The Angels and Us (Adler)

Adler, Mortimer J. The Angels and Us. New York: MacMillan, 1982.

This is not a theological-exegetical treatment of angels. That is neither a criticism or a compliment. Adler’s purpose is to give a philosophical explanation, not a theological proof for angels.  One might ask, “Why can’t we just go by what the Bible says on angels and leave it at that?”  There are several problems with that idea.  I learned the hard way that people really do not want to deal with what the ancient Near East, including the Bible, says about malakim and dark spirits.   Moreover, logical deductions from sound premises are just as binding.  Philosophy is inescapable.

Mortimer Adler limits his analysis to that which philosophy allows one to say about angels.  This means at best he can give only an explanation of x, not a proof.  This is frustrating at times, but I understand why he does it. The philosophical benefit to such an approach is that it allows him to focus on the mind-body problem, since an angel is a mind without a body. One more preparatory note: I am not necessarily convinced of the Chain of Being model. I grant Adler’s rebuttal to Lovejoy, but I am not so sure he adequately dealt with Samuel Johnson’s criticisms.

Ptolemaic societies had an easier time with philosophical approaches to “planetary intelligences.” For Aristotle, these moved bodies which in turn move others seem a lot like what we would call angels. Quite obviously, “an incorporeal agent could be nothing other than a mind or intelligence.”[1] Even though angels are minds without bodies, they can assume corporeality in their missions to earth.[2] The biblical text itself is quite clear, as Abraham’s visitors ate with him and later grabbed Lot and his family.  (We will leave aside, of course, Genesis 6:1-4.)

Not surprisingly, Adler’s main guide is Thomas Aquinas, and his main guide to Thomas is Etienne Gilson.  This is as it should be. Beginning with Pseudo-Dionysius, Christian reflection saw the angels as a hierarchy. I do not think Pseudo-Dionysius is correct in his taxonomy, but the underlying principle bears reflection.  Adler notes: “The descending order of hierarchies…consists in grades of creaturely perfect…The perfection referred to is not moral, but metaphysical—a perfection in the mode of being.”[3] This is the Great Chain of Being, or one series of links in it, anyway.

This chain marks a intellectual mode of perfection. The fewer the ideas, the higher up.  This is simplicity in its classical sense.  A Seraph, for example, has fewer ideas than a malak, but he comprehends more in those fewer ideas. Is this Chain of Being really necessary?  Aquinas thinks so.  There would be a gap in reality without them. But can the Great Chain of Being survive modernity’s attacks on it, particularly in the fine book by Arthur Lovejoy?[4] Lovejoy’s actual, if not intended, target is Leibniz, not Aquinas.

When the Great Tradition speaks of a chain of being, it does not have something like arithmetical sequences in mind. Each links differs in kind, not in degree.[5] Moreover, each angel differs with the next by species, assuming, of course, that one accepts Thomas’s account of the angels.

Hell’s Angels

This is where Scripture is largely silent.  We know Satan fell.  We just do not know when. We know it was before man’s fall but after the “Everything is good” pronouncement. Angels, like Adam, were created mutable. If angels were created perfect, then some could not have fallen for obvious reasons. As best as we can tell, the angels that fell, in choosing evil instead of good, did so in the second moment of their existence. Their wills were then locked in place. The angels who obeyed were confirmed in grace.

The Substance of Angels

If a substance is a conjunction of form and matter, and angels are immaterial, then either all their forms are the same, and hence all angels are the same angel, or they must differ in some other way.  They do so by species. Each angel is its own species.[6] Each angelic species is a conjunction of form and its individual act of existence.

That angels interact with physical matter is clear.  How they do so is not as clear.  Since they are not physical, they cannot do so physically (except when they assume bodies). It does so by means of spiritual power. An angel “occupies its place intensively by surrounding it with its power.”[7] This might make more sense if we contrast it with humans.  When a man fills a place, he does so extensively, by physically occupying that place.  Not so with angels.

An angelic mind is purely intellectual.  It does not know discursively. When a man knows something, he does so by forming concepts and judgments.  Angels know with one act of intuition, but not all angels have the same knowledge. They know by virtue of infused knowledge.


Theologians and biblical scholars will wince at some of Adler’s conclusions. His philosophical reticence to affirm theological truths is annoying at times.  On the other hand, his analysis is on point and he avoids getting off topic. For those who read the Great Books, this is required reading.

[1] Mortimer Adler, The Angels and Us, (New York: MacMillan, 1982), 6.

[2] Adler, Ibid, 12.

[3] Ibid, 45.

[4] Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, (Cambridge: Harvard, 1971).

[5] Adler, The Angels, 62. This also eliminates any fear of pantheism between God and man.

[6] Ibid, 126.

[7] Ibid, 130.


John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith

May 13, 2015

I read through Damascene’s On the Orthodox Faith in 2009.  At the time I had hyper-Palamite lenses on and really didn’t let Damascene speak for himself.  I am rereading him now, years and paradigms later.  He’s really quite interesting.  Contrary to the neo-Palamite Orthodox today, he isn’t afraid of “rationality” or using proofs for God’s existence.  In fact, he sounds VERY Aristotelian.  To be fair, he does anticipate later Orthodox mysticism by calling God “hyper-ousia” (I.4).

Existence and Nature of God

He does use Scripture and does allude to the Fathers, but the main thrust of his argument is natural theology. His argument for God’s existence is as follows:

(1) All things that exist are either created or uncreated. 

(2) If created, then mutable and subject to change and perishing

(3) But things that are created must be the work of some Maker

Damascene anticipates the infinite regress rebuttal and handles it in an amusing (if not entirely convincing manner)

(4) “For if he had been created, he must have been created by someone, and so on until we arrive at something uncreated.”

Perhaps not the most persuasive argument, but historically it is very telling.  The holy fathers were not averse to using “logic,” even logic apart from Scriptural and Patristic considerations, to prove points about God.

Damascene follows standard Patristic and classical usage in that the nature of God is incomprehensible.

(5) His essence is unknowable

How then can we speak about God?  In what sounds like a later Palamite move, John says, “God does not show forth his nature, but the qualities of his nature” (1.4).  Is this the same thing as saying “We can’t know God’s nature but only his energies”?  Not quite.  John does not use any of the cognates of energein.

A note on apophaticism

If we say, as John does, that God is not “darkness,” but above darkness.  Not light, but above light–why can’t we carry it through and say “God is not love, but above love.”  God is not a, b…z.  If God is above every reference point, then how can we truly predicate anything of him?  We are no longer using analogous language but equivocal language.

Pre-Notes on the Word

He doesn’t deal with Christology until Book 3 but he gives short comments here. 

(6) God always possesses his Word, proceeding from and existing within Himself (I.6).

John reasons analogously from our words proceeding from our minds, and is not identical with mind but not separate from it, so the Word has its subsistence from God.  Probably not the best analogy in the world.I find it ironic that we are always warned against Theistic Analogies, but John and Augustine go haywire on them.

(7) If a Word, then the force of the Word, which is the Spirit (1.7).

God and Being

(8) God is outside of being, yet the fountain of all being (I.8).

Along with this John gives the classic summary that God is one essence, one divinity, one power, one will, and one energy. John then gives a classic summary of the Trinity, but I want to highlight one point:

(9) “Whenever we say God is the origin of and greater than the Son, we mean in respect of causation.”

Here is the problem: Isn’t a cause different in substance to an effect?

Back to Divine Attributes

(5*) Goodness et al belong to the nature but do not explain it.

What does that even mean? 

(5′) We do not apprehend the essence itself, but only the attributes of the essence.

Will this hold water? Later thinkers, with echoes from Athanasius, identify attributes and essence.  If we apprehend the attributes, how are we not apprehending the essence also?

Angelic Personalities

(10) Angels are not spatial entities, but a mental presence and energy.

This is quite interesting and is backed up by numerous accounts of spiritual warfare.  An angel cannot be in more than one place at one time (“cannot energize two different places at the same time”).

Concerning this Aeon or Age

John notes that “age” has many meanings (II.1).

(11) An age is used to denote the temporal motion and interval that is co-extensive with eternity.


John has a really interesting section on angels.  It’s too long to replicate here, except to note several points:

(12) Angels are immaterial, mental presences. He notes some are set over nations, and ceterus paribus, this would apply to demons as well (though John fails to cite the most obvious texts to prove his point, Daniel and Revelation).

Days of Creation

John’s discussion of the days of creation is more on the nature of air, winds, constellations et al than concerning timing.  Interestingly, John says the four rivers are Tigris, Euphrates, the Nile, and the Ganges (I didn’t see that last one coming, though I suppose it could work).

Man in Creation

John’s view is markedly different from later views and apparently from the text.  He writes, “He meant for us to be free from care and have on work to perform, to sing as do the angels” (II.11).  This is no doubt true, and I suppose we wouldn’t have anxiety, but God very much intended us to subdue the earth and fill it.

God dwells in the soul, not in the body, and the soul is far more glorious than the body.  To be fair, this isn’t gnosticism or even chain of being, but a hard push can make it so.  However, he does speak of the Tree of life as “a divine thought in the world of sense and we ascend through that to the cause.  Here is the heart and definition of later monastic anchoretism.  The Christian life is one of participation and ascent from sense to hyper-ousia.

John correctly affirms substance-dualism (II.12).  Unfortunately, he holds to the flawed image/likeness dichotomy which can’t stand up to scrutiny.

Free will:  John affirms it, but what does he mean by it?  He says “there is no virtue in mere force,” which seems to be a rejection of materialistic determinism, which no Christian tradition holds today.

On the Soul

While John takes the body-soul dualism in an unhealthy direction, he does have some perceptive remarks on the soul:

  1. Mind is the purest part of the soul.
  2. The soul is free.  (Remember, R.L. Dabney argued that the soul, not the faculty of will was where true freedom lay).
  3. It is mutable because it is created (II.12).
  4. Sensation is the faculty of soul whereby material objects are discriminated (II.18).  This is a remarkably modern observation.  Sensation is not reducible to the matter.  We do not feel the faculty of sensation.  Rather, by sensation we feel pain, pleasure, etc. John reduces sensations into numerous sub-faculties, which need not detain us.
  5. The soul also has the faculty of thought, and it is this faculty which prophecies to us.
  6. Faculty of memory.
  7. Faculty of conception.

Energy:  energy is that which is moved of itself (II.22) and in harmony with nature. .  Our energy is the force within our nature that makes present our essence (II.23).  However, John will call our natural faculties “energies,” as well.  Most importantly, an energy is moved of itself (and here is where the Reformed will ultimately differ with John).  

Our soul also possesses the faculties of life:  

The Movement of the Will

Given that Maximus the Confessor was tortured less than a century earlier for his dyotheletism, it is understandable John will devote a lot of space on the will.   Here we go:

  1. Will as thelesis: faculty of desiring in harmony with nature.
  2. Will as boulesis: a wish for some definite object.  We can only wish for something within our power.
  3. Will as gnome: inclination.  Jesus’s soul did not have a gnomic will
  4. The faculties of will are called energies (II.23).

Jesus has two wills, natural and divine, and his volitional faculties aren’t the same.  However, since the subsistence is one, the object of his will, the gnomic will, is one.

The Act of Choosing

(13) A voluntary act is one which originates from within the actor (II.24).  

John does make distinctions between providential necessity (seasons, laws of nature)

(13*) John says all mental and deliberative acts are in our hands.

This is no different from Reformed Scholasticism, which affirms that we have freedom of contradiction and freedom of contraiety (Muller 1995, 2007)..  

Side note: Elsewhere, John says that Christ, strictly speaking, did not have judgment and preference (gnome; III.14). Judgment and preference imply indecision and unknowing, which Christ, as fully God, could not have had. 

(14) Free-will is tied with man’s rationality (II.27)

If we are going to say, with John, that will is the faculty of willing, we must make a further distinction between that faculty and “choice” (arbitrium), arbitrium being the capacity of will to make that choice.  


John divides the works of providence into things that come from God’s will and God’s permission.  John justifies the misfortunes men experience under providence with the assumption that it works for a greater good (teaching, lead to repentance, etc).  


God knows all things but does not determine all things (II.30).


Much of what John says on the soul and the will is quite good.  This allows the Reformed an opportunity to robustly affirm what we believe about the will, given the confusion of the day. I do think his sub-categories of the will simply become unwieldy and his discussion is too minute.  

John is simply following Maximus, but I wonder how coherent Maximus’s discussion of dyotheletism is.  I affirm dyotheletism, but how many people can understand the difference between will, act of willing, and a mode of the act of willing?  


The Divine Economy

Gives an extended discussion of the two natures.  Standard classical Christology

(15) “But this is what leads heretics astray: they look upon nature and person as the same thing” (III.3)

Communicatio Idiomata

(16) “The Word appropriates to Himself the attributes of humanity” (III.3)

This is good Reformed Christology…so far.  The attributes of humanity are predicated, not of the divine nature but of the Person.

(16*) … “And he imparts to the flesh his own attributes by way of communication”

And here John sounds like a Lutheran.  The flesh receives the attributes of deity.  John wants to preserve several values:

(16a) The flesh is deified (which as to be the case if his teaching on the Lord’s Supper holds water).
(16b) Divine impassibility is not threatened (which is why the communication appears to be a one-way street).

Does John elucidate upon this problem?  

(17) Essence signifies the common, subsistence (person) the particular (III.4).

This lets John say in III.3 that the flesh receives the Word’s attributes while in III.4 he can claim that the flesh doesn’t receive the properties of divinity.

(18) Conclusion: “Each nature gives to the other its own properties through the identity of the Person and the interpenetration of the parts with one another.”

How are they united?

(19) The Word of God was united to flesh through the medium of mind, which stands midway between purity of God and grossness of flesh (III.6).

(See Bruce McCormack’s lecture on Patristic Christology where he deals with this passage).   Does this work?  It seems like “mind” is acting as a metaphysical placeholder between the two natures.  “The mind is the purest part of the soul, and God the purest part of the mind.”  It looks like this:

(gross matter) body—-> soul——>mind ——> better part of soul—>God (Pure Spirit)


“And so the Word was made flesh and yet remained wholly uncircumscribed” (III.7)

John comes back to the question of communication and sounds a Lutheran strain:

(18*) “It [The Divine Nature] imparts to the flesh its own peculiar glories”

Make of it what you will.

From Christology to Liturgy

John demonstrates that Christology informs our liturgy, and gives a defense of the Trisagion

“Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us” (repeat 3x).  The church learned it when a lad was snatched to heaven and taught the hymn by angels, and so the city averted disaster (III.10).  


Energy is the efficient activity of nature (III.15).  Therefore, Christ has two energies.  John says he works his miracles through the divine energy.  This is false.  He works his miracles because of the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Matthew 12:28: “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of god has come upon you.

Acts 10:38: “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and power…”

Luke 4:1, 14, 5:17: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness…And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit…and the Power of the Lord was present for him to perform healing.”

(19) The flesh acted as the instrument of the divinity (ibid).

John mentions this in passing, but it is at the heart of Orthodox deification soteriology. What does this mean?  A deified flesh is not one that changed its nature, but received the permeation of the divine nature.  

I think we have a potential contradiction at this point.  John is very clear that Christ’s human nature has a human energy, which is its efficient power.  I have no argument with that.  But if the human energy is what John says it is, then what is its relevance in an instrumental humanity?  If humanity is just the instrument of divinity, then why bother speaking of energy at all?  Further, since the subsistence of the Word does everything, then there is no way to say that the human energy of Christ ever activates.

(19*) The flesh received the riches of the divine energies (III.17).  

What is the upshot of all of this?  John says he was able to cleanse the leper because of his divine will.  Will this hold water?  Maybe.  We’ve already established that Christ did his miracles because of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  However, the text elsewhere speaks of Christ’s power going forth from him.  Further, those engaged in deliverance ministries speak of a heightened sense of Christ’s power after they have fasted.  

(19’) The riches of the divine energies heighten the power by which the Holy Spirit works in the believer.

Can John maintain both impassibility and divine suffering?  Maybe.  He has an interesting argument.  

(20) The soul shares in the pain but is itself not changed by the pain (III.26).

John gives an example:  if I cut myself with a knife, my soul feels the pain but the soul, being simple and immaterial, is not cut by the knife.  This is consistent (at least on the first level) with what John said in (19).  If the soul is the medium between God and man, or God’s nature and man’s nature in Christ, then the divine person can be truly present in the suffering without his immaterial nature undergoing change.

This seems to work, but it opens another question:  if the soul participates in the divine nature, and if there is an open street between them, it’s hard to see how the divine nature isn’t also experiencing perturbations.  

Book IV

Book IV is something along the lines of “soteriology” and the “life of the church.”   

Concerning Baptism:  While John, like most of the fathers, probably holds to baptismal regeneration, it’s interesting he doesn’t take it in extreme directions. He says others who have not had a Trinitarian baptism should be rebaptized (IV.9).  Regeneration takes place in the spirit, not necessarily in the act of baptism (p. 78, col. 2).  John justifies the church’s use of oil in baptism because of Noah and the flood (p. 79 col. 1).

The Power of the Cross

The power of God is the Word of the Cross (p. 80 col. 1).  All of this sounds good but John now moves into dangerous waters:

(21) We ought to worship the sign of the Cross because the honor passes from the image to the prototype.

A warning sticks in my head:  something about not worshiping man-made pesels.  

Further, we should worship towards the East (IV.12). John argues:

(22) Since God is spiritual light, and since the sun rises in the East, we should worship towards the East.

This doesn’t follow–at least not yet.  John refines his argument:

(22*) We are composed of visible and invisible nature.  Therefore, our visible nature corresponds to the physical sun rising and our invisible nature corresponds to God’s being spiritual light.

I’m not convinced.  Perhaps there is one other argument:

(22’) Christ will appear in the East and our worshiping towards the East is a joyful anticipation of his return.

It’s a pious sentiment and I suppose it hearkens us to vigilance, as long as we don’t make it a law.  John acknowledges this tradition is unwritten and he says many apostolic traditions are.  The problem he now faces is proving that tradition x is part of the apostolic tradition.  It simply cannot be done without asserting the consequent (and that one argument is why Orthodox Bridge is terrified of me). 

The Sacraments

(23) The bread and wine are changed into God’s body and blood (p. 83 col. 1).  

John warns us not to ask how.    Nor does he give any argument.  He does deny ex opere operato, for he says it only forgives sins for those who receive it with faith.  John appears to contradict himself:

(23*) The bread of communion is not plain bread but bread united with divinity (p. 83 col. 2 paragraph 3).

If the bread is changed into God’s body (23), then how can it be united with God’s body (23*).  It doesn’t make any sense to say that my body is united with my body.  

(24) The bread (used metonymically for “bread and wine”) is our participation and communion in Christ’s body.  

On Mary

(25) Mary did not have pain in childbirth (p. 86 col 1).

John has to make this claim if the EO view of Mary’s being uncorrupt holds.  To put it crudely, her “lady parts” were not damaged in childbirth, for how could the one who heals corruption (death, physical destruction) cause physical corruption in someone?

Of course, he holds that Mary never had sex with Joseph and that the phrase “first born,” simply means Jesus was born first, not that there were others.   This is strained almost to credulity.  Further, the argument that Mary knew that she gave birth to God and wouldn’t pollute herself with sex won’t work, for Mary often showed ignorance to Jesus’s identity.

Venerating the Saints

John says saints had God dwell in their bodies, and so should be venerated.  But the verse he quotes to prove his point (2 Cor 3:17) simply proves that God dwells in all of the believers.  The only way John’s discussion makes sense is if “saints” refers to departed believers.

Should we venerate their relics?  John says yes and this is his argument:

(26) God did amazing things like springs from the desert and killing people with the jawbone of an ass, so why should we be surprised that God works miracles in the relics of his saints?

This isn’t an argument.  I suppose it’s possible that oil can burst forth from a martyr’s remains, but even if that is true (and I’ll grant for argument that it sometimes happens), how does it follow that we are to bow down and venerate created pesels?  We can rephrase John’s position:

(26*) We should give honor to these heroes.

No one disputes this.


(27) The honor given to the image passes to the prototype (IV.16)

John says the warning in the 2nd Commandment doesn’t apply because it only concerns worshiping false gods (the demons of the Greeks).  Further, God the Father is incorporeal, so he can’t be imaged by art.

This isn’t John’s full argument.  He spells that out in Three Treatises on Divine Images (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press).


He has a good and profitable section on Scripture.


John posits a future Antichrist (IV.26). He is aware of John’s admonition but uses Antichrist as short-hand for the Man of Sin/Beast.  Enoch and Elijah will come and witness against him, which will convert the Jews to Christ.  Much needs to be filled in, but I agree with John. 

The Hum of Angels (McKnight)

McKnight, Scot. The Hum of Angels. WaterBrook, 2017.

Key idea: “The Bible challenges the flat cosmology of moderns with a thick cosmology.”

When we go to the Bible for knowledge of angels, we often conclude from one passage (or maybe a tiny sampling) that that is all there can possibly be known about angels.  That idea is foreign to the entire history of the church before modernity.

Thesis of the book: If you believe in God, then you must also believe in angels.

Objection: “Oh yeah, how come nobody experiences angels today?

Reply: They do. Here are some examples.

Objector: They don’t count.

The Dilemma: We cannot abandon the notion of angels, since the Bible clearly teaches it.  On the other hand, we don’t want to embrace a traditional angelology because that feels too Catholicky.

I found the anecdotes generally uplifting and encouraging.  They won’t convince any deists, so take them as they are.  His take on angels follows standard systematic accounts.  I will repeat that, since I am often accused of promoting wild views on angels:  his account follows standard systematic accounts.  If you want a robust, no holds-barred account of angels, read the late 19th century Dutch theologians.  Bavinck, Kuyper, and Schilder make McKnight seem like a deist.

Every chapter focuses around Christ and is anchored in God’s love. I normally don’t say stuff like that because it is a cliche.  Everyone intends to “point to Christ” or “be biblical,” so by itself that doesn’t mean all that much.  McKnight’s arguments, though, always lead back to Jesus.  It’s hard to fault him on that point. The thrust of his argument is thus:

McKnight begins with an excellent treatment of heaven: Heaven is superior to earth because “God chose to indwell heaven, to make decisions about earth from heaven, and to send his angels to earth from heaven.”  As McKnight nicely puts it, it is “God’s throne room, God’s board room, and God’s courtroom.”

McKnight knows that you really can’t combine all good supernatural beings into the category of “angels.”  A cherub, for example, isn’t an errand boy.  On the other hand, the cultural river in which we float is so strong that we probably won’t get a good taxonomy across the popular level any time soon.

He has a good section on “guardian angels.”  We have to avoid two errors.  On one hand, we have no warrant to say with Rome that we each have a personal guardian angel (or even worse, an angel and a devil on each shoulder).  On the other hand, we can’t simply dismiss the category altogether.  Jesus said angels watch these children.

Granting that, do Jesus’s words mean that each human has a personal guardian angel, or do they mean that each Christian has a guardian angel?  The text isn’t clear.  I think the idea the text (and other texts where God sends an angel to his corporate people) promotes the general context of “guardian” without committing us to a personal guardian angel. 

God’s use of angels is one way he communicates his presence to us.  McKnight has a neat argument.  Angels attend to Christ.  Christians are in Christ.  Therefore, sometimes (at the very least), we participate in the angels’ presence with Jesus.  This makes sense of ancient (and some Protestant liturgies), “Therefore with angels and archangels….”

McKnight missed an interesting opportunity.  Meredith Kline (I think) suggested that God’s glory could is filled with angels and that’s why it looks like a cloud.  Could be.  It’s a neat idea.

He covers other facets of biblical data: angels judging, angels harvesting, angel’s revealing, etc.  This has been covered extensively in good (though not all) systematics.

Even Reformed people can experience angels:

He has a good appendix interacting with Ps. Dionysius’s celestial hierarchy. McKnight correctly notes that Paul gives no such hierarchy.  On the other hand, Paul also doesn’t collapse all celestial beings into “demon” or “angel.”


I’m not so sure about his use of Barth. True, in those passages quoted Barth asserted a belief in angels.  I always got the sneaky suspicion, though, that Barth was far more ambiguous on the topic than was presented here.  It’s the same with any use of Barth: does Barth mean that the angels are in “historie” or “geschichte?”  He never says (and I don’t think Barth really intended to say).

Herman Bavinck: God and Creation

As Bavinck in many places is summarizing traditional Reformed teaching, this book is exactly what you would expect on Reformed dogmatics. However, no one ever does theology in a purely Platonic vacuum. Bavinck is within a certain milieu of Western intellectual thought. He knows that and wrestles with it. His result, at least in this volume, is a budding Neo-Calvinist take on the doctrine of God, and more particularly the doctrine of Creation.


Some highlights:

* “All doctrines treated in dogmatics….are but the explication of the one central dogma of the knowledge of God” (Bavinck 29).

* Main point: we have no exhaustive knowledge of God (36). He is apprehended but not comprehended (47).

Bavinck does move the discussion forward on the doctrine of simplicity. He holds to the Augustinian line, yet realizes that we can’t make “simplicity” some sort of metaphysical “ = “ sign.

God’s attributes and being: “one cannot make any real distinction between his being and his attributes” (118). So how does one distinguish the attributes? The names of God differ in thought (125). The attributes of God, though identical, are not interchangeable because his names aren’t interchangeable. This is an important move forward and in it Bavinck avoids the fall into nominalism that would have otherwise happened.

“Simplicity does not describe God as an abstract being….it speaks of him s the absolute fullness of life” (127). This, too, is good. Sometimes doctrines of simplicity, like in some Neo-Thomist accounts, appear to posit a god not unlike a solar disc. He’s there, to be sure, but there isn’t much special about him.

I particularly enjoyed the sections on heaven and creation. Angels: they are animate, personal beings (451). Bavinck breaks with Calvin and sees the Prince of Persia as the guardian spirit of Persia (467), and this makes sense as Michael wouldn’t have been detained with wrestling with a local human ruler in the heavenly places.

Recreation in Christ is founded on the original creation in God’s image (532). Sin does not take away the substance of things nor does grace restore that substance (574).

Bavinck sees Rome as teaching creation of man in a dual sense: pure nature + donum superadditum (541). Bavinck says this is an error of Neo-Platonism which needs an intermediate state between matter and spirit. For the Reformers “original righteousness [was] inseparable from the idea of man as such” (551).

Bavinck affirms but does not explicate the idea of covenant of works (571). That’s for the next volume. Its importance here is that it anchors the idea that Adam had not yet achieved final blessedness.

Conclusion: so the image of God is not a static entity but extends and unfolds itself in the forms of space and time. It is both a gift and a mandate….Only humanity in its entirety–as one complete organism, summed up under a single head, spread out over the whole earth, as prophet proclaiming the truth of God, as priest dedicating itself to God, as ruler controlling the earth and the whole of creation–only it is the fully finished image, the most telling and striking likeness of God” (577).

Definitely a milestone book, but there are a few hang ups. It’s particularly difficult on a first reading because Bavinck is summarizing much of the harder sections of Western idealism. Once you are past that it repays multiple readings.

Book 1 of Richard Hooker’s Laws

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Divine Law and Human Nature: Book I of Hooker’s Laws: A Modernization

by Richard Hooker, W. Bradford Littlejohn  (Editor)Brian Marr (Editor)Brad Belschner (Editor)

Purpose for writing: Hooker sought to vindicate “the Laws of the Church which have guided us for so many years….which are now being called into question” (Hooker 2).  In doing so Hooker gives us a brief defense of “natural law,” noting that even “The very being of God is a sort of law to His working, for the perfection that God is, gives perfection to what he does” (5).

Following Aristotle, Hooker notes that God “works towards a certain end and by a certain law which constrains the effects of his power” (7). Hooker understands that “natural law” can be a slippery term.  Does it mean “rational principles” or “Newton’s physics” or something else? Therefore, he distinguishes the various laws that guide God’s creation. His main focus is on the “rational being [who] with a free will [is a] voluntary agent” (11-12).

His section on angelic law is somewhat unique in natural law treatments.  He notes, correctly I think, that when we consider them “corporately, their law makes them an army, some in rank and degree above others” (19).  Demons, moreover, “were dispersed, some in the air, some on the earth, some under the water, some among the minerals, dens, and caves under the earth” (20).

Concerning rational agents, Hooker notes that “Choice, however, means that whatever we do, we also could have left undone” and that the “two fountains of human action are knowledge and will, and when the will tends toward a particular end, we call it choice” (29).  Hooker is clearly in line with the intellectualist tradition in that the mind guides the rest of the faculties (38).

Concerning human and divine laws, he makes the distinction between primary and secondary laws.  A primary law deals with our original nature, the latter with our depraved nature The former includes embassies, good trade, etc.  The latter concerns war (61).

A “good” is that which can make our nature more perfect (64).

Concerning Scripture, Hooker responds to the papist objection “Well how do you know from Scripture which books are Scripture?”   He begins by noting that every field of study requires the prior knowledge of some things outside the field of study and takes for granted many things” (81).   When Scripture says “all things necessary for salvation,” it cannot “be construed to mean all things absolutely, but all things of a certain kind, such as all things we could not know by our natural reason.  Scripture does indeed contain all these things. However, it also presupposes that we first know and are persuaded of certain rational first principles, and building on that, Scripture teaches us the rest” (80-81).  And that is the purpose of natural law.

Paradise Lost (John Milton)

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I understand why most consider Milton to be difficult reading.  To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, “You have to drink all of the epic simultaneously.”  Milton rarely lets you up for air. It occasionally pays off, though, for Milton can ascend to the highest literary planes. You can’t stay at that pace the whole time, though.  Our mortal coil cannot take large amounts of pure beams of light.

Meaning no disrespect to Milton, this work is fan fiction.  It just is. It’s marvelous fan fiction, but still. Milton apparently went beyond even the Apocrypha and drew upon hermetic sources. While interesting, this gets him in trouble as many of his claims are simply wrong.  More on that later.

Wonderful Literary Passages

Goal of the book: assert eternal providence and justify the ways of God to men (I:25).

* The description of Pandaemonium is one of those top ten moments of the English language (“Stygian council,” “hollow abyss,” .

*  “the reign of Chaos and old Night” (1:543; III:18).

*  “Of waters issued from a cave and spread/Into a liquid plain, then stood unmoved/Pure as th’ expanse of heav’n” (IV: 454).

* Like the other great English poet Alexander Pope, Milton affirmed the chain of being, noting that “scale of nature set” (V:508) to which animals aspire to the angelic heights.

* “Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers/Hear my decree, which unrevoked shall stand” (V:601).

The Nature of God

Eternal: “wherein past, present, future he beholds” (III:78).  God’s foreknowledge does not cause man’s actions (III:118). From God “all things proceed, and up to him return” (V:469).

If you hold to the Boethian/Platonic view of time, you will enjoy Milton’s take: “For time, though in eternity, applied/To motion, measures all things durable/By past, present, and future” (V:580).

Man’s Free Will

Unfallen Adam was “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (III:99).

Marriage: Pure and Conjugal

Milton represented the Puritan view of marriage and sex, which was infinitely superior than the Gnosticism that had crept into the church. He writes of Eve, “Yielded with coy submission, modest pride/And sweet reluctant amorous delay” (IV: 310). It was said by someone that the devil will try to get you into bed before your married and keep you out of it afterwards.  Milton would agree. He writes, “With kisses pure: aside the Devil turned/For envy, yet with jealous leer malign/Eyed them askance” (IV: 503; also see line 750).

Indeed, our conjugal love is that by “which perhaps no bliss enjoyed by us excites his [Satan’s] envy more” (IX: 263).  Nonetheless, Milton is aware of the dark path sexuality, even married sexuality, can take. Even in marriage it is possible, so argues Milton, to use the spouse as an object of lust.  Milton starkly notes this between Adam and Eve after the Fall: “Carnal desire inflaming; he on Eve/Began to cast lascivious eyes, she him/As wantonly repaid; in lust they burn” (IX: 1013)


Review Heiser, on Angels


This is Dr Heiser’s long-awaited text on angels.  It’s not what you think, though.  Heiser is notorious for taking the Bible’s thought patterns seriously.  Yet, this book doesn’t deal with the Nephilim.  He’s saving that for his book on demons.  Much of the book reads like what you would find in mature systematics texts.  Bavinck would be the closest (the early 20th Century Dutch Calvinists were probably the most perceptive of the Reformed world concerning the spiritual realm).  Heiser expands with an awe-inspiring bibliography.

The Ontological Structure of Angels

Heiser examines the terms that describe the nature, status, and function of angels.  Per nature, they are ruach.  This is fairly uncontroversial, though we moderns tend to import Cartesian concepts of spirit.

Further, they are heavenly ones (shamayim).  There is some overlap here with stars in the sky.  Yet in Job 15:15 the holy ones are equated with the shamayim.  It’s important to note in this context that holiness has to do with proximity to and association with the presence of God (loc. 437).

We know there is a hierarchy of angels because at least one is called Prince (sar), and not every angel, obviously, is the sar (Dan. 10:21, 12:1).

Heiser points out that cherubim is never qualified with the term mal’ak, so strictly speaking they aren’t angels (loc. 737).  That makes sense if you think about it. Why would a guardian of God’s throne be an errand boy? Also, the fiery (flying?) snakes that bite people in Numbers 21 are called sarap (seraphim).

The Heavenly Host in the NT

Argument: there is a continuity from OT to Intertestamental to NT on the topic of angels (loc. 2357). The NT roots its angelogogy in the OT but with less variety.  While the NT doesn’t really use concepts like beney-ha elohim in the sense of the Divine Council, Paul does use geographical terms to describe dark powers (archon, archonton, arche, exousia, dynamis, thronos, kosmokrator).  All of this is in line with the Deuteronomy 32 worldview.

The heavenly hosts, what we popularly call “angels” are described as spirits (Heb. 1:14), glorious ones (2 Pet. 2:10; Jude 8), lights (James 1:17), heavenly ones (1 Cor. 15:48), holy ones (Jude 14) (loc. 2403).

The NT does use a term the OT doesn’t: archangel (1 Thess. 4:16, Jude 9)

Excursus on Moses (Loc. 2436). Moses was buried in the area that includes both Oboth and Abarim.  These locations are associated with underworld and cults of the dead. The Valley of Oberim in Dt 34:6 could in fact be the oberim of Ezek. 39:11 (cf Stronk’s article).  This might shed some light on Jude 9. Michael is Israel’s Guardian Prince who would certainly want to claim Moses.

Special Topics in NT Angelology

Angels of Revelation 1-3.  Each church is addressed with second person singular pronouns (loc. 2797).

Can Fallen Angels be redeemed?

The obvious answer is “no,” yet Revelation 1-3, addressed to the “angel” of the church, gives commands to repent.  It’s an interesting line, but not strong enough. The argument from Col. 1:19-20 is much stronger. Are “angels” included in “all things?”  But is “reconciliation” limited to “forgiveness of sins?” Heiser doesn’t think so. It’s multifaceted. Christ is reconciling creation, yet creation didn’t sin.

Myths and Questions

Can angels be winged women?  Rather, do they have wings and can they appear as women?  The answer is no. Zech 5 is the closest passage, but all it says is that two winged women appeared.  It never calls them angels. It does however address a malak distinct from them and the malak uses the masculine yomer (he said) rather than the feminine tomer (she said).

Things to Think About

Where does the Bible say that angels no longer have the ability to fall?  Granted, I don’t think they will, given the fate of the divine rebels.

Who is “the man” in Daniel 10:4-6; 9-21?  He isn’t Gabriel. He isn’t Michael, since he refers to Michael.

Given that angels don’t need to eat in heaven, can angels eat?  What were they doing with Abraham? Can angels physically interact with man?  What did the angel to do Peter in prison?

Heiser: Angels, NT


The Heavenly Host in the NT

Argument: there is a continuity from OT to Intertestamental to NT on the topic of angels (loc. 2357). The NT roots its angelogogy in the OT but with less variety.  While the NT doesn’t really use concepts like beney-ha elohim in the sense of the Divine Council, Paul does use geographical terms to describe dark powers (archon, archonton, arche, exousia, dynamis, thronos, kosmokrator).  All of this is in line with the Deuteronomy 32 worldview.

The heavenly hosts, what we popularly call “angels” is described as spirits (Heb. 1:14), glorious ones (2 Pet. 2:10; Jude 8), lights (James 1:17), heavenly ones (1 Cor. 15:48), holy ones (Jude 14) (loc. 2403).

The NT does use a term the OT doesn’t: archangel (1 Thess. 4:16, Jude 9)

Excursus on Moses (Loc. 2436). Moses was buried in the area that includes both Oboth and Abarim.  These locations are associated with underworld and cults of the dead. The Valley of Oberim in Dt 34:6 could in fact be the oberim of Ezek. 39:11 (cf Stronk’s article).  This might shed some light on Jude 9. Michael is Israel’s Guardian Prince who would certainly want to claim Moses.

Nature of Angels

Evidently, from 1 Cor. 11:10 Paul might have thought angels could be tempted.

Catechism on Heiser’s Unseen Realm

Doug Van Dorn.  Not really a catechism but a fine companion.

The book is written in a catechetical Q & A format, at some places very closely resembling the Westminster Shorter Catechism. There is a question, a somewhat detailed answer, and a list of prooftexts.  There is no way in this one review to analytically deal with all of the material, but I will focus on those areas relating to the divine council.

* God reveals himself through His Name and His Word.  We are used to saying God reveals himself through his Word, but the Name is an important element of OT theology.  The Name of God is God (Dorn 11; Ex. 23:20).

* Van Dorn covers the taxonomy of Elohim that would be familiar to Divine Council readers.  All elohim are spirits “whose domain is the spiritual world” (16). However, not all elohim are Yahweh or in the same class as Yahweh.  There are other spirit-beings than God, and sometimes the Bible designates these entities as “gods,” but there is no God like Yahweh.

Aside from Yahweh, elohim are demons (Dt 32:17; 1 Cor 10:21), ghosts (1 Sam. 28:13-14), and the sons of God.  They can’t simply be “idols,” since idols don’t float around in the sky and judge the nations.

* We can’t make a simple equation between angels and elohim.  A malak is a messenger, who may or may not be a son of God. “Sons of God’ is a term of high rank in God’s spiritual hierarchy,” territorial rulership (31).

Seraphim: they are “shining divine beings who guard the throne of God” (34). Their appearance can be either serpentine (Num. 21:6-7) and humanoid with wings (Isa. 6).

Cherubim: shining divine beings who guard the throne and have both animal and human-like features (Ezek. 1:4-8; 13-14; 22, 26).

Man, Sin, and the Image of God

Man is God’s image as he images God in his prophetic, priestly, and kingly role (61).

* The sons of God sinned around three different times (in the garden, around the time of the flood, and when Christ was born (Rev. 12:4-5, 7).

* There is a very thorough section on who tempted Eve in the garden.  Dorn gives a linguistic analysis of the term “nachash,” where it can mean serpent, one who dispenses divine knowledge, and shining (65).

Rebellion Before the Flood

Standard Nephilim material from Heiser.  Dorn does make the insight that angels in heaven wouldn’t need food or reproduction.  But when mal’akim come to earth, they do eat. Whether they need to or not, the text doesn’t say.  But they do physically interact with the material world. This would be impossible on the view that angels are just disembodied minds or spirits. (75ff).

Archeology of the Nephilim

  • They are the descendants of the intermarriage between sons of God and human women.
  • Those who survived the flood are divided into clans.
    • Rephaim (Dt 2:20-21; 2 Sam. 12:22)
    • Zamzummim. (Dt 2:20-21)
    • Emim. (Dt. 2:10-11)
    • Anakim (Dt. 1:28).

When the Nephilim died, more specifically the Rephaim, their spirits were shades in the underworld.  As Dorn notes, “This description creates a biblical link between the spirits of dead Nephilim (Rephaim) and demons who inhabit the same underworld realm of the dead” (81 n.9).

Proof: Isaiah 14.9.  26:14. Sheol contains the spirits of mighty kings who are specifically called Rephaim.  

Not all disobedient sons of God are the same. Those who sinned in Genesis 6 are locked in Tartarus. Therefore, they cannot be the demons mentioned in the NT. The corrupt sons of God mentioned in Pss 82 and 89 are not locked away in Tartarus.  The Bible has another name for them: Shedim (93ff). It is a term of geographical guardianship, coming from the Akkadian shadu.

A note on angels.  Angel is a term of function, not ontological status. Elohim can be angels, but not every angel is an elohim (simply because some angels are human).


This is an outstanding companion to Dr Heiser’s work.  One of the difficulties with Heiser’s work is that the reader is overwhelmed with so many new ideas.  As time passes, it’s not always clear where these ideas were found. Van Dorn’s book remedies that, giving the reader a handy “cheat sheet.”


Chrysostom: Homilies on Acts and Romans

I think I read this sometime in 2010-2011.

This review will differ from a normal review because it is reviewing, not a tightly argued treatise, but a collection of sermons preached on the books of Acts and Romans. One will briefly note Chrysostom’s style, address a series of themes and interesting insights from the ancient world and conclude with final observations on the book.

Chrysostom’s style in the book of Acts is more marked than in Romans. Of course, one should keep in mind that these sermons (in print) are probably a collection of the best that an ancient stenographer could do. Chrysostom briefly introduces the text as a whole, explicates a few verses, and then concludes in a fashion where he recapitulates the whole text and focuses it on a moral application in conclusion. This is the case in his sermons on Acts; it is not so much the case in Romans.

Observations from Chrysostom

(The references will be in the page numbers in the Schaff volume, and not the Homily number itself.)

Tradition: “In fact, there are many things which they have delivered by unwritten tradition” (2).  Comment:  That’s fine, but proving any of these traditions in a non-question begging way is impossible.

Ascetism: (I remember in some groups ascetism was evil medieval monkery and that in our “dominon mindset” we should engage in “biblical feasting” (e.g., drunkeness and gluttony).

Economcis: “This was an angelic commonwealth, not to call anything of theirs their own…No talk of ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ then” (47).

Justification and baptism: “Now he justified them by the regeneration of the laver” (453). On this note one should mention, as Thomas Torrance argues, that nowhere in Scripture is “regeneration” (palingenesis) ever referred to as an “inward” conversion process. It is always referred to as the final product of creation or something baptism does. Back to Chrysostom: in case I have misinterpreted Chrysostom’s argument here, the editor notes on the same point in another passage that “Chrysostom cannot mean the gift of faith in regard to baptism” (45).

Ancient Practices of the Church: “Then let us rid ourselves of this demon (passion), at its first beginning let us quell it, let us put the sign of the Cross on our breast” (111). Praying for the recently departed: “This is the greatest memorial…bid them all make for him their prayers” (140).
Communing with the saints: “Let us keep the saints near us” (319).

Angels: There is actually too much on angels. I will simply cite the page numbers: 171, 198, 366, 450,510. In short, each man has his own angel (171).

Sin and Nature: Chrysostom famously rejects original sin in his homily on Romans 5:12. Elsewhere he notes that sin does not have a substance (423). Therefore, it cannot be equated with “nature.” Sin, like everyone in the ancient church taught, is an evil operation of the will. Natures, by contrast, do not change. That is the very definition of nature. Therefore, a nature cannot change from “good” in the garden to “evil” later in life, otherwise it wouldn’t be a nature.

A Reformed Protestant’s best counter to this is to say that sin is a “macula,” or a stain on the nature.


Reading this volume is certainly a healthy exercise in the Fathers. The sermons on Acts are particularly good because they give us a snapshot of what church life was like in the early church (and by contrast what it is not like today. People who prat about wanting to go “early church” never consult the writings of the guys on this topic who, like Chrysostom, were much closer to this reality than we are today). Still, there are a number of flaws in this volume that will keep it from being “re-read.” Like any volume of sermons, it cannot be structured around a theme and thus makes for hard reading. Secondly, the editor feels the need to add his own opinions and latest thoughts to the text when they are almost never needed.