“To deny the angels is to deny God Himself” (Barth)

When it comes to angels, Barth is normally quoted to the effect that angels are not the proper subject of theology, and so forth, as he demonstrates in CD III.3 § 51.1 (“The Limits of Angeology”). That is all well and true, but Barth’s point is that the activity of the angels is to reveal the proper subject of theology: God. Thus, he goes on to develop an incredibly positive and constructive angeology in § 51.2 and 51.3. In fact, I was a bit surprised (pleasantly) by the heightened role he gives to the angels in the economy of God. So we read:

All genuine witness to God lives by the witness and therefore the ministry of angels. For by this it becomes in a sense technically possible and real that God is genuinely present and may be genuinely known as God in the earthly sphere, that he genuinely and recognisably speaks and acts, and that He is genuinely honoured and loved and feared. In their so utterly selfless and undemanding and purely subservient passing, in their eloquently quiet pointing to God which is always a pointing away from themselves, heaven comes to earth. …

Without the angels God himself would not be revealed and perceptible. Without them He would be hopelessly confused with some earthly circumstance, whether in the form of a sublime idea or a golden calf. …

As such, although creatures as we are, they stand over against us at the side of God. The very thing which they lack in comparison with us includes within itself their infinite advantage over us. In face of God they have no cause of their own in the espousing of which they have to submit to His will. They do not exist in any reciprocal relationships which have to be conformed to the divine model. They do not sing any hymn of praise which well or badly they have to strike up. They are themselves an eternal hymn of praise. And their existence is not tedious, as tedious theologians usually imagine, because as the entourage accompanying God they have their hands full with what He wills and does and therefore with us. Their liturgy is their service to Him and therefore to us. But in this service they stand over against us at the side of God. They exist in His glory, speak in His truth and work with His power. We cannot rely on them as we do on God. But we must not forget that when we rely on God we can rely on them. We can as little dispute with them as with God; we can as little deny them as we can deny God. In faith in a God of theory or ethics or aesthetics we may well deny the angels, because in the company of this kind of God it makes no odds whether there are angels or not. But in faith in the heavenly Father of Jesus Christ, whose majesty is operative and revealed in His mercy; in faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the case is very different. To deny the angels is to deny God Himself.

[pp. 484-486]

Advertisements

8 comments

  1. I really appreciate this thought. I have recently been praying the trisagion prayer: holy god, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy on us [with the angels]. I found this in a rowan williams book and was intrigued by the alternate ending. But our resistance to the idea of supernatural angels…thanks alot Angels in the Outfield and Touched by an Angel…i think diminishes both the glory of God and also robs us of some of the cosmic or awe inspiring aspects of the Biblical view of God as glorious Lord.

  2. “For by this it becomes in a sense technically possible and real that God is genuinely present and may be genuinely known as God in the earthly sphere, that he genuinely and recognisably speaks and acts, and that He is genuinely honoured and loved and feared. In their so utterly selfless and undemanding and purely subservient passing, in their eloquently quiet pointing to God which is always a pointing away from themselves, heaven comes to earth….”

    Hmmmmm…..HMMMMMMM!!!!!

    Thoughts to ponder. Doesn’t this remind you a bit of the angelology of St. Augustine? I’m thinking of his passage on time and eternity in Confessions and scant references in the second half of the City of God. Eh? God does not operate in time. God does not speak on this earth. Therefore, when we hear his voice or suspect his operations it is actually the eternal God working by means of the angels. The voice pealing across the heavens at Jesus’ baptism was actually a voice of an angel.

    I like all of this. I feel like a kid in a candy shop; in short, an idiot. But who cares?

    I wonder how the Barth-man would defend himself against the charge of givingg a mediatorial role to angels that can only properly be Christ’s. Undoubtedly, he anticipates and answers this question, but I’ll be looking out for it nonetheless.

    • This is, indeed, the most surprising aspect of Barth’s angeology: “technically possible and real that God…”!

      I think Barth is speaking about revelation apart from Christ’s own teaching and ministry on earth, yet it is still highly intriguing that Barth is seemingly making all other mediating revelations (vocal announcements in the OT?) limited to the activity of the angels sent from God. Moreover, this is necessarily the case for Barth, or else the idolatry of creaturely media is introduced. Hence, I was surprised by the heightened role that he gives to the angels in his dogmatics. It’s not the sort of thing you would anticipate from those who think Barth is basically a Kantian philosopher masquerading as a theologian.

  3. Nevertheless my dear Kevin, nevertheless!!!

    What we have in this well-chosen passage of Barth’s is some genuine exegetical insight. Can we make the absolutising claims that he does in speaking of the angels? I’m not sure. Why cannot God operate in the time he has created without a mediation, much as my hand freely dips into the fish tank I set up of my own will? Does this require a theophany, or less, an angel? Oh Kevin, these questions baffle me.

    But back to Barth. The authenticity of his claims can be favorably tested as soon as we look back to those stunningly problematic passages of the Angel of YHWH in the pentateuch, particularly:

    “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him him; he will not forgive your rebellion, SINCE MY NAME IS IN HIM.” (Ex. 23:20)

    Oh boy. Or perhaps from our friend Stephen: “You who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” (Ac.7:53)

    Augustine and Barth have nailed it in their doctrine, and it pleases me very well when the dogmaticians can do for exegesis what hordes of whining historical critics and ancient-near-eastern babblers say they cannot do: understand the scripture.

    • Why cannot God operate in the time he has created without a mediation

      Perhaps Barth would say that God can but does not because we could not handle it (e.g., Moses on Sinai). Or, say if God avoided this problem by just revealing himself through creaturely media, we would still be tempted to idolatry (burning bush notwithstanding), which does seem to be what Barth would say. The problem is solved by having the revelation come entirely from the side of God, from the side of eternity, without it being God himself directly — thus, the means of angels.

      Thanks for the Scripture references. There are many more that are illumined for me by Barth’s exposition of the angels.

  4. I’m still not sure what to make of it,

    If God chose against revealing himself through creaturely media on account of our propensity to idolatry, there would be no incarnation. To be sure, the incarnation of Christ has occasioned all sorts of idolatry, such as the Arian heresy, the various threads of hero worship in the 19th century, or the more subtle manner in which Mennonites use the earthly ministry of Jesus as a catchphrase for the immanence of God and man in general. Heck, even the efforts of the NPP with their “Jesus’ story as the fulfillment of Israel’s story” cannot quite evade the charge of worshiping human history. God reckoned with all of these deviances and sent his Son all the same. Therefore, can we really say in dogmatics that angels are chosen over creaturely mediums on account of the idolatry problem? Was not idolatry the very issue at Sinai, after the Hebrews had witnessed the majestic glory of their God, or at Peor, after they had concluded forty years of wandering under the guiding hands of the angel? Be it God himself, the angels, or mere humans as in the case of the prophetic or apostolic word, we have to reckon with the continuing threat of idols.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s