St. Dionysius the Areopagite, Neoplatonism & Patristic Testimony

By: Jay Dyer

A commonly encountered pseudo-intellectual critique of Orthodox Theology, and ancient Christianity in general, is the accusation of the entire metaphysical superstructure being built on ‘pseudo’-Dionysius, the early church father.  Often leveled from the academic realm relying on now century-old higher critical arguments that are laughably no longer in vogue, the accusation persists as hacks and know-nothings busily rehash and recycle.  Even amongst the fraudulent higher critics who intentionally sought to undermine all possibility of Christianity the assessment has fallen out of favor for a reason, yet this is lost on newcomers to the topic.

Patristics, biblical theology, liturgics and the first millennia of Theology are no simple matter and take many years to fully imbibe.  Newcomers would be wise to proceed with a calm, cool demeanor and not be easily swayed by seemingly academic diatribes and jargon.  A reader recently sent me a lecture by an academic on just this issue, and in this response we will see how blanket claims in these matters are not only foolish, but in every case betray the ignorance of those who fancy themselves clever.  In this talk, we are presented with some of the common claims for Neoplatonism over against Christianity and how much of the case supposedly hangs on the historicity of the works of St. Dionysius the Areopagite.

First, as Orthodox we hold the traditional view that Dionysius was St Dionysius.  There are many reasons for this, but some of the more obvious are that his metaphysics was not primarily a mish-mash of various strands of Neoplatonism.  If one becomes familiar with biblical theology and in particular, the Law and the Prophets (which almost all secular scholars are ignorant of – and many Orthodox and Catholic “academics”), Hebrew angelology as found in the teaching of Daniel on the Watchers (Dan. 7,9, 12), Ezekiel on Cherubim (Ez. 10, 28), and the Seraphim in Isaiah (Is. 6), one begins to see remarkable continuity with Orthodox theology as found in St. Dionysius.  Further, these texts obviously have nothing to do with Plato, Plotinus or Porphyry.  Indeed, while there are at times many terminological and conceptual overlaps, the grounding for Dionysius is principally biblical.

Second, there are numerous, vast other sources for similar theology St. Dionysius expounds almost contemporary or early into the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries that line up perfectly with many or all of the ideas in Dionysius.  For example, (and liberal scholars are often foolishly ignorant of this topic) the early liturgies are a powerful witness to the hierarchies and choirs of Angels and their relation to the higher realms, as we believe they participate with us in the celebrations.   The liturgies we use today all descend in present form from those early centuries.  If one peruses the Liturgy of St Mark., the Liturgy of St. Basil, or the ancient Roman Rite, you will find all the same concepts, which have absolutely nothing to do with Plotinus.  We read in the Ancient Liturgy of St. Mark:

St. Dionysius

“For You are far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but in that which is to come. Round You stand ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands of holy angels and hosts of archangels; and Your two most honoured creatures, the many-eyed cherubim and the six-winged seraphim. With two they cover their faces, and with two they cover their feet, and with two they fly; and they cry one to another for ever with the voice of praise, and glorify You, O Lord, singing aloud the triumphal and thrice-holy hymn to Your great glory:—

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are full of Your glory.”

In the Ancient Liturgy of St. Basil, we sing the cherubic hymn – nothing to do with Celsus or Plato:

“No one bound by worldly desires and pleasures is worthy to approach, draw near or minister to You, the King of glory. To serve You is great and awesome even for the heavenly powers. But because of Your ineffable and immeasurable love for us, You became man without alteration or change. You have served as our High Priest, and as Lord of all, and have entrusted to us the celebration of this liturgical sacrifice without the shedding of blood. For You alone, Lord our God, rule over all things in heaven and on earth. You are seated on the throne of the Cherubim, the Lord of the Seraphim and the King of Israel. You alone are holy and dwell among Your saints. You alone are good and ready to hear. Therefore, I implore you, look upon me, Your sinful and unworthy servant, and cleanse my soul and heart from evil consciousness. Enable me by the power of Your Holy Spirit so that, vested with the grace of priesthood, I may stand before Your holy Table and celebrate the mystery of Your holy and pure Body and Your precious Blood. To you I come with bowed head and pray: do not turn Your face away from me or reject me from among Your children, but make me, Your sinful and unworthy servant, worthy to offer to You these gifts. For You, Christ our God, are the Offerer and the Offered, the One who receives and is distributed, and to You we give glory, together with Your eternal Father and Your holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

Priest: We who mystically represent the Cherubim sing the thrice holy hymn to the life; giving Trinity. Let us set aside all the cares of life that we may receive the King of all…”

The same truth is also evident in the Byzantine Liturgy’s Great Entrance prayer, where the Lord is escorted by the angelic powers. In the traditional Latin Mass, the same truth is taught in the Incensing of the Offering, where the faithful pray “Through the intercession of blessed St. Michael the Archangel who stands at the right hand of the altar of incense…” and later in the Sanctus, which corresponds to the Eastern Trisagion, where the believer says:

It is truly meet and just, right and availing unto salvation, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks unto Thee, O holy Lord, Father almighty and everlasting God, through Christ our Lord. Through whom the angels praise thy majesty, the dominions worship it, the powers stand in awe. The heavens, and the heavenly hosts and the blessed seraphim join together in celebrating their joy. With whom we pray Thee join our voices also, while we say with lowly praise, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory. Hosanna in the highest…” (New Saint Andrew Missal, pg. 969-70)

Thus, even if by chance the works of Dionysius were somehow proven to be a much later corpus, it wouldn’t matter, as all the same doctrines are also found in the many many fathers who predate the 6th century, and much of their work was busy with combatting Platonists.  Those voluminous texts which are undisputed in being dated far prior to 6th century (the supposed date of ‘Pseudo-Dionysius’) all the way back to St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Clement of Rome, St. Justin, or St. Irenaeus are all within the first two centuries and exhibit similar theology.

One cannot read the heavy writings of St. Gregory Nyssa, St Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzus, St. Ambrose, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Hilary, St Athanasius and even the heretic Origen (180 AD) without seeing a vivid demonstration of a tremendous parallel of information on a fairly unified metaphysic and angelology.  For those who doubt or are unaware, there is simply no replacement for a good 13 or 14 years in these writings.  And when I say that, I mean the source material, not the infinite secondary academic sources so commonly relied upon by blowhard “scholars.”

Third, this lecturer assumes the Roman Catholic approach where its normative to  follow one dude – a pope or an Augustine or an Aquinas, as if that was the totality of what one needs as a source.   This is the typical model of the West as a whole. Orthodoxy is synodical and ecumenical in the sense of conciliarism.  In that regard, this academic’s talk is all the more of a blunder, given his claim Christianity “created Dionysius” late in the game as a secret, conspiratorial Neoplatonic thieving exercise.  Alongside the fathers and liturgies there are also all the many decrees and canons of both the local and Ecumenical Councils of the first 8 centuries. Their theology also corroborates the liturgical theology and angelology of St. Dionysius, even if a late date were admitted.

Angelic hierarchies taught in icons.

Lastly, as Michael Hoffman argues in his new book (which is just as flawed), Lorenzo Valla, who first argued against the authenticity of St. Dionysius, was no neutral scholar engaged in noble pursuit of truth, but rather a devotee of humanism.  Valla was intent on showing scholastic Aristotelian metaphysics were incompatible with language – a humanist forerunner to future nominalists.  With a stated agenda, along with a crop of other Renaissance Cabalists, magicians, Neoplatonists, Medicis and Borgias, the goal was the reintroduction of various forms of Platonism already condemned in the Synodikon of Orthodoxy (read every Sunday of Orthodoxy).  Precisely because the Latin-papal approach clung to citing one dude as a final authority the norm, it’s clear how Valla could undermine all of Latin Christianity, namely, by ruining one of Aquinas’ key sources in some thousand plus citations in the Summa, those of  St. Dionysius (making one of Hoffman’s chief arguments impossible – thus no mention in his book).

Regardless, one who actually spends a decade plus on this issue learns the main opponent the first millennia Church faced was Neoplatonism and Hellenism.  A prolonged study of the presuppositions of Origenism up to Arius and Nestorius and beyond, centers on dialectical oppositions, tensions and a strict philosophic simplicity for the divine nature that is absolute.  From this flows the heresies of collapsing nature into person, God into world (or dividing God from world), will as a source of divine Spiration (filioquism), or a hundred other variants that all deviate from the Christological norm. This is precisely why the first 7/8 councils hammer out Christology and Triadology, harassed by their main opponents all working from the Neoplatonic assumptions.  A mild familiarity with the fathers mentioned evidences that.

See also: On the Proper Use of Philosophy in Theology 

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