We are continuing our review of Practices of Power by Robert Ewusie Moses, an investigation of Paul’s teaching on the powers and principalities and the practices he advocates in response to them. We are turning now to Galatians and its discussions of bondage under the elements. Unlike the previous positive practices of power – baptism, Gospel preaching and church discipline – in Galatians we find Paul warning against a negative practice of power: living under the Law.
Practices of Power: Life Under the Law
Galatians 1:4 says that Christ “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age”. As is the case with Paul’s other letters, this early verse sets the stage for what follows. Since Christ died to free us from this age, to submit to “practices that are characteristic of this present age” is to “become subject to enslaving powers that rule the present age” (p119). We have been delivered from the powers of darkness, so must not engage in the practices of this age, the sphere in which Satan and his followers continue to have power (John 12:31; 2 Cor 4:4 [lit. “this age”]; 1 Cor 2:6-8). Utterly shocking, however, is that Paul considers life under the Law to be one of those practices!
But how can this be? There is a “link between life under the Law and life under the στοιχηἶα (‘the elements’)” (p120). And what is that link? Moses’ thesis is that “what links the Law and the elements for Paul is his discovery, in retrospect, that both the Law and the elements can be co-opted by higher powers” (p120). This is a fairly long chapter, so I will have to leave out the majority of the details in this summary.
Angels and the Law
Paul says that the Law was given “through angels” (Gal 3:19), which is consistent with Deuteronomy 33:2 and texts such as 1 Enoch 82:7-10 and Jubilees 15:25-26. For Moses, this “[shows] that the Law is mediated and [hints] at the reality that the Law can fall into the hands of higher powers” (p123). If higher powers have hijacked the Law, this would explain why we should not live under it. Romans 7 gives the same idea: “Sin” has co-opted the Law and used it to produce negative results.
The “Elements” and the Law
Moses then argues that Paul equates past life under the elementary principles of the world (Gal 4:3) with life under the Law (Gal 4:5), so that taking on the Law would be as disastrous as living under the elements again (Gal 4:9).
Angels and the “Elements”
The last stage of Moses’ argument is to establish the identity of the elementary principles of the world (στοιχεἶα τοὖ κόσμου). This is a complicated issue, but Moses compellingly argues that the elements are not spirits but are the four elements (earth, fire, wind, water). However, he hastens to add that “there are spiritual powers who co-opt the elements” (p146), which fits texts such as Wisdom of Solomon 13:1-4, Isaiah 44:9-17, and 1 Corinthians 8-10.
So the argument goes like this: The Law was given through angels, but angels have hijacked it to their own ends. Submitting to the Law would be like parking in pagan worship of the elements, as angelic beings stand behind both the Law and the elements. Therefore, taking on the Law would entail slavery to the powers of this age. Christ died to redeem believers from this age (Gal 1:4), so believers must not take on the Law.
There is much to appreciate and consider in Moses’ arguments, though I have a few lingering questions.
- At what point was the Law hijacked by demonic powers?
- How would Moses’ view of στοιχεἶα affect Colossians 2:8?
- If the only association between the Law and the elements is that both are co-opted by the powers, then why did Paul say a return to the Law is a return to the elements, rather than re-enslavement to the powers?
- Practically, what would this mean today for Christians who live under the Law in a more comprehensive way? What about Torah-observant Messianic Jews? Are they exposing themselves to spiritual attack and division? Or is the issue not observing the Law but in living under the Law like the Galatians?
I’d love feedback on Moses’ argument and/or my own questions. This concludes my survey of Practices of Power, certainly a thought provoking book that moves the discussion in a helpful direction. I hope that it sparks further research into the Biblical worldview of the spiritual world.
Many thanks to Fortress Press for providing a copy of Practices of Power in exchange for a review. Their generosity has not affected my opinion of the book.