Calvin’s Angelology: Christ is the Chief Angel

Calvin considers the angel of the Lord that frequently appears in the Old Testament as the pre-incarnate Christ. Calvin knows this is not an original thought because he mentions in his Institutes that “the orthodox doctors of the church have rightly and prudently interpreted that chief angel to be God’s Word, who already at that time, as a sort of foretaste, began to fulfill the office of Mediator.”[1] Even though Calvin’s view on the angel of the Lord is not original, it is still important to consider in regards to Calvin’s angelology. Thus, the following blog will give an overview of Calvin’s view of the angel of the Lord.

The Pre-Incarnate Christ is the Angel of the Lord

Calvin repeats that the pre-incarnate Christ is the angel of the Lord throughout his writings. Regarding Exodus 23:20, Calvin says that “what we have already said should be remembered, that no common angel is designated, but the chief of all angels, who has always been also the head of the Church.”[2] In his comments on Daniel 8:13-14, Calvin says, “Then, who does not see that Christ is denoted, who is the chief of angels and far superior to them all?”[3] In his Institutes, Calvin dedicates an entire paragraph to “The Angel of the Eternal God” in his section that deals with the doctrine of the Trinity.[4] Here, also, Calvin teaches that the angel of the Lord is the pre-incarnate Christ.

The Pre-Incarnate Christ Didn’t Have the Nature of Angels

In Calvin’s commentary on Hosea 12:3-5, he argues lengthily that the angel of the Lord is the pre-incarnate Christ. In this section, though, Calvin clearly emphasizes that this does not mean that the pre-incarnate Christ had the nature of angels:

But it must be noticed, that God and angel are here mentioned in the same sense; we may, indeed, render it angel in both places; for אלהים, Aleim, as well as מלאך, melac, signifies an angel. But, however, every doubt is removed by the Prophet, when he at last adds, Jehovah, God of hosts, Jehovah is his name, for here the Prophet expressly mentions the essential name of God, by which he testifies, that the same was the eternal and the only true God, who yet was at the same time an angel. But it may be asked, How was he the eternal God, and at the same time an angel? It occurs, indeed, so frequently in Scripture, that it must be well known to us, that when the Lord appeared by his angels, the name of Jehovah was given to them, not indeed to all the angels indiscriminately, but to the chief angel, by whom God manifested himself. This, as I have said, must be well known to us. It then follows, that this angel was truly and essentially God. But this would not strictly apply to God, except there be some distinction of persons. There must then be some person in the Deity, to which this name and title of an angel can apply; for if we take the name, God, without difference or distinction, and regard it as denoting his essence, it would certainly be inconsistent to say, that he is God and an angel too; but when we distinguish persons in the Deity, there is no inconsistency. How so? Because Christ, the eternal Wisdom of God, did put on the character of a Mediator, before he put on our flesh. He was therefore then a Mediator, and in that capacity he was also an angel. He was at the same time Jehovah, who is now God manifested in the flesh.[5]

The Pre-Incarnate Christ is an Angel in His Ministerial Function

For Calvin, the pre-incarnate Christ can be regarded as an angel because of his pre-incarnate ministry. So, the pre-incarnate Christ is not an angel in his essence; he is an angel in his ministerial function. This becomes even clearer when Calvin rebukes Servetus. Servetus “imagined that Christ was from the beginning an angel, as if he was a phantom, and a distinct person, having an essence apart from the Father.” “This diabolical conceit ought to be wholly discarded by us,” Calvin argues. He then emphasizes, “But Christ, though he was God, was also a Mediator; and as a Mediator, he is rightly and fitly called the angel or the messenger of God, for he has of his own accord placed himself between the Father and men.”[6] So Christ has voluntarily placed himself as a mediator between God the Father and men. Because of his mediatorial work in the Old Testament, the pre-incarnate Christ is rightly called the angel of the Lord and the messenger of God.

What were the pre-incarnate Christ’s ministerial duties? Angels are to guide, protect, and look after the safety of the Church. For Calvin, the pre-incarnate Christ “was the angel of highest rank, by whose guidance, safeguard, and protection, the church has been preserved and upheld.”[7] Though Calvin strongly opposes the idea of angels as mediators, he consistently, and perhaps confusedly, argues that this was one of the main reasons the pre-incarnate Christ was called the angel of the Lord. Earlier, this was evident when Calvin rebukes Servetus. It is also evident in Calvin’s comments on Zechariah 1:18-21:

But we must remember what I have already said, that this chief angel was the Mediator and the Head of the Church; and the same is Jehovah, for Christ, as we know, is God manifested in the flesh. There is then no wonder that the Prophet should indiscriminately call him angel and Jehovah, he being the Mediator of the Church, and also God. He is God, being of the same essence with the Father; and Mediator, having already undertaken his Mediatorial office, though not then clothed in our flesh, so as to become our brother; for the Church could not exist, nor be united to her God without a head. We hence see that Christ, as to his eternal essence, is said to be God, and that he is called an angel on account of his office, that is, of a Mediator.[8]

Thus, the pre-incarnate Christ’s primary ministerial duty was as a mediator for God’s people. Calvin says that even “though the time of humbling had not yet arrived, that eternal Word nevertheless set forth a figure of the office to which he had been destined.”[9] In other words, as the angel of the Lord, the pre-incarnate Christ ministered in specific ways that pre-figured how he was ultimately going to minister in the Incarnation. And since Christ is ranked above all angels, is superior to angels, and carries out the ministerial duties of an angel, Calvin consistently emphasizes that Christ is the chief of all the angels.

[1] Calvin, Institutes, I.8.10.

[2] Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony, 1:403.

[3] Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Daniel, 2:105-106.

[4] Calvin, Institutes, I.8.10.

[5] Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, 1:420-421.

[6] Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, 1:421.

[7] Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, 4:348.

[8] Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, 5:57.

[9] Calvin, Institutes, I.8.10.

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