Christology in Ps-Dionysius’ Ecclesiastical Hierarchy

When I mentioned that I was going to read Pseudo-Dionysius’ Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, my friend Austin said that there is some Christology around the edges. Here it is:

For thus, as the Word of God has taught us who feast at His Banquet, even Jesus Himself — the supremely Divine and superessential Mind, the Head and Being, and most supremely Divine Power of every Hierarchy and Sanctification and Divine operation — illuminates the blessed Beings who are superior to us, in a manner more clear, and at the same tiem more fresh, and assimilates them to His own Light in proportion to their ability to receive. As for ourselves, by the love of things beautiful, elevated to Himself, and elevating us, He folds together our many diversities, and by making them into an unified and Divine life, suitable to a sacred vocation both as to habit and action, He Himself bequeaths the power of the Divine Priesthood, from which, by approaching to the holy exercise of the priestly office, we become nearer to the Beings above us, by assimilation, according to our power, to the stability and unchangeableness of their steadfastness in holy things. Hence, by looking upwards to the blessed and supremely Divine Glory of Jesus, and reverently gazing upon whatever we are permitted to see, and being illuminated with the knowledge of the visions, we shall be able to become, as regards the science of Divine mysteries, both purified and purifying — images of Light, and workers with God, perfected and perfecting. (ch. 1, trans. J. Parker, p. 50)

I quote the whole passage because it is important for our grasp of Dionysian soteriology, I think. One of the early lessons that I learned in studying christology and, indeed, triadology, is that these doctrines are formulated as part of our understanding of salvation. How does God save us? What does He save us from? Where does He save us to?

Dionysius’ vision of salvation is explicitly caught up in theiosis, in the unification of the soul to be saved with God, something that is attained by a clarified vision of the divine, communicated through the oikonomia of God as manifest in the hierarchies. His vision of Christ is always very powerfully divine — that is, we have no Antiochene assumptus homo here. At times, elsewhere in the Dionysian corpus, it feels like Jesus exists solely and only ever as God.

Yet if we are saved from ignorance to knowledge, from disunity to unity with God, then we need a God who communicates His person and knowledge of that person to us in some way. Jesus is that person of the Most Holy Trinity whose role in the oikonomia of God’s revelation is to reveal knowledge of God to the created hierarchies, to each as it is able and designed.

This all sounds highly Neoplatonic, and I’m not arguing it isn’t, but I sometimes wonder if it isn’t more biblical than its detractors would think. Consider two side-by-side passages in Colossians. First, Paul’s prayer for them:

We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives,10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience,12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Col. 1:9-14 NIV)

Then, starting at verse 15, what is that knowledge the Son gives, what do we learn of Him?

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col. 1:15-20 NIV)

This is one of the passages that is most definitely an inspiration for treatises on spiritual hierarchies. Ps-Dionysius, in this spirit, calls Jesus ‘the Head and Perfection of all Hierarchies’ (ch. 1, trans. J. Parker, p. 51). Pseudo-Dionysius certainly believes in Jesus’ saving death and resurrection — consider his discussion of baptism later in the treatise — but he also believes that Jesus is active now in saving us and bringing us into the glorious light of God.

Sometimes our vision of Jesus becomes warped in two related ways. In one way, we become practical Arians, and forget that the same Jesus who was crucified is also Lord and Creator of the cosmos. In the other way, we relegate salvation to something that happened once for all, and forget that, since Jesus is Lord and Creator of the cosmos He is alive here now communicating His salvation to the human race.

Pseudo-Dionysius helps free us from those errors.

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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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Mysticism and Eucharist (some Pseudo-Dionysius)

Ages ago, when I was an undergrad, I was thinking about mysticism and the idea of union with God being the goal of mystical activity. And then I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t that make Holy Communion the most mystical act of all?’ After all, whether you bring Aristotle into it or not, Holy Communion is an encounter with and union with Christ. This is, in fact, the explicit teaching of the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles, so I’ve not turned Papist just yet.

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (ca 500), The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy confirms this idea (emphasis mine):

…it scarcely ever happens that any Hierarchical initiation is celebrated without the most Divine Eucharist, at the head of the rites celebrated in each, Divinely accomplishing the collecting of the person initiated to the One, and completing his communion with God by the Divinely transmitted gift of the perfecting mysteries. (ch. 3, trans. J Parker)

What matters here is not the initiation but the Eucharist — where the person who partakes is collected to ‘the One’. ‘The One’ is part of the Dionysian vocabulary for God, for unity and simplicity are two of the things he most associates with the Divine. Our union with God, then, is the goal of much in Pseudo-Dionysius.

Later he writes:

For the Blessedness, supremely Divine above all, although through Divine goodness it goes forth to the communion of those who participate in itself, yet it never goes outside its essential unmoved position and steadfastness.

Further, it gives to all, according to their capacity, its Godlike illuminations; always self-centred, and in no wise moved from its own proper identity. In the same manner the Divine initiation of the Synaxis [service of Holy Communion], although it has an unique and simple and enfolded origin, is multiplied, out of love towards man, into the holy variety of the symbols, and travels through the whole range of Divine imagery; yet uniformly it is again collected from these into its own proper Oneness, and unifies those who are being reverently conducted towards it. (ch. 3.3)

Here, Pseudo-Dionysius is doing at least two things. First, he is guarding the simplicity of the Godhead — don’t forget his apophaticism! Nothing can change God, not our union with Him, not His movement out to us. He is eternally Himself. I cannot help but think of Exodus: ‘I am that I am.’

Second, by participating in the Eucharist, we are participating in God, being united to Him, and being unified to one another.

I am still working through this treatise — there is likely more of relevance to come! Nonetheless, this is more than enough to mull over the next time you partake of the most holy mysteries of the body and blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, that oblation once offered, a full and perfect sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world. (If I misquoted the BCP, forgive me; it was by memory.)

Could we put together a Latin Philokalia?

This Lent I succeeded at finishing the English translation of vol. 1 of The Philokalia. Still four volumes to go (although vol. 5 still in production)! As I think on Philokalic spirituality, and the Athonite tradition of hesychasm, and the Greek Byzantine environment that fostered the 1000 years of Greek spirituality contained in the anthology, I ask myself:

Could we do this for Latin Christianity?

What to read next?

I suppose it would take a saint like St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain to properly sift the vast amount of Latin Christian spirituality that is out there to consider. I would want to keep it pre-Reformation and post-Constantine, similar boundaries to the Greek Philokalia. The first difficulty is discerning a common thread to unite the texts selected. Not all of Greek spiritual thought is in The Philokalia, after all — there are certain concerns that have been chosen. Thus, one of the most popular of all Greek ascetic texts, The Ladder by St John of Sinai (aka The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St John Climacus), is not there. Nor are swathes of St Maximus the Confessor. No hagiography. No liturgy. No monastic rules. No Cappadocian Fathers. No St Athanasius. No St Cyril. No Ante-Nicene Fathers. No Pseudo-Dionysius.

Anyway, who are the neptic Fathers of Latin Christianity?

I’m not sure, but as an initial brain-storm, perhaps a prayerful exploration of theses guys would be good. Remember, we’re thinking selections with a theme, not the Complete Works.

  • John Cassian
  • Jerome
  • Augustine of Hippo
  • Bernard of Clairvaux
  • Aelred of Rievaulx
  • Julianus Pomerius
  • Prosper of Aquitaine, De Vita Contemplativa
  • Gregory the Great
  • Hildegard?
  • Bonaventure?
  • Guerric of Igny?
  • Richard Rolle?

I know many would want to see, say, Meister Eckhart in the list, but I don’t know enough about his works to know if he’s worth searching for a common thread of Latin spirituality running from Jerome to the Renaissance. On the other hand, I know that, while Julian of Norwich is worth reading, her work is of a specific nature and, I think, very distinct from the tradition that links Bernard and Aelred with Cassian and Augustine.

Indeed, the late medieval mystics are hard. What about St Catherine of Siena? I’ve yet to read The Cloud of Unknowing. Would any of it fit?

Likewise, the scholastics. Bonaventure, sure. St Thomas Aquinas? Or the pre-scholastic Anselm: I love him, but I don’t think he belongs, even if he was a practicioner of the tradition from Julianus Pomerius to the Cistercians. My own inclinations lean towards Cistercians more than scholastics for this, but maybe that’s false?

Of course, should we cut it short with the Reformation? Will we suffer for the lack of Sts John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila?

Just some thoughts. It is at least an interesting thought experiment. Maybe a way to make a personal reading list, even if not a multi-volume anthology.

Contemplation and Action in Scripture

One of the things I’d like to do some day is make a really good case for contemplation/mysticism using the Bible as a way to get low Protestants across the threshold of some truly great literature of the Christian life. I see that Greg Peters has already beat me to it in the first chapter of The Story of Monasticism, although his approach is different from what mine would be (so there’s room for both of us). Towards the end of his series of biblical exempla of contemplatives he writes:

Biblically, the active life and the contemplative life are not in tension with each other but are meant to complement each other. This has not always been the case in the history of the Christian church, where oftentimes the so-called contemplative life was valued much greater than the so-called active life. Putting aside this imbalance, however, does not change the biblical revelation that presents a calling to active ministry coupled with the expectation that active ministry serves and complements contemplative ends. The Bible not only depicts God calling people to a particularly active apostolate — such as pastor, missionary, or evangelist — but it also depicts inidividuals called to the practice of lovingly gazing on God’s presence, most often evidenced in a direct one-to-one encounter with God. (pp. 14-15)

Today, especially amongst low-church Protestants as well as in ‘the world’, the active life is prized very, very highly. Too highly, at times. We would do well to wed it with the contemplative.

Trinity and mysticism in East and West

There is a famous statement by Pope St John Paul II (or JP2 to his homeys) that the Church must start to breathe with both her lungs once again — that is, East and West. I don’t know the original context of the statement, but it seems to emerge in discussions about the more ‘rational’ approach to the faith in the western tradition and the more ‘mystical’ approach in eastern Christianity. A false dichotomy, to be sure.

Nonetheless, as the chapter about St John of the Cross in Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition shows, there are differences in the approach to mysticism found in East and West. Someone such as Vladimir Lossky would probably boil it down to the differences in our approach to the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity.

This may be part of it.

The problem with Lossky, however, is that the opening chapter of The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church raises a sharp irreconcilability between the two traditions. He argues that our view of the Trinity is, in fact, false — but does so through a misreading of St Thomas Aquinas and thus the whole of western Trinitarian thought.

And here lies my main thought.

Setting aside for the moment the vexed issue of the procession of the Holy Spirit, I think that we need each when we think about the Trinity, precisely because we are in certain respects different. Our foundation is, however, the same. As St Anselm writes:

Latins call these three things persons, Greeks substances. For as we Latins call the one substance in God three persons, so the Greeks call the one person three substances, they meaning here by substance the very same thing that we mean by person, and not differing from us in faith in any way. (On the Incarnation, ch. 16)

Yet if you read Latin Trinitarian theology, we often start with the unity of God — thus Anselm’s Monologion and Proslogion. Greek theology, on the other hand, often starts with the three Persons — thus St Gregory of Nyssa’s That There Are Not Three Gods. Lossky argues that our insistence on the divine unity posits a fourth hypostasis in the Trinity, a fourth thing that is the ground of being of the three Persons. However, and I forget the title of the book that brought this home to me (it was about Aquinas and Bonaventure’s triadology), what we really mean by that unity is all three persons at once. The unity is a conceptual articulation, not a substance of its own.

Rather than arguing us vs them in Trinitarian theology, East-West dialogue should FIRST acknowledge the incomprehensible and unapproachable mystery here. And then we should see what nuances we can gain from each other. And then, perhaps, we can start to breathe with both our lungs.

And as we breathe with both of these lungs, we will be reminded that the Trinity, the persons beyond personality who are a single God yet three persons, is bigger than any of our doctrinal statements (no matter how true those statements are). And so we will seek Him out in prayer and contemplation, questing after the Uncreated Light, the Beatific Vision, the grace of a meeting with God that is theosis.

But as long as we begin in a position of hostility, our ability to love each other will be hampered. And if we cannot love our brethren whom we can see, how can we love God whom we cannot see?

Ancient Religion got me into this mess, part 3: Devotion

For part 1 of the series, click here, and for part 2, click here.

My study of ancient Christianity has made life difficult for me, these days. I find myself committed both to liturgy and to historic orthodoxy. My commitment to historic orthodoxy, discussed here, drives me to seek liturgy. And my understanding of the sacraments, under the influence of the ancient church, drives me to seek weekly Eucharist, celebrated liturgically.

But my study of ancient Christianity did not begin with doctrine, liturgy, sacrament, episcopate.

It began in the Desert.

Although I am now a scholar of medieval manuscripts and papal letters, I started out with a desire to apply the methodology of classical philology and ancient history to ancient monasticism. In undergrad, after a love affair with St Francis of Assisi and flirtation with St John of the Cross, I met St Antony the Great and the Desert Fathers . Here was a new, strange phenomenon. Here were the roots of the monastic tradition of Francis of John!

I wrote an undergrad essay on the Desert Fathers, drawing largely on The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks and the Life of St Antony published by St Athanasius. In my first Master’s degree, I wrote about John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus, drawing in a variety of other desert sources along the way. My second Master’s thesis was about the monastic lives written by Cyril of Scythopolis and John of Ephesus in the age of Justinian, and one of my coursework essays was on St Gregory Palamas.

Between degrees, I visited Cyprus where I first really met the Orthodox world. I inhaled their incense. I considered their icons. I read the first few authors of The Philokalia — themselves ancient Greek monks! On a return visit to Cyprus, I visited Machairas Monastery in the Troodos Mountains. I have subsequently spent time with the Benedictines of Sankt Paul im Lavanntal, Austria.

Furthermore, in the first year of my PhD studies, I organised a reading group about ancient monasticism (but we also brought in a little St Hildegard for good measure).

My engagement with the teachings, lives, spiritual practices, and oddities of ancient monasticism from St Antony through St Benedict to St Isaac the Syrian has changed me in subtle ways, I believe. I crave the kind of single-minded devotion to God they sought and sometimes attained. I go through spells of praying at least Morning Prayer. I used to fast. I love reading their writings, even when they are hard to grasp or impossible to apply to my situation as a married layman.

Loud music, emotive worship leaders, forced happiness, a feeling of being untethered from tradition — none of these things is conducive to the contemplative life sought by the ancient monks. And I think that rock concert worship events are part of the rootlessness of modern evangelicalism, part of why we often feel like we can preach morality but seem incapable of teaching it.

A richer, calmer setting that makes room for the contemplative alongside the active, for prayer beside preaching, for meditation alongside proclamation — perhaps this can help us.

As I say, this part of who I am is more nebulous a reason why I crave liturgy and believe that it is important.

And, to say it one final time, if God has used the ancient church in my life through these ways, why should I go back on what He is doing in my life? This is the subjective reason that tugs at me all along the way. What is the point of all the thinking and studying I have done if I just end up going to same sort of happy-clappy, non-liturgical church that I would have attended anyway? Shouldn’t our private faith have public ramifications?