Angelology – II. Iconography

I. Angelology – II. Iconography I. Angelology. The English term angel, with the respective words in the other Western languages, comes from angelus, which from the late 2nd c. Vetus Latina, Tertull. was adopted in Latin as a loan translation of the Greek word a;ggeloj. Initially these two terms expressed primarily a function, that of the messenger of God see Aug., En. ps. 135,3: Hence, they are much more correctly called Angels, which in Latin is Nuntii; for by the name of their office, not their substance, we may plainly understand that they desire us to worship that God whom they announce. See also Tertull. Carn. 14; Aug., En. ps. 103,3; 7,5; and other texts in DSp 1,581 and RAC 5,115. Gradually, however, angelus and a;ggeloj came to be the exclusive name for those beings that, according to the Jewish Christian tradition, exist between God and human beings, thereby becoming terms for nature; in scriptural usage see Mt 25:41, Rev 12:9, they were thus applied also to evil spirits, i.e., demons. Good angels, however, are never called demons see Aug., Civ. Dei 9,19 and other texts in RAC 9,716-9,717. The passage of angel from the name of a function to a term used for a category of special beings is highly significant, indicating a development from a primarily soteriological reflection, interested mainly in the relationship of angels with divine providence, the mysteries of Jesus, the missionary work of the church and the daily lives of individual believers, to a deeper reflection on the origin and essential characteristics apatheia, immortality, incorporeality, knowledge, freedom of such heavenly beings. This long and difficult development has solid foundations in the biblical world. Almost every aspect of Christian angelology that has been accentuated through the centuries the angels as the heavenly court; eternal adorers; ministers of Christ, Savior and head of the universe; mediators between God and human beings; protectors of the faithful and of peoples; models of intimate union with God; executors of the divine judgments is solidly based on numerous testimonies of Sacred Scripture and the writings of later Judaism. However, Christianity’s conflict and earlier that of Judaism’s with Greco-Roman antiquity undoubtedly conditioned the development of patristic doctrine on angels, and this not only at the predominantly negative level of the defense of the Jewish Christian heritage but also on the positive level of the reinterpretation of the traditional data in light of philosophical thought and pagan devotion and imagination. But external influences must not be exaggerated. The basic affirmation of the superiority of the one creator-God and the primacy of Christ with respect to the angels completely separates the Jewish Christian heritage from Hellenistic traditions see RAC 5,115. This complex evolution of Christian angelology, conditioned by the ever-changing cultural situations of the churches, can be explained in particular by the following factors: first of all, one must bear in mind the strong persistence of Jewish traditions in the Christian apocrypha of the OT and NT. The frequent reading of these writings, especially of the Ascension of Isaiah, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the II Book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Paul and the Shepherd of Hermas recognized by many as quasicanonical; see Vis. III, 4: the first reference to a hierarchy, kept alive the ancient traditions on the origin of the angels and their role in the universe and in human life, described as descent and ascent see Danilou, I, 139-145; HDG 23-26. Not less important was the apologetic context of the 2nd c. Having not only to explain the incisive fact of the idolatry present everywhere but also to find a reason for the unjust persecution of so many faithful and to respond to the crucial accusation of atheism by the people, the apologists, in particular Justin Martyr, specified scriptural beliefs more precisely. On the one hand they said that demons, considered by the Jewish tradition as apostate angels, were behind the cult of idols and also caused the sufferings of the just, as they had always done see Danilou 2, 391-397. On the other hand, they noted that Christians themselves venerated, not only the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but also the angels Just., Apol. 1,6; Athenag. Leg. 10. Also notable is a certain reaction of the apologists against the excessive Jewish veneration of angels Aristides, Apol. 14,4. In any case, according to the Acts of the Martyrs the angels lead the martyrs into heaven, where their choir sings the trisagion Pass. Perp. 11-13. In the second half of the 2nd c. the polemic against gnostic speculation gave the authors of the great church in particular Irenaeus of Lyons, who for the first time presents a detailed doctrine on angels see HDG 28-31; TRE 600-601 the occasion to emphasize the biblical truth that all angels are creatures of the one God, not demiurges and emanations from superior aeons as the gnostics claimed, following Platonic traditions see Iren., Adv. haer. 11, 30,6-9. The representatives of Christian gnosis, led by Origen, inserted these by then-traditional angelological convictions into a theological system, central to which were the problems of the origin of multiplicity and esp. of evil Orig., C. Cels. IV, 65, doctrines also taken up later in the anti-Manichean polemic see HDG, 45-46. Indeed, the first systematic theologian admitted among spiritual beings, as distinct from the Trinity which alone is incorporeal, a privation that descends, in conformity with the gravity of the primordial sin, from the archangels, through angels and human beings, to demons see Orig., De Princ. 1,8; C. Cels. 8,25. According to Origen, angels are present everywhere in the universe: in nature, in nations and in the lives of individuals, with the purpose of combating demons see Dani- lou 2, 397-403. Later discussions of Origen’s system led in the 4th c. to a more exact determination of the difference of the angels with respect to both Christ and the Holy Spirit. Clearly associating the Word with God the creator, the anti-Arian theologians also confirmed on the level of being the Pauline doctrine, so dear to Irenaeus see Adv. haer. III, 16,6, of Christ, head of the angels, thus eliminating any risk of the so-called angel-Christology, which, inspired by Jewish ideas, preferred to present Christ as an angel of the Lord see RAC 5,148-5,149. Similarly Basil of Caesarea, following the Nicene tradition, made it clear that the Holy Spirit was not to be numbered among the ministering spirits, i.e., the angels created by God as his ministers, but must be considered a lordly Spirit, indeed to be adored with the Father and the Son as Lord of all things, including angelic spirits see the Constantinopolitan Creed that follows Basil: DS 150. For the bishop of Caesarea, in fact, the angels were not only created by the Word but also perfected by the Holy Spirit Basil. Hom. 32,4; De Spir. 16,38, see RAC 5,149. Still in the 4th c., a period during which the Christian liturgy was adapted more openly to the ideas and expressions of the mystery religions, bishops and preachers, esp. Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose, John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia, delighted to emphasize the active presence of the angels in the liturgy itself, the mysterium tremendum see TRE 601, and esp. Peterson, with Chrysostom, Hom. In Seraph. 3. The presence of the angels in the Christian liturgy has its roots, however, in earlier traditions Clem. Alex., Exc. Thdt. 27,2; Origen, Or. 31,5; Apos. Trad. 4,36. Simultaneously, as the monastic movement was spreading from Egypt and Palestine to all the churches of the Roman Empire and beyond, the traditional views on the role of the angels in the ascetic struggle and in the spiritual ascesis of the faithful was strongly reaffirmed. Indeed, the life of perfection began to be explicitly compared with angelic life, thus exalting consecrated virginity, constant vigilance and continual praise of God, as practiced by the monks see Frank, Cramer. In the following two centuries, the closer encounter between Christianity and Neoplatonism, by then the common philosophy, stimulated Augustine and ps.-Dionysius to deepen the traditional doctrine on the nature and salvific functions of angels. Augustine based his reflections on faith, attested by the Bible En. Ps. 103,1,15: We know by faith that angels exist, but we also read of their many appearances in Scripture and thus we hold that their existence is not to be doubted. He is prudent in his investigation of the biblical data see Ench. 58; Trin. III 1,5 but does offer further reflection on biblical angelology see AugL 304. In particular he introduces a new problem, previously neglected, which will determine the whole later development of Western angelology HDG 46ff.. Treating of angels esp. in the context of the exegesis of Genesis Gen. Lit. IV and in that of the beginning of the history of the Duae Civitates Civ. Dei XI, he focused his attention not only on the question of the moment of the angels’ creation Gen 1:1 or 1:3 but also on the problem of angelic knowledge. For Augustine, the angels have a triple knowledge of created things: they know them in the clear light of day before their creation, in the light of evening after their creation, and in the light of morning, in themselves and in their relation to the Word Gen. Lit. IV, 22,39-24,41. In this context Augustine also shows his understanding of the sin and blessedness of the angels. Set over all corporeal creatures, angels either ascribe their knowledge of things to the glory of the Word, thus remaining in the light, or, overcome by pride, they turn to themselves, take pleasure in themselves and become darkness see Gen. Lit. IV, 23,40-41. Though not arriving at a clear idea of the incorporeity of the angels see RAC 5,121, Augustine, by uniting angelology with his analysis of intellectual knowledge in this doctrine of illumination, i.e., of the spirit as a capacity to understand God, decisively influenced the direction of scholastic thought. Not less decisive, though for different reasons, was the influence of ps.-Dionysius’s angelology. Recognizing with Proclus the angels as pure spirits u`perko,smioi, this unknown early 6th-c. author divides them into nine choirs, constituting a scale of beings between God and humanity. According to this idea of hierarchy to which he dedicated a special work, the De caelesti hierarchia the superior beings seraphim, cherubim and thrones, on the one hand, are nearest to the divinity; principalities, archangels and angels, on the other hand, more directly help the human hierarchy to raise itself to God. Finally dominions, virtues and powers form the intermediate orders. This whole celestial hierarchy exists in a double movement of descent and ascent. A cascade of light pours from above to below, reaching as far as humanity. The inferior orders, however, with human beings, raise themselves through purification, illumination and union toward the superior, reaching as far as the deity. This is the first systematic attempt to link angelology with the spiritual life of Christians. Through Gregory the Great and Maximus the Confessor the latter, however, putting the Christ-man above all the angelic orders, this universal vision would become one of the bases of medieval angelological speculation. Besides the Neoplatonic influences taken up by Augustine and ps.-Dionysius, also noteworthy are two perhaps secondary but nonetheless important facts. On the one hand, the development of the cult of Mary, the Mother of God, led to placing her above the angels, who until then were considered nearest to God. In Byzantine preaching, in fact, esp. in homilies on the annunciation and on the death of the Madonna, the angels themselves serve Mary and sing her praises see John Dam., Hom. Dorm. I, 11-12 – RAC 5,153ff.; TRE 603. On the other hand, the iconoclast controversy gave to Byzantine theologians, and thus to the 2nd ecumenical Council of Nicaea 787, the occasion to pronounce on the question of the incorporeal nature of angels. To justify angel images a certain corporeity was attributed to them, without however definitively resolving the problem see HDG 59. Thus toward the end of the patristic era the statements of the primitive tradition on the place of the angels in salvation history, and their ministry in the life of Jesus and in that of the church, took on more precise contours. At the same time their nature was better defined. Though only a relative incorporeity was generally accepted in relation to human beings, not to God it was considered a doctrine of faith that the angels were spiritual beings which, contrary to evil spirits the apostate angels, had freely decided for God see the texts summarized by John Dam., Expos. 17-18 II, 3-4, and Theod. Stud., Or. in ss. Angelos: PG 99, 729-747. To better understand this long and tortuous evolution of patristic angelology, determined by factors both internal and external to the Christian faith, it is helpful to bear in mind the angelological criteria that theologians gradually elaborated in their reflections on the scriptural and traditional data. In the first place, the principle of the canonicity of the Sacred Scriptures that governs all theological work is particularly valid in angelology. Augustine says this explicitly, writing: But we, following Scripture, according to which we are Christians, have learned that some of the angels are good, some bad, but never have we read of good demons Civ. Dei IX,19. More concretely, this means that angelology is principally based on faith in divine revelation. This fundamental principle not only imposed reservations on pagan demonology but also required that certain, overly arbitrary opinions of the Jewish tradition be submitted to criticism. Thus the opinion of a carnal sin of the angels, based on Jewish exegesis of Gen 6:1-4 see the texts in HDG 43, esp. Augustine, Civ. Dei XV,23, was gradually eliminated. Likewise the names of the archangels were reduced to the three mentioned in the canonical writings, in particular discarding the name of Uriel see RAC 5,182-188, and the catalog of angelic names in RAC 5,206-239. In line with biblical faith, patristic angelology took especially seriously the absolute transcendence of God the creator. This theological principle, operative esp. in the antignostic controversy, led theologians not only to expand the already-accepted doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, applying it also to the angels, as well as excluding that certain angels were created evil, but also to assert that the existence of evil spirits is to be explained as due to their completely free apostasy. They also specified the veneration that could be given to angels see Orig., C. Cels. VIII, 13; Aug., Ver. rel. 55,110, distinguishing them from the Word and from the Spirit, who alone constitute, with the Father, the incorporeal Trinity, the source of angelic life. Within the framework of the same cosmology another principle was brought forth having clearly biblical roots, but whose application was favored by extrabiblical, esp. Platonic traditions, i.e., the principle of the hierarchy of all created beings. On this principle it was accepted that there are angels nearer to God, considered as his court and messengers, and at the same time beings who are above human beings and created before them. By the same principle of gradation it was also held that angels are corporeal in relation to God, but incorporeal in relation to human beings. Another no less fundamental principle played a similarly decisive role in this vexing problem of the corporeity of angels: the fact that angels appeared to the patriarchs, and still appear at times today, presupposes that they must in some way be corporeal beings see RAC 5,121. Finally, the idea that angels are superior to human beings and yet constitute, as God’s creatures, a community among themselves, has guided all considerations on the relation between angels and human beings. On the one hand, inspired by some biblical suggestions see Mt 18:10; 22:30, Christian authors quickly understood the angelic life as the ideal of evangelical existence, comparing first the martyrs see the references to the Apostolic Fathers in HDG, 20 and then the monks to the angels, not without at times exaggerating the idea of the spiritualization of the perfect person, as, e.g., in the Origenist tradition. On the other hand, the conviction that the angels, though superior to human beings and not redeemed by Christ as they were, are nevertheless their relations and friends, engaged with them in the same battle between good and evil, led the Fathers to develop reflections on the ministry of the angels, both in service to the individual believer, esp. at the crucial moment of death, and as protectors of peoples and nations see esp. Origen, Hom. Lk 34. Indeed, this persuasion, rooted so profoundly in the Bible itself, is at the basis of Augustine’s doctrine of the Civitas Dei composed of the good angels and humanity, the latter taking the place of the rebellious angels and of ps.-Dionysius’s speculations on the hierarchical universe.A Catholic Notebook: Catholic Angelology travelquaz

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