Almost a third of the way through offering brief reflections on the historic Belgic Confession already, and on to the next article. Here we find a brief shift from discussing the personhood of God to discussing the creative work of God.
THE CREATION OF ALL THINGS, ESPECIALLY THE ANGELS
We believe that the Father, by the Word—that is, by his Son—created of nothing the heaven, the earth, and all creatures, as it seemed good unto him (Gen 1:1; 2:3; Isa 40:26; Jer 32:17; Heb 3:4; Rev 4:11; 1 Cor 8:6; John 1:3; Col 1:16; 1 Tim 4:3; Heb 11:3), giving unto every creature its being, shape, form, and several offices to serve its Creator; that he doth also still uphold and govern them by his eternal providence and infinite power (Heb 1:3; Ps 104:10; Acts 17:25) for the service of mankind (1 Tim 4:3-4; Gen 1:29-30; 9:2-3; Ps 104:14-15), to the end that man may serve his God (1 Cor 3:22; 6:20; Matt 4:10).
He also created the angels good (Col 1:16), to be his messengers (Ps 103:20; 34:7; 148:2) and to serve his elect (Matt 4:11; Heb 1:14; Ps 34:7): some of whom are fallen from that excellency, in which God created them, into eternal perdition (John 8:44; 2 Pet 2:4; Luke 8:31; Jude 6); and the others have, by the grace of God, remained steadfast, and continued in their primitive state (Matt 25:31). The devils and evil spirits are so depraved that they are enemies of God and every good thing to the utmost of their power, as murderers watching to ruin the Church and every member thereof (1 Pet 5:8; Job 1:7), and by their wicked stratagems to destroy all (Gen 3:1; Matt 13:25; 2 Cor 2:11; 11:3, 14; Eph 6:12; Rev 12:4, 13-17; Rev 20:7-9); and are therefore, by their own wickedness, adjudged to eternal damnation, daily expecting their horrible torments (Matt 8:29; 25:41; Luke 8:30-31; Rev 20:10). Therefore we reject and abhor the error of the Sadducees, who deny the existence of spirits and angels (Acts 23:8); and also that of the Manichees, who assert that the devils have their origin of themselves, and that they are wicked of their own nature, without having been corrupted.
It feels like something of a cheap shot to poke fun of It’s A Wonderful Life, writing this as I am at the start of the Advent season, but oh well…
Whenever Christians today are involved in debates or discussions about God’s role in creation, you almost never hear someone bring up the topic of angels. Why?
One main reason is that contemporary discussions about creation are usually focused exclusively on material creation. They ask how we are to interpret Genesis 1, to what the “six days” actually refer, or to what extent Christians can remain biblically and theological faithful while interacting with the claims of modern science. [As an aside, debates about creation are nothing new–the modern focus is mostly just a shift from asking “Why?” to asking “How?”] In this context, angels and any other aspect of spiritual creation simply aren’t on the radar. Part of this is because modern Western culture makes little room in its metaphysics for anything non-material, but that’s a different conversation for a different day.
Another reason is the shallow pop-theology which has formed the understanding that most people (both inside and outside the Church) have regarding angels. You already know it, though you may not realize how untethered it is to Scripture. It goes like this: when someone dies, they become an angel. The ‘Christian’ version of this attempts to limit this transformation to believers. The ‘religious’ version will usually grant this blessing to anyone who lived a good life, and especially to people who were deeply loved.
I’d suggest that these are the two main reasons why contemporary discussions about God’s work in creation don’t address the issue of spiritual beings, i.e. angels. This omission wasn’t always the case. It used to be that the creation of the spiritual realms provided deep fodder for theological speculation and contemplation.
How many are there? What kinds are there? Do they have distinct ranks and functions? There is a long history and massive amounts of writing on these things, but I’ll just provide one example:
The 12th century monk Anselm produced what is arguably the most influential work on the atonement ever written, entitled Cur Deus Homo (or, “Why the God-Man?”). Most formulations of the gospel that Western Christians have heard are typically informed by this. Yet Anselm devotes much of the first half of the work to a long analysis about whether the number of the elect is sufficient to replace the number of fallen angels, and if part of God’s plan in our salvation is to ‘re-populate’, in a sense, the heavenly realms. [Before you historical theology junkies get all fired up, I know this is an over brief and simplistic summary of the work–though I think the points are fair.]
All of this is to highlight the fact that the Belgic Confession not only specifically addresses God’s creation of the spiritual realms/beings, but also considers this important enough to devote much of its focus to this aspect of creation. This is not because of any gnostic bent to the confession (i.e. gnosticism’s view that the physical world is evil and only the spiritual world really matters), but because of the cultural and historic parameters involved in discussion of creation in the 16th century.
So, what does this article affirm? Briefly, this:
- That the Father, by the Son (and through the Spirit, we might add), created all things and continues to uphold things. (John 1:1-4; Hebrews 1:2-3)
- That all things were created with intentionality and purpose, and that the highest purpose of creation is “to serve its Creator”.
- That this creation came forth from God’s good pleasure, and that it redounds to God’s glory.
- That God created the spiritual realms as well as the physical realms (“all things…visible and invisible”; Colossians 1:16).
- That angels are a specific type of created being, not one that evolves out of another. Their number is fixed, that is, the creation of angels was a one-time event and not an ongoing process.
- That angels were created to be messengers of God and those who serve the elect (see above Scripture references), and that all of them first existed in a state of blessing and excellency.
- That some of them fell “into everlasting perdition”, while others remain in their state of blessing and excellency.
- That those who fell are thoroughly and completely depraved, and their own wickedness has brought upon them eternal damnation, which they have not yet entered, but daily apprehend.
- That these “devils and evil spirits” are not passive, but strive to the extent that they are able to destroy the Church of Jesus Christ and its constituent members–despite the ultimate futility of this raging (Matthew 16:18).
- That those who deny the existence of the spiritual realm and those who think the spiritual realm is auto-generative (self-creating) err in their interpretation of the biblical record.
In sum, the confession seeks to remind us that the glory and sovereignty of the Creator extends beyond simply what we can see. Some of these created beings chose to rebel against their Creator, and have brought upon themselves everlasting condemnation. Some, however, continue to sing the excellencies of the Triune God as they minister to his people.
Herman Bavinck summed it up like this: “However many distinctions there may have been among the angels, Scripture does not discuss them and offers only scant information. In relation to us humans their unity comes to the fore much more than their diversity: they all have a spiritual nature, they are all called ‘ministering spirits’, and they all find their primary activity in the glorification of God.” (Reformed Dogmatics, II.p 454)