We 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trend has been popular piety in the Catholic Church where many would consider belief in angles to be old fashioned and outdated.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
II. The Second Hierarchy
a. Dominations (or Dominions)
III. The Third Hierarchy
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 )
[i] Peter Kreeft, Angels (and Demons): What do we really know about them? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995). p. 27.