Powers and Principalities as Created Beings

NOTE: Much of this post is repudiated or reframed in the following post; this is the nature of my blogging coming through – it helps me think through problems.

I had an interesting thought tonight as I read a summary of some of Walter Wink’s thought on the powers and principalities, and my thought was confirmed as I read on.  In brief:

The powers and principalities are the spiritual aspects of social institutions that were created by God for the benefit of human beings.  Like everything else in creation, they are fallen – but like everything else in creation, they can be redeemed.  They were created for our benefit, but are fallen in that they now exist for their own benefit, no longer fulfilling their God-given task but instead taking part in the “Domination System”, which is headed by Satan.  A good example is capitalism: we need an economic system to order our society and distribute wealth, but capitalism has become a system that victimizes most people and corrupts the rest; when capitalism combines with other fallen powers, such as nationalism, consumerism, racism and sexism, we’re faced with a Domination System that systematically victimizes the entire “developing world”.

The thought that came to me, and was confirmed as I read on, was that social institutions and structures influence human beings, but they themselves are influenced by human beings.  While consumerism gives power to corporations, corporations give power to consumerism.  Human beings take part in the creation, and corruption, of these institutions that Wink calls the powers and principalities, these fallen spiritual forces that to some extent rule the world, and against whom the Church stands in proclamation of the reality of their defeat in Christ Jesus.  We might say that a man is overcome by consumerism, which controls his society, but at the same time he may be the CEO of a corporation which can either fulfill its God-given function of benefiting humanity or else can contribute to the Domination System – and that choice comes down to him.  So who corrupted whom?

Genesis tells us that the serpent tempted human beings, so we’re quick to give credit for the fall to spiritual beings, who must have fallen first.  But we only know of one who fell before human beings; all of the other references to Satan and his angels having a war in heaven before the Fall are apocryphal and apocalyptic, or else the product of later Christian epic poetry.  After all, the reference to this event in Revelation portrays it happening much later and involving the saints and their testimonies.  So, being left with Genesis, we can say that Satan (if we take him to be the serpent) is the father of the Domination System, the father of lies, and the first to fall; but we are the second to fall.  Did we take down a heavenly host with us?

If the powers and principalities are really created beings, then the question arises: do we create institutions, or does God?  Or does God through us, with us taking part in creation?  Or does God grant us the authority, as bearers of his image in the earthly realm, to create them?  How far does the authority of God’s image in us go?  Wink talks about how fallen institutions, like the rest of creation, should be redeemed, but also that sometimes the only thing to do with a fallen institution is to destroy or replace it; this would imply either that these spirits are given a new guise in a new institution, or else that they are destroyed and new ones are created.  I would lean toward the former, not only because Jesus’ teachings and examples with demons was to cast them out, not to destroy them, but also because social problems never really seem to go away;  they pop up somewhere else instead.

And if we create them, and/or if they are created after our fall, then are we responsible for corrupting them?  Are cultures created by God, then fall of their own accord?  Or are they created, and then corrupted, by humans themselves?  Or, are they created by God, or by us, and then corrupted by personal, invisible spirits who fly around and attach themselves to such institutions?

I’m not sure what’s blowing my mind more right now: the implication that human beings have been granted the authority and task of being, to some small extent, co-creators with God; or the implication that we are in large part responsible for the rebellion or corruption of spiritual forces.

We have no record of Satan’s activity before the serpent tempted Eve; perhaps Satan’s and Eve’s falls were simultaneous, with Satan’s sin being to tempt Eve and Eve’s being to disobey God?  I don’t want to be overly anthropocentric, but…that whole chapter is anthropocentric.  In Genesis 3, Satan, and even God, are secondary characters; the weight of the fall is squarely on our shoulders, and I think the general notion is that this was the beginning of evil in the world; speculation about when Satan fell, as though it happened before we did and somehow lessens our guilt, misses the point of the passage.  I think I’m okay with saying that human sinfulness is at least as much a cause as it is a result of corruption in the world, and even in spiritual beings.

As for the other, I’m not sure my speculation about the extent of God’s image in us is accurate or even on the right track.  We are given the command to rule over and subdue the earth, and the language of “image” is one of “steward” – i.e. the representative of the true ruler.  This seems to have been marred in the fall, so that the earth itself no longer really responds to our authority in this, fighting against us and making a lot of work for us – the curse of God, it might be said, was to lose our God-given authority over creation, even if our task of subduing and ruling creation still stands.  We are given our position back through Christ, who makes us co-heirs of God and calls us brothers; by becoming human he has redeemed humanity; rather than humans becoming gods, God becomes human; and the distinction between God and human, sacred and secular, is blurred.  All authority in heaven and earth is given to him, and he gives us whatever authority is necessary to act in his place, once again the human representatives of God and his rule on earth, and part of this authority is to cast out demons in his name.  But did any of this authority – either pre-fall or post-Christ – ever relate to creating?

Surely we have a part in creating institutions, even if our creative acts are merely God creating things through us.  But the shocking implication of Wink’s theology of the powers is that, since institutions have spiritual essences just like other created beings, when we create an institution we actually create a spiritual being.  Can this possibly be true?  It seems much more likely that the spiritual essence of a newly-minted institution has been around for a long time, if not since the beginning, and we have only known it under different guises.  Our creation of new institutions, then, would be more of a way to change the impact of that spirit on society, hopefully by submitting it to Christ and giving it a fresh chance to fulfill its God-given role of benefiting and ordering human society.

Or maybe it’s just because it’s after midnight, and none of this actually makes sense.  Thoughts?


4 thoughts on “Powers and Principalities as Created Beings

  1. If we take Genesis 3 as paradigmatic for all that follows than we are left with God as creator of all that follows. The serpent was after all among his creative works…though “most crafty” among the creatures. What exactly this meant (and means) is not quite clear, but became a point of leading man and woman into willful rebellion against their creator. The language of the garden and Adam’s responsibilities suggest that he functioned as a sort of “priest” (if you will) and was to have guarded it and kept it in such a manner that the creature who made his way into their midst with his crafty words should not have been permitted to begin with (G.K. Beale has a fair amount to say about this in his “The Temple and the Church’s Mission”). I guess what I’m getting at is that God is always the creator first and foremost in the ultimate sense, though this does not rule out (in Bonhoefferian terms) the penultimate co-creation by man and woman. In what sense would/does this make God responsible for the “evil” that follows or for the powers and authorities that willfully oppose Him and His will? Is God wrong to love and create that which is not deserving of His love and not deserving of creation? In what sense has He determined their (or our) being? Perhaps a few more cups of coffee and I could offer some more questions (not more answers, but maybe some more questions 😉 ).

  2. I don’t know how much of your next post this will be anticipating, but William Stringfellow’s reading of the situation was significantly different. God created the Powers etc for His own good creative pleasure. Like tigers or mountains they could be beautiful and they could be dangerous; this seems better to me than a toy world with no sharp edges… but one needs some discernment to play with such edges safely.

    The idea that ‘The Serpent’ was ‘Satan’ is a Christian addition to the story; the typical Jewish reading [and this is after all their book] was that this ‘Knowledge’ of ‘Good and Evil’ was actually an advance in wisdom, just not one we humans assimilate easily. Possibly needed to wait for that fruit (or for us) to ripen before consumption? That, rather than any resentment on God’s part, might equally be the reason we were collectively shut off from the ‘Tree of Life’ before we could eat from that and find ourselves in real trouble!

    [Munch break — to be continued afterwards]…

    • Yeah, most definitely hold that God creates the Powers; I was riffing on Madeleine L’Engle here (A Wind In the Door) as much as on any theologians! I don’t know how much support this post would have from theologians, but there are so few that talk about the Powers…

      The notion that we must mature or gain wisdom before we gain power is very old indeed, but it also pops up all over the place in pop culture, spurred on by the follies of this past century and our development of dangerous technologies (e.g., nuclear weapons). Battlestar Galactica is a great modern myth that tells that same story; Marvel’s _Black Panther_ series of comic books employs that theme regularly as well. Our wisdom must outpace our knowledge!

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