What follows here is a fairly in-depth look at angelology as understood within apostolic Christianity. If you’re the kind of person who looks at a Hallmark card and can’t stand the Botticelli style “cherubs” – fat little babies with tiny wings – this post is for you. If you’ve ever got excited about Biblically Accurate Angels (there’s a reason they always start off saying “Do not be afraid”), you might find this up your alley. At the outset I should say that some of the detail in this is not necessarily dogmatic, because often there is no specific dogma on some of this content. In the Orthodox Church, where there is no dogma, various opinions are acceptable. So you can and likely would find other writings that differ on some of the details. For translation of terms I’m relying on Strong’s lexicons of Hebrew and Greek, the New English Translation of the Bible with full annotation, and supplemented by my own limited knowledge of Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek.
If you are interested in this kind of subject I would suggest giving a listen to The Lord of Spirits podcast. Also, though he is Baptist, the work of Michael Heiser – especially The Unseen World – is very good in this regard. Lastly, an Orthodox Christian work discussing this subject suggested to me by Father David is “These Truths We Hold” on page 200.
I’d like to thank my wife Lindsay, friends Derek and Naomi, and especially my priest Father David Smith for taking the time to read through this and providing suggestions and insights, which have been incorporated.
Today (November 8), we celebrate the Synaxis of Archangel Michael and the other Bodiless Powers. You will often see the Archangels referred to as “saints” which may seem out of place. In most liturgical churches such as the Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox, the term “saint” is used to refer to a being who is in right communion with God – essentially what is understood by the term “justification” in its broadest usage. While “saint” is commonly understood to mean a person of exceptional goodness and purity, properly understood, the saints are those persons living or dead who are justified before God regardless of whether the church recognizes them by name or not, because they consciously participate in the good works of God with obedience to His will. Thus all saved persons in heaven are saints, even if they aren’t named by the church. This also extends to the non-rebellious angels as their own individual intelligences with their own personalities and wills. Consequently Michael and the other Archangels are variously referred to as “angels” and as “saints”. Today we commemorate all those angelic saints who remain faithful to their created purpose to serve God and do His will, foremost among them being the Archangel Michael.
This is the Eastern date for the celebration in the West known as Michaelmas, which occurs on September 29. The reason for the different date is debatable with two possible explanations: first in the West, Michaelmas is celebrated on September 29 because the original structure (which no longer exists, though it was rebuilt in 1141) of the Church of Saints Michael and Magnus in Rome was dedicated to Archangel Michael on September 30 in the fifth century. The original structure was the Church (or basilica) of Saint Michael the Archangel and served as a major religious setting for the Frisians living in Rome. Festivities for this dedication would begin the evening prior to the event. After its reconstruction, the church was also dedicated to Magnus, bishop of Anagni, who to my knowledge is venerated in the Roman Catholic church but not the Eastern Orthodox. This church stands today as Santi Michele e Magno, on the Palazzolo Hill in Rome.
An alternate explanation is since the date for today’s celebration was originally established by the Council of Laodicea in AD 363 as the eighth day of the ninth month of the year and at that time the first month of the year was what we call March, November would be the ninth month. The Council specified the celebration should be the 8th day of that month. Because the alternative does not account for the three week disparity and this can’t be explained by the variation of the Julian and Gregorian calendars as they don’t diverge by that much time, the Eastern church keeps the original date and translates it into the modern calendar, such that it occurs the same time of the year it was celebrated almost 1,700 years ago, while the western church moved the date so it coincided with the consecration of a historically significant church to the Archangel Michael.
The date was chosen because there are nine groups (or choirs) of angels, and the 8th day represents the “eighth day of creation”, in reference to the Dread Judgement when the world will be restored to its original paradaisical form.
The Council decided that while the worship of angels is a heresy, the proper veneration of angels as created beings whose role is to manifest and carry out the will of God is correct, in the same way we show honor to those who do the work of God.
So who and what are the angels? Referred to in Scripture variously as “the Divine Council”, “host of heaven”, “bodiless powers”, “sons of God”, rarely “stars of God” (arguably as in Job 38:7, “When all the stars were made and all My angels praised Me in a loud voice”) angels are the spirit powers that were created prior to the creation of man.
As mentioned earlier, they are divided between three groups called Hierarchies, with each group having three ranks, making a total of nine first categorized in independent written form by Christian theologian Pseudo-Dionysus in the 400s and drawn from the Old and New Testaments (though since the Council also recognized nine groups of angels in the previous century, this written work, De Coelesti Hierarchia, “On the Celestial Hierarchy”, is situated within a history of existing tradition). Seven hundred years later, Jewish philosopher Maimonides created a list of 10 ranks based on both the Talmud and the writing of Pseudo-Dionysus in his magnus Mishneh Torah which became the outline used by most traditions of Kabbalah, though specifics there vary depending on the written work. The ranks defined by Pseudo-Dionysus are:
Seraphim: often translated “burning ones”, the Seraphim are portrayed in Isaiah 6:2 as attendants to the Throne of God. They have six wings covering their bodies with only a human face visible. They carry burning coals one of them places to Isaiah’s lips to purify him prior to his prophetic mission. This can be seen as signifying the Eucharist. Their bodies are covered by wings because they reflect the glory of God most powerfully, which if seen by mortals would burn and destroy them. In liturgical churches, the censer used by the priest or deacon is associated with the Seraphim since the coal used to purify the mouth of Isaiah is taken from a burning censer, while the smoke of the incense represents the blessing of the Holy Spirit when swung toward the environment and attendant congregation, and otherwise lifting the prayers of the faithful to God, as in Revelation. Sidenote: the censer is rich in symbolism. For example, the three chains attaching the handle to the charcoal holder represent the Trinity; the bells are twelve in number representing the Apostles carrying out the Great Commission; the charcoal holder where the incense is placed represents the womb of the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary; it’s also related to the Church understood as the Body of Christ, etc. As a digression, this is an example of “factual symbolism”, a term of my own invention meant to carry the idea that ontologically objectively real events in time, space, and history are both objective factual realities and at the same time symbols for the equally objectively real realities of the spiritual unseen world that surrounds and permeates our existence. These realities are not occulted by symbolism – that is, the symbols do not serve to hide a higher reality – on the contrary, the symbols serve as “breakthrough” moments where the unseen world is openly manifested to “those with eyes to see and ears to hear” in a manner understandable to us living within the constraints of our material experience.
Cherubim: portrayed in Genesis 3:24 and Ezekiel, the Cherubim are described as possessing many eyes covering their bodies, with six wings and four heads – one of an ox, one of a lion, one of an eagle, and one of a man. They convey the wisdom of God’s presence to the world through the Mysteries. They are the guardians of the Throne. As guardians, the angel placed at the entry to Eden can be understood to be one of the Cherubim.
Thrones: referenced in Colossians 1:16 the Thrones help humans – specifically those in civil authority – carry out God’s judgement and discernment.
Dominions: referenced in the same place, the Dominions assist humans in governing themselves and their lives wisely, whether in civil authority or not.
Powers: referenced in 1 Peter 3:22, these angels carry out miracles when granted by God and assist humans with spiritual guidance in the form of patience and endurance.
Authorities: referenced in the same place, the Authorities combat the devil and demonic influence, protecting people from the full influence of evil spirits.
Principalities: Colossians 1:16. These spirits command the two ranks of angels below them and served to guide the nations. This becomes very important later in the worldview of the Ancient Near East, because many of these angels rebelled against God and fell through the influence of Satan.
Archangels: referenced in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, Archangels deliver prophecies in person by pronouncing the will of God directly to humans. In the Inter-Testamental period the tradition was that if an angel is given a specific name, they are an Archangel. Thus all named angels are Archangels. However as we will see in a bit, at least one Archangel – Michael – is possibly also a Principality, demonstrating that the hierarchy is not rigid and can be somewhat fluid, since it is less a taxonomy and more a description of role. See Jude 9, where Michael battles Satan for the body of Moses.
Angels: 1 Peter 3:22. While all nine ranks are referred to collectively as “angels”, this rank refers specifically to a group of spirits who deliver simple messages to individuals. An angel of this rank – the Guardian Angel – is assigned by God to each Christian either at baptism or at birth – the Church Fathers disagree on the timing.
The word “angel” is derived from the Septuagint where the Hebrew word מֲלְאָךְ (Malak, “messenger”) is translated into Greek as ἄγγελος (Angelos, “messenger”).
After the destruction of the Tower of Babel, God appointed angels – specifically Principalities – as guides and guardians of the nations as they were no longer united. For this see Deuteronomy 32:8. In the Masoretic Text it reads after the confusion of the people God appointed the bounds of the nations “according to the sons of Israel”, but the Septuagint reads “according to the angels of God”. This is externally supported by the Dead Sea Scrolls which reads “according to the sons of God”, a term which always refers to angels (although God does sometimes refer to individuals as “my son”, this specific phrase “sons of God” never clearly occurs in reference to people). Further, the MT reading makes no sense in context, because first Israel did not yet exist; the Tower of Babel event predates the calling of Abraham, Israel’s ancestor, rendering this translation questionable. Beyond this, the land promise to the children of Israel does not extend to the whole earth as they are explicitly commanded not to conquer their neighbors.
Since the Septuagint variant is the version of these texts the earliest Christians and Jews knew prior to the creation of the Masoretic Text to standardize the Tanakh, it’s evident this was the general belief of the Christian churches at the very beginning.These angels were driven to rebellion by the devil – himself an angel, specifically one of the Seraphim or Cherubim – opinions differ on this – but desiring his own autonomy and rulership – so these angels began to accept worship on their own as gods. See Jude 1:6-7 “the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling”. Only Michael, the Archangel traditionally in the Inter-Testamental period seen to be serving as the guardian of the nation of Israel, remained and remains faithful to God. Thus Michael is also known as the Commander of the Army of the Lord since he waged war against the devil and threw him to earth (Revelation 12, more on the proper way to read Revelation later). This is why Michael is usually portrayed in armor with a drawn sword. Michael is the only Archangel possibly assigned to a nation as a Principality. There are other Archangels – most famously Gabriel – which never had this role. In Orthodox Christianity there are seven named archangels: Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, Chamuel, Raphael, Jophiel, and Zadkiel. These angels are identified in canonical books in both the Old and New Testaments, either by name (Michael, Gabriel and Raphael who is named in Tobit which is canonical in the Eastern Church), or as oblique references to existing Jewish tradition recorded in non-canonical texts like 1 Enoch – which is referenced in the New Testament even though the book itself is not canonical except in the Ethiopian Church (such as in Zechariah 4:10, the “seven rejoices”).
The fall of the Principalities is demonstrated in Psalm 95:5 (96:5 in western Bibles, since the Orthodox church uses the Septuagint for the Old Testament – the translation used during the Second Temple period and familiar to Christ and the Apostles – whereas most western Bibles use the much later Masoretic Text, which among other things differs the numbering of the Psalms) by the grossly misunderstood phrase “the gods of the nations are demons”. The word “demon” is derived from the Greek δαιμόν (daimon, “power” or “fate”). In Greek religion, these were conceived of as intelligent lesser spirits who were intermediaries between humans and the Olympians rather than an abstract idea, property, or force, and could be either good or evil. In the Psalm, the word used is אלילם (elilim, “idol”, “false god”, “false spirit”; sometimes translated as “worthless” in the hopes this term covers the scope of ideas suggested). This is related to the complex Hebrew term אֱלֹהִים (elohim, “God”, “gods” or “spirits” depending on the syntax of the usage). Thus the connotation is that of a “lying spirit”. In the Septuagint the Greek word δαιμόνιον (daimonion, plural of daimon) is deliberately used to translate this, so the implication is that the Olympians themselves are these intermediaries, angels who fell into accepting their own worship, and what the Greeks referred to as “daimonion” are either false spirits or other fallen beings enslaved to those principalities. The translators are recontextualizing the Greek for this purpose; after all the word “daimon” could in theory refer to an angel as well – they aren’t called “bodiless powers” for nothing, but there is only one God and clearly the Psalmist does not wish to suggest that the gods of the nations are in any way comparable. Angels and demons are not ontologically different creatures – they are both bodiless powers, but in common parlance the term “angel” has come to mean a generically good spirit created by God and who serves Him, while “demon” has come to mean a generically evil spirit, but the difference in reality is whether the spirit serves God or is in rebellion. So the gods of the nations are liars, false gods, angels who were appointed to guard the nations but have rebelled against God and will in the end be judged and condemned. Another rabbit hole to go down – this is the subject of Revelation, which is improperly understood as simply a prophecy of a future event. Rather, Revelation describes what is happening right now, as the false lying spirits who rule over the nations war against and are conquered by God with the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of the Son, which will culminate in His return, judgement of the world, all humanity living and dead, and the spirits, with the return of Paradise in physical, bodily form on earth for the faithful.
Another interesting reference to angels in the Old Testament is the phrase “the angel of the Lord”. Who is this referring to? The meaning of this term depends on context – it isn’t one specific being. In some cases, the “angel of the Lord” appears and refers to himself directly as God. In this case, he can be understood as the pre-Incarnate Word, the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. In some cases he refers to himself as “commander of the army of the Lord” (Joshua 5:13-15) and in this case the figure is understood to be Archangel Michael although he is not named here. In this case, Michael is sometimes understood to have led the Israelites out of Egypt in the form of a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of flame at night – an alternate interpretation is that this is the Son. Exodus 23:20 states an angel led the Israelites out of Egypt, so the interpretation of the pillar as a theophany is problematic within the text. In another case, he refers to himself directly as Gabriel, another Archangel (Luke 1:11). He is also referred to delivering the last plague – the death of the firstborn – to Egypt. Here he can also be understood as the Son, as the one who executes judgement, in this case as retribution for Pharaoh ordering the death of the firstborn Israelite males. So this is a technical term referring not just to one figure, but a figure who is a spirit performing a unique role, whoever that happens to be in that instance.
If you made it through all of that to the end first off, congratulations. Long as this is, it’s really only the tip of the iceberg for angelology. There is a long history of study and accounts of angelic intercession from the period of the Old Testament into the Second Temple period and after, continuing down through today. Angels play a key role in the history of lived experience not only in the Christian Church but also other Abrahamic religions and even found in places where you wouldn’t expect it among the generally non-religious.
May the angels always intercede for and guide us aright.