Saturday, 3 March 2012

Question 63 - The Sin of the Angels

Why this Question Matters.

The questions leading up to this one have built a picture of the angels as quite extraordinary creatures. But it is part of Christian doctrine that some of the angels, the devil chief among them, turned away from God and fell. The obvious question arises: if the angels were so perfect how come some of them fell from their lofty heights? In this question, Aquinas addresses this issue. He does so in a tour-de-force of theology, building up the tension by chipping away piece by piece at the problem before arriving at the final answer in the third article. The sin of the fallen angels was to aspire to the beatific vision through their own natural powers, spurning God’s gift of grace which would have given them this vision anyway. The remainder of the question picks up loose ends such as when the angels sinned, how mighty were those that fell, and how many of them there were.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: The perfection of the angels raises the nagging doubt that they couldn’t possibly sin. One line of reasoning, voiced in the third objection, is that it is natural to the angels that there is a movement of love towards God; but in loving God they cannot sin. Aquinas has already laid the ground for an answer to this objection in the previous question: the angels turn towards God in the natural sense of God as creator and sustainer, but they need supernatural grace to turn towards the God of the beatific vision. However, the fourth objection seems more pointed: the fact that the angels have infallible knowledge would mean that there is no such thing for them as an apparent good that is not, in fact, a real good. Therefore angels cannot desire anything that is not in fact a real good, therefore they cannot sin.

Aquinas, following Christian doctrine, affirms that, in its natural state, any rational creature is capable of sin; to be incapable of sin requires a gift of grace from God. In order to address the problem of sin in angels, Aquinas takes the point of view that sin can often be seen as an act that deviates from the rectitude that the act ought to have. Now, where does the rectitude that an act ought to have come from? If the rule about the correctness of how a craftsman cuts something lay within the craftsman, then any old rubbish that he produces would have to be considered correct. But of course, the rule does not come from within; the craftsman’s cut can be correct or incorrect by an objective rule. More generally, the rectitude of a creature’s act derives from God’s will. So, it is only in God’s will that there can be no sin; in its natural condition any creature’s act can be misaligned with the rectitude supplied by God’s will.

But this explanation, although it argues that creatures cannot be sinless in their natural condition, seems inadequate to explain how the angels can sin. In the reply to the fourth objection, Aquinas turns to the angels in particular.

He argues that sin can exist in the choice of the free will of a rational creature in two ways: first of all, it can be the choice of something evil, like an act of adultery chosen for the apparent good of pleasure; but in a second way, it can be the choice of something in itself good but chosen as misaligned with the rule of rectitude. For this second type of sin, Aquinas gives the example of praying in church (itself a good) but in a way forbidden by the Church (therefore misaligned with right order). Angels cannot sin in the first way because of their infallible knowledge; but they are capable of sinning in the second way when they choose a proper good without ordering that good to the rule of God’s will.

A2: Having established that angels can sin by choosing a proper good without ordering that good to God’s will, Aquinas asks what specific sins of this type can exist in the angels. His answer is that the sins of the bad angels lie in pride and envy.

Sin can exist in creatures in two ways: it can exist as guilt and it can exist as an inclination. The devils can clearly be guilty of sin in that they tempt others to do evil deeds. But as far as sin-as-inclination is concerned, they can only sin in what they are drawn towards. Angels are simply not drawn towards bodily goods (or apparent goods), so cannot be guilty of sins such as lust. But they can be drawn towards goods appropriate to the spiritual creature. As we saw in the first article, the only way that these spiritual goods can be sinful is if they are chosen in a way misaligned with the rule of their superior, God. It is this that is the sin of pride: choosing not to submit to the rectitude defined by their superior.

As a consequence of the sin of pride, the sin of envy can exist in an angel as well. Envy occurs when the rational creature is saddened by the good of another, insofar as the other’s good is seen as an obstacle to his own good. In the case of the bad angels, their envy arises in the desire to be uniquely excellent. God choosing humanity for His own glory can be seen as an example of which the devils would be envious as they would not be uniquely chosen to reflect His glory.

A3: So, the sins of the bad angels lay in pride and envy. But can we be more particular? What sort of pride and envy? Aquinas considers the devil himself; the devil sinned by wishing to be like God.

Aquinas has to specify exactly what this means because it’s pretty clear that a creature cannot desire (in any concrete sense) what it cannot possibly be. The devil’s infallible knowledge will reveal to him that he is a finite creature and that God is infinite being; he will realize the infinite gulf between them and the fact that it cannot be crossed. As the third objection puts it, one would have to be out of one’s mind in order to wish to be the equal of God.

The first point to be made is that “to be like God” can be understood in two ways: to be equal to God and to be similar to God. Clearly, the reasoning above shows that the devil could not have wished equality with God. If we turn our attention to the idea of similarity with God we see that here also there are two possibilities. The rational creature can desire to be similar to God in a way apt or not apt to its nature. Now, although it is possible to be sinful even with respect to the first of these possibilities, Aquinas focusses on the second way as far as the devil is concerned.

The devil did not desire to be like God in the sense of not being subject to anyone; as God is naturally known to be the source of being of everything, this would involve desiring one’s non-existence! However, his sin lay in willing his ultimate end in the beatific vision of God to be achievable through the power of his own nature rather than receiving it as a gift of God; he desired to be like God in having the power to give the beatific vision. In other words, the devil desired what he would have received anyway as the gift of God; but the fact that it would have been a gift was too much for his pride.

In the middle of his response Aquinas bolsters the argument that the devil could not have wished actual equality with God by claiming that truly wishing to be something of a higher order would be impossible. A donkey has no desire to be a horse because in becoming a horse it would lose its being as a donkey. The idea here appears to be that the desire of a creature is ordered to the perfection of its being, rather than to the replacement of its being with some higher order of being. I may desire to fly like a bird, but this does not mean that I wish to become a bird; I may wish the perfections that I see in other creatures, but that does not mean that I wish to lose my being.

A4: Is it possible that some of the fallen angels were bad by their very nature? Aquinas argues that because the demons are intellectual substances, and every intellectual nature is ordered towards the universal good, they cannot have any natural inclination to evil. Creatures that are ordered towards particular goods (like humans) can tend naturally towards evil but only because the evil is conjoined to a particular good; the evil occurs per accidens. Another way in which badness might be called “natural” for some humans is when their badness occurs in either of the following two ways. The first possibility is that doing bad things has become habitual to a person; badness has become “second nature” to them. The second way is that the sentient part of the soul might be ordered towards a disordered passion; so we might call someone “naturally” angry or lustful.

A5: When did the devil fall? In this article and the next, Aquinas asks whether the devil (or other demons) fell in the instant of their creation or whether there was a period of time between their creation and their fall. We have seen in the previous article that the demons did not fall through a fault of their nature but by a choice of their will. The main problem for the idea that they fell in the instant of their creation is that scripture appears to discount the idea: the devil and the fallen angels are part of creation and as created are therefore good (from the account in Genesis); also they are portrayed as having fallen from a position of favour.

Therefore the next position that Aquinas considers is whether the angels were able to sin at the very first instant of their creation but in fact did not do so until later. He considers an argument against this, based on an analogy with the instantaneous state of temporal motions in the material world, but he is not satisfied with this, precisely because it is an analogy that does not seem to be appropriate. Better is the argument that observes that the operation of anything in the very first instant of its existence comes to the thing from the agent that is giving it its being. So, in order for there to be a defective movement in the first instant of existence of a patient, the agent would have to be defective in some way. This is clearly not possible in the case of God and therefore it must be impossible for the angels to have sinned in the first instant of their creation.

A6: The previous article has shown that the angels could not have fallen in the very first instant of their creation. This must surely imply that there was an interval of time between their creation and their fall. However, if we recall the discussion in Ia.q53.a3 concerning the angels’ movement in time, we may be prepared for a more subtle answer. Indeed, Aquinas reports that there are two opinions on the matter. The first opinion, that he considers the more likely, is that the devil sinned immediately after the first instant of his creation. The second opinion is that nothing prevented there from being an interval between creation and fall.

But even if the demons fell immediately after their creation, does this not imply that there must be an interval of time between the two events as the second opinion holds? In the reply to the fourth objection, Aquinas argues that this implication need not hold. When we consider time as it flows in the (classical) material world, then between any two times, there is another time; that is, the flow of time is continuous. But for the angels, time is not necessarily continuous: for them, “time” is the succession of intellective and affective operations. This allows for the possibility of their creation in one discrete “instant” and for their fall in the next instant. In the first instant they were good; in the second bad.

A7: Were the angels that fell the riff-raff amongst the angels, or were some of them amongst the most important? More pointedly, Aquinas asks whether the highest angel that fell was the highest amongst all the angels. There are two opposing arguments working in answering this question: the higher an angel in the hierarchy the less prone it would be to sinning; yet the higher the angel, the greater the motive towards sinning. The former comes from the fact that the nearer an angel is to God the more perfect it is; but the latter comes from the fact that the sin of the angels lay in the pride that suggested to them that they could achieve beatitude through their own natures. Being closer to God by nature would strengthen the idea that they could achieve this by their own powers.

Aquinas does not deny the force of the first argument and identifies St John Damascene as one of the Fathers of the Church who held that this consideration was the stronger. Yet he considers the second argument as the more probable; the sin of the angels arose solely from free choice rather from their proneness to sin.

The second objection pointed out that if the highest angel sinned this would imply that God’s plan was frustrated by His noblest creation; this would seem absurd. Aquinas answers this by recalling the key note of predestination: He knew how all would turn out and has glory from the goodness He shows to those he saves as well as glory from the justice He shows to those who are punished. God is not at all frustrated by the fall of the angels.

A8: The fact that the first angel sinned caused the other angels to sin; not by coercion but by example. In addition, all the demons are subject to the devil himself. Aquinas argues that when a rational creature sins at the suggestion of another, he is then subject to that other’s power as part of the punishment for the sin. The fact that all the demons sinned at the same instant is no obstruction to the sin of the first being a cause of sin in the others; angels come to decisions instantaneously.

A9: What proportion of the angels sinned? Did more sin than not, or vice-versa? Aquinas argues that because sin is unnatural to the angels and that things that are contrary to nature are the less frequent, then fewer angels sinned than did not sin.

Handy Concepts

  • Sin can sometimes be seen as an act that deviates from the rectitude that the act ought to have.
  • Even though for the angels an apparent good is necessarily a real good, they are still capable of sin. They can sin in the choice of something which is truly good in itself, but which is objectively misaligned with the rule of rectitude willed by God.
  • Choosing not to submit to the rectitude defined by a superior is the sin of pride. In the angels this first sin of pride led to the sin of envy; their desire to be uniquely excellent.
  • Pride and envy was instantiated in the devil by his willing his ultimate end in the beatific vision of God to be achievable through the power of his own nature rather than receiving it as a gift of God.
  • The fallen angels were not naturally bad.
  • The devils did not fall in the very instant of their creation. Aquinas gives two opinions: on the one hand that there was an interval of time between their creation and their fall; on the other hand that they fell in the instant after their creation. Aquinas considers the latter to be the more probable opinion and reminds us that this makes sense because for the angels, time is not necessarily continuous.
  • Aquinas thinks that the highest angel that fell was the highest of all the angels. However, he does allow for other opinions held by eminent theologians.
  • The first angel to sin provided an exemplar cause for the other angels to sin even though they all fell in the same instant.
  • Fewer angels fell from grace and glory that achieved the beatific vision.


  • If the rule about the correctness of how a craftsman cuts something lay within the craftsman, then any old rubbish that he produces would have to be considered correct. Some might be reminded of the case of modern art.

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