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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.

Jonathan Edwards

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.”1 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].”2

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.”3 Angels, in heaven, “spend much of their time in searching into the great things of divinity, and endeavoring to acquire knowledge in them.”4 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.”5

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.

Christ: The King of Angels

The ultimate purpose of God in creating the world, for Jonathan Edwards, is linked with the incarnation of the Son of God––the joining of the eternal Son with a human nature in the person of Jesus Christ. Despite a focus on the sufferings and the crucifixion of Christ, Edwards’ reflections on God’s purposes begin with the incarnation: “It seems to me very proper and suitable, that the human nature should be advanced far above the angelical nature by the incarnation of Christ.”6 The reason for this is that “men are a more ultimate end of the creation than the angels,” and “the angels . . . are created for this end, to minister to the creatures.”7 Edwards sees a parallel between Christ and the angels at this point. The divine nature of Christ places Him inherently higher than all other human beings, and yet Christ humbled Himself to serve humanity in His earthly incarnate life. The angels are also inherently above human beings (though not so high as Christ), yet the angels serve those lower than themselves.

Here is another aspect of glory and joy reserved for Christ at His enthronement at the time of the ascension, namely, the confirmation of the angels, who would rejoice greatly that they were confirmed for eternal joy in the presence of God and their King, Jesus Christ.

Edwards particularly focuses on the ascension of Christ into heaven and calls this grand event His “enthronization.” For Edwards, the turning point in Christ’s story was His ascension, which was “the solemn day of his investiture with the glory of his kingdom . . . an occasion of great rejoicing in the whole church in heaven and earth.”8 At Christ’s exaltation, the Father declares, “Let all God’s angels worship him” (Heb. 1:6). If it was fitting that Christ should be publicly rewarded after His sufferings; it was no less fitting and suitable that the angels should be rewarded at the same time. For Christ’s trial and suffering were also a trial to the angels who beheld it happening, as “it was fit that the angels should be confirmed after they had seen Christ in the flesh, for this was the great trial of the angels’ obedience that ever was.”9 This work of confirmation is undoubtedly accomplished by Christ. Edwards notes:

We learn by Scripture: that Christ is the head of the angels, and that the angels are united to him as part of his body. Which holds forth, that he is not only their head of government, but their head of communication; he is the head from whence they derive their good.10

Edwards suggests that the unfallen angels, from the angelic fall until the ascension of Christ, were in trial and unconfirmed for eternal joy. In fact, they were not certain that they would not also fall as their fellow creatures had done at the insurrection of Satan and his minions. This trial of uncertainty was the “occasion of joy” that God “reserved” for that “glorious day of Christ’s ascension.”11 Here is another aspect of glory and joy reserved for Christ at His enthronement at the time of the ascension, namely, the confirmation of the angels, who would rejoice greatly that they were confirmed for eternal joy in the presence of God and their King, Jesus Christ.

Pointing to Colossians 1:16–20, Edwards writes, “It was the design of the Father that his Son should have the preeminence in all things, not only with respect to men, but with respect to angels, thrones, dominions, principalities and powers.”12 He argues from these verses that if Christ has the preeminence with respect to angels, that if He created them, that if they consist by Him, that if He is the dispenser of God’s benefits to them, and that if they have all fullness in Him, then why should He also not be the One to give them eternal life? It is God’s will, Edwards writes, that the Son “in all things should have preeminence, and that all fullness should dwell in him,” and therefore, “by him he reconciles all things to him[self], whether they be things in heaven or things on earth.”13 If this preeminence extends to the world of men, Edwards argues that it also extends to the world of angels: “By him the angels also are brought to their confirmed union with him.”14 It was the design of the Father that Christ should in “all things” dwell in preeminence, in respect to both angels as well as humanity, and that angels and humans should possess their fullness only in Him. Therefore, if men have their fullness in Christ, Edwards states, “I don’t see how it can be otherwise, then they should have their reward and eternal life and blessedness in him.”15 God gave to His Son all things and over all things the Son has preeminence, including both angels and men, granting them eternal life.

 

  1. Jonathan Edwards, “No. 1: Sermon One March 1739,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 9, A History of the Work of Redemption, ed. John F. Wilson (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003), 116. ↩︎
  2. Edwards, “No. 1: Sermon One March 1739,” in Works, 9:118–19. ↩︎
  3. Edwards, “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth,” in Works, vol. 22, Sermons and Discourses, 1739–1742, ed. Harry S. Stout (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2003), 93. ↩︎
  4. Edwards, “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth,” in Works, 22:99. ↩︎
  5. Edwards, “Children Ought to Love the Lord Jesus Christ Above All,” in Works, 22:172. ↩︎
  6. Edwards, “Miscellanies, No. 103,” in Works, vol. 13, The Miscellanies, a–500, ed. Thomas A. Schafer (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994), 271. ↩︎
  7. Edwards, “Miscellanies, No. 103,” in Works, 13:271. ↩︎
  8. Edwards, “Miscellanies, No. 833,” in Works, vol. 20, The Miscellanies, 833–1152, ed. Amy Plantinga Pauw (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002), 48. ↩︎
  9. Edwards, “Miscellanies, No. 515,” in Works, vol. 18, The Miscellanies, 501–832, ed. Ava Chamberlain (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000), 59. ↩︎
  10. Edwards, “Miscellanies, No. 515,” in Works, 18:60. ↩︎
  11. Edwards, “Miscellanies, No. 515,” in Works, 18:60. ↩︎
  12. Edwards, “Miscellanies, No. 570,” in Works, 18:106. ↩︎
  13. Edwards, “Miscellanies, No. 570,” in Works, 18:106. ↩︎
  14. Edwards, “Miscellanies, No. 570,” in Works, 18:106. ↩︎
  15. Edwards, “Miscellanies, No. 570,” in Works, 18:106. ↩︎

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