Thursday, March 26, 2009

Walter Wink, the Powers and the Mission of the Church

Ryan Klassen has posed some excellent and nuanced questions in response to my previous post on the Evolving Church. I respond here rather than in the com box so as to give a more complete answer and so as to give the discussion a higher profile. Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

First, let me a define the term "liberalism" because this is important. If we have in modernity, traditional, orthodox Christianity (Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Wesley, Pope Benedict XVI) on the one side and atheistic Materialism (Rousseau, Marx, Freud, Dawkins, Singer) on the other, then theological liberalism is a form of Christianity that tries to mediate between the two without denying the essence of either. Here "liberal" is a noun as in "He is a liberal." So, when I use the term "liberal theology" or "liberalism" or "liberal Protestantism" I am referring to the attempt by Christians to be modern without ceasing to call themselves Christian.

There is a completely different use of the term, which is a comparative one on a scale from very conservative to very liberal and in this use of the term one can be relatively more or less liberal. I am more liberal than some of my faculty colleagues and less liberal than others. Here "liberal is an adjective. So J. I. Packer is more "liberal" than R. C. Sproul becaue Packer signed the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement on justification. But that sort of thing hardly makes Packer a "liberal" in the sense that John Spong is a liberal. We all know that Spong is a liberal and Packer and Sproul are not.

Now this is a noteriously slippery term. A myth can simply mean an organizing narrative that makes sense out of the world. In this sense Darwinism is a myth, Nazism is a myth and Christianity is a myth. But usually, when they use the word myth, people mean an unscientific story, that is, an organizing narrative that is not literally true because it contains supernatural elements that the scientific mind rejects. So, for them, Nazism is a myth in this sense because it is based on unscientific racial beliefs, so it is rejected. But Darwinism is not a myth, but science, and therefore it can be accepted.

Now what about Christianity? I submit that for an orthodox Christian, Christianity is a myth in the first sense of being an organizing narrative that makes sense out of the world, but not in the second sense of being unscientific. Traditional Christians don't have as narrow a view of science as modern secularists do; Christians think that if there is a God, there is no reason He could not intervene in his own creation and cause a miracle to occur. But a liberal is likely to try to reinterpret the Christian myth (first sense) in such a way as to make it compatible with science so that it does not have to be understood as a myth in the second sense and therefore rejected. So whereas traditional Christians challenge the extension of science into scientism, liberals just accept the atheistic and materialistic understanding of science and try to re-interpret Christianity in such a way as to make it compatible with such thinking. This is what Bultmann's program of demythologizing set out to do.

Wink and the Powers:
Wink writes in the first book in his trilogy, Naming the Powers, "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." (p. 104) Notice that he speaks of "the inner aspect" of material entities; this does not entail the separate existence of a spiritual being. An angel is a rational intelligence without a physical body. Wink does not believe in such beings -whether fallen or not. On the next page, he confirms this: "None of these 'spiritual' realities has an existence independent of its material counterpart." (p. 105) So for Wink, angels and demons do not exist. The "Powers," for him, are thoroughly demythologized, that is, re-interpreted as simply the "ethos" or "spirit" of a material organization or entity. Again, he writes: "We encounter them primarily in reference to the material or 'earthly' reality of which they are the innermost essence." (p. 105) He can insist that the Powers are real precisely (and only) because they are aspect of a material thing. The spirit of the football team exists because the football team exists; disband the team and the spirit disappears because it did not precede the team in existence, it does not exist separately from it, and it does not continue to exist after the team ceases to exist.

Liberals bend over backwards to try and give the impression they are not abandoning or denying Christian doctrine, but merely re-interpreting it. So, is demythologizing the spiritual beings spoken of in the Bible as angels, demons, principalities, powers, thrones, dominions, etc. re-interpreting the Bible or denying it? That is the question.

I believe in angels and demons. I also believe that the spiritual and material worlds are not completely cut off from each other. They affect each other; that is why prayer is so important. We can live according to the spiritual rule of Christ and his angels in this life or we can live under the rule of the Devil and his demons. To do the former is to live in the kingdom of God. That is the context in which the Christian life is understood in the Bible and that is the reason why spiritual battles are so crucial.

One other aspect of the Biblical worldview that is in sharp contrast to the modern one is that in the Bible good and evil are personal categories, wheras in modernity they are impersonal and structural. In the Bible persons are tempted, persons sin and persons repent. God is a personal being and so is the Devil. We are personally in submission to them or in opposition to them personally. But in modernity sin is a matter of evil institutions and structures, while people are basically good in themselves. Evil is a force of nature, not an evil, fallen angel. Salvation is repairing the structures of society, rather than repentence by a person of his sins. In modernity the battle against moral evil is transfigured into the battle against nature (which, BTW, is the source of the ecological disaster that is modernity. Christianity is not the cause of ecological disaster, the rejection of Christianity by modernity is. But I digress.)

Despite his best efforts, I think Wink capitulates to the materialistic worldview by re-interpreting the powers language in sociological/political terms. But, perhaps surprisingly, my opinion is he does not do this primarily out of concern for scientism; rather, he does so primarily out of a concern to make sin a matter of political structures, rather than the human heart. The key for Wink is not making the powers part of the material world (although that is the effect), the key is making them impersonal, which is accomplished by making them part of the structures of the material world. Salvation in Wink's perspective can now consist of political reform and social action, rather than personal repentence, faith and good works done in gratitude to God. This brings us to the mission of the church.

Wink and the Mission of the Church
At Nicaea, the whole debate between Athanasius and Arius came down to one iota. It was the difference between "homoousios" and "homoiousios," between one in being with the Father and similar in being to the Father. Who is Jesus Christ? Is he the greatest of God's creations? Or is he God incarnate? This seemingly tiny detail - just one little Greek letter in one Greek word - was the pivot between heresy and orthodoxy, human philosophy and Divine Relation, damnation and salvation, hell and heaven.

Now there is an equivalent of this iota in Wink's writings. He identifies the reign of God with Democracy (Liberalism). Having argued that the message of Jesus is nonviolence, he writes:

"Ideally, democracy is nonviolence institutionalized. It is the only political order that rejects domination in principle and grounds itself in equality before the law. . . I am not thinking of democracy American style or Swedish style of Indian style, but democracy generally - a system for the nonviolent resolution of conflict and disputes through representative forms of government and cvil life." (Engaging the Powers, p. 171.)

Wink admits that actual democracies are imperfect, but his detailed description of what he means by the reign of God, as opposed to what he calls "The Domination System" in this book, leaves no room for doubt that modern political liberalism is the grid on the basis of which the kingdom of God is defined. The Kingdom is always greater than our political systems, more perfect and without flaws. But it is an extension of modern political liberalism, a development and purification of it. (A book that does a great job of tracing the development of this modern ideology is the historian Christopher Lasch's The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics). What I am saying is that Wink has taken the biblical phrase "kingdom of God" and has given it a definition drawn from modern progressive politics - from political liberalism or democracy. (BTW, this aligns him with Ronald Reagan as well as with Barack Obama. Their disagreements over how liberal their liberalism should be are in-house disputes compared to their overall agreement on liberalism being the right framework.)

The biggest difference between the Kingdom of God and modern political liberalism is that in the former God rules the people and in the latter we the people rule ourselves according to the ideals of equality and liberty. The French Revolutionaries knew it was a battle to the death between two incompatible visions and that is why they attacked the Church with a ferocity not seen since the last Roman emperor to persecute the Church, Diocletion in the 290's.

Wink also writes in his book, When the Powers Fall, ch. 4, Toward Democracy, "Democracy, as we mentioned before, is not the equivalent of God's reign." (p. 64). I am not accusing Wink of simply equating contemporary political democracy with God's reign. No one would be stupid enough to do that, (except maybe practictioners of American civil religion). But I am saying that, for Wink, the difference between contemporary democracy and the Kingdom of God is one of degree, not kind. No prooftext lifted out of his writings can settle this interpretation by itself. It is a question of the overall shape and texture of his vision of God's reign as that emerges throughout his project. If Wink can be much friendlier to the Church than the French Revolutionaries, it is only because the Church today poses less of a threat to the revolution, having been assimilated in large measure to the modern project.

I do not view Democracy as the best approximation of the Kingdom of God we can imagine. On the contrary, I see Western liberal democracies as being in the grip of the culture of death because they have rejected God's law and rule. Having embraced secularism and materialism, the Western democracies are trying to rule themselves as if God did not exist. The result is massive disobedience to God's will as seen in the sexual revolution, the lack of respect for the sanctity of human life and the embrace of pantheistic earth worship. All this is part of Wink's ideal of democracy. For Wink, radical second wave feminism with its embrace of pornography and promiscuity and the pantheistic spirituality of Matthew Fox are the opposite of the Domination System and are approved. Is is possible that, in the end, it is not only the domination of evil powers that Wink is trying to escape, but also the rule of God?

I believe that humans are limited creatures who cannot rule themselves. Our only choice is whether we shall be ruled by Satan or by God. To the extent that we try to rule ourselves we place ourselves unwittingly under the rule of Satan and we continue the project began by Eve in the Garden when she believed the Serpent. When modern liberal democracies do not accept basic moral limits in the form of commands from God which must be obeyed and limits that must not be transgressed, they become not merely imperfect, but demonic. To live in the Kingdom of God is to accept the law of the Lord like the Psalmist did - joyfully as a source of life and fulfillment. This is what it means to live in the Kingdom now.

Our job as Church is not to reform the powers. Our job is two-fold: 1) to preach the Gospel in defiance of them and 2) to stand firm against their attacks. In Eph. 6:10-18, Paul urges Christians to stand four times (to stand against the devil's schemes, stand your ground, to stand, stand firm). The Church is under demonic attack but must use the weapons of spiritual warfare (truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, salvation, the Word of God, prayer). The implication is clear; the greatest danger is that the Church will be deceived into accepting a false gospel or in some other way undermined by the Devil's lies. All we have to do is preach the Gospel and witness to Christ, but that is very difficult. Christ does the rest. He triumphed over the powers already in the cross (Col. 2:15) and resurrection and he will bring everything into submission to himself when he returns (Phil. 2:10, I Cor. 15:24-28).

The Kingdom of God is beyond our imagination. It is more than simply modern Western democracies purified of flaws. It can only be described in apocalyptic language (eg. Isa. 11:1-11, Rev. 21). But most importantly, the Kingdom of God is where the will of God is done perfectly (Matt. 6:10) and where God's intentions for creation are completely fufilled (Lk. 4:18-19). Only God can bring about the Kingdom by a decisive in-breaking into history. This in-breaking has begun with the Incarnation, but it will be completed in the Second Coming. We live between the times and our essential mission as Church is to bear witness to Jesus Christ and call the nations to acknowledge his Lordship now while there is still time to do so freely.

I don't object to the idea of calling the nation to righteousness here and now, even if we all know that that righteousness is imperfect. But I do object to re-defining the rule of God into the rule of man. I view Democracy and Liberalism as a modern rebellion against God and as heresies. The Kingdom of God is very different and must not be confused with them. This is my complaint against Wink - not that he wants to challenge the Powers, but that he does not do so in the name of the a Biblical enough concept of the Kingdom of God.


Peter W. Dunn said...


I appreciate your taking the time to express this summary with your critique of Wink. I am mostly sympathetic and find it helpful. A couple of questions/comments:

(1) "An angel is a rational intelligence without a physical body." Is this your view or are you still summarizing Wink? Because I don't think it is biblical to say that angels do not have a physical body.

(2) "I view Democracy and Liberalism as a modern rebellion against God and as heresies." Democracy as a form of government is not necessarily rebellion against God, is it? I mean humans must have some form of government, right? If a democracy were to align itself with rule of God (you mention this), how is that any less praiseworthy than when Josiah made similar reforms. Wouldn't it be true that all forms of human government, whether democracy, oligarchy, republican, monarchy, or dictatorship, have the potential for good, and all have the potential for evil? I think it is possible to reform human government, otherwise the prophetic writings of the Old Testament wouldn't praise certain kings of Judah and Israel and denounce others. I believe, however, certain forms of government would seem to have a greater structural tendency towards evil: dictatorship in particular, where a man sets himself as the final arbiter of everything. So do you believe that democracies have a greater structural tendency for rebellion against God than other forms of human government? I have always felt that the separation of powers built into the US constitution tends to lessen evil; take for example today's situation where a president wants to institute unprecedented government spending and assumption of power over the private sector; the people of the US have the power to change that in 2 years by handing the House over to the opposition party. This would greatly reduce the evil that the president alone can do because all appropriations bills must start in the House. All this to say, that some forms of democratic government seem to me to be able slow the forward advance of Satan's agenda (it admittedly has also the inertial effect of slowing any agenda whatsoever).

Craig Carter said...

(1) This is the view of Thomas Aquinas (ST Pt. I, Q. 50) and most of the Christian tradition.

Angels can temporarily assume a human form (i.e. appear to us as if in a human body) and do so many times in Scripture. However they are not corporeal beings like us in their essential nature.

(2) Democracy is indeed not necessarily bad. Whether it is or not depends on whether the people and government acknowledge God, the moral order and the need to base laws on that moral order. Without this acknowledgement democracy itself is utterly worthless; Hitler was democratically elected. Same-sex marriage was democratically enacted in Canada. The underlying issue is the basing of democracy on theoretical liberalism, the doctrine that true freedom is freedom from constraint. Western democracy is secular and based on liberalism and therefore issues in the culture of death.

As to whether it is the least bad of all possible systems, I think that is an historical and cultural question. Monarchy may well be a superior system in many times and places. It all depends.

A moral and religious people may govern themselves well through democracy, but as morality and religion decline democracy easily becomes demonic.

Peter W. Dunn said...

Thanks Craig for these clarifications:

(1) I would agree that angels don't have bodies like us, but it seems to me that they have a body of some sort: as Paul says, "There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another." It seems to me that angels have celestial bodies as we will in the resurrection. I've studied the earliest martyrological tradition in which several texts show the martyr becoming like angels, probably following Jesus (Luke 20.36) who says that we will be ἰσάγγελοι (equal to angels) in the Resurrection. Therefore, I think that angels have spiritual bodies, and that it would be unbiblical to think that they are incorporeal. This is not merely a nitpicky distinction because the gnostics often denied the resurrection of the flesh/body. If we allow that angels are bodiless (e.g., Philo Sacr. Abel 5), we are embracing a Greek notion of the afterlife; wasn't Aquinas heavily influenced by Greek thought?

(2)I completely agree. I find for example that monarchy is often less structurally flawed than dictatorship; for the assumption was that the king's powers were not based on the usurpation of power through naked ambition but that they were derived from God. This is far less dangerous because it means that kings were answerable to someone.