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Angels: Biblical Inconsistencies in the Early Medieval Catholic Church

Written by Alice Goodwin. Angels have been in the western public consciousness for centuries, yet they rarely appear in the Bible. What accounts for this inconsistency? And, what role did angels play in the early medieval Catholic Church?

Stories of angels and devils are just as present in the public consciousness today as they were during the time of the early Catholic Church, with television shows such as Lucifer, popular novels with television adaptations including Good Omens by Neil Gaiman, and teen fiction series with film adaptations such as the Fallen series by Lauren Kate. As such, the story of angels falling from heaven is widely known, and yet does not feature in its entirety at any point in the Bible. In fact, only three angels are named in the Bible – Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel, far fewer than were cited in early medieval prayer books and sermons. Ideas that we now associate with Church teachings in fact were theorised to fill perceived gaps within the teachings of the Bible during and preceding the early medieval period (500-1000CE). How have these ideas been so present in the collective consciousness of “western” culture for so long? And why do ideas of angels and saints still fascinate us today?

          Stories of Lucifer and his fall from heaven were considered ancient even during the early medieval period, passed on through word of mouth for generations before being written down in the form of the Life of Adam series of texts, translated and interpreted in Greek as the Apocalypse of Moses, and in Latin as Vita Adami et Evae. With the first written accounts dated to between the third and fifth centuries CE, the texts cover the lives of Adam and Eve, from being driven out of Paradise until their deaths, and beyond into descriptions of how and where Adam was made as well as how he got his name. It is written here that Lucifer fell because he refused to prostrate himself before Adam in spite of orders from the angel Michael, instead arguing that Adam should bow before him because he (Lucifer) was created first (Vit Ad 11-17). When confronting Lucifer (now Satan) following his expulsion from Paradise, Adam asks why Satan would tempt Eve and cause them to stray from God, to which Satan responds “with trickery I cheated your wife and caused you to be expelled because of her from your joy and luxury, as I had been cast out of my glory” (Vit Ad 16). In this version of the story, Lucifer does not stand in direct opposition to God. Instead, he refuses orders to perform proskynesis in front of Adam, and is expelled for his subsequent comment, not for disobeying God Himself. This Lucifer appears to be arrogant, yes, but not necessarily the evil that we have come to associate him with. Within the Bible, Satan is seen to be the antithesis of God, tempting humans away from sin for his own pleasure, whereas within the Life of Adam he is seeking revenge for his own perceived wrongs by ruining, through temptation, God’s ‘perfect’ creations.

          The Biblical connections with this story are minimal; there is no account of Satan himself speaking with Adam or Eve, although Genesis 2 is often interpreted as Satan acting through the snake. The closest that we get to an account of Lucifer and his angels’ fall from heaven is in Revelation 12 where the story of a “War in Heaven” is told, with Lucifer represented as a seven headed, ten horned dragon, who pulled down a third of the stars from the sky and lay in wait to eat a child as it was born. Losing against the army of the angel Michael, Lucifer and his host were “thrown down to earth from heaven” because they spoke against Christians and Christ, neither of whom existed at the time of Genesis (Revelation 12:7-10). The lack of clarity surrounding the timeline of Lucifer and Satan became a theological issue in the early medieval period, with many questioning when angels were created, when Lucifer fell, and why these were not discussed within the Bible. Augustine of Hippo theorised that the angels’ creation was included within “let there be light”, but never reached a conclusion that satisfied him. Despite this, Augustine’s initial hypothesis became tradition, alongside his belief that Lucifer must have fallen within the same instance of his creation. Bede subsequently argued that angels were included in the creation of the heavens, but the issue remained that depending on the theologian to whom you subscribe, your entire worldview could differ. This becomes even more complex when the doctrine of replacement became prevalent within the early medieval church.

          The doctrine of replacement stemmed from a sermon delivered by Pope Gregory the Great in 591CE, which was inspired in turn by “Ecclesiastical Hierarchy”, written by Pseudo-Dionysus some ninety-one years before. Within his sermon, Gregory outlines a whole new heavenly world containing nine orders of angels ranked, bridging the gap between God and humankind. Biblical evidence to support these orders is scarce, but there was already a widespread belief in the nine orders of angels and archangels, so little convincing had to be done. Gregory, somewhat erroneously, cited the Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10), in which a woman who has ten coins loses one, leaving her with nine and then rejoices when she recovers the tenth, lost coin. The end of the verse reads “in the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). Written in the Gospels, this parable appears clear in its message that the repentance of one sinner is just as valued by God as those ten living without sin. In contrast to this, Gregory the Great claimed that the lost coin represented the fallen order of angels, and that finding the tenth coin was the equivalent of humans ascending to fill the place of the lost order.

The consequence of this interpretation was significant. The idea that humans were not an initial part of God’s plan, but an afterthought created to fill the gap in the heavens solves far fewer problems than it causes. Why would God create humanity rather than just creating another order of angels when humans are so clearly inferior? This also brings up questions of benevolence as well as omniscience: why do humans deserve salvation and forgiveness when angels do not? How did God not know that an order of angels would rebel causing a gap in the heavens? The doctrine of replacement was perhaps more trouble than it was worth for Gregory the Great.

          The common belief in angels during the early medieval period can be seen through both art and prayer books, calling angels by name to protect individuals during death and help them during life. Extensive lists of named angels were called upon in masses celebrated during this period, with different angels cited for different ailments. Veneration of angels in such a way brings to mind polytheistic religions of mere centuries prior (Roman gods and goddesses and Anglo-Saxon Paganism among others), where individuals would pray to a deity that represented their specific need at that time. While it is clearly stated within the Bible that prayers should not be said to angels, they were seen as middle-men, bridging the gap between humans and God. Within the Catholic Church service today, angels are called upon alongside saints and Mary to pray to God for those present. The practice of praying to angels was condemned at the Synod of Laodicea from 363-364CE following the attempted revival of paganism, where veneration of angels was ruled to be unorthodox idolatry. Despite this, using angels as symbols as well as invoking their names in prayer continued on the fringes of the Church for some time.

          Polytheistic religions were under attack by the Roman Empire in the early medieval period but remained in the consciousness of lay people as well as Church officials. The worshipping of angels was gradually phased out of the Catholic Church, only to be replaced by cults of saints, present from around the sixth century until the sixteenth century. Saints were being canonised frequently within the early medieval church, with each patron saint getting their own area of speciality. This meant that the polytheistic tradition of praying to a specific god could continue in the guise of a monotheistic religion. Ranks of saints emerged, similar to the orders of angels, and the book of hours (popular between 1300 and 1500CE) contained many short prayers directed to a variety of saints.

The trends identifiable here within the Catholic Church are perhaps more indicative of what humans seek from religion than of the truth of heavenly orders. Humans seek representation within religion, craving personable figures they can identify their concerns with. In this way, a “catch-all” figure such as the monotheistic God of Christianity may not be what people in the early medieval period sought from religion. Perhaps the shift away from polytheistic religious practices was too soon for humanity in western Europe, allowing facets of polytheism to continue through the veneration of angels. 

Written by Alice Goodwin

Bibliography

De Jonge, Marinus, and Tromp, Johannes. Life of Adam and Eve and Related Literature. GAP. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1997.

Reiterer, Friedrich V., Nicklas, Tobias, and Schöpflin, Karin. Angels. 1. Aufl. edited by Walter De Gruyter. GmbHKG, 2007.

Sowerby, Richard. Angels in Early Medieval England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

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