William Stringfellow, Free in Obedience – Part III

In his chapter, ‘Christ and the powers of death’, Stringfellow continues to identify and speak to the principalities and powers, what moderns call ‘ideologies’, ‘institutions’ and ‘images’, the latter  being a variety of angelic power manifest in the cultus of celebrity and exists independently of actual persons . So when someone like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean or Adolph Hitler dies, the image does not die but goes on to ‘a new and, some would say, more vigorous life’ (p. 53), and those who pay homage to the image are literally possessed by it.

The principalities of institution – corporations, government agencies, ecclesiastical organisations, unions and universities – demand uncompromised worship no less than do the images: ‘Everything else must finally be sacrificed to the cause of preserving the institution, and it is demanded of everyone who lives within its sphere of influence … that they commit themselves to the service of that end, the survival of the institution’ (p. 56). The principalities of institution offer invitations to bondage.

Having named the idolatrous powers of personality cult and principalities, Stringfellow then turns to the ideologies – totalitarian, democratic and capitalistic – all of which are given to nation-survival at all cost, all of which claim a person’s ‘loyalty, service and worship’ (p. 60), and all of which live in conflict not only with one another but as enemies of human being and flourishing. Indeed, ‘the separation from life, the bondage to death, the alienation from God which the fall designates’ (p. 62) is manifest in humanity’s bondage to the principalities and turn to them for salvation:

‘When a principality claims moral pre-eminence in history or over a man’s life, it represents an aspiration for salvation from death and a hope that service to the idol will give existence a meaning somehow transcending death’ (p. 64).

These are the very principalities and powers – ‘the awesome and manifold powers of death’ (p. 71) – that are confronted and overcome by Jesus Christ in his resurrection victory, ‘not for himself, but for us … His resurrection means the possibility of living in this life, in the very midst of death’s works, safe and free from death’ (p. 72). In his cross, Jesus bears the full brunt of the hostility of the principalities and powers towards him, submitting to their condemnation, accepting their committal of himself to death, and, in his resurrection, exposing, undoing and bringing to nought the false lords of history and the powers they represent.

Don’t forget Wipf & Stock’s offer to readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem of 40% off the retail price of any of the Stringfellow volumes. To obtain the 40% discount, just include the coupon code STRINGFELLOW with your order.


  1. Does Stringfellow say anything about how “institutions” can be “powers and principalities” when the latter are not “flesh and blood”?


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