Paul Tillich, A History Of Christian Thought—
Dionysius the Areopagite
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.