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Writings and doctrines

Dionysius the Areopagite : Writings and doctrines

The doctrinal attitude of the Pseudo-Areopagite is not clearly defined. A certain vagueness, which was perhaps intended, is characteristic of his Christology, especially in the question concerning the two natures in Christ. We may well surmise that he was not a stranger to the latter, and rather modified, form of Monophysitism and that he belonged to that conciliatory group which sought, on the basis of the Henoticon issued in 482 by Emperor Zeno (Evagrius, Hist. Eccl., III, iv), to reconcile the extremes of orthodoxy and heresy. This reserved, indefinite attitude of the author explains the remarkable fact that opposite factions claimed him as an adherent. As to his social rank, a careful comparison of certain details scattered through his works shows that he belonged to the class of scholars who were known at the time as scholastikoi.

The writings themselves form a collection of four treatises and ten letters. The first treatise, which is also the most important in scope and content, presents in thirteen chapters an explanation of the Divine names. Setting out from the principle that the names of God are to be learned from Scripture only, and that they afford us but an imperfect knowledge of God, Dionysius discusses, among other topics, God's goodness, being, life, wisdom, power, and justice. The one underlying thought of the work, recurring again and again under different forms and phrases, is: God, the One Being (to hen), transcending all quality and predication, all affirmation and negation, and all intellectual conception, by the very force of His love and goodness gives to beings outside Himself their countless gradations, unites them in the closest bonds (proodos), keeps each by His care and direction in its appointed sphere, and draws them again in an ascending order to Himself (epistrophe). While he illustrates the inner life of the Trinity by metaphors of blossom and light applied to the Second and Third Persons (D.D.N., ii, 7 in P.G., III, 645 B), Dionysius represents the procession of all created things from God by the exuberance of being in the Godhead (to hyperpleres), its outpouring and overflowing (D.D.N., ix, 9, in P.G., III, 909 C; cf. ii, 10 in P.G., III, 648 C; xiii, 1 in P.G., III, 977 B), and as a flshing forth from the sun of the Deity (D.D.N., iv, 6 in P.G., III,701 A; iv, 1 in P.G., III, 693 B). Exactly according to their physical nature created things absorb more or less of the radiated light, which, however, grows weaker the farther it descends (D.D.N., xi, 2 in P.G., III, 952 A; i, 2 in P.G., III,, 588 C). As the mighty root sends forth a multitude of plants which it sustains and controls, so created things owe their origin and conservation to the All-Ruling Deity (D.D.N., x, 1 in P.G., III, 936 D). Patterned upon the original of Divine love, righteousness, and peace, is the harmony that pervades the universe (D.D.N., chapters iv, viii, xi). All things tend to God, and in Him are merged and completed, just as the circle returns into itself (D.D.N., iv, 14 in P.G., III, 712 D), as the radii are joined in the centre, or as the numbers are contained in unity (D.D.N., v, 6 in P.G., III,, 820 sq.). These and many similar expressions have given rise to frequent charges of Pantheism against the author. He does not, however, a assert a necessary emanation of things from God, but admits a free creative act on the part of God (D.D.N., iv, 10, in P.G., III, 708 B; cf. C.H., iv, 1 in P.G., III, 177 C); still the echo of neo-Platonism is unmistakable.

The same thoughts, or their applications to certain orders of being, recur in his other writings. The second treatise develops in fifteen chapters the doctrine of the celestial hierarchy, comprising nine angelic choirs which are divided into closer groupings of three choirs each (triads). The names of the nine choirs are taken from the canonical books and are arranged in the following order. First triad: seraphim, cherubim, thrones; second triad: virtues, dominations, powers; third triad: principalities, archangels, angels (C.H., vi, 2 in P.G., III, 200 D). The grouping of the second triad exhibits some variations. From the etymology of each choir-name the author labours to evolve a wealth of description, and, as a result, lapses frequently into tautology. Quite characteristic is the dominant idea that the different choirs of angels are less intense in their love and knowledge of God the farther they are removed from him, just as a ray of light or of heat grows weaker the farther it travels from its source. To this must be added another fundamental idea peculiar to the Pseudo-Areopagite, namely, that the highest choirs transmit the light received from the Divine Source only to the intermediate choirs, and these in turn transmit it to the lowest. The third treatise is but a continuation of the other two, inasmuch as it is based upon the same leading ideas. It deals with the nature and grades of the "ecclesiastical hierarchy" in seven chapters, each of which is subdivided into three parts (prologos, mysterion, theoria). After an introduction which discusses God's purpose in establishing the hierarchy of the Church, and which pictures Christ as its Head, holy and supreme, Dionysius treats of three sacraments (baptism, the Eucharist, extreme unction), of the three grades of the Teaching Church (bishops, priests, deacons), of three grades of the "Learning Church" (monks, people, and the class composed of catechumens, energumens, and penitents), and, lastly, of the burial of the dead [C.H., iii, (3), 6 in P.G., III, 432 sq.; vi, in P.G., III, 529 sq.] The main purpose of the author is to disclose and turn to the uses of contemplation the deeper mystical meaning which underlies the sacred rites, ceremonies, institutions, and symbols. The fourth treatise in entitled "Mystical Theology", and presents in five chapters guiding principles concerning the mystical union with God, which is entirely beyond the compass of sensuous or intellectual perception (epopteia). The ten letters, four addressed to a monk, Caius, and one each to a deacon, Dortheus, to a priest, Sopater, to the bishop of Polycarp, to a monk, Demophilus, to the bishop Titus, and to the Apostle John, contain, in part, additional or supplementary remarks on the above-mentioned principal works, and in part, practical hints for dealing with sinners and unbelievers. Since in all of these writings the same salient thoughts on philosophy and theology recur with the same striking peculiarities of expression and with manifold references, in both form and matter, from one work to another, the assumption is justified that they are all to be ascribed to one and the same author. In fact, at its first appearance in the literary world the entire corpus of these writings was combined as it is now. An eleventh letter to Apollophanes, given in Migne, P.G., III, 1119, is a medieval forgery based on the seventh letter. Apocryphal, also, are a letter to Timothy and a second letter to Titus.

Dionysius would lead us to infer that he is the author of still other learned treatises, namely: "Theological Outlines" (D.D.N., ii, 3, in P.G., III 640 B); "Sacred Hymns" (C.H., vii, 4 in P.G., III, 212 B); "Symbolic Theology" C.H., xv, 6 in P.G., III,336 A); and treatises on "The Righteous Judgment of God" (D.D.N., iv, 35 in P.G., III, 736 B); on "The Soul" (D.D.N., iv, 2 in P.G., III, 696 C); and on "The objects of Intellect and Sense" (E. H., i, 2 in P.G., III, 373 B). No reliable trace, however, of any of these writings has ever been discovered, and in his references to them Dionysius is as uncontrollable as in his citations from Hierotheus. It may be asked if these are not fictions pure and simple, designed to strengthen the belief in the genuineness of the actually published works. This suspicion seems to be more warranted because of other discrepancies, e.g., when Dionysius, the priest, in his letter to Timothy, extols the latter as a theoeides, entheos, theios ierarches, and nevertheless seeks to instruct him in those sublime secret doctrines that are for bishops only (E.H., i, 5 in P.G., III, 377 A), doctrines, moreover, which, since the cessation of the Disciplina Arcani, had already been made public. Again, Dionysius points out (D.D.N., iii, 2 in P.G., III, 681 B; cf. E.H., iv, 2 in P.G., III, 476 B) that his writings are intended to serve as catechetical instruction for the newly-baptized. This is evidently another contradiction of his above-mentioned statement.