Hierarchical organization

Though the angels who appear in the earlier works of the Old Testament are strangely impersonal and are overshadowed by the importance of the message they bring or the work they do, there are not wanting hints regarding the existence of certain ranks in the heavenly army.

After Adam's fall Paradise is guarded against our First Parents by cherubim who are clearly God's ministers, though nothing is said of their nature. Only once again do the cherubim figure in the Bible, viz., in Ezechiel's marvellous vision, where they are described at great length (Ezekiel 1), and are actually called cherub in Ezechiel 10. The Ark was guarded by two cherubim, but we are left to conjecture what they were like. It has been suggested with great probability that we have their counterpart in the winged bulls and lions guarding the Assyrian palaces, and also in the strange winged men with hawks' heads who are depicted on the walls of some of their buildings. The seraphim appear only in the vision of Isaias 6:6.

Mention has already been made of the mystic seven who stand before God, and we seem to have in them an indication of an inner cordon that surrounds the throne. The term archangel occurs only in St. Jude and 1 Thessalonians 4:15; but St. Paul has furnished us with two other lists of names of the heavenly cohorts. He tells us (Ephesians 1:21) that Christ is raised up "above all principality, and power, and virtue, and dominion"; and, writing to the Colossians (1:16), he says: "In Him were all things created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominations, or principalities or powers." It is to be noted that he uses two of these names of the powers of darkness when (2:15) he talks of Christ as "despoiling the principalities and powers . . . triumphing over them in Himself". And it is not a little remarkable that only two verses later he warns his readers not to be seduced into any "religion of angels". He seems to put his seal upon a certain lawful angelology, and at the same time to warn them against indulging superstition on the subject. We have a hint of such excesses in the Book of Enoch, wherein, as already stated, the angels play a quite disproportionate part. Similarly Josephus tells us (Bel. Jud., II, viii, 7) that the Essenes had to take a vow to preserve the names of the angels.

We have already seen how (Daniel 10:12-21) various districts are allotted to various angels who are termed their princes, and the same feature reappears still more markedly in the Apocalyptic "angels of the seven churches", though it is impossible to decide what is the precise signification of the term. These seven Angels of the Churches are generally regarded as being the Bishops occupying these sees. St. Gregory Nazianzen in his address to the Bishops at Constantinople twice terms them "Angels", in the language of the Apocalypse.

The treatise "De Coelesti Hierarchia", which is ascribed to St. Denis the Areopagite, and which exercised so strong an influence upon the Scholastics, treats at great length of the hierarchies and orders of the angels. It is generally conceded that this work was not due to St. Denis, but must date some centuries later. Though the doctrine it contains regarding the choirs of angels has been received in the Church with extraordinary unanimity, no proposition touching the angelic hierarchies is binding on our faith. The following passages from St. Gregory the Great (Hom. 34, In Evang.) will give us a clear idea of the view of the Church's doctors on the point:

We know on the authority of Scripture that there are nine orders of angels, viz., Angels, Archangels, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Dominations, Throne, Cherubim and Seraphim. That there are Angels and Archangels nearly every page of the Bible tell us, and the books of the Prophets talk of Cherubim and Seraphim. St. Paul, too, writing to the Ephesians enumerates four orders when he says: 'above all Principality, and Power, and Virtue, and Domination'; and again, writing to the Colossians he says: 'whether Thrones, or Dominations, or Principalities, or Powers'. If we now join these two lists together we have five Orders, and adding Angels and Archangels, Cherubim and Seraphim, we find nine Orders of Angels.

St. Thomas (Summa Theologica I:108), following St. Denis (De Coelesti Hierarchia, vi, vii), divides the angels into three hierarchies each of which contains three orders. Their proximity to the Supreme Being serves as the basis of this division. In the first hierarchy he places the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones; in the second, the Dominations, Virtues, and Powers; in the third, the Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. The only Scriptural names furnished of individual angels are Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel, names which signify their respective attributes. Apocryphal Jewish books, such as the Book of Enoch, supply those of Uriel and Jeremiel, while many are found in other apocryphal sources, like those Milton names in "Paradise Lost". (On superstitious use of such names, see above).

The number of angels

The number of the angels is frequently stated as prodigious (Daniel 7:10; Apocalypse 5:11; Psalm 67:18; Matthew 26:53). From the use of the word host (sabaoth) as a synonym for the heavenly army it is hard to resist the impression that the term "Lord of Hosts" refers to God's Supreme command of the angelic multitude (cf. Deuteronomy 33:2; 32:43; Septuagint). The Fathers see a reference to the relative numbers of men and angels in the parable of the hundred sheep (Luke 15:1-3), though this may seem fanciful. The Scholastics, again, following the treatise "De Coelesti Hierarchia" of St. Denis, regard the preponderance of numbers as a necessary perfection of the angelic host (cf. St. Thomas, Summa Theologica I:1:3).


In addition to works mentioned above, see St. Thomas, Summa Theol., I, QQ. 50-54 and 106-114; Suarez De Angelis, lib. i-iv.

About this page

APA citation. Pope, H. (1907). Angels. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved May 15, 2023 from New Advent

MLA citation. Pope, Hugh. "Angels." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 15 May 2023

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Jim Holden.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.