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Dionysius of Alexandria

Wace's Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

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Dionysius (6) of Alexandria. This "great bishop of Alexandria" (Eus. H. E. vi. Praef. ) and "teacher of the catholic church" (Athan. de Sent. Dion. 6), was born, apparently, of a wealthy and honourable family (Eus. H. E. vii. 11, and Valesius ad loc. ). He was an old man in a.d. 265 (Eus. H. E. vii. 27), and a presbyter in a.d. 233 (Hieron. de Vir. Ill. 69). His parents were Gentiles, and he was led to examine the claims of Christianity by private study ( Ep. Dion. ap. Eus. H. E. vii. 7). His conversion cost him the sacrifice of "worldly glory" (Eus. H. E. vii. 11); but he found in Origen an able teacher ( ib. vi. 29); and Dionysius remained faithful to his master to the last. In the persecutions of Decius he addressed a letter to him On Persecution ( ib. vi. 46), doubtless as an expression of sympathy with his sufferings ( c. A.D. 259), and on the death of Origen (a.d. 253) wrote to Theotecnus bp. of Caesarea in his praise (Steph. Gob. ap. Phot. Cod. 232). Dionysius, then a presbyter, succeeded Heraclas as head of the Catechetical School, at the time, as the words of Eusebius imply, when Heraclas was made bp. of Alexandria, a.d. 232-233 (Eus. l.c. ). He held this office till he was raised to the bishopric, on the death of Heraclas, a.d. 247-248, and perhaps retained it till his death, a.d. 265. His episcopate was in troubled times. A popular outbreak at Alexandria (a.d. 248-249) anticipated by about a year (Eus. H. E. vi. 41) the persecution under Decius (a.d. 249-251). Dionysius fled from Alexandria, and, being afterwards taken by some soldiers, was rescued by a friend, escaping in an obscure retirement from further attacks. In the persecution of Valerian, a.d. 257, he was banished, but continued to direct and animate the Alexandrian church from the successive places of his exile. His conduct on these occasions exposed him to ungenerous criticism, and Eusebius has preserved several interesting passages of a letter ( c. a.d. 258-259), in which he defends himself with great spirit against the accusations of a bp. Germanus ( ib. vi. 40, vii. 11). On the accession of Gallienus, a.d. 260, Dionysius was allowed to return to Alexandria ( ib. vii. 13, 21), where he had to face war, famine, and pestilence ( ib. vii. 22). In a.d. 264-265 he was invited to the synod at Antioch which met to consider the opinions of Paul of Samosata. His age and infirmities did not allow him to go, and he died shortly afterwards (a.d. 265) ( ib. vii. 27, 28; Hieron. de Vir. Ill. 69).

Dionysius was active in controversy, but always bore himself with prudence. In this spirit he was anxious to deal gently with the "lapsed" (Eus. H. E. vi. 42); he pressed upon Novatian the duty of self-restraint, for the sake of the peace of the church, a.d. 251 ( ib. vii. 45; Hieron. l.c. ); and with better results counselled moderation in dealing with the rebaptism of heretics, in a correspondence with popes Stephen and Sixtus (a.d. 256-257) (Eus. H. E. vii. 5, 7, 9). His last letter (or letters) regarding Paul of Samosata seem to have been written in a similar strain. He charged the assembled bishops to do their duty, but did not shrink from appealing to Paul also, as still fairly within the reach of honest argument (Theod. Haer. Fab. ii. 8). In one instance Dionysius met with immediate success. In a discussion with a party of Chiliasts he brought his opponents to abandon their error (Eus. H. E. vii. 24.). His own orthodoxy, however, did not always remain unimpeached. When controverting the false teaching of Sabellius, the charge of tritheism was brought against him by some Sabellian adversaries, and entertained at first by his namesake Dionysius of Rome. Discussion shewed that one ground of the misunderstanding was the ambiguity of the words used to describe "essence" and "person," which the two bishops took in different senses. Dionysius of Rome regarded ὑπόστασις as expressing the essence of the divine nature; Dionysius of Alexandria as expressing the essence of each divine person. The former therefore affirmed that to divide the ὑπόστασις was to make separate gods; the latter affirmed with equal justice that there could be no Trinity unless each ὑπόστασις was distinct. The Alexandrine bishop had, however, used other phrases, which were claimed by Arians at a later time as favouring their views. Basil, on hearsay, as it has been supposed (Lumper, Hist. Patrum, xiii. 86 f.), admitted that Dionysius sowed the seeds of the Anomoean heresy ( Ep. i. 9), but Athanasius with fuller knowledge vindicated his perfect orthodoxy. Dionysius has been represented as recognizing the supremacy of Rome in the defence which he made. But the fragments of his answer to his namesake (Athan. de Sent. Dionysii, ἐπέστειλε Διονυσίῳ δηλῶσαι . . . for the use of ἐπιστέλλω see Eus. H. E. vi. 46, etc.) shew the most complete and resolute independence; and there is nothing in the narrative of Athanasius which implies that the Alexandrine bishop recognized, or that the Roman bishop claimed, any dogmatic authority as belonging to the imperial see. To say that a synod was held upon the subject at Rome is an incorrect interpretation of the facts.

Dionysius was a prolific writer. Jerome (l.c. ) has preserved a long but not exhaustive catalogue of his books. Some important fragments remain of his treatises On Nature (Eus. Praep. Ev. xiv. 23 ff.), and On the Promises, in refutation of the Chiliastic views of Nepos (Eus. H. E. iii. 28, vii. 24, 25); of his Refutation and Defence, addressed to Dionysius of Rome, in reply to the accusation of false teaching on the Holy Trinity (Athan. de Sent. Dionysii; de Synodis, c. 44; de Decr. Syn. Nic. c. 25); of his Commentaries on Ecclesiastes and on St. Luke, and of his books Against Sabellius (Eus. Praep. Ev. vii. 19).

The fragments of his letters are, however, the most interesting extant memorials of his work and character and of his time; and Eusebius, with a true historical instinct, has made them the basis of the sixth and seventh books of his history. The following will shew the wide ground covered:

a.d. 251.—To Domitius and Didymus. Personal experiences during persecution (Eus. H. E. vii. 11).

a.d. 251-252.—To Novatian, to the Roman Confessors, to Cornelius of Rome, Fabius of Antioch, Conon of Hermopolis; and to Christians in Alexandria, Egypt, Laodicaea, Armenia, on discipline and repentance, with pictures from contemporary history (ib. vi. 41, and vii. 45).

a.d. 253-257.—To Stephen of Rome, the Roman presbyters Dionysius and Philemon, Sixtus II. of Rome on Rebaptism (ib. vii. 4, 5, 7, 9).

a.d. 258-263.—To Germanus: incidents in persecution. Against Sabellians. A series of festal letters, with pictures of contemporary history (ib. vii. 11, 22 ff., 26).

a.d. 264.—To Paul of Samosata (vi. 40).

To these, of some of which only the titles remain, must be added an important canonical letter to Basilides, of uncertain date, discussing various questions of discipline, and especially points connected with the Lenten fast (cf. Dittrich, pp. 46 ff.). All the fragments repay careful study. They are uniformly inspired by sympathy and large-heartedness. His criticism on the style of the Apocalypse is perhaps unique among early writings for clearness and scholarly precision (Eus. H. E. vii. 25).

The most accessible and complete collection of his remains is in Migne's Patr. Gk. x. pp. 1233 ff., 1575 ff., to which must be added Pitra, Spicil. Solesm. i. 15 ff. A full monograph on Dionysius by Dittrich (Freiburg, 1867) supplements the arts. in Tillemont, Maréchal, Lumper, Moehler. An Eng. trans. of his works is in the Ante-Nicene Lib., and his Letters, etc., have been ed. by Dr. Feltoe for the Camb. Patristic Texts (1904).


Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Dionysius of Alexandria'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hwd/​d/dionysius-of-alexandria.html. 1911.
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