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The History of Christian Thought by Paul Tillich


Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Herb and June Lowe.


Lecture 15: Dionysius the Areopagite (Pseudo-Dionysius)


Yesterday I gave a survey on the rise and further fate of the Christological doctrine as formulated in the Council of Chalcedon. Today I want to bring to an end the discussion of the Eastern church. I must say something which has been experienced in several years of giving these lectures, that there is a hidden protest against the emphasis on the Eastern church in some of you, probably even now. I understand this because it does not have the actuality, let us say, of the Reformation or of modern theology. The situation is thus: As long as you know the fundamentals of the early development and have really understood it which is not so easy then everything else is comparatively easy. But if you know only the present-day things and don't know the foundations, then every- thing is in the air, and you always are in a state of a house built from the roof and not from the foundations. That's really why I myself and of course some of my colleagues e. g., Prof. Richardson think that the foundations of Christian theology, as given in the early Church, are really foundations; they are foundations immediately after the Biblical foundations, and as such they must be considered. For this reason I gave almost half of our whole time to the Greek church. I give also this hour to it, and then we will go to the Roman church of the Middle Ages.

Yesterday I tried to show you that the doctrine of Chalcedon is something which, however we think about the use of Greek terms in Christian thinking, has saved one important thing for our Western theology, even in the East, namely the human side of the picture of Jesus. It was almost at the edge of falling down completely and being swallowed by the Divine nature, so that all the developments of the West, including the Reformation, would not have been possible. This is the importance of the Synod of Chalcedon and of a decision, which the East never really accepted, which (it) transformed after it, which (it) first of all swallowed up in (its) sacramental kind of thinking and acting.

If you understand this, then perhaps the single steps of the Christological doctrine are easy to understand. Always have two pictures in your mind if you want to understand them:

1) The being with the two heads, where there is no unity: God and man.

2) The being in which one head has disappeared, but also humanity has disappeared.

The one head is the head of the Logos, of God Himself, so that when Jesus acts it is not the unity of something human and something Divine, but-it is something else: it is the Logos who acts. So all the struggles, all the uncertainties, the despairs, the loneliness, and all this which we have in the Gospel picture, is only seemingly and not really so. It has no consequences: it is inconsequential. This was the danger of the Eastern development, and the fact that this danger has been overcome is the great importance of the decision of Chalcedon, for which we must be very grateful to the Eastern church that it was able to do this against its own basic feeling. But the power of the Old Testament and the power of the full picture of the human side in Jesus, was such that the East couldn't fail in this respect.

I come now to one of the most interesting figures in Eastern church history,Dionysius the Areopagite (Pseudo-Dionysius), who was also of extreme importancefor the West. (Cf. Acts 17:34, where a man called Dionysius followed Paul who was speaking in the Areopagus; he is called Dionysius the Areopagite, in the tradition. His name was used by a 'writer writing between 480-510, probably ca. 500. He called himself Dionysius the Areopagite, namely the man who was with Paul and who received much wisdom from him. This man was accepted as the real Dionysius who talked with Paul, when he gave to his books this name. This was of course in our terminology a falsification. But it was the usage of ancient writing, so it was not a betrayal in any technical or moral sense; but it was a matter of launching books under famous names. Not until the 16th and in some cases even the 19th century was this falsification scientifically discovered. Not even the Catholics doubt about. it. It is a historically established fact that the man who wrote these books wrote actually about 500 and that he used the name of the companion of Paul in Athens in order to give authority to his books. He was translated into Latin by the first great Western theologian of the New World, namely Scotus Eriugena, ca. 840.

This Latin translation was used in all the Middle Ages and had many Scholastic commentators. For us he has all the main characteristics of the Byzantine end of the Greek development. He is the mediator of Neoplatonism and Christianity, the father of most of Christian mysticism. Therefore we must deal with him very carefully. His concepts underlie most Christian mysticism in the East as well as in the West, and some of his concepts such as hierarchy, which he invented entered the ordinary language and helped greatly to form the Western hierarchical system of Rome.

We have two basic works of-his: "On the Divine Names", : and "On the Hierarchies." The latter book is divided into the Heavenly and the ecclesiastical hierarchies. The word "hierarchy" probably was created by him; at least we don't know if anyone else used it before. It is derived. from hieros, holy, sacred; and arch principle, power, beginning, etc. thus, a holy power. The word hierarchy is defined by him as a holy system of degrees with respect to knowledge and efficacy This characterizes .all Catholic thinking very much; i. t., it is not only ontological, but also epistemological; there are degrees not only in being but also in knowledge. The system of holy degrees is taken from Neoplatonism, where it was first fully developed, after Aristotle and Plato (Symposium). The man who is most important is Proclus, a Neoplatonic philosopher who has often been compared with Hegel; he has the same kind of triadic thinking, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, arid brings all reality into such a system of holy degrees.

The surprising thing about Dionysius is that this system, which was the end of the Greek world, the summary of everything Greek wisdom had to say about life, was introduced into and used by Christianity. Shortly before, this system was used by Julian the Apostate in order to fight Christianity, in order to bring paganism in again in a large system, which is the basis for all Greek thinking, and for the new religion of he educated to which he wanted to introduce Christlanity. So Julian and the Christian theologians who were figbting with each other in a life and death struggle, now were united in a Greek Christian mystic and theologians, Pseudo-Dionysius, Dionysius created Christian mysticism by using the system of degrees. This is what "hierarchy" means. The other book is "On the Divine Names." The term "Divine names" is also a Neoplatonic term, which was necessary for the Neoplatonists when they brought all the gods of the pagans into their system, How could they do this? Because they followed the philosophical criticism of hundreds of years, and no educated Greek of that time believed literally in the pagan gods. But there was still the tradition, there was the popular religion, and so something had to be done about these Divine names, What they tried to show was that the qualities of the Divine were expressed in these names. These names cannot be taken literally, They express different degrees and powers in the Divine ground and Divine emanation; they point to principles of power, of love, of energy, and other virtues, but they are not something which in terms of "name" could be understood as special beings. This meant they discovered, in present-day terminology, the symbolic character of all our speaking about God. The writings about the Divine names can be found in all the Middle Ages; all theologians did this; they spoke about the symbolic meaning of everything we say about God, They didn't use the word "symbol" at that time, but used the word "name," i. e., expressing a character or quality. And when you today have a popular discussion or a bull session, and someone tells you,'" Now what we say about God is only "symbolic," you can say that this "only" is very wrong, and as long as a real thinking theology exists, people have understood the symbolic character of what we say about God, and the wrong is on our side that we haven't followed in this respect the insight of classical theology of the Greek and of the Western church but that we have fallen into a literalism against which all the Reformers, especially Calvin, were fighting. The symbolic interpretation of everything we say about God corresponds to the idea of God Dionysius develops. First of all, how can we know about Him? He answers: There are two ways of recognizing Him, the affirmative theology: all names, as far as they are positive, must be attributed to God because He is the Ground of everything; so He is designated by everything, everything points to Him, This is the positive theology, and this has to be done. God must be named with all names,

But then, at the same time there is a negative theology which denies that He can be named by anything whatsoever. He is even beyond the highest names theology has given to Him. He is beyond spirit, He is beyond the good. He is, as he says, super-essential, i. e., beyond the Platonic ideas, beyond essences; super-exalted, i. e. , beyond all superlatives; He is not the highest being but beyond any possible highest being; and He is super-Divinity, i. e., He is beyond God, if we speak of God as a Divine being. Therefore He is "unspeakable Darkness", In both cases he denies the possibility, by His very nature, that He can be seen , that He can be spoken Therefore all names disappear, after they have been attributed to Him, even the holy name "God." Perhaps this is the source, unconsciously, for what I say at the end of my "Courage to Be," about ."the God above God," namely the God above God which is the real ground of everything that is, which is above any special name we can give, even to a highest being. It is important that the positive and the negative way lead to the same end. In both cases the forms of the world (are) negated. If about God you say everything, you can equally say you don't say anything about Him, namely, anything special. That is, of course,the first thing which must be said about God, because that is what makes Him God, namely, that which transcends everything finite. In this sense Dionysius says that even the problem of unity and trinity disappears in the abyss of God. Since that which super-essential, beyond the Platonic "ideas," is also beyond all numbers, it is even beyond the number one so that there is no difference between three or one or many, in this respect. When you hear that God is "one," don't think of numbers; always translate this by the sentence that God is beyond numbers, not only against two and three and four and five, but beyond all numbers. Only on this basis can we then speak of "trinity, " and of the infinite Self-expression in the world. First of all, "one" means beyond one and two and three and four; it does not mean one against two and three and four this is a complete misunderstanding.

From this abysmal "one," which is the source and substance of all being, the light emanates, and the light is the good in all things. The word "light" is a symbol not only for knowing but also fore being. "Hierarchy" for Dionysius is a system of degrees not only for our knowledge but also for being itself.

It is the same as the earliest Greek philosopher Parmenides said, that where there is being there is also the Logos of being. This light, which is the power of being and knowing, is identical with itself; it is unshaken, it is everlasting. What the first Greek philosopher Parmenides said, the.1ast, Dionysius, said. In this the East was consistent in its whole development.

There is a way downwards and a way upwards we have this already in Heraclitus who says that in everything there is a trend from earth over water over fire to air, and an opposite trend from the air to earth, i.e., every living being is a tense reality, in which there is a fundamental tension, a tension of the creative power of being going down, and the saving power of being going up. The three stages of the way upward are purgation, or purification (this is the ethical-ascetic realm); illumination (this is the realm of mystical understanding); and union or perfection (this is the return into the unity with God. In this last stage something takes place which became the foundation of the modern world through Nicholas Cusanos, namely what Dionysius calls the mystical ignorance; what Cusanos called the learned ignorance (docta ignorantia). Of this the two men say that it is the only ultimate true knowledge. And again this word "ignorance" says we don't know anything special any more when we have penetrated into the Ground of everything that is. And since everything special is changing, it is not ultimate reality and truth. But if you penetrate from everything changing to the ultimate, then we have the rock of eternity and we have the truth which only can rest on this rock.

Now this fundamental reality is represented in degrees called "hierarchies." The line from above to below is the line of emanation. The line from below to above is the line of salvation. The hierarchies represent both ways. They are the way in which the Divine abyss emanates. They are, at the same time, the revelations of the Divine abyss, as far as it can be revealed, in the way upwards in the saving union with God.

From the point of view of the way upward, they have the purpose to create the most possible similarity and union of all beings with God. Here again the old Platonic formula which I already gave you, "being equal to God as much as possible," is used by the Areopagite coming nearer and nearer to God and finally uniting with Him.

Every hierarchy takes its light from the higher one and brings it down to the lower. In this way each hierarchy is active and passive at the same time. It receives the Divine power of being and gives it in a restrictive way to those who are lower than it. But this system of degrees is ultimately dualistic. I already said this when I spoke about the title of the book on hierarchies. There are two fundamentally different hierarchies, namely the Heavenly and the earthly. The Heavenly hierarchies are the Platonic essences or ideas, above which is God, but which are the first emanations (and) are from God, but which in Dionysius are interpreted as hierarchies of angels. This is a development which already occurs in later Judaism; the two concepts, the concept of angels which is a symbolic personalistic concep t amalgamates with the concepts of hypostatized essences or powers of being: they become one and the same being and they represent the Heavenly hierarchies. If you want to give a meaningful account about the concept of angels to your people, and perhaps even to yourselves, always interpret them as the Platonic essences, as the powers of being, not as special beings. If you interpret in the latter way, it becomes crude mythology; if you interpret them as emanations of the Divine power of being in essences, in powers of being, then it becomes a meaningful concept and perhaps a very important one but of course not in terms of the sentimental winged babies which you find in pictures of angels. This has nothing to do with the great concept of Divine emanations in terms of powers of being.

This is the one hierarchy, and as an image of this hierarchy we have the ecclesiastical hierarchy which is on earth. The angels are the Spiritual mirrors of the Divine abyss. They always look at Him, i. e., they are the immediate recipients of His power of being. They always are longing to become equal with Him and to return to Him. And they are with respect to us the first revealers. Now if we understand it in this way, we can understand again what it means that they are the essences in which the Divine ground expresses itself first.

There are three times three orders of angels which is of course a Scholastic play making it possible to give a kind of analogy to the earthly hierarchies. The earthly hierarchies are powers of Spiritual being. Here you can learn something about medieval realism. The earthly hierarchies are:

1) The three sacraments: baptism~ the Lord's Supper, confirmation

2) The three degrees of the clergy: deacons, priests, and bishops.

3) The three degrees of non-priests: the imperfect, who are not even members of the congregation; the laymen; and the monks, who have a special function.

These nine earthly hierarchies mediate the return of the soul to God. They all are equally necessary and all are equally powers of being. You will immediately ask, as children of nominalism, "what does that mean, that here the sacraments are equal, as hierarchies, with people; namely, the clergy, laymen, etc." This you can understand only if you understand that the people are not people here but bearers of sacramental power, bearers of power of being. And so are the sacraments. That is the point .of identity which makes it possible that he calls all nine of them hierarchies. But in order to understand this, you must know what arch , power of being, means. They all are sacred powers of being, some of them embodied in persons, some in sacraments, some in persons in the congregation with the function only of being believers in the congregation, with no special function. "

This brings the earthly world into a hierarchical system because earthly things especially in the Sacraments are used to express themselves sounds, colors, forms, stone, etc. All reality belongs to the ecclesiastical reality, because the ecclesiastical reality is the hierarchical reality as expressed in the different degrees of being and knowledge of God. In the mystery of the Church, all things are interpreted in terms of their symbolic power to express the abyss of Divinity. They express it and they guideback to it. The ecclesiastical mysteries penetrate into the interior Divinity, into the Divine Ground of all things. And so a system of symbols in which everything is included potentially, is established. This is the principle of Byzantine culture, namely to transform reality into something which points to the eternal not changing reality, as it is in the Western world, but interpreted reality, penetrating into its depths.

Therefore the understanding of the Eastern hierarchical thinking is much more an understanding of the vertical line, going into the depths of theology, while the Kingdom-of- God theology, for instance in Protestantism, is a horizontal theology, and we can say, looking at the situation in East and West, that the East is missing, (with respect to) transforming reality, and therefore became first the victim to the Islamic attack, and then a victim to the pseudo-Islamic Marxian attack, because it was not able itself to work in the horizontal line, transforming reality.

On the other hand, when we look at our culture we can say without too much doubt about this that we have lost the vertical dimension to a great extent; we always go ahead; we never have time to stand somewhere and to look above and below.

These are two types. Here I give you a system of hierarchies which is completely

vertical and has very little horizontal. In order to understand what I mean with making everything transparent for the Divine ground, we should look for a moment at art. The most translucent religious art is the Byzantine mosaics. They don't want at all to describe anything which happens in the horizontal line; they want to express, in everything which appears on the horizontal level of reality, on the plane of time and space, to make it a symbol pointing to its own depths: the presence of the Divine. This is the great(ness) of the mosaics. There are a few examples of them in the Metropolitan Museum, which you should look at. There you have the expression of Divine transcendence, even if the subjects are completely earthly animals, trees, men of politics, women of the court. Every expression has its ultimate symbolic meaning, and therefore. . . the last great fight in the Byzantine church was a fight about pictures, because the Byzantine culture believed in the power of pictures to express the Divine ground of things. And the danger was very great that the popular belief would confuse the transparency of the pictures with the power of the Divine itself, which is effective through the pictures, but which is never identical with them. And the whole fight, especially coming from the West against the East, and on the other hand coming from Mohammedanism against the East, was a fight about the meaning of the transparent power of the pictures. For the East, this was essential and still is; therefore most of the great art came from there and then conquered the West. But from the West the danger was so great that after Rome partly capitulated, it finally was attacked again by Protestantism, especially Reformed Protestantism, in a way which removed the pictures from the churches again. Therefore in Calvinism natural objects have lost their transparency - -that is the meaning of all iconoclastic (image-destroying) movements. You can understand this when they saw the superstitious way in which many Catholics prayed to their pictures, etc... But when you understand what else was thrown out in the same act, then you are not so sure about it - -namely, that natural objects have lost their transparency: they are simply objects of technical activity, and nature became de-divinized, its Divine character, its representative character for the Divine, became lost. This is part of the whole problem. So we can say that what the Byzantine culture effected was the spiritualization of all reality. Please don't: confuse that with idealization --t hat is something quite different. Idealization is the picture of Hoffman's in Riverside Church, an idealized Jesus. A Byzantine Jesus is a transparent and never idealized Jesus. There is the Divine majesty which is visible throughout, but not a nice human being with ideal, manly handsomeness. That is not what great Christian art wanted to do. Therefore don't confuse it. And I would say that this Eastern church represents something which has been lost, and therefore I am especiaIly happy that it was possible and still is possible to communicate with this church but it is not possible with the Roman church namely to take them into the World Council of Churches, and I hope we will not believe, because we are the big majority and are the dynamic power there, that we have nothing to learn from them. We have much to learn from them. . .

This may happen in centuries of more intimate contact, and then it might be that the dimension of depth will again enter the Western thinking, more than it does now.

The system of Dionysius was received by the West. There were two things which made this possible, and which Christianized, or baptized, it. The one was that emanation was not understood in a natural but in a personal picture. God has given existence to all beings because of His benevolence. This goes beyond pagan thinking. Here the personalistic element comes in and the Neoplatonic dualism is removed.

Secondly the system of mysteries is built around Christ, and around the Church. All things have the power of illuminating and uniting only in relationship to the Church and to the Christ. Christ does not become one hierarchy beside others. This was prevented by Nicaea. But He becomes God manifest, appearing in hierarchy and working through every hierarchy. In this way the system of pagan divinities and mysteries, which lived in Neoplatonism, was overcome, and in this way the Western church could receive the system of hierarchies and mysteries.

Consequently medieval mysticism never was in contrast to the ecclesiastical hierarchy. They all worked together, and only much later did conflicts arise.

This brings to an end my interpretation of the East, and tomorrow we start with the transition towards the West.

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