This article was originally published in August of 2015 and is the 3rd part in a series. Read the first and second
HIERARCHY AS A NATURAL ORDER OF CREATION
Christians have speculated for almost our entire history about how the angels are ranked in a hierarchy. Since the entire natural universe is organized by God in a hierarchical fashion (the cosmos, animals, microorganisms, etc.), human society by nature is hierarchical, and because God as a Trinity is also hierarchical (the Father is the source, from Him comes the Son, and from both Father and the Son comes the Holy Spirit), it thus seems logical that the angels also have a hierarchy. And from very early on it has been speculated that the hierarchy of the Church is patterned by the Holy Spirit after that of the angels. As Clement of Alexandria wrote in the 2nd Century (The Stromata, or Miscellanies, 6.13):
… according to my opinion, the grades here in the Church, of bishops, presbyters [priests], deacons, are imitations of the angelic glory…
The word hierarchy first appears in the works of Pseudo-Dionysius and has been part of our vocabulary ever since. In chapter 3 of THE CELESTIAL HIERARCHY, Dionysius defines hierarchy as follows:
In my opinion a hierarchy is a sacred order, a state of understanding ad an activity approximating as closely as possible to the divine. And it is uplifted to the imitation of God in proportion to the enlightenments divinely given to it. The beauty of God—so simple, so good, so much the source of perfection—is completely uncontaminated by dissimilarity. It reaches out to grant every being, according to merit, a share of light and then through a divine sacrament, in harmony and in peace, it bestows on each of those being perfected its own form.
The goal of a hierarchy, then, is to enable beings to be as like as possible to God and to be with him. A hierarchy has God as its leader of all understanding and action. It is forever looking at the comeliness of God. A hierarchy bears in itself the mark of God. Hiearchy causes its members to be images of God in all respects, to be clear and spotless mirrors reflecting the glow of primordial light and indeed of God himself. It ensures that when its members have received this full and divine splendor they can then pass on this light generously and in accordance with God’s will to beings further down the scale….
If one talks then of hierarchy, what is meant is a certain perfect arrangement, an image of the beauty of God, which sacredly works out the mysteries of its own enlightenment in the orders and levels of understanding of the hierarchy, and which is likened toward its own source as much as is permitted. Indeed, for every member of the hierarchy, perfection consists in this, that it is uplifted to imitate God as far as possible and, more wonderful still, that it becomes what scripture calls a “fellow workman for God” [1 Cor. 3:9; 1 Thess. 3:2] and a reflection of the workings of God.
(PSEUDO DIONYSIUS: THE COMPLETE WORKS, trans. Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem, (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1987), pages 153-4)
Angels exist in time and even though they have a different perception of it than we do they still see time in a linear fashion that we do and the only things that they know about the future are revealed to them by God. For instance, in Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32 when asked about His Second Coming, Jesus tells His disciples that no one knows the time or the hour of His Return, not even the angels. And Ephesians 3:9-10 tells us, “…God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” Tradition builds upon this and says that the angels receive this knowledge, understanding, and wisdom from God in a hierarchical manner
In order to understand this concept, let us briefly consider how the Church receives this transmission of knowledge.
The Holy Spirit revealed knowledge to the original Apostles, who in turned taught it and passed it on to their successors (through the process that the Catholic Church refers to as Apostolic Authority and Apostolic Succession) down to the bishops, priests, and deacons that we have today. The Holy Spirit continues to expand our understating and wisdom about the teachings and the deposit of Faith given to us by Jesus through His Apostles, which is why our understanding of certain doctrines such as the Trinity, the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary have evolved over the course of centuries. (Note: the doctrines themselves do not evolve, only our understanding of them does.)
Our bishops, under the authority of the Bishop of Rome (i.e. the Pope, the Vicar of Christ) continue to be edified by the Holy Spirit. The higher ranking bishops in authority pass on their wisdom and understanding to the bishops of lower rank in authority, who then in turn pass it on to the priests under their charge, which is then taught to more priests and the deacons by various means, such as in the seminaries, who then in turn pass what they have learned and have come to understand down to the laity. Thus, it is argued, this transition of knowledge, wisdom and understanding about God that the Holy Spirit uses to explain God to us is the same manner in which He also does so through the Angelic Host.
Although many theories have been formulated about how this hierarchy exists, the Nine Choirs Tradition has been the predominant theological theory.
THE NINE CHOIRS OF ANGELS
This historical tradition in this form is predominately derived from the work of Dionysius the Areopagite, who was a Christian mystic of the late 5th to early 6th century (although in his writings, Dionysius points out many times that what he was writing was knowledge that had been passed onto him previously and thus they only thing he was adding was personal commentary). In his writings the author claims to be the same Dionysius the Areopagite, the Athenian convert of St. Paul mentioned in Acts 17:34, but because these works do not appear until centuries after this Dionysius had lived, we know that he could not have written them. Because of this, the author of his work is often referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius.
Despite the fact that the author is not the same Dionysius as the one mentioned in the Book of Acts, his writings are very orthodox in the doctrines that they teach and they were very influential in the Church for many centuries. For instance, his books related to the subject at hand, THE CELESTIAL HIERARCHY and THE ECCLESIASTICAL HIERARCHY, have influenced important Doctors of the Church concerning the subject of angels, such as Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. John of Damascus, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and many others during the Middle Ages (i.e. the timeframe of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century to the Italian Renaissance beginning during the late 14th/early 15th Century).
Based upon data from the Bible and the theological traditions of his time, Dionysius presented the possibility that the Angelic Hierarchy is organized into Nine Choirs. And these Nine Choirs are divided into three Spheres/Triads, each consisting of three Choirs.
THE FIRST SPHERE
The duties of the First Sphere center on the Throne of God and serve Him directly and are the highest in authority
Seraphim - Isaiah 6:2, 6:6; Ezekiel 1:13
Leading this sphere are the Seraphim, which means in Hebrew “to burn”. Out of all of the angels, the Seraphim have the most intimate knowledge of God and they meditate upon His Person, meaning they contemplate on the great mystery about who and what God is, including the Trinity. Because they comprehend God with greater clarity than any other of God’s creations, they are so passionately in love with Him due to so much that has been revealed to them and they are characterized by fire, which is thus why they are often referred to as the burning ones. And because of this great in depth knowledge of God and their burning passionate love for Him that defines and characterizes their being, it is speculated that the Seraphim are incapable of sinning because such knowledge and love/charity cannot allow them to do so; it would become a contradiction of their nature and being. (St. Thomas Aquinas, THE SUMMA THEOLOGIAE, Part 1, Question 63, Article 7, Reply to Objection 1; Question 63, Article 9, Reply to Objection 3; Question 109, Article 1, Reply to Objection 3)
Cherubim - Genesis 3:24, Psalm 80:1, 99:1; Isaiah 37:16, Ezekiel 10, Daniel 3:55, Revelation 4:6-8 (in relation to the imagery of Ezekiel 10:12–14), and numerous other places.
Also Ezekiel 28:14-16 (in accordance to Lucifer) and in Exodus 25:17-22, 1 Kings 6:23–28, 2 Chronicles 3:7-14, and Hebrews 9:5 (for the use of their images in the Ark of the Covenant and in the Holy of Hollies of the first Jewish Temple)
Second to the Seraphim are the Cherubim. While the Seraphim contemplate on God as a Person, the Cherubim meditate upon His Divine Plan for all of Creation. Because of their knowledge and understanding of the Divine Plan, the Cherubim are often translated to mean “fullness of wisdom”. In accordance with their contemplation about the Divine Plan, the Seraphim teach the Cherubim about the Divine Person which helps the Cherubim understand the Divine Plan all the more.
Thrones (also called the Ophanim) - Daniel 7:9, Colossians 1:16
Third in rank within this First Sphere are the Thrones and they represent the judicial power of God. From the Cherubim, they learn about the Divine Person of God and His Divine Plan, which in turn allows them to mediate upon the power of God and His judgments, such as man’s banishment from Eden, the Flood of Noah, etc. The Thrones are responsible for passing on their divine knowledge down to the Second Sphere of the Hierarchy.
THE SECOND SPHERE
The duties of the Second Sphere are to look after and safeguard the physical universe (i.e. all of the cosmos)
Dominions (also called Dominations) - Ephesians 1:21, Colossians 1:16
The word Dominions have root in the Latin word dominus, which means “master” or “lord”. Thus the Dominions are the angels of authority and they are believed to be the leaders of the Second Sphere of the Angelic Hierarchy and they pass on the orders of knowledge of God that they received from the Thrones down to those under their charge. In essence, they are similar to the Archangels in the Third Sphere in terms of duty, but they oversee the affairs of guarding the Universe and protecting it from harm.
Powers (also called Authorities) - Ephesians 1:21, 1 Peter 3:22
It is believed that the Powers fight the forces of evil that desire to destroy the Creation. It is thus possible to speculate that if Satan and his demons were to make an effort to destroy the Earth by means manipulating the forces of the Universe, such as through a great asteroid or a solar flare, the Powers would prevent the Enemy from succeeding.
Virtues - Ephesians 1:21, 1 Peter 3:22
The Virtues mean “might” and “energy”. It is believed that they oversee the movements of planets, stars, and the forces of nature. Thus, they make sure that the Universe operates according to God’s Design.
*Note: Some traditions rank the Virtues above the Powers in the hierarchy.
THE THIRD SPHERE
The duties of the Third Sphere are to look after human beings
Principalities - Romans 8:38; Ephesians 3:10, 6:12; Colossians 1:16, 2:15
The Principalities are the Guardian Angels of nations and cities. There are also evil Principalities who had joined Satan in his rebellion against God and thus there are also Principalities appointed by Satan to influence nations and cities for evil, which is evident by the fact that in Daniel 10:13 the Prophet Daniel is told by an angel that there was a spiritual power referred to as the prince of Persia who that angel was in conflict with until the Archangel Michael came to his aid.
Archangels - 1 Thessalonians 4:16, Jude 9
The Archangels are Guardian Angels appointed to guard special individuals, such as the Church, the Pope, possibly the Virgin Mary while one Earth, etc. What makes it extremely strange is that even though the Angelic Host as a whole consists of an innumerable amount of angels, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition indicates that there are only seven angels who have this rank (Tobit 12:15; Revelation 1:4,20; 3:1; 8:2,6; and Isaiah 63:9). More on this will be addressed at a later time.
Angels - Numerous references!
These are the angels who directly look after the affairs of mankind and deliver God’s Divine Revelation to us. The Guardian Angels are part of this choir.
ALL NINE CHOIRS ARE TECHNICALLY ANGELS AND NOT JUST THE LAST CHOIR
We often use the umbrella term of angel in reference to all these beings, but technically because our word for angel, derived from the Greek word angelos, which means messenger, the actual office/duty of angels is the last choir according to this tradition. However, we often use the term angel to describe all of these beings and the Biblical term the Angelic Host is often used to describe the communion of all of them. In chapter 5 of THE CELESTIAL HIERARCHY, Dionysius argues that even though the rank angel is the lowest of this hierarchy, every being within this hierarchy is rightfully called angel because every rank serves as a messenger in teaching God’s Plan to the lower ranks. Thus, even though the choir of Angels is the lowest in rank, all Nine Choirs are rightfully called angels.
It is important to remember that this tradition is only theological speculation. These Nine Choirs are part of our doctrine because they are all mentioned in Scripture but there could be more Choirs than these, they could be in a different order, and some of their roles might be completely different than what we speculate.
Dionysius himself also acknowledges this. In concluding THE CELESTIAL HIERARCHY, Dionysius stated:
This, then, is what I have to say regarding the sacred representations. Perhaps it falls a good deal short of making everything clear. Nevertheless, I believe it will keep us from the wretchedness of being stuck in the fictional appearances. PERHAPS IT MAY ALSO BE OBJECTED THAT I HAVE NOT MENTIONED ALL THE POWERS, ALL THE ACTS AND ALL THE IMAGES REFERRED TO BY SCRIPTURE IN REGARD TO THE ANGELS. THIS TRUE. BUT IN LEAVING CERTAIN OUT, IT WAS IN RECOGNITION OF THE FACT THAT I AM AT A LOSS WHEN IT COMES TO UNDERSTANDING THEIR TRANSCENDING REALITY. What I really needed was the light of a guide to these. The omission of matters similar to those with which I have been dealing may be explained by a twofold concern of mine, not to overextend my discourse and to honor in respectful silence the hidden things which are beyond me (PSEUDO DIONYSIUS: THE COMPLETE WORKS, pages 190-1).
And in direct reference to what Dionysius says here, St. Thomas Aquinas, who advocated this tradition and built upon what Dionysius presented, stated in THE SUMMA THEOLOGIAE, Part 1, Question 108, Article 3:
I answer that, […] Now our knowledge of the angels is imperfect, as Dionysius says (Coel. Hier. vi). Hence we can only distinguish the angelic offices and orders in a general way, so as to place many angels in one order.
Reply to Objection 2. That special distinction of orders and offices wherein each angel has his own office and order, is hidden from us.
And as Dr. Peter Kreeft notes in ANGELS (AND DEMONS): WHAT DO WE REALLY KNOW ABOUT THEM? (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995):
“The scheme is not official dogma, but it is a beautiful work of art, a reasonable work of philosophical speculation, an inspiring work of faith, and an enduring work of tradition” (page75).
As St. Thomas Aquinas asserted, theology is a science. In the practice of science, we make observations of the universe around us, we develop a hypothesis as to why certain things in the universe operates the way it does, we put the hypothesis through multiple series of testing, and we develop a theory based upon our conclusions from the testing in relation to the hypothesis. Theology follows the same principles in attempting to understand our doctrines that are revealed to us through Divine Revelation from God. For this reason, as I briefly noted earlier, our understanding of doctrine may evolve, but the doctrines themselves do not, which is why certain doctrines are elevated to the level of binding dogma. Thus, theology uses the scientific method to develop theories of doctrines so that we can better understand them. And just as scientific experimentation requires a control to determine the validity of the conclusions, so does theology with the controls of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium. If any of your conclusions come into conflict with any of these three controls, then your theories are invalid.
The Nine Choir Tradition is one such theological theory, as was the concept of Limbo. Taking Jesus’ words in John 3 that you must be born again to the literal point, there used to be a theological theory (not a doctrine) that unbaptized children would go to neither Heaven or to Hell but to a place called Limbo. Because this was a theory to explain a doctrine and not a doctrine itself, theologians (those who study the Faith in depth) came to reject this theory and in 2007 the Church published a document entitled The Hope OF SALVATION FOR INFANTS WHO DIE WITHOUT BEING BAPTISED, which officially dismissed the theory of Limbo. Just as with an earlier point, we ultimately leave it to the Mercy and Grace of God since even though He instituted this Sacrament as a requirement for us He is also not bound by this Sacrament. This document itself was only reaffirming what had previously been said in the CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH:
As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,” allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism. (CCC, Paragraph 1261)
The Nine Choir Tradition is thus not doctrine, but is instead a theological theory developed to understand our doctrines about the Angels. However, it was not the first of these theories that were developed about the Hierarchy of the Angels:
- As far back as the late 1st and early 2nd Century, it was believed that some sort of hierarchy existed among the angels – St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Trallians, chapter 5.
- St. Jerome (4th Century) – Seven levels in the hierarchy: Archangels, Angels, Thrones, Dominions, Powers, Cherubim, and Seraphim.
- The Apostolic Constitutions (c. 4th Century, although attributed to Saint Clement of Rome, 1st Century) – Ten ranks of the angelic hierarchy: Seraphim, Cherubim, Aeons, Hosts, Powers, Authorities, Principalities, Thrones, Archangels, and Angels. Over time, an eleventh rank was also added: Dominions.
(Fr. Pascal P. Parente, The Angels: The Catholic Teaching on the Angels, Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1994, page 51)
Over time, these theories were rejected in favor of the Nine Choir Tradition and has been the predominant theory favored by the Church for over a thousand years. In time, it could be possible that another theory will arise in favor of an even better one.
THE NEXT ESSAY IN THIS SERIES WILL FOCUS ON THE SEVEN ARCHANGELS