January 2018 Print

And of Persons There Are Only These: Human, Angelic, and Divine

by Dr. Michael Berton

It is impossible for anyone to have no notion of angels. However, contemporary depictions are often caricatures of their true nature. Many ancient cultures evidenced belief in immaterial agents of good or evil. Moreover, certain philosophical movements in those eras postulated spiritual beings that complemented earlier mythical depictions. These attempted to explain reality in terms of a great chain of existents above material things that mediates the sub-lunar world with its ultimate cause or principle. Such often implied that things necessarily poured forth from that source in a cascade of evermore complex, changeable, limited beings. The virtually infinite highest principle, seemingly, acted without liberty and from necessity, finding its power exhausted in the formless, unlimited, infinite potentiality of the co-eternal, uncreated principle of unformed matter.


The Assumptions of Man

A central assumption was that the universe has an eternal duration of endlessly great repetitive cycles, with its ultimate necessity only occasionally disrupted by idiosyncratic, chance events and actions. To accept this narrative about the universe and ourselves, of course, raises unsolvable problems concerning human liberty. Such assumptions imply the ultimate source of existing as being unable to bring forth limited, less simple, material things without the necessary assistance of co-eternal spiritual intermediaries to assure that it may remain pure and uncorrupted by lesser effects, yet in some way be credited with bringing them forth.

As many Fathers and Doctors of the Church pondered the full implications of the Book of Genesis and the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Eternal Trinity, it was apparent the aforementioned assumptions had to be corrected. How could it be otherwise if one ponders attentively the insistence in Genesis that the Creator made “be” the universe and sustains or conserves it in “being” here and now? This must also apply to purely spiritual beings. Further, how could such be reconciled with the Revelation made to Moses of the Proper Name of the Creator as “I AM (Who) I AM,” an affirmation profoundly reiterated in a different context by our Lord Jesus Christ when He confirmed that “Before Abraham was, I am?”

These certitudes granted by Faith in Revelation confirmed that the entirety of creation presupposed absolutely nothing, except the Infinite, Subsisting Being of the Eternal Trinity. In an instant, with no necessity imposed on that supreme act of loving generosity, the unified Divine Will made this entire contingent universe of myriads of interacting kinds of existents. And it was freely chosen as the most fitting to manifest the Divine Goodness from among all possibles within the Infinite Understanding of the Trinity.

The Experience of Orders

Henceforth, purely spiritual beings could only be understood as creatures that came “to be” at an instant coinciding with the origin of the universe initiating time. Each, like all things, must be sustained in being by the same act of generosity that was Creation, even though their existing is not inherently measured by time but rather “aevum.” This notion was assimilated from prior philosophical reflections based upon a reasonable conclusion: things encountered within experience, evidence different kinds or orders in which the highest, most interior acts of one rank, approximates the lowest acts of other kinds or orders.

Since each rank or order is distinguished by its innermost, comprehensive, intensive acts, we may truly distinguish a human from all living, sensing, animate things by referring to ourselves as reasoning animate beings. At the heart of reasoning to learn further truths there is operative an enduring, intuitive intellective inclination to discern true from false, and a willful inclination towards what seems good from non-good or evil. Such approximate the lowest acts of angelic intellectual intuition and volitional efficacy.

In contrast, an angel’s inmost life is to be a purely immaterial intuitive intellectual, volitional person. Once an angel’s choice was made about accepting supernatural Beatitude, no further determination would be possible. Unlike human persons, who can continue purgation after death if not stained by Original Sin or Mortal sin, demons can neither repent nor reform.

The Creation of the Angels

At the instant of each angel’s creation, its intellective understanding was infused with all knowledge proportioned to its capacity and mission, and its will was granted all power required to execute its intentions instantly and effortlessly. This approximates, analogically, the intuitive comprehension of Divine Knowledge and Divine Power. However, all known within Infinite Divine Knowledge as actual or potential is grasped eternally, totally, simultaneously, as subject to the unqualifiedly all-powerful Divine Will that alone can truly make knowns be, so long as they imply no contradiction.

Granted immediately an efficacious will to desire and act in relation to what they intuitively know, angels need not reason or analyze to comprehend causes, nor meditate to achieve a comprehensive synthesis of what they know and love, as human persons must. What angels know and will to act upon may be measured by time, but angelic intentionality is not. Any angel instantly is where he intends to be and act.

Being relegated to instrumental roles, angels no longer could be viewed as supernatural, except in the sense that, being purely spiritual persons, they are “supra” material and temporal natures. Due to their pure immateriality, they better image the utter infinite simplicity of the Divine Being. Yet, they are creatures that began “to be” in an instant in relation to the Eternally Subsisting Divine Persons, and like all others, their existence is sustained continually by the unique, Infinite, Omniscient, and Omnipotent Triune Creator.

Scripture offers many insights into angels’ roles. In all instances, angels are portrayed as having comprehension of specific things and persons. This contrasts with certain ancient philosophical depictions of spiritual beings as knowing little or nothing of corruptible particulars. How can one accept such after hearing the assurance in Psalms that God commands His angels to guard us in our ways, referring to an angel for each created human person? Even the highest ranks of angels comprehend all that lower angels know and do in detail through ever more comprehensive and extensive intuitive vision.

A Whole and Dynamic Relationship

For those who confirm the Faith by living in accord with orthodoxy and orthopraxy, the existence and nature of angels are woven into the fabric of ordinary daily life. Of course, we have no commonly available sensible evidence to demonstrate their existence and nature, and this is why empirical-mathematical sciences can say absolutely nothing about either issue. Nonetheless, their incredible numbers have been acknowledged by saints and mystics. Saint Thomas Aquinas insisted that the number of angels exceeds all created things comprising the universe; and mystical visionaries such as Venerable Catherine Emmerich remarked that if we could behold the angelic hosts ministering to Creation with physical eyes it would seem that the light of the sun would be eclipsed and the world cast into shadow.

Not only are our physical sciences unable to aid us concerning the existence and nature of angels; they also are inadequate in explaining what life essentially is in different biological sciences. Such sciences analyze and explain in meticulous detail how physical processes of living things function, but what life is can only be answered philosophically, and even then, only fully with inspiration from Revelation and sacred theology. Measuring quantitative magnitudes does not directly aid us in considering what essentially lies at the heart of what it is to be a human person. Persons, alone, possess immaterial powers of intellect to attain the true and will to desire the good in order to exercise true liberty, which finds its ultimate goal in Truth and Good.

Unlike ourselves, who partake the species of humanity, for being material and bodily enters into our personal nature, every created pure spirit is a unique species of angel. Michael, said of an angel, designates a specifically distinct angelic person from Gabriel or Raphael, and so on. There are more species of angels than we can possibly imagine or calculate in this life, even in the light of Faith. Since no angelic person is generated with ancestral heritage, none share a common transmitted nature with others. Yet, we rank them according to the infused comprehension of creation proportioned to their nature and dignity that accords with their roles and missions. And so, we distinguish Angels, Archangels, Seraphs, Cherubs, Thrones and Dominations, and so on.

On the Nature of Angels and Ourselves

Each angel intuitively and directly comprehends, according to its proportional capacity, the Eternal Life of the Triune Creator, even though certain ranks also direct their intention to attend to created particulars measured by time. This is why the guardian angel of one human being may act in regard to his charge in ways contrary or opposed to that of another human being. Yet both are faithful to their mission and the common good deigned by Providence. Consider, for example, angels of honorable soldiers locked in mortal combat representing differing countries or principalities in a war.

St. Thomas Aquinas judged that angels were created perfect in regard to the happiness or blessedness their natures could attain, something that human persons can only achieve by timely action and effort. However, no angel possessed ultimate, supernatural Beatitude whereby “We shall see God as He is.” Such is beyond the power of any created intellect to consider or will to secure. This is central in explaining how bad angels perversely desired equality with the Creator. By choosing to remain fixed in the fullness of natural beatitude granted through their created powers, certain angels refused the gift of supernatural Beatitude God would have granted them. Thus, they condemned themselves to aeviternal bitter torment by choosing natural beatitude as an idol that precludes supernatural Beatitude. Lucifer and his allies may enjoy residues of their natural ontological splendor, but as persons they are most wretched.

Some have postulated that the Triune Creator, having made the natures of angelic and human persons, might “mercifully” annul the causal efficacy of the supreme natural gift He instilled in them as created images of the Trinity, namely, their personal liberty. These counterfeit theologians suggest that no consequences proper to the nature of created persons misusing liberty can be irrevocable.

Such conjectures covertly retrieve aspects of the doctrine of apokatastasis that was considered plausible by some early Church Fathers imbued with Neo-Platonic philosophical teachings. Such sentimentalism or outright heresy ultimately imply erroneous views mentioned earlier, such as eternity of the universe in endless cycles; nebulous views of the status of purely spiritual beings and human souls that permit transmigration to be rationalized, and ignoring real, discernible, differences between substantive natures of beings. Such also implies that the Infinite Creator’s original intention lacked integrity and was only apparently coherent, as well as that Christ’s Redemptive Sanctifying Grace is the least precious of all goods.

Human persons, in common with angels who chose rightly in accepting the gift of supernatural Beatitude, can only fulfill their inmost nature by striving to maintain a unified intention of loving the Creator above all things. This intention to compensate for the loss of Original Justice is why our lives must constitute a “tradition,” a unity of habituation or enculturation in which perfective refinements only are added to our understanding and love. Just as with civic and sacred traditions into which we are born, no subtraction or eradication of what preceded ought to occur except in regard to what is discerned to be an impediment to true human integrity, what is evil.

To believe one might subtract, abrogate, or obrogate that which was good and true, or add that which contradicts the same, implies auto-destruction of one’s history and destiny. It is analogous to claiming that what definitely was established as being inherently evil or untrue now may be considered its opposite, whether about physical things or moral action. Angels need not have these concerns since their choice instantly determined their eternal destiny. We, however, from our instant of fruitful conception, restlessly desire a goal grasped as in a glass darkly. But it is the same granted to angels who chose wisely: union with the Infinite, Omniscient, Omnipotent Trinity of Eternal Persons, Subsisting Truth and Good.