Reflections On The Scandal
In the Shadow of Pseudo-Dionysius
By Fr. John Jillions, Ottawa, Canada
Theologically-inclined readers of OCA News ought to become familiar with two pamphlets from the six century if they want to better understand the roots of what is happening in the OCA right now. What should have been a relatively simple house-cleaning exercise has dragged on and on with a staggering amount of foot-dragging, stone-walling and resistance that leaves many of us perplexed, angry and despairing. Mark Stokoe calls it “madness,” but it is a particular kind of Orthodox madness that afflicts every Orthodox church in the world and is woven into the structures and psychology of our churches. So to those other Orthodox who stand on the sidelines gloating at the OCA’s downfall…your turn will come.
The two pamphlets are The CelestialHierarchy and The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. The writer claims to be the same Dionysius who was converted by St Paul after his preaching on the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:34) and is traditionally known as the first bishop of Athens. In fact, his works aren’t cited at all until the sixth century, he was probably Syrian, and he used the Dionysius name to add weight to his work. The ruse worked (though even in the ancient church there were some questions) and it wasn’t until the 19th century that the authorship of his writings was definitively re-labeled as “Pseudo-Dionysius”. Despite the deception, his ideas went on to have enormous influence. For example, the first book in dogmatic theology that I was required to read as a student at St Vladimir’s in 1977 was his On the Divine Names . And much of his thought has great merit, particularly his emphasis on the unknown depth of God (apophatic theology), the mystical nature of true theology, and theosis. But his understanding of hierarchy as expressed in these two books is problematic, especially because his views are so widely accepted. The late Fr John Meyendorff said that Pseudo-Dionysius’ view of hierarchy “exercised a highly ambiguous influence” on subsequent church life.
The two booklets go together. Pseudo-Dionysius is certainly devoted to Christ, but it’s clear that his work is deeply influenced by neo-platonic views of a hierarchical universe. Hierarchical order within the heavenly, celestial realm is mirrored on earth in the ecclesiastical, churchly hierarchy. The fundamental principles that concern us are as follows:
Order and rank on earth is a sign of order and rank in heaven
Each rank mediates appropriate illumination and knowledge to the rank below
The hierarch is at the top of the divinely ordered ranks on earth
The hierarch must protect lower ranks and the uninitiated from knowledge not appropriate for their rank
The hierarch must be obeyed: he is the mediator of divine life, the source of light and divine guidance to those below
The hierarch’s power is a sacred obligation that requires humility, mercy and the imitation of God
The hierarch’s duty is to hand on the “the true and divinely enlightening understanding” that he has received, but only in the measure appropriate for each rank
The hierarch is accountable only to his peers, who alone possess the same degree of knowledge, not to the lower ranks
It is not accidental that this view of hierarchy was used by supporters of a strengthened papacy in medieval Europe. In all fairness to Pseudo-Dionysius, he does include a number of correctives and qualifications. We are not talking here about mad, power hungry bishops. One needs to read Pseudo-Dionysius to catch the flavor of his argument and how it might be equally seductive to a spiritually-minded bishop—the majority I believe—who seek to be true servants of Christ.
The hierarch is the source and summit of all ministries in the Church.
The divine order of hierarchs is therefore the first of those who behold God. It is the first and also the last, for in it the whole arrangement of the human hierarchy is fulfilled and completed. And just as we observe that every hierarchy ends in Jesus, so each individual hierarchy reaches its term in its own inspired hierarch. The power of the order of hierarchs spreads throughout the entire sacred company and it works the special mysteries of its own hierarchy through all the sacred orders. But it is to this order especially, rather than to the other orders, that divine law has bestowed the more divine workings of the sacred ministry… (Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 505B)
The hierarch is given a sacred trust of divine judgment and knowledge that includes awe-full decisions on binding, loosing and excommunication. Though Pseudo-Dionysius adds a touch of respectful humor to temper too much self-importance, he ends by underlining obedience.
Similarly, insofar as he makes known the judgments of God he has also the powers of excommunication. Not indeed that the all-wise divinity gives in to his every unthinking impulse, if I may so speak with all reverence. But the hierarch obeys the Spirit which is the source of every rite and which speaks by way of his words…Thus [Peter] himself and all the hierarchs like him have had the judgment of the father revealed to them, and being themselves men who provide revelation and explanation, they have the task of admitting the friends of God and of keeping away the ungodly…And everyone else must obey the hierarchs when they act as such, for they are inspired by God himself. “He who rejects you, [the Scripture says], “rejects me” (Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 564 C,D).
But Pseudo-Dionysius admits that not everything can be known to the hierarch. For this reason, the hierarch must also be full of compassion for the ignorant and deal respectfully with their objections.
Yours is the understanding of a hierarch and you must not be angry with those who are mistaken. Rather, you must take care to guide them to the light by lovingly refuting their objections and by making clear to them, as sacred law commands, that our knowledge is far from being commensurate with the divine mysteries, many of which remain beyond our grasp and with meaning outside our power to understand. They are known only to the orders which are superior to our human condition and they have a status quite in keeping with their divine nature. Many elude even the highest beings and are known fully only by that all-wise divinity which is the source of all wisdom.” (568B)
There are some big dangers in this view of hierarchy. Despite the cautions, it identifies the hierarch’s and God’s mind too closely. There is no place for accountability (except perhaps to other bishops). There is no place for transparency and openness and sharing of knowledge between ranks. There is no place for a harmonious, conciliar, collaborative church order (unless it is based on obedience to the hierarchs). In other words, there is no room here for true catholicity or “sobornost”.
We can’t just blame Pseudo-Dionysisus for this. Fr John Behr, in his Way to Nicea , laments that already by the mid-fourth century, long before the appearance of The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy , bishops had acquired a self-sufficient attitude toward church governance. If before they welcomed others to their councils as advisors and teachers, bishops gathering in Antioch in 341 refuted the charge that they were Arians “ by indignantly asking how it was possible to think that they, as bishops, had followed a presbyter, referring to Arius”.
So we should not be surprised that this particular OCA nut is hard to crack.
The OCA’s financial woes will eventually be resolved. But in the process, I hope we will also begin to address some of the deeper issues of church order that the crisis has uncovered. And that could be of genuine service to the Orthodox world.
Fr. John A. Jillions
The Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies
Saint Paul University