My view of angels is complicated. I was raised in an evangelical home and have always believed in angels and the part they played in the biblical story; however I was taught to be suspicious of tales of modern day angelic visitations, and to doubt the lore which was built around angels, because so much of it was New Age, Mormons, or Muslim. As a child I was tucked in with a prayer that asked God to send his angels to look after me, but if anybody started talking about experiencing angels, that was a good indication that they were a heretic or they needed to up their medication.
When I was in college, I attended a charismatic church which affirmed the experiential reality of a super natural God–everything God did in scripture was for today and that included angels and angelic visitations. I remember one guest speaker at our church explaining that he felt the presence of ‘angels in the room’ by a sensation he had in his sinus cavity(yep, I kid you not). Others saw angels, or ‘felt them.’ I did feel the reality of God’s presence at that church but the lack of critical thinking about spiritual experiences was disturbing.
Joel Miller has written a book on angels which deftly guides readers past the extremes of supernatural suspicion and belief in anything and everything ‘angelic.’ Drawing generously on Biblical and patristic sources (early church theologians), he gives an account of how the early church thought and taught about angels. He asserts that ‘the image that forms from these sources is, I think, more exciting, more frightening, more humbling, more inspiring, and ultimately more real than our popular conceptions.(2)’ Miller discusses the early church’s reflections on the nature and origin of angels, their fall from grace (in the case of Satan and his demons), the ways God used angels to nurture and protect Israel, Christs victory over the demonic, the role of guardian angels in nurturing and protecting us, our participation with the angels in the worship of God, the role of angels in the eschaton.
This is a lot of ground to cover for a short book (the main text of the book is 152 pages excluding footnotes and bibliography); nevertheless Miller succeeds admirably well in delineating the understanding of angels bequeathed us from the early church, even demonstrating the way our understanding of angels has developed over time. Certainly there are some aspects of early church angel-ology where I disagree or would want to parse biblical texts which deal with angels differently. But there is no denying, the tradition has a lot to teach us. I would recommend this book for those who have an interest in angels (whether that manifests itself as an unhealthy fascination or dismissive suspicion). Part of navigating how we are to understand something so mysterious and etheral as angels is by submitting ourselves to a biblical understanding of angels and drawing on the rich resources of theology. Miller does both.
The question that the discerning reader may have is, “how does ancient exegesis shape our understanding of angels?” Just because ancient Christians thought and taught something, does not necessarily make it right. This is a popular level study and does little in way of evaluating its sources. Miller simply sites church fathers he is sympathetic to(while noting theological diversity and doctrinal development). The belief in the fall of Lucifer is found in the ancient church, but when you read Isaiah in its historic, literary context, the Biblical data doesn’t seem conclusive. There seems to be mysteries here that even the ancient church does not fully untangle for us, but I am grateful for the ways in which they affirm the angels and delineate a proper understanding of them.
Practically speaking, the presence of angels reminds us of the world beyond that which we apprehend with our senses. I think this a great book for sorting out what place angels should have in our theology.
Thank you to Thomas Nelson for providing me a copy of this book (via Book sneeze) in exchange for this review.