Principalities, Powers, and Preaching

By Campbell, Charles L. | Interpretation, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Principalities, Powers, and Preaching


Campbell, Charles L., Interpretation


The current revival of William Stringfellow's theological ethics is a challenge for preachers. Stringfellow's theology of the powers provides a compelling contemporary interpretation of the demonic forces that shape human life and confront Christian preachers. His work has extraordinary implications for those who seek to proclaim the Word amidst the chaos and death of the contemporary world.

Learning from William Stringfellow

In the face of death, live humanly. In the middle of chaos, celebrate the Word. Amidst babel, I repeat, speak the truth. Confront the noise and verbiage and falsehood of death with the truth and potency and efficacy of the Word of God. Know the Word, teach the Word, nurture the Word, preach the Word, defend the Word, incarnate the Word, do the Word, live the Word. And more than that, in the Word of God, expose death and all death's works and wiles, rebuke lies, cast out demons, exorcise, cleanse the possessed, raise those who are dead in mind and conscience.l

IN A COMMENT on Isa 40:6, Martin Luther wrote, "how difficult an occupation preaching is. Indeed, to preach the Word of God is nothing less than to bring upon oneself all the furies of hell and of Satan, and therefore also of . . . every power of this world. It is the most dangerous kind of life to throw oneself in the way of Satan's many teeth."2

Few preachers today would describe the vocation of preaching in these terms. Luther's language seems antiquated; sophisticated contemporary preachers do not often speak about Satan-much less about Satan's teeth. At a deeper level, however, Luther understands preaching as something more dramatic than the sermons one hears in many churches today. Preaching has become rather tame in most mainline, middle-class congregations. Popular homiletics texts focus on sermon form and homiletical aesthetics. The goal seems to be to find ways to help the gospel "go down" painlessly, without creating too much conflict. As a result, the sermon is in danger of becoming just another appealing commodity for middle-class consumers. The notion of preaching as a weekly eschatological battle with Satan seems out of place.

Recently, however, I found myself in a context where Luther's words came to life. I taught a course in which students gathered weekly with homeless people to worship on the streets of Atlanta. As a part of those services of worship, the students preached-on the streets, amidst the traffic and the skyscrapers, among the homeless, and with police officers and security guards keeping an eye on our strange gatherings. In that setting, students discovered dimensions of preaching they had not discerned in other homiletics classes where they had preached in the comfort and security of the seminary chapel. In this context preaching became a risky engagement with the powers of the world. The words of Ephesians became contemporary: "...our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the whole armor of God.... Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Eph 6:12-17). Maybe Luther was right: "It is the most dangerous kind of life to throw oneself in the way of Satan's many teeth."

William Stringfellow, the Harvard-educated lawyer, lay theologian, and radical Christian, understood the reality about which Luther spoke. Stringfellow's prophetic theology of the principalities and powers provides a compelling contemporary interpretation of the demonic forces that shape human life and confront Christian preachers.3 Currently enjoying a significant revival in the United States, Stringfellow's work has extraordinary implications for those who seek to proclaim the Word amidst the demonic babel and death of the contemporary world. Following a brief overview of Stringfellow's theology of the powers, I will examine some of these implications. …

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