Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How did God test the angels?

Brethren, Peace and Good to all of you in Jesus our Lord and Savior.

Byzantine Icon of the pre-Incarnate Christ surrounded by the Holy AngelsI’m about to tackle the issue of the testing of the angels by God mentioned by Fr. Fortea a few posts ago, and to search for Scriptural clues about it, and reflect on the consequences of the failure by some of the angels to rise to the test.

Why does God test his creatures?

Speaking about this test is difficult because the Scriptural data is sparse and can only be surmised by what’s explicitly stated in Scripture by secondary reasoning.

We know from Scripture that God tests his rational creatures:

  • God tested Adam and Eve (Genesis 3)

  • He tested Abraham (Genesis 22)

  • And he also tested Job.

Fr. Jack Peterson, of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia (USA) said it well in this piece he wrote on The Catholic Herald:

The truth is that God is not afraid to test our faith and our love for Him. It is important to realize that the test flows from His love for us. God tests our faith sometimes for our good and the good of others. The test makes our faith real and personal. Love is not truly love until it has been tested in fire. Faith is not really faith until it has been tested as well. The test purifies our faith of selfishness and pride; it deepens our radical trust in His goodness and divine providence. The test prepares us for other crosses that we will face down the road in our roles as believer, parent, priest/consecrated or lay leader…

…St. Paul, who knew a thing or two about being tested, teaches us something that is very comforting about God’s work in our lives. St. Paul reminds us that God never tests us beyond our ability. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul states: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13). Sometimes it is only by God’s grace that we can endure certain trials and crosses. Sometimes it seems like we can’t hang on any more, especially if we rely only on our own powers, and we are tempted to give up. We should take courage in the knowledge that God will always provide. He will always offer us the grace needed to “endure it.”

It follows also that the Lord will never test us for our perdition in mind, but to strengthen our faith. Via the analogy of faith we can provisionally state the following:

Human beings are rational creatures bearing God’s image,

therefore God tested them;

Angels are also rational creatures bearing God’s image,

therefore God tested them too.

The failure of the test entails a failure of both human and angelic character, as both the man and the angels who sinned responded to the test with a reaffirmation of their own autonomous wills over and against the holiness of God. At that moment, sin entered both the human and angelic nature, as explained by Fr. Fortea before.

The nature of the test given to the angels

The Church, in her official teaching, has been very circumspect about the nature of the test of the angels. Let us start with the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I highlighted the portion of interest:


391 Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy.266 Scripture and the Church's Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called "Satan" or the "devil".267 The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God: "The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing."268

392 Scripture speaks of a sin of these angels.269 This "fall" consists in the free choice of these created spirits, who radically and irrevocably rejected God and his reign. We find a reflection of that rebellion in the tempter's words to our first parents: "You will be like God."270 The devil "has sinned from the beginning"; he is "a liar and the father of lies".271

393 It is the irrevocable character of their choice, and not a defect in the infinite divine mercy, that makes the angels' sin unforgivable. "There is no repentance for the angels after their fall, just as there is no repentance for men after death."272

394 Scripture witnesses to the disastrous influence of the one Jesus calls "a murderer from the beginning", who would even try to divert Jesus from the mission received from his Father.273 "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil."274 In its consequences the gravest of these works was the mendacious seduction that led man to disobey God.

395 The power of Satan is, nonetheless, not infinite. He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building up of God's reign. Although Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and although his action may cause grave injuries - of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature - to each man and to society, the action is permitted by divine providence which with strength and gentleness guides human and cosmic history. It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but "we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him."275

Following official Church teaching, Fr. Fortea himself does not speculate about the nature of the test itself, limiting himself to explain the fact and the need of the angels’ primeval test, without speaking about what the test may have been.

Nevertheless, other recognized theologians have indeed attempted to reach some likely conclusion by analogical reasoning. These theologians were the Scottish Franciscan Blessed John Duns Scotus (c. 1265-1308) and the Spanish Jesuit Francisco Suárez (1548-1617). The Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes the teachings of these theologians regarding the nature of the angelic test, some of which I highlighted because I thought specially relevant to our discussion:

Blessed John Duns ScotusAlthough nothing definite can be known as to the precise nature of the probation of the angels and the manner in which many of them fell, many theologians have conjectured, with some show of probability, that the mystery of the Divine Incarnation was revealed to them, that they saw that a nature lower than their own was to be hypostatically united to the Person of God the Son, and that all the hierarchy of heaven must bow in adoration before the majesty of the Incarnate Word; and this, it is supposed, was the occasion of the pride of Lucifer (cf. Suarez, De Angelis, lib. VII, xiii). As might be expected, the advocates of this view seek support in certain passages of Scripture, notably in the words of the Psalmist as they are cited in the Epistle to the Hebrews: "And again, when he bringeth in the first-begotten into the world, he saith: And let all the angels of God adore Him" (Hebrews 1:6; Psalm 96:7). And if the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse may be taken to refer, at least in a secondary sense, to the original fall of the angels, it may seem somewhat significant that it opens with the vision of the Woman and her Child. But this interpretation is by no means certain, for the text in Hebrews 1, may be referred to the second coming of Christ, and much the same may be said of the passage in the Apocalypse.

It would seem that this account of the trial of the angels is more in accordance with what is known as the Scotist doctrine on the motives of the Incarnation than with the Thomist view, that the Incarnation was occasioned by the sin of our first parents. For since the sin itself was committed at the instigation of Satan, it presupposes the fall of the angels. How, then, could Satan's probation consist in the fore-knowledge of that which would, ex hypothesi, only come to pass in the event of his fall? In the same way it would seem that the aforesaid theory is incompatible with another opinion held by some old theologians, to wit, that men were created to fill up the gaps in the ranks of the angels. For this again supposes that if no angels had sinned no men would have been made, and in consequence there would have been no union of the Divine Person with a nature lower than the angels.

As might be expected from the attention they had bestowed on the question of the intellectual powers of the angels, the medieval theologians had much to say on the time of their probation. The angelic mind was conceived of as acting instantaneously, not, like the mind of man, passing by discursive reasoning from premises to conclusions. It was pure intelligence as distinguished from reason. Hence it would seem that there was no need of any extended trial. And in fact we find St. Thomas and Scotus discussing the question whether the whole course might not have been accomplished in the first instant in which the angels were created. The Angelic Doctor argues that the Fall could not have taken place in the first instant. And it certainly seems that if the creature came into being in the very act of sinning the sin itself might be said to come from the Creator. But this argument, together with many others, is answered with his accustomed acuteness by Scotus, who maintains the abstract possibility of sin in the first instant. But whether possible or not, it is agreed that this is not what actually happened. For the authority of the passages in Isaiah and Ezekiel, which were generally accepted as referring to the fall of Lucifer, might well suffice to show that for at least one instant he had existed in a state of innocence and brightness. To modern readers the notion that the sin was committed in the second instant of creation may seem scarcely less incredible than the possibility of a fall in the very first. But this may be partly due to the fact that we are really thinking of human modes of knowledge, and fail to take into account the Scholastic conception of angelic cognition. For a being who was capable of seeing many things at once, a single instant might be equivalent to the longer period needed by slowly-moving mortals.

Fr. Francisco SuárezThis dispute, as to the time taken by the probation and fall of Satan, has a purely speculative interest. But the corresponding question as to the rapidity of the sentence and punishment is in some ways a more important matter. There can indeed be no doubt that Satan and his rebel angels were very speedily punished for their rebellion. This would seem to be sufficiently indicated in some of the texts which are understood to refer to the fall of the angels. It might be inferred, moreover, from the swiftness with which punishment followed on the offense in the case of our first parents, although man's mind moves more slowly than that of the angels, and he had more excuse in his own weakness and in the power of his tempter. It was partly for this reason, indeed, that man found mercy, whereas there was no redemption for the angels. For, as St. Peter says, "God spared not the angels that sinned" (2 Peter 2:4). This, it may be observed, is asserted universally, indicating that all who fell suffered punishment. For these and other reasons theologians very commonly teach that the doom and punishment followed in the next instant after the offense, and many go so far as to say there was no possibility of repentance. But here it will be well to bear in mind the distinction drawn between revealed doctrine, which comes with authority, and theological speculation, which to a great extent rests on reasoning. No one who is really familiar with the medieval masters, with their wide differences, their independence, their bold speculation, is likely to confuse the two together. But in these days there is some danger that we may lose sight of the distinction.

The author of the Encyclopedia’s article added this warning that is also relevant to our discussion, and which this your servant humbly acknowledges:

It is true that, when it fulfils certain definite conditions, the agreement of theologians may serve as a sure testimony to revealed doctrine, and some of their thoughts and even their very words have been adopted by the Church in her definitions of dogma. But at the same time these masters of theological thought freely put forward many more or less plausible opinions, which come to us with reasoning rather than authority, and must needs stand or fall with the arguments by which they are supported. In this way we may find that many of them may agree in holding that the angels who sinned had no possibility of repentance. But it may be that it is a matter of argument, that each one holds it for a reason of his own and denies the validity of the arguments adduced by others.

The sparse nature of the data in Scripture and Tradition may guide our reasons only so far, but even then we can profit from this “extended” kind of teaching extrapolated analogically from the data. We will see the final answers at the end of time. However, as we’ll see later, I believe that there are Scriptural “pointers” validating these provisional conclusions, as well as evidence drawn from the sad history of humanity. In the meantime let’s keep in mind our provisional conclusion:

The primeval test of the angels consisted in this: there were shown the eventual Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity and the angels who rebelled did so, in fact, because they objected to adore God hypostatically united in the person of a being lower than themselves.

This brings us to an unspoken consequence, that the Incarnation of the Word was to take place regardless of the possibility of the Fall of Man, as God’s ultimate, loving union with His creation. This is where the medieval stumbled in what we recognize today as temporal paradoxes and multiple futures, thanks to the advances in relativity and quantum mechanics. Another unspoken consequence seems to be that moral choice “create universes.” But we’ll talk about those speculations later because they primary conclusion we reach, and one that is echoed in Scripture (Colossians 1: 13-20) about Christ:

13Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love,

14In whom we have redemption through his blood, the remission of sins;

15Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:

16For in him were all things created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominations, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him and in him.

17And he is before all, and by him all things consist.

The Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception explain it better in this video, aptly titled the Test of the Angel. From them you will learn that the incarnation of God was the ultimate purpose of creation.

Evidence of secondary probative value

To this humble theologian, private revelations have a remote, relative, and secondary value. That’s because I’ve studied many private revelations, or the  purported private revelations of some recognized mystics – like those of Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich, for instance – and these visions seem to me more like manifestations of a seer’s psyche and his of her understanding of a theological truth or problem, than a direct insight into the reality contemplated. Or, they may have been granted such direct insight but their concepts, words, and resulting story-telling fail to express the reality they contemplated and that’s why many times these narratives are reminiscent of the language of dreams. That’s why the Church warns us about the limits of private revelations.

Nevertheless, with the Church’s warning in mind we proceed with caution to this private revelation allegedly granted to Blessed María de Ágreda (1602-1665) and found in Volume One of The Mystical City of God, the Divine History and Life of the Virgin Mother of God. Whether one agrees that these were in fact special, private revelations or the intuitions of a gifted, highly contemplative mind, I believe her explanation of the nature of the test of the angels is of value and relevant to our discussion. According to Blessed María, the test of the angels was threefold in nature. The highlights are mine:

Blessed María de Ágreda• For the first test, "they [the angels] received a more explicit intelligence of the being of God, one in substance, triune in person, and they were commanded to adore and reverence Him as their Creator and highest Lord, infinite in His essence and attributes." All obeyed the command, most with perfect charity and joy, but Lucifer obeyed because "the opposite seemed to him impossible," and his pride dimmed the original perfection of his nature. He owed his existence to someone infinitely greater than he. Even so, Lucifer passed the test. He obeyed.

In the second test, God informed the angels that He would create beings lower than themselves, men with immortal spiritual souls infused into material bodies formed from the dust of the earth. "In order that they too should love, fear, and reverence God...the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity was to become incarnate and assume their nature, raising it to the hypostatic union and to divine Personality." Then God commanded the angels to acknowledge the incarnate Word of God as both God and man, and to adore Him as God-man, infusing the angels with knowledge that it was both just and reasonable for man to be elevated above them in this way. Most angels were overjoyed that God's love could raise such lowly creatures to such an exalted status, and gratefully obeyed the command. -  But Lucifer, in his pride, rebelled against this command. He argued that, since both angels and men were created beings, it should be an angel -- i.e., himself -- who became incarnate, angels being higher than men. It was beneath the "dignity" of God to so lower Himself by joining the Word of God to such an inferior part of His creation in this way. Lucifer disguised his pride by feigning concern for God's omnipotence. He was able to infect many other angels with this attitude, offering, as a temptation, to make angels masters over men and leading mankind to God.

The third test cemented this rebellion among the angels. God revealed that His Son would become incarnate man by being born of a woman, just as all men are born of women. The angels were ordered to revere this woman as superior to them -- as "Queen and Mistress of all the creatures," angels and men -- for God was to be clothed with her flesh in her body, making her the Mother of God. Assembling the angels, Lucifer retorted, "Unjust are these commands and injury is done to my greatness; this human nature which Thou, Lord, lookest upon with so much love and which Thou favorest so highly, I will persecute and destroy. To this end I will direct all my power and all my aspirations. And this Woman, Mother of the Word, I will hurl from the position in which Thou has proposed to place her, and at my hands the plan, which Thou settest up, shall come to naught." (Source: Professor Terence Hughes, “The Primeval Struggle”, New Oxford Review (July-August 2009), pp. 42-45, as published in Mr. Phil Blosser’s blog, Musings of a Pertinacious Papist).

Note how Blessed María de Ágreda’s alleged vision captures  the essence of Suarez’s argument expounded before. As the theologians noted, the fallen angels’ sin was ultimate one of pride a pretension to the effect that if God can become man, then an angel can become God.  Yet not in the order of nature – for the even the angels were too intelligence to know the impossibility of becoming God – but indirectly by persuading the lower creation to render unto them the glory and power due to God alone, by “replacing” God in the hearts and minds of the lower created beings, that is, humans.

The war in heaven referred to in Revelation 9 and explained by Fr. Fortea in multiple phases may have consisted on an escalating debate, starting in argument and ending in rebellion about God’s eventual incarnation in the sub-angelic world, the test being one aimed at the angel’s spiritual self-identity, and the election to serve or not to serve God under those inferior circumstances. The consequences of the rebellion have been vast, multifaceted, and clearly evident in the human history.

I am to conclude here because this post is already too long. In a future post, I will discuss the consequences of the primeval rebellion and which Scripture data may support this view of the test of the angels and the failure of the fallen angels to pass the test.