The Institutes (26)

Book 1 Chapter 14 Sections 1-12

Calvin moves into Angelology, offering a somewhat  guarded examination of angels. Why guarded? Because, as Calvin readily admits, there’s not a lot of information on angels in Scripture. However,

… to prevent believers from deserting to the fabrications of the heathen, we must depict the true God more distinctly than they do. Since the notion of God as the mind of the universe (in the philosophers’ eyes, a most acceptable description) is ephemeral, it is important for us to know him more intimately, lest we always waver in doubt.

[J]ust as eyes, when dimmer with age or weakness or by some other defect, unless aided by spectacles, discern nothing distinctly; so, such is our feebleness, unless Scripture guides us in seeking God, we are immediately confused.

Calvin prefaces all of his remarks about angels with the above for one simple reason: for Calvin, understanding angels is understanding God. This is probably the primary thing about popular conceptions of angels, whether they be in Frank Peretti’s novels or the HBO series that’s named after them. Angels are not operating independently of God, much less existing apart from His knowledge and interest. Instead, they always come as messengers, pointing back to God. This is what is missing from all our conversations about angels. Their interactions with mankind always include God.

Beginning with the creation of angels, Calvin notes that they were all created perfect. It was because of sin that any of them fell. Christians are not dualists, thinking that Satan has equal power with God. His pithy statement comes in the middle of section three. “For the depravity and malice both of man and of the devil, or the sins that arise therefrom, do not spring from nature, but rather from the corruption of nature.” Nothing is naturally evil, in the sense that God didn’t create anything that way. Instead, it was only because of Satan’s fall and man’s fall that evil entered the world.

Calvin’s goal in all this is to head off at the pass any vain speculation. This is typical of his age, when theologians a hundred years later would not easily be stopped by the silence of Scripture. The coming Enlightenment would affect even theology… so depending on your perspective, Calvin’s insistence not to pursue some of these things further is either refreshing or frustrating. For me, I find it to be both. I think he can go farther with some things, and doesn’t with others. Here, though, he seems to be on solid ground.

He points out his objective before launching into the meat of his examination of angelic beings:

The theologian’s task is not to divert the ears with chatter, but to strengthen consciences by teaching things true, sure, and profitable.


Calvin’s stresses the angel’s role as protector to the believer, and the messenger of and one who “renders conspicuous” God’s majesty. Still, it is we who benefit from them, not God. Angels, as our protector, are meant to

One thing, indeed, ought to be quite enough for us: that the Lord declares himself to be our protector. But when we see ourselves beset by so many perils, so many harmful things, so many kinds of enemies – such is our softness and frailty – we would sometimes be filled with trepidation or yield to despair if the Lord did not make us realize the presence of his grace according to our capacity. For this reason, he not only promises to take care of us, but tells us he has innumerable guardians whom he has bidden to look after our safety; that so long as we are hedged about by their defense and keeping, whatever perils may threaten, we have been placed beyond all chance of evil.

They are agents of grace, under God’s sovereign hand. Calvin may paint too rosy a picture here, as if God will not allow trial or evil to come into our lives. However, Calvin is so explicit on this point elsewhere so as to negate any objection here.

The thing that I’ve seen in American culture, and noted above, is the obsession with angels as good beings. “Touched By an Angel” is probably notable for this, that angels can operate independently of God. So much other speculation has been stirred up so as to make angels the subtle enemies of God, stealing away from Him His rightful glory and honor. Calvin speaks, as it were, into our own time:

How preposterous… it is for us to be led away from God by the angels, who have been established to testify that his help is all the closer to us!

God does not make them ministers of his power and goodness to share his glory with them… he does not promise us his help through their ministry in order that we should divide our trust between them and him.

Angels are extensions of His grace, add to His glory, and point back to His throne. Everything about them is entrenched in Yahweh and His Son, Christ, whom they serve and worship (Psalm 91:11-13, Hebrews 1:6).

In the next section, Calvin will explore what Scriptures have to say concerning fallen angels.


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