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By W. J. Sparrow-Simpson

THE significance of the teaching of Dionysius cannot be appreciated aright without tracing to some extent his influence on subsequent religious thought.

Four works of the Areopagite survive. They are: Concerning the Heavenly Hierarchy; Concerning the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy; Concerning the Divine Names; and, Concerning Mystical Theology.

Commentaries upon them began to be written at an early date. The first great propagator of Dionysian theories was the very able monk and confessor Maximus. Maximus, who died in the year 662, wrote notes on all four treatises. These still survive, and may be found in the collected edition of the works of the Areopagite. Maximus is remarkably clear and acute, and contributed not a little to extend his Master’s reputation. He was gifted with a simplicity of style which the Areopagite by no means shared, and expounded with great clearness the difficult passages of Dionysius. And certainly the reader will not deny that those passages are by no means few.

Already, before Maximus’s labours, the teaching of the Areopagite was known in the West, and was appealed to by Pope Martin the First in the Lateran 203Council of 649. Martin complained that the doctrine of the Areopagite was being misrepresented. Dionysius was being credited with ascribing to Christ one divino-human activity (una operatio deivirilis), whereas what Dionysius had written was a new divino-human activity (καινὴ θεανδρικὴ ἐνέργεια, nova operatio deivirilis).543543See Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, Bd. III. 196. Apart from the theological controversy implied in the respective phrases, it is remarkable to find what authority is already ascribed to its teaching.

But it is really quite impossible to appreciate the historic place of Dionysius without a study of John Scotus Erigena. It was Erigena who in reality popularized Dionysius for Latin Christendom. The Greek writings of the Areopagite had been sent to the Gallican Church by Pope Paul in 757, and remained for nearly a century unread in the Abbey of St. Denis. Then Erigena, at the request of Charles the Bald, undertook to translate them into Latin. This he accomplished for all the four principal works.

But Erigena did vastly more than merely act as translator. He incorporated the principles of the Areopagite in his celebrated treatise De Divisione Naturæ, in which his own speculative system is contained, and which may be said to be as representative of his mind as the De Principiis is for Origen or the Summa for St. Thomas.

Erigena bases his whole conception of Deity on the teaching of Dionysius. The treatise is thrown into the form of a discussion between the Master and a Disciple. It is an attempt to reconcile Theology with Philosophy After the Master has insisted on the ineffable and incomprehensible nature of the Divine essence, the Disciple inquires how this proposition is to be reconciled with the teaching of the 204Theologians on the Unity and Trinity of God. The incomprehensibility of the First Cause appears self-evident. And if Deity is incomprehensible, definition is impossible. For that which cannot be understood certainly cannot be defined. We can only say that God is; but what He is we are unable to affirm. But if this is so, why have the Theologians ventured to predicate Unity and Trinity as characteristics of the ultimate reality?

To the Disciple’s criticism the Master replies by appealing to the teaching of the Areopagite. Did not the Areopagite affirm that no words, no names, no expression whatever, can express the supreme and causal essence of all things? That authority is quoted as decisive.

Neither the Unity nor the Trinity in God is such that the clearest human intellect is able to conceive it. Why, then, have the Theologians taught these doctrines?

Erigena’s answer is: In order to provide religious people with some definite object for contemplation and instruction.

For this purpose the faithful are bidden to believe in their heart and confess with their lips that God is good, and that He exists in one Divine essence and three persons.

And this teaching of the Theologians is, in the Master’s opinion, not without philosophical justification.

For contemplating the ineffable cause of all things, the Theologians speak of the Unity.

Then again, contemplating this Divine Unity as extended into multiplicity, they affirm the Trinity. And the Trinity is the unbegotten, the begotten, and the proceeding.

The Master goes on to explain the distinction between affirmative and negative theology. Negative 205theology denies that certain things can be predicated of Deity. Affirmative theology asserts propositions which can be predicated. This again is altogether based on the teaching of Dionysius.

Here the Disciple desires to be informed why it is that the Areopagite considers such predicates as goodness, truth, justice, wisdom, which appear to be not only Divine but the divinest of attributes, as merely figuratively transferred from man to Deity.

The Master replies that no characteristics applicable to the finite and limited can be strictly applicable to the infinite and eternal.

Thus, according to Erigena, following closely on the principles of the Areopagite, although goodness is predicated of Deity, yet strictly speaking He is not goodness, but plus quam bonitas or super bonus. Similarly, Deity is not Truth, but plus quam Veritas, and super eternitas, and plus quam Sapiens.

Hence affirmation and negation are alike permissible in reference to Deity.

If you affirm that Deity is super-essential, what is it precisely that is meant by the use of “super”? You do not in reality affirm what God is, but simply that He is more than those things which exist. But where the difference consists you do not define.

But the reason why Erigena asserts the strict inapplicability of the term essential to Deity is, that he interprets the term in a way which involves spacial relations. Essence in all things that exist is local and temporal. But Deity is neither.

Deity as Erigena contemplates it is simply the Infinite and the Absolute; and of that, nothing whatever can be strictly predicated beyond the fact that it is. The Cause of all things can only be known to exist, but by no inference from the creature can we understand what it is.

Since, then, Erigena has postulated the philosophic 206Absolute, the immutable, impassible First Cause, as the Deity, he is compelled to go on to deny that Deity can be subject to affection or capable of love.

This conclusion the Disciple confesses to be profoundly startling. It appears to contradict the whole authority both of the Scriptures and of the Fathers. At the same time it is all logical enough, granting the First Cause to be incapable of action or passion, which seems to involve the Immutable in change: a contradiction of the very idea of Deity. It is all logical enough. But what about the Scriptures, which teach the contrary? And what of the simple believers, who will be horrified if they hear such propositions?

The Master assures the Disciple that there is no need to be alarmed. For he is now employing the method of speculative reason, not the method of authority. He agrees with Dionysius, for Dionysius had said as much, that the authority of the Scripture is in all things to be submitted to. But Scripture does not give us terms adequate to the representation of Deity. It furnishes us with certain symbols and signs, by condescension to our infirmities. Dionysius is again appealed to in confirmation of this.

It is curious to notice how, while professedly engaged in the method of speculative inquiry, Erigena falls back on the authority of Dionysius: a very significant proof of the value which he ascribed to the Areopagite.

So, then, at last the conclusion is reached that, strictly speaking, nothing whatever can be predicated concerning Deity, seeing that He surpasses all understanding, and is more truly known by our nescience, ignorance concerning Him being the truest wisdom, and our negations more correct than our affirmations. For whatever you deny concerning Him you deny 207correctly, whereas the same cannot be said of what you may affirm.

Nevertheless; subject to this premise of acknowledged inadequacy, qualities may be rightly ascribed to Deity by way of symbolical representation.

Hence, it is correct to maintain that true authority does not contradict right reason, nor right reason true authority. Both spring from one source, and that one source is Divine.

Thus by a metaphor God may be described as Love, although, as a matter of fact, He transcends it.

It has been a matter of frequent dispute whether the system of Erigena is fundamentally Christian or Pantheistic. In the. careful study of Erigena by Theodor Christlieb it is maintained that, while sentences may be quoted on either side, and the author vacillates, now towards Theism, now in a Pantheistic direction, his attempted reconciliation of Theology with Philosophy ends in the supremacy of the latter, and in the abolition of the essential characteristics of the Christian Revelation.

That the Deity cannot be comprehended by human intelligence is a commonplace of all the great early theologians of the Church. It can be richly illustrated from the theological orations of St. Gregory Nazianzen, or the writings of St. Augustine and St. Hilary upon the Holy Trinity. But then these theologians also maintained with equal conviction that God could be apprehended by man. For this balancing consideration Erigena finds no place. God is for Erigena that of which no distinctive quality can be predicated. God is in effect the Absolute.

But then what becomes of God’s self-consciousness? In Christlieb’s opinion Erigena’s conception of the Deity precludes any firm hold on the Divine self-consciousness. Self-consciousness involves a whole content of ideas, a world of thought, which contradicts 208the absolute self-identity ascribed by Erigena to the Deity.

In his anxiety to explain the transcendent excellence of Deity, the superlative exaltation above the contingent and the mutable, Erigena seems in the opinion of his critics to have over-reached the truth and reduced the Deity to an abstraction in which perfection and nothingness are identified.

Erigena’s conclusion raises in reality the all important problem so constantly debated in modern thought, whether the Absolute is the proper conception of Deity, and whether the God of religion and of fact is not rather spirit, self-consciousness, and perfect personality. The teaching of Dionysius in the exposition of Erigena became scarcely distinguishable from Pantheism.

Christlieb finds a similar unsatisfactoriness in Erigena’s theory of the Trinity.

It will be remembered that, after maintaining as his fundamental position that Deity cannot be defined because it cannot be comprehended, and that nothing whatever can be affirmed concerning it beyond the fact of its being, Erigena went on to justify the theologians of the Church in affirming the Unity and the Trinity. But the grounds on which Erigena justified the authorities of the Church are significant. He did not justify the doctrine on the ground that it was a truth revealed, or because it was an inference demanded of the fact and claim of Christ. It is remarkable how obscure a place Christ occupies in Erigena’s conception of Deity. The ground on which Erigena would justify the doctrine is that Unity and Multiplicity may fairly be ascribed to the First Cause of all things, because Deity can be regarded in its simplicity as one and then regarded as extended into multiplicity.

But it is impossible to avoid the criticism that this 209ascription of Unity and Multiplicity to Deity is not the same thing as the doctrine of the Trinity. Nor is it obvious why Trinity should be substituted for Multiplicity. Moreover, this Multiplicity exists subjectively in the human mind rather than in the being of Deity: since it is expressly forbidden by the author’s fundamental principle to say anything whatever concerning Deity beyond the fact that it exists. And further still, on the author’s principles neither Unity nor Multiplicity can be strictly ascribed to Deity. Both must be merged in something else which is neither the one nor yet the other, and which escapes all possible definition.

It is scarcely wonderful, therefore, that Christlieb should conclude that on Erigena’s principles the doctrine of the Trinity is not really tenable. Erigena certainly endeavours to approximate to the Church’s Tradition, and to give it an intellectual justification. But in spite of these endeavours he is unable to maintain any real distinctions in his Trinity. They have no actual substantial existence whatever. They are mere names and not realities. There may be appearances. But in its essential being, according to Erigena, Deity is neither unity nor trinity, but an incomprehensible somewhat which transcends them both. For Erigena both the Unitarian and the Trinitarian representations of God are alike products of subjective human reflection. They are neither of them objected realities. If you rest on either of them you are according, to Erigena, mistaken. For God is more than Unity and more than Trinity.

Looking back on the whole course of Erigena’s exposition of Dionysian principles, we see that the Areopagite had identified God with the Absolute. Dean Inge says that “Dionysius the Areopagite describes God the Father as ’superessential indetermination,’ ‘the unity which unifies every unity,’ ‘the 210absolute no-thing which is above all reality.’ ‘No moral or trial,’ he exclaims in a queer ebullition of jargon, ‘can express the all-transcending hiddenness of the all-transcending superessentially superexisting super-Deity.’”544544Cf. Inge, The Philosophy of Plotinus, II. 112. And Erigena did not hesitate to deny Being to Deity. Being, in his opinion, is a defect. The things that are not, are far better than the things that are. God, therefore, in virtue of His excellence, is not undeservedly described as Nihil—nothingness.

Two conceptions of Deity emerge in this exposition. One is, that the Deity is identical with the Absolute. It is beyond personality, beyond goodness, beyond consciousness, beyond existence itself. Nothing whatever can be predicated concerning it. Being is identical with nothingness. It is above the category of relation. This is the philosophic conception.

The other conception is that Deity possesses the attributes of self-conscious personality. This is the religious conception.

In the exposition of Erigena the philosophic conception is affirmed to be the true, while the religious conception is regarded as the creation of the theologians for the purpose of explanation and of faith.

From this distinction certain things seem clear. It seems clear that the philosophic conception of Deity as identical with the Absolute, cannot satisfy the requirements of religion, and that Deity cannot become an object of adoration unless it is invested with the attributes of personality. That of which nothing can be predicated cannot become the object of our worship.

But at the same time if the religious conception of Deity as self-conscious and personal is offered to our contemplation with the express proviso that it does not represent what God really is, the proviso paralyses 211the wings of our aspiration and renders Deity impossible as an object of prayer.545545Cf. Inge, The Philosophy of Plotinus, II. 115.

Erigena was by no means a persona grata to the Church of his age. He was a metaphysician, without the mystical tendencies of Dionysius, and while he expounded the Areopagite’s ideas roused suspicion and resentment by the boldness of his conclusions. At the same time his translations of Dionysius made the Greek Master’s principles familiar to the Latin world.

In the Eastern Church the Areopagite’s influence is clearly present in the great Greek Theologian, St. John of Damascus. When speaking of the inadequacy of human expressions to represent the reality of God John Damascene appeals to Dionysius.546546De Fide Orthodoxa, Bk. I. ch. xii. And the whole of his teaching on the Divine incomprehensibility is clearly due to the influence of the Areopagite. When we read that an inferior nature cannot comprehend its superior, or when we find the distinction drawn between negative theology and affirmative, between that which declares what God is not and that which declares what He is; and that the former presents the Divine superiority to all created things; when further still we read of the super-essential essence, and the super-divine Deity: we see in a moment the influence of Dionysian conceptions. Nevertheless St. John Damascene is anything rather than a blind adherent of Areopagite teaching. On the contrary it is profoundly, true as Vacherot547547Vacherot’s Histoire Critique de l’École d’Alexandrie, III. 40, 1851. has said, that he follows Dionysius with discrimination: or rather, perhaps, that he supplements the Doctrine of the Divine incomprehensibility by very definite teaching on the reality of the distinctions within the 212Deity and on the reality of the personal Incarnation of the eternal Son of God in Mary’s Son. That is to say, that while the Philosopher appears in the Areopagite to eclipse the Theologian, the Theologian in St. John Damascene controls the Philosopher. The careful, discriminate use of Dionysius by the great Greek Schoolman is most remarkable. He assimilated the true elements while rejecting the questionable or exaggerated.

Returning once more to the Church of the West, the influence of Dionysius is seen extending, through Erigena’s translations, into the Monastic studies. The theologian Hugh, of the Abbey of St. Victor at Paris, wrote in ten books a Commentary on the Heavenly Hierarchy of the Areopagite, full of enthusiastic appreciation of the great mystic’s teaching.

Far more important than this is the influence exerted by Dionysius over the mind of St. Thomas. It is not only that St. Thomas wrote a Commentary on the Divine Names,548548See Parma edition of St. Thomas, Tom. 1V. Opusculum vii. pp. 259–405. but in the works of Aquinas his ideas are constantly reappearing. He is one of St. Thomas’s favourite authorities. As one becomes increasingly more familiar with the greatest of all the scholastic theologians this ascendancy of the Greek mystic becomes more and more impressive. But it is almost needless to say that Aquinas treats the Areopagite critically. St. Thomas is profoundly averse from everything which resembles a Pantheistic tendency. His teaching alike on the Trinity and on the Incarnation belongs to another realm of thought from that of the neo-Platonist.

At a later period misgivings arose in the Church whether the theology of the Areopagite was, in fact, altogether above suspicion. So long as his traditional identification with the disciple of St. Paul was maintained, 213and he was credited with being, by apostolic appointment, first Bishop of Athens, these distinctions made suspicion of his orthodoxy seem irreverent and incredible. But when the identification was questioned by the historical critics of the seventeenth century, and the tradition completely dispelled, then the term Pseudo-Dionysius began to be heard and to prevail, and criticism upon its orthodoxy arose in the learned schools in France.

Le Quien, in a dissertation prefixed to the works of St. John Damascene, propounds the formidable inquiry: Num Pseudo-Dionysius hæreticus fuerit.549549Migne, Patrol. Græc., Tom. XCIV. i. 281. Le Quien is convinced that Dionysius employs language which confuses the Divine and the Human in our Lord; fails to distinguish accurately between person and nature; and betrays unquestionable monophysite tendencies.

On the other hand, Bernard de Rubeis, in his Dissertation,550550See also the Parma edition of St. Thomas, Tom. XV. 430 ff., where this Dissertation is printed. says that Le Quien fails to do justice to the author’s meaning; and that Aquinas understood the author better, and thought him orthodox.

The University of Paris defended the Areopagite. The University of Louvain agreed. The Jesuits eagerly advocated his orthodoxy. Lessius, the celebrated author of the Treatise on the Divine Perfections, corresponding with another Jesuit, Father Lanssel, declared that he had read the Areopagite frequently, and had carefully studied all his writings. For thirty-six years Dionysius had been his chosen patron, always remembered by him in the Sacrifice of the Mass, with a prayer to be permitted to share the Areopagite’s wisdom and spirit.551551Migne, Patrol. Græc., Tom. IV. 1002. What disturbed Lessius was that the Areopagite had not been better 214translated. Inadequate terms had been put in the Latin rendering which might easily lead the reader into error. For many instances of this might be produced. Father Lanssel, however, is compelled to admit quite frankly that the Areopagite’s writings contain difficulties which cannot be laid to the charge of his translators. St. Thomas himself had said as much.

That Master of the Schoolmen, that theologiæ apex, who solved the hardest problems in theology more easily than Alexander cut the Gordian knot, did not hesitate to say that Dionysius habitually suffered from obscurity of style. This obscurity was not due to lack of skill, but to the deliberate design of concealing truth from the ridicule of the profane. It was also due to his use of platonic expressions which are .unfamiliar to the modern mind. Sometimes the Areopagite is, in the opinion of St. Thomas, too concise, wrapping too much meaning into a solitary word. Sometimes, again, he errs, the opposite way, by the over-profuseness of his utterances. Nevertheless, this profuseness is not really superfluous, for those who completely scrutinize it become aware of its solidity and its depth. The fact is, adds Father Lanssel, as Isaac Casaubon asserted, the Aeropagite invents new words, and unusual unheard-of and startling expressions. The Confessor Maximus admitted that his Master obscures the meaning of the superabundance of his phraseology.

When we come to the nineteenth century we find the Treatises of the Areopagite criticized, not only, or chiefly, for their form and style, but also for their fundamental principles.

The System of the Areopagite was subjected to a very searching critical analysis by Ferdinand Christian Baur. (Christliche Lehre von der Dreieinigkeit and Menschwerdung Gottes, 1842; Bd. II. 207–251.)


According to Dionysius, as understood by Baur, God is the absolute Unity which stands contrasted with the Many. The Many denotes the world of concrete reality. Doubtless there is a process from Unity to Multiplicity, affirmation and negation, but this process takes place solely in the subjective consciousness.

How, then, asks Baur, can this Areopagite conception of Deity be reconciled with the Christian conception, with which it appears to be in obvious contradiction?

The Areopagite speaks often of a Triad, and dwells on the Church’s Doctrine of the Trinity. But the terms which in his system represent the Godhead are such as the super-good, the super-divine, the super-essential. These terms represent an abstraction. If any distinction exists, that distinction in no case exists within the Deity, but only in the activities which proceed from God as the super-essential Cause. Distinctions exist in our subjective consciousness. But they have no objective reality. If we call the Divine Mystery God, or Life, or Essence, or Light, or Word, we only mean thereby the influences which emanate from that Mystery.

In Baur’s opinion, therefore, the Trinitarian conception, as held in the Tradition of the Church, is in the system of Dionysius reduced to little more than names.

Baur’s criticism on the Areopagite’s notion of Incarnation is not less severe.

The System of Dionysius allows no distinctive and peculiar Incarnation at all. It allows no special and new relationships, but only a continual becoming. The Incarnation is, in the Areopagite’s view, nothing more than the process from Unity to Multiplicity; which is essential to Its conception of Deity. If Dionysius speaks of the God-man as an individual, 216that is either a mere concession to Tradition, or a lack of clearness in its own conception. The union of God with an individual such as the Christian Tradition postulates cannot, in Baur’s opinion, be reconciled with the system of the Areopagite.

A second modern opinion on the theological teaching of Dionysius is given by that singularly clear and sceptical Frenchman, Vacherot, in his Histoire de l’École d’Alexandrie, 1851, Tome III. pp. 23 ff.

Vacherot considers the group of treatises ascribed to Dionysius to be the most curious monument of neo-Platonist influence over Christian theology. Philosophy affirms that negations concerning Deity are true on condition that they express nothing definite. In the author’s opinion Theology cannot really give any positive instruction. Dionysius is understood by Vacherot to teach that mystical theology is the suppression of definite thought. To know God we must cease to think of Him. The devout is lost in a mystical obscurity of ignorance. Nothing definite can in reality be said of Deity.

In Vacherot’s opinion the orthodoxy of the Areopagite is more than doubtful.

The Christian conception presents the living personal self-conscious God, Creator and Father of the world, in eternal inseparable relation with His Son and His Spirit, a Trinity inaccessible in itself, but manifested directly in Incarnation.

But in the conception of this neo-Platonist thinker Deity is removed to an infinite distance from the human soul, and the Trinity is reduced to a mere abstraction. We are here far removed from the genuine Christian theology.

Dionysius is to Vacherot a neo-Platonist philosopher in disguise, who while going over to Christianity retained his philosophic ideas which he adroitly combined with the principles of his new belief.


A third modern critic of Dionysius is the Lutheran theologian, Dorner. Dorner was concerned only with the bearing of the Areopagite principles on the doctrine of the Person of Christ.552552Dorner, Doctrine of the Person of Christ, Div. II. i. 157 ff.

In Dorner’s opinion the mystical Christology of the Areopagite “forms an important link of connection between Monophysitism and the doctrine of the Church.” “Not that we mean to affirm that the Areopagite was a declared Monophysite; certainly, however, that his entire mode of viewing the world and God belong to this family.”

With regard to the doctrine of the Trinity, Dorner holds that on the principles of Dionysius “seeing that God is the One Who is at once in all and above all—yea, outweighs the negation of the many by the Divine Unity—all idea of distinct hypostasis in God ought consistently to be renounced; in the Super-Essential God everthing sinks down into unity without distinctions. Much is said, indeed, of the Many, along with the One; but the Trinity in God retains merely a completely precarious position.”

Dorner adds: “The result as far as Christology is concerned is very plain; after laying down such premises, it was impossible for the Areopagite to justify, either anthropologically or theologically, a specific incarnation in one individual. If he taught it at all, it was because he had adopted it from the Creeds of the Church, and he was quite unable to put himself into a sincere and true relation towards it.”

To these criticisms may be added the remarks of a fourth modern writer, this time from the standpoint of the Roman Church. Bach, in his very able History of Dogma in the Middle Ages, says that, in the works of the Areopagite, Christ is frequently treated in so idealistic a fashion that the concrete 218personality of the God-man is driven into the shade. The mysticism of Dionysius is not founded on the historical person of Christ, nor on the work of Redemption as a fact once actualized in time.

Here may be added a criticism on Dionysius from a Bishop of the English Church. Bishop Westcott wrote—

“Many, perhaps, will be surprised that such a scheme of Christianity as Dionysius has sketched should even be reckoned Christian at all.”553553Westcott, Religious Thought in the West, p. 188. Dr. Westcott went on to say of the Areopagite’s principles: “It must be frankly admitted that they bear the impress not only of a particular age and school, but also of a particular man, which is not wholly of a Christian type.” And again elsewhere “very much of the system was faulty and defective.”

In closing this short survey of the place of Dionysius in the history of religious thought it is evident enough that we are confronted with an exceptional figure of unusual ascendancy. He is not made less perplexing by the variety of estimates formed upon his theology by men of different schools and of marked ability. The student must be left to draw his own conclusions. But if those conclusions are to be correctly drawn he must have before his mind, at least in outlines, the fact of the Areopagite’s historic influence.

The general impression left upon the mind by the Areopagite’s critics is that the author’s strength consisted in his combination of philosophy with mysticism; but that he was far more strong as a philosophic thinker than he was as a Christian theologian; and, that in his efforts to reconcile Christianity with neo-Platonism it is the philosophy which prevails, not without serious results to the theology of the Church. His greatest admirers appear to have employed him with 219discretion; to have balanced his statements with more proportion, and to have read him in the light of strong Catholic presuppositions which to some extent neutralized his over-emphasis, and supplemented his omissions. It is an interesting speculation for the theological student what the position of these writings would have been if their author had never been identified with the disciple of St. Paul.

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