More Q’s and A’s on the Angels

In my previous postings of questions about the angels I answered whether or not the existence of angels could be known from human reason or only from revelation. A few months ago I answered questions about the guardian angels. In this installment I discuss the nature of angels and their creation. This subject requires some knowledge of both philosophy and theology, so please bear with me if the material is a little deep and the terminology technical.

What are angels?

Angels are pure immortal spirits, of an incommunicable and immaterial substance, created by God in His image and likeness, and having the vital operations of intellection and volition. They have an intellect and a will; which is to say, they know and they love. Being intellectual creatures of incommunicable substance, angels are, therefore, persons. Thanks to the great thinker and martyr, Saint Boetius, perennial philosophy has an excellent definition of person. Taking into account the Three Persons in the Trinity and the One Person, or hypostasis, in Christ, the God-man, Boetius defined person as a complete, individual, and incommunicable substance of a rational or intellectual nature, totally subsisting in itself. He added that all-important last clause “totally subsisting in itself,” because the human nature of Our Lord does not subsist in a human person, but in the second person of the Blessed Trinity. In other words the “I” that is “me” cannot be communicated to anyone else; it is absolutely singular. Even in God, the divine Persons are singular, although all three Persons possess the same identical nature. Father Feeney put this truth in the most childlike terms: in God there are three Who’s and one What.

What is the nature of an angel?

Just as man was succinctly defined by Aristotle as a “rational animal,” an angel can be defined simply as a “finite intellectual spirit.” That is its essence. Its nature, understood as what it can do and what can be done to it, is that belonging to an immaterial person who can know reality (that is, truth) by sheer intellection without the need of sense impressions, and who wills or desires the good that it knows. An angel acts by the limited spiritual power of its finite will. That volitional act can be immanent (within its own nature, i.e., knowing and loving) or transient (moving something or someone outside of itself).

What is the form of an angel?

This is a difficult question. I could give a quick answer, but it would not be understood. I must first define what form is in material substances in order to speak of it in regard to spiritual substances. So, being a composite of spirit and matter, man has matter and form, as do all material substances. In philosophy, form has nothing to do with shape. The shape of a material substance accompanies the accident of quantity, the “how much” of a thing, as it is extended into and occupies space. Quantity and space, however, are other subjects that have nothing to do with the nature of a spirit.

Form can be defined as that which makes a potential something (Aristotle calls this potentiality “prime matter”) an actual something (matter in-formed, or “second matter”). It is what makes a thing to be what it is — a rock, a rose, a man. Form is intelligible to a mind. It is that which is abstracted from something, by the intellect, through which we know the essence or whatness of a thing. Matter cannot exist without being informed. Without form, matter is sheer potency. It only becomes actual when it receives a form and becomes a certain thing. Matter is determined by form to be this thing or that thing. Form is the determining element of the composite of the two; it makes a this or a that to be a this or a that something.

In material substances, form determines a thing to be what it is; matter is that which is determined by form. Form determines a thing to be “rock”; matter is what makes the rock this rock, rather than that rock. In material substances, neither form nor matter can exist except as a composite thing. There is no concrete material thing that you can point to and say: ‘Here is sheer matter, or here is sheer form.” What does exist is informed matter. Without this explanation of reality, there is no way to explain material change, which is the reduction of potency to an actuality. I realize that this explanation is hard to understand, especially if you have never studied ArIstotle’s theory of hylomorphism, but I introduce it only to make it easier to understand what form is when you speak of it in an angel.

An angel has no matter; therefore, it is pure form, unmixed with matter. The substantial form in man is also his principle of life, and it is immortal. It is the soul. According to Aristotle (and Saint Thomas) the soul is what makes man, man. The body makes a man this man. This second affirmation is not a dogma of Faith and some good Catholic philosophers (Dons Scotus, for one) disagreed with Saint Thomas. But what is a dogma of Faith (defined by the Council of Vienne, 1512) is that the soul of man is the substantial form of the body. An angel is a spirit, not a soul. Its life has nothing to do with matter; its life is its immanent activity, willing and knowing. In the beatific vision, the life of the angel (and, too, the human saints) is manifest in the act of knowing God (to “see,” as in beatific vision) without a veil, face to face, and loving God as the Good possessed, rather than the Good desired (as is the case with us mortal wayfarers).

Each Angel is Its Own Species

St. Thomas taught that each angel is its own form, or species. The reason the “angelic” doctor held this view is because of his belief in the correctness of Aristotle’s theory of hylomorphism (informed matter). In material creation, it is only in man that the “form” is immaterial and, therefore, immortal. In rational or intellectual creatures, that form is incommunicable, hence it belongs to the person, the ‘I’, and it is that one person’s forever. Aristotle taught that it is matter that individuates and determines the “thisness” of a material substance. The form gives matter its “whatness,” or quiddity.

Therefore, says Aristotle, what makes anything an individual member of a particular species is its matter, stamped, so to speak, upon a specific form, whatever that form is — rock. rose, dog, or man. We men all share the same nature, our man-ness, our human-ness, but our individual-ness is due to the particular matter that is mine and no one else’s (kind of like DNA). The form is the species, not as a universal idea of course, but as it has real existence in the individual, determining the matter that makes a substance an individual substance. Matter makes one an individual member of whatever species, it is the principle of its individuation. When it came to pure spirits, Saint Thomas carried Aristotle’s principle over into the angelic realm. Aquinas maintained that, since angels have no informed matter, there can be no individual members of an angelic “species.” Each angel, therefore, must be its own species.

Each angel is one of a kind. One can make this analogy: Angel differs from angel not as one rose differs from another rose, but as a rose differs from a lily. An angel, therefore, is a person, but not an individual in the philosophic sense of that term, for there are no other “individuals” within a common species that could be called “the angelic species.” Each angel is a unique and singular person, but not because of matter, for it has none. Rather, it is because each angel is simply one of a kind, having its own unique form. All the angels share a common essence, which is that of a pure finite spirit, but we cannot really define an angel’s nature (what it can do and what can be done to it) as clearly as we can define our own by way of classifying ourselves under a genus and species. With man, the genus is “animal” and the species is “rational.” This is the way of all proper definitions, to classify a thing according to a genus and species. Thus an animal is defined as a “sentient creature.” This applies to all animals, dogs, cats, etc. (When we speak of the differences between irrational animals we use the word “species” as the “kind” of animal.) But “sentient creature” is a far less intelligible definition than “rational animal.” In other words, what we understand best is our own nature, and that, on account of our ability to self-reflect.

When were angels created? Can you explain their time of creation in relation to the time of the material world and man’s creation?

Angels were created before the material universe, or perhaps simultaneously with “light” on the first day of creation. This is, obviously, a matter of opinion. Holy scripture tells us nothing about the invisible creation of spirits. All that we know from holy scripture is that the angels (called sons of God in some places of the Old Testament) shouted for joy when the stars were formed (Job). Time was co-created with matter, as was space. Neither time nor space is a substance. Time is defined as a measure of material change. It is not a thing, it is a measure of material things that move, ens mobile. If nothing moved in the universe, there would be no time. When material things move, locally, then you can measure that movement against some other moving thing that is a constant. Hence we use the cyclic movement of the moon or the sun as measures of time. With angels, the measure of their duration is called aeveternity. It can only be measured by before and after, i.e., moments. It cannot he measured by yesterday or tomorrow. Angels can and do act in time, but, being immaterial and independent of matter, the angels are not in time, as we are.

At the end of the world, in the re-creation, there will be no more time. Some theologians reason from this that there will be no more planetary or stellar motion. The universe will be at rest. That is definitely something I do not understand. But, what a thought!

Change and Angelic Duration

In the angelic world, aeveternity is that duration which has a beginning but no end; it is the duration proper to spiritual and incorruptible immaterial beings, which would include the separated human soul of the deceased.

Time is that duration which has a beginning and an end.

Eternity is proper to God alone, who has no beginning and no end, nor any “shadow of alteration” (James 1:17).  In the life of God there cannot be even a before and after, since God is immutable (changeless) and eternal. He can have no measure of duration in His inner life. As St. Thomas says, God is pure act, He is the immutable and eternal Now!

In relation to man’s creation, we know that the angels were created before man, and before the stars, sun, moon, and earth. A common opinion of the early doctors of the Church is that God created with “light” a celestial  empyrean of unimaginable colors above our universe to be the abode of the angels. The empyrean had to be material, if it was included in the “light”” of the first day. Light, even when it existed without the burning stars, is still material.

A difficult question would be: Being immaterial, did the angels need to have a material place in which to act before the creation of the universe as given in Genesis?

I would have to say, “Yes”. (And this is my personal opinion.) Why? Because since the angels first existed outside of the vision of God (and only the infinite and eternal God existed of Himself, a se, having no need of creatures), then it would befit the angel, who is a finite spirit, to be created in a finite place. That place could be ever so ethereal in its splendor, but it must still be a material splendor, in order to be a place. If the angels were not created in a place, then there would be no where to speak of in reference to the location of their finite existence. In other words — yes, they would have existed, but nowhere. As creatures, therefore, they must have been created somewhere. I realize this is deep and unimaginable, but wonderful to contemplate, is it not?

Do not forget that heaven is a place. It is the place into which the good angels entered, and wherein their intellects were opened to the beatific vision, when they passed their trial. So, too, is hell a place, created by God, Jesus tells us in the Gospels, “for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). Heaven exists as part of material creation. “In the beginning God created heaven and earth” (Gen. I: I).  Perhaps heaven is this celestial empyrean, even more wonderfully illumined after the blessed spirits were saved by Faith and Charity. But, no man entered this place and joined the good angels in the beatific vision until our Lord’s ascension.

In my next installment I will discuss what the Church and holy scripture teach definitively about the angels and what knowledge we have received about them from tradition. Then, I will open up the fascinating subject of angelic knowledge and love and how they communicate. What language do the angels speak? Stay tuned.