When working on Romans 7, I struggled to grasp how Paul was conceptualising ‘sin’. I eventually settled on the position that he viewed ‘sin’ as more than wrongdoing and that he was not only personifying an abstract idea. Rather, Paul had in mind something more sinister, more powerful. I adopted the language of ‘quasi-personal being’, which was a compromise but at least indicated that more was going on. How best to understand Paul’s statements, though, has remained a problem for me. Thus, when I saw Robert Moses’ book Practices of Power: Revisiting the Principalities and Powers in the Pauline Letters (Fortress, 2014), I was naturally drawn to it.

Moses’ study, though, is not like the typical investigations of Paul’s principalities and powers language. Rather than focusing primarily on the question of what Paul meant by this language, Moses turns his attention to how Paul instructs his congregations to act (the ‘practices’) in regard to the powers. This shift in focus is a breakthrough in the discussion of the powers, undercutting a good deal of the discussion. To be sure, Moses realises that one can’t discuss how a person should act toward the powers without some assessment of how Paul conceptualises the powers. His second chapter surveys four common approaches to the topic:

Clinton Arnold: Personal Spiritual Beings

Rudolf Bultmann: Demythologizing and Existentialist Interpretation

Hendrik Berkhof: Structural Interpretation of the Powers

Walter Wink: Invisible Interiority of Material and Outer Materiality

He highlights a variety of problems with these approaches, but more significant is his contention that the missing element in these discussions is Paul’s account of how the community acts with regard to the powers. He writes, ‘Whatever we may consider to be Paul’s theology of the powers, his understanding is embodied and social, disclosed by practices he performed or advocated for the early believers’ (p.39). Moses’ proceeds to discuss key sections of Romans, 1& 2 Corinthians, Galatians and Colossians. He highlights practices that not only remove humans from the control of the powers (such as baptism in Romans), but also ones that place humans under their control (such as idolatry in 1 Cor 8-10 and Galatians). The discussion is exegetically sensitive, and he often highlights how Paul’s arguments are influenced by the Old Testament. He offers several interesting and new arguments in support of standard views as well as his own solutions to longstanding problems.

To highlight one point where I think more could be said, I would like more discussion of exactly how the practices guard or expose humans to the powers. That is, given the exegetical work, some theological reflection is now needed. For example, Moses rightly identifies the crucial role of baptism. The discussion could be extended by engaging with the theologians on what is happening in baptism. This isn’t a weakness in Moses’ study; rather, it is the opportunity for someone to develop his insights into the practices further.

The book concludes by ‘applying’ Paul’s language about the practices of power to the African context. Unlike modern Western (scholarly) society, the African religions have a robust view of ‘powers’ and have devised a variety of practices to counteract them. The chapter is a fascinating case-study of how to apply Pauline theology to the real world. The chapter is also a strong critique of Western scholarship which discounts or re-interprets Paul’s powers language based on myopic views of truth and reality. However Moses intended the chapter to function, it serves as a call for scholars to see beyond our own culture and let others give us a wider view.

Overall, I think this book has a lot to contribute to the discussion of Paul’s view of the powers. It isn’t the last word, as Moses himself acknowledges, but I think he opens a new door that can help us in the task of understanding Paul’s theology and applying it to our own contexts. If you have any money left over after SBL or are looking for a Christmas present, Moses’ Practices of Power would be worth considering.