Powers, Principalities, and the Spirit

Biblical Realism in Africa and the West

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Esther E. Acolatse
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , February
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Powers, Principalities, and the Spirit: Biblical Realism in Africa and the West, theologian Esther Acolatse delivers in a clear and engaging style a measured, jargon-free critique of modern biblical studies and theology, and proffers a model of “biblical realism,” which she defines as “Scripture’s own way of interpreting itself” (219). The mistake of modern hermeneutics, according to Acolatse, has been its dismissal of an enchanted biblical worldview: the “principalities and powers” that Paul speaks of in Ephesians 6:10-20 are often reduced to symbols of systemic/structural evil. Acolatse does not deny the legitimacy or efficacy of this hermeneutic, but modern scholars diminish the testimony of scripture when they skirt the personal reality of spirits and powers, which, as she sees it, has implications for how we understand the nature and work of the Holy Spirit. Grounded in African and Pentecostal traditions, Acolatse insists on the urgency of reclaiming the language of powers, and of re-emphasizing the church’s openness to “the miraculous in-breaking of the triune God through the power of the Holy Spirit” (218).

Biblical realism allows the text to speak for itself in addressing the reader. The model encourages hospitality toward the text, which is “made to feel at home, as it were, in the context to which it now lives … so that the reader is led into new life, which is the aim of scripture” (220). Acolatse posits that biblical realism provides the resource “most fit for crippling the long reach of demythologizing” (222) and the separation of faith from the biblical worldview—a separation with effects that continue to weaken the contemporary universal church. Throughout her work, Acolatse stresses the divide between global North and global South churches, with correlating binaries such as liberal/evangelical, mainline/Pentecostal, and Western/African. The global North church has privileged a model of rationality based on scientific verification and contrasts myth, seen as the acceptance of the reality of supernatural powers, with truth, which denies such reality. By comparison, the global South church’s model of rationality assumes the enchantment of the world and the priority of transcendent knowledge as revealed in scripture. It sees myth as reality, not as fiction.

 Acolatse devotes major attention to the work of Rudolf Bultmann (52-66), the German New Testament scholar/theologian, whose model of demythologizing became the bane of modern biblical interpretation. One can argue that Bultmann is now largely passé, but his shadow continues to linger in contemporary studies. Acolatse claims that even conservative and evangelical scholars like Walter Wink (79-91) and John Levison (205-16), for example, tend to interpret powers and spirits as impersonal systemic forces. Providing a contrast to this method, Acolatse holds up the work of the Ghanaian theologian Kwesi Dickson (21-52), who insists on the continuities between biblical and African worldviews (36). Dickson takes seriously the reality of spiritual powers, though Acolatse notes that he leaves underdeveloped its relevance for understanding the nature of evil (46). Still, Dickson’s reflections on the reality of the cross and resurrection help reappraise the mythic worldview and draw attention to the centrality of spiritual transformation. 

The work of Karl Barth also holds promise for reclaiming the mythic power of scripture. Barth challenged the church to read the Bible devotionally and pastorally, not just through a critical lens. He also appeared hesitant to reduce mythic events to symbols or allegories, seeing them rather as testaments to the transformative work of spiritual power. Chapter 4 of Powers, Principalities, and the Spirit, on Barth, sets the stage for Acolatse’s survey of several patristic and Reform exegetes of Ephesians who provide models for the appreciation of mythic power. Here, Acolatse drives home the point that unless the church acknowledges the reality of mythic power depicted in the Bible, it will have little to say to the global South church. Her usage of 19th-century American theologian Charles Hodge’s work (178-85) is especially evocative. Hodge’s agonistic model of spiritual warfare, in which Christians must take on the “armor of God” to battle personal evil powers, resonates within the largely dualist vision of the global South church.  

While Acolatse recognizes the failure of both Western and African interpretations of scripture, she appears most concerned with how the universal church can be rescued from its captivity to global North hermeneutic approaches, which have misguided both African and Western theologians. The global North church, Acolatse argues, has domesticated the spirit and de-mythologized the supernatural forces and miraculous events of scripture. The testimony of African Christians, then, who refuse to demythologize and who continue to accept the mythic power of scripture, might serve as a corrective. There is nothing novel about this critique. Others have also turned demythologization on its head by situating or contextualizing exegesis itself (see Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, Cambridge University Press, 2003, 158-60). What makes Acolatse’s work unique and arresting is how, as an African Christian and a global Pentecostal, she calls to task the failure of the church to allow scripture to reveal its mythic power. The “reductive monism” of the global North enervates the spirit, keeps at bay the reality of powers, and ultimately contradicts both African and biblical worldviews. The “turn toward remythologizing” (16), can reinvigorate the quality of theological and cultural exchange between the global North and global South. Acolatse’s thoughtful and forthright study shows a way in which these two distinctive but inseparable discourses can attain mutual understanding. It is a way that discards the tired platitudes that have dulled otherwise vibrant global North/South dialogue and inhibited necessary pastoral practices.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel Britt is Professor of Asian Studies and Religion at Furman Univeristy.

Date of Review: 
July 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Esther E. Acolatse is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Intercultural Studies at Knox College, University of Toronto. She previously taught at Duke Divinity School; her other books include For Freedom or Bondage? A Critique of African Pastoral Practices.


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