We hear a lot of references to different kinds of angels in the Judaic and Christian traditions, and, if you’re like me, you’ve probably been curious about what to make of them. There are nine such kinds listed in the Christian tradition: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. To understand what they mean, we have to get a better understanding of how angels relate to one another, so let’s start there.
Angels are incorporeal substances, meaning that they lack physicality even though they are persons. They are, accordingly, huge minds.
Angels are incorporeal substances, meaning that they lack physicality even though they are persons. They are, accordingly, huge minds. They don’t need brains to support their minds any more than God does. They can manifest physically if they wish to interact with us, but that manifestation is either a vision (only in our minds) or it is produced using a highly accurate but disposable facsimile body.
Every angel is as different from every other one as dolphins are to condors, or as Labrador retrievers are to golden retrievers. Whether those differences are vast or minor, no two angels are ever the same.
Because angels are essentially disembodied, it follows that there are no species of angels. In biology species indicate categories that can be multiply instantiated in matter. So, if your dog, Rex, is a German Shepherd, then since the German Shepherd is a species, there could be many more such dogs with different names living on your street. All German Shepherds are German Shepherds, meaning that they have a lot in common. There are some minor differences and variations between them, of course, but no two German Shepherds are as different from one another as are a squirrel from a caterpillar. The big differences between creatures are at the species level. Because angels do not by their natures participate in matter, it follows that there are no multiple material instantiations of the same angelic species. Rather, each angel is unique, a “species” unto himself. Hence every angel is as different from every other one as dolphins are to condors, or as Labrador retrievers are to golden retrievers. Whether those differences are vast or minor, no two angels are ever the same.
It follows that there is no equality amongst the angels. They exist in a pure metaphysical hierarchy of power, more an army than a family. St. Paul’s (1 Corinthian 11:10) reference to the natural contrast between angelic inequality and human equality suggests as much. As such, angels relate to one another in hierarchical structures. It further follows that the traditional names given to kinds of angels should not be misunderstood as families or species of angels. Our best understanding is to think of them as different angelic jobs.
In the first few centuries of the Church, a Christian writer named Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite constructed a parallelism between the nine angelic titles and the angelic metaphysical hierarchy. He maintained that the most powerful angels formed the top rank, the Seraphim, the next most powerful formed the second rank, the Cherubim, and so on down to the least powerful, the Angels. He divided these ranks in thirds, arguing that the top three ranks indicated beings assigned to tasks directly focused on God, the lower three ranks indicated beings assigned to tasks directly focused on human beings, and the middle three ranks indicated beings assigned to mediatory tasks between the other two triads. Dionysius’ Parallelism has had quite an impact on Catholic angelic reflection over the centuries, in part because it provides an elegant way to organize what little we do understand about angels.
It seems that Satan must be a very powerful fallen angel, because we possess no evidence that lesser demons are capable of aggregating their powers and subjugating their more powerful rivals, something we find throughout human criminal and imperial history.
But a number of problems quickly become apparent with Dionysius’ Parallelism. The first is the notion that each angel is given just a single job. In human affairs, we perform many different jobs at the same or different times throughout our lives. And if we look more closely at the religious tradition, we will find evidence of this amongst the angels. Take Lucifer for instance. Lucifer led the rebellion against God and took one third of his fellow angels with him, becoming Satan. It seems that Satan must be a very powerful fallen angel, because we possess no evidence that lesser demons are capable of aggregating their powers and subjugating their more powerful rivals, something we find throughout human criminal and imperial history. But Satan has been and continues to be the undisputed master of evil. It follows that Satan is the most powerful angel to have fallen. As such, Dionysius would imagine that he was likely a Seraph or a Cherub, because, given the parallelism, extremely powerful angels must work in the highest triad. However, if we look closer at the Scriptures, we will find a passage where Satan is called The Prince or Ruler of the Power of the Air. This would tend to locate him at the lower Dionysian rank of Principality or Power rather than a Seraph. But it is difficult to believe that an angel with the mid-range power assigned by Dionysius’ Parallelism could lead a rebellion of one-third of the whole. Some have suggested that given that “Lucifer” means “light bearer,” that perhaps Lucifer was a Seraph, alight and flying around the throne of God. Perhaps that is true, and it would fit better with Dionysius’ Parallelism, except for the other ranks also linked to him. So, we have reason to question the veracity of the Parallelism, and perhaps Lucifer was an extremely powerful angel who performed multiple tasks, tasks not inherently linked to the angelic metaphysical hierarchy.
Another example comes from St. Michael who we know is an Archangel. According to the Dionysian Parallelism, the Archangels fall into the lower third of the angels, those directed to human affairs. But this immediately causes problems with what else we know about St. Michael, for when Satan led his rebellion against God, saying, “I will be like the Most High,” St. Michael led the counter-attack that forced Satan and his rebel angels out of heaven. How could St. Michael, a “mere” Archangel on Dionysius’ Parallelism compel so powerful a rival as Satan out of heaven? One answer might be that God gave St. Michael grace to do more than he could have done by his own angelic nature, in much the same way that God occasionally grants miraculous powers to human beings above their own natures. Also, given the divine drama in human affairs, where God chooses the lowly shepherd to become King David, the lowly peasant girl to bear his Son, and the simple fisherman to become St. Peter, one might think that God operates by grace within the angelic ranks too. But given that St. Michael’s natural name means, “Who is like unto God?”, it would appear that St. Michael was by nature that angel who answered challenges to the Most High. It would follow that he would have to be a very powerful, if not the most powerful, angel indeed.
God gave to this one angel, St. Michael, the triple missions of protecting the throne of God, Israel, and his Church!
But the case of St. Michael only deepens the worries for Dionysius’ Parallelism, since St. Michael’s actions in heaven against the rebel angels occurred before any human being were even created. It follows that the Archangels (we know that St. Michael is an Archangel) were not created simply for the mission of relating to human beings alone. St. Michael appears to have been the Captain of the Divine Royal Guard from the beginning. He was only later assigned two additional, vitally important missions. First, he was assigned duty as the “Prince of Israel” and then he was assigned to protect the Church. Thus, God gave to this one angel the triple missions of protecting the throne of God, Israel, and his Church! It seems difficult to believe that St. Michael is as low in the power hierarchy as Dionysius’ Parallelism suggests.
Furthermore, again with the case of St. Michael, we know that St. Michael is an Archangel, but from the Daniel text referred to a moment ago, we likewise know that he is a Prince, i.e., a Principality. It follows that the same angel can serve more than one job. And this really shouldn’t surprise us, because we human beings know that if you do any job well, you are quickly assigned many additional jobs! And that is not an unreasonable interpretation of what seems to have happened in the case of St. Michael.
Notice, too, that Dionysius should have taken greater care than to assume that the few angelic vocational names that are given to us represent the sum total structure of the angelic hierarchy. Consider if you were an alien planning to visit earth for the first time, and you’d managed to learn that the humans did nine different jobs: gardener, senator, plumber, mother, sailor, electrician, film director, glass cleaner, queen, and priest. Let’s suppose that you then foolishly assumed that these nine names were the sum total of all human jobs, and then you used that schema to divide up and analyze human nature and experience. Think of how absurd your conclusions about human beings would be!
Well, Dionysius was no different in his arbitrary decision to just erect his vocational list in a hierarchy that had to match the angelic power hierarchy. As we have been seeing throughout this Question, there is really no basis for concluding that there is any such parallelism. What we know of angels is extremely small. We know a few of their jobs, but have to assume that there are likely hundreds of thousands more. And we know from our religious traditions just mentioned that a single angel can perform more than one job. As such, the Parallelism seems mistaken.
Although all the angels do exist in a metaphysical hierarchy of power as their natures requires, it does not follow that all the angels doing each job have similar levels of power.
So, how might we better understand all those angelic jobs? We should realize that although all the angels do exist in a metaphysical hierarchy of power as their natures require, it does not follow that all the angels doing each job have similar levels of power. We do not know how God assigns the angelic tasks. We can surmise by looking closely at some of the names that those titles suggest authority and responsibility. For example, if you saw an Archangel together with a hundred Angels, you’d rightly expect that the Archangel was in command. Why would you think that? Because of what arche means: ruling principle or leader. Thus, to have the task of Archangel means that you have command over some other angels. Thus, Archangels have to have greater power than the angels underneath their command.
Similarly, the names of Principalities, Thrones, and Dominions all suggest authority and power. So, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that angels performing those tasks have the greater authority and power to do so. But we should not go further than this and re-order the Dionysian list with Archangels and these other three on top, because we just do not know.
Now, why does all this matter? Partly, we are curious and were given minds designed to wonder and organize. But we admittedly know precious little about our incorporeal intellectual cousins. Still, at least one point can be drawn from the foregoing: whether by nature or by grace, St. Michael could well be the most powerful angel who exists. And knowing that God assigned his own Captain of the Royal Guard to the mission of defending his Church should give us comfort and confidence.