I recently finished a book by Joel L. Miller called Lifted by Angels. The copy I read was an advanced reading copy. The book is due to be released this October. I’ve not read much on angels but I found Miller’s book to be very good. One of the things that impressed me was the reminder of what a large part angels play throughout Scripture. At one point Miller writes, “The story of Christ is shot through with angels.” (73) From the announcement of his birth to their comfort to him in the garden of Gethsemane and his glorious return angels are there. Many Evangelicals today seem to be allergic to anything to do with angels probably in part because of their usage in New Age Religions. They swing the pendulum so far in the other direction we don’t even want to talk about angels.
The chapter in Miller’s book that captivated me most was chapter five: “Guardians of Soul and Body.” In the prayers of the Byzantine baptismal rite the priest would ask God to “unite [the catechumen’s] life with a shining angel.” (101) This formula has been prayed “as long as there have been Christians.” The idea of a guardian angel has a long history and finds subtle support in Scripture. Miller notes, “The early Christians universally believed that our angels are present in our lives and attend our needs, encouraging us, praying for us, protecting us, even implanting godly thoughts in our hearts and minds.” (106) One passage often referred to as support for guardian angels is Matthew 18:10 which reads, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” Prior to reading Miller I was dissuaded from believing this passage referred to guardian angels by D.A. Carson. In his commentary on Matthew he writes (page references are to the 2010 edition),
“But nowhere in Scripture or Jewish tradition of the NT period is there any suggestion that there is one angel for one person. Daniel and Zechariah imply one angel for each nation. Appeal to Acts 12:15 does not help. Why should Peter’s supposed guardian angel sound like Peter? And if ministering angels are sent to help believers, what are the angels in Matthew 18:10 doing around the divine throne instead of guarding those people to who they are assigned?” (454)
Carson adopts a minority interpretation also defended by B.B. Warfield which understands these “angels” as the spirits of the “little ones” who, after death, “always see the heavenly Father’s face. Do not despise these little ones, Jesus says, for their destiny is the unshielded glory of the Father’s presence.” Carson points to Matthew 22:30 (where we will be “like” angels in heaven) and similar language used in 2 Baruch 51:5, 12 (cf. also 1 En. 51:4) where “the righteous will become angels in heaven.” He admits the evidence is “not overwhelming” but is “substantial enough to suppose that ‘their angels’ simply refers to their continued existence in the heavenly Father’s presence.” (455)
In his commentary on Matthew Grant Osborne agrees with Carson that “[t]here is not a lot of material on guardian angels in Scripture” but he says “there is supplementary teaching in Jewish literature.” (680) Osborne says Carson’s interpretation has found few followers “because the language speaks of a present beholding rather than a future glory in God’s presence and because it would be an unusual use of ‘angel’.” (680) Carson says the “present tense (they ‘always see’) raises no difficulty because Jesus is dealing with a class, not individuals.” (454) R.T. France notes several Old Testament passages often used to support guardian angels but concludes “none of this gives clear basis for the conception of angels in heaven representing individual people on earth.” (686) In other words while Scripture may speak of angels serving God’s people (cf. Heb. 1:14) it never specifies an “individual connection.” (France, 687) France refers to Donald Hagner who says that while most commentaries assume a guardian angel is referred to in this passage he thinks the “angels represent the ‘little ones’ before the throne of God’—thinking apparently of angelic representatives of the class of ‘little ones’ rather than each individual.” (as cited in France, 687) In a footnote France says Carson’s interpretation of angel “is hard to find” (though he admits it “would be a possible way of taking Acts 12:15”) and the present tense “fits very uncomfortably with this interpretation.”
Contrast this with the way this passage is treated in the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture on The Gospel of Matthew by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri. “Moreover, without using the term ‘guardian angel,’ the Old Testament Scriptures encourage faithful individuals to trust that God’s angels will guard and assist them (Job 33:23-24; Pss 34:7; 91:11). Particular Jewish men such as Jacob and Tobit benefited from an individual angel guiding them and delivering them from evil (Gen 48:16; Tob 12:12-15).” (229, sidebar) They continue, “Belief that angels serve as guardians is well attested in the Old Testament and Jewish sources.” (229) Mitch and Sri do not offer evidence for the idea of an individual angel being appointed to specific individuals for the purpose of guarding them. The evidence they cite demonstrates that on occasion an angel provided guidance and protection but this does not prove those angels were the lifetime companions appointed to those individuals.
Miller points also to the universal teaching of the early church. John of Chrysostom comments on Acts 12:15 saying “This is a truth, that each man has an Angel.” Basil the Great in On the Holy Spirit says the angels are “tutors and teachers arranged for men.” (As cited in Miller, 106) Too often Evangelicals dismiss this sort of data as evidence of early corruption in the church teaching. This, too me, seems a bit premature. The early church was especially careful to guard against all forms of heresy and false teaching. Many of the traditions which are found in the early church are the result of oral teaching passed down from generation to generation. Why should we be so quick to dismiss this?
Do we have an individual guardian angel? I think the Biblical evidence is slim and at best presents angels as protectors of believers in general. But the weight of the early church teaching pushes me strongly in thinking there may be something to the idea of an individual guardian angel. I certainly don’t see anything in Scripture to contradict it. Miller has given me much to think about. I will gladly recommend his book when it hits our shelves.
Watch for Lifted by Angels this October. It is a paperback from Thomas Nelson with 200 pages and will sell for $15.99.