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A while ago I was at a resort with a man who for many years worked as a church painter. He introduced me into some pieces of Christian doctrine.

He told me that the humans' souls, the angels, demons and the God himself all are the spirits. Knowing a spirit's true name gives unlimited power over it.

For example, Jesus asked for the demon's name before he expelled it from the man and into the herd.

Consequently, nobody knows the true God's name which is the highest secret, because anybody who knew it would have God's power.

I wonder to what extent this explanation reflects mainstream Christian doctrine.

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@Flimzy Can you give an example of 'mainstream' Christianity that would actually endorse this doctrine? –  bruised reed Jul 15 '14 at 15:06

3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Actually, this is more Kabbalah than Christianity and has further roots in the occult and other non-Christian mysticism and folklore (Rumpelstiltskin comes to mind, which is a decidedly non-Christian story).

The idea that knowing the name of a beast/demon/whatever gives you dominion over it came from the idea that naming a beast/demon/whatever showed your already existing domination over it. It's a very ancient idea that we see displayed in Genesis 2 when God brings all the beasts to Adam so that he can name them (source 1) (source 2).

The concept is often called knowing the True Name and also has its roots from a time when it was believed that language itself, or a special unknown language, held actual power (which is where the concept of spells comes from too). These concepts are not foreign to the Bible, but because of your modern eye, you might have over looked them. As already mentioned, Adam names the beasts in Genesis, but going further we see that God doesn't necessarily create in Genesis 1 with His own hands, but by simply speaking and with authority too. We see this again with the prophets, where they would speak with the authority of God ("thus saith the Lord"). We also see this in the New Testament in Acts when the disciples cast out demons "in the Name of Jesus." We even see this in John 1 where Jesus is called the "Word" that was and is with God.

Historically, this god-like power extended to kings, where any utterance from the king was not only legal law, but divine and natural as well. (source 1) (source 2) (source 3) Today, this extends somewhat into Christendom. For example, within the Roman Catholic Church, there is the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, though I concede that this doctrine did not originate from this ancient mythical concept, and also in a few sects, such as LDS and Seventh Day Adventists, that believe in a modern prophet that brought or clarified the Word of God, which also has different origins. Even secularly, this idea that words hold real power persists, as evidenced by the classic metonymy "The pen is mightier than the sword."

In general, "mainstream" Christianity really avoids these kinds of things. Most people find the topic very unnerving. Out on the edges is where you will find opinions favoring this. It is very difficult to Biblically support it. This idea leaves the impression that you can have some kind of intrinsic power over any spirit. Instead, what is readily supported is that it is God's power, Jesus Christ's power, that conquers the evil spirit. Jesus casts out demons by his own authority, while the disciples in Acts cast out demons "in Jesus' name," demonstrating that they have no power of their own, but that Jesus does.

Additionally, what is very common practice for exorcising demons is to never actually address the demon except to command it from the possessed (I can't find a source for this right now). This would show that in practice, asking for its name is something you should not do anyway, even if it would tell you the truth.


Addendum

In case you might ask about the story of the demon named "legion" ...

It's not particularly clear why Jesus wanted to know the demon's name, but it is very clear that the demon was in full submission to Christ before He asked.

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!”
Mark 5

The demon immediately pleads and begs Jesus to spare him from a grisly fate. Jesus didn't even need to address the demon. It merely saw Him from a distance and fell promptly into submission.

Regarding having the power of God ... Any tradition that would claim that having God's power is possible, even only theoretically, is verging on blasphemy. I don't know for sure, but this does sound like something you would read in Kabbalistic literature.

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+1 - Great answer! (I know this is a little bit of a lame comment, but it's nice to recognize quality beyond the norm when it shows up on this site). –  bruised reed Jul 15 '14 at 3:05

Taking a slightly different tack (and not wanting to detract at all from Fredsbends excellent and informative answer), but the short answer is a definite No. Any authority over evil spirits that a believer may exercise does not derive from knowing their names, but comes by way of delegation from Christ (cf. Matthew 28:19-20;10:1; Luke 10:17-20; Mark 16:17). The Legion case was unusual - it seems likely (to myself at least) that Jesus did cast a demon out with his initial command, but thousands remained - in order to expedite the process and to set an example for his disciples when they encountered a similarly unusual situation, Jesus asked for a name in just this particular instance - there are no other recorded instances of him asking for a demon's name. The fact that the demons instantly answered (they had no option to evade giving their name/description but to obey the Son of Man), undermines completely the sense of the teaching in question. The teaching I've seen regarding exorcism as to why Christians actually do sometimes employ the practice of asking for demon's names (and find it effective to do so), is to discern root causes of demonization with a view to removing potential footholds (for re-demonization - cf. Matthew 12:43-45) post deliverance (cf. Deliver us from evil, Don Basham).

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So in "Deliver us from Evil," the author actually advocates talking to the demon(s)? –  fredsbend Jul 15 '14 at 5:38
    
@fredsbend It's a while since I read it, but my sense was a wholistic description of the process was given and the general advice was not to spend too much time engaging in conversation with demons (especially don't trust what they say as they can lie), but that 'discerning' a spirit had utility. This 'discernment' could come via the spiritual gift (spirit-revealed) or natural observation - with the last, commanding the spirit to tell you it's name is not the only method discussed and from memory was the least preferred due to their deceitful nature. –  bruised reed Jul 15 '14 at 5:45
    
Makes sense that knowing the name would help you understand it better. The names of the angels and even some of the apostles are a description of the person, not just a benign assortment of syllables as seen in western culture. –  fredsbend Jul 30 '14 at 19:46

I’ll try to answer the question from a Catholic perspective and, additionally, provide some supplementary information about what has been mentioned in the comments.

The general answer to the question is “no”. First, God is Almighty, both before and after His revelation to us. So you can’t exercise power over Him. We can do wonders in Jesus’ name, but only in agreement with His will.

Second, in the case of angels, knowing their names doesn’t make us superior to them. For example: we can’t order anything to the archangel Gabriel just because we know his name. It’s useless, and it shows an absolute lack of love as well.

But,

in the case of demons, and only if you are an exorcist dealing with a possession, finding out the name of the possessor(s) certainly can give you an edge. Fallen angels’ behavior is quite sensitive to names, both those of themselves, and those of the ones living in Heaven (God, His angels and His saints), proving the relevance of names.

The following quotes belong to the book "An exorcist tells his story" by Fr. Gabriele Amorth (Ignatius Press 1999, twelfth edition), who is an Italian priest and exorcist. He's also one of the founders of the International Association of Exorcists.

(page 79)

The demons are very wary of talking; they must be forced to speak, and do so only in the most severe of cases, those of true and complete possession. When demons are voluntarily chatty, it is a trick to distract the exorcist from his concentration and to avoid answering useful questions when they are interrogated. In our questions we must hold to the following rules of the Ritual: Never ask useless questions or out of curiosity. We must ask for the name, whether there are other demons and how many, when and how the evil one entered that particular body, and when he will leave.

(pages 93-4)

The first thing that must be asked is the name. For the demon, who is so reluctant to reveal himself, revealing himself is a defeat; even when he has revealed his name, he is always reluctant to repeat it, even during following exorcisms. Then we command the evil one to tell how many demons are present in a particular body. There can be many or few, but there is always one chief, and he is always the first to be named. When the demon has a biblical name or one given in tradition (for example, Satan, Beelzebub, Lucifer, Zebulun, Meridian, Asmodeus), we are dealing with “heavyweights”, tougher to defeat. [...] The strength of possession is manifested also from the reaction of the demon to holy names. Generally the evil one does not and cannot say those names; he substitutes expressions such as “he” (referring to God or Jesus) or “she” (referring to our Lady). Other times he says, “your Boss” or “your Lady”, to indicate Jesus or Mary. If the possession is very strong and the demon is high ranking [...] then it is possible for him to say the name of God and Mary, always followed by horrible blasphemies.

(page 116)

Even the names of the demons, as in the case of angels, tell us their function. The most important demons have biblical names or names transmitted to us by tradition: Satan or Beelzebub, Lucifer, Asmodeus, Meridian, Zebulun. Other names more clearly tell us the purpose of their actions -Destruction, Perdition, Ruin- or they indicate individual evils -Insomnia, Terror, Discord, Envy, Jealousy, Sloth.

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