Augustine and Angels

In the early books of his treatise on the Trinity Augustine endeavors to reconcile the concepts of the Trinity to the language of Scripture. He spends some time speaking of the OT theophanies of which he has a startling view.

It is a view I think I shall adopt, though perhaps I ought to go back and make sure I read it with a bit more care; what I understand has a good origin and it appeals to me. One thing I’ve never gotten is why people have to labor so much to be dogmatic about the OT theophanies. Why they feel they have to say the Angel of the Lord is the Son, is not the Son, all theophanies are christophanies, and so on. Instead of all that, Augustine’s ingenious solutions suits me.

When we think of a theophany we tend to think that God appears in the guise of an angel. What Augustine says is that it is an actual angel that appears, bearing the presence of God. Whether it is the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit who is the person being manifested, or all three, Augustine says we really cannot conclude. An angel appears, God is through that being manifested. To me, that gathers up everything nicely, but I’m no theologian and could be missing something. I’ve made dumb errors about Scripture before on this blog.

The objection that might arise is: how can that be? How can God use an angel to manifest his presence? One answer would be to say that this is a being uniquely suited to do so. Why not? Of course, why should it be? It is an assumption, but not a stretch I think. Another answer could be that these angels are like the sacraments, they remain themselves but are spiritually efficacious.

You may not know, because indeed I did not fully realize it for years, that the memorial view of the Lord’s Supper that I understood from church and seminary is Zwinglian and not the view Reformed persons usually take. When I started attending a Reformed Baptist church I noticed they were insistent on feeding on Christ by faith, but I did not realize they mean it happened uniquely at the moment of partaking of communion. I came to realize this only after five or six years, while listening to our associate pastor read through the OP Book of Order’s instructions on the Lord’s Supper various times. Now that I’m doing a class on Scottish Presbyterianism, I am seeing what they were after because we have to read the classic work on it from the 16th Century.

Lutherans, if I understand correctly, believe that there is a communication of attributes between Christ’s divine and human natures which allows the bread and wine, which remain bread and wine, also to be his body and blood. Zwingli debated Luther saying that the Supper was a memorial meal; there was in it no special presence of Christ. It was entirely a subjective event, profitable because the believer remembers, that is all. The intermediate view, which the circles in which I am now hold to, is that while the elements are not transformed, there is another minister, the Holy Spirit, in whose hands the life and work of Christ are offered to us so that by faith we are nourished by his real presence.

That’s what I mean by Augustine’s angelic theophanies. They are living beings that bear God’s presence the way the sacraments do, by outwardly echoing the invisible reality that takes place. I think it most makes sense of all the issues concerning the phenomenon I can think of.

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6 thoughts on “Augustine and Angels

  1. The New Bible Dictionary has this to say: “In many passages he is virtually identified with God and speaks not merely in the name of God but as God in the first person singular (e.g. with Hagar, Gn. 16:7ff.; 21:17f.: at the sacrifice of Isaac, Gn. 22:1ff.; to Jacob, Gn. 31:13, ‘I am the god of Beth-el’; to Moses at the burning bush, Ex. 3:2; with Gideon, Jdg. 6:11ff.). Sometimes he is distinguished from God, as in 2 Sa. 24:16; Zc. 1:12f.; but Zechariah does not consistently maintain the distinction (cf. Zc. 3:1f.; 12:8).”

    J. B. Taylor, “Angel of the Lord,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 37.

    So the answer might be, “it depends.”

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  2. One of the things that for me makes debating whether or not they are theophanies, angels, christophanies or something else uninteresting is what you are doing. You’re kind of like John Kasich (or any of the politicians who are not Trump, but Kasich is the worst offender) at the debates when he reverts to this old-school campaign thing about this woman’s kid, and nostalgia this and that, that is something we are all fed up with politicians doing, and he just makes Trump who doesn’t do it appeal the more. Now this is not a campaign, but it is something that used to appeal: getting to the bottom of theophanies and whether they are really all christophanies, and back and forthing on something that is of little (as far as I can see no) consequence. I have a view that can put those things behind us, and that is why it appeals to me. I do not think the presence of a first person singular pronoun necessarily means God is not speaking through a live angel. What is the angel supposed to say? God is here present and he says this or that? I do not think it is even interesting evidence. Not because it isn’t an observable grammatical phenomenon in the text, but because I don’t think it has to weigh the way (if I understand your comment) you imply. In other words, my interest in Augustine is driven by boredom with an approach that proceeds inconsequentially through inconsequentialities. Augustine makes sense of all the phenomena so that we can get on with what matters.

    “It depends” opens up the debate. Augustine, on the other hand, closes it.

    1. Well, as to that. I think you evidence too much anxiety over the political farce playing out on our television screens!

      And as to Augustine, I would say that words must mean what they mean, unless Humpty is right.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  3. I think you may be interpreting the evidence of anxiety the wrong way. I am so gleeful about the whole Trump thing I have to stop talking about it to people at church because they get angry. Could it be that you do the same when you interpret some words in Scripture?

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