David Bentley Hart, in his new translation of the New Testament and in his notes before, within and after that translation, insists that Paul’s theology is very different from what we modern Protestants imagine it to be. Paul writes that Christ came into the “kosmos” to save the “kosmos.” In the translations we are used to, the Greek word “kosmos” is translated into the English word “world.” Hart argues that that will not do; that when Paul used the word “kosmos” he meant something far deeper and wider than anything you and I imagine when we hear the word “world.”
While you and I conceive of “the world” as everything that is apparent to our senses or even what humanity has made of the physical world, the word “kosmos,” for Paul, included all of that and the fallen spiritual order. Thus, Paul writes, again and again, about the powers and principalities, the thrones and dominions in the celestial places. In one place he writes that these powers and the order to which they belong were all created through Christ, just like all of the rest of creation – just like everything we can see:
Colossians 1:16 for in him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and unto him;
In other places, Paul tells us that Christ has conquered these “powers”:
Colossians 2:15 having despoiled the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.
Stripping the Archons and Powers, he exposed them in the open, leading them prisoner along with him in a triumphal procession.
And, in yet another place, Paul seems to imply that the final conquest of these powers is somewhere in the future and will be achieved at the end of time:
I Corinthians 15: 24 Then the end will come, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father after He has destroyed all dominion, authority, and power.
Hart’s translation reads:
Then the full completion, when he delivers the Kingdom to him who is God and Father, when he renders every Principality and every Authority and Power ineffectual.
We now have the question before us: Why should we concern ourselves with this concept of the cosmos? This notion of a complex and fallen spiritual order that is unseen, has been defeated by Christ, and that yet holds some sway in the affairs of humanity? What practical difference would this make?
Let us start with the notion that Paul was obviously concerned that his readers – who would have found Paul’s conception of the cosmos and a hierarchical, spiritual order far less foreign than we moderns – not lose sight of the fact that this invisible order is a fact of life. Thus, he warns the Ephesians:
For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Eph 6: 12
Paul follows that warning with advice about how the disciple must carry out the battle. This is the well-known passage about the armor of God. You know, the “belt of truth,” the “breastplate of righteousness,” the “shield of faith,” and the “helmet of salvation.”
I must admit that I never before found this passage very helpful. It was just a kind of overdone, almost comical picture to me. But, leaving aside the details and whatever might be the distinctions between the helmets and shields and breastplates for the moment, we must admit that Paul is telling his hearers in adamant terms and tones that since our battle is not against what we see, that our strategies and tactics must be different, much different, than those we would use against a physical enemy.
Let’s start with the idea of truth. Against a merely human foe, would we be likely to use truth or deception? Would we lie to our enemy to put him at a disadvantage, to deceive him into a trap. How strange that Paul tells us here that our best weapon in the war against evil is not deception, but truth.
We do lie, you know.
In fact, it may not be too much to say that when we are facing a battle, our first impulse is to lie, or at least to tell less than the truth. We want to protect our interest. We don’t want the bad guy to get the drop on us. Here is Bob Dylan:
Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect. . .
Jordan Peterson has spent decades as a clinical psychologist, working day after day with people who have crippling emotional problems. He has come to the conclusion that such problems are always, in the end, moral problems. Even though the sufferers often are not conscious of the fact and may be desperately trying to hide from it, their problems are sin problems. Many of these are caused or greatly exacerbated by lying.
We lie, Peterson says, for many different reasons:
To impose my ideological beliefs, to prove that I am (or was) right, to appear competent; to ratchet myself up the dominance hierarchy, to avoid responsibility (or its twin, to garner credit for others actions), to be promoted, to attract the lion’s share of attention, to ensure that everyone likes me, to garner the benefits of martyrdom, to justify my cynicism, to rationalize my antisocial outlook, to minimize immediate conflict, to maintain my naivete, to capitalize on my vulnerability, to always appear as the sainted one, or (this one is particularly evil) to ensure that it is always my unloved child’s fault. . . (209)
He goes on to say that our justifications for lying rest on two premises, both of them false. The first of these premises holds that we are justified in manipulating reality by lying because we are already sure of what should result in any situation we are in. We know the end we desire and we are sure that there could be nothing better than what we’re set our cap at and so we lie as a means to that perfect end.
Peterson says that this is false because we – limited and finite as we are – very often do not know everything that needs to be known in any given situation. It may well be that our aim is not prudently made. It may be that the worst thing that could happen – even for ourselves – is that we get the thing we aimed for. It may be that getting that one thing will prevent a whole string of other good things that might have happened if we had kept our thumb off of the scale. We lie our way into a corner when telling the truth, even if that might have cost us in the immediate, short run, may have led us on to fulfillment and destiny.
Second, Peterson argues that telling a lie presupposes that “reality would be unbearable if left to its own devices.” To translate that into the language of Christian discipleship, it means simply that we are short on faith; that we do not trust the God of the universe with our lives, with our destinies.
Paul tells his hearers that it is very important that they not forget who the real enemy is; that the battle of life is a spiritual battle. The century just past proves once again just how right Paul was and how great the cost may be if his advice is ignored. For the twentieth century is the story of a deliberate and intentional ignoring of that advice and of the catastrophic consequences of that ignoring.
Thus, it is Karl Marx who systematically reduced the battle to the seen. Religion, said Marx – the belief in the spiritual and in powers other than those we can see – is the problem. He recommended that humanity dismiss the spiritual as mere myth and opiate and focus solely on the physical. That experiment led to murder and genocides the scale of which was never before imagined.