Do not be conquered by evil but by good conquer evil. Every soul necessarily ranks below superior powers. For there is no power if not under God, all things that are, being set in order by Him. So, that which is arrayed against God's power, to resist his ordinance, will be judged. For rulers are not a terror to the good, but the wicked. (Romans 13:1–3)
I often encounter people who think the above-quoted passage from St. Paul's epistle to the Romans is somewhat confusing. I do not understand why they find it so. My incomprehension is probably because I subconsciously read English translations with the Greek words in mind — the Greek wording is inescapably ontological. It leads one to focus on the primacy of being in various guises.
The word often rendered as power or authority (I use the word "power" in the translation above) is a compound expression that literally refers to that which comes out of being, as its effect or consequence. In English, we sometimes refer to someone as a "person of consequence." The phrase conveys the fact that such people can make things happen. They possess something that gives them some commanding influence or power over other people, objects or events.
On account of that valuable possession, what begins as their thought, desire or way of behaving is more likely to produce corresponding results. Hence they possess authority — i.e., the capacity to become the starting point or author of changes in their environment.
Given the biblical understanding of who God is, St. Paul's discussion in Romans 13 conveys a single, relatively transparent thought. For at one point toward the beginning of human history as the Bible presents it, God describes Himself as pure being, i.e., being without reference to any other activity; being simply (Exodus 3:14). As human beings, we cannot conceive of anything without reference to being (we articulately or tacitly refer to it when we refer to any existing thing). Paradoxically, even our attempts to convey the absence of being inevitably bring it to mind.
Even when hard-pressed, even the best merely human minds find it difficult to say what being is. Raising the question illustrates the difficulty. This has led great thinkers to suggest that being is an empty set. The word conveys the absence of any other presence, rather than the presence of some transcendent activity. But the inevitably tautological character of such formulations proves their absurdity. For, as King Lear aptly reminds his faithful daughter, "Nothing comes from nothing." Yet, here we are, in a world full of things, each a form of being that is what it is despite the fact that none can account for its own being, much less that of all the rest.
If nothing else, the word "God" conveys the all-pervading presence that saves our understanding from the "black hole" that must otherwise absorb our pretense of thought. Except we assume the attributes that comprise its meaning, conception would eventually dissolve, for lack of confidence, in absurd, ineffable, infinite and incalculable madness. Before all comes to nothing, therefore, it comes to itself as one.
One is not a thing. It is not a place. It is not even a thought. It is what remains when all else is banished; when "elseness" itself is inconceivable; when "function is smothered in surmise, and nothing is but what is not" (Macbeth 1.3). Such is the state of being itself as such; of being alone, so truly alone that no voice is heard to say, "Behold, the Lord Your God is One."
Of course, neither you nor I exist to think of this if that which is one in being ever was, or is, of no consequence. Our singular presence proclaims the power of God, the one being of which all others are the consequence; the "One in Being" when all are otherwise are preoccupied with being in some way. The passage from Romans quoted at the beginning of this exercise asserts the simple truth that every consequence of being reprises being in its own way. That way of being depends, however, on the disposition of being itself that makes it possible, that brings it into existence.
God is the being responsible for this disposition, as it varies in each and every existing thing. God is the being of consequence, in every case, the one whose behavior corresponds to its existence, the one from whom, therefore, that existence flows as irrigating water flows from a stream into the channels that define and nourish the field in which each being arise, as from seed, to become. At God's disposal, the form of water He supposes it to be.
This may not answer the question of priority posed about the chicken and the egg. But it does suggest a possible riposte: God became them both before there was yet one of them. In being, each was fully formed and fashioned, meticulously provided for, with no contingency unmet, no need unserved, no requisite function of life unaccounted for. There was only one whose way of being — somewhat like God's — could dispose itself against the ways of being perfectly arranged by God for its existence.
In this respect — or should that be capacity for disrespect — Adam ranked above other beings in God's creation. Their function excluded surmise. The routine of their existence never tempted them to reach beyond being all that they could be, in hopes of becoming as one with God, in whom all things are possible. But "every possibility" includes those in which a person who is like unto God in consequence, if he abuses the power of his God-made being, unleashes the possibility of a world in which no one made as God made him, continues to exist for very long, much less forever.
In the first Psalm, the Bible tells us that "God knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is utterly destroyed." People who stand against God's power may still appear powerful, but once they turn against God's order for their existence, they are not what they appear to be. For God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
For unless power accords with God's disposition, it is not of God, but of wickedness set against God. Those who wield it, whatever their appearance of power, are bound to perish by the judgment of God, on whose being, which they oppose, their power depends.
By this standard, we may judge who has authority and who does not. Those who abide in God's way, even when they seem reviled, helpless and overcome — as Christ did on the Cross — represent God's authority and power for good. Those who depart from God's way are not in authority, even though they array themselves in every semblance of power, for in this and every possible world, authority derives from God and rests with those who through Christ, by the Holy Spirit of God, faithfully abide in Him.
Though worldly powers depart from thence, yet all authority remains in Him. That's something good to remember, in these trying times.