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.

Advertisements

Leo the Great, Sermon for the Nativity 1

 

St. George’s Anglican Church, Prince Albert SK

I. All share in the joy of Christmas.

Our Saviour, dearly-beloved, was born today: let us be glad. For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness. There is for all one common measure of joy, because as our Lord the destroyer of sin and death finds none free from charge, so is He come to free us all. Let the saint exult in that he draws near to victory. Let the sinner be glad in that he is invited to pardon. Let the gentile take courage in that he is called to life. For the Son of God in the fulness of time which the inscrutable depth of the Divine counsel has determined, has taken on him the nature of man, thereby to reconcile it to its Author: in order that the inventor of death, the devil, might be conquered through that (nature) which he had conquered. And in this conflict undertaken for us, the fight was fought on great and wondrous principles of fairness; for the Almighty Lord enters the lists with His savage foe not in His own majesty but in our humility, opposing him with the same form and the same nature, which shares indeed our mortality, though it is free from all sin. Truly foreign to this nativity is that which we read of all others, “no one is clean from stain, not even the infant who has lived but one day upon earth.” (Job 19:4) Nothing therefore of the lust of the flesh has passed into that peerless nativity, nothing of the law of sin has entered. A royal Virgin of the stem of David is chosen, to be impregnated with the sacred seed and to conceive the Divinely-human offspring in mind first and then in body. And lest in ignorance of the heavenly counsel she should tremble at so strange a result, she learns from converse with the angel that what is to be wrought in her is of the Holy Ghost. Nor does she believe it loss of honour that she is soon to be the Mother of God. For why should she be in despair over the novelty of such conception, to whom the power of the most High has promised to effect it. Her implicit faith is confirmed also by the attestation of a precursory miracle, and Elizabeth receives unexpected fertility: in order that there might be no doubt that He who had given conception to the barren, would give it even to a virgin.

II. The mystery of the Incarnation is a fitting theme for joy both to angels and to men.

Therefore the Word of God, Himself God, the Son of God who “in the beginning was with God,” through whom “all things were made” and “without” whom “was nothing made,” (John 1:1-3) with the purpose of delivering man from eternal death, became man: so bending Himself to take on Him our humility without decrease in His own majesty, that remaining what He was and assuming what He was not, He might unite the true form of a slave to that form in which He is equal to God the Father, and join both natures together by such a compact that the lower should not be swallowed up in its exaltation nor the higher impaired by its new associate. Without detriment therefore to the properties of either substance which then came together in one person, majesty took on humility, strength weakness, eternity mortality: and for the paying off of the debt, belonging to our condition, inviolable nature was united with passible nature, and true God and true man were combined to form one Lord, so that, as suited the needs of our case, one and the same Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, could both die with the one and rise again with the other.

Rightly therefore did the birth of our Salvation impart no corruption to the Virgin’s purity, because the bearing of the Truth was the keeping of honour. Such then beloved was the nativity which became the Power of God and the Wisdom of God even Christ, whereby He might be one with us in manhood and surpass us in Godhead. For unless He were true God, He would not bring us a remedy, unless He were true Man, He would not give us an example. Therefore the exulting angel’s song when the Lord was born is this, “Glory to God in the Highest,” and their message, “peace on earth to men of good will.” (Luke 2:14) For they see that the heavenly Jerusalem is being built up out of all the nations of the world: and over that indescribable work of the Divine love how ought the humbleness of men to rejoice, when the joy of the lofty angels is so great?

III. Christians then must live worthily of Christ their Head.

Let us then, dearly beloved, give thanks to God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit, Who “for His great mercy, wherewith He has loved us,” has had pity on us: and “when we were dead in sins, has quickened us together in Christ,” (Eph. 2:4-5) that we might be in Him a new creation and a new production. Let us put off then the old man with his deeds: and having obtained a share in the birth of Christ let us renounce the works of the flesh. Christian, acknowledge thy dignity, and becoming a partner in the Divine nature, refuse to return to the old baseness by degenerate conduct. Remember the Head and the Body of which thou art a member. Recollect that thou wert rescued from the power of darkness and brought out into God’s light and kingdom. By the mystery of Baptism thou wert made the temple of the Holy Ghost: do not put such a denizen to flight from thee by base acts, and subject thyself once more to the devil’s thraldom: because thy purchase money is the blood of Christ, because He shall judge thee in truth Who ransomed thee in mercy, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Translation from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Volume 12

On the Quicumque Vult (pt 2): Religion Gone Bad?

Yesterday, I successfully placed the so-called “Creed of Saint Athanasius” or “Quicumque Vult” in its context.  It has lived beyond its context, surviving in books and documents and liturgical use — traditionally, Anglicans recite this statement of faith every Trinity Sunday.  I don’t think very many do, anymore, and not just because of the equation: length + liturgical laziness = cutting out bits of the liturgy.

I would venture to say that many people dislike this piece of theology because of its introduction and conclusion.  The introductory paragraph of the Athanasian Creed runs:

Whoever wishes to be saved, it is necessary before all things, that he cling to the Catholic faith:  unless someone will have held this [faith] whole and undefiled and away from falseness, he will perish eternally.

The offending clause is the closing one, “he will perish eternally.”  No one wants to hear this sort of thing today.  Isn’t this the sort of thing Fred Phelps is into?  Isn’t this what a lot people are trying to get away from?  Doesn’t this just prove that religion is an oppressive, divisive force?

What does it even mean, “perish eternally”?  Most people are probably thinking, “Hellfire and brimstone!  Hellfire and brimstone!  HEAVEN!  OR HELL!!  HEAVEN!!  OR HELL!!!”  I don’t rightly know, actually.  It seems that those who are not caught up into the great embrace of Christ in the great beyond, those who find themselves amongst the goats on Judgement Day, are described variously as being cast into the outer darkness where there is moaning and gnashing of teeth, or into Gehenna which is Jerusalem’s burning garbage heap, or into a lake of fire, or to suffer the second death, or simply to be sent away from the presence of Christ.

Whatever it is that happens to those who find themselves outside of Christ at the Resurrection, it is not something to look forward to.  Perhaps it is simply the cessation of existence.  St. Augustine seems to think it is eternal punishment.  Madeleine L’Engle can’t imagine a good God punishing any of His creation for all time; neither can St. Gregory of Nyssa.  Origen even imagined that the people who die the second death and go to Hades are raised up and perfected by Christ and reunited to the Monad at the end of all things (apocatastasis for those who care).

Whatever it is, though, we freely choose it.  We pave our own road to Hell.  We choose ourselves over others, the world over Christ, sin over righteousness every step of the way.  And this road we pave is easily laid.  It’s also nice and broad, smooth and pleasant.  Until, of course, we reach the top of a hill and are tossed off the hill by demons into a pit of dragons (this description based on an icon I saw in a supermarket in Cyprus).

God offers the free gift of salvation to everyone.  If we choose not to accept it, we are condemning ourselves to perish eternally.

Of course, protestations arise that that’s not what the Quicumque Vult says. It says that we must keep the Catholic faith whole and undefiled.  We must also do good works, according to the conclusion of the text.

The Catholic faith is the means of accepting the gift of salvation.  If God is offering us a gift, we must have faith in Him to accept it.  If I did not have faith in my brother, I might not accept a gift given by him, expecting instead of something pleasant those springy snakes instead.  So faith, as in trust, is essential for accepting the gift.

Part of accepting this gift is knowing the giver.  God is not aloof from us.  He offers us salvation, and if we truly trust* Him, we will come to know Him.  We will learn of Who He is.  And Who is He?  Who is this God whom we trust, this God Who saves us from sin, death, the devil, eternal perishing?

Look at the Quicumque Vult.  It will show you Who it is Whom you trust.

*Philological phun phact: these two words are cognate along with tree.

Saint of the Week: Leo the Great

In the year AD 440, the Archdeacon of Rome was away in Gaul on a diplomatic mission.  While he was there, the Bishop of Rome, St. Sixtus III, passed away.  Despite the fact that he wasn’t there, the powers that be in Rome elected the absent Archdeacon as Bishop.  They waited patiently for his return.  He thanked them for this patience in his accession speech.  This archdeacon was Leo I, the Great.

I have chosen Pope St. Leo the Great (c. 400-461; see my review of Leo the Great as well) because he is a big part of my life right now, and hopefully this state of affairs will continue for the next three and a half years.  I have also chosen him because tomorrow is Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, the day we remember the coming of God as a man approximately 2000 years ago, and St. Leo was a theologian of the Incarnation.

We have scant knowledge about Leo before his election to the papacy.  We know that he was Archdeacon in the 430’s when he commissioned my friend John Cassian (this post gives a list of my major posts about Cassian) to write On the Incarnation of the Lord Against Nestorius (my thochts on that here).  He may also have been involved in the Roman See’s actions concerning the Pelagian Controversy.  The fact that he commissioned Cassian’s anti-Nestorian work lets us know that in the decade before his rise to the throne of Peter, St. Leo was involved in the Christological controversies sparked in the East by Nestorius in 428.

Thus, he was already a student of theology by the time he became pope.  As Bishop of Rome, he changed the previously un-preachy* nature of the Roman episcopacy (taking his cue from our friend St. Ambrose) and began a cycle of preaching that followed the church year, with at least fifteen occasions throughout the year, including the Advent fast, the Nativity, Lent, the Pasch, ultimately Pentecost, the Feast of St. Laurence, the anniversary of his elevation to the Roman See, and other liturgical moments (see the CCEL for translations of a number of these).

These sermons are explications of the feasts/fasts and the theological underpinnings of the remembrance at hand.  In his Advent and Christmas sermons, St. Leo explicates in wondrous beauty the necessity and nature of the Incarnation — a birth “wondrously singular and singularly wondrous” — for our salvation from sin, death, and the devil.  The peroration, or conclusion, of each sermon exhorts the people of Rome to virtuous action; he wants to help them see that being a Christian is the same as being a good Roman.  He also takes aim at heretics in his sermons, at times Manichees, who had a presence in Rome, at times Eutyches, at times Nestorius.

If you read these sermons, and I encourage you to, you see that St. Leo was a theologian with a pastor’s heart.  No, actually, he was a pastor with a theologian’s insight.  He demonstrated for the edification of his congregation the theology and action necessary for a healthy Christian life.  He also emphasized strongly, contra the now-deceased Bishop of Hippo Regius, the will of God to save all mankind.  The question of how it therefore comes about that God happens not to save all mankind is not fully treated in Leo’s corpus.

In the letters, we see Leo as a pastor’s pastor, as a pontifical statesman, and as a controversial theologian.  He answered letters, for example, from bishops who had congregants from North Africa who weren’t sure if they had been baptised Catholic or schismatic.  His answer was that it was being baptised into the threefold Name of the Most Holy Trinity that counted, not the baptiser.  He answered questions about Priscillianism for a bishop in Spain.

He also tried to impose his will, to a degree, on the bishops of Illyricum.  Most strikingly, he tried to impose his will on the Bishops of Gaul.  He largely succeeded, diminishing to a degree the see of Arles under Hilary, demonstrating the power of the Bishop of Rome in disputes.  He saw the Pope as the universal court of appeal for the Church, a man who could intervene in the affairs of other dioceses beyond his own metropolitan zone in order to maintain and restore order.

In the year 444, St. Cyril of Alexandria passed away.  St. Cyril had been the theologian of the Incarnation par excellence throughout Leo’s career.  He had spearheaded the offensive against Nestorius and had largely engineered the outcome of the First Council of Ephesus.  With St. Cyril dead, the mantle of Christologian passed to St. Leo.  But was he up to the task?

St. Leo’s time came in 449 when he received a letter from an Archimandrite (a senior abbot) named Eutyches, whom a local synod in Constantinople had deemed a heretic.  Eutyches was appealing to Leo.  Soon Leo also received a letter from Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople, explaining to Leo the circumstances of Eutyches’ trial.  Leo responded to Flavian on June 13 with his famous Tome, letter 28.

This document is the piece of writing for which St. Leo is most famous for.  In this letter, Leo has in his sights both Nestorius as Leo understood him and Eutyches.  The former, as far as Leo was concerned, denied Christ’s divinity; the latter, Christ’s humanity.  The Tome is a text of balance and duality.  Leo sets forth for his reader the balance and duality within Christ of the human and divine natures.  He strikes a balance that seeks to avoid the perceived pitfalls of Eutychianism and Nestorianism.  God the Word took on flesh, he became fully human without the stain of sin, the lowliness not diminishing the glory.  This was necessary for our salvation.  Christ was and is a living paradox.

That same year, 449, saw the calling of a second general council in Ephesus.  This council was engineered by Dioscorus, episcopal successor to St. Cyril in Alexandria, to rehabilitate Eutyches and hold aloft a one-nature Christology, an incipient Monophysite understanding of Christ’s nature.  Leo, as was the wont of Rome’s bishop, sent delegates.  They were to read aloud the Tome, Leo being convinced that all the Church needed was to read his account of the Incarnation and then all this controversy would end.  These delegates were steamrolled by Dioscorus and not allowed to speak.  Bishop Flavian received blows that may have led to his death shortly thereafter.  He was replaced by a supporter of Dioscorus.

Leo called Second Ephesus a Latrocinium, a den of pirates.  He wrote letters to Emperor Theodosius II trying to convince him to change his mind and overturn the decisions of the council.  He wrote letters to Pulcheria Augusta, the Emperor’s sister, enlisting her help to convince her brother.  Theodosius would not be convinced.

And then, in 450, he fell off his horse and died.  His sister married a nonentity named Marcian and became Empress.

In 451, the Council of Chalcedon occurred.  This time, Leo’s Tome, along with three letters of St. Cyril, was read out and approved by the Council — albeit, not unanimously, with protests coming from some of the Illyrian, Palestinian, and Egyptian delegates.

It seems, as Bernard Green has argued,** that Leo didn’t really know what Nestorianism was until after Chalcedon.  Seeing what the objections to the Tome were, he quickly adjusted certain passages and clarified his thinking.  Thus, his letter 124 to the monks of Palestine is more representative of the mature thought of St. Leo and would be a better testimony to his thought for the generations to come.

Leo spent the years from 451 to 465 maintaining his preaching practice in Rome, keeping order in his Metropolitan, clarifying what the Tome was supposed to say, and keeping Attila the Hun from sacking Rome (this last may not be true, but it colourful nonetheless).

He was one of the good popes.  He was also one of the first strong steps down the road to the papacy’s claims to universal jurisdiction.  We cannot have Innocent III (1160-1216) without Leo I.  He produced, ultimately, a clear, lucid theology that dealt with the problems of Eutyches and Nestorius while synthesising the teaching of the great western theologians Augustine, Ambrose, and Hilary of Poitiers with a dash of Cyril of Alexandria.  He truly deserves the appellation “the Great”, being one of only two such popes along with Gregory I.

*I was going to make up the word un-kerygmatic, but then I figured that if I’m going to neologise, why not at least make a word people will understand?

**See The Soteriology of Leo the Great, pp. 227-247.