Yesterday I read the Church Hierarchy of Psuedo-Dionysius the Areopagite. What can it mean in our contemporary world? What could it have meant in a world where it was written? What does the success of this corpus mean in Byzantium? If one would apply the Gospel's basic principle, "for the tree is known by its fruit" (Matthew 12:33), to the history of the Church, one would see that what happened was the reduction of the Church to a mysterious piety, the dying of its eschatological essence and mission, and, finally, the de-Christianization of this world and its secularization. But, it seems that there is an impulse precisely to return to this very legacy. (1)This is a very harsh judgment, yet one that is by no means unrepresentative of Dionysius' reception by Orthodox scholars in the twentieth century. The goal of this essay is to analyze the basis for such a reading of the Dionysian corpus. I will attempt to realize this goal by analyzing the work of one of Dionysius' harshest critic's, Fr John Meyendorff, and then reviewing the work of two other Orthodox scholars who have responded to him, the late Fr John Romanides and Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin). Following a summary consideration of the conversation among these three outstanding scholars, I will offer my own critique of the work of each and conclude with a consideration of the nature of patristic scholarship within the contemporary Orthodox Church and Dionysius' place within it.
Before turning to a review of the works of Meyendorff, Romanides, and Golitizin on Dionysius, I should explain what I mean by the term "problematization" and how this applies to the Corpus Dionysiacum. I submit that at least until modern times the works of St Dionysius the Areopagite – whatever the historical identity of the author – enjoyed full reception within the Orthodox Church. The Dionysian corpus was accepted largely uncritically by Fathers of such unquestionable Orthodoxy as St Maximus the Confessor, St John of Damascus, St Photius the Great, St Germanus of Constantinople, St Gregory Palamas, and St Symeon of Thessaloniki (though, as we shall see, Meyendorff argues that some applied "correctives" to his theology). His scheme of the angelic hierarchies has become, largely thanks to their use by St John of Damascus, standard Orthodox doctrine. St Dionysius the Areopagite has an annual liturgical commemoration in the Orthodox calendar. (2) In the early and middle half of the twentieth century the two most outstanding theologians of the Russian diaspora, Vladimir Lossky and Fr Georges Florovsky, both endorsed the Orthodoxy of the Dionysian corpus. (3)
This traditional reading, however, has been sharply challenged in the Orthodox world by Fr John Meyendorff and those who have followed his reading. Meyendorff's Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, with its highly negative assessment of Dionysius, has found a wide readership and is considered an authoritative treatment of Eastern Christology. Fr Kenneth Paul Wesche, for instance, refers directly to Meyendorff's work when stating that "the center of Dionysius' 'theoria' is not the christological confession of the Church, but 'gnosis' " (4) and, later, that "gnosis, which is the content of salvation and communion, is mediated by Christ through the hierarchies so that the hierarchies stand between God and the individual." (5) Wesche goes so far as to write that 'Dionysius' vision finally renders superfluous the Incarnation of Christ. Most certainly, the necessity of the Cross becomes difficult to explain. If gnosis is the chief function and goal of the Church, then why must Jesus become fully man and die on the Cross?" (6) If this were indeed the case, not only the Orthodoxy but the very Christianity of Dionysius would be up for question.
With such criticism in mind, the average educated reader will approach the Dionysian corpus with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Why the pseudonym? Who was the author, really? Was he a Christian impersonating a Neo-Platonist or a Neo-Platonist impersonating a Christian? Was he a Chalcedonian or a non-Chalcedonian? Is he in fact responsible for magical clericalism, rigid hierarchalism, and ultimately the de-Christianization of the world? This problem becomes even more acute with an exposure to the strangeness of the Dionysian writings themselves, which come from a theological landscape vastly different from our own. Approaching the texts with such problems in mind naturally results in a reading quite different from that of previous generations, who accepted the Corpus Dionysiacum as an integral element of the patristic corpus. In short, the works of Dionysius have been "problematized," and it is the intention of this essay to explore why and how this is.
To be continued...
(1) The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 1973-1983 (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2000), 316-317.
(2) The Church's hymnody for this feast clearly equates the first-century Hieromartyr Dionysius of Athens with the author of the Corpus Dionysiacum. Even if we separate the two for historical reasons, the liturgical "canonization" of the author of the corpus remains.
(3) In The Vision of God, tr. Asheleigh Moorhouse (Bedfordshire, 1963), Lossky writes (incorrectly, as it turns out) that the "orthodoxy of the Areopagite writings will never be questioned" (p. 99). Lossky characterizes Dionysius as "a Christian thinker disguised as a neo-Platonist, a theologian very much aware of his task, which was to conquer the ground held by neo-Platonism by becoming a master of its philosophical method" (pp. 99-100). Florovsky is somewhat more reserved, characterizing Dionysius as "not so much a theologian as a contemplative observer and a liturgist" in The Byzantine Ascetic and Spiritual Fathers (Belmont, MA, 1974), 210).
(4) "Christological Doctrine and Liturgical Interpretation in Pseudo-Dionysius," St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Quarterly, 33:1, p. 54.
(5) Ibid., 64
(6) Ibid., 63-4.