Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on angels.
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. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin assumed a guarded position on the subject of angels. 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.” For Calvin, the real danger is in unprofitable speculations about angels and, most importantly, in the possibility of worshiping the angels.