dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label powers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label powers. Show all posts

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Supernatural Evil in the Apostolic Fathers (3): Ignatius of Antioch

The Epistles of Ignatius are seven letters attributed to Ignatius, a Bishop of Antioch who is purported to have written them while on his way to martyrdom in Rome. The letters are generally dated to the early or mid second century. Some or all of the letters appear in three different recensions, of which the 'middle' recension is regarded as closest to the original text. Six of these are addressed to churches (at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna) and one to an individual (Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna).1

The Devil in Ignatius' Letters

Ignatius' letters refer to the devil (ho diabolos, four times: Ign. Ephesians 10.3; Ign. Trallians 8.1; Ign. Romans 5.3; Ign. Smyrnaeans 9.1) and Satan (ho satanas, once: Ign. Ephesians 13.1), and to the same concept by another title, 'the ruler of this age' (ho archōn tou aiōnos toutou, six times: Ign. Ephesians 17.1; 19.1; Ign. Magnesians 1.2; Ign. Trallians 4.2; Ign. Romans 7.1; Ign. Philadelphians 6.2). These references are spread across six of the seven letters; the letter to Polycarp is the only one in which none of these terms occur.2

Ignatius' terminology stands in continuity with other early Christian literature. ho satanas and ho diabolos are the two most common designations for Satan in the New Testament, while referring to Satan as a 'ruler' is also common (Matthew 12.24-29; Mark 3.22-27; Luke 11.15-21; John 12.31; 14:30; 16:11; Ephesians 2.2; Epistle of Barnabas 4.13; 18.2; Ascension of Isaiah 1.3; 2.4; 4.2-4; 10.29). There are other texts where the concept of rulership is applied to Satan without the word 'ruler' being used (Hermas, Similitudes 1.3-6?; Luke 4:5; Acts 26:18; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 John 5:19).

The exact term 'the ruler of this age' does not occur in the New Testament, but it closely parallels a term used for Satan in the Gospel of John: 'the ruler of this world' (ho archōn tou kosmou toutou, John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; John is very fond of the word kosmos).3 Gokey,4 however, thinks the closest prototype for Ignatius' term is Paul's plural term 'the rulers of this age' (hoi archontes tou aiōnos toutou) in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8.5 Ignatius' terminology can be seen as a conflation of the plural term found in 1 Cor. 2:6-8 with the singular 'the god of this age' (ho theos tou aiōnos toutou) found in 2 Cor. 4:4 (which most scholars regard as a reference to Satan).6

The Satan figure in Ignatius' epistles is clearly a supernatural personal being (a point conceded even by Christadelphian apologist Jonathan Burke).7 For instance, in IgnEph 19.1 we read,
The virginity of Mary and her giving birth escaped the notice of the ruler of this age; so too did the death of the Lord – three mysteries of a cry which were accomplished in the silence of God.
This clearly does not refer to a human ruler. Is it unclear why a human ruler should have been interested in Mary's virginity or giving birth. Moreover, there is no specific human ruler of any relevance who was in power from the time of Jesus' birth until his death (and indeed until the time of Ignatius' writing). Additional evidence for the supernatural nature of the Ignatian Satan can be seen in the association of Satan’s powers with heavenly warfare (IgnEph 13.1-2), and the implicit identification of the devil with the heavenly, invisible realms (IgnTral 4.2-5.2; IgnRom 5.3).

The range of functions and novelty of ideas associated with Satan suggests a robust Satanology on Ignatius’ part. Satan is at once a seducer and a bully. He is behind the persecution of the church (IgnMag 1.2; IgnRom 5.3; 7.1), but also behind false doctrine and insubordination within the church (IgnEph 17.1; IgnSmyrn 9.1), as well as temptation more generally (IgnTral 8.1; IgnPhld 6.2). Moreover, he may be thwarted by unity in the church (IgnEph 13.1) and by humility (IgnTral 4.2). It is disputed whether the metaphor "weed of the devil" (IgnEph 10.3) refers to heresy8 (note the use of plant imagery for heresy in IgnTral 6.1; cf. IgnPhld 3.1) or whether "the concern is more general."9

Does Ignatius' belief in a supernatural devil mean he has abandoned belief in non-supernatural sources of wickedness known from the New Testament, such as 'the flesh' and 'the world'? Not at all. In an apparent allusion to Romans 8:5, 8,10 Ignatius states, “Those who belong to the flesh cannot do spiritual things” (IgnEph 8.2). Those who live according to the flesh will die, and those who corrupt the faith are “filthy” (IgnEph 16.2; cf. IgnRom 8.3). The Magnesians are instructed, “No one should consider his neighbour in a fleshly way, but you should love one another in Jesus Christ at all times” (IgnMag 6.2). The Trallians are commended because “you appear to me not to live in a human way but according to Jesus Christ” (IgnTral 2.1).

He warns the Ephesians against "wild animals...raving dogs" who "bear the name in wicked deceit,"  (IgnEph 7.1) and the Philadelphians about "seemingly trustworthy wolves [who] use wicked pleasure to capture those who run in God's race" (IgnPhld 2.2). Both of these images suggest an animalistic model of human sinfulness.

Moreover, Ignatius can, in a typically Pauline manner, personify sinful attributes. The Romans are told, “Let no envy dwell among you… My passion has been crucified” (IgnRom 7.2). Thus envy is personified as an unwanted guest, and passion as a victim of crucifixion. In IgnPoly 4.3, Ignatius warns against setting slaves free through the common fund lest they become "slaves of lust." Here, 'lust' is personified as an evil master. Finally, in IgnMag 5.2 Ignatius represents a dualistic conflict between God and "this world."

Broadly speaking, Ignatius' understanding of sin stands in continuity with the New Testament. Thus, the fact that he can hold individual (the flesh), corporate (the world) and supernatural (the devil) sources of sin in tension suggests this is not foreign to early Christian thought. Accordingly, we have no reason to assume that when New Testament writers refer to the devil, they are simply referring to the flesh or the world by another term.

Ignatius' prescribed responses to sin and evil also stand in continuity with the New Testament. His clear belief in a supernatural devil and in demons (see below) have not resulted in a special emphasis on exorcism, for instance (which he never mentions). Instead, the main antidotes for sin are just those found in New Testament epistles, such as prayer, repentance, holiness, self-control, humility, gentleness, fellowship, unity and the like (IgnEph 10.1-3; 13.1-2; IgnTral 4.2; 8.1; IgnPhld 6.211). Striking are the statements in IgnEph 13.1-2 that when the church comes together, war is waged in heaven and Satan’s powers are vanquished; and in IgnTral 4.2, "And so I need humility, by which the ruler of this age is destroyed." All of this shows that these kinds of responses to evil are perfectly compatible with belief in a supernatural devil.

Ignatius' letters are helpful in reconstructing Christian beliefs about Satan not only after but also within the New Testament period, for the following reason. In his letters to established Christian congregations in six different locations spanning Asia, Greece, and Italy, Ignatius shows no hint that his depiction of Satan is in any way innovative or controversial (we would hardly expect a condemned man on his way to execution to be developing theological novelties). He does not attempt to explain or justify his Satanology but simply assumes that these churches shared the same understanding. What is remarkable about this is that four of the six cities to which he wrote were recipients of New Testament letters which mention Satan or the devil (Ephesus: Eph. 4:27; 6:11; Philadelphia: Rev. 3:9; Smyrna: Rev. 2:9-10; Rome: Rom. 16:20). Revelation may have been written as little as two decades prior to Ignatius' letters.

Hence, within a fairly short window of time (although we cannot be exact as to how short), we have New Testament references to Satan/the devil (where the meaning is assumed to be understood by the audience), and Ignatius' references to Satan/the devil (where the meaning is assumed to be understood by the same audience). The obvious inference is that the same meaning of Satan/the devil was generally understood by all of these writers and audiences. Indeed, there is absolutely no evidence of any dispute in the early church over the meaning of the terms 'Satan' or 'devil'. Since it is admitted that Ignatius understood Satan/the devil to be a supernatural being, the inference is that at least some of the New Testament writers (John of Patmos and, in all probability, Paul) did as well. The only alternative is to argue that the early Christian understanding of Satan radically changed between the time Revelation was written and the time Ignatius' epistles were written; and that this change took place seamlessly and without leaving any record of controversy. This is not a very plausible hypothesis!

Other supernatural evil beings in Ignatius' Letters

There is one passage in Ignatius' letters which, properly understood, implies a belief in demons. In IgnSmyrn 2.1, he warns concerning heretics who deny a physical resurrection that they themselves will become daimonikois. This term is variously translated 'demonic', 'like the demons' or 'demonlike'.12 BDAG lexicon defines the word as “pertaining to being like a spirit or phantom”.13 Ignatius is not necessarily equating post-mortem existence with being a demon but with being like a demon. In similar fashion, in IgnSmyrn 3.2, Ignatius quotes an otherwise unknown Jesus tradition comparable to Luke 24:39 but distinct in terminology, saying that in a resurrection appearance Jesus told the disciples, "Reach out, touch me and see that I am not a bodiless demon (daimonion asōmaton)."

It has been argued by some that the word 'demon' here has a neutral connotation like 'phantom' and does not carry the negative sense which it normally has in the New Testament.14 However, closer study of the passage reveals that the negative sense is there. Schoedel argues that the terminology in 2.1 is prompted by that in 3.2. He explains the background as follows:
the docetists apparently spoke of the resurrection positively and probably taught a spiritualized version of it; and thus Ignatius’ reference to their becoming bodiless and demonic must also have functioned to make the point not only that they would lack bodily substance (which would not have concerned them) but also that what they thought of as a rarefied spiritual state would in fact be ‘demonic’ in character.15
Schoedel goes on to explain the key to Ignatius’ rhetoric:
the wordplay did not involve the term ‘spiritual’ but had to do with the use of the term ‘demonic’ (phantom-like) in the saying of Jesus, taken more or less accurately as the key to docetic theology by Ignatius, and his use of the same term in a different sense (anti-divine) to express disapproval.16
Hence, the demonology that Ignatius presupposes here is not merely about ghosts but something more sinister. In a more detailed study of this text, Proctor comes to a similar conclusion. He argues that Ignatius exhibits “an ‘apocalyptic’ daimonology, where daimons were understood as part of a pervasive onslaught of evil powers” whose origin was rooted in the Watchers myth.17 Commenting specifically on the claims that ‘demon’ is a neutral term synonymous with ‘phantom’ in IgnSmyrn, Proctor states:
To put it succinctly, daimons are almost exclusively evil within early Christian literature, and carried increasingly sinister undertones within ‘pagan’ Greek literature at the time when Ignatius’ letters would have been composed and initially interpreted.  In light of this larger tradition, it is highly improbable that Ignatius’ opponents (or other Christians) would equate the risen Jesus with a daimon, and such usage does not correspond to the docetic terminology attested in our ancient sources (i.e., ‘phantasmal,’ ‘angelic,’ and ‘pneumatic’).18
Hence, for Ignatius, “Jesus’ denial that he is a ‘bodiless daimon’ functions as a rhetorical absurdity, implying that Ignatius’ opponents equate the risen Jesus with an (evil) daimon.”19

Proctor goes on to note that Gnostic texts often value bodiless existence, so that if Ignatius had condemned his docetic opponents to a phantasmal afterlife, “it likely would have been met with indifference.” Instead, Ignatius associates docetic Christians “with daimons, entities that were not only bodiless, but also, within Christian circles, malevolent, monstrous, and destined for a morose afterlife.”20

Hence, when read in the context of Ignatius’ rhetorical purpose, ‘demon’ is seen to refer to a supernatural being with a decidedly negative connotation, as elsewhere in early Christian tradition.

Ignatius' letters also imply a belief in other supernatural evil beings analogous to the much-debated 'powers' of the Pauline corpus. The statement in IgnRom 5.3, “May nothing visible or invisible (τῶν ὁρατῶν καὶ ἀοράτων) show any envy toward me, that I may attain to Jesus Christ”, made in the immediate context of a reference to the devil, implies the existence of two distinct, populated realms: the visible and the invisible. This distinction parallels Col 1:16, which uses it to make exhaustive the list of creatures created through the Son. ‘Invisibility’ as a defining characteristic of the spirit world appears elsewhere in the Pauline corpus and in Hebrews, chiefly as an attribute of God (Rom 1.20; 1Tim 1.17; Heb 11.3; 11.27; cf. Matt 6.6; 6.18; 2Cor 4.18).

A further reference to such invisible beings is found in IgnSmyrn 6.1: “Judgment is prepared even for the heavenly beings, for the glory of the angels, and for the rulers both visible and invisible, if they do not believe in the blood of Christ.” Ignatius, like Col 1:16, affirms the existence of invisible ‘rulers’. He equates them with angelic, heavenly beings who are, at least potentially, subject to unbelief and judgment (cf. Rom 8.38; 1 Cor. 6.3; 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). Ignatius also regards invisibility as a characteristic of God (IgnMag 3.2; IgnPoly 3.2). It is possible that the 'aeons' of IgnEph 19.2 are also to be understood as supernatural beings.21


Ignatius' letters provide us with evidence that a supernatural understanding of Satan and demons was in place as established theology in major Christian centres (e.g. Antioch, Asia, Rome) by the early to mid second century. Given that the same terminology is used in the New Testament, and that there is no evidence of dispute or polemic in the early church concerning the correct understanding of these terms, we have a compelling argument that Ignatius' understanding of Satan and demons as supernatural personal beings represents the view shared by Christians from the beginning.


  • 1 For introductory issues (date, authorship, recensions, etc.) see Ehrman, B.D. (2003). The Apostolic Fathers (Vol. I). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 203-217; Foster, P. (2006). The Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch (Part 1). The Expository Times, 117(12), 487-495; Foster, P. (2006). The Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch (Part 2). The Expository Times, 118(1), 2-11. Ehrman, op. cit., is the critical text relied on here, and translations are from him, unless otherwise indicated.
  • 2 The absence of any reference to Satan in Ignatius’ letter to Polycarp provides a useful corrective to arguments from silence which claim that, because a document does not refer to Satan, its author had no place for Satan in his theology. To the contrary, Ignatius clearly had a place for Satan in his theology, yet he did not consider it obligatory to mention this concept in every letter he wrote.
  • 3 For studies of 'the ruler of this world' in the Gospel of John, see Kovacs, J.L. (1995). ‘Now Shall the Ruler of This World Be Drive Out’: Jesus’ Death as Cosmic Battle in John 12:20-36. Journal of Biblical Literature, 114(2), 227-247; Löfstedt, T. (2009). The Ruler of This World. Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok, 74, 55-79.
  • 4 Gokey, F.X. (1961). The Terminology for the Devil and Evil Spirits in the Apostolic Fathers. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, p. 75 n. 2.
  • 5 It is disputed amongst scholars whether 'the rulers of the age' in 1 Cor. 2:6-8 refer to demonic or angelic beings, earthly political rulers, or both. See Aune, D.E. (1999). "Archōn". In K. van der Toorn, B. Becking, & P.W. Van der Horst (Eds.), Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (pp. 82-85). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 84.
  • 6 Harris, M.J. (2005). The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. University Park: Penn State Press, p. 328 n. 49, states that almost all commentators interpret 'the god of this age' as a reference to Satan.
  • 7 Burke, J. (2015). Then the Devil Left: Satan’s lack of presence in the Apostolic Fathers [WWW]. Available at http://www.academia.edu/10324205/Then_the_Devil_Left_Satan_s_lack_of_presence_in_the_Apostolic_Fathers (Accessed 22 May 2015), p. 37, states, "Ignatius treats the diabolos as a supernatural evil being."
  • 8 Gokey, op. cit., p. 77 n. 6.
  • 9 Schoedel, W.R. (1985). Ignatius of Antioch. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, pp. 69-70.
  • 10 Ehrman, op. cit., p. 227 n. 2, acknowledges this as the source of Ignatius' statement here.
  • 11 Schoedel, op. cit., p. 203, comments on IgnPhld 6.2, “The main effect of the devil’s activity is to negate ‘love.’ Common worship is the cure (cf. [IgnEph] 13.” Commenting on IgnTral 8.1, idem., pp. 149-150, writes, “The ability of the Trallians to resist Satan is described in terms of a renewal of faith and love” and “The corollary of the self-renewal of the Trallians against the snares of the devil (that is, against pride) is now stated: having nothing against one’s neighbor.”
  • 12 Translating 'demonic' are Schoedel, op. cit., p. 225; Holmes, M.W. (2007). The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, p. 251. Translating 'like the demons' is Ehrman, op. cit., p. 297. Translating 'demonlike' are Gokey, op. cit., p. 71; Sibinga, J.S. (1966). Ignatius and Matthew. Novum Testamentum, 8(2), 263-283, here p. 273.
  • 13 Arndt, W., Danker, F.W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 210.
  • 14 Mitchell, M.W. (2010). Bodiless Demons and Written Gospels: Reflections on ‘The Gospel According to the Hebrews’ in the Apostolic Fathers. Novum Testamentum, 52(3), 221-240, here p. 224.
  • 15 Schoedel, op. cit., pp. 225-226.
  • 16 Schoedel, op. cit., p. 226 n. 5.
  • 17 Proctor, T.W. (2013). Bodiless Docetists and the Daimonic Jesus: Daimonological Discourse and Anti-Docetic Polemic in Ignatius’ Letter to the Smyrnaeans. Archiv für Religionsgeschichte, 14(1), 183-204, here p. 185 (note: page numbers for Proctor are approximate since I do not have access to the published version but only a pre-submission draft available on academia.edu).
  • 18 Proctor, op. cit., p. 196.
  • 19 Proctor, op. cit., p. 187.
  • 20 Proctor, op. cit., p. 200.
  • 21 Schoedel, op. cit., p. 91 n. 24.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

"Not against flesh and blood": the superhuman opponent of Ephesians 6

Ephesians 6:10-17 is one of the most well-known passages in the New Testament. It is also a passage that offers important insights into the early Christian understanding of ho diabolos, the devil, and for this reason it is a passage that demands careful study by Christadelphians.

Christadelphian doctrine defines the devil not as a supernatural, personal being, but rather as a personification of 'sin in the flesh'. As Christadelphian pioneer Robert Roberts put it, "Sin in the flesh, then, is the devil destroyed by Jesus in his death."1

Fred Pearce similarly defined the devil which tempted Jesus as "the personification of that human urge to gratify his own desires,"2 and Watkins defines the devil as "ungodly human desires"3 or "human lusts."4

The Christadelphian devil, then, is fundamentally a human phenomenon; an internal component of fleshly human nature. Some plausible arguments for this theological position can be made, and some have found them convincing, particularly if their worldview predisposed them against belief in an external, supernatural devil. I've written a number of articles explaining why I no longer think the Christadelphian understanding of the devil stands up under a close examination of the biblical testimony.5 Nowhere, however, is the discrepancy between the Bible and the Christadelphian view more stark than in Ephesians 6:11-12. This passage reads, in the ESV, as follows:
11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
A Semitic Idiom

Our primary focus here is on the first clause of v. 12: "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but..."

The significance of this clause for correctly interpreting the opponents in this passage seems to have been missed by Christadelphian writers. For this clause explicitly rules out the Christadelphian principle that the devil is fundamentally a human phenomenon, an aspect or consequence of human flesh-and-blood nature.

This is already apparent on a surface reading of the text, but becomes even clearer upon closer study. "Flesh and blood" is a Semitic idiom for a human being,6 or human nature. As Evans comments on its use in Matthew 16:17:
"The phrase ‘flesh and blood’ (= Hebr. basar we-dam is a Semitic idiom, meaning a human being, as opposed to an angel or to God. (This idiom occurs in rabbinic literature frequently and is usually translated ‘mortal. It also occurs in Gal. 1:16, ‘I did not consult with flesh and blood’; Ignatius, Philippians [sic] 7:2, ‘human flesh’; cv. 1 Cor. 15:50; Eph. 6:12; Heb. 2:14)."7
When we look at how this idiom is used elsewhere, including the Old Testament Apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, the rest of the New Testament, and rabbinic literature, some interesting details come to light. In some texts, the term 'flesh and blood' is used simply to emphasize the mortality of humans. Typical of this usage is Sirach 14:18: "Like flourishing leaves on a spreading tree which sheds some and puts forth others, so are the generations of flesh and blood: one dies and another is born" (cf. also Sirach 17:29-32; Genesis Rabbah 26.6).

More commonly, however, the idiom is used within a comparison (usually an antithesis) between human beings and supernatural beings. Most often (particularly in the rabbinic literature) the comparison is between human beings and God, such as in b. Niddah 31a: "Come and see the contrast between the potency of the Holy One, blessed be He, and that of mortal man [lit. flesh and blood]" (cf. b. Shabbath 30b; 74b; 88b; 152b; b. Berakoth 5a; 10a; 28b; 40a; b. Sanhedrin 89b; 103b; 110a; b. Baba Bathra 10a; 88b; b. Sotah 42a; Genesis Rabbah 1.1; 1.2; 4.4; Leviticus Rabbah 34.14). In a few cases, however, an antithesis is drawn between human beings and angels or spirits (1 Enoch 15:1-4; Testament of Abraham 13 [version 2]; b. Baba Bathra 25a; b. Shabbath 88b; Genesis Rabbah 8.10; 53.2). For example:
“For R. Oshaia said: What is the meaning of the verse, Thou art the Lord, even thou alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, etc.? Thy messengers are not like the messengers of flesh and blood. Messengers of flesh and blood report themselves [after performing their office] to the place from which they have been sent, but thy messengers report themselves to the place to which they are sent, as it says.” (b. Baba Bathra 25a)
In all four cases outside Ephesians 6:12 where this idiom is used in the New Testament, an antithesis between mortal human beings and supernatural beings is implied.

In Matthew 16:17, the antithesis is explicit as Jesus responds to Peter's confession by saying, "For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven."

The use of the idiom in Galatians 1:16 is similar. Here, Paul says that after God revealed His Son to him, he did not consult with "flesh and blood" but went away into Arabia. In context, Paul is making the point that he did not receive his gospel "from any man" but "through a revelation of Jesus Christ" (v. 12). Thus, in both of these passages there is a contrast between mortal human beings (denoted by 'flesh and blood') and supernatural beings (the Father and the exalted Christ).

In 1 Corinthians 15:50, in his discourse on resurrection, Paul declares, "I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable." In the context, Paul has been making a contrast between a "natural body" and a "spiritual body." Flesh and blood refers to the natural body, and as Blomberg explains, "'Spiritual' is best taken as 'supernatural,' not 'noncorporeal,' while 'flesh and blood' (not ‘flesh and bones’ as in Luke 24:39) was a Semitic idiom for frail, fallen, mortal humanity.”8 (Blomberg 412) Thus, again, a contrast is made between mortal human beings and supernatural beings (in this case, human beings in the resurrected state).

Finally, in Hebrews 2:14, the writer says, "Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil."9 Here, 'flesh and blood' refers to the human nature that Christ shared. There seems to be an implicit emphasis here that Christ did not take on an angelic nature; certainly the context contains antitheses between human beings and angels (Heb. 2:5-9, 16-17). More than one scholar has suggested that Hebrews was written partly to counter an angelomorphic view of Christ.10
Thus, as used in ancient Jewish literature including the New Testament, the idiom 'flesh and blood' denotes human beings or mortal humanity, as distinguished from supernatural beings.

Against this background, we have a compelling reason to take Ephesians 6:12a in the sense of, "For we do not wrestle against human beings, but..." The Good News Translation's paraphrase gets it right: "For we are not fighting against human beings but against the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world, the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this dark age."

Note that in Ephesians 6:12 and in some manuscripts in Hebrews 2:14 the Greek word order is literally 'blood and flesh', but this does not alter the idiomatic sense.11 Arnold suggests, following Percy, that Paul in Ephesians 6:12 reverses the word order of the idiom to reduce the emphasis on 'the flesh' to avoid misleading his readers into thinking he is minimizing the separate theological concept of 'the flesh', which they do need to oppose - cp. Galatians 5:17.)12

The Greek word hoti (translated "For" in most English versions) here is also important, because it links v. 12a back to "the schemes of the devil" in the previous verse. The clear implication is that "the devil", like the powers mentioned in v. 12, is not flesh and blood. Ephesians 2:2 describes the devil as "the ruler of the power of the air", spelling out his relation to the powers in 6:12: he is their leader and they are his minions.

In short, in Ephesians 6:11-12 the writer specifically describes the devil and associated powers as not human and, by implication (following the antithesis found elsewhere in usage of the 'flesh and blood' idiom), as supernatural. Put differently, what Paul says the devil and associated powers are not is precisely what Christadelphians say the devil and associated powers are.

Christadelphian Interpretations

How have Christadelphian writers attempted to overcome this difficulty? In some cases, by ignoring it. Christadelphian founder John Thomas remarkably used the word 'flesh' repeatedly to explain what the devil and powers are, apparently seeing no incongruity with the fact that Paul says they are not flesh and blood. He saw the sense of Ephesians 6:12a only as ruling out personal combat.13

Watkins follows Thomas' interpretation:
"The fact that this warfare is not a wrestling against flesh and blood is not to be taken as an indication that it involves a celestial host under the leadership of a monstrous spirit creature. The point is, rather, that this is not a physical combat, but a struggle to maintain divine principles in the face of strong opposition from those in authority."14
This explanation appears plausible in light of 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, where Paul also uses the analogy of combat and where he does emphasize that the combat is not fleshly, i.e. physical. However, Watkins fails to observe that whereas in 2 Corinthians 10:4 it is the weapons that Paul says are "not of the flesh," in Ephesians 6:12 it is the opponents who are said to be not "flesh and blood." Watkins then proceeds to identify the opponents as "those in authority," by which he means human authorities. Thus Thomas and Watkins interpret the opponents to be flesh and blood, which the text explicitly says they are not.

Other writers have ignored the problem altogether. The Christadelphian resource Wrested Scripture, which gives explanations of difficult passages, does not discuss this passage. Burke argues that the "internal spiritual qualities" listed in the armor of God analogy indicate "that the arena of the battle is within;"15 however he does not acknowledge or attempt to explain the "flesh and blood" language.

Heaster offers a lengthy and elaborate explanation of this passage which includes three distinct interpretations. His first suggested interpretations identifies the opponents as human beings including the Roman and Jewish persecuting authorities, as well as apostate Christians. To get around Ephesians 6:12a he states, "Verse 12 may be translated, 'For we wrestle not only against flesh and blood...' i.e., we do not only wrestle against individual men, but against organized systems."16 In the first place, the Greek word for "only" (monos) does not occur in the text and it is inexplicable that the writer would omit it. Had the writer intended a "not only ... but" construction, he surely would have used the common "ou monon ... alla" syntax which he used in Ephesians 1:21, rather than the "ouk ... alla" syntax used in 6:12. Furthermore, the contrast between individual men and organized [human] systems fails to account for the 'flesh and blood' idiom, which is nowhere else used to distinguish individuals from groups but rather to distinguish human beings from supernatural beings. And finally, in distinguishing the "rulers" and "authorities" (political) from the "spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (apostate Christians), Heaster fails to account for the fact that in Ephesians 3:10 the rulers and authorities are located "in the heavenly places."

Further along, Heaster allows that Ephesians 6:12 may refer to angels, such as the angel of death or the "evil angels" of Psalm 78:49. He thus allows that "It could be possible to interpret the heavenly hosts of spirits [Angels] responsible for the situation on earth experienced by the believers."17 (The view that the powers are angels was apparently shared by at least one other Christadelphian writer, Whittaker).18 In this respect, he notes "that they wrestled pros these forces- and pros doesn't necessarily mean "against", but can carry the sense of 'alongside', 'relating to'." This would reduce the wrestling imagery to an absurdity, since one does not wrestle 'alongside' or 'in relation to' another but 'against' another. Furthermore, consistency would dictate that we apply the same sense of pros in the previous verse, which would then be exhorting the readers to "stand alongside the schemes of the devil"!

Heaster has made progress with this interpretation inasmuch as he has acknowledged that the powers referred to in Ephesians 6:12 are supernatural. However, it can only be due to theological bias that he has excluded the possibility that these beings might be sinful. They are linked by the word hoti to the devil of the previous verse, who is obviously a wicked power (as the lexical sense of diabolos, 'slanderer', implies). Furthermore, elsewhere in Paul's writings he uses the imagery of a Roman triumph to describe Christ putting the rulers and authorities to shame (Colossians 2:15). They, like the devil, are obviously enemies against whom the believers are to make spiritual war.

Finally, Heaster proposes a third possible interpretation, which he quotes at length from Pitt-Francis.19 This posits that the last two types of opponent mentioned in v. 12 refer in an ironic sense to the sun, moon and stars which were objects of idolatrous worship. Pitt-Francis does not marshal anything like a convincing case for taking these phrases as references to these heavenly bodies. Moreover, inasmuch as he still takes the first two types of opponents ("rulers" and "authorities") as referring to earthly kings, his interpretation too contradicts the writer's statement that the opponents are not flesh and blood.

Some Christadelphians have been more forthright in acknowledging the difficulties that Ephesians 6:11-12 presents for their position. In a passage of his book Christadelphian Redivivus quoted in the Christadelphian periodical Endeavour, George McHaffie writes:
"‘With regard to the Devil, our [Christadelphian] contention that the Bible teaches this to be flesh or human nature ‘in its various manifestations’ will simply not match up to Eph. 6:11,12 : “..stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood..but ...spiritual wickedness in high places.” The repeated references to the devil, the power of demons, and their being exorcised without any statement that there is no devil, or even an ‘as is supposed’ in reference to a demon, would carry conviction to most people that the Bible writers believed in the devil and demons."20
McHaffie's solution was that of many modern theologians: the devil's existence is to be denied on hermeneutical rather than exegetical grounds. In other words, the biblical writers believed in the devil, but incorrectly so; we are at liberty to re-conceptualize the devil for our own time. This view entails a challenge to the biblical inerrancy espoused in the foundational proposition of the Christadelphian Statement of Faith and so would not be acceptable to many Christadelphians. Nevertheless, McHaffie had the courage to admit that it is impossible to reconcile Ephesians 6:11-12 with the Christadelphian view of the devil.

Scholarly Interpretations

Moving from Christadelphian interpretation to mainstream biblical scholarship, one finds that a few scholars such as Forbes and Carr have argued that the writer of Ephesians did not view 'the powers' as supernatural, evil, personal beings21 (note that the Pauline authorship of Ephesians is disputed). However, these scholars still affirm that the writer of Ephesians understood the devil to be a supernatural personal being. In Carr's case he further acknowledges that his interpretation of the powers does not square with Ephesians 6:12 and so is forced to assert (without a shred of textual evidence) that this verse was not part of the original text but was a later interpolation. This view has been ably refuted by Arnold.22

The consensus that Paul believed in supernatural evil beings has grown with two recent studies by Williams23 and Becker.24 With regard to Ephesians specifically, scholarly commentaries have consistently upheld a supernatural interpretation of the devil and the powers.25


Ephesians 6:11-12 unambiguously affirms that the devil and associated evil powers are not human whereas the Christadelphian view of the devil affirms the opposite. Some Christadelphian writers have acknowledged that this text demands an angelic interpretation of the powers but have failed to follow through on the theological implications, since these powers are clearly evil and linked to the devil himself. At least one Christadelphian writer has admitted that this passage refers to a personal devil and argues that this devil's existence must be denied on grounds other than the biblical testimony.
If only Christadelphians would shed their outdated perceptions about how other Christians understand the biblical devil (i.e. not a red, pitchfork-wielding fellow) and read careful, biblically based treatments of the subject! Doing so might lead to the realization that there are intellectually responsible ways to affirm biblical teaching on supernatural evil and that there is consequently no need to stretch and strain the meaning of biblical passages on this subject.

1 Roberts, R. (1884). Christendom Astray (1969 edition). Birmingham: The Christadelphian, p. 118.
2 Pearce, F. (1986). Do you believe in the Devil? Birmingham: The Christadelphian. Retrieved from http://www.christadelphia.org/pamphlet/devil.htm
3 Watkins, P. (1971). The Devil – the Great Deceiver: Bible Teaching on Sin and Salvation (2008 edition). Birmingham: The Christadelphian, p. 32.
4 Watkins, P. op. cit., p. 54.
5 These can be found at http://www.dianoigo.com/publications.html#satan
6 Grintz, J.M. (1960). Hebrew as the Spoken and Written Language in the Last Days of the Second Temple. Journal of Biblical Literature 79(1), p. 36.
7 Evans, C.A. (2012). Matthew. Cambridge University Press, p. 313.
8 Blomberg, C.L. (2009). Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey. B&H Publishing Group, p. 412.
9 For a detailed discussion of this passage and its reference to the devil, see Farrar, T.J. (2014). The Devil in the General Epistles, Part 1: Hebrews. Retrieved from http://www.dianoigo.com/publications/The_Devil_in_the_General_Epistles_Part_1_Hebrews.pdf, pp. 7-17.
10 Goulder, M. (2003). Hebrews and the Ebionites. New Testament Studies 49(3): 393-406; Steyn, G.J. (2003). Addressing an angelomorphic christological myth in Hebrews? HTS Theological Studies 59(4): 1107-1128. Christadelphian writer Robert Roberts also recognized the antithesis between 'flesh and blood' in Hebrews 2:14 and 'the nature of angels' in Hebrews 2:16 (KJV). Roberts, R. op. cit., p. 117.
11 Hoehner, H. (2002). Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary. Baker Academic, p. 824.
12 Arnold, C.E. (1989). Ephesians, Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians in Light of Its Historical Setting. Cambridge University Press, p. 205 n. 52.
13 Thomas, J. (1866). Elpis Israel (4th ed., 2000). Logos Publications, pp. 99-100.
14 Watkins, P. op. cit., p. 40.
15 Burke, J. (2007). Satan and Demons: A Reply to Anthony Buzzard. Retrieved from http://www.dianoigo.com/writings_by_others/Satan_And_Demons.pdf, p. 32.
16 Heaster, D. (2012). The Real Devil (3rd ed.). Carelinks Publishing, p. 448.
17 Heaster, D. op. cit., p. 452.
18 Whittaker, H. (1987). Bible Studies: An Anthology. Biblia, pp. 375-382. Cited in Cox, T. (2012). An Inquiry into the Origins of the ‘Internal Devil’ Dogma. Endeavour 128 (December 2012), p. 6.
19 Pitt-Francis, D. (1984). The Most Amazing Message Ever Written. Mark Saunders Books, chapter 4. Cited in Heaster. D. op. cit., pp. 453-455.
20 McHaffie, G. (1999). Christadelphian Redivivus. Published by R. McHaffie, pp. 26-27. Cited in Cox, T. (2013). ‘The Serpent in the Garden of Eden’ – A Response to Roy Boyd’s article. Endeavour 130 (December 2013), p. 25.
21 Carr, W. (2005). Angels and Principalities: The Background, Meaning and Development of the Pauline Phrase Hai Archai Kai Hai Exousiai, pp. 101-106; Cambridge University Press; Forbes, C. (2001). Paul's Principalities and Powers: Demythologizing Apocalyptic? Journal for the Study of the New Testament 23(82), pp. 62-68; Forbes, C. (2002). Pauline demonology and/or cosmology? Principalities, powers and the elements of the world in their hellenistic context. Journal for the Study of the New Testament 24(3): 51-73.
22 Arnold, C. E. (1987). The Exorcism of Ephesians 6.12 in Recent Research: A Critique of Wesley Carr's View of the Role of Evil Powers in First-Century AD Belief. Journal for the Study of the New Testament (30): 71-87.
23 Williams, G. (2009). The Spirit World in the Letters of Paul the Apostle: A Critical Examination of the Role of Spiritual Beings in the Authentic Pauline Epistles. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht
24 Becker, M. (2013). Paul and the Evil One. In E. Koskenniemi & I. Frohlich (Eds.), Evil and the Devil (127-141). T&T Clark.
25 Schnackenburg, R. (2001). Epistle to the Ephesians: A Commentary. A&C Black, p. 268; Hoehner, H. op. cit., pp. 824-825; MacDonald, M.Y. (2008). Colossians and Ephesians. Liturgical Press, p. 225; Arnold, C.E. (2011). Ephesians. Zondervan, p. 132; Kitchen, M. (2013). Ephesians. Routledge, p. 115.