Is Veneration of Angels Forbidden?

In the Book of Revelation, two encounters between an angel and the Apostle John end in what Protestant reformers claim is an admonition against the veneration of angels—something the Church certainly still teaches and practices to this day.

Here is the first encounter, in Revelation 19:10, as rendered in the New American Bible translation:

I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, “Don’t! I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brothers who bear witness to Jesus. Worship God. Witness to Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” (The same exhortation is repeated almost word for word in Revelation 22:8-10.)

In a recent blog post for First Things magazine, theologian Peter Leithart invokes this verse as a reason for why angels should not be worshipped today, implying that the exhortation to adore God was inconsistent with the veneration John was prepared to offer the angel. There’s just one enormously inconvenient fact for this interpretation—and even Liethart readily admits it: angels are venerated without any rebuke in the Old Testament. (For more on the Greek word translated as worship see below.)

Joshua prostrates himself before the angel standing with his sword unsheathed in front of Jericho in Joshua 5. In Genesis 19, Lot bows to the ground before two angels. One chapter earlier, Abraham does the same to three angels. One view holds that one of the three angels was the pre-incarnate Christ. But, in the City of God, St. Augustine argues that all three were angels in whom God dwelled in the same way that the spirit of God was in the prophets. The Augustinian view is consistent with Hebrews 13, where it is said men entertained angels without knowing it—a clear reference to Abraham. Either way we are faced with an inescapable fact: angels, by virtue of their close relationship to God, were worthy of honor in the Old Testament.

Something changes when we arrive in the New Testament, Liethart says. But what?

We don’t have to wait until the last book of the Bible for the answer. It’s right there in the very beginning of the New Testament, in the Annunciation to Mary. There, it is the angel who honors Mary. Previously, men revered angels for three reasons, St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his commentary on the Hail Mary: the angels were ‘spiritual and incorruptible,’ they were nearer to God, and they shared in the ‘splendor of divine grace.’ Aquinas concludes:

Therefore it was not fitting that the angel should show reverence to man until someone should be found in human nature who exceeded the angels in those three respects. And this was the Blessed Virgin.

It’s clear that what changed was not the status of angels: they were still as worthy of veneration as before. What is new is the Incarnation, which means a human being has become Mother of God, a status that surely ranks above all the angels. It is this special status that earns Mary a more intense veneration than all the other saints and angels, technically known as ‘hyperdulia.’

angelNow we can read Revelation in context. As John was an apostle and is revered by the Church as a saint, we can expect that he is on an equal plane with the angel, but not above the angel in the way that Mary was: no creature can compare with the Mother of God. And that is exactly what we see in Revelation 19 and 20. The angel does not accept the veneration John offers, but neither does he honor John. Instead, since both are on equal footing, the angel urges John to turn his gaze in adoration to God. (This is the conclusion reached by the Haydock Catholic Bible Commentary, which writes that the veneration is refused “to make us the more convinced of the great dignity of this apostle and prophet, who should be raised in heaven to a degree of glory, not inferior to that of the Angels: and thus the Angel tells him, that he is his fellow creature. …”)

So where does this leave the rest of us? It is tempting for some to see John as a stand-in for all Christians. But the verse imposes limits on who enjoys this elevated status with John: ‘I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brothers who bear witness to Jesus.’ In the original Greek, the word for ‘witness’ is martyrian. That should look familiar to us: it’s where we derive our word for those who died for the faith, the martyrs.

In the Church, the martyrs—at least those who are known to us—have always been venerated as saints. In facts, in the earliest days of the Church, martyrdom was the definitive sign that someone was a saint. (It wasn’t until the age of persecution faded away that a new category emerged for a person who was a saint but wasn’t killed for their faith: the confessors.) Does the word ‘martyr’ have this traditional meaning in Revelation? It certainly seems so. In Revelation 6, John spies the souls of those who had been ‘slaughtered’ because of their witness (‘martyrdom’ in the Greek) resting under the altar in heaven. In Revelation 11 the witnesses are again killed for their faith. In Revelation 20 they are beheaded.

So now we have an interpretation, based on the available evidence, that John was rebuffed in honoring the angel because of their shared status, along with the martyrs already in heaven. Presumably, this does not release the rest of us from the requirement that we venerate angels and saints. But how can we be sure? Fortunately, the New Testament does not leave us guessing.

Liethart asserts that “[n]ow humans have been elevated to share in angelic service.” But the plain words of Jesus in the gospels argue against this. In Matthew 22:30, in response to a question about what life will be like in heaven, Christ says that believers will be “like the angels in heaven.” It follows that this isn’t the case while we are still on this earth.

The New Testament also offers two explicit examples of veneration paid to angels and saints. (These come courtesy of Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong.)

In Luke 24, some ‘women from Galilee’ stumble upon the opened tomb of Jesus and are accosted by two angels. The women respond by bowing. No rebuke follows. Instead, they are given the good news of Jesus’ rising. The Venerable Bede takes this as a lesson for Christians today to venerate the angels:

Let us then after the example of the devout women, whenever we approach the heavenly mysteries because of the presence of the Angels, or from reverence to the Sacred Offering, with all humility, bow our faces to the earth, recollecting that we are but dust and ashes.

Next, in Acts 16:29, the jailer in the story ‘fell down’ before Paul and Silas, after an earthquake had jostled their prison door open. Again, there is no reprimand. Instead, Paul and Silas instruct the jailer as what he must do in order to be saved. It stands to reason, that if Paul and Silas were worthy of veneration, the angels certainly were as well.

No doubt, the two verses in Revelation are not easy to understand—but that’s par for the course in a book filled with fantastic visions, obscure apocalyptic references, and utterly bizarre imagery, like the sea of glass and the seven-horned lamb with seven eyes. The key to Revelation is the Bible—the whole arc of scriptural testimony, from Genesis to Jesus. And it is only by applying a Catholic theology of the saints—with its hard and fast distinction between veneration and adoration—that we are able to use this key to unlock the true meaning of the verses in Revelation.

A Note on Worship Words: In the Catholic Church, adoration due to God is distinguished from the veneration due to angels and the saints by the Latin words latria and dulia, respectively. However, these words don’t always neatly line up with the original Greek. In the text under consideration here, the word translated as worship in Greek is proskyneō. In the rest of the New Testament, the word is normally reserved for adoration of God. However, it is not clear that it has that meaning in Revelation (see chapter 3, verse 9). Also, proskyneō had an ambiguous meaning in the ancient world, meaning either worship paid to divine beings or homage to rulers, according to Thayer’s Greek dictionary. It was also used as a generic term for either situations of adoration or veneration in the Old Testament, according to the Haydock Catholic Bible Commentary. ‘Worship’ is a historically generic term for either veneration or adoration and so is an acceptable translation of proskyneō in Revelation 19:10.

 

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • Hollie2009ad

    In April of 2002 AD, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, published a 300-page Directory of Public Piety and it clearly tells us in Chapter 6, about veneration of Angels, along with giving them names. We can only venerate Angels: Michael, Gaberial & Raphael and to ignore such as Uriel, Chamuel, Jophiel & Zadkiel; all mentioned in the Book of Enoch and all are “new-age” angels. Have a Blessed Day. +JMJ+

  • Peter Nyikos

    When we pray to the saints in heaven, praising them and asking them to intercede with God for us, are we not venerating them?

    I think Mr. Beale is missing the point of the word “worship.” This is a word that we generally reserve for “latria”, the form of veneration that is due to God alone. The venaration we give to angels in the traditional prayers to our guardian angels is “dulia.”,

    Not having a Greek bible, I don’t know which word is used in the passage from Revelation, but Mr. Beale is careless not to refer to the original Greek. Peter Leithart only has a case if it is dulia or something equivalent to this that is used; otherwise, his whole case collapses.

  • Peter Nyikos

    I submit that the only reason we are not supposed to venerate those other four archangels is that their very existence is questioned. This is because the Book of Enoch is not part of scripture.

  • Peter Nyikos

    I looked up the blog, and Peter Leithart does not refer to the original Greek either. It is a superficial piece of scholarship, made all the worse by the fact that there is no provision for comments and questions from readers.

  • Angels

    The use of “accosted” to define the angels’ manner at the tomb of Jesus is a poorly chosen word. The author did not stop to think about the usual meaning of “accosted” in today’s society. The scripture reading certainly does not depict the angel as “accosting” the women at the tomb.

  • http://www.facebook.com/strasancos Stacy Trasancos

    Mr. Leithart doesn’t say not to venerate, he says not to worship. Worship and adoration go beyond veneration. We are to venerate and honor the Angels just as we do the saints, but never worship or adore anyone or anything but God because that is idolatry. http://stacytrasancos.com/adoration-worship-and-veneration-of-angels/

  • http://www.facebook.com/strasancos Stacy Trasancos

    Venerate and honor all the holy Angels, but do not worship or adore them. The reason for not giving them names, other than the 3 archangels in the Bible was to discourage worship and adoration.

  • Stephen Beale

    There are numerous misunderstandings and misconceptions here. Corrections and clarifications are below:

    1. Peter Nyikos: I appreciate your feedback on the need for more engagement with the Greek. Unfortunately, I don’t think that helps much in this case, but for the curious readers I have added a postscript explaining what Greek word is at issue in Revelation 19:10.

    2. Stacy Trasancos: Dr. Leithart is of the Reformed Protestant tradition and does not recognize the distinction we Catholics do between adoration and veneration. He would consider veneration of an angel worship. For his Reformed background, see more here: http://www.leithart.com/2012/05/21/too-catholic-to-be-catholic/

    3. Also, my piece is not a specific response to Dr. Leithart. This verse in Revelation is used as a common critique from Protestants against Catholic practices of veneration. I was merely citing Leithart as a recent example.

    4. There seems to be deep confusion about terminology. Up until recently, Catholic literature used worship as a generic term. The specific terms were adoration and veneration. If we wanted to harmonize the specific with the generic, we would speak of the ‘worship of adoration’ and the ‘worship of veneration.’ Don’t believe me? Check out this quotation from a papal encyclical Divinum Illus Munus, from Pope Leo XIII in 1897. He speaks of the “worship paid to the saints and angels.” From what I can tell, only recently has worship been narrowed in use to be just a synonym with adoration, to avoid confusion. This same narrowing of use, interestingly, has not occurred with the word prayer.

    5. One of the meanings of accost according to the Random House Dictionary is “to approach, especially with a greeting, question, or remark,” I believe this is an appropriate use of the word.

  • pbecke

    Did not David describe man as having been made by God ‘a little lower than the angels’ (i.e. in this life)?

    ‘As John was an apostle and is revered by the Church as a saint, we can
    expect that he is on an equal plane with the angel, but not above the
    angel in the way that Mary was: no creature can compare with the Mother
    of God.’

    I don’t see the rationale for interpreting this text to imply that John was already of equal status to angels. St Peter, the rock upon which the whole hierarchy of the church was built, told a crippled man he had cured, to get up on his feet; that he was just a man, like himself. I wish that popes and prelates down the centuries had been moved in the same way, instead of enjoying the status of princes.

    It strikes me that both John (at least while he was alive), and the angel were simply wanting all the veneration to be directed to God, being more mindful than anyone, that, as an ant is in God, it is higher than any angel or even Apostle is, in himself.

    Even so, Our Lady would be so many orders of magnitude higher than all the rest of us or the highest of the angels, that, as well as having been Jesus’ own dear, suffering mother, and her pivotal role, albeit devolved, being just below that of God, would surely have elicited in Jesus the wish that she be venerated her on earth, if it would not have disrupted his salvific plan.

    I don’t mean in any of this, to disparage the cult of the saints, angels and holy souls.

    I believe in one of the epistles people were warned not to pray to the angels, ‘in a false spirit of humility’ (or am I mistaken?), but that would surely be to counter a tendency towards polytheism among the gentiles.

  • pbecke

    Re my remark, ‘…and (I) wonder how many young priests down the centuries would have loved to be in a position to follow Peter’s example, while head of the church,’ changing the more transparently questionable ‘traditions of men’, even in a divinely-guided institution which, however, has been under siege for 2 millenia, would surely prompt a great shindig. We seem to be almost as hooked on the earthly ‘circuses’ as on the heavenly bread. I wonder if it might be the instinct for royalty, obscurely seeing a sovereign as a figure of Christ.

    As one bishop replied to a tourist who expressed her admiration of the wonderful statuary and other art works in Rome, to him: ‘Yes. But Northern Europe was rather a heavy price to pay…’

  • MarcinhaUK

    In Joshua 5 there is no mention that he prostrated before an angel. Actually the Hebrew word used is ‘sar’ therefore the translation must be:prince, ruler, leader, chief, chieftain, official, captain, not angel. Regarding to Genesis 19:1, since from the Beginning only God is to be Worshiped, the best translation for the Hebrew word ‘shä·khä’ (to bow down), in this context, is not to venerate or worship, but to bow down in reverence.

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