Angels were scarce in eighteenth-century New England. The Puritans certainly did not ignore the supernatural, since the supernatural is part of the biblical story. But the subject of angels had long fallen out of fashion. In their vast corpus of sermons, tracts, and writings, the Puritans seldom referenced the subject of angels. When they did mention angels, they did so with a great deal of trepidation and only in their regular exposition of Scripture. Rarely did they engage in what contemporary theologians call “angelology”—the doctrine of angels.
A rediscovery of the contribution of the writings of Jonathan Edwards (1703–58) on the subject of angels propels him into the category of one of the most significant thinkers on angelology in the Christian tradition. While Edwards never constructed a systematic angelology, he wrote on the subject in nearly fifty entries in his varied collection of Miscellanies, and he alluded to the subject in multiple sermons and treatises.
Much of what Edwards wrote on angels, as well as on demons, repeats much of traditional orthodoxy. The angels were created by God and are bodiless spiritual beings. They are intelligent creatures who are spectators to God’s work in the universe from the moment of their creation up to the present church age. They are also moral creatures with a capacity to choose both good and evil. Edwards believed angels exist in vast numbers and have powers that greatly exceed those of human beings. Some angels fell, including Satan, through sin or disobedience. These fallen angels are called demons. Edwards saw the holy unfallen angels as servants and ministers of God’s providence, performing various functions throughout the physical universe and in the lives of human beings.
The History of Redemption
Between March and August 1739, Edwards delivered thirty sermons on the Old Testament text of Isaiah 51:8. The doctrine Edwards provides in his series is continuous from the first sermon to the last, and is basically stated, “The Work of Redemption is a work that God carries on from the fall of man to the end of the world.” The themes developed by Edwards in the framework of this discourse on redemption engaged him both directly and indirectly in most of the expositions he preached throughout this time period. These themes can be summarized under three traditional headings: heaven, earth, and hell.
Angels play a frequent role in the tri-world narrative that Edwards constructs. He draws these themes out of his Miscellanies and includes them in his sermons, reminding his congregants that “the creating heaven was in order to the Work of Redemption; it was to be an habitation for the redeemed and the Redeemer, Matthew 25:34. Angels [were created to be] ministering spirits [to the inhabitants of the] lower world [which is] to be the stage of the wonderful Work [of Redemption].”
The angelology of Jonathan Edwards should be viewed as a corollary to his Christology. Throughout the sermons in his 1739 series, Edwards positions the angelic beings at the epicenter of his teachings: “Scripture is filled,” he says, “with instances when God hath . . . sent angels to bring divine instructions to men.” Angels, in heaven, “spend much of their time in searching into the great things of divinity, and endeavoring to acquire knowledge in them.” When they are not employed in ministration and singing, Edwards considers that angels may be studying. Regularly, Edwards asks his parishioners to follow the example of angels and imitate their diligence in the study of Scripture. Both angels and humanity, Edwards says, will find “the glorious work of redemption” at the heart of that study. For Edwards, the love of Christ in His redemption stands at the center of all angelic contemplation: “He is so lovely and excellent that the angels in heaven do greatly love him; their hearts overflow with love to him, and they are continually, day and night without ceasing, praising him and giving him glory.”
Edwards agrees with the medieval theologians that angels spend a substantial amount of time as ministering spirits to humanity. They exist, he says, as invisible armies around all true believers in Christ. However, Edwards vehemently rejects the Roman Catholic teaching of “guardian angels” as being assigned to children at the event of their baptism, yet he frequently reminded children in his Northampton congregation that angels were chiefly attentive to them.
Edwards is careful to emphasize that the care of angels has not been exclusively reserved for only children, nor are the actions of angels childish. For Edwards, the angels are ever-present realities, and he says there exists the potential for the nature of humanity to take on the form of the angelic. In essence, Edwards believes that the angels offer a magnification of existence unavailable to fallen humanity.