Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (c. 500 CE) was a Syrian believed to be the author of a series of works synthesizing Christian and Platonic thought. Also called Pseudo Dionysus,¹ he’s best known for his Celestial Hierarchies, which classifies angels into three hierarchies, each consisting of three thrones.
According to this schema, the Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones are closest to God. The next set of beings, not quite as close to God, are the Dominations, Virtues and Powers. The third set are furthest from God. They are the Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. The highest beings are entirely rapt in God’s glory, continually singing His praises, while the lower two levels interact with mankind.
Dionysius is also known for his distinction between the “affirmative” (kataphatic) and “negative” (apophatic) approaches to theology. The negative approach argues that God is above and beyond worldly, conceptual attempts to affirm or deny the existence of the divine.
Adherents of negative theology believe that God exists in God’s own light and may be approached only through “pure and spotless spirit and prayer.”² This entails getting rid of the worldly dross and hollow intellectualism that apparently obstructs true union between self and the divine.
Because negative theology depends on personal experience to subjectively know God, it can only conceptually say what God is not. Positive theology, however, claims that definite statements can be made about what God is.
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¹ He’s sometimes confused with Dionysius the Areopagite, the New Testament figure converted by St. Paul and who later became the second bishop of Athens. The confusion arises over a series of works on mysticism, Corpus Areopagiticum, apparently signed by the author as “Dionysius.”
² Everett Feruson, ed. Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. New York: Garland Publishing Inc. 1990, p. 633.
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