Powers and Principalities as Created Beings, part II

Some more reading, particularly into the thought of William Stringfellow, a predecessor of Walter Wink, turns all of the thoughts of my previous post on their head.  Check out this quote from McCutchan:

“William Stringfellow examines the concept of “Principalities and Powers” and suggests that in contemporary times we give the “Powers” such names as institutions, ideologies, images, movements, causes, corporations, bureaucracies, routines, races, nations, idols, etc. It is important to remember that Paul did not see such “Powers” as evil in themselves. Thus we are not talking about an anti-institutional stance. “The Powers” are the fixed points by which we bring order and sense to the world. “For by him God created everything in heaven and on earth, the seen and the unseen things, including spiritual powers, lords, rulers, and authorities . . . and in union with him all things have their proper place” (Col. 1:16-17 TEV). They became demonic when they lost their sense of vocation and their role in God’s world. In biblical terms that is known as the “condition of the Fall.” It is in light of our full realization of their fallen state, that we must examine the interplay of some of the “Powers” in the development of some of the major themes of our culture.” – Stephen McCutchan, “Church, State, Principalities, Powers” in Theology Today, 33 no 3 O 1976, p 245

Specifically, the point that the powers are not evil in themselves, but created by God and fallen along with the rest of creation (which, I’m inclined to point out again, is pictured biblically as the result of human sin, not the rebellion of the powers – with the possible exception of Satan). Scholars in this camp seem to be divided over whether or not there exist good powers; Ellul sees all powers as being in a state of rebellion against God, while Stringfellow and Wink stress the need for the powers to be redeemed, which of course leaves room for powers that are functioning as they are supposed to. I’m having trouble articulating the notion, but there seems to be a mutually reinforcing corruption in the powers and in human beings, the interplay of world (powers) and flesh (human sin) that leads to Death (Satan, the evil one behind it all, the source and destination of all rebellion against God).

Here’s a quote about Stringfellow’s view, in an article about the uneasy alliance of powers of Church and State in America:

The objection might be raised here that no evidence has been presented that anyone in these various “Principalities and Powers” ever made a conscious decision to ally with this or that “Power.” This is to fail to recognize, however, “the creaturely status” of the “Principalities.” “Human beings are reluctant to acknowledge institutions—or any of the other principalities, as creatures having their own existence, personality, and mode of life . . . the illusion of human beings [is] that they make or create and, hence, control institutions and that institutions are no more than groups of human beings duly organized.”The truth is that “Powers” make their own decisions to enter alliances for their own purposes. – Stephen McCutchan, “Church, State, Principalities, Powers” in Theology Today, 33 no 3 O 1976, p 246-247

So it is precisely the creatureliness, a status shared by human beings and powers and principalities, that defines our relationship. Though we believe ourselves to be the makers and sustainers of institutions, we do not act alone – or even of our own initiative, if we take McCutchan and Stringfellow to their ultimate end on this (though Jacques Ellul, a friend of Stringfellow and another major inspiration for Wink, would probably disagree somewhat on this point). Created purpose governs all creatures: we have the purpose of ruling over creation, and the powers have the purpose of organizing our society for our benefit. But at the very least this implies some sort of partnership, some overlapping of domains and the agencies involved in maintaining them: even if powers influence us to ‘create’ and become involved in the institutions that govern our society, they themselves do so on the basis of the agency given them by God, and we ourselves still possess that same agency. We exercise rule over the earth, the powers exercise rule over us, but God is sovereign over all and gives us the authority through Christ to exercise our own agency over the powers themselves; there’s opportunity for human agency to work against the powers, and a higher authority supports us in this. So in a sense, we have the ability to participate in the dominion and redemption of the powers, even though they technically rule over us! Of course, we cannot ever, ever forget that any and every dominion or authority that we hold is only in our role as representatives of God, and therefore in our submission to Him. Just as when principalities rebel against God they lose their legitimacy and thus their authority over us, human beings who use their position as ambassadors and representatives of God for their own ends cease to have any authority over creation or the powers, and instead are participating in the rebellion and system of the powers. Even in exercising our authority over the powers, we must recognize that we have no inherent authority: we intercede, and God acts. A good example is in exorcism itself: when we pray, demons are cast out; but when we name and command demons, utilising particular formulas or techniques, we are in fact performing Christian magic – we’re actually participating in the powers, or as the pharisees put it, “casting out demons by the prince of demons.” Jesus slapped this notion down, hard.

This clears things up somewhat, and I hope overthrows any notions that might be peeking through my previous post that human beings have any sort of creative power or ruling authority apart from participation in the work and rule of God in Jesus Christ.  Even so, how amazing is it to think that we can participate in the redemption not only of worldly institutions but of the powers and principalities behind them!  But this raises another question entirely:

If the whole creation is being redeemed by Christ, and through him is reconciled to God, does this truly include spiritual beings?  We often think of them as being outside of creation, but this is only because of our spirit/material dichotomy, a separation that is not very evident in scripture.  Wink says that the powers and principalities must be redeemed, and this would be implied by the redemption of creation, but how does this relate to Jesus’ ministry of exorcism?  What happens to demons that are cast out?  Jesus says that they roam around, looking for another host to live in/off of.  Can they be reformed?  Is deliverance ministry/exorcism combative, or reformative?  It’s easy to apply this notion of redemption and reformation to “powers and principalities” as Wink defines them, but not so easy when we’re talking about personal spirits.  Thoughts?


9 thoughts on “Powers and Principalities as Created Beings, part II

  1. “Just as when principalities rebel against God they lose their legitimacy and thus their authority over us, human beings who use their position as ambassadors and representatives of God for their own ends cease to have any authority over creation or the powers, and instead are participating in the rebellion and system of the powers.”

    This is just great.

    As far as redemption of spirits, its a question I have asked as well. Where do they play in regarding the “reconciliation of all things”?

    I want to dive into this topic SO much more, but sadly it will have to wait until after my final papers are done. Once they are, I am on board to jump into some more readings and try and hash out some of these concepts further… they are both fascinating and exceedingly relevant in a time where the “powers” rule so much of our world.

  2. The redemption of all things seems necessarily by the will of God to entail the will of the creaturely…and so does not mean ALL things (or every being). There are those for whom “perdition” or the “lake of fire” is their everlasting lot (both of spirit beings and human who are declared as such in Scripture). In other words, there are those for whom redemption is not what they even choose given the grace they have already known and/or will know. Volitional beings of heaven and earth respond to God and as such are dealt with. Not that God has not first acted and does not continue in this, but that they (of their own will) choose such a path as they choose. So I guess I’m saying I deny the redemption of such creatures as “demons” or “unclean spirits” (though I do not think it beyond the Lord to redeem them) of their own accord, yet according to the will of the Lord proving yet further His glory and goodness.

    • You’re right, of course. So what really occurs when an institution is exorcised? Wink suggests that these institutions can be redeemed, and we’ve certainly seen institutions go bad and eventually either disappear, or get better. Or…now that I think of it, can you think of a time when an institution has ever gotten better? When things go bad, they have a scandal and the whole thing collapses, with new institutions born out of the rubble, until they too eventually go bad. Perhaps this is evidence for the longevity of the Church, testifying that its spirits are not fallen, or at least regenerating?

      I guess what I’m trying to say is, do we see any evidence of a spiritual aspect of institutions besides the obvious evil and twisting of their nature? Have you ever seen an institution be exorcised? I think I’m beginning to reject the personal-ness of institutional spirits (though obviously there are still personal spirits out there), or perhaps that spirits are inherent to institutions, though they may attach themselves to them. Instead, I would say that institutions themselves are influenced by spiritual realities, whether these realities are the willful actions of personal spiritual beings or the ignorant actions of sinful human beings.

      Here’s a question: do all of our actions have spiritual consequences? The Pentateuch makes it clear that sin is not just a personal matter, and affects the entire camp; does my sin leave a spiritual residue? Is there a spiritual aspect to the wrongs that sin causes? It’s one thing to say, for example, that the sin of adultery carried its own curse for David in that it cost him the respect of his children, which caused family strife, etc. etc., but can we also say that David’s sin had a spiritual impact on his children, his family, and even his kingdom?

      • In reply to your last question…we see that it did have national (or I would prefer to say ongoing and wide “community” consequences). A rather interesting example of such a spiritual entity (whether the “LORD” or “hasatan” is an issue between the two accounts in Scripture — 2 Sam.24:1; 1 Chron.21:1) as inciting David to take a census of Israel and incur community judgment. It seems that despite the claims in the message of Ezekiel (“the soul who sins will die”) that still this entailed a community under judgment (and yet ultimately also a community in redemption). Perhaps also this relates to the issue of the creation (Gen.1:27) where “man” was created male and female in the image of God. There is a sense in which all powers are bound into community (though those powers and authorities of evil must ultimately be opposed even to their very own existence, because it is denied by the denial of their Creator and Sustainer…it is in a sense nihilistic of them, but yet it is by grace they are even sustained and exist).

  3. I’ve been praying for a better grip on these matters while I washed the dishes just now.

    The insight I’m getting on this is that God does create these ‘things’ via the creative powers innately embodied in human beings, but that they are not ‘beings’ because (despite Wink!) they have no ‘inwardness’. They do behave as though possessing a mind of their own, but that’s an artifact of the collective passion & imagination which people mobilize in forming an ideal, an organization, an ‘image’. An adaptable computer program can exhibit ‘personality’ in much the same way, as can a fictional character — but has nobody home to serve as an ‘inwardness’. There is no ‘spirit of Sherlock Holmes’ — despite the fervent reader-devotion that forced A.C. Doyle to bring him back from what Doyle had hoped would be his final story.

    As many of us discovered back in the day — People are unconsciously telepathic, naturally connected in ways that don’t register as conscious verbal data-transmission — but which do give rise to the sort of meaningful ‘coincidences’ Jung labeled ‘synchronicity.’

    When people form a minor organization of little emotional appeal… that unconscious interplay of thoughts and feelings between them probably won’t make it act like ‘a Power.’

    When people form something like ‘The United States of America’, the power behind that is tremendous. It bespells its human votaries; their thoughts and feelings permeate its workings. A vast feedback loop emerges that renders this human/Power system effectively beyond the conscious control of any human’s thought, will, or intention.

    We rightly call such Powers ‘fallen’ because they have no soul of their own, while the people whose worship they feed on — are thereby diverted from the only rightful Subject of worship, aka ‘God’. Their victims ‘forget Who made them’ and go figuratively blind, as in the doomed city of a certain traditional African tale.

    To truly exorcise such Powers, to ‘recall them to their divinely-intended functions’ — people would need to stop worshiping them. “Worshiping”? — like in dancing around their images sacrificing goats & like that? No, as in giving them more respect and credence, in practice, than we’re actually giving to God…


    • Yes! You’re onto it! I think that Wink’s insistence that they have a soul of their own is related to his connection between the Powers and the personal depiction of demons in the NT. Wink didn’t think that they were actually personal (he thought it wasn’t important either way), but he did want to emphasize that they have an interiority, and I think that he identifies this interiority with Jung’s synchronicity and what you call a “vast feedback loop”: that when this synchronicity overcomes those from whom it emerges, it has a life of its own, so to speak. He identifies this with spirit, and it is implied that this spirit even has intentionality and self-perpetuating desires.

      Wink’s third book in the Powers trilogy, _Engaging the Powers_, is largely about power structures and authority vs. power: the Powers exist because we grant them authority, we submit to them, we worship them; to exorcise them, then, we need to stop giving them authority over us! When we do so, they will lash out with their power. This is what Christ did: he denied the authority of the systems of his time, and faced the consequences, stripping them of authority ultimately with his own death at their hands. This is our model to follow.

      • An analogy that came along later… A flame may seem to be ‘a thing’; it might even be thought of as particularly ‘spiritual’ because what’s there is not a physical object — but it has no ‘inwardness’ (that we know of) because it’s simply a chemical process which gives rise to a pattern of air-motion that sustains it.

        The Powers look to be similar phenomena; the spiritual component would be within the various people maintaining or confronting them. Not necessarily localized… but like an addiction, using people’s own minds to our possible detriment. (or in the case of our better angels, for good we might not otherwise accomplish?)

        People achieve things they otherwise might not if they regularly gather for ‘a class’ in which they severely limit the freedom they’re allowing each other… and thereby find it easier to do something they wanted, but wouldn’t outside that context. The Powers probably arise for analogous reasons; they limit and channel people’s efforts for what at least seem to be good ends. But then they expand beyond conscious control. Since they never were fully human or capable of running around loose safely, this is as dangerous as the ‘devil in a cage’ the man bought in a certain Japanese story.

        What thinkest of Stringfellow’s notion that ‘death’ was the ultimate Power at work in our various runaway institutions?

      • Thanks for this!

        You may be interested in Amos Yong’s writings on the subject. I haven’t found time to get into them, but from what I understand he proposes that Spirit may be an emergent property from matter, which would go along well with Wink’s notion of panentheism.

        I like the analogy of the flame (it’s served as analogy for the Spirit before!), but I think the analogy starts to break down if we try to take it any deeper. There’s a sense that spirit is energy, but there’s also a sense in which spirit is will or volition, which seems to be a type of energy that may not have any effect on the physical world.

        The Powers definitely depend on having human hosts; unlike the depiction of demons in the Gospels, the Powers seem to depend on groups of people rather than individuals, and grow stronger when those people are gathered. The thing that makes the Powers so dangerous is that their presence in groups gives them a greater reach in space and a permanent position over time, with each member of the group being replaceable and too weak in isolation to influence the Powers they contribute to or are oppressed by.

        I’m more familiar with Wink than Stringfellow, but Wink depended and elaborated on Stringfellow in most of his thought. Wink said that Satan, Death, and the Domination System are all synonymous, and talked about Satan as fulfilling a positive function of trial or testing for God, but having overreached and demanded worship from humans, fell. He actually sees the fall of Satan as taking place at the crucifixion, because it was then that God no longer required judgment on humans, but Satan continues to exercise that role against God’s wishes. Interesting thought.

      • “That spirit created matter is miraculous; but for matter to have produced spirit would have been simply unbelievable.”

        These days, we find people who imagine they are “nothing but” patterns of neuronal firings, “imagining we really exist.” (Who it is who feels these firings, who there is to be taken in by ‘delusions’ of reality — This they do not, cannot explain.) But similar notions were evidentally floating around even in ancient times.

        I am not saying that ‘flame’ is in any way ‘spiritual’; I was saying that it is a good analogy to what ‘the Powers’, ‘the gods’, etc actually are. Any actual being, anything able to ‘be’ and to ‘have’ a soul of its own… like for example, us — is of a different order of things.

        As in that Incredible String Band song: “We are the tablecloth — and also the table. Also the fable, of the dancing leaves.” That is: what is apparent on the surface, and the reality that underlies it — and also creatures moved unconsciously by wider patterns we may not be consciously aware of. But those patterns are no more conscious in their own right than a whirlpool. They can certainly be personified, but not with any explanatory gain.

        Are there collective patterns of human consciousness in which people are carried along like leaves in a whirlwind? It seems evident that there are. But the consciousness which joins — or flees — these vast square-dances — is embodied in us, not in them. We give — or withhold — the worship that sustains them.

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