The Creation of the Angels
This article of our Confession also speaks of the creation of the angels. In fact, more than half of the article is devoted to this subject. And because it is some time ago that we began our discussion of Article XII, I will quote that part of the article again, for the reader’s convenience:
“He also created the angels good, to be his messengers and to serve his elect; some of whom are fallen from that excellency, in which God created them, into everlasting perdition; and the others have, by the grace of God, remained steadfast and continued in their primitive state. 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, and by their wicked stratagems to destroy all; and are, therefore, by their own wickedness, adjudged to eternal damnation, daily expecting their horrible torments. Therefore we reject and abhor the error of the Sadducees, who deny the existence of spirits and angels: 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 will be noted that of this excerpt of Article XII concerning the angels, the larger portion is devoted to the evil angels, or devils.
Now it undoubtedly strikes us of the twentieth century as being rather strange that in an article on the work of creation so much attention is given to the creation and fall of the angels, especially in the light of the fact that Scripture itself speaks not at all of the angels in the creation narrative of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and tells us very little about these mysterious creatures of God in the rest of its pages. We would certainly be inclined to say,—and that too, with no small degree of justification—that there is an imbalance, a lack of proportion, in this article of our Confession. Nevertheless, there is more to be said on this score.
In the first place; we must again be reminded that our Confession is the child of its age. That age was the time of the Reformation, when men, and also the church, was emerging from the period of the Middle Ages. There were, in those years, all kinds of false notions and superstitions about the world of spirits, including angels and devils. And it was necessary that, over against the many superstitions and heretical notions about angels and devils, the church expressed its faith sanely, and, in harmony with Scripture. This was necessary both for the believers and their instruction and with a view to the opponents of the truth.
Let me cite, as an example of the notions about the devils which were held even by so eminent a man as Luther, a few paragraphs from Philip Schaff’s description of Luther and the devil:
“He had many a personal encounter with the Devil, whose existence was as certain to him as his own. More than once he threw the inkstand at him—not literally, but spiritually. His severest blow at the archfiend was the translation of the New Testament. His own doubts, carnal temptations, evil thoughts, as well as the dangers threatening him and his work from his enemies, projected themselves into apparitions of the prince of darkness. He heard his noises at night, in a chest, in a bag of nuts, and on the staircase ‘as if a hundred barrels were rolled from top to bottom.’ Once he saw him in the shape of a big black dog lying in his bed; he threw the creature out of the window; but it did not bark, and disappeared. Sometimes he resorted to jokes. The Devil, he said, will bear anything better than to be despised and laughed at.
“Luther was brought up in all the mediaeval superstitions concerning demons, ghosts, witches, and sorcerers. His imagination clothed ideas in concrete, massive forms. The Devil was to him the personal embodiment of all evil and mischief in the world. Hence he figures very largely in his theology and religious experience. He is the direct antipode of God, and the archfiend of Christ and of men. As God is pure love, so the Devil is pure selfishness, hatred, and envy. He is endowed with high intellectual gifts, as bad men often surpass good men in prudence and understanding. He was originally an archangel, but moved by pride and envy against the Son of God, whose incarnation and saving work he foresaw, he rose in rebellion against it. He commands an organized army of fallen angels and bad men in constant conflict with God and the good angels. He is the god of this world, and knows how to rule it. He has power over nature, and can make thunder and lightning, hail and earthquake, fleas and bed-bugs. He is the ape of God. He can imitate Christ, and is most dangerous in the garb of an angel of light. He is most busy where the Word of God is preached. He is proud and haughty, although he can appear most humble. He is a liar and a murderer from the beginning. He understands a thousand arts. He hates men because they are creatures of God. He is everywhere around them, and tries to hurt and seduce them. He kindles strife and enmity. He is the author of all heresies, and persecutions. He invented popery, as a counterpart of the true kingdom of God. He inflicts trials, sickness, and death upon individuals; He tempts them to break the Ten Commandments, to doubt God’s word, and to blaspheme. He leads into infidelity and despair. He hates matrimony, mirth, and music. He can not bear singing, least of all ‘spiritual songs.’ He holds the human will captive, and rides it as his donkey. He can quote Scripture, but only as much of it as suits his purpose. A Christian should know that the Devil is nearer him than his coat or shirt, yea, than his own skin. Luther reports that he often disputed with the Devil in the night, about the state of his soul, so earnestly that: he himself perspired profusely, and trembled. Once the Devil told him that he was a great sinner. ‘I knew that long ago,’ replied Luther, “tell me something new. Christ has taken my sins upon himself, and forgiven them long ago. Now grind your teeth.’ At other times he returned the charge and tauntingly asked him, ‘Holy Satan, pray for me,’ or, ‘Physician, cure thyself.’ The Devil assumes visible forms, and appears as a dog or a hog or a goat, or as a flame or star, or as a man with horns. He is noisy and boisterous. He is at the bottom of all witchcraft and ghost-trickery. He steals little children and substitutes others in their place, who are mere lumps of flesh and torment the parents, but die young. Luther was disposed to trace many mediaeval miracles of the Roman Catholic Church to the agency of Satan. He believed in daemones incubos et succubus.
“But, after all, the Devil has no real power over believers. He hates prayer, and flees from the cross and from the Word of God as from a flaming fire. If you cannot expel him by texts of Holy Scripture, the best way is to jeer and flout him. A pious nun once scared him away by simply saying: ‘Christiana sum.’ Christ has slain him, and will cast him out at last into the fire of hell. Hence, Luther sings in his battle hymn,—
“‘And let the Prince of ill
Look grim as e’er he will,
He harms us not a whit:
For why? His doom is writ,
One little word shall slay him.'”
(Cf. P. Schaff, “History of the Christian Church,” VII, pp. 334, ff.)
This rather lengthy quotation illustrates what we said about the times in which our Confession was written. And, of course, Luther was not an exception, but rather a representative of his times. On the one hand, it was such erroneous and superstitious ideas about the devil and his host that necessitated an expression in our Confession concerning this subject. And, on the other hand, how sane and calm is the language of Article XII when we compare it with the strange mixture of truth and fiction which we find even in Luther’s conception. In this light one would not accuse the Belgic Confession of imbalance and lack of proportion.
In the second place, this subject of the devils, and also the angels, is probably not so out of place in our times as we might be inclined to think. Perhaps we may say that if a man like Luther erred in the direction of being too imaginative and superstitious in his conception of the devil and his activities, today’s Christians err in the opposite direction, namely, that of being altogether too unrealistic and of considering the devils and their activities as being rather fictional. As far as practical Christian life is concerned, the tendency is toward the rationalistic error of the Sadducees. They denied the existence of spirits and angels, as the article mentions; and this means, of course, that they also denied the existence of devils. Theoretically, to be sure we would not agree with the Sadducees. Moreover, we can talk about and preach about the devil, who goeth about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour, and about the temptations of the devil, And, indeed, we would be rather free to talk about the devilishness of someone else’s speech and deeds. But how real are the devil’s temptations, and how concretely real is the battle against the devil and his host in our everyday lives? Perhaps, therefore, we can be instructed by this article of our Confession when it speaks of devils as “watching to ruin the Church and every member thereof, and by their wicked stratagems to destroy all.” Perhaps it would be better, in a sense, if we would learn to “throw a few ink stands” at the devil.
In the third place, while it may be true that the existence and activities of both angels and devils is rather mysterious, yet it is surprising, when one stops to consider, just how much the Scriptures inform us about these creatures and their activities. How frequently and at how many crucial junctures in the history of Gods people, both in the old and in the new dispensation, they have had a part. While there may be many things which we do not know and which Scripture does not tell us about them,—things which are usually more a matter of curiosity than of necessity,—nevertheless, there is much that the Scriptures tell us. And always both angels and devils appear in Scripture as playing a very real part in the history of salvation and in the life of both the church as a whole and the individual child of God. Nor, certainly, is there any reason to believe that the part of either angels or devils is significantly less real and important today than it was in the ages of the past.
In the light of the above, we may very profitably study the truth set forth in this part of our Confession, take note of the creation of the angels, of the fall of some of them, and of the purpose and activities of both the good and the evil angels. And, of course, by all means this study must be made on the basis of Scripture. For unless we do so, we run the risk of wild speculation in uselessly trying to satisfy our curiosity as to things which we cannot and need not know.