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Dionysius the Areopagite

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(οΑ῾᾿ρεοπαγίτης ), one of Pauls converts at Athens, of whom no farther account is given in the New Testament than that in Acts 17:19-34, viz., that Paul was brought into the Areopagus (q.v.) at Athens to give account of his doctrine. The results of his speech are briefly stated in Acts 17:34 : "Howbeit, certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius (Διονύσιος, q.d. a votary of Bacchus) the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them."

Eusebius (Hist. Ecclesiastes 3, 40, and 4:23) tells that Dionysius of Corinth names "Dionysius the Areopagite" (whom Luke has recorded in the Acts) as the first bishop of the Church in Athens. Suidas gives a fuller account, according to which Dionysius was born in Athens, studied there and in Egypt, and became eminent for learning; and while at Heliopolis, in Egypt, seeing an eclipse of the sun, he exclaimed to a friend, "Either the Deity is suffering, or sympathizing with some sufferer;" and this eclipse took place at the time of the death of Christ. Returning to Athens, he became an Areopagite, was converted under Paul's discourse, and was made bishop of Athens by Paul. So far Suidas. On the authority of Aristides the Apologist he is said to have suffered martyrdom at Athens.

The name of Dionysius has become important in Church history from certain writings formerly believed to be his, but now known to be spurious, and designated as the Pseudo-Dionysian writings. They are: 1. The Celestial Hierarchy (περὶ τῆς οὐρανίας ἱεραρχίας ); 2. The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (περὶ τῆς ἐκκλησιαστικῆς ἱεραρχίας; 3. Concerning the Names of God (περὶ Θείων νομάτων ); 4. Of Mystical Theology (περὶ μυστικῆς θεολογίας ); 5. Epistles, ten in number; 6. A Liturgy having the name of Dionysins, given by Renaudot, Lit. Orient. Cell. 2:201. The first appearance of these writings was in the sixth century. In 533 a conference was held at Constantinople between the Severians (Monophysite heretics) and the orthodox Catholics, when the Severians adduced these writings in support of their opinions (see Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, 2, § 245). Hyperius, who presided at the conference, and the Catholics with him, asserted that these writings were either interpolated or spurious. Nevertheless, from this time on, they gradually grew into repute in the East, where they soon found commentators (e.g. St. Maximus, 7th century, George Pachymeres, etc.), who, with the Greek biographers of Dionysius, find place in the second volume of the works of Dionysius, in Migne, Patrol. Graeca, 4. In the Western Church, Gregory the Great (t 604) cites them as nominally the Writings of Dionysius (Hom. 34). They attracted more attention in the eighth century, when Stephen II sent a copy as a present to king Pepin (A.D. 758), and the emperor Michael sent one to Louis the Pious (A.D. 827). Hilduin, abbot of St. Denis, near Paris, compiled an apocryphal collection of accounts concerning the history of Dionysius, and identified the author of these writings with Dionysius, (See DENIS), the patron saint of Paris. From this time, for centuries, their authenticity was not questioned; and they were the subjects of translation, scholia, lectures, etc. from such men as Johannes Scotus, Hugo de St. Victor, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas.

The critical spirit of the Reformation, however, was early directed towards the Dionysian writings. Erasmus (t 1536) questioned their authenticity; (Comm. on Acts 17); and in 1629, Sirmond (the Jesuit) denied the identity of Dionysius the Areopagite with St. Denis, and questioned also the authenticity of the writings attributed to him. The question of identity was long controverted among the Gallican theologians, but by the end of the century the Paris Breviary contained two saints Dionysius instead of one. The question of authenticity was discussed and settled by the great Protestant writer Daille, in his De Scriptis Dionysii Areopagite (Geneva, 1666), who was followed on the same side by the Roman Catholic Nicolas le Nourry (Appar. ad. Bib. Max. Patr. 1703, page 170 sq.; given also in Migne, Patrol. Graeca, 3:1 sq.). Other Romanist writers (e.g. Halloix and Delrio, whose apologies are given in Migne, Patr. Graec. volume 4) sought to maintain the authenticity of the writings; but the greater scholars of that Church (e.g. Tillemont, Pagi. etc.) admit that they are spurious. A few modern writers (e.g. Kestner, die Agape, od. d. geheime Weltbund d. Christen, Jen. 1819, 8vo; Darboys, Introduction to a French translation of Dionysius) have sought again to restore the credit of the books, but the question is settled, in both Roman and Protestant circles, against their authenticity. As to the real date of the books, Daille (op. cit. page 184) fixes it as probably toward the end of the fifth and beginning of the sixth century; Pearson, who discusses the subject pretty fully in his Vindicicz Ignatianae, cap. 10, thinks the date should be before that of Jerome, in the fourth century; but Basnage, and even Tillemont, refute Pearson; Basnage giving the date as the end of the fifth, or beginning of the sixth century (Hist. de l'Eglise, 8:10, cited in Lardner, Works, 5:73). Cave, Hist. Lit. (Geneva, 1720) 1:142, gives A.D. 362 for the date, and inclines to think Apollinaris (either father or son) the author. Others (e.g. La Croze) make Synesius, bishop of Ptolemais (fifth century), the author.

Connected with the question of the origin of the Pseudo-Dionysian writings is that of their object and aim. Le Nourry (op. cit.) supposes them to have been directed against the Eutychian and Nestorian heresies; but there is not enough matter of this sort in them to justify this opinion. Baumgarten-Crusius (Opuscula Theol. Jena, 1836. page 265) maintains that the object of the books was to incorporate the Grecian mysteries with Christianity, and to set up mystical theology over against Gnosticism; and he assigns an Alexandrian origin to them (third century). But the Gnosticism combated in these books is not the early Gnosticism. Engelhardt, in his Die angebl. Schriften d. Dionys. Areop. ü bersetzt, etc. (Sulzbach, 1823) assigns their origin to the Neoplatonic school of Proclus (t 485). Neander (History of Christian Dogmas, Bohn's ed. 1:263) finds in them a mystical theology "resulting from a mixture of the Platonic and Christian mind, which turned the whole constitution of the Church, its external rites, and its dogmas, into a symbol of its ideas." According to Niedner (Kirchengesch. cited by Neander, 1.c.), there is in the PseudoDionysian writings the exhibition of a pretended Athenian Gnosis, but rather Antiochian, which reconciles the pure Hellenic Neoplatonisn and the Church doctrine more faithfully than the older Gnosis. We may learn from these writings, adds Neander (2:402), "how strongly the mystic liturgic element of the Greek Church tended to the multiplication of the sacraments. The liturgic elements of worship, and those of the hierarchy, receive in them a mystic, symbolic meaning. These writings conveyed the existing spiritual tendencies to the following period. The sacraments which they enumerate are the following: baptism (φώτισμα ), the Lord's Supper (κοινωνία συνάξεως ), priestly ordination (τελείωσις ἱερατική ), monastic ordination (τελείωσις μοναχική ), the rites used at the burial of believers (τὰ ἐπὶ τῶν ἱερῶν κεκοιμηυένων )". The doctrine of God taught is that intuition of him can only be obtained by mystical contemplation. Man can have no absolute knowledge of Goa in thought; all his knowledge is relative; but man can be united to God, "lost in God" in the devotion of supreme love. In the Celestial Hierarchy the angels are divided into three classes, and each class into three orders (τάγματα ), thus:

I. 1. Θρόνοι, thrones;

2. Χερουβίμ, cherubim;

3. Σεραφίμ, seraphim;

II. 4. κυριότητες, dominions;

5. ἐξουσίαι, authorities;

6. δυνάμεις, powers;

III. 7. ἀρχαί, principalities;

8. ἀρχάγγελοι, archangels;

9. ἄγγελοι, angels.

He nevertheless observed that the last term, as well as δυνάμεις οὐράνιαι, was common to all (Hagenbach, Hist. of Doctrines, § 131). Gross and sensuous ideas as to angels are discarded. As to the aim of the Pseudo-Dionysius as a whole, we condense the views of Vogt, in Herzog's Real-Encyklopä die, 3:418, as follows: The Pseudo-Dionysian writings are an attempt to incorporate Neoplatonism into Christianity. Their author must have been penetrated with the spirit of both systems. He probably assumed the venerable name of Dionysius the Areopagite with a view, on the one hand, to gain the ear of the educated and philosophical Athenians, and, on the other, to secure the sympathy of the Christian Church. These philosophers hated Christianity, and charged those Christians who adopted Neoplatonic ideas with the crime of first stealing these ideas, and then using them as a weapon of offense against their proper owners. The Pseudo-Dionysius sought to refute this charge by maintaining that these ideas were properly and truly Christian, springing from an Athenian Christian school, and belonging to the very nature of the Christian institutions. The fact that the heathen philosophy of his time had adopted many Christian ideas, probably justified, to his mind, this mode of argument. "Why stay among the shadows of the heathen mysteries, when all the true and noble ideas of heathendom are to be found, glorified and transfigured, in the Christian Church?" As to the Christian Church, on the other hand, the author sought to bring into it a mode of thought which, in his judgment, would give it a profounder insight into real Christian truth, and elevate it above mere strifes of dogma, and above the bar of politico- ecclesiastical passions (comp. 1 Epist. 6, 7, 8). He certainly succeeded in planting mystic philosophy strongly in the Church, and it has never since been completely uprooted. Moreover, as the Church had already, to some extent, paganized its form of worship, and borrowed heathen forms also for its speculation, as well as for its hierarchial government, it is not to be wondered at that a book which professed to justify all these things, by the authority of one who was converted by St. Paul himself, should find willing auditors.

Literature. The best edition of the Pseudo-Dionysius is that of Balthazar Corderius (Paris, 1615, 1634, and 1644; and Venice, 1755, 2 volumes, fol.). It is given in Migne, Patrologia Graeca (volumes 3, 4), with Le Nourry's Introduction, the scholia of Maximus and Pachymeres, biographies of Dionysius by Halloix and others, and Delrio's Vindici Areopagitica. Numerous editions of some of the single writings have been issued, of which accounts may be found in Hoffmann, Bibliographisches Lexikon, 1:577 sq.; and in Fabricius, Bibliotheca Graeca, cd. Harles, 7:7 sq. Of translations, Engelhardt's (German: Sulzbach, 1823, 2 volumes) has already been cited; in French, Darboys, (Euvres de St. Denys trad. du Grec. (Paris, 1844, 8vo); and a translation by the abbe Dulac, announced in 1866, which we have not seen. An English version of the Mystical Theology is given in Everard's Gospel Treasures (Lond. 1653, sm. 8vo). See, besides the works on Dionysius already cited, Usher, Dissert. II de PseudoDionysii Scriptis, ed.Wharton, in Usher's Works (16 volumes, 8vo), 12:497; Hakewill, Dissertation on the Writings of Dion. Arep., in his Apology of Providence (3d edit. Lond. 1635, 8vo); Neander, Church History (Torrey's), 3:169, 466; Lardner, Works (Kippis's ed.), 5:72 sq.; Ritter, Geschichte d. christl. Philosophie, 2:515 sq.; Montet, Des Livres du Pseudo-Denys (Paris, 1848, 8vo); Ceillier, Hist. Generale d. auteurs eccles. (Paris, 18611865), 10:534 sq. 751, where an abstract of Darboys's plea is given; Milman, Latin Christianity, book 14, chapter 2. There is a good essay on the Dionysian writings, with a brief analysis of them, by B. F. Westcott, in the Contemporary Review, May, 1867.

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Dionysius the Areopagite'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​d/dionysius-the-areopagite.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.
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