I love a theologian who loves angels, but few today seem to know what to say about the angels. “How are we to steer a way… between the far too interesting mythology of the ancients and the far too uninteresting demythologisation of most of the moderns?”, Barth asks (CD III/3:369).
The angels present us with a fixed epistemological barrier to theological enquiry. Claus Westermann, with surprising certainty, claims that “angels are as inaccessible as God himself” (God’s Angels Need no Wings, 19). In the angels we see the limits of our knowledge. They are a startling reminder of the impossibility of human comprehension—a sign of the outer vistas of knowledge. We simply don’t know what to do with angels—which doesn’t matter so much I suppose, so long as they know what to do with us.
Angels are creatures who do not fit in the world. It is clear that their world is not our world, which is why those who speak with their language require an interpreter. Every theological interaction with the angels, Robert Jenson observes, involves some at least minimal amount of demythologising—while scripture tells of their “spatial coming and going, the main tradition has conceptualized them as disembodied subjectivities” (ST 2:119).
Dionysius the Areopagite extends the stories of scripture to fill out an entire hierarchy of celestial beings. According to Gregory of Nazianzus, angels are incorporeal (Oration 29), and so transcend material creation (cf Aquinas ST 1.51.2). They are, Ian McFarland writes, creatures of the invisible creation referred to in the Nicene Creed. They are a reminder that “creation is not limited to the phenomenal world that is subject to scientific observation” (From Nothing, 75).
Nevertheless, scripture speaks of them primarily as material agents—travelling, singing, eating, killing. Even in these corporeal manifestations, Jenson argues, the angels function as a sign of the impossibility of the coming of God’s kingdom according to the usual patterns of historical causality. Angels enter the scene only when virgins fall pregnant or hungry lions pretend to be sated. This is why, Jenson reasons, “the Revelation is one long display of angels” (ST 2:125). They are the creaturely excess that is a sign of divine activity in creation, but they are as ineffable as that very activity. Even when met by angels, “the gate of heaven mercifully does not open” to us (Jenson, ST 2:127). Despite our best attempts to demythologise the angels, or to translate them into theological principles, they persist in scripture as agents. The angelic narratives defy reduction.
Every redefinition of angels is a claim to know the deep structure of the world—a denial that the reality of the world, and God’s way with it, is impenetrably dark. The biblical stories preserve the mystery of angels in a way that our typologies and reductions do not: “we may trust them as we dare not trust our conceptual explanations” (Jenson, ST 2:127).
Rowan Williams once argued that to reword a poem is to change its meaning. A poem enters into the world to expose the strangeness of language and the mystery of reality. Angels are the poems of scripture. They enter into a situation to expose the strangeness of God’s activity and the mystery of creation. We cannot remove them from the narratives without the internal sense of the story breaking down. To demythologise them is to destroy their meaning.
The future of angelology, then, must be in attentiveness to scripture, and the way that angels interrupt the linkages of immanent historical causality. We can speak of them only as we speak of any mystery: as pure poetry.