Vol. XIV, October 2008


St. Paul 3: The angels ordered in groups (cf. Col 1:16)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

We considered in the last meditation the creation of the angels in Saint Paul. The main point made by St. Paul was their relationship with Christ. “He is the image of the invisible God…, in Him all things were created…Thrones or Dominions or Principalities or Virtues…through Him and for Him” (Col 1:15-17). St. Paul’s intention is so strong, that we were led to “the cosmic liturgy”, that is, the angelic praise which embraces the entire creation: “The world in all its parts” has to “become a worship of God…a liturgy of God” in order to reach “its goal” (Benedict XVI, June 29, 2008). In this text, St. Paul does not just speak about angels, but offers indications about groups among them; we may take a closer look at this.

1. St. Paul’s references two groups of angels
St. Paul speaks often about the angels. But he does not always mean with this term all the angels.

a) The general way of speaking about the angels.Some examples may show us the general way of speaking about the angels, referring to all pure spirits. To St. Timothy he writes: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels” (1 Tim 3:16). Similarly, St. Paul refers extensively to all the angels in the letter to the Hebrews: “To what angel did God ever say, ‘Thou art My Son, today I have begotten thee’? And again, when He brings the first-born into the world, He says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship Him.’ Of the angels He says, ‘Who makes His angels winds, and His servants flames of fire” (Heb 1:5-7; cf. Col 2:18; 1 Cor 11:10; 13:1; 2 Thess 1:7; 1Titus 5:21). This term is occasionally understood by St. Paul in such a wide fashion that it refers to all pure spirits, even to the unfaithful or fallen ones who act against God (e.g. 1 Cor 4:9; 6:3).

b) “Thrones or dominions or principalities or virtues” (Col 1:16) In the letter to the Romans, St. Paul speaks once of angels alongside other groups. “I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord—oute angeloi oute archai…oute dunameis” (Rom 8:38). Although not necessarily the words themselves, but, yes, the context of the entire Bible makes it clear, that here “principalities” and “powers” refer to a certain group of pure spirits, that is to a subdivision of those spiritual creatures we generally call “angels”. When, therefore, St. Paul also speaks specifically of “angels” in contradistinction to other groupings of spiritual beings, then we fittingly concludes that he understands “angels” to also constitute one specific part or division of the world of the pure spirits, that is, a certain group only or, as tradition calls them, one “choir” alongside the others.

Before we proceed, we need to state that the translations confused in almost every language the original names in the Greek so that we want to fix the following translations: Archai are princes or principalities; Dunameos are powers; Exousiai are virtues; and Kyriotetes are dominions or Dominations. We have different places where St. Paul speaks of “principalities and powers”. To the Ephesians he wrote “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and virtues in the heavenly places—tais archais kai tais exusiais en tois epuranisis” (Eph 3:10). To the Colossians he speaks of Christ “who is the head of all principalities and virtues—pases arches kai exusias”. God “disarmed the principalities and virtues (arches kai tas exousias) and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in Him,” Christ (Col 2:15). To the Corinthians the apostle refers to three choirs, again to “every principality and every virtues and power—pasan archen kai pasan exusian kai dunamin” (1 Cor 15:24).

To list all the choirs which St. Paul mentions we have to add especially the first chapters of Ephesians and first Colossians. St. Paul speaks each time about Christ and His sovereignty and divinity, of Him whom God “raised…from the dead and made Him sit at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion—pases arches kai exusias kai dynameos kai kiriotetos” (Eph 1:20-21). Yes, Christ “is the image of the invisible God…in Him all things were created… Thrones or Dominions or Principalities or Virtues— thronoi eite kyriotetes kai archai kai exusiai” (Col 1:15-16). He speaks also of fallen angels which are ordered in such choirs, “the virtues of the air—tes exusias tou aeros, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” and “principalities, virtues, the world rulers of this present darkness, the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places—tas archas, tas exusias, tous kosmokratoras…ta pneumatica.” (Eph 6:12; cf. above Col 2:15).

St. Paul mentions other choirs as well. He speaks of the Cherubim, referring in Hebrews to the book of Exodus, “the Cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat”. He speaks of the Archangels when referring to the Second Coming of Christ (cf. 1 Thess 4:16). The only choir he does not mention by name is the Seraphim (cf. Is 6:2ff.).

2. Angels as characters
To understand such distinctions we have to discern and underscore some fundamental points.

a) The specific identity of every angel. The angels are not just a crowd or indistinct mass. They are individuals and persons with a very specific identity. They have a name (cf. Heb 1:4). The Catechism says: “As purely spiritual creatures angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendor of their glory bears witness” (CCC 330).

The individuality brings with it a specific characteristic, much more than what we call among us “personality”. This goes very deep into their nature, marking the entire person for each angel is a unique species, that is, each one is more distinct from another spirit than any two physical species are distinct as, for example, a horse from a tree.

b) The Tradition about the choirs of angels. Nevertheless, there are also some unifying principles or points. There is first simply God’s will: He may call spirits of varied talents together in view of a particular mission and ministry. That is the reason why we find different groups of angels in Scripture like those who “stand before the throne of God” (Tob 12:15; Lk 1:19; Rev 8:2-4) and “four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea” (Rev 7:2; cf. Rev 2-3; 8:2 or 16:1).

More radically, however, is the division into the choirs which form a hierarchy. The basic principle here is, according St. Thomas, the end which the angels achieve by nature or by grace. “According to their relation to this end, the orders of the angels are distinguished by natural gifts.” But, as they reach this end also by grace, “the orders in the angels are adequately distinguished by the gifts of grace, but dispositively by natural gifts” (St. Thomas, ST I, q. 108, a. 4c; cf q. 63, a. 9 ad 3). We know herewith that the division in choirs goes back to the moment before the test of the angels. In fact, St. Paul refers to these orders even when he speaks about the fallen angels.

But, St. Thomas distinguishes them also according to grace, given in proportion to nature among the pure spirits. Therefore, also after sin, the distinction in nature continued in the angels and in the choirs (cf. ST III, q..8, a. 4) St. Bernard also distinguishes the choirs according their relationship with Christ’s humanity. We can say, then, that based on the proximity and degree of assimilation to the divine, according to nature or grace, the angels form a hierarchy, the different choirs, and every angel belongs to one of these choirs.

3. The hierarchical order of the angels in St. Paul
It seems worthwhile to note that St. Paul does not formally discuss these sub-divisions of the choirs. He refers to them as a simple fact. This probably explains why we find, then, the reference and even structure of the choirs of angels already in the first writings of the primitive Church (cf. St. Ignatius of Antioch, †107 or St. Ireneus, †202, etc.). In the Liturgy, the Church still refers to these saints. Pope John Paul II, in the longest Magisterial pronunciation on the angels, confirms the division of the angels into Choirs (cf. Catechseis on the Angels, August 6, 1986, no. 3).

What do we find in St. Paul about the order among the choirs? Here are of interest his two longer lists in Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1. They do not coincide. Fr. W. Wagner in a still unpublished paper, shows that the two lists are harmonious. First, he observes that the list in Ephesians is ascending from lower choirs to higher choirs in glorification of the divinity of Christ, and the list in Colossians is descending, following, as it were, the Son’s descent to the lowliness of mankind in His Incarnation. Further, in Colossians St. Paul does not simply mention four choirs in a row, but mentions two pairs of choirs where the descent from on high is most pronounced: from the first circle of choirs around the throne of GOD, that is from the third to the fourth choirs, from the Thrones to the Dominations,… and again from the middle circle of choirs to the last group of three choirs, that is, from the sixth to the seventh choir, that is, from the Principalities to the Virtues. With these two exegetical observations, the two groups harmonize perfectly. These five choirs as accordingly, would line up in this fashion: Thrones and Dominions, Powers and Principalities and Virtues.

The hierarchy, then is completed, when we add—according a general agreement in tradition—the Seraphim and Cherubim as the first and second choir, and the Archangels and Angels as the lowest or eighth and ninth choirs.

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!
St. Paul referred to personal experiences, having been lifted up to the third heaven (cf. 2 Cor 12:2). Although that was a special grace, we still should listen to his strong invitation to imitate him: “I urge you, then, be imitators of me…as I am of Christ”. (1Cor 4:16; 11:1; cf. 2 Thess 3:7). We should understand this, not with respect to visions, but with regard to his familiarity with the holy angels. Of course, all is grace, which God grants to those whom He chooses, for “He has mercy upon whomever He wills” (cf. Rom 9:15-26). For our part, we look up to Him and the angels, and humbly, confidently call them down into our lives.

Fr. Titus Kieninger ORC