Fables, endless genealogies, and choirs of angels
In which I debunk Pseudo-Dionysius, and call us not to follow in his footsteps.
I have essentially zero interest in most of the discussions about angels, and especially angelic hierarchies, that are popular among certain of the re-enchantment movement. My interest is in what scripture says, what the words it uses meant to its original readers, and what the significance is to us. Anything beyond that is unverifiable speculation. And with no way to verify it, there is no way to end it—which makes beginning it both pointless and dangerous.
I am especially cynical about the hierarchy of three angelic choirs, divided into three groups each, popularized by Pseudo-Dionysius (emphasis on the Pseudo), and handed down through the Great Tradition. It’s not that I doubt the existence of hierarchy in the spiritual world. Indeed, that can be proven easily:
But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me one and twenty days; but, look, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me: and I remained there with the kings of Persia. (Da 10:13)
If there are angelic princes over nations, and chief princes of angels, certainly there is hierarchy in the spiritual world. I am not questioning that in the slightest. Nor am I questioning that certain angels are given charge of nature—so-called virtues, or elemental spirits. That, along with most Christians throughout history, I affirm. I am not even questioning the aesthetic seemliness of supposing that angels are generally given roles that divide them into three groups corresponding to the three realms: earth, heaven, and highest heaven (1 Ki 8:27)—though such intuitive systems will run away from us very quickly, and ought not to be balanced against our understanding that angels are persons organized in societies.
What I do doubt, however, is that scripture teaches anything like the ninefold taxonomy of angels popularized by Pseudo-Dionysius. Or, to put it more forcefully, scripture obviously does not teach a taxonomy like this, and in fact does quite the opposite.
This can be shown with at least five of Dionysius’ nine categories: the cherubs, the seraphs/saraphs, the thrones, the archangels, and the angels. Scripture treats all of these as interchangeable. Consider the example of Satan himself, who is called a cherub in Ezekiel 28:
Thou wast the anointed cherub that covereth: and I set thee, so that thou wast upon the holy mountain of God; thou hast walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire. Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, till wickedness was found in thee. By the abundance of thy traffic they filled the midst of thee with violence, and thou hast sinned: therefore have I cast thee as profane out of the mountain of God; and I have destroyed thee, O covering cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire. (Eze 28:14–16)
(I am taking as given that this is describing Satan, the angelic king of Tyre (v. 12) over its human prince (v. 2); no human king of Tyre “was in Eden, the garden of God” (v. 13). This is not to exclude the human king of Tyre being lamented through the comparison, but clearly Satan is in view here.)
But Satan is also described as a saraph elsewhere–not explicitly, which is why the distinction between saraph and cherub seems superficially plausible, but rather by clear biblical-theological implication. Genesis 3:1 depicts “the old serpent who is called the devil and Satan” (Re 12:9), calling him in Hebrew the nachash. As a noun, nachash is synonymous with saraph:
And Yahweh said unto Moses, Make thee a burning serpent [saraph], and set it upon a standard: and it shall come to be, every one who is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent [nachash] of brass, and set it upon the standard: and it came to be, that if a serpent [nachash] had bitten any man, when he looked unto the serpent of brass [nachash], he lived. (Nu 21:8–9; cf. Is 6:12; 14:29)
As an adjective, nachash also means shining-one (so Ge 3:1, ISV). This is because it is etymologically connected to nechoshet, “brass,” as indeed you see in Numbers 21 above. Nechoshet is also explicitly connected with angels; Daniel encounters an angel whose arms and legs were like the “gleam of polished brass [nechoshet]” (Da 10:5–6).
We can drive the point home by referring to Revelation 4:6–9:
…and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, four living creatures full of eyes before and behind. And the first creature was like a lion, and the second creature like a calf, and the third creature had a face as of a man, and the fourth creature was like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, having each one of them six wings, are full of eyes round about and within: and they have no rest day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.
That these creatures are both cherubs and saraphs simultaneously could not be more obvious—they are a composite of the six-winged saraphs of Isaiah 6:1–4, singing, “holy, holy, holy,” and the tetramorphic cherubs of Ezekiel 1 and 10, described as living creatures whose spirit is in wheels full of eyes. These wheels in turn are actually associated in Dionysius’ taxonomy with thrones, thus also obliterating the distinction between thrones and cherubs/saraphs.
We can push this biblical-theological blurring further, by looking at the poetic description of cherubs as “the wings of the wind” (Ps 18:10; 2 Sa 22:11), forming a conceptual parallel with Psalm 104:3–4, which then gives us a view where both God’s chariot and his angels are winds, and his ministers flames of fire (cf. He 1:7). Comparing this to 2 Kings 2:11, where we see chariots of fire, and Zechariah 6:1–8, where we see four chariots which are the “four winds of heaven,” makes it look implausibly wooden to draw any sharp distinction between saraphs, cherubs, and angels. Add into the mix that the cherub-angel-chariot God rides is, in Ezekiel 1, conceptually indistinguishable from the throne he rides—for how can one ride both a chariot and a throne simultaneously?—and that the spirit of the cherubs is in the wheels (Hebrew ophanim), which, again correspond to the thrones in Dionysius’ categories. This all makes any effort to separate thrones, saraphs, cherubs, and angels look like a case of the word-concept fallacy. Scripture freely mixes and matches cherubic and other angelic imagery in ways that defy the popular taxonomy, and blurs at least four of the nine categories together.
You could try to salvage the category of angels—that being the lowest of the hierarchy—by saying that places like Psalm 104:3–4 are using the term generically, to refer to any spiritual being, as it must be doing in places like Luke 1:11, where it calls Gabriel an angel. Gabriel in the traditional system is an archangel. But the more often you do this, the less biblical support you have for “lesser angels” as a category at all, and the more tenuous that category becomes—seemingly derived not from scripture, in the end, but from the need to have three types in every choir. But since the first choir already collapsed, why continue with the rest?
Moreover, the example of Gabriel actually collapses archangels into cherub-seraph-thrones as well—for Gabriel himself testifies, “I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God” (Lk 1:19). But in the Dionysian taxonomy, it is the only the first choir of angels that stands before God—it is the cherubs, saraphs, and thrones who are in the highest heaven, singing Holy, holy, holy. The third choir, including archangels, is occupied with work on earth.
Thus, the scriptural evidence, while sparse—because God does not care for us to know the sorts of things that Pseudo-Dionysius claimed to know—either outright contradicts, or at best runs strongly against the grain, of the traditional angelic hierarchy. If there are three choirs of angels, they certainly do not seem to be organized in the way tradition has handed down.
This is not to deny that scripture itself speaks of thrones, lordships/dominions, principalities/heads, authorities and powers (Col 1:16; Eph 1:21)—nor that these are angelic beings, or that Paul intends them to be distinguishable in some sense. Neither is it to deny that these terms had more specific meanings in the first century milieu than they do today, though I do not think we need assume Paul is importing all such meanings into his own teaching. Again, my purpose here is not to deny any angelic hierarchies. It is to point out that Pseudo-Dionysius, and 1 Enoch before that, are not reliable guides to angelic hierarchies, because they are not grounded in reliable biblical theology. Indeed, originating in the claimed visions of heaven in 1 Enoch, they seem to constitute the fleshly visions that Paul warns the Colossians about:
let no one beguile you of your prize, delighting in humble-mindedness and in religious-devotion to the angels, detailing the things he hath seen, being vainly puffed up by the mind of his flesh. (Col 2:18)
The existence of angelic hierarchies is indisputable, and the existence of a chain of being is certainly compelling. But if we stick closely to scripture, we discover that it is antithetical to the kind of complex system that the Great Tradition delivers. More importantly, if we stick closely to scripture, we avoid the endless speculation that the Holy Spirit repeatedly warns against:
…charge certain men not to teach any other thing [than scripture], nor to give heed to fables and endless genealogies, that cause useless seeking rather than the building up of God that is in faith… if any one be teaching otherwise, and do not consent to sound words—those of our Lord Jesus Christ—and to the teaching according to piety, he is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about debates and word-striving, out of which doth come envy, strife, evil-speakings, evil-surmisings, wranglings of men wholly corrupted in mind, and destitute of the truth, supposing the piety to be gain; depart from such. (1 Ti 4:3)
It seems to me that speculation about angelic choirs is exactly in the category of fables and endless genealogies—making up what we long to know, and then seeking to organize these things we are so ignorant of. Its origin in 1 Enoch certainly fits the bill for the Jewish fables that Paul warns Titus about (1 Ti 1:14). Without a way to reach the facts we desire, these things can never be settled, and so we will never rest from them. So let us not begin. Let us rest rather in what we do have.
Rather than longing to look into the things of angels, let us fix our gaze on the scriptures, and the things they reveal into which those angels long to look (1 Pe 1:12).