Monday, March 31, 2008

The Areopagite in 20th Century Orthodoxy, I

On Wednesday, March 10, 1982, Fr Alexander Schmemann made the following entry into his diary:
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.


Nohuma S. said...

Muy interesante, me gustó mucho tu forma de escribir.

Esteban Vázquez said...

I'm very much looking forward to reading (and interacting with) your thoughts on this subject, so vexing for many, and so frequently encountered in the literature.

Here I would only like to contribute an anecdote about Father John Meyendorff recounted to me by one of his last students, a priest in the Russian Church. It once happened that, during one of Father John's classes at St Vlad's, a young, zealous student raised his hand to express (rather at length) his dismay at Father's wholly negative assessment, and consequent rejection, of the writings of St Dionysius the Areopagite. Father John listened patiently as the young zealot ranted and raved, and once the fellow had spoken his piece, he said: "I wrote that when I was a very young man, and as we know, young men are quite hot-headed." Of course, the comment went clear over the head of the young zealot, much to the amusement of all. (Whoosh!)

Anyway, this story makes me wonder what Father John might have further written about this matter if he had lived longer. It is known that he was planning a second edition of Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (along with at least six other books, it is said, that sadly died with him). Perhaps having left far behind his inner "hot-headed young man," he might have given us, at last, a fairer assessment of the role of the teaching of St Dionysius.

PseudoThomas said...

I just started reading this blog a couple of weeks ago, having found it through Ochlophobist's blog. That said, I was surprised to find the pastor of my church quoted (Fr. Paul Wesche).

I would be curious to know when Fr. Paul wrote the article you've quoted as it's my wager that he was also a 'young man' at that time (and very much a protege of Fr. Meyendorff's - he was Fr. Paul's doctoral advisor).

Regardless, I can assure you that Fr. Paul's constant counsel to our parish is to be obedient to the Church; by extension we ought to regard St. Dionysios' writings as Orthodox (he is 'St.' Dionysios after all).

About a year ago I had the opportunity to sit in on one of Fr. John Behr's patristics courses at St. Vlad's; the notes I took would seem to contradict Fr. Paul's questioning of St. Dionysios' Orthodoxy re: the hierarchy. I believe I'll save that for later posts or use my own blog space (reasonformadness dot wordpress dot com). I look forward to more, thanks!


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Why, oh why, does the "To be continued" always come just when one is most interested?!

I look forward to the rest. For my part, I'm mystified as to how anyone could have cast aspersions on the Orthodoxy of the Areopagitica. It'll be interesting to see the rationale behind it, even if it is, as Esteban and pseudothomas describe, not what the authors would say today.

Felix Culpa said...


Your wonderful anecdote about Fr John confirms everything I've heard about him from his former students; he was indeed a scholar-gentleman of the sort one rarely encounters today.

I wonder, though, if the exchange in question concerned "A Study of Gregory Palamas" rather than "Christ is Eastern Christian Thought," given that the former was published in French in 1960, when he was still quite young (it was an outgrowth of his doctoral thesis, if I recall correctly), while the latter was published in 1975, when he was already a seasoned scholar. As I'll demonstrate in my next installment, his idea of "Christological correctives" goes back to his youthful work on Palamas.

PseudoThomas: I don't have Fr Paul's article in front of me, but you can compare the volume number of SVTQ in note (4) with the current volume number. The article is at least a few decades old. I'm quite willing to be charitable with Fr Paul, since I suppose he was largely expanding the thoughts of Fr Meyendorff.

My own reading of St Dionysius is due in large part to Fr John Behr, as will become apparent.

Thanks for the link to your blog; I look forward to visiting it.


I can think of at least three reasons why Fr John Meyendorff cast such aspersions on the Orthodoxy of the Areopagitica:

(1) I asked one of Fr John's students, now a professor at SVS, how it is that Fr John could have simultaneously endorsed St Gregory Palamas and rejected the Areopagite. He replied that, while he couldn't give a fully satisfactory answer, that Fr John (alone with Fr Alexander Schmemann) were deeply suspicious of anything they regarded as "mystical." (Perhaps a more precise way of putting this was that they were opposed to the mystification of theology).

(2) Reigning scholarly opinion (particularly among German Lutheran scholastics) during Fr John's time was virulently anti-Dionysian.

(3) Fr John felt that the Areopagite undermined the "Incarnational" theology that he regarded as central to Orthodox theology. Hence his "correctives."

Felix Culpa said...


Fr Paul Wesche's article came out in 1989 or 1990.

Esteban Vázquez said...

Yes, Father, I'm quite certain that Father John was referring to his anti-Dionysian polemic in A Study of Gregory Palamas. I only mention Christ in Eastern Christian Thought because, again, it is know that he was planning a new edition of it; that could have been the place where we would have gotten a glimpse at the "mature Meyendorff" on St Dionysius.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for an excellent post which very clearly sets out the problem. I too have more than a passing interest in St Denys and will look forward to what conclusion you come.