The Angelic Human: An Angel in the Flesh?

This is the 18th  blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is The Human Being: A Spiritual Animal (II).

The popularity of angels and angel worship has varied through the history of Christianity and the various cultures which embraced Christian theology.  Angels have at times been admire or feared as beings greater than humans, even seen as divine beings.  We see this especially in some of the pseudopigrphical works written by Jewish writers and then, after the time of Christ, by Christian writers, between 300BCE and 300AD.  In writings from the earliest centuries of Christianity some ancients when first encountering the Gospel, thought Christ or the Holy Spirit were some kind of angels. (In the earliest days of Islam, Mohammad also seems to have equated God’s spirit with an angel).   The canonical Scriptures are more reserved in their comments about angels often portraying them mostly as God’s messengers (which is what the word “angel” itself means) but not as gods (see Psalm 104:3-4 and Hebrews 1:7).    Still, angels, because they are bodiless powers or spirit beings, were thought of as being “closer” to God than humans whose physical nature was sometimes seen as a barrier between humans and God.  (Angelology was further popularized in 6th Century Christianity by the writings of the author now often called Pseudo-Dionysius and who may well have been a student of a Syrian pagan philosopher).

Early Christians came to understand that in fact the angels were not superior to humans, for when God decides to enter into His creation, God comes not as an angel but rather becomes incarnated in the human, Jesus Christ.  “For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham“   (Hebrews 2:16).   As the Letter to the Hebrews proclaims about the incarnation, saying, God’s Son ….

“having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. For to which of the angels did He ever say:

“You are My Son, Today I have begotten You”?

And again:

“I will be to Him a Father, And He shall be to Me a Son”?

But when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says:

“Let all the angels of God worship Him.”   (Hebrews 1:4-6)

In Hebrews 2:5-9 we read:

For He has not put the world to come, of which we speak, in subjection to angels. But one testified in a certain place, saying:

“What is man that You are mindful of him, Or the son of man that You take care of him? You have made him a little lower than the angels; You have crowned him with glory and honor, And set him over the works of Your hands. You have put all things in subjection under his feet.”

For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him.  But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.”

Humans and angels are both creatures made by God.  Angels are bodiless powers of heaven, but are not gods, are not omnipotent, nor are they eternal beings.  Christ Himself testifies that it is humans whom God the Fathers calls gods, not the angels (John 10:34, quoting Psalm 82:6).  And though Christ says in the resurrection, the resurrected will be like angels, he is using a metaphor and does not say we become angels, for humans do not lose their humanity in being resurrected from the dead (Matthew 22:30).

Metropolitan Kallistos describes the difference between humanity and angels:

“Body, soul and spirit, three in one, man occupies a unique position in the created order.

According to the Orthodox world-view, God has formed two levels of created things: first the ‘noetic’, ‘spiritual’ or ‘intellectual’ level, and secondly, the material or bodily.  On the first level God formed the angels, who have no material body.  On the second level he formed the physical universe—the galaxies, stars and planets, with the various types of mineral, vegetable and animal life.  Man, and man alone, exists on both levels at once.  Through his spirit or spiritual intellect he participates in the noetic realm and is a companion of the angels; through his body and his soul, he moves and feels and thinks, he eat and drinks, transmuting food into energy and participating organically in the material realm, which passes within him through his sense-perceptions.

Our human nature is thus more complex than the angelic, and endowed with richer potentialities.  Viewed in this perspective, man is not lower but higher than the angels; as the Babylonian Talmud affirms, ‘The righteous are greater that the ministering angels’ (Sanhedrin 93a).  Man stands at the heart of God’s creation.  Participating as he does in both the noetic and material realms, he is an image of or mirror of the whole creation. . . .

Being microcosm, man is also mediator.  It is his God-given task to reconcile and harmonize the noetic and the material realms, to bring them to unity, to spiritualize the material, and to render manifest all the latent capacities of the created order.  As the Jewish Hasidim expressed it, man is called ‘to advance from rung to rung until, through him, everything is united’.  As microcosm, then, man is the one in whom the world is summed up; as mediator, he is the one through whom the world is offered back to God.

Man is able to exercise this mediating role only because his human nature is essentially and fundamentally a unity.  If he were just a soul dwelling temporarily in a body, as many of the Greek and Indian philosophers have imagined –if his body were not part of his true self, but only a piece of clothing which he will eventually lay aside, or a prison from which he is seeking to escape—then man could not properly act as mediator.  Man spiritualizes the creation first of all by spiritualizing his own body and offering it to God.  ‘Do you not realize that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit that is in you?’ writes St Paul.  ‘. . . Glorify God with your body . . . I beseech you therefore brethren, by the mercies of God, that you offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God’ (1 Cor 6:19-20; Rom 12:1).  But in ‘spiritualizing’ the body, man does not thereby dematerialize it: on the contrary, it is the human vocation to manifest the spiritual in and through the material.  Christians are in this sense the only true materialists.

The body, then, is an integral part of human personhood.  The separation of body and soul at death is unnatural, something contrary to God’s original plan, that has come about in consequence of the fall.  Furthermore, the separation is only temporary:  we look forward, beyond death, to the final resurrection on the Last Day, when body and soul will be reunited once again.”  (Kallistos Ware, THE ORTHODOX WAY, pp 62-64)

So while angels are messengers from God to humanity and the created order, humans occupy the role of being mediator – the beings who unite earth to heaven, the spiritual and physical worlds, and humanity to divinity.  No angels have this unique role, and no angels are destined to become God, whereas, as so many Fathers bear witness, “God became human so that humans might become God.”   It is the misunderstanding of both what humans and angels are that causes spiritual confusion for some people.

“The two fundamental human heresies, the two banes of modern philosophy, are animalism and angelism. Man has lost his place in the cosmos, the place between angel and beast. Chesterton says, describing St. Thomas’ philosophy of man, that ‘man is not like a balloon, floating free in the sky, nor like a mole, burrowing in the earth, but like a tree, with its roots firmly planted in the earth and its branches reaching up into the heavens.’  […] The two most life-changing revolutions in modern times were the scientific-industrial revolution, which taught man to live and think abstractly, like an angel; and the sexual revolutions, which taught man to live and think like an animal. The first knows only the head, the second knows only the hormones. Neither knows the heart. […]  Man does not know himself because he does not know his place in the cosmos; he confuses himself with the angel or animal. He is alienated, ‘lost in the cosmos.’ ” (Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans,  pp.52-53)

The incarnation of God in Christ restores humanity to its proper place in the cosmos.  This is the very nature of salvation.

Homo sapiens is an intersection of Spirit and biology in which lizard, dog and rational self-awareness have the potential to become transformed into something utterly unique: person.  It’s a potential, not a guarantee.  The danger is that the whole enterprise flops because the creature prefers self-worship in the form of obeying its instincts disguised as if they were gods and goddesses.  The results are disastrous.  As Mark Twain once said, ‘No animal is capable of being as beastly as human beings.’  But when the instincts, feelings and thoughts are transformed by interaction with the Spirit, the universe receives a great gift.  Such a person becomes an instrument of peace, wonder and thanksgiving.  Impressions of life enter into the person, both good and bad, and are converted into ripe fruits of the Spirit.  Love, humility, patience, self-sacrifice and praise blossom forth, bringing blessing to all Creation.”  (Stephen Muse, BEING BREAD, p 111)

Next:  Humans: Flesh and Body

6 thoughts on “The Angelic Human: An Angel in the Flesh?

  1. Pingback: The Human Being: A Spiritual Animal (II) | Fr. Ted's Blog

  2. cindy

    Is it correct to believe that the material nature of the human body is a tool for the spirit to manifest one’s inner spirit? If the body is a temple, doesn’t that mean the spirit must exist first before it is “clothed” (so to speak) with a body? So a physical church is only a building if it is not built around spirit? Sin occurs when the body acts independently of the spirit? What about the role of the Holy Spirit at baptism? Does that mean we don’t have the spirit until baptism? I need some clarification on whether the spirit you describe is the same spirit received at baptism. It sounds like it is a component of a human.

    1. Fr. Ted

      First, a reminder that whether one speaks about the human body, human soul or human spirit, all belong to the created order, and in that sense are not opposed to each other. In biblical thinking humans have no access to any “spiritual” world or experience except through the body. Body, soul and spirit belong together in unity. Death is defined as the separation of the soul from the body – the loss of being spiritual means death for the human.

      The body is our means to encounter God – it is God who creates the material world and gives us a material body. Our body is our way to experience God in His creation.

      Depending on what you are asking about the spirit existing first, traditionally Christianity and Judaism believed the soul and body come into existence at the same time. Platonism believed int he pre-existence of the soul but Christianity rejected this idea.

      Again depending on what you are trying to say, the whole process of building a church building is a spiritual work because the entire materials creation was created to be spiritual: a means to experience God. God revealed Himself in and through material creation to His material creatures. When we build a church, we pray over the land on which the building is to be erected even before there is anything built on the ground. There are prayers for laying the foundation, prayers for the entire structure. The structure is consecrated because it is already dedicated to God. The prayers simply recognize the reality. The building is dedicated to God from the first shovel full of dirt dug up to the first brick laid.

      Again depending on what you are asking, the body does not act independently of the spirit – it can’t for the separation of the body and the spirit is already death. Sin is not so much acting independently of the spirit, as choosing a separation from God.

      Regarding baptism and the Holy Spirit – here we encounter the different ways in which “spirit” is used in the Scriptures. God breathes His Spirit into the dust and the human soul is formed. So we have some relationship to the spirit of God always. However, the Old Testament has the breath of life (the spirit) in every living thing on earth, not just in humans.

      in Baptism, or more particularly Chrismation, we do believe God gifts us with His Holy Spirit – we don’t receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but as Fr. Schmemann maintained, we receive the Holy Spirit as gift. St. Paul certainly believed and wrote about having the spirit of God as that which most identifies Christians. St. Paul uses the word “spirit” in a number of different ways, and it is not always clear to us today what he means.

      The Holy Spirit is bestowed on us in Chrismation, this is a unique experience of God’s Spirit. However, to be human is to breath which is to have the spirit in us according to Genesis 2.

      To be alive is to have the Spirit of God in us, to in-breathe the Spirit. This is true to all humans. But this breath/spirit does depart from us when we die. The Holy Spirit bestowed on us at Chrismation is given as gift unto life eternal. It is the Spirit given to us as gift that enables us humans to live with God even beyond death.

  3. Pingback: Humans: Flesh and Body (I) | Fr. Ted's Blog

    1. Fr. Ted

      Yes. We see that tragically in Genesis 6 and 7 in the flood story – all animals have the breath of life. It is God who animates all life.

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