Thursday, September 29, 2011

Angels and devils

Today, September 29, is observed by some Christian traditions in the West as Michaelmas [or the Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, the Feast of the Archangels, or the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels]. One site identifies Michael this way:
.... The name Michael signifies "Who is like to God?" and was the war cry of the good angels in the battle fought in heaven against Satan and his followers. Holy Scripture describes St. Michael as "one of the chief princes," and leader of the forces of Heaven in their triumph over the powers of Hell. ....
A couple of websites I visit noted the day by posting on the subject of angels. Insight Scoop offers Peter Kreeft on "Twelve things to know about angels," and The Gospel Coalition offers Gregg Allison [of Southern Baptist Seminary] responding to this question:
Where have we gotten our theology about Satan, angels, and demons? It seems like many beliefs about Satan aren’t clearly defined in the Bible yet are held by many.
From Professor Allison:
Both the Old and New Testaments provide divine revelation about angels, Satan, and demons, so the earliest Christians developed their understanding of these spiritual beings from Scripture. Additionally, in their curiosity to know more about these creatures, these Christians also engaged in significant speculation about their nature, attributes, powers, identities, and functions. For example, Cyprian proposed a key reason for the fall of Satan: “When he saw human beings made in the image of God, he broke forth into jealousy and malevolent envy” and thus rebelled against God (Cyprian, Treatise 10.4. ANF 5.492). Keenly aware of the ongoing spiritual battle between angels and demons, the early church also speculated that every human being has a guardian angel who protects them from the onslaughts of evil beings (e.g., Origen, Commentary on Matthew, 13.5. ANF 10.478; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 5.14. ANF 2.466).

More theological guesswork followed. ....

.... The greatest contribution to the early church’s doctrine of angels was made by Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite. (Based on the account of the conversion of Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, through the preaching of the apostle Paul [Acts 17:34], the church believed the writings attributed to a so-called Dionysius the Areopagite to be the works of this disciple of Paul. As a result, great authority was placed on them. It was not until the Renaissance that it was proved that the writings were actually penned by someone in the 6th century.) He offered an elaborate description of angelic beings, imagining them to be “superior” to human beings and nearer to God because of their “generous communion with the Deity” and their “total intelligence” (Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, The Celestial Hierarchy, 4.2). Dionysius did not hesitate to describe in great detail the hierarchy that exists among the angels (Ibid., 6.2). Taking nine biblical terms—thrones, cherubim, seraphim, authorities, dominions, powers, angels, archangels, and principalities—that refer to members of the heavenly realm, Dionysius offered fanciful descriptions of each of these nine orders (Ibid., 7.1ff.). But he went far beyond what Scripture affirms about these titles and their functions.

Because of the influence of the theological works of Augustine and the authority that became attached to the writings of Dionysius, they exerted an ill-founded yet significant influence over key leaders of the church in the following centuries. ....

.... Moving closer to our time, the modern period was characterized by two important developments regarding the doctrine of angels, Satan, and demons. First, the more liberal elements within Christianity, displaying a bias against supernatural matters, treated the doctrine with benign neglect at best and with outright contempt at worst. ....

Karl Barth, more than anyone else, was responsible for this resurgence in attention. Barth saw the need to steer clear of two extremes: the modern tendency to dismiss the doctrine completely, and the historical tendency to engage in rampant speculation (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/3, 369). In a discussion reminiscent of Barth’s, C. S. Lewis warned about the two extremes of error to be avoided when considering demons: “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel and excessive and unhealthy interest in them” (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 9). If the former error typified the modern period as a whole, the latter more recently surfaced in our contemporary age as seen in the film The Exorcist (1975, 2000), the very successful Touched by an Angel television program (1994-2003), the nearly constant appearance of books dedicated to the topic of angels on The New York Times bestseller list, and in Christian literature, the staggering popularity of Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness (Crossway, 1986) and Piercing the Darkness (Crossway, 1988). These latter presentations of angels, Satan, and demons are fanciful construals of these spiritual beings that capture the imagination of biblically illiterate people and offer much speculation rather than solid portraits derived from the Word of God. .... [more]
St. Michael, the Archangel - Saints & Angels - Catholic Online, Insight Scoop | The Ignatius Press Blog: Peter Kreeft: Twelve things to know about angels, You Asked: Where Do We Get Our Theology of Satan, Angels, and Demons? – The Gospel Coalition Blog