Entertaining Angels

In the liturgical calendar, today is the feast of St. Michael and All Angels. Traditionally four archangels–Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel–are especially commemorated. Only two of these are named in the the Protestant canon: Michael and Gabriel. Raphael figures prominently in the apocryphal book of Tobit, and Uriel is mentioned in 2 Esdras and other non-canonical texts. Even if we cannot name these last two with any degree of biblical authority, we do know that the heavenly Jerusalem is populated by “innumerable angels in festal gathering” (Hebrews 12:23). Presumably they too have names that perhaps only God knows. In the Thomistic treatment of angels, given that angels are pure forms (not composed of matter and form or genus and species, like embodied creatures), each angel is his own species. Each elect angel is known and loved by God and does his holy bidding on behalf of God’s people.

In my experience, many evangelical Protestants have an impoverished view of the angels. Reacting to excesses and speculations on the part of some Roman Catholics and charismatics, evangelicals often swing the pendulum the other way. We take the other extreme that C.S. Lewis describes with reference to the demonic realm: rather than an unhealthy fascination, we end up thinking of the angels not at all.

Why should we care about and study the angels? Let me provide four brief reasons.

1. It Is a Delight

So why should we study the doctrine of angels and demons? For starters, it is difficult to improve upon the answer given by the Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft: because it is fun![1] Maybe fun is not the best word. Kreeft also writes this: Believing in angels “feeds the feeling of wonder, fascination, curiosity.”[2] So, one reason we should study this doctrine is the pure delight it can bring. Studying this wondrous, imagination-stoking aspect of God’s creation is not just a means to some other end. In one sense, it is an end in itself.

2. It is Biblical

A second, more fundamental, reason we should study angels is that they exist. And we know that they exist because, the Bible has quite a lot to say about them. Angels and demons show up in every genre of literature and in every phase of the unfolding biblical storyline. They are present at creation, at the fall, in every era of redemptive history, and at the final judgment and end of the age. Angels are especially prominent in and around the climactic event of the Bible: the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, to the degree that we are care about the Bible, and its central Figure, we will care about angels.

3. It Is Theologically Beneficial

Third, we should study the doctrine of angels and demons because it is theologically beneficial. So much of the history of Christian doctrine has been concerned with angelogy. The church fathers, especially Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius wrote extensively about the angels. The medieval theologians were especially interested in the topic. Thomas Aquinas is often referred to as the “Angelic Doctor,” not only because of his eloquent expression of Christian truth but also because he spent so much space in his writings on the angels. Similarly, Bonaventure has received the moniker the “Seraphic Doctor.” Likewise, the Reformers and their theological heirs have been careful to address angels as an important part of the doctrine of creation. It may not be a stretch to say that Martin Luther was rather obsessed with the supernatural, often speaking directly to the devil (often in colorful language). Furthermore, studying this doctrine impinges upon every other doctrine in the system of Christian belief. Just as angels show up in every phase of the biblical story, so too they show up in every topic of Christian theology: everything from creation and providence to Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. So, to the degree that we care about Christian doctrine, we should care about angels.

4. It Is Practically Beneficial

A final reason we should care about angels and demons is that this doctrine is practically beneficial to the Christian life. Many Christians never think about the angelic realm, and, quite frankly, they do not know what they are missing. Studying angels and demons enriches our worship, our prayers, our battle against sin, our thanksgiving for the saving work of the Triune God, and our hope in the future redemption. It is not just that this doctrine equips us for spiritual warfare, though it certainly does that. But this doctrine also equips us to know and love God, which is the ultimate end of all theological reflection. The Western world has become demystified, and one of the most countercultural and spiritually beneficial things we can do is to recover the wonder.

For what it’s worth, I am contracted to write a book that will be a lay-level introduction to the doctrine of angels and demons. It has been on the back burner for a bit, while I finish up another book (co-authored with Matt Emerson) on the Trinity. But stay tuned for more on the angels!

[1] Peter Kreeft, Angels (and Demons): What Do We Really Know about Them? (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995), 38.

[2] Ibid., 22.

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