Response to Walter Wink’s book Naming the Powers

Father Stephen Freeman recommends Walter Wink’s book Naming the Powers:

A book worth looking at viz. the powers is Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers. As successive volumes of this came out, I thought it got a bit strange, but I remember this volume as very much worth the read.

I just read Wink’s book, found it eminently worthwhile, and have shared selections here.

In addition, below are my brief responses to Wink’s book. This book recommendation from Father Stephen comes in the comments to his blog post “When Chaos Ruled the World – Part I” (January 9, 2018).

Several comments compared points made by David Bentley Hart in his recent essay, “Everything you know about the Gospel of Paul is likely wrong.” Hart and Freeman do say some similar things. From Hart, for example:

The essence of Paul’s theology is something far stranger, and unfolds on a far vaster scale. For Paul, the present world-age is rapidly passing, while another world-age differing from the former in every dimension – heavenly or terrestrial, spiritual or physical – is already dawning. The story of salvation concerns the entire cosmos; and it is a story of invasion, conquest, spoliation and triumph. For Paul, the cosmos has been enslaved to death, both by our sin and by the malign governance of those ‘angelic’ or ‘daemonian’ agencies who reign over the earth from the heavens, and who hold spirits in thrall below the earth. These angelic beings, these Archons, whom Paul calls Thrones and Powers and Dominations and Spiritual Forces of Evil in the High Places, are the gods of the nations. In the Letter to the Galatians, he even hints that the angel of the Lord who rules over Israel might be one of their number. Whether fallen, or mutinous, or merely incompetent, these beings stand intractably between us and God. But Christ has conquered them all.

In descending to Hades and ascending again through the heavens, Christ has vanquished all the Powers below and above that separate us from the love of God, taking them captive in a kind of triumphal procession.

From Freeman, for example:

But in the Eastern Church, the Baptism of Christ takes up these Old Testament references of struggle with the watery chaos. Christ’s entry into the waters is understood as a foreshadowing of His entrance into Hades. It is a defeat of the hostile powers. The same theme runs throughout the sacrament of Baptism itself. The destruction of the demons is easily the strongest theme within that service. …It is not a hymn of payment, or punishment, but of going into the strongman’s kingdom, binding him and setting free those who are held captive. The heads of the dragons are crushed, the heads of leviathan are broken in pieces, Rahab has been cut apart.

Within the comments, Freeman acknowledges some common ground with Hart:

Hart is close on in his description, but his article is far too short. “Archons” (Ages) and the like (principalities, powers, etc.) are various forms of spiritual beings – though we shouldn’t necessarily equate them exactly with angels. It’s more complex than that. The gnostics use some of the same terms, but do not seem to have in mind the same things as described in St. Paul.

…It’s a very complex set of understandings – which makes it so easy for pseudo-scholars to manipulate for various agendas rather than trying to articulate what is, in fact, the case (with St. Paul, etc.). But I would agree with Hart, that what most people (i.e. our present Western understanding) see when they read St. Paul is, in fact, not what’s there.

In addition to my reading of Freeman and Hart as a recent convert to Orthodoxy (the tradition that both authors espouse), I personally have been teaching a medieval literature class (to middle school students) and reflecting on the nature of elves and monsters within medieval literature as well as the works of Tolkien, Lewis, and Macdonald. See here and here, for examples.

Within these contexts, I have again encountered the ideas of “the principalities and powers” of the Biblical authors.

Naming the Powers by Walter Wink was a very strong study of the terms involved. Wink starts with the texts and responds to the tendency of modern liberation theology to reduce “the powers” to the institutional, social, and legal structures of injustice. Wink also responds to other modern authors who have attempted to reduce the powers to “good” angelic beings carrying out the will of God.

In his own conclusions, Wink seeks to fully synthesize or reconcile ancient (mythic and spiritual) with modern (material or institutional/phycological/sociological) understandings. In his own conclusions from the texts, Wink is critical of both ancient and modern ideas or worldviews. Wink is critical of traditionalists (including the “orthodox church” specifically) for simply spiritualizing these “powers” as well as of moderns for reducing “the powers” to material or scientific categories. (Wink’s criticism of the Orthodox is ill-informed but in a very typical and understandable way.)

Read Wink’s more complete case for yourself. Here is a core sample:

What I propose is viewing the spiritual Powers not as separate heavenly or ethereal entities but as the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power. I suggest that the “angels of nature” are the patterning of physical things-rocks, trees, plants, the whole God-glorifying, dancing, visible universe; that the “principalities and powers” are the inner or spiritual essence, or gestalt, of an institution or state or system; that the “demons” are the psychic or spiritual power emanated by organizations or individuals or subaspects of individuals whose energies are bent on overpowering others; that “gods” are the very real archetypal or ideological structures that determine or govern reality and its mirror, the human brain; that the mysterious “elements of the universe” (stoicheia cheia tou kosmou) are the invariances (formerly called “laws”) which, though often idolized by humans, conserve the self-consistency of each level of reality in its harmonious interrelationship with every other level and the Whole; and that “Satan” is the actual power that congeals around collective idolatry, injustice, or inhumanity, a power that increases or decreases according to the degree of collective refusal to choose higher values.

…These “Powers” do not, then, on this hypothesis, have a separate, spiritual existence. We encounter them primarily in reference to the material or “earthly” reality of which they are the innermost essence. The spiritual aspect of the Powers is not simply a “personification” of institutional qualities that would exist whether they were personified or not. On the contrary, the spirituality of an institution exists as a real aspect of the institution even when it is not perceived as such.

…It is far from the case, then, that human beings create their gods. The “spirits” of things emerge with the things themselves and are only subsequently divined as their inner essence. The gods, spirits, and demons are not mere personifications or hypostatizations. That is the language of reductionism; it means that these entities are not regarded as real, but only as poetic fictions or shorthand for speaking about realities the historian knows how to describe more precisely with his analytical tools. Personification means illusion. The Powers we are speaking about, on the contrary, are real. They work on us whether we acknowledge them or not. They do not depend on our belief for their efficacy. Humans cannot even lay claim to creating these Powers indirectly, by virtue of creating the structures…. To be sure, we do establish new structures and modify old ones. Insofar as we share in the creative process and bring new consciousness to it, we help create the spirituality of things. There is a reciprocity, so we could argue that it is as true to say that the gods create us as to say that we create the gods.

I agree with Wink that the ancient Christian understanding of these powers (and of the heavenly realm in totality) did not separate the physical and the spiritual realms but rather understood them to be radically and totally coterminous. Wink draws this critical insight out beautifully. However, in his synthesis of ancient and modern categories of thought, Wink does not fully account for the continuity and distinctness of the various “powers” as creatures made by God. We must recognize that God creates the “inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power” and that these “inner realities” can exist across time and in relation to multiple physical or “outer realities.” Wink himself gives an excellent example of this without seeming to concede the full implications of his example:

The very demons themselves, so long regarded as baleful spirits in the air, are pictured by the Gospels as abhorring decorporealization. When Jesus orders the “Legion” of demons out of the Gerasene demoniac, they plead to be allowed to possess a nearby herd of swine (Mark 5:12). The historicity of the conception is guaranteed regardless of the historicity of the event. The unclean spirit can find no rest without a physical body in which to reside (Luke 11:24-26). The sense is clear: demons can become manifest only through concretion in material reality. They are, in short, the name given that real but invisible spirit of destructiveness and fragmentation that rends persons, communities, and nations.

I fully appreciate the point about the “demons themselves … abhorring decorporealization,” but Wink seems to miss that it is the same demons inhabiting a single human at one moment and multiple pigs at the next. The demons are more than the “the psychic or spiritual power emanated” by a man (or a herd of pigs) “whose energies are bent on overpowering others.” These demons are intimately bound up with these destructive qualities in the man and the pigs, but they are also independent of both the man and the pigs in some fundamental way. Wink may account for this by not connecting all “powers” and interior realities to specific outward realities, but I did not notice him making this case.

Having read Wink, it seems to me most likely that God made more specific internal and spiritual realities than there are specific material and external realities. Every single person, nation, city, star, and blade of grass has its own unique angel that participates fully with the outer reality of that particular person or blade of grass (God and His spiritual servants being outside of time, the shortness of life for blades of grass is not a major issue here), but there are also angels (fallen, faithful, or just ignorant and confused) who are not directly connected to specific material things and who move among all of the many external/material realities that align with their own ways of being. Any person or institution manifesting hate and pride can accommodate Satan or some other such devils, for example.

These quibbles not withstanding, I am very grateful to Wink for his clear and thoughtful exposition of “the powers” in the Bible. My list of “things learned” from his book would be long indeed! Please see these excerpts and buy his book to read in full. Here are some of the areas in which I took away clarified and enriched understandings:

  • All New Testament authors were heavily invested in sophisticated ideas and complex vocabularies regarding hierarchical spiritual powers (that were typically coterminous with earthly and material powers).
  • Heaven is not a remote realm that is separate from earth in terms of space. Rather, heaven is the realm where the spiritual and inner qualities or truths of all things within the created world are seen and manifest.
  • Spiritual realities are not best understood as simply “immaterial” but in positive categories such as more fundamental, hidden, or interior.
  • Biblical authors had sophisticated ideas of angels connected to each nation of the earth.
  • Biblical authors understood heaven, earth, and each human person in terms of macrocosm and microcosm. They understood there to be a deep reciprocity, connection, or correspondence between different realms and on different scales. Each human person is a temple that in some sense reflects all of the material cosmos which is itself a temple that reflects the heavenly throne room of God.
  • In prayer and in faithful service to God, the church preaches to the angelic powers, teaching and changing realities within their realm. In connection to this, the book includes some specific and meaningful consideration of the divine liturgy in depicted in John’s Revelation.


  1. Steve says:

    Thanks very much for this. You might find this interesting: Of egregores and angels | Notes from underground

    1. Jesse says:

      Thank you. I did learn new terms in reading that. Much of it sounded like a phycological approach (realm of the unconscious and group consciousness).

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