The term spiritual warfare is not a biblical term, but it captures a biblical theme. “[O]ur struggle is not against flesh and blood,” Paul writes in Ephesians 6:12, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” The nature of those “powers” and, hence, of the “struggle” against them is the topic of Understanding Spiritual Warfare, which presents a debate among four “models” of spiritual warfare by leading advocates of each.
The book opens with an “Introduction” by editors James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy. It analyzes the three issues that underlie the debate about spiritual warfare: “(1) the moral objection to ‘spiritual warfare’ language; (2) the existence and nature of spirit beings, with a focus on Satan and the demonic; and (3) Christian perspectives on theology and practice of spiritual warfare itself” (2). The introduction is well-researched and judicious in its conclusions—an excellent contribution in its own right.
The Book of Common Prayer includes a request that God deliver his people from “all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Beilby and Eddy argue that this “triumvirate” helps explain the primary focus of each of the four models, with Walter Wink, Gareth Higgins, and Michael Hardin emphasizing the world, David Powlison emphasizing the flesh, and Gregory Boyd, C. Peter Wagner, and Rebecca Greenwood emphasizing deliverance form the devil, though at different levels.
Walter Wink, whose remarks have been edited by Gareth Higgins, presents “The World Systems Model” (Chapter 1). He is the author of a trilogy on spiritual warfare: Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, and Engaging the Powers. Writing from within the liberal Protestant tradition, Wink’s understanding of spiritual warfare has been shaped by the demythologization of the New Testament. He rejects, for example, the “personification” of Satan, i.e., the understanding that Satan is a fallen angel. And yet, influenced by post-World War II European theologians, he wants to retain the language of “Satan” and “the powers” because “there are some evils too horrendous to be named otherwise” (59). So, he identifies Satan with “the real interiority of a society that idolatrously pursues its own enhancement as the highest good” (56). The outward form of Satan is “the Domination System,” “the alienated and alienating reality that seduces humanity into idolatry: the worship of political power as divine” (63). The antidote to Satan and the Domination System is “intercession,” which Wink defines as “spiritual defiance of what is, in the name of what God has promised” (61). Intercession cannot be reduced to prayer, however. Nor can it be restricted to Christians. Wink writes: “history belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being. This is not simply a religious statement. It is as true of Communists or capitalists or anarchists as it is of Christians. The future belongs to whoever can envision in the manifold of its potentials a new and desirable possibility, which faith then fixes upon as inevitable.” (62).
David Powlison presents “The Classical Model” (Chapter 2). Writing from within the Reformed evangelical tradition, Powlison uses Ephesians 6:12–20 as a lens through which to view spiritual warfare. He defines spiritual warfare as “the moral conflict of the Christian life” (92). “At its core,” then, “to win this war is to know God and consciously serve him” (98). Spiritual warfare “looks like the Christian life” (8). He further argues that “repentance,” not exorcism, is the key to ministry to persons “involved in the occult” (101–103) or with “an addictive bondage to sin” (103–104). Indeed, he argues that the Bible “never connects these deliverances [i.e., exorcisms in the synoptic Gospels] to Satan’s moral lordship and our battle with sin. They are part of mercy ministry to sufferers, not our fight against the triumvirate of dark masters” (105, emphasis in original). Finally, he argues “anecdotally” that pastoral care better accomplishes what “spiritual warfare ministries” seek to accomplish through exorcism (106–111).
Gregory Boyd presents “The Ground-Level Deliverance Model” (Chapter 3). Writing from within the perspective of Open Theism, he defines spiritual warfare this way: “God battles cosmic powers and humans to establish his will ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’” Contrary to Augustine, who held that “everything that comes to pass, good or evil, ultimately reflects God’s sovereign will,” Boyd argues that, “while it’s certain God will eventually triumph over his cosmic and earthly foes, much of what comes to pass does not reflect God’s benevolent will but rather reflects the will of agents working at cross-purposes with God” (129). Boyd divides his essay into three parts: the first surveys the biblical teaching about “the cosmic-conflict worldview” (130–139). The second makes four arguments for “the reality of spirits” (139–147). Here, Boyd has Rudolf Bultmann’s endlessly repeated dictum in view: “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.” The problems with this are that it is:
- “a non sequitur” (141);
- “demonstrably false,” since any number of modern persons both use technology and believe in spirits (141);
- “chronocentric,” “ethnocentric,” “elitist” and “uncritical,” since the academics who advance this consider their own place, time, and beliefs to float above historical criticism (141, emphases in original);
- “increasingly antiquated even within these circles [of Western academics],” since social scientists are calling into question the naturalistic worldview based on what they’re seeing in the field (142–143).
Indeed, citing the studies of some of these social scientists, Boyd makes a “cross-cultural argument for the reality of spirits and ‘demon possession’” (147–148). The third part of Boyd’s essay provides three action steps for Christians: (1) “to wear the armor and retain the mind-set of a good soldier” (152), (2) “to imitate Jesus is to manifest the beauty of God’s reign by living a countercultural life that revolts against everything on earth and in ‘the spiritual realm’ that stands against this reign” (154), and (3) to use the authority Jesus imparted to us “to drive out demons and heal infirmities…for he wants us to imitate Jesus’ warfare in this area as well” (154).
Finally, C. Peter Wagner and Rebecca Greenwood present “The Strategic-Level Deliverance Model” (Chapter 4). In the first four pages of the essay, Wagner recounts the history of his development of the idea of strategic-level spiritual warfare, and the controversy this caused at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he then worked. The remainder of the essay is written by Greenwood, a self-described “prophetic warfare intercessor” who has “actively and consistently engaged in strategic-level spiritual warfare, addressing territorial spirits since 1991” (177). She defines spiritual warfare as “an invisible battle in the spiritual realm involving a power confrontation between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness” (178). It occurs on three levels: (1) ground level: “the practice of deliverance ministry that involves breaking demonic influences in an individual.” (2) occult level: “resistance to a more ordered level of demonic authority…witchcraft, Satanism, freemasonry, New Age beliefs, Eastern religions, and many other forms of spiritual practices that glorify Satan and his dark army.” (3) strategic level: “power confrontations with high-ranking principalities and powers…assigned to geographical territories and social networks” (179). Warfare at the strategic level involves several practices:
- “spiritual mapping”: “the practice of identifying the spiritual conditions at work in a given community, city, or nation,” with a focus on the “defilement” of a “land” through “bloodshed,” “idolatry,” “sexual immorality,” and “broken covenants” (182, 185, 186);
- “identificational repentance”: “a two stage intercessory action that involves: (1) an acknowledgment that one’s affinity group (clan, city, nation or organization) has been guilty of specific corporate sins before God and man, and (2) a prayerful petition that God will use personal repudiation of this sin as a redemptive beachhead from which to move into the larger community” (187, quoting George Otis, Jr.);
- “prophetic decrees: “an announcement or proclamation given with the authority of a prophet” (188);
- “prophetic acts”: “a thing or deed done, having the powers of a prophet, or an action or decree that foreshadows what is to come”; and
- “power encounters”: “a visible, practical demonstration that Jesus Christ is more powerful than the spirits, powers or false gods worshiped or feared by the members of a given group” (190, quoting C. Peter Wagner).
Greenwood closes her essay with a case study of strategic-level spiritual warfare against abortion in Wichita, Kansas—more specifically against the abortionist Dr. George Tiller, who was murdered by Scott Roeder, an anti-abortion activist, on May 31, 2009, while attending church. Though Greenwood repudiates Tiller’s murder, she nonetheless sees it as somehow an outworking of her strategic-level spiritual warfare activities.
Each of the essays in Understanding Spiritual Warfare contains a response by advocates of the other three views. (Michael Hardin cowrote Wink’s responses.) Rather than summarizing these responses, however, let me summarize my own takeaways:
- Spiritual warfare cannot be reduced to the Christian’s struggle with only one of the world-flesh-devil triumvirate. Nor can the primary focus be on only one of the three. Any account of spiritual warfare, in other words, must be non-reductionist and multi-perspectival. We need deliverance from world-systems, fleshly temptations, and the depredations of the demonic realm. That is both the biblical picture and the traditional understanding so ably summarized by The Book of Common Prayer.
- While Wink’s attention to the systematic character of the world’s evil is a salutary rebuke to individualistic understandings of it, his theology is heterodox. He uses the terminology of the Bible and Christian tradition, but he invests it with suspect meanings. On this account, I am sympathetic to Powlison’s statement that “Wink’s liberalism is a different kind of religion” (77), even though it uses the same words as orthodox Christianity.
- While’s Powlison’s essay helps us understand how best to fight the flesh, and while he argues against reducing the world-flesh-devil triumvirate to any one of the three members, I feel he has done precisely that, reducing all spiritual warfare to resisting the flesh.
- I am very sympathetic to Boyd’s “cosmic-conflict model,” though I have theological reservations about Open Theism. And like Powlison, I worry that Boyd has underemphasized the sins of the flesh. Nevertheless, his brief against the naturalistic worldview is an important contribution to the subject; on which, see his longer word, written with Paul Rhodes Eddy, The Jesus Legend.
- In contrast to the essays by Wink, Powlison, and Boyd, the essay by Wagner and Greenwood is an embarrassment. Its exegesis is thin, and its conclusions unrooted in the precedent of church history. It uncritically cites other advocates of strategic-level spiritual warfare. And it is largely anecdotally driven, without recognizing how problematic the anecdotes are. Greenwood’s ambivalence about Tiller’s murder is a case in point. She rejoices in the end, namely, the decline in abortion in Wichita, but she rejects the means that brought the end about, namely, Roeder’s violation of the Sixth Commandment.
In conclusion, Understanding Spiritual Warfare is an excellent presentation of the debate among Christians from across the Protestant spectrum of the nature and practice of spiritual warfare. I recommend it to theologians, students, pastors, church leaders, and church members as an introduction to the key thinkers and issues in the debate.
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