The word angel means "messenger" and this word expresses the nature of angelic service to the human race. Angels are also referred to as "bodiless Powers of Heaven". Angels are organized into several orders, or Angelic Choirs. The most influential of these classifications was that put forward by pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (not to be confused with Dionysius the Areopagite, who was baptized by Saint Paul and lived in the first century, and from whom pseudo-Dionysius took his name) in the fourth or fifth century in his book The Celestial Hierarchy.
In this work, the author interpolated several ambiguous passages from the New Testament, specifically Ephesians 6:12 and Colossians 1:16, to construct a schema of three Hierarchies, Spheres or Triads of angels, with each Hierarchy containing three Orders or Choirs. In descending order of power, these were:
- First Hierarchy:
- Second Hierarchy:
- Third Hierarchy:
The idea of there being ten initial Angelic hosts is taken from Judaism, this number possessing a very deep significance in Jewish mysticism, being the numeric value of the first letter of the Tetragrammaton, and symbolizing the Decalogue given to Moses on Mount Sinai and the ten plagues against the Egyptians, by which the Chosen People were delivered from captivity. There are several different listings of these ten Angelic ranks, which inevitably overlap to a certain degree; but whereas Judaism lost its ancient belief in the fall of Angels (witnessed, for instance, by the Book of Enoch), Christianity on the other hand preserved it, hence its teaching about the nine (remaining) Angelic orders, whose number shall be completed by the souls of those redeemed through the blood of the Lamb.
However, one should be a bit cautious about taking pseudo-Dionysius' model too concretely, as he is the only source we have for such a classification system. The author himself was a fairly early advocate of apophatic theology, which insists on only describing God in the negative. Still, many have accused the writer of wavering somewhere in between Orthodoxy and Neoplatonism, a pagan Greek philosophical system; such critics say that the three groupings of three in the angelic hierarchy derive from Neoplatonism:
- The Hellenic concept of the world as "order" and "hierarchy," the strict Platonic division between the "intelligible" and "sensible" worlds, and the Neoplatonic grouping of beings into "triads" reappear in the famous writings of a mysterious early-sixth-century writer who wrote under the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite.1
Furthermore, the comparison of the celestial with the earthly breaks down if one takes into account modern science, which tells us of a fourth category of matter and a very debatable number of dimensions (see w:String Theory if interested). All said and done, this is not to entirely discredit pseudo-Dionysius, who has been much esteemed by numerous Church Fathers and theologians up to the present day.
Orthodox Life, Vol. 27, No. 6 (Nov.-Dec., 1977), pp. 39-47.
- 1 From Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes by Fr. John Meyendorff. New York: Fordham University Press, 1974, p. 27. ISBN 0-8232-0967-9.
- The Church's Teaching Concerning Angels
- The Celestial Hierarchy by St. Dionysius the Areopagite
- The Angels by H.H. Pope Shenouda III (Format: PDF)
- The Holy Angels
- "Concerning angels" (Book 2 Chapter 3) in St John of Damascus' An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith
|First Hierarchy: Seraphim | Cherubim | Thrones|
|Second Hierarchy: Powers | Dominions | Principalities|
|Third Hierarchy: Virtues | Archangels | Angels|