Review of the Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchies of Pseudo-Dionysius

The Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Dionysius the AreopagiteThe Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, the translation. This is a Victorian translation. I found it, by and large, fluid, but I suspect many will not. I do question some of his choices, and some things do not work in current English. One problem that is not John Parker’s fault is the fact that I kept on wanting to know what the Greek of the terminology was. When Dionysius talks about what Parker translates as nature in relation to Christ, is it actually physis? Given that the Areopagite is popular both sides of the Chalcedonian divide, this is a question of moment.

Second, Parker’s introduction. He does a good job of … introducing the pseudonymous author. And then he gives the circumstantial arguments for the authenticity of the Dionysian corpus. I would like to say that it should not detract from the potency and truth of a document such as this if it turns out to be a forgery (which I think it is). But I am not writing in 1894.

Third, the actual text. Ps-Dionysius has written two treatises translated here, ‘The Celestial Hierarchy’ and ‘The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy’. They go together. The second, in particular, makes no sense without the first, and you really do need the definition of hierarchy the first treatises provides. Moreover, the first treatise is of less moment for the Christian community without the second.

‘The Celestial Hierarchy’ divides the celestial beings into three orders and explains their functions. Here we see a deft affirmation of the transcendent God, totally Other from His creation, alongside the Neo-Platonic idea of divinity being communicated through what Plotinus would call ’emanations.’ Each order of angelic beings helps the order below it fulfil its destiny and function in the hierarchy, a main part of which is coming to as full a knowledge of God as each nature was designed to have. While those at the top have the fullest knowledge, those at the bottom are able to comprehend and contemplate as much of the divine majesty as they can due to the ministrations of the intervening orders. It is a harmonious whole, working together.

This translates into the second treatise. ‘The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy’ is a meditation on the liturgical rites of the Byzantine church in relation to those who perform them. Once again, from the bishop to the excommunicated, the grace of God is communicated through the sacraments, the Scriptures, the preaching, and the communal worship. Each order, clerical, lay, and monastic, has its own special role and place in the apprehension and contemplation of God, and all depend upon each other to fulfil their role.

It is easy to say of the first treatise, ‘Sure, sounds good to me,’ but the idea that, by virtue of his consecration, my bishop is closer to God than I am — that idea is hard to stomach, especially when you consider how many evil men and women, heretics and heterodox, have had hands laid on them. Yet somehow, we lay people are to find peace in resting in our place within the hierarchy. I do wonder what this looks like in practical terms beyond attentively listening to preaching and receiving the sacraments at the hands of the clerics at our churches.

Finally, the whole corpus of Ps-Dionysius is highly influential in both the eastern church and the western church. It is probably worth getting to know, although I think less worth your time than, say, Anselm of Canterbury.

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First thoughts upon finishing Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy

I recently finished the Celestial Hierarchy of (Pseudo-)Dionysius the Areopagite. This is the first work of the Dionysian corpus I’ve spent any time with, although I’ve read about him before (e.g. Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition). A few thoughts.

First things first, for readers of this blog: Ps-Dionysius is the author of a corpus of mystical-theological works, pretending to by the Dionysius of the Areopagus converted by St Paul in Acts 17:34. Despite the attempts of the translator of the version I read (Rev. John Parker), Dionysius did not write any of these. St Ignatius does not quote him — he quotes St Ignatius. And most of the other internal evidence is precisely what you’d do if you were writing a forgery. Anyway, that’s largely neither here nor there for my purposes; it’s just worth noting.

These treatises of spiritual theology appeared around the year 500 and were instantly successful in the eastern Church, on both (all three?) sides of the Chalcedonian divide. I am unsure, but I do not know of any Latin translation until Eriugena in the 800s. Enough introduction.

First and foremost, before discussing the idea of hierarchy itself, Dionysius is a good place to go to get embroiled in the philosophy of God and apophatic theology. Apophatic theology is discussing God by negation — God is infinite, immortal, invisible, etc. He is encountered in the cloud of Mt Sinai (Ex 24:18).

Writes the Areopagite:

And so Divine things are honoured by negations which teach the truth, and by comparisons with the lowest things which are diverse from their proper representation. For the reasons assigned, there is nothing absurd if they depict even the celestial Beings under dissimilar similitudes with misrepresent them. (ch. 2, p. 21 in Parker)

I really, really like the idea of ‘dissimilar similitudes’. God is the final cause of all that is. He is the unmoved mover. He is the Being that is ultimately beyond Being. Anything we can say about God we say through analogy, and all of our analogies break down — thus, dissimilar similitudes.

Later, when discussing what the Seraphim taught Isaiah, Dionysius writes:

The Theologian [Isaiah] then learned, from the things seen, that as compared with every superessential pre-eminence, the Divine was seated above every visible and invisible power, and that He is exalted above all, as Absolute — not even comparable to the first of created Beings. Further also, that He is the very Being of all, and Cause of all cause, and unalterable centre of the undissolved continuance of all, from Whom is both the being and the well-being of the most exalted Powers themselves. (ch. 13, p. 41 in Parker)

I imagine some people’s minds may be aching. Some may be crying out with Abba Serapion, when forbidden to imagine God anthropomorphically, ‘They have taken away my God, and I do not know where to find him!’ (A story from Cassian.) But I hope you will give the philosophy of God and Being and causation some thought.

Here is a reason, if you need one. I was once attempting to explain to a friend that not only do I find God as Final Cause a logical necessity, I also, nevertheless, believe that God can be considered personal, or, at least, not less than the personal. Now, most people who are unacquainted with the theology of personhood of, say, Met. John Zizioulas (Being As Communion) can only imagine person = humanoid. My friend thus proclaimed that by calling God ‘person’, it is the same as pigeons imagining a god who is simply just a big superpigeon.

I had to leave, but not having read Zizioulas, let alone any other philosophy of God, at that point, I am not sure how I would have answered him back then.

Apophatic theology and dissimilar similitude assert that God is beyond being, but that He is somehow like Being as we think of it. God is personal, but (to cite a chapter title of C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity) beyond personality.

Briefly on hierarchy. Andrew Louth tells me that this is the first instance of the word. And it is not what we mean. We see hierarchy as a chain of command, of those with authority commanding and controlling those underneath them, from the Field Marshal to the Private.

For Dionysius — and here we get a bit Neoplatonist — the hierarchy is about communicating knowledge of and grace from God from those higher to those lower. Each order of celestial beings has its own place in the hierarchy, and each position has its own capacity to know God and role to play in the economy of God’s universe. The celestial hierarchy is the means by which God manifests Himself to His creation in the way most perfect and most suited to each rank of the celestial beings.

This is not hierarchy as we know it, and we should think on that when we consider our role in the institutional hierarchies we inhabit. How are we helping those below us fulfil their own role? How do we relate to those above us? What is our role? Maybe a more grace-filled, Dionysian approach to our work and life would be beneficial.