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I’ve recently become interested in the powers which Christ defeated in the mythic Christus Victor. No one seems to name them. Perhaps I’m wrong, but the usual suspects, i.e., sin, death, etc…, are principalities where the powers rule. In reading modern theologians who espouse the Christus Victor model, even without calling it as such – I’m looking at you Bishop Willimon – no one actually names the powers.
I remembered reading somewhere, some time ago, that Justin Martyr referred to the other gods of the age as demons. Now, I generally have no use for Justin until I need him. He is either a heretic or a reference point, but nothing in between. Well, at least in my usage of him. Here, he serves as a valuable reference point.
His starting point is Psalm 95.5, in the LXX (if we would have needed the Hebrew, God wouldn’t have given us the Septuagint and St. Augustine), which reads,
Declare his glory among the nations (v3a) … because great is the Lord and very much praiseworthy; he is terrible to all the gods (v4), because all the gods of the nations are demons, but the Lord made the heavens. (v5) – New English Translation of the Septuagint.
Justin connects these demons to the story in Genesis 6.1-4 when the sons of God and the daughters of men produced heirs which were for Justin, demons. These demons tricked humanity into worshiping them as gods. Bauckham notes that Justin was able to use to denounce pagan culture as demonic, something altogether different than wicked and/or sinful. In Justin’s 2nd Apology, chapter 5, we read,
But if this idea take possession of some one, that if we acknowledge God as our helper, we should not, as we say, be oppressed and persecuted by the wicked; this, too, I will solve. God, when He had made the whole world, and subjected things earthly to man, and arranged the heavenly elements for the increase of fruits and rotation of the seasons, and appointed this divine law–for these things also He evidently made for man–committed the care of men and of all things under heaven to angels whom He appointed over them. But the angels transgressed this appointment, and were captivated by love of women, and begat children who are those that are called demons; and besides, they afterwards subdued the human race to themselves, partly by magical writings, and partly by fears and the punishments they occasioned, and partly by teaching them to offer sacrifices, and incense, and libations, of which things they stood in need after they were enslaved by lustful passions; and among men they sowed murders, wars, adulteries, intemperate deeds, and all wickedness. Whence also the poets and mythologists, not knowing that it was the angels and those demons who had been begotten by them that did these things to men, and women, and cities, and nations, which they related, ascribed them to god himself, and to those who were accounted to be his very offspring, and to the offspring of those who were called his brothers, Neptune and Pluto, and to the children again of these their offspring. For whatever name each of the angels had given to himself and his children, by that name they called them.
Well, he names the powers, or at least the demons which suffered defeat. For him, the demons were the pagan gods. They were real, not just non-corporeal regimes. The demons were Zeus, Isis, Fudo and others who had long since tricked humanity into following them instead of the One True God. Justin goes on to set Christ against these powers:
…..for the sake of believing men, and for the destruction of the demons. And now you can learn this from what is under your own observation. For numberless demoniacs throughout the whole world, and in your city, many of our Christian men exorcising them in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, have healed and do heal, rendering helpless and driving the possessing devils out of the men, though they could not be cured by all the other exorcists, and those who used incantations and drugs. (2nd Apology, 6)
Greg Boyd notes that others among these early writers saw demons as the corrupting forces of this world:
Along the same lines, Tertullian argued that “[d]iseases and other grievous calamities” were the result of demons whose “great business is the ruin of mankind.” When “poison in the breeze blights the apples and the grain while in the flower, or kills them in the bud, or destroys them when they have reached maturity…” one can discern the work of these rebellious guardian spirits (Apology 22). For Tertullian, as for Origen and Athenagorus (and we could add Tatian, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and others), creation doesn’t consistently reflect the beauty of its Creator because it has been, and is being, corrupted by demonic forces.
I haven’t read all of Justin, because I noted before, he is only present when I need him to bolster my arguments either against him or against someone else, which almost inevitably is still against him. It may be, however, that he has something to offer me in looking for the ‘biblical’ model of atonement. Other authors, more learned than I, note that he contains traces of the penal substitution theory, and that’s fine, so does the New Testament. But, there is an over-arching victory in the whole of the Canon, and one in which we are made partakers (we the Church) and indeed, more than conquerors which we cannot ignore. In this victory, Christ has defeated the powers and their principalities.
For some fuller treatments, see here and here. (Warning, .pdfs)