All Things Visible and Invisible: Augustine on the Angels
In the Nicene creed we profess faith in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. If one pauses to think for a moment, one might well ask: what are these invisible things which God is said to create? The creed is not simply affirming that God is the creator of things in the natural world which cannot be perceived with the human eye (such as wind or electrons), but rather a belief in the existence of created spiritual realities is being expressed. In particular, the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses these words of the creed as its starting point for contemplating spiritual creatures, that is, the angels (see CCC §328-336). Augustine of Hippo is cited almost immediately as an authority on the topic of the angels, and his writing is employed in order to answer the question: “who are they?”
So how does Augustine answer this question? Who are the angels? Perhaps it would be first helpful to rule out two immoderate approaches to the subject. On the one hand, angels are often perceived as objects of sentimental affection: fair-haired youths with large white wings whose likeness can be found in home gardens everywhere. Or, on the other extreme, the subject of the angels is seen as so abstract that only the most erudite theologians (with a lot of extra time on their hands) would bother to think about it. But angels appear throughout the biblical text, and are frequent actors in God’s plan of salvation. Angels are present at the binding of Isaac (Gn. 22:11), the burning bush (Ex. 3:2), the annunciation (Lk. 1:28), the agony in the garden (Lk. 22:43) and the ascension (Acts 1:10), to name but a few examples! Speaking of the existence of angels, St. Augustine writes that “we know from our faith that angels exist, and we read of their having appeared to many people. We hold this firmly, and it would be wrong for us to doubt it” (en. Ps. 103.1.15). For Augustine, the angels are not a feeling or an abstraction but a fact, and he often mentions celestial spirits in his popular homilies.
Indeed, Augustine uses the scriptural appearances of angels as his main resource for answering the question of who the angels are. In many of these stories – including all of those cited above – angels act as messengers of God. One of Augustine’s first steps in establishing the identity of the angels is to remind us that the name “angel” (which comes from the Greek ἄγγελος, meaning messenger) is not the name of a race or of a nature, but is a job title. The CCC cites Augustine on this point, as he explains: “The angels are spirits. When they are simply spirits, they are not angels, but when they are sent, they become angels; for ‘angel’ is the name of a function not a nature. If you inquire about the nature of such beings, you find that they are spirits, if you ask what their office is, the answer is that they are angels. In respect of what they are, such creatures are spirits; in respect of what they do, they are angels. Make a comparison of human affairs. The name of someone’s nature is ‘human being,’ the name of his job is ‘soldier’” (en. Ps. 103.1.15).
Augustine, and the CCC following him, makes this distinction about the name of the angels a foundation for understanding them. But why does it matter that “angel” is not the name of a nature but of an office? Since we are earthly creatures, we can only begin to understand the angels’ relationship to Christ and to human beings by understanding the job which God has given to them. The angels are messengers, but what is their message? The diverse messages and visions which they bring throughout the biblical text are all pointing to one great event: the incarnation. The orientation of the angels towards the incarnation helps to explain, for example, the flurry of angelic activity in the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel, but it also accounts for their prophetic presence throughout the Old Testament. The angels therefore are properly called Christ’s angels (cf. Mt. 16:27), because they are his messengers and heralds. The angels, like Christ himself, perform a service for us, because in their own nature they have no need to send messages to anyone. This perfect love of the angels, which imitates the self-emptying love of God, can be a wonderful source of contemplation for us as we grow deeper in our understanding of creation and of the Church.
Knowing that the angels were not made as messengers, strictly speaking, but as created beings who love and cling to God can remind us of the gratuitousness of God’s creation. God created ex nihilo (from nothing), but also gratis (for nothing, for free); God does not need the angels to serve as his messengers, but he created them because they were good and beautiful. He includes them in his plan of human salvation as messengers because it is good for angels to exercise their freedom, not because God has any intrinsic need of their services. In other words, God created the angels to share freely in his goodness, and it was for this purpose that human beings were also created. Christianity is sometimes accused of being anthropocentric, that is, it is charged with emphasizing the uniqueness of human beings and the mastery of human beings over creation. But what we see in the angels is God’s intention to issue every kind of goodness out of love, and this creation includes rational non-human creatures which are in many ways superior to us. This perspective can allow us to see all of creation as a complete gift in which we freely participate, rather than as something which we own or can master.
A proper understanding of the status of the angels also shapes our understanding of what the Church is and what it means to be in the Church. The CCC, echoing the early Roman text The Shepherd of Hermas, says that “the world was created for the sake of the Church” (CCC 760). Such a claim might seem at first preposterous, how could the whole world be created for the sake of an institution, even a beautiful and ancient one? But, of course, the Catholic vision of the Church is not merely one of a human institution or of the world’s greatest collection of human beings. The Church is communion with God by incorporation into the body of Christ, and therefore incorporation into the life of the Trinity. This conception of the Church becomes apparent when we think about the angels, because it is the angels who are the first members of the Church. For Augustine, the world is created for the sake of the Church not just because the perfection of the world will be communion with God, but also because the inception of the world was communion with God, in the life of the angels. What God intended for all of creation is perfect communion with himself, and it is this life which is first lived and received among the angels, and it is this life into which angels invite us when they serve as heralds of the incarnation.
For this reason, one of Augustine’s most common names for the angels is that of “fellow-citizen” (cives), because we all belong to the city of God, although some of us are still on pilgrimage. The image of the pilgrim church is common throughout the history of Christian thought, but Augustine often includes the angels in this picture, as they beckon us home, “for we and they together are in the city of God ... the human part sojourning here below, the angelic aiding from above” (City of God X.7). In short, for Augustine, we are headed to the heavenly Jerusalem, that “city where the angels live, the city from which we are absent like travelers abroad, groaning in our exile” (en. Ps. 93.6).