Wednesday 24 June 2015

The future of angelology

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.


Pulau harapan said...

The future of angelology

John Hartley said...

Dear Steve,

I think this is probably the best short introduction to the subject of angels that I have ever read. (This may be more a comment on my ignorance than on your erudition.) Well done indeed.

I felt that, after the introduction, I'd like to read the rest of your paper on the subject - have you written it yet? I'd love a detailed survey of scripture, wrestling with the way that in some passages the angels and the LORD are somehow interchangeable and stand in for each other (e.g. Abraham's three visitors, whom he addresses and who reply as one, and who then really are three as two of them go to Sodom and one remains), the question of how Satan fits into angelology (is he good, as in 2 Sam 24:1, or bad as in 1 Chron 21:1?), and some kind of framework of how the world in NT times thought about angels so as to give the background to Paul's ideas. I'd welcome an expansion of your survey of Christian writing on them, and also some analysis of angels in modern thought and how we Christian ministers are supposed to help those who come to us with visions of angels.

I don't ask much, do I?

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

Steve Wright said...

John--thanks for the kind words and interesting questions. I'm sorry to disappoint, but this piece is probably the most robust treatment of angels that I'll ever write. You can always look to the sources that I cite if you are interested in thinking about this more. And for the topic of the ever-difficult devil, you might want to read Jenson's essay, "Evil as Person".

Nathan Hitchcock said...

Steve, John is right. This is a solid opening word to angelology. Indeed, angels are interruptions we can trust.

I'm tinkering with a chapter on the same subject. If angels fall under the mystery of revelation, we might further categorize them under the mystery of the Holy Spirit.

Erin said...

This is a wonderful introduction, thank you!

JW said...

I really appreciate this, Steve. There is something refreshing about an attention to the biblical narrative that doesn't seek to pinch off the awkwardness of it all.

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