Engaging Pseudo-Dionysius

Dionysius the AreopagiteThe Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite forms part of a treatise which belongs to a corpus of works said to have derived from Dionysus the Areopagite from Acts 17:34.[1] This writer of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy also wrote treatises on a Christian Celestial Hierarchy (dealing with realms of angels and angelic beings), the Divine Names of God, and certain aspects of Mystical Theology.[2] Throughout his various treatises, Dionysius also claims to have witnessed the eclipse of the sun in Heliopolis following the death of Christ, and to have met with Peter and James.[3] However, the writer of these theological treatises is now referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius primarily because much of the philosophy behind the writings depends on the works of Proclus, a Neo-Platonist who died in c. 485 CE.[4] Many scholars now date the writing of this treatise to the early sixth century, primarily due to the fact that the work was first appealed to at a colloquy at Constantinople in 533 CE. [5] Even at its first presentation, the authenticity of this work was doubted by Hypatius of Ephesus (6th c.); however, for many years its validity was affirmed by the church, until in the late-Middle ages and the Protestant Reformation, when the doubts of Renaissance Humanists Erasmus of Rotterdam and Lorenzo Valla surfaced and the dependence on Neo-Platonist thought of Proclus was discovered.[6]

In this third chapter of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, Pseudo-Dionysius writes concerning the synaxis, that is Communion or the Holy Eucharist. In this portion of the treatises, he walks the reader through the various stages of the Eucharistic feast, expounding and developing the reasons for various components and the mystery’s behind the bread and wine of Communion. Beginning with a discussion about the early liturgy of a service, Pseudo-Dionysius elaborates at length concerning the mystery of bread and wine, body and blood, the restrictions concerning communion that catechumens must observe, writes a section of highly theological material on the work of Christ and the Christian, and finishes the section with a closing word concerning the conclusion of the liturgical service. Perhaps the most striking features of this writing are the highly technical nature of the writing and the clear development of theological and philosophical ideas that one would expect from a sixth century Christian (and not from a first century follower of Paul). In this post, we will briefly engage Pseudo-Dionysius’ views concerning the Lord’s Supper (synaxis), deification, and the role of mystery in the Christian life.

Parthenon, Athens
Parthenon, Athens

The major topic in this entire portion of Pseudo-Dionysius’ writings concerns the Eucharist. What is the Eucharist and why it important here? There is a plethora of information available concerning the meaning and purpose of the Eucharistic fellowship within the early Christian context.  Put quite simply, Eucharist[7] (from the Greek, eucharista) translates as “giving thanks” or “thanksgiving.”[8]   Many scholars define the term communion as “participation in a collection or in a common good, e.g. the Body and Blood of Christ.”[9] In Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, we can easily see the importance and reverence paid to the Eucharist by the early Christian Church, as Dionysius writes that Christians partaking of the Eucharist are in some way participating Christian the body and blood of Christ. The first section of the third division (“Contemplation”) deals primarily with the issue of the bread and wine of Communion as symbols of the body and blood of Christ. Especially within modern understandings and attempts at defining exactly what communion is for the church, there are varying interpretations on the word “symbol” within early Christian writings concerning the Eucharist. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone argue that a belief in the Eucharist as the body and blood of Jesus Christ was “universally accepted at first, and language was commonly used which referred to the Eucharistic elements as themselves the Body and Blood.”[10] Further, even with language referencing “symbols” there was “no intention of denying the reality of the Presence in the gifts… Later, as the earlier conception of a ‘symbol’ as that which conveys and is what it represents gave way to the understanding of it being other than what it represents, the description of the bread and wine as symbols dropped out or was denied. But hardly anywhere is there any attempt at precise formulation.”[11] In viewing the importance that the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy placed upon the Divine Liturgy of communion, the elevated view of the elements as the body and blood of Christ seems to fit well. This explanation goes a long way in explaining the question of “symbol” that the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy presents the modern reader.

Another interesting aspect of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy is the role and purpose of the term “deification.” Section IV of the “Contemplation” division refers to scripture as being set forth for those who are destined for “deification”. But exactly what is meant by this term? Is Pseudo-Dionysius really writing that Christians are meant for deification in the general sense of the term—that Christians are to become deities themselves through the Christian walk? The first division—concerning things accomplished in the synaxis—addresses the issue of deification concerning the purpose of Communion, which “both collects our divided lives into uniform deification, and gives communion and union with the One…” From this passage we are given no clear answers (or at least, no clearly translatable answers for today), but the view of deification in a corporate sense, perhaps as the Church universal, can maybe be inferred. Cross and Livingstone note that throughout his various works Pseudo-Dionysius sought a union of the whole created order, in “which union is the final stage of a threefold process of purification, illumination, and perfection or union: a triad that has been vastly influential in the Christian mystical tradition.”[12] If this is indeed the general aim of Pseudo-Dionysius, then the call for deification can tentatively be viewed with relation to communion’s role in the purification of the believer for the purpose of an eventual mystical reunion with the created order in Christ.

Pseudo-DionysiusWithin the highly theological language of the text, numerous questions arise concerning not only the importance and functionality of the Eucharist, but also the role of “mystery” within the context of Communion as well. The mystery of the incarnation, the mystery of the resurrection, the mystery of the Eucharist—these factors all seem to play a role in the “mystery tradition” of the church that Pseudo-Dionysius plays a large role in. Section II of the third division of Ecclesiastical Hierarchy seems to be an appeal to mystery—that we cannot fully understand or explain the ways of God and exactly how the body and blood of Christ are present and real within the bread and wine. But even given this caveat, Pseudo-Dionysius continues on with his theological explanations of the Eucharist for pages afterwards.

In sum, the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius takes us into the mind of a Christian philosopher-theologian, who expounds his view of the Eucharist, the Bread and Wine as Body and Blood, and the importance of the mystery of Christ within the communion of believers. The highly theological language and philosophical foundations of this text are perhaps a bit confusing for one not familiar with neo-Platonic thought of the early Christian era, but the writing reflects a growing systemization of theology with regard to the mysteries of the Christian tradition. Pseudo-Dionysius’ writings were an important source for Christian theological reflection in the Middle Ages, and his thought continues to foster theological reflection today, making him (whoever he really was) a true “Father” of the Church.



[1] Young, Ayres, and Louth. Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 178. [2] Cross and Livingston. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 488. [3] Young, Ayres, and Louth, 178. [4] Ibid., 178. [5] Cross and Livingston,  488. [6] Young, Ayres, and Louth, 178-179. [7] Or communion; these terms will be used interchangeably as a reference to the same participation in the elements as a part of early Christian worship and devotion. [8] Fahlbusch, Bromiley, and Barrett. Encyclopedia of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999. 395. [9] Angelo Di Beradino. Encyclopedia of the Early Church. Trans. Adrian Wolford. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. 188. [10] Cross and Livingston, 188. [11] Ibid., 570. [12] Ibid., 488. A version of this essay was originally written for a course at Valparaiso University.

Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Christ-Follower. Married to Hayley. Father of Bree. PhD student in Historical Theology at Saint Louis University (19). Love Reading, Thinking, and Blogging.

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