Dionysius the Areopagite is the name assumed by the author of four Greek treatises on liturgical and mystical theology that appeared at the beginning of the 6th century and were first referred to by the Monophysite theologians in the train of severus of antioch. The author claims apostolic sanction for his writings by publishing them as the work of the Dionysius, who was baptized after listening to a sermon St. Paul preached in the Areopagus of Athens (Acts 17.34). These writings were quoted by the Monophysite leader in the colloquy of the orthodox and Severian bishops held in Constantinople in 532, but immediately challenged by Hypatius of Ephesus, the orthodox spokesman, as unknown to such older Fathers as Cyril and Athanasius. Translated into Syriac by sergi us of reŠaina (d. 536), they were the subject of an early 6th-century commentary by john of scythopolis.
These four treatises, strongly Neoplatonist in concept and terminology, deal with (1) the celestial hierarchy, (2) the ecclesiastical hierarchy, (3) the divine names, and (4) mystical theology. They were used by both the Chalcedonian and Monophysite theologians during the 6th and 7th centuries. Their influence was greatest in the Latin West, however, where in 827 they were first introduced in the translation of Abbot hilduin of saintdenis made from the Greek uncial manuscript (Codex Paris gr. 437) sent by the Emperor Michael II as a gift to Louis the Pious. The translation of john scotus erigena in particular supplied the scholastic theologians and medieval mystics with material for Neoplatonic speculations regarding the Trinity and the ecclesiastical hierarchy that had been only touched upon by St. Augustine.
Authorship. Only occasionally during the Middle Ages was the Dionysian authorship of these writings questioned. But Lorenzo valla (d. 1457) had challenged their dating in a commentary on Scripture that was first published by erasmus (Paris 1505) on the score that the Neoplatonist terminology as well as the liturgical and hierarchical notions could not have been produced in the 1st century. A considerable controversy followed during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries in which theologians attempted to defend the 1st-century authorship. But in 1895 H. Koch and J. Stiglmayr, working independently, proved that these writings could not have been composed before the 5th century, since the doctrine of evil, for one thing, was of a strictly Nonplatonic origin.
The date for the composition of the Pseudo-Dionysian writings is set by the fact that there is no mention of them before the 5th century, that their Christological teaching reflects post-Chalcedonian doctrine, such as that of the henoticon (482), and that the first indisputable citation of these writings is made by Severus of Antioch between 518 and 528. In 171 the Dominican Orientalist M. le quien offered arguments to prove that the true author was Peter the Fuller, the Monophysite patriarch of Antioch (d. 488), whose use of the writings of the Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus (d. 485), and whose influence in the composition of the Henoticon as well as in the introduction of the Creed in the Mass, rendered him the most likely candidate.
Of the 5th-and early 6th-century authors capable of having produced these documents, the Syrian Neoplatonist and mystic, author of the Book of Hierotheus, stephen bar-ṢŪdhailĒ; the Monophysites Peter the Iberian, Peter the Fuller, Severus of Antioch, and Sergius of Rešaina; and the Chalcedonian John of Scythopolis have all been proposed as responsible, but despite the most elaborate study of style, theological cross-reference, and historical coincidence, modern criticism has not accepted any of these candidates as the author.
Contents. The body of Dionysian documents consists of four treatises and ten letters that further elaborate both the theological content and the pseudo-1st-century atmosphere in which they were supposedly written.
The Divine Names. This treatise deals with man's knowledge of God from His revelation of Himself in the Scriptures. These manifestations proceed from His ineffable and invisible unity. Of the three persons in the Trinity, the Son alone became incarnate, thus expressing in the universe the presence of the ineffable and inexpressible One in the world of sin and multiplicity. After a chapter on the effects of prayer, which is indispensable in theological investigation, the author gives an account of the different names that can be applied to God, beginning with the Good and proceeding to Unity and Trinity, Beauty, Love, Being, Life, Wisdom, Intelligence, Reason, etc. In all this he is reflecting the Neoplatonic thought of proclus.
Mystical Theology. This treatise is a compact description of the negative dialectic that prepares and renders possible the mystical experience that by its very nature is inexpressible and indescribable, for it deals with "the divine darkness." Notable here is the lack of reference to love as the cathartic and unifying factor in the mystical approach to God. In this treatise the author contents himself with discussing the sensible and intelligible preparations that are necessary before the soul is raised to ecstasy. Letters 1 and 3 complete this treatise.
The Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. The hierarchies of heaven and of the Church are described, in this work, on a triadic principle, proceeding from the Trinity and descending in threes through the nine angelic orders, thence to the ecclesiastical organ of bishops, priests, and deacons charged with initiating the monks, saints, and purified in a divine way of life through the process of purification, illumination, and perfection or union with the divine Being. The two aspects of the Dionysian universe, that of angelic and that of incarnate or human intelligence, complement each other, one being the image of the other. The nature and function of these intelligences are described in Scripture mainly through symbols, and Pseudo-Dionysius maintains that the triadic order pervades throughout the Old Testament and New Testament, tradition, and the history of the Church.
In the roles ascribed to bishops, priests, and deacons in the Church, the practice of the 5th century is reflected, with the bishop sanctifying by ordaining bishops and priests and consecrating monks; the priest aiding the bishop particularly in his function of illuminating the faithful through preaching the Word of God; and the deacons in charge of the purification ceremonies connected with preparation for Baptism, and the care of the poor and unfortunate.
The four treatises are completed by the letters. Letters 1 and 4 describe the divine darkness and inaccessible light of the mystical theology; letter 2 deals with the transcendence of the divine names; letters 8, 9, and 10 detail the respect to be paid to the Church's hierarchy, mercy for sinners, and fortitude in persecution; letters 3 and 5 examine Christological questions; letter 6 condemns polemics in theology; and letter 7 describes the prodigies of the noonday darkness and the earthquake that accompanied Christ's death.
Influence. The doctrinal content of the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus forms a complete theology, from the Trinity and angelic world through the Incarnation and Redemption to the last things, and provides a symbolic and mystical explanation of all that is. Its extremely spiritual doctrine gave great satisfaction to the theologians and spiritual writers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance both in the Orient and in the West; hence the failure to question its authorship and the essentially Neoplatonic quality of its mystical excursions.
In the East, these writings were influential but not as pervasive as was once believed; rather they were incorporated into a stream of spiritual and mystical theology that was formed by the Alexandrian and Cappadocian Fathers. They were synthesized to a large extent by maximus the confessor in the 7th century, having contributed to the Christological debates of the 6th century, and were appropriated extensively by both parties in the Palamite controversy of the 14th century, without contributing substantially to either crisis.
In the West, the legendary biography identifying Pseudo-Dionysius with both the Areopagite and the patron of Paris, which was composed by the Abbot Hilduin and attached to his Latin translation of the Dionysian writings, set the tradition that prevailed down to modern times. The Dionysian writings were cited in part by gregory i for his commentaries on the angels, and by Pope martin i at the Lateran synod of 649. They are further mentioned by Pope agatho (680), bede, Pope paul i, and Pope adrian i before the translation by Hilduin that was redone by John Scotus Erigena at the request of Charles II, the Bald, between 860 and 862, and then retouched by anastasius the librarian in 875. In the scholastic and later period John Sarrazin, robert grosseteste, Ambrose Traversari, and Marsilio ficino produced Latin versions along with commentaries, and the corpus was further commented upon in whole or in part by hugh of saint-victor, thomas gallus, albert the great, thomas aquinas, Jean gerson, and denis the carthusian.
Down to the first decade of the 17th century, the authority of these writings was unchallenged by Catholic and many Protestant theologians. Thereafter, though most theologians refused to consider the evidence objectively, men of the caliber of Prosper Lambertini (later benedict xiv), in his treatise on the Beatification of Saints, expressed great caution in utilizing these works. Recent scholarly investigation has demonstrated beyond question the late date and provenience of the Dionysian writings.
Bibliography: Patrologia Graeca, ed. j. p. migne, 161 v. (Paris 1857–66) v.3–4 (no critical edition exists). Works, tr. j. parker (London 1897). h. koch, Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita in seinen Beziehungen zum Neuplatonismus und Mysterienwesen (Mainz 1900). j. stiglmayr, The Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. c. herbermann et al., 16 v. (New York 1907–14; suppl. 1922) 5:13–18. r. roques, L'Univers dionysien (Paris 1954); Reallexikon für Antike und christentum, ed. t. klauser (Stuttgart 1950–) 3:1075–1121. r. roques et al., Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, ed. a. baudrillart et al. (Paris 1912–) 14:265–310; Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932–) 3:244–429. u. riedinger, Byzantinische Zeitschrift 52 (1959) 276–296; "Der Verfasser der pseudo-dionysischen Schriften," Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 75 (1964) 146–152. p. rorem, Pseudo-Dionysius: A Commentary on the Texts and an Introduction to Their Influence (New York 1993). r. blum and a. golitzin, The Sacred Athlete: On the Mystical Experience and Dionysios, Its Westernworld Fountainhead (Lanham, Md. 1991). a. louth, Denys, the Areopagite (London and Wilton, Ct. 1989). p. rorem, Biblical and Liturgical Symbols within the Pseudo-Dionysian Synthesis (Toronto 1984). g. shaw, "Theurgy and Dionysius the Areopagite," Journal of Early Christian Studies 7:573–599. j. williams, "The Apophatic Theology of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite," Downside Review 117:157–172. s. j. beggiani, "Theology at the Service of Mysticism: Method in Pseudo-Dionysius," Theological Studies 57, 201–223.
[f. x. murphy]
"Pseudo-Dionysius." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/pseudo-dionysius
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