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In some translations, I see the term "principalities and powers." To what does this refer?

This will not be exhaustive, but for example, consider the KJV's translation of Romans 8:38-39:

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 KJV)

Compare this with another translation, for example ESV:

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 ESV)

Now consider NIV1984:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 NIV1984)

So, it seems that "principalities and powers" in the KJV corresponds to "rulers" in the ESV and "demons" in the NIV1984. Does the term "principalities and powers" refer to evil spiritual beings, or just powerful ones?

Also, consider Colossians 1:16:

For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him. (Colossians 1:16 KJV)

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities -- all things were created through him and for him. (Colossians 1:16 ESV)

For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. (Colossians 1:16 NIV1984)

In these translations of this particular passage, the connotation of "principalities and powers" seems somewhat blurry. Can you please help me to understand?

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Principality in all the verses refers to "systems" (evil systems). Hold on now...you know, every rule is enforced by a system. Now the world is being ruled by a system of decite by the devil through the knowledge of good and evil. The supposed power of the devile is actually rooted in decite. Let the Holy Spirit enlighten you the more. Thank you....goodluck. –  Daniel oketa Jan 27 at 8:13
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1 Answer

up vote 3 down vote accepted

"Principalities" and "powers" are separated in the original language. The structure is similar to the ESV rather than the KJV. I will, therefore, treat them separately.

Principalities

The underlying word here can carry a range of meanings. In Romans 13:3, for instance, it refers to a human magistrate. In Ephesians 6:12 it is instead contrasted with "flesh and blood" and refers to an evil spiritual being. 1 Corinthians 15:24 gives a perhaps ambiguous picture of the human/angelic nature of rulers, but they are enemies of God to be destroyed.

Moving to consider its use here in Romans 8:38, the pairing of death/life, angels/principalities, and things present/things to come suggests that principalities should be understood along with angels indicating that they are spiritual in nature. Whether Paul intends evil beings or evil and good beings here is less clear. Again, though, the pairing with angels suggests a dualism and I'm inclined to accept the NIV's rendering.

In the context of Colossians 1:16, it's a little more difficult to discern. The context of the entire letter suggests that Paul is writing about spiritual beings. It would take us too much space to discuss the Colossian heresy/philosophy, but Paul's purpose in the Christ hymn is to emphasize the exaltedness of Christ over all things and especially over angelic beings (see also 2:10, 2:15, 2:18). While some contexts suggest they are evil (2:15), others are less clear and since Paul places also good things like the church under Christ in the hymn, it makes sense to understand "rulers"/"principalities" as simply spiritual beings, neither necessarily good nor bad.

Powers

In Colossians, "powers" can be understood right along with principalities. They are mentioned together as they are in 1 Cor. 15:24 as well. There is nothing to distinguish them, and Paul is probably simply enumerating any spiritual being he could think of to establish the supremacy of Christ over all things.

It's less clear in Romans 8:38 how he uses the term. One strange thing about its use there is that he doesn't pair it with another term as he does all the other items in his list (except "anything else in creation"). Doug Moo in his commentary on Romans (NICNT) notes that elsewhere Paul uses the term for miracles, and so it's possible that he has such in mind ("performed perhaps by Satan"), but there isn't a whole lot to recommend this and the presence of angels and principalities leads us to believe he again means spiritual beings as in Colossians.

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Thank you for yet another great answer. It's odd that I never noticed the break in symmetry in Romans 8:38. –  Jon Ericson Jun 1 '12 at 17:25
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