The subject of angels has fascinated people since the dawn of creation. These mysterious and ethereal creatures have eluded the mind and occupied countless pages in theological texts through the centuries. However, modern scholarship and theologies typically ignore the subject entirely. At best, only a few paragraphs are dedicated to these celestial creatures in contemporary systematic theologies, and the topic of angels seems to have nearly vanished from the Reformed pulpits and theological discussions of the last century. Reformed theologians and students might be surprised that our forefathers in the faith mused and wrote copiously on these heavenly beings and saw them playing a vital role in the history of redemption.

Angels and the Bible

Scripture is replete with references to angels. From the cherubim who guarded the garden of Eden in Genesis 3:24 to the angel whom Christ sent to reveal so much to the Apostle John in Revelation, the angelic host of heaven is a dominant theme in the Bible. The Hebrew word for angel, malakh, occurs 213 times in the Old Testament. The Greek word for angel, angelos, with which we may be more familiar, occurs 176 times throughout the New Testament and is often translated “messenger,” “one sent,” “envoy,” or “ambassador” when referencing the mission and function of the angelic host. The Bible includes only twenty-six specific historical encounters with angels after the garden of Eden: ten in the Old Testament and sixteen in the New Testament. This period covers about 2,100 years, beginning with the appearance to Hagar in Genesis 16 and continuing until the time of John’s prophetic visions in Revelation. Since the Spirit of God saw fit to reveal this much regarding the subject of angels within Scripture, we have a duty to pay attention to what is presented.

Angels and the Early Church

Angels play a prominent role in the theology of the Christian church. After the close of the New Testament, the theologians of the early church saw angels as central players in God’s creation, the Christian life, and the life of the church. These early theologians and Christian thinkers, such as Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Pseudo-Dionysius, were more concerned with who the angels are more than they were with what the angels are. The progression of the theology of the church fathers through the centuries led to the church viewing the angels as having a central role within the context of God’s history of redemption.

Angels and the Reformation

During the Reformation, Martin Luther spoke of angels as having a fundamental role as models of the Christian life. Because of their all-embracing submission to the will of God, the good angels, according to Luther, have much to teach Christians about gospel faith and obedience.1 In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin assumed a guarded position on the subject of angels.2 Calvin warned his readers that the subject of angels should be approached with a willingness to “remain enclosed within [the] bounds to which God has willed to confine us, and as it were, to pen up our minds that they may not, through their very freedom to wander, go astray.”3 For Calvin, the real danger is in unprofitable speculations about angels and, most importantly, in the possibility of worshiping the angels.

The rediscovery of justification by faith alone, in tandem with the eradication of purgatory in theological thought, led to the firm criticism of the idea that angels serve as intercessors between God and men.

In the decades after the Reformation, English theologians readjusted their beliefs relating to angels in such a way that they could be utilized clearly as a conduit for Reformed ideas. The rediscovery of justification by faith alone, in tandem with the eradication of purgatory in theological thought, led to the firm criticism of the idea that angels serve as intercessors between God and men. However, the initial impact of reform did not entirely destroy older patterns of thought and practice concerning the angels. Although the angelic roles of meditation and intercession were rejected, reforming clergymen continued to emphasize the angels.

Angels and the Puritans

In desiring to nurture a strictly God-centered worldview, the Puritans carefully and cautiously avoided the magical or mechanical.4 When we encounter the subject of angels in the writings of the Puritans, it is almost never isolated but emphasizes the whole counsel of God as revealed in Scripture. The Puritans approached the subject of angels with great caution, choosing to have their thoughts about angels operate within a framework of the mediation of Christ alone and the glory of God alone. Isaac Ambrose properly captures the Puritan approach to angels: “We have far less written in God’s word of the nature of angels, than of God himself; because the knowledge of God is far more practical, and less controversial, and more necessary to salvation.”5 Jonathan Edwards, who filled his Miscellanies with musings on the subject of angels, reflected: “The angels and saints make up but one family, though members of a different character; as in one royal house there is the queen, the children, the barons, etc. He is the head of all the rational creation; saints and angels are united in Christ, and have communion in him.”6

Throughout church history, angels have played a vital role in the Christian understanding of God’s involvement in creation, the affairs of humanity, and the consummation of history. To dismiss the theology of angels as too mysterious, too speculative, or too mystical is to discount the intellectual exercise and spiritual reflection of countless Christian thinkers throughout history. There is a great need today for the development of a robust Reformed angelology with the aim of directing attention and theological reflection not to the angels themselves but to Christ, whom we worship and serve together.

In coming installments, we will explore the creation, power, and mission of the angels throughout Scripture, and we will listen to the voices of Christian theologians, pastors, and thinkers regarding this vast heavenly multitude who “day and night they never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (Rev. 4:8).

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on angels and was originally published December 19, 2018. Next post.

  1. Philip M. Soergel, “Luther on the Angels,” in Angels in the Early Modern World, eds. Peter Marshall and Alexandra Walsham (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 67. ↩︎
  2. See Laura Sangha, Angels and Belief in England, 1480–1700 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012), 41–78, where Calvin is featured as a major influence on the angelology of the time and place. Joad Raymond makes a similar comment in Milton’s Angels: The Early-Modern Imagination (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2010), 36. ↩︎
  3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 1.15.1. ↩︎
  4. Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, eds., A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage, 2012), 180. ↩︎
  5. Isaac Ambrose, War with Devils: Ministration of, and Communion with Angels (Glasgow, Scotland: Joseph Galbraith and Company, 1769), 480. ↩︎
  6. Jonathan Edwards, “Miscellanies No. 515,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 18, Miscellanies, 501–832, ed. Ava Chamberlain (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000), 60. ↩︎

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