Paul's understanding of personified Sin, and how baptism delivers the baptized from its clutches through participation in Jesus' death on the cross. Chapter 5 examines two passages from 1 Corinthians: 1:18-2:16, where M. persuasively argues that the "rulers of this age" refers to spiritual powers (and not to the human authorities who put Jesus to death); and 5:1-10, the pericope about the incestuous man. The practices treated here are preaching that is focused on the cross-where Jesus defeated the powers--and expulsion, respectively.

In chapter 6, M. wades into the controverted waters of what Paul means by stoicheia, the "elemental spirits," in Galatians (4:3,9). Skillfully weighing evidence from an array of sources (both Jewish and Greco-Roman), M. contends that stoicheia refers both to the basic elements (water, air, fire, and earth) and to the demonic powers that lie behind them; in short, it points to the Galatians' idolatrous practices that led to their prior enslavement. Chapter 7 is a reading of Colossians, using the Christ-hymn (1:15-20) as the interpretive key. A new element here is that the principalities and powers are presented as being created in Christ and as among "all things" that have been reconciled.

Overall, M.'s exegetical analysis is impressive and persuasive. He offers several insights into texts. For instance, he carefully demonstrates Paul's logic in Galatians 4:1-11, where Paul attempts to dissuade the Galatians from taking on the practice of Jewish laws. He shows with precision the steps Paul takes to argue that being "under the law" is tantamount to being "under the stoicheia." Not surprisingly, given that he is a student of Richard B. Hays, M. also frequently suggests how OT texts lie in the background of Paul's exposition (e.g., Ps 89:32-33 and Job 2:4-6 behind 1 Cor. 4:18-21 and 5:5, respectively).

At times M. takes a contended exegetical position for which he does not fully argue, but this is easily forgiven. Too many dissertations are myopic in their focus on a single text. M.'s expansive coverage is a breath of fresh air. And his focus on practice for illuminating Paul's understanding of spiritual powers is innovative and helpful. My main critique is that M. too narrowly concentrates on occasional or dramatic practices--like baptism or punishment. While he frequently mentions the formation of a Christian habitus, he does not cover the quotidian practices involved to cultivate it (e.g., prayer and teaching). Nevertheless, this volume is well worth reading.

DOI: 10.1177/0040563915593486

Thomas D. Stegman, S.J.

Boston College School of Theology and Ministry
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Author:Stegman, Thomas D.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2015
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