Angels as Negative Theologians

Do angels, free of many of our noetic limitations as humans, know more about God by nature than we do? According to St. Thomas, the strength of the angelic intellect in comparison to that of humans lies less in what it knows about God than it does in their much greater clarity and certainty in what it doesn’t know:

Now, separate substances know more things than we do, and things that are closer to God; consequently, in their understanding, they set apart from God more things, and more intimately related things, than we do. So, they approach more closely to a proper knowledge of Him than we do, although even these substances do not see the divine substance by means of their understanding of themselves. (SCG 3.49.10)

As Aquinas succinctly puts it in the following chapter, the angels “know that the divine substances is unknown to them.” The “theology of the angels,” in a word, is an apophatic theology, such that even angels, by their nature, fall short of the beatific vision of God in his essence. For that kind of knowledge, they are no less dependent on grace than we are.

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One thought on “Angels as Negative Theologians

  1. What we know about God is far exceeded by what we do not know. In a brief summary:

    Scriptures, theologians and many religious leaders tell us what the divine is by listing grandiose attributes. Most mystics worship personal aspects of the divine, but they also speak of what it is not. Many of them said that the divine essence is nothing, i.e. no thing, that it is immanent in all things, yet it is transcendent to everything. Mystics consider this seeming paradox to be a positive negation.

    Avidya, non-knowledge in Sanskrit, is used in Buddhism for our “spiritual ignorance” of the true nature of Reality. Bila kaif, without knowing how in Arabic, is Islam’s term for “without comparison” to describe Allah. Ein Sof, without end in Hebrew, is the “infinite beyond description” in the Kabbalah. Neti, neti, not this, not this in Sanskrit, refers to “unreality of appearances” to define Brahman. In via negativa, the way of negation in Latin, God is “not open to observation or description.”

    Mysticism emphasizes spiritual knowing, which is not rational and is independent of reason, logic or images. Da`at is Hebrew for “the secret sphere of knowledge on the cosmic tree.” Gnosis is Greek for the “intuitive apprehension of spiritual truths.” Jnana is Sanskrit for “knowledge of the way” to approach Brahman. Ma`rifa in Arabic is “knowledge of the inner truth.” Panna in Pali is “direct awareness”; perfect wisdom. These modes of suprarational knowing, perhaps described as complete intuitive insight, are not divine oneness; they are actualizing our inherent abilities to come closer to the goal.

    (quoted from “the greatest achievement in life,” my free ebook on comparative mysticism)

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