Marva J. Dawn has rendered valuable service to the church with her latest book, Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God. She argues the church should reassess and reclaim “the biblical notion of the ‘principalities and powers.'”
Dawn deals with the loss and recovery of “powers” language, an overview of relevant biblical material, ways to appropriate the concepts in the modern era, and how the church might best confront the “powers.” She writes well, and each paragraph deserves careful reading.
Dawn provides a critical survey of relevant, modern scholarship. The overview includes pivotal thinkers such as William Stringfellow, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, James Stewart, John Stott, Markus Barth, Walter Wink and John Yoder. One would be hard-put to find such a brief, yet thorough, treatment elsewhere.
She deals well with relevant biblical texts from both Jewish and Christian scriptures. Dawn also provides original studies of key terms such as dunamis (power), astheneia (weakness), teleo (brought to completion, brought to its finish), and episkenoo (to tabernacle). Readers who look to Scripture as the prime source of the church’s theology and practice will appreciate her work.
Dawn fashions a compelling argument that Christ’s lordship is best made manifest through weakness. She argues that only by imitating the ways of Jesus does the church open itself to the indwelling or tabernacling of God. She supports her argument with Jesus’ life and teachings, as well as materials drawn from or dealing with Paul and Peter.
At the end of her argument, she shifts ground and presents numerous texts from Christian devotional classics that add heart to the presentation. Many readers will probably think the book is worth its price for this chapter alone.
In an analysis characterized by passion and compassion, Dawn describes why the church often fails to confront the powers and principalities. She argues that the church, as a created power, functions in a fallen world and is susceptible to falling itself. This happens most often by the church choosing power over weakness.
Dawn calls for greater vigilance. She outlines seven practices of the early church that may help the current church avoid such error. She also provides apt ideas of how these practices might be applied today.
What might the church look like if it fulfilled God’s hopes? Such a church will not “float” along. It will choose instead to be an intentional alternative to a society in thrall to unchecked powers and principalities.
She draws on the work of Jacques Ellul, but moves beyond him to offer her own contribution. For example, she rejects the criteria of “effectiveness” in favor of the means employed by the church in living out its vocation. She calls for truth-telling, justice, hospitality, peacemaking and faithfulness in opposing violence in all its forms.
This book is a treasure—a most unusual blend of scholarship, churchmanship, piety and worship. It deserves a place on your reading list.
Mike Smith is pastor of First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn.