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Seminal Christian Theologians: Pseudo-Dionysius on Hierarchy

Definition and Misunderstandings

The concept of hierarchy is the singular motif through which the extant Pseudo-Dionysian corpus must be understood. Denys defines hierarchy as “a sacred order, a state of understanding, and an activity approximating as closely as possible the divine.”1 This article will explore his tripartite formulation by focusing on the following questions: “What is sacred about hierarchy?”, “In what way is hierarchy a state of understanding?”, and “How does hierarchic activity approximate as closely as possible the divine?”

Before we begin, it is important to dispel rampant confusion about Denys’s notion of hierarchy. Today we think of hierarchy as a rigid and imposed order, with each participant (animate or inanimate) in its proper place. This conception is not completely at odds with the way Denys envisions the universe, so long as we remember that there is nothing juridical about his idea of hierarchy, nor are the members of the world hierarchy describable in terms of their high or low status. As M.D. Chenu articulates, the term hierarchia describes a dynamic emanation from God, which is disposed by God toward a “super-essential harmony.”2 Hierarchy is a reality–it describes how the universe is organized. But hierarchy is also a process that instantiates movement from God (exitus) and procession back to God (reditus). This movement is what is eminently real. At its head is Christ, the supreme hierarch (more on this below). If you feel that this is all a bit too abstract, fear not, for this often happens when Denys’s system is extrapolated from the devotional context of his writings.

To ground the principle of hierarchy, let us consider an analogy. All existing things, for Denys, work together like spinning spokes on a wheel, rather than like static rungs on a ladder. Material things seem to be “lower” than immaterial realities (angels, for example, seem far greater than humans, and humans than animals, plants, or rocks), but Denys shows how we can approach the hidden center that is Christ from any position on this wheel of reality. Perhaps the best practical example of his harmonious hierarchical system is the interplay that occurs in Sacramental experience. Using the wheel analogy, we approach the center that is Christ through something as normal and purportedly “outward” as bread. But in Communion, this external bread elevates the soul into intimate union with our Lord. Although the eyes see nothing but physical bread (and wine), although material reality seems like something “transcended” in ritual and mystical experience, what is happening, for Denys, is very different. Again using Communion as an example, it is true that the ritual draws us toward a greater, higher reality than what we can taste, touch, smell, see, and hear. This new experience, however, is less an in-breaking than it is a revitalization. As Andrew Louth points out, “one ‘ascends’ into the hierarchy rather than up it.”3 We do not abandon the world when we approach God. In fact, through communion we actually elevate the physical, worldly elements by “making them Holy” before the Lord. Thus, we mimic the activity of God (we participate in the divine return of all things to their source) by drawing the physical manifestations of wheat and wine into ritual unity. We are not only led, but we also lead. Hence, no part of the hierarchy is inherently deeper than any other. Angels are not better than humans due to supposedly higher status. The cosmos reflects God in and through the existence of every created thing, all working together to effect unity.

The Sacred World

Returning to our original set of questions, how is hierarchy a sacred order, or what is sacred about hierarchy? Denys states that the “common goal of every hierarchy consists of the continuous love of God and of things divine, a love which is sacredly worked out in an inspired and unique way … it consists of a knowledge of beings as they really are.”4 Here the Areopagite points out that all hierarchies or orders, from the so-called lowest (inanimate physical elements) to the so-called highest (the nine types of angels, derived from Col 1), come together in God’s loving activity toward creation. This expansive, overflowing love is made known by Jesus Christ, from whom “every hierarchy … has one and the same power.”5 Christ is the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15) and the only Word of the Father (John 1). Our union with him–the fulfilment of our place in the universe–is possible because he joined himself to the community of humankind. As Denys explains:

In a fashion beyond words, the simplicity of Jesus became something complex, the timeless took on the duration of the temporal, and, with neither change nor confusion of what constitutes him, he came into our human nature, he who totally transcends the natural order of the world.6

The incarnation is eternally important for the “sacred order” aspect of hierarchy. This is because Christ paved the way of salvation by agreeing to live, die, descend, and rise for the salvation of the world. Christ’s actions, revealed in Sacred Scripture, prove that “the Deity has endless love for humanity … [God] filled our shadowed and unshaped minds with a kindly, divine light.”7 Christ is the one who imbued hierarchy with the sacred quality accessible to us, insofar as we are human. He redeems all of reality in the salvific interchange between God and creation.8 This is, in sum, the soteriology of the Areopagite.

Human Knowledge

Our second question is, “In what way is hierarchy a state of understanding?” To view hierarchy as a state of (rational) understanding, we must continue our discussion of Denys’ soteriology. Denys claims that “[God] has bestowed hierarchy as a gift to ensure the salvation and divinization of every being endowed with reason and intelligence.”9 Denys’s writings are informed by the Neo-Platonic ontology of the great chain of being. Thus, rational creatures (i.e. humans and angels) are saved by Christ in an eminent way because of their natural ability to understand, to varying degrees, the mystery of God’s actions, or God’s “energies.” But this understanding is not some esoteric, noetic ascent into a Plotinian region of dissimilitude. Far from it! Denys grounds his epistemology in the created world, asserting that it is “by perceptible images that we are uplifted as far as we can be to the contemplation of what is divine.”10

As a final note on this second aspect of hierarchy, Denys is careful to maintain that “we will not pull down to ourselves that power which is both everywhere and yet nowhere, but by divine reminders and invocations we may commend ourselves to it and be joined to it.”11 Ascent to God through hierarchy does not occur because of human merit. In fact, “the more we take flight upward the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing.”12 Humans are inherently limited in their ability to comprehend God. Certain attributes, such as Goodness, are inherent to God; but the human mind cannot “wrap itself around” or fully comprehend the implications of these attributes. Paul Rorem, in an essay entitled “The Uplifting Spirituality of Pseudo-Dionysius,” points out that many commentators have been “much more interested in how the Areopagite abandoned concepts [instead of] in how he arrived at them in the first place: through exegesis and liturgical interpretation.”13 The ascent of humanity to participation in the divine life (divinization) cannot be divorced from the walk of faith in the bosom of the Church.


Finally, we can treat our third question: “How is hierarchy an activity approximating as closely as possible the divine?” The amazing truth of humanity’s connection to divine life and divine activity is only possible only because

the simple, hidden oneness of Jesus, the most divine Word, has taken the route of incarnation for us and, without undergoing any change, has become a reality that is composite and visible. He has united our humanity with his own supreme divinity. But we in our turn have to cling to him like the members of one body.14

In his Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, Denys shows how the church is herself the prime avenue by which this process occurs. At the summit of the ecclesiastical hierarchy are not people, but Sacraments. The Sacraments, as Andrew Louth points out in an essay on Denys, are “vehicles of grace, not because of what they are materially, but because of their use in a certain symbolic context.”15 Instituted by Christ the supreme hierarch, these sacred activities show how metaphysical systems of hierarchy relate to the daily lives of Christians. What occurs invisibly in the human mind is mirrored in the visible activity of the Church. The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy aims at the unification of humanity in worship of God.16 This earthly hierarchy orders humanity, it establishes humanity in its proper place in the universe by dispensing “sacred gifts at the right time and in harmonious and fitting measure.”17 These gifts lead us back to God.

In his discussion of communion (synaxis), Denys notes that “it is not possible to be gathered together toward the One and to partake of peaceful union with the One while divided among ourselves.”18 Indeed, communion is the vital soul of all the other ecclesial and sacramental mysteries, since it imitates the activity of the divine in its procession (exitus) from the one sacrament to the many people and its return (reditus) of the many people to the one mystical body of Christ. In a mystical way, God “revealed all this to us in the sacred pictures of the Scriptures so that he might lift us in spirit up through the perceptible to the conceptual, from sacred shapes and symbols to the simple peaks of the hierarchies of heaven.”19 The holy mysteries of the Christian liturgy raise us up, as far as we are able, to a divine knowledge that takes on visible effects in the material world. Let us always remember, though, that only by looking above ourselves, only by opening our hearts to humble understanding of the salvific mission of Christ, can we fulfill our role in the all-encompassing hierarchy that “causes its members to be images of God in all respects, to be clear and spotless mirrors reflecting the glow of primordial light and indeed of God himself.”20

Link to Seminal Thinkers: Augustine

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  1. Benjamin Winter
    August 14, 2015 at 3:04 pm

    Placeholder comment in the case of any future responses (many thanks for your contribution, Chris).

  2. January 23, 2015 at 8:07 am

    Excellent article! Thanks for this great introduction to Denys, who I haven’t had the opportunity to read yet. What I love about this type of theology is the way it sees the world as one complete and unified system, not just parts but a whole. Our Western Cartesian thinking has become so reductionist in many ways that we forget or ignore how our actions affect the whole. We think of ourselves as separate, fragmented, and isolated. Denys concept of hierarchy seems to get to this concept and show us that it isn’t about putting things over others, it’s more about a properly functioning system.

Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. His interests outside the academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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