Saturday, February 25, 2012

Why I Believe the Bible is True

Recently we heard the news that a new manuscript of the Gospel of Mark has been discovered that may well be dated in the first century!  One of my former professors, Dr. Craig A. Evans notes;

If authenticity and early date are confirmed, this fragment of the Gospel of Mark could be very significant and show how well preserved the text of the New Testament really is. We all await its publication.

Based on the evidence we already have, can we trust the text of the New Testament?  Are the documents reliable?

The Integrity of the New Testament Text

8jeromeThe Scriptures were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21). God’s act of inspiration guarantees that Sacred Scripture faithfully and without error communicates God’s truth to us (DV 11). The Sacred Scriptures are written by dual authorship, both human and divine, with God as the primary author. The human authors do indeed write as true authors. “For the composition of these books God chose and made use of men who employed in their task their natural capabilities and powers, in order that through his action on them and by means of them they should write, as true authors, all that he willed and only what he willed” (DV 11). Yet God as the primary author of Scripture guarantees that the final result is the inspired and inerrant word of God written to contain “only what he willed” (DV 11).

Having affirmed these truths, we move on to a secondary question. God’s inspiration of Scripture applies to the original manuscripts[3] or “autographs.” For example, the letters written by the Apostle Paul in his own hand or that of his scribe would be the original autographs. Although we have many early copies, we do not have any original autographs of the New Testament. If God inspired the original autographs of Sacred Scripture and these have been lost can we trust the copies of these manuscripts?

A Wealth of Evidence

Though we believe through the eyes of faith that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, do we need to fear that this faith is undermined by the hard facts of reason? No, all truth is God’s Truth. In fact, the New Testament is the best-attested writing of antiquity. As of 1990 there were 5,488 manuscripts of the New Testament catalogued.[4] We have three types of NT manuscripts (abbreviated mss.): papyrus mss (a paper made from reeds), uncials (leather mss written in all caps), and miniscule mss (cursive writing developed in Byzantium approx. 9th Century). Finally we have church lectionaries which contain portions of manuscripts.

Type of Manuscript:


Papyri mss. Catalogued


Uncial mss. Catalogued


Minuscule mss. Catalogued

2, 812

Lectionaries catalogued

2, 281


5, 488

It can easily be seen that the manuscripts of the New Testament are better attested than any other ancient writing of the period. The dating of the manuscripts is also much earlier. If we compare textual material from ancient historical works outside the New Testament we find the following:[5]

Ancient Historical Work


Caesar’s Gallic War (58-50 BC)

Several extant mss. But only 9-10 are good and the oldest is c. 850 A.D.

Livy’s Roman History (59BC- 17 AD)

35 books out of 142 survive

< 20 mss. only one fragment of Books iii-iv. 4th century.

Tacitus Histories (c. 100 AD)

4.5 mss. (see date below)

Tacitus Annals (c. 100 AD)

10 of 16 survive

2 mss. (9th century and 11th century)

Tacitus Dialogus de Oratoribus, Agricola, Germania (c. 100 AD)

1 codex 10th century

History of Thucydides (c. 488-428 AD)

8 mss. earliest c. 900 AD + papyrus fragments 1st century A.D.

The following chart illustrates some of the early codex (or book manuscripts) and fragments of papyri.



Portion of NT

Codex Sinaiticus

Mid- fourth century A.D


Codex Vaticanus

Mid- fourth century A.D


Charles L. Freer Codex

late fourth or early 5th century

Four Gospels

A. Chester Beatty, papyri

3rd century

portions of most of the books of the New Testament

Bodmer papyri

200 AD……………………….

3rd century ………………….

text of the Gospel according to John

large portions of both Luke and John.

Papyrus 52

John Rylands University Library of Manchester

prob. oldest surviving fragment of the Greek New Tes­tament = beginning 2nd century

John 18:31-33, 37-38.

This is obviously only a small sample of the 5448 manuscripts. There are full manuscripts of the entire New Testament surviving from the third and fourth centuries and many fragments of the New Testament from the 2nd century. If we remember that the New Testament writers lived in the mid-to-late first century, this is astoundingly early.

A further question might be the level of agreement between these manuscripts. New Testament textual specialist Bruce Metzger notes, “Though there are thousands of divergencies of wording among the manuscripts of the Bible (more in the New Testament than in the Old), the overwhelming majority of such variant readings involve inconsequential details, such as alternative spellings, order of words, and interchange of synonyms.”[6] These are often equivalent to the mistake of spelling “grate” as “great” in an era when spelling was more fluid and dictionaries were yet to be invented.[7]

Brief Time Lapse

As mentioned above, some papyrus fragments are dated within one generation of the original manuscripts (“autographs”).[8] One recent study by Carsten P. Theide caused a stir by dating a fragment of Matthew’s Gospel ca. 60 AD. [9] Although Theide has not convinced most scholars of this fragment’s attribution and dating, it is possible that some of the fragments of the New Testament are from the first century AD.[10] Remember that by comparison most classical works are preserved by only one or two manuscripts which are copies made 700-1000 years after the original.

Other Witnesses

It is worth noting that the works of the NT were quickly translated to other vernacular languages such as Latin (over 8,000 mss), Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian and distributed over a wide geographical area. These manuscripts agree with the early Greek manuscripts mentioned above. In addition, we also have quotes from the NT found in the Early Fathers of the Church: Clement of Rome (AD 95), Justin Martyr (AD 150), Irenaeus (AD 170), and Origen (AD 250).

Can I trust the Bible is true?  You bet!  The New Testament is the best-attested writing of antiquity.   There are more manuscripts of the New Testament and they are earlier that any comparable literature.  Recent discoveries on the text of the Koran show a completely different situation.  Although the evidence has not yet been fully released there is a credible report of an even earlier manuscript of Marks Gospel.  The manuscript is reported to be first-century fragment of Mark’s Gospel.


[3] From the Latin manu (hand) and scriptum (written). All Bibles prior to the first printed Gutenberg Bible of 1456 were hand copied.

[4] Bruce M. Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth and Content, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 283.

[5] Adapted from F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapid: Eerdmans, 1987), 16-17.

[6] Metzger, The New Testament, 281.

[7] Apparently the first English dictionary appeared in 1604—Robert Cawdry's Table Alphabeticall: A table alphabeticall of hard usual English words.

[8] E.g., c. 125-150 AD, John Rylands’ Papyrus, p 52.

[9] See the Review of Carsten Peter Thiede, The Earliest Gospel Manuscript? The Qumran Fragment 7Q5 and its Significance for New Testament Studies (London: Paternoster, 1992)

[10] The newly published Oxyrhynchus Papyri 77 [new portion], 103, 104 are early second century.

© Scott McKellar 2012

Friday, February 24, 2012

Angels (and Demons) Part 4

angel maynooth 3Angels We Know by Name

There are only three Holy Angels in Scripture who are known by name: St. Michael, St. Gabriel, and St. Raphael. Although the Church highly encourages popular devotion to the Holy Angels the Directory of Popular Piety and the Liturgy warns; “The practice of assigning names to the Holy Angels should be discouraged, except in the cases of Gabriel, Raphael and Michael whose names are contained in Holy Scripture” (218).

St. Michael is “one of the chief princes” of the angels (Daniel 10:12-14; 12:1-3) and is called an archangel (Jude1:9) and is the one who successfully battles Satan with his army and casts him out of Heaven (Rev 12:7). He is known as the Heavenly Defender.

St. Gabriel is messenger appearing to tell the good news. St. Gabriel first appears in Daniel 8 to bring understanding of the vision given to Daniel. In the New Testament it is Gabriel who announces the coming of John the Baptist to Zechariah;

“I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news” (Luke 1:19).

He is also the one privileged to deliver the message of the annunciation to the Virgin Mary in Luke 1:26-38.

St. Raphael appears as an “undercover” angel in the book of Tobit. He appears as friend and healer.

The writer of Tobit tells us;

So Raphael was sent to heal them both: to remove the white scales from Tobit’s eyes, so that he might again see with his own eyes God’s light; and to give Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, as a wife to Tobiah, the son of Tobit, and to rid her of the wicked demon Asmodeus. (Tobit 3:17)

Later in the story after accomplishing these deeds Raphael declares; “I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand and serve before the Glory of the Lord.” (Tobit 12:15).

The Church celebrates its devotion to the Archangels Saint Michael, Saint Gabriel, and St. Raphael on their feast day September 29th.

© Scott McKellar 2012

(this is an edited version of a talk given at the Granfalloon, Kansas City, MO 02/15/2012 in the presence of 70 or so guardian angels Smile)

Angels (and Demons) Part 3

Angels in the Liturgy

bridge angelIf Angels accompany us in worship how do we see them highlighted in the Mass? During the Penitential Act we recite the Confiteor which asks “Mary ever-Virgin all the Angels and Saints” to pray for us. In the Mass we sing two great hymns given to us by the Angels. The Gloria is taken from the first Christmas in Luke 2:14;

Glory to God in the highest

and on earth peace to people of good will.

Later in the Mass the Sanctus or Holy, Holy, Holy is taken from the vision of the Seraphim of Isaiah 6:1-4;

In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple.

Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they hovered.

One cried out to the other:

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!

All the earth is filled with his glory!”

At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke.

The suggestion in Isaiah 6:3 that the Seraphim “cried out to the other” is similar to custom of singing responsively. The Fifth century historian Socrates Scholasticus, reported that the first-century bishop, Saint Ignatius of Antioch began the custom of responsive singing. He records;

Ignatius [was the] third bishop of Antioch in Syria after the apostle Peter, and he conversed with the apostles themselves. Once he saw a vision of angels hymning in alternate chants the Holy Trinity. Accordingly he introduced the mode of singing he had observed in the vision into the Antiochian church; whence it was transmitted by tradition to all the other churches.[i]

During the ancient Roman Canon the priest prays;

In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God:

command that these gifts be borne

by the hands of your holy Angel

to your altar on high

in the sight of your divine majesty,

so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar

receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son,

may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.

A change in the new translation can be seen in the Preface which precedes the Sanctus. The role of the Angels is highlighted as the priest invokes the “presence of countless hosts of Angels” and as the people recite “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.” During Advent and Lent these newly translated Prefaces greatly amplify this theme;

And so, with Angels and Archangels,

With Thrones and Dominions,

and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,

we sing the hymn of your glory,

and without end we acclaim: (Preface I of Advent)

In Preface IV of Lent an even more elaborate prayer occurs;

Through him the Angels praise your majesty,

Dominions adore and Powers tremble before you.

Heaven and the Virtues of heaven and the blessed Seraphim

Worship together with exultation.

May our voices, we pray, join with their

In humble praise, as we acclaim:

These prayers remind us as we hear them in Lenten season, that we are accompanying the angels in our worship.

[i] NPNF 2, p. 144. Cf. Aquilina, Angels of God , p. 57.

© Scott McKellar 2012

(this is an edited version of a talk given at the Granfalloon, Kansas City, MO 02/15/2012 in the presence of 70 or so guardian angels Smile)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Happy Feast of Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and Holy Martyr

Sister MarieThe Feast of St. Polycarp is the day Bishop Finn accepted Archbishop Frnaceschini's plea to bring cause of Sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey, DC, Servant of God, Foundress of Mary's House, Ephesus, Turkey to our diocese. 

St Polycarp is one of the more famous individuals from the close of the apostolic era was the man tradition remembers as "Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and Holy Martyr.” Polycarp was born around 69-70 A.D. According to St. Irenaeus, Polycarp was a disciple of St. John the Apostle and was personally appointed by Apostles as the bishop of the church in Smyrna (modern day Turkey). St. Polycarp was the leading figure among the churches in Asia in the mid second century. The Martyrdom of Polycarp records that Bishop Polycarp served faithfully for eighty-six years (Mart Pol 9.3) before being heroically martyred on February 23, 155.

Because of his long life and direct connection to the Apostles he was an important defender of orthodoxy against such heretics as Marcion and Valentinus. St. Irenaeus recounts that he knew Polycarp from his childhood, and he revered him as a holy saint. Irenaeus notes, “I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse-his going out, too, and his coming in-his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord.” He recalls the story of Marcion coming to Polycarp and asking if Polycarp would recognize him. Polycarp replies, “Of course I recognize you, the first born of Satan!” (Adv Haer 3,3,4).

St. Irenaeus relates how St. Polycarp journeyed Rome around 150-155 A.D. A dispute had arisen over the date of Easter between the church in Asia and the Church in the West. Polycarp met with Pope Anicetus. Each bishop felt obliged to follow the traditions they had been handed down. Polycarp felt Easter should be celebrated on the 14th day of the Jewish lunar month of Nisan, while Anicetus on the Sunday after the 14th of Nisan. Polycarp appealed to the practice of St. John and the Apostles, while Anicetus to the custom of his predecessors and to dominical usage. Although the Pope and bishop Polycarp could not achieve common ground in their practice they remained in communion and parted on the best of terms. While there could be no tolerance of the heretical views of Marcion or the early Gnostics, the Church could embrace different liturgical traditions.

St Irenaeus tells us that Bishop Polycarp wrote a number of letters “to neighboring Churches to confirm them, or to certain of the brethren, admonishing and exhorting them.” Unfortunately only St. Polycarp’s letter addressed to the Philippians remains. The theme of the letter is summed up in Polycarp’s exhortation, “‘Therefore prepare for action and serve God in fear’(1 Pet. 1:13; cf. Ps. 2:11) and truth, leaving behind the empty and meaningless talk and the error of the crowd” (Pol Phil 2.1). The letter is a rousing call to live the Christian life fully and consistently in the midst of the confusion and temptations of the world. The letter is filled with quotations from the New Testament and St. Clement’s letter to the Corinthians. One can clearly see the “interwovenness” of Sacred Tradition in his letter. The living interpretive presence of Christ is expressed in the Church through his apostolic ministry. Polycarp notes, “For I am convinced that you are all well trained in the sacred Scriptures” (Pol Phil 12.1). Scripture is the center of the Church’s Tradition and it is made manifest in the preaching, teaching, doctrine and liturgy of the Church.

The Church in Philippi is again battling the heresy of docetism which denies that Jesus came in the flesh. Polycarp complains that these heretics twist “the sayings of the Lord to suit their own sinful desires” (Pol Phil 7.1). Sacred Scripture requires the interpretive presence of the Church. Knowing our faith well also helps us to live our faith in the midst of our daily life. One difficult distraction that Polycarp mentions is greed and the love of money (Pol Phil 2.1; 4.1; 5.2; 6.1; and 11.1). This was apparently the difficulty of a fallen away presbyter of the Church in Philippi named Valens (Pol Phil 11.1-4). Polycarp councils the Philippians to treat Valens kindly in hopes of winning him back from his waywardness.

The ultimate test of a disciple’s faithfulness is martyrdom. Polycarp’s martyrdom is recounted in detail in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (AD 156). This document is a combination of a letter and an act of martyrdom or eyewitness account of martyrdom (Cf. Acts 7, Revelation 6:9-11). The account of Polycarp’s death is the first full account of this type. Suffering death by Martyrdom was considered the ultimate imitation of Christ. The ‘baptism of blood’ of the martyr was considered the equivalent of normal Baptism. Since at least the second century the anniversary of the martyr’s death was celebrated with a feast at the tomb of the martyr and later churches were built over these tombs. The martyrs were venerated as powerful intercessors and their relics were sought after.


St. Polycarp’s death is extremely heroic. The witnesses record, “Then the materials prepared for the pyre were placed around him; and as they were also about to nail him, he said: ‘Leave me as I am; for he who enables me to endure the fire will also enable me to remain on the pyre without moving, even without the sense of security which you get from the nails.’” (Mart Pol 12.3). The fire was miraculously unable to kill Polycarp, so his executioner had to stab him with a dagger. His body was later cremated by the soldiers and his friends gather up his bones and began to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.

Holy Mary, Queen of Martyrs, pray for us. Sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey pray for us.

Angels (and Demons) Part 2

Angels as Guardians

Angel maynooth2In Matthew 18:10 Jesus says; “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.” Based on this verse, the Fathers of the Church affirmed that each person has a Guardian Angel. There was some early debate among the Fathers concerning such details as: Are guardian angels only for children? (No.) When do you receive an angel? (At birth or at baptism?) Can an angel be driven away by evil conduct? (Origen and Jerome thought, yes.) The Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas agrees with Jerome noting that ““. . . from the very moment of his birth” (ST 1.113.5) “each man has an angel guardian appointed to him.” (ST 1.113.2). Since we believe each of us has an Angel, if we assume that Guardian Angels are not recycled after our death, then we get an idea of the sheer number of angles that must exist. Billions of angels!

Because of their spiritual nature Angels are able to simultaneously “look on the face of God” (Matthew 18:10) and be present to us and interact with us. This is kind of puzzling to think about. Is it like a mystic who contemplates God’s presence in a vision but is still aware of his or her surroundings? Are we to think of angels ascending and descending to God but perhaps time and space are meaningless to spiritual beings?

Although angels purely spirit, they can assume bodies whether merely in appearance as in a dream or vision or in reality. At times in Sacred Scripture angles appear bodily to more than one person at a time. St. Thomas took this fact as evidence that at least in some situations angels must assume something like real bodies, because he reasoned, a vision would not be shared by a group of people.

In the Old Testament the cherubim were depicted as the guardians of Eden (Genesis 3:22-24) and of the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle (Exodus 25-26) and in Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:23-27). Angels are also depicted in Scripture as guardians of Churches (Rev 1:20) and even of nations (Deuteronomy 32:8).

O God, who in your unfathomable providence

are pleased to send your Holy Angels to guard us, 

hear our supplication as we cry to you,

that we may always be defended by their protection

and rejoice eternally in their company.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,

Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Sprit,

one God, for ever and ever.

(Collect for the Memorial of the Holy Guardian Angels)

The Testing of Angels

One way that angels are the same as humans is the fact that they have a free will. After being created they were given the ability to either follow God or to rebel and choose not to serve him. After making this choice their will was fixed by their own decision.

Based on a few hints in Scripture, we believe that Satan gave in to the sins of envy and pride and freely chose to separate himself from God. The book of Wisdom notes, “But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are allied with him experience it” (Wisdom 2:24). Satan’s deception took a third of the other angles with him. In the book of Revelation Satan is depicted as the huge red dragon that “swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth” (Revelation 12:4). Michael and his angels battled against the dragon (Rev. 12:7) and won. St. John tells us;

The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it.

Fallen angels are called devils. Their will is twisted forever against God and all that is good. It is well to remember that they are outnumbered by the righteous angels two to one and that although powerful spirit beings, they are creatures under God’s dominion.

The Catechism reminds us,

Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church's Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called "Satan" or the "devil". The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God: "The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing (CCC 391).

When we think of devils we are accustom to think of demon possession. Our thought jump to the Hollywood version of these experiences. We need to put that vision out of our mind without denying the reality of demons.

Demons are real and demon possession is possible. In the New Testament Jesus and the Apostles cast out many demons. The Bible actually describes this phenomenon simply as the person “having an unclean spirit.” There are two facets to consider here, like two axis on a graph. One is the frequency of visitation by the evil spirit and the other is the degree of control. What we think of a dramatic possession is a constant visitation with a high degree of control. The catechism reminds us;

When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism. Jesus performed exorcisms and from him the Church has received the power and office of exorcizing. In a simple form, exorcism is performed at the celebration of Baptism. The solemn exorcism, called "a major exorcism," can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop. (CCC 1673)

I don’t want to give much time to this subject, but I believe that the influence of the demonic in our life occurs not randomly or by chance but through our invitation by habitual involvement in mortal sin. Sinful attachments and especially dabbling in occult practices can open the door to demonic influence.

We live in a world where we have literally invented new ways of sinning. A number of new trends in culture such as internet pornography, and wide spread immorality, a return to pagan worship and the occult though the New Age movement have led to increased calls for priests to perform the Rite of Exorcism. Recently several conferences have been held to train new priests as exorcists.

A reported by the Catholic News Service the signs of demonic possession might include:[i]

  • Speaking in a language the individual does not know.
  • Scratching, cutting, biting of the skin.
  • Profound display of strength.
  • Sleeplessness.
  • Lack of appetite.
  • Aversion to anything holy, such as mentioning the name of Jesus or Mary, or the act of praying.
  • Strong or violent reaction to holy water.

Thinking about this topic can be unnerving so we need to be reminded again of the protection the Church offers us through frequenting the Sacraments and the life of prayer.

St. Josémaria Escrivá (The Way 307) gives us good advice on his subject;

That supernatural mode of conduct is a truly military tactic.

You carry on the war — the daily struggles of your interior — far from the main walls of your fortress.

And the enemy meets you there: in your small mortifications, your customary prayer, your methodical work, your plan of life: and with difficulty will he come close to the easily-scaled battlements of your castle. And if he does come, he comes exhausted.

As the Curé d'Ars said;

The devil is a great chained dog which puts people to flight, and which makes a great noise, but which only bites those who come too close. (Curé d'Ars, Sermon on Temptations).

Angels in the Church

Saint John Chrysostom in a homily on the Feast of Ascension notes, “The angels are present here. The angels and the martyrs gather here today. If you want to see the angels and martyrs, open the eyes of faith and look upon this scene. For if the air itself is filled with angels, so much more the Church!"[ii]

During the Mass, St. Chrysostom notes that at such a time angels stand by the Priest; and the whole sanctuary, and the space round about the altar, is filled with the powers of heaven, in honor of him who lies on the altar....“ He confesses, “I myself heard someone once tell of a certain old, venerable man, who was accustomed to see revelations .... At such a time, he suddenly saw, as far as was possible for him, a multitude of angels, clothed in shining robes, encircling the altar, and bending down, as soldiers might in the presence of their king. And for my part I believe it.”[iii]

"The angels surround the priest," writes St. John Chrysostom. “The whole sanctuary and the space before the altar is filled with the heavenly Powers come to honor Him who is present upon the altar." [De sac., 6, 4]. And elsewhere: "Think now of what kind of choir you are going to enter. Although vested with a body you have been judged worthy to join the Powers of heaven in singing the praises of Him who is Lord of all." [Adv. Anom., 4][iv]

We are reminded that angels accompany us to worship, that they are also guardians of Churches.

angel maynooth 3


[ii] As quoted in Mike Aquilina, Angels of God , p. 55.

[iii] NPNF 9, p. 76 with slight revisions by Aquilina above.

[iv] Jean-Guenolé-Marie Daniélou, Les Anges et Leur Mission, (Chevetogne, Belgium, 1953), Trans. David Heimann The Angels and Their Mission (Maryland : Newman Press , 1957), p. 62.

© Scott McKellar 2012

(this is an edited version of a talk given at the Granfalloon, Kansas City, MO 02/15/2012 in the presence of 70 or so guardian angels Smile)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Angels (and Demons) Part 1

Maynooth angel1We have witnessed two opposite trends in recent years. Popular culture has literally burbled with talk about angels. In 1993 Newsweek magazine asserted that "angels are appearing everywhere in America" (Newsweek 12/27/93).   A visit to Hallmark will reveal Willow Tree Angels, Mary’s Angels, Precious Moments Angels. Popular TV shows include; ‘Touched by an Angel,’ ‘Highway to Heaven,’ ‘Charlie’s Angles,’ ‘Supernatural,’ the vampire series ‘Angel’ and for those ‘Doctor Who’ fans the ‘Stone Angels.’ Similar trends can be seen in movies, books and even music. Apparently charting the opposite trend has been popular piety in the Catholic Church where many would consider belief in angles to be old fashioned and outdated. Isn’t this something we left behind after Vatican II?  Many parishes have removed their angel statutes and prayers to angels are rarely heard.

What are Angels?

Angels appear in the Sacred Scriptures from beginning to end. Hebrew words for ‘angel’ appear 168 times in the Old Testament. To this we need to add such titles as Seraphim (2 X) and Cherubim (94 X). With only a few exceptions, the Greek word for ‘angels,’ appears in every book of the New Testament (a total of 176 times). The book of Revelation has 76 references alone.

Not surprisingly, the Catechism states,

The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that Sacred Scripture usually calls "angels" is a truth of faith. The witness of Scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition.(CCC 328).

The Apostles' Creed professes that God is "creator of heaven and earth” and the Nicene Creed makes this more explicit. God is the “maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” Angels are part of the invisible realm of God’s creation. This fact poses a small problem for us. How can we know anything about an unseen world?

As Peter Kreeft puts it, “There are no experts on angels, except angels, and,” he says, “I’m no angel.”[i] Clearly we can only know what has been revealed to us about angels or perhaps what we directly experience from them if we have encountered them.

St. Augustine notes that ‘angel’ is the name of their function or office and not of their nature. He writes, “In respect of what they are, such creatures are spirits; in respect of what they do, they are angels” (En. in Ps 103, 1, 15). The word angel means ‘messenger.’

Angels are created, pure spirits without bodies. In modern understanding we might call them ‘minds without bodies.’ The Catechism notes,

As purely spiritual creatures angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendor of their glory bears witness (CCC 330).

Unlike bodily species, angels have no gender and cannot reproduce. In fact philosophers and theologians say that each individual angel is a unique species. We might be tempted to group them as angels and archangels, seraphim and cherubim, but they can’t be catalogued like birds and butterflies. As St. Augustine noted their titles have to do with their function and office and not with their nature.

Kinds of Angels

Having said all this it is still possible to distinguish different kinds of angels. I have already mentioned the Seraphim (Isaiah 6:2) and the Cherubim (Genesis 3:24; Ezekiel 10:1-3). In the New Testament Paul mentions a whole list of titles. In Romans 8:38 he lists angels, principalities, and powers. In Ephesians 6:12 we read about cosmic battle;

For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.

Finally in Colossians 1:16 we read;

For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him.

Reflecting on various Scriptures St. Gregory the Great developed a list of nine hierarchies or choirs of angels. The word hierarchy was coined by a sixth century writer Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. It comes from the Greek heirarchia or ‘sacred order.’ St. Thomas systematized this list into three hierarchies of three orders each. He organized each choir based on how close they were to God.

I.  The First Hierarchy

a. Seraphim

b. Cherubim

c. Thrones

II. The Second Hierarchy

a. Dominations (or Dominions)

b. Virtues

c. Powers

III.  The Third Hierarchy

a. Principalities

b. Archangels

c. Angels

The first hierarchy of choirs is closest to God and understands and comprehends him with maximum clarity. The name ‘Seraphim’ means "the burning ones" which implies that their love flames the hottest. Lucifer meaning ‘Light-bearer’ was once one of them. The Cherubim (which means "fullness of wisdom") contemplate God as well but more in his providence and plans. The ‘Thrones’ represent God’s juridical powers and contemplate God's judgments.

The second hierarchy of three choirs is what Peter Kreeft calls middle management personnel. The Dominations or Dominions are authorities which command those lesser angles working below them. The Virtues receive orders from the Dominions and are said to run the workings of the universe especially the heavenly bodies. The Powers are established to combat evil influences which affect the work of God’s plan through the Virtues.

The third and final hierarchy of three choirs is in direct contact with human affairs and could be compared to warriors. Principalities are given the charge of cities and nation states. Archangels are messengers of the gospel and mediators of God’s law. As St. Stephen replies to his accusers, “You received the law as transmitted by angels, but you did not observe it” (Acts 7:53). St. Paul writes that the law “was promulgated by angels at the hand of a mediator” (Galatians 3:19). Archangels also play a role in angelic conflicts and other ministries to God’s people. At the bottom of the hierarchy are countless angles who acts as guardians to human affairs.


© Scott McKellar 2012

(this is an edited version of a talk given at the Granfalloon, Kansas City, MO 02/15/2012 in the presence of 70 or so guardian angels Smile)

[i] Peter Kreeft, Angels (and Demons): What do we really know about them? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995). p. 27.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Acts of the Apostles: The Spirit and the Common Life

V&A_-_Raphael,_The_Death_of_Ananias_(1515)The early Christian community in Jerusalem continued to witness through the power of Spirit that they received at Pentecost. Luke deliberately highlights the initial preaching of Peter and John and the rejection of the Jewish authorities. This is followed by communal prayer (Acts 4:23-31) and a new infilling of the Spirit with even greater power for apostolic witness (4:33). The community is renewed and “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed to that any of his possession were his own but had everything in common” (4:32). This is not the imposed false unity of communism but a voluntary sharing of individuals moved by the needs of their community.

The words “everything in common” (Acts 4:32) echoes the earlier description of “the communal life” of Acts 2:24. The disciples would sell property and lay the proceeds “at the feet of the apostles” (4:35). They did not give the money to the apostles but to the community and the apostles “distributed to each according to need” (4:35).

Just as God demonstrated his power through signs and wonders in the desert with Moses, so now many miraculous works occur through Peter and John. Luke desires to highlight Jesus role as the New Moses and the Christian community as spirit-filled new people of God. Just as the community of Moses encountered problems in the desert, so the Christians encounter a problem reminiscent of Joshua 7:1-26. In the Joshua narrative Achan stealthily took goods from the plunder subject to the ban, and deceitfully hid them in his tent. When Achan is discovered and confesses both he and his family are punished by stoning.

In Acts 5 a couple named Ananias and Sapphira collude together to sell a piece of land a pretend to give the all proceeds to the apostles. They could have openly given only part of the money and it would have been thought generous (Acts 5:4). The fact that they lie to God and ‘test the Spirit’ (Acts 5:9) by attempting to deceive the apostles, causes their immediate judgment. Both husband and wife are struck dead. Luke tells us, And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11).

Luke now tells us about more signs and wonders done at the hands of the apostles and then a second arrest and imprisonment of Peter and John incited by the ‘jealousy’ of the Sadducees (5:17). The second arrest and rejection by the Sanhedrin may parallel the pattern of rejections in the patriarchal narratives of Joseph and Moses which Stephen highlights in his discourse which follows in Acts 7:12-13, 23, 30.

Another parallel is drawn to Moses who was rejected on his first to the people. Moses second visit was prompted by an angel and accompanied by ‘signs and wonders.’ Peter and John are released from jail by an angel (Acts 5:19) and many ‘signs and wonders’ are performed at their hands (Acts 5:12-16). The Twelve Apostles demonstrate that they are the true leaders of the people through the evidence of God’s hand being with them.

In the next section of Luke’s narrative a dispute breaks out between the Aramaic speaking Jews and the Greek speaking Jews in their community. The widows of the Greek speaking Jews were being overlooked in the food distribution. The Twelve Apostles call together the community and appoint seven reputable men who are “filled with the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3) to take on this task. These assistants are sometimes thought of as the first deacons. Although the office of ‘deacon’ appears early in the New Testament (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:8), the majority of Catholic scholars do not think these seven men are equivalent to our modern office of deacon. The main activity we see Stephen and Phillip engaged in after this passage is not ‘table service’ but evangelism. A fuller treatment of the office ‘deacons’ is found in 1 Timothy 3:8-13.

In any event the meaning of the deaconate has changed over time. Second Vatican Council significantly revived the principle of a permanent exercise of the diaconate as a specific degree of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Although it is exercised “not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry,” it is a “proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy” which is given for “the service of liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity” (LG 29, AG 16). The Catechism remains us, “The sacrament of Holy Orders marks [deacons] with an imprint ("character") which cannot be removed and which configures them to Christ, who made himself the "deacon" or servant of all.” (CCC 1570)

Like Jesus and Mary let each of us desire to serve and not to be served by others.