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|Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky|
Orthodox dogmatic theology
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The Angelic World
The first and highest place in the entire ladder of created being is occupied by the pure and
fleshless spirits. They are beings not only comparatively higher and more perfect, but they also
have a very important influence on the life of men, even though they are invisible to us.What has been revealed to us about them? How and when did they come into being? What
nature was given them? Are they all of an equal stature? What is their purpose and the form of
Angels in Sacred Scripture.
The name “angel” means “messenger.” This word defines chiefly their service to the human
race. Mankind knew about their existence from its first days in Paradise; we see a reflection
of this fact in other ancient religions also, not only in the Jewish.
After mankind fell into sin and was banished from Paradise, a Cherubim with a flaming
sword was placed to guard the entrance to Paradise (Gen. 3:24). Abraham, when sending his
servant to Nahor, encouraged him with the conviction that the Lord would send His angel with
him and order well his way (Gen. 24:7). Jacob saw angels, both during sleep (in the vision of the
mystical ladder, on the way to Mesopotamia; Gen. 28:12) and while awake (on the way home to
Esau, when he saw a “host” of the angels of God; Gen. 32:1-2). In the Psalter, angels are often
spoken of: “Praise Him all ye His angels” (Ps. 148:2). “He shall give His angels charge over
thee, to keep thee and all thy ways” (Ps. 90:11). Similarly, we read about them in the Book of
Job and in the Prophets. The Prophet Isaiah saw Seraphim surrounding the Throne of God (ch.
6). The Prophet Ezekiel saw Cherubim in the vision of the House of God (ch. 10).
The New Testament Revelation contains much information and many mentions of angels.
An angel informed Zacharias of the conception of the Forerunner. An angel informed the Most
Holy Virgin Mary of the birth of the Savior and appeared in sleep to Joseph. A numerous multitude
of angels sang the glory of the Nativity of Christ. An angel announced the good tidings of
the birth of the Savior to the shepherds. An angel prevented the Magi from returning to Herod.
Angels served Jesus Christ after His temptation in the wilderness. An angel appeared in order to
strengthen Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Angels informed the Myrrh-bearing Women
about His Resurrection. The Apostles were told by them of His second coming, at the time of
His Ascension into heaven. Angels freed the bonds of Peter and other Apostles (Acts 5:19), and
those of Peter alone (Acts 12:7-15). An angel appeared to Cornelius and gave him instruction to
call the Apostle Peter to instruct him in the word of God (Acts 10:3-7). An angel informed the
Apostle Paul that he must appear before Caesar (Acts 27:23-24). A vision of angels is the foundation
of the revelations given to St. John the Theologian in the Apocalypse.
The creation of Angels.
In the Symbol of Faith we read, “I believe in one God . . . Maker of heaven and earth, and of
all things visible and invisible.” The invisible, angelic world was created by God and created
before the visible world. “When the stars were made, all My angels praised Me with a loud
voice, said the Lord to Job” (Job 38:7, Septuagint). The Apostle Paul writes, “By Him were all
things created that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be
thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers” (Col. 1:16). The Fathers of the Church understand
the word “heaven,” in the first words of the book of Genesis (“In the beginning God
created the heaven and the earth”), as being not the physical heaven, which was formed later,
but the invisible heaven, the dwelling place of the powers on high. They expressed the idea that
God created the angels long before He created the visible world (Sts. Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory
the Great, Anastasius of Sinai), and that at the creation of the visible world the angels already
stood before the Face of the Creator and served Him. St. Gregory the Theologian reflects on this:“Since for the goodness of God it was not sufficient to be occupied only with the contemplation
of Himself, but it was needful that good should extend further and further, so that the number of
those who have received grace might be as many as possible (because this is characteristic of the
highest Goodness) — therefore, God devised first of all the angelic heavenly powers: and the
thought became deed, which was fulfilled by the Word, and perfected by the Spirit … And inasmuch
as the first creatures were pleasing to Him, He devised another world, material and visible,
the orderly composition of heaven and earth, and that which is between them.” St. John Damascene
also follows the thought of St. Gregory the Theologian (Exact Exposition, Bk. 2, ch. 3).
The nature of Angels.
By their nature, angels are active spirits which have intelligence, will, and knowledge. They
serve God, fulfill His providential will, and glorify Him. They are fleshless spirits and, in so far
as they belong to the invisible world, they cannot be seen by our bodily eyes. Angels, instructs
St. John Damascene, “do not appear exactly as they are to the just and to them that God wills
them to appear. On the contrary, they appear under such a different form as can be seen by those
who behold them” (Exact Exposition. Book 2, ch. 3: Eng. tr., p. 206). In the account of the book
of Tobit, the angel who accompanied Tobit and his son told them of himself, “All these days I
merely appeared to you and did not eat or drink, but you were seeing a vision” (Tobit 12:19).
“Now,” as St. John Damascene expresses it, “compared with us, the angel is said to be incorporeal
and immaterial, although in comparison with God, Who alone is incomparable, everything
proves to be gross and material — for only the Divinity is truly immaterial and incorporeal”
(Ibid; p. 205).
The degree of Angelic perfection.
The angels are most perfect spirits. They surpass man by their spiritual powers. However,
they also, as created beings, bear in themselves the seal of limitation. Being fleshless, they are
less dependent than men on space and place, and, so to speak, pass through vast spaces with extreme
rapidity, appearing wherever it is required for them to act. However, one cannot say that
they exist entirely independent of space and place, nor that they are everywhere present. The Sacred
Scripture depicts angels sometimes descending from heaven to the earth, sometimes ascending
from earth to heaven, and thus one must suppose that they cannot be both on earth and in
heaven at the same time. (The Holy Fathers teach this quite explicitly. Thus, St. Basil the Great writes: “We
believe that each (of the heavenly powers) is in a definite place. For the angel who stood before Cornelius was not at
the same time with Philip (Acts 10:3; 8:26); and the angel who spoke with Zachariah near the altar of incense (Luke
1:1) did not at the same time occupy his own place in heaven” (On the Holy Spirit, ch. 23; Russian ed. of Soikin St.
Petersburg, 1911, vol. 1, p. 622). Likewise, St. John Damascene teaches: “The angels are circumscribed, because
when they are in heaven they are not on earth, and when they are sent to earth by God they do not remain in heaven”
(Exact Exposition, Book 2, ch. 3, Eng. tr., p. 206).)
Immortality is an attribute of angels, as is clearly testified by the Scriptures, which teach that
they cannot die (Luke 20:36). However, their immortality is not a divine immortality; that is,
something self-existing and unconditional. Rather, it depends, just as does the immortality of
human souls, entirely upon the will and mercy of God.
As fleshless spirits, the angels are capable of inward self-development to the highest degree.
Their minds are more elevated than the human mind. According to the explanation of the Apostle
Peter, in their might and power they surpass all earthly governments and authorities (2 Peter2:10-11). The nature of an angel is higher than the nature of a man, as the Psalmist says when,
with the aim of exalting man, he remarks that man is a little lower than the angels (Ps. 8:5).
However, the exalted attributes of angels have their limits. Scripture indicates that they do not
know the depths of the Essence of God, which is known to the Spirit of God only: “The things
of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:11). They do not know the future,
which is also known to God alone: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels
which are in heaven” (Mark 13:32). Likewise, they do not understand completely the mystery
of the Redemption, although they wish to penetrate it: “which things the angels desire to
look into” (1 Peter 1:12). They do not even know all human thoughts (3 Kings 8:39). Finally,
they cannot of themselves, without the will of God, perform miracles: “Blessed is the Lord, the
God of Israel, who alone doeth wonders” (Ps. 71:19).
The number and ranks of Angels.
Sacred Scripture presents the angelic world as extraordinarily large. When the Prophet
Daniel saw the Ancient of Days in a vision, it was revealed to his gaze that “thousand thousands
ministered unto Him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him” (Daniel 7:10). “A
multitude of the heavenly host praised the coming to earth of the Son of God” (Luke 2:13).
“Reckon,” says St. Cyril of Jerusalem, “how many are the Roman nation; reckon how many
the barbarian tribes now living, and how many have died within the last hundred years; reckon
how many nations have been buried during the last thousand years; reckon all from Adam to this
day. Great indeed is the multitude, but yet it is little, for the angels are many more. They are the
ninety and nine sheep, but mankind is the single one (Matt. 18:12). For according to the extent
of universal space, must we reckon the number of its inhabitants. The whole earth is but as a
point in the midst of the one heaven, and yet contains so great a multitude; what a multitude must
the heaven which encircles it contain? And must not the heaven of heavens contain unimaginable
numbers? And it is written, thousand thousands ministered unto Him, and ten thousand
times ten thousand stood before Him; not that the multitude is only so great, but because the
Prophet could not express more than these” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 15:24,
Eerdmans tr., pp. 111-112).
With such a multitude of angels it is natural to suppose that in the world of angels, just as in
the material world, there are various degrees of perfection; and therefore various stages, or hierarchical
degrees, of the heavenly powers. Thus, the word of God calls some of them “angels”
and others “archangels” (1 Thess. 4:16; Jude, v. 9).
The Orthodox Church, guided by the views of the ancient writers of the Church and the
Church Fathers, and in particular by the work, The Heavenly Hierarchy, which bears the name of
St. Dionysius the Areopagite, divides the angelic world into nine choirs or ranks, and these nine
into three hierarchies, with three ranks in each. In the first hierarchy are those who are closest to
God: the Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim. In the second, middle hierarchy, are the Authorities,
Dominions, and Powers. In the third, closer to us, are the Angels, Archangels, and Principalities
(The Orthodox Confession).
We find this enumeration of the nine choirs of angels in the Apostolic Constitutions (The
“Apostolic Constitutions” are a 4th and 5th-century collection of texts on Christian doctrine, worship, and discipline
which give much information on the life of the early Church — though not necessarily of the time of the Apostles.
While given respect as an ancient Christian text, this collection, owing to some un-Orthodox additions made to it at
different times, has not had the authority in the Church which is enjoyed by other early texts. It should be distinguished
from the “Apostolic Canons” which were accepted by the Quinisext Council (692) as authoritative for theChurch, but this same Council rejected the Apostolic Constitutions as a whole because of the “adulterous matter”
which had been added to them (Canon 2, Eerdmans Seven Ecumenical Councils, p. 361).), in Sts. Ignatius the
God-bearer, Gregory the Theologian, and Chrysostom; later, in Sts. Gregory the Dialogist, John
Damascene, and others. Here are the words of St. Gregory the Dialogist on this subject: “We
accept nine ranks of angels, because from the testimony of the word of God we know about Angels,
Archangels, Powers, Authorities, Principalities, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim.
Thus, concerning the existence of Angels and Archangels, almost every page of Sacred
Scripture testifies; of the Cherubim and Seraphim as is well known, the prophetic books speak
often; the Apostle Paul enumerates four other ranks in his Epistle to the Ephesians, saying that
God (the Father) placed His Son ‘far above all Principality, and Authority, and Power, and Dominion’
(Eph. 1:21). And in his Epistle to the Colossians he writes, ‘By Him were all things created,
that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether Thrones, or Dominions,
or Principalities, or Powers’ (Col. 1:16). And so, when we join Thrones to these four of
which he speaks to the Ephesians, that is, Principalities, Authorities, Powers and Dominions, we
have five separate ranks; and when we join to them the Angels, Archangels, Cherubim, and
Seraphim, it is clear that there are nine ranks of angels.”
Indeed, turning to the books of Sacred Scripture, we find the names of the nine ranks which
have been listed above; more than nine are not mentioned. Thus, we read the name “Cherubim”
in the book of Genesis (ch. 3), in Psalms 79 and 98, and in Ezekiel, (chs. 1 & 10); “Seraphim”
we find in Isaiah (ch. 6); “Powers” we find in the Epistle to the Ephesians (ch. 1) and in Romans
(ch. 8); “Thrones,” “Principalities,” “Dominions,” and “Authorities” in Colossians (ch. 1) and
Ephesians (chs. 1 and 3); “Archangels” in 1 Thessalonians (ch. 4) and Jude (verse 9); and “Angels”
in 1 Peter (ch. 3), Romans (ch. 8), and other books. On this foundation the number of the
ranks of angels is usually limited in the teaching of the Church to nine.
Certain Fathers of the Church express their private pious opinion that the division of the angels
into nine ranks includes only those names and ranks which have been revealed in the word
of God, but does not include many other names and ranks which have not been revealed to us in
this present life but will become known only in the future life. This idea is developed by St.
Chrysostom, Blessed Theodoret, and Blessed Theophylactus. “There are,” says Chrysostom, “in
truth, there are other powers whose very names we do not know . . . Angels, Archangels,
Thrones, Dominions, Principalities, and Authorities are not the only inhabitants of the heavens;
there are also innumerable other kinds, and unimaginably many classes which no words are capable
of depicting. And how is it evident that there are powers beyond those mentioned above,
and powers whose very names we do not know? The Apostle Paul, having spoken of the one,
mentions the other also when he testifies of Christ: ‘and set Him at His own right hand in the
heavenly places, far above every Principality, and Power, and Might, and Dominion, and every
name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come’ (Eph. 1:20-21). Do
you see that there are some names which will be known then, but that are now unknown? Therefore,
he also said, ‘every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to
come.’ ” This opinion is taken by the Church as a private one.
In general, the ancient shepherds considered the doctrine of the celestial hierarchy a mystical
one. “How many ranks of heavenly beings there are,” reflects St. Dionysius in the Heavenly Hierarchy,
“of what sort they are, and in what way the mysteries of their sacred order are performed
is known precisely only to God, Who is the Cause of their hierarchy. Likewise, they themselves
know their own powers, light, and order beyond this world. But we can speak of this only to thedegree that God has revealed this to us through the heavenly powers themselves, as ones who
know themselves” (Heavenly Hierarchy, ch. 6). Similarly, Blessed Augustine reflects, “That
there are Thrones, Dominions, Principalities, and Authorities in the heavenly mansions, I believe
unwaveringly, and that they are distinct one from the other, I hold without doubt; but of what sort
they are, and in precisely what way they are distinguished among themselves, I do not know.”
In Sacred Scripture, some of the higher angels are given their own names. There are two
such names in the canonical books: Michael (which means “Who is like God?” Dan. 10:13; 12:1;
Jude, v. 9; Apoc. 12:7-8) and Gabriel, (“Man of God”; Dan. 8:16, 9:21; Luke 1:19, 26). Three
angels are mentioned by name in the non-canonical books: Raphael (“The Help of God”; Tobit
3:17, 12:12-15); Uriel (“Fire of God”; III Esdras 4:1, 5:20); and Salathiel, (“Prayer to God,” III
Esdras 5:16). Apart from this, pious tradition ascribes names to two other angels: Jegudiel
(“Praise of God”) and Barachiel (“Blessing of God”); these names are not to be found in the
Scriptures. Moreover, in the second book of Esdras there is mention of yet another, Jeremiel
(“the Height of God,” 3 Esdras 4:36); but judging from the context of this passage, this name is
the same as Uriel.
Thus, names have been given to seven of the higher angels, corresponding to the words of
the Apostle John the Theologian in the Apocalypse: “Grace be unto you, and peace from Him
which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven spirits which are before His
throne” (Apoc. 1:4).
The ministry of the Angels.
What, finally, is the purpose of the beings of the spiritual world? It is evident that they were
ordained by God to be the most perfect reflections of His grandeur and glory, with inseparable
participation in His blessedness. If it has been said concerning the visible heavens that “the
heavens declare the glory of God,” then all the more is this the aim of the spiritual heavens. This
is why St. Gregory the Theologian calls them “reflections of the perfect Light,” or secondary
The angels in the ranks which are close to the human race are presented in Sacred Scripture
as heralds of God's will, guiders of men, and servants of their salvation. The Apostle Paul writes,
“Are not they all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?”
Not only do angels hymn the glory of God, but they also serve Him in the works of His
providence for the material and sensible world. Of this service the Holy Fathers frequently
speak: “Some of them stand before the great God; others, by their cooperation, uphold the whole
world” (St. Gregory the Theologian, “Mystical Hymns,” Homily 6). The angels “are appointed
for the governance of the elements and the heavens, the world and everything that is in it”
(Athenagoras). “Different individuals of them embrace different parts of the world, or are appointed
over different districts of the universe, as He knoweth Who ordered and distributed it all;
combining all things in one, solely with a view to the consent of the Creator of all things” (St.
Gregory the Theologian, Homily 28; Eerdmans tr., p. 300).
In some Church writers there is to be found the opinion that special angels are placed over
separate aspects of the kingdom of nature — the inorganic, the organic, and the animal (Origen,
Blessed Augustine). The latter opinion has its source in the Apocalypse, where mention is made
of angels who, in accordance with God's will, are in charge of certain earthly elements. The Seer
of mysteries, St. John, writes, in the 16th chapter, verse 5, of the Apocalypse, “And I heard theangel of the waters say;” in Apocalypse 7:1 he says, “I saw four angels standing on the four
corners of the earth, holding the four wands of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the
earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree,” and in Apocalypse 14:18, “And another angel came out
from the altar, which had power over fire, and he cried out.” In the vision of the Prophet Daniel
there are angels to whom God has entrusted the care of the fate of the peoples and kingdoms
which exist upon the earth (Daniel ch. 10, 11, and 12).
The Orthodox Church believes that every man has his own guardian angel, if he has not put
him away from himself by an impious life. The Lord Jesus Christ has said: “Take heed that ye
despise not one of these little ones, for I say unto you, that their angels do always behold the face
of My Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 18:10).