Seraphim, Virtues, and Angels, Oh My

The Catholic Church has angels traditionally organized in a hierarchy--so why don't most people know about it?

BY: William D. Webber

 
Have a question about angels? Email Bill Webber at angelquestions@beliefnetstaff.com.*

Find Out:
  • How are angels ranked in heaven?
  • Where were the angels of murdered children?
  • How do we recognize a "human" angel?


    Many people are fascinated with the ordering and ranking of angels. While some Christians believe in an angelic hierarchy, others have never heard of it. How is it possible that this hierarchy is accepted as gospel by millions of Christians but also remains unknown to millions of other Christians? In the past, I have received questions about whether angels are ranked in heaven. This month, I will explore the answers to the following self-posed question:

    The Scriptures say there are countless angels. Do we know how they are organized?

    Catholics and Protestants disagree on the hierarchy of angels. Though the Catholic Church has never issued an official declaration on the organization of heavenly hosts, there is a long tradition that recognizes a celestial hierarchy of angels. St. Jerome and St. Ambrose made lists of a possible organization of angels, but the chart as we know it began with Dionysius. It first gained authority with the acceptance of Pope Gregory the Great and then, through the adoption and reworking by Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure in the 12th and 13th centuries embraced it. This celestial hierarchy divides angels into three tiers and three more subdivisions ("choirs") of angels.

    1. The highest tier comprises (in descending order) seraphim, cherubim, and thrones. These angels are noted for their zeal and ceaseless contemplation of God. Reigning at the top of this spectrum, in the realm closest to God, are the seraphim. They are characterized by their fiery love, which is said to reflect onto the lesser ranks of angels. Cherubim are associated with intellect, sharing deep insight into God's secrets and understanding the requirements for salvation. Thrones symbolize submission and peace; they help people abide by God's will. By tradition, God rests on them and imparts His spirit, which they pass on to lesser angels and mankind.

    2. The second tier is made up of dominions (or dominations), virtues, and powers. Dominions rule over other angels to carry out God's commands and make His authority known. Through virtues, God oversees the seasons and visible heavens. The powers, on the other hand, are assigned to fight evil spirits and defeat their plans.

    3. Principalities, archangels, and angels make up the third tier. Principalities are the top choir. They guard countries, make announcements to mankind, and govern souls and bodies. Archangels protect important people and, under St. Michael, the Church as well. Angels form the lowest rank and include guardian angels who lead, guide, and protect humans.
  • Generally, Protestants reject the idea of nine choirs in the celestial hierarchy and divide the angelic order only into angels and archangels. Protestant scholars also point out that the idea for the angel hierarchy came from the book "The Celestial Hierarchy" by Dionysius the Areopagite. From the 6th century through the Middle Ages, this book was believed to have been written by the Biblical Dionysius, a first-century Greek who Saint Paul at Athens (Acts 17:34) converted. At that time, "The Celestial Hierarchy" was treated as an authority almost equal to the Bible because it was purported that Paul, caught up into the "third heaven" (2 Corinthians 12:2), had taught Dionysus the special revelation about angels received in his visions and in John's visions.

    The ideas in the book were generally accepted in the centuries that followed. But, both Protestant and Catholic scholars now agree the book had existed before the 6th century and was not authored by the Dionysius mentioned in the Bible. Instead, the book was written by an unknown 6th century Christian, not the convert of St. Paul. After the discovery, Calvin wrote that the greatest parts of the book were mere babbling, and contemporary theologian Karl Barth dismisses Dionysius as "one of the greatest frauds in church history." In fact, today the author of "The Celestial Hierarchy" is referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius.

    Continued on page 2: If angels are around us, why do children still get killed? »

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