Rome, Constantinople, and Plotinus: How Neo-Platonic Philosophy Corrupted the Ecclesiology of the Church

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (~5th-6th Century AD) was a heavily influential early church father for medieval Christendom. Thomas Aquinas – the scholastic theologian par excellence – quotes him a whopping 1700 times in his writings [1]. What’s more, the Areopagite’s writings were greatly consulted by the primary early adversary of Luther, John Eck, specifically in defense of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and sacramental system of Rome [2]. Pseudo-Dionysius was judged by Eck to ground their traditions with “Apostolic” authority (some thought Dionysius was the man converted by Paul in Acts 17:34, yet this is a view discounted by all today, as well as by virtually all of the Reformers and many early Christians, too). In the East, Pseudo-Dionysius’ writings had an even earlier and greater influence on ecclesiology, with famous commentaries produced on his The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy by such prominent figures as Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662), Germanus of Constantinople (634-733), and Nicholas Cabasilas (1319-1392). Given the influence he had on the development of ecclesiastical doctrine, it’s worthwhile to examine his writings. Will we find deep, compelling exegesis of the Scriptures that supports the ecclesiastical institutions maintained by Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy? On the contrary, even a cursory examination of the Areopagite’s works reveals that his contribution is not only sub-biblical, but anti-biblical, demonstrably drawn from neo-Platonic philosophy over and against biblical truth, and that these works are fundamentally pagan. Thus, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox institutions propped up and reinforced by his writings are themselves not Christian, but pagan. In this article, we will juxtapose the works of Pseudo-Dionysius with the works of his Neo-Platonic predecessors, the later Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox ecclesiastical systems, and the Bible itself, showing to the unbiased reader that those “churches” have sided with pagan philosophy against the Bible in their ecclesiology.

Pseudo-Dionysius’ Hierarchies

We are not the first to expose the great leaven of pagan thought that leavens the whole lump of the Areopagite’s writings. Luther himself called the man “downright dangerous, for he is more of a Platonist than a Christian” [3]. However, we anticipate that a large segment of our audience will be unfamiliar with the Dionysian corpus, so it’s necessary to review his ideas. The two works that most concern us are his The Celestial Hierarchy and, naturally, his The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. These two works are closely linked, because in them he argues for the operation of the same principle in the two different spheres. That principle is summed up in the opening paragraph of The Celestial Hierarchy:

“Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” [James 1:17] But there is something more. Inspired by the Father, each procession of the Light spreads itself generously toward us, and, in its power to unify, it stirs us by lifting us up. It returns us back to the oneness and deifying simplicity of the Father who gathers us in.

The Celestial Hierarchy 1.1

As he often does, Pseudo-Dionysius begins with a Bible verse to ground his authority, but then proceeds to go entirely beyond what the verse says. His own words betray his practice here; after quoting the verse, his first comment is, “there is something more,” i.e., something that’s not found in the text. In this case, he does nothing more than inject a metric ton of unbiblical, Neo-Platonic philosophy into the hapless verse of James’ Epistle, paying no heed to the context or intent of the author. For those unfamiliar with Neo-Platonic language, the above quote might seem fairly innocuous, albeit a bit strange. But it’s straight from their pagan philosophy, where what’s called “the starting principle,” or “the One,” emanates itself out into creation, and then draws the creation back into itself insofar as each creature is able to receive from it. That’s why Pseudo-Dionysius says it “returns us back to the oneness,” because in the Neo-Platonic worldview we’re essentially lost fragments of the divine. A fuller expression of this idea can be found in the works of the preeminent pagan philosopher, Plotinus (205-270 AD):

The One is perfect and, in our metaphor, has overflowed, and its exuberance has produced the new: this product has turned again to its begetter and been filled and has become its contemplator and so an Intellectual-Principle … attaining resemblance in virtue of this vision, it repeats the act of the One in pouring forth a vast power. This second outflow is an image or representation of the Divine Intellect as the Divine Intellect represented its own prior, The One. This active power sprung from essence (from the Intellectual-Principle considered as Being) is Soul. Soul arises as the idea and act of the motionless Intellectual-Principle … It takes its fullness by looking to its source

The Enneads 5.2.1

Comparing this to Pseudo-Dinoysius, we see the exact same idea of emanation from the One and then fulfillment by turning back to the begetter. According to the standard Neo-Platonic framework, Plotinus’ model postulates three Principles: the One, the Intellect, and the Soul. Each of the created principles are oriented to return to the One, but, crucially, they must do so through the mediation of the principle above them. So, while the Intellect can go straight to the One, the Soul must first reach the Intellect, because the Soul is just the outflow of the Intellect like the Intellect is the outflow of the One. In Neo-Platonic thought, this principle extends out to the material world as well as the world of ideals, where the former imitates the latter. Thus, from the least to the greatest, every creature has a place within an elaborate hierarchy that is ultimately directed towards the One, from which all emanate and seek to return. But again, each creature must ascend via that which is immediately superior to it, and cannot directly reach the One. And this is precisely the direction the Areopagite’s thought will go:

The goal of hierarchy, then, is to enable beings to be as like as possible to God and to be at one with him … It ensures that when its members have received this full and divine splendor they can then pass on this light generously and in accordance with God’s will to beings further down the scale.

The Celestial Hierarchy 3.1

And further:

So, then, the primordial rank of those intelligent beings in God’s company is hierarchically ordered by enlightenments coming from the source of all perfection, and they rise up to it with the help of no intermediary … As they are poured forth, they are radiant with that greater proximity to their source. Then by this rank [of angels] the second one, and by the second the third, and by the third our hierarchy is hierarchically uplifted, in due proportion and divine concord and according to this regulation of the harmonious source of order, toward that source beyond every source and consummation of all harmony

The Celestial Hierarchy 10.1

We see the same concepts and language found in Plotinus pop up once again, just in an ostensibly Christian writer. All members of the hierarchy strive to be reunited with God, the One, and they likewise pour out their own essence for the rank immediately below them to receive. Consequently, the only way for the lower ranks to be uplifted is to go through the ranks immediately above them, since they cannot go to God directly. The perceptive reader will also notice that there are three ranks of angels. This is no accident, for Pseudo-Dionysius says, “in our sacred tradition every hierarchy is divided in three” (EH 5.1.1). That this is in imitation of the Neo-Platonic rule is evident by the way his whole system is clearly modeled after the One/Intellect/Soul principles. For Pseudo-Dionysius, the One is God Himself, and the sphere of the Intellect is occupied by the angels (remember how he referred to them as the “intelligent beings”?), which in turn “extends its most sacred gifts into our domain” (EH 5.1.2), which more or less corresponds to the Soul. Just like in Plotinus’ writings, we can only receive the knowledge and gifts of God from the realm immediately above us, and we cannot receive directly from God.

The Ecclesia

We wish we could conclude that errors of the Areopagite ended with the angels, but they extend deep into the Church itself. Pseudo-Dionysius imitates the Neo-Platonic threefold division for each ecclesiastical order, so that the hierarch (bishop) mediates to the priest who then mediates to the deacon, and there is further division between them and the laymen, catechumens, and penitents. Rather than there being a direct revelation of God to each believer, the believer can only know God through his immediate superiors, utilizing the system of symbols and sacraments to aid him in rising further. It’s not difficult to imagine how this ends up playing out:

The hierarch, who “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4) by taking on a likeness to God, proclaims the good news to all that God out of his own natural goodness is merciful to the inhabitant of earth … Someone fired by love of transcendent reality and longing for a sacred share of it comes first to an initiate, asks to be brought to the hierarch, and promises complete obedience to whatever is laid upon him.

The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 2.2.1-2

Here we see the horrible consequences of the Areopagite’s theology in a glaring way; since God cannot be reached directly, the ecclesiastical superiors stand in the place of God for the believers beneath them (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4). The believer is demanded to submit totally and completely to his spiritual superior, because he is the only means through which he can know God. A further consequence of this is, of course, a diminishing of the value of Scripture, because the idea that it could speak directly to any believer is at odds with their system of mediation to God by superiors. Indeed, Pseudo-Dionysius refers to Scripture as the “introductory food” given to catechumens (EH 3.3.6), and treats contemplation of liturgical symbols (through the assistance of the superiors, of course) as a higher form of knowledge. This is in keeping with his Neo-Platonic background, which likewise viewed symbolic contemplation as a superior means of ascension than instruction through words. It’s understandable that the religion of Eastern Orthodoxy – which has been influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius for longer and more significantly than anyone else – in practice is completely dominated by its liturgy almost to the exclusion of the written Word. Liturgy elevates both the symbols and the men who alone are able to practice them in the service. It also helps to explain Eastern Orthodoxy’s preoccupation with theosis (or divinization), because they share the Areopagite’s conviction that one begins to have a greater participation in the divine as they improve their abilities of contemplation and ascend the hierarchical ladder. This is a view Pseudo-Dionysius embraces to the point where he only calls those “the temple and the companion of the Spirit of the Deity” who have “arrived at the highest possible measure of divinization” (EH 3.3.7), in direct contrast to the Biblical teachings. Likewise, we can understand how Roman Catholics such as John Eck found Pseudo-Dionysius’ writings so useful in their extreme elevation of the priests, the bishops, and the pope as well as their minimization of the importance of Scripture. The Roman authorities were the mediators of God to men and would not allow the Word of God to compete, ultimately resulting in them forbidding the common people from reading it at all.

What Saith the Scripture?

The influence of pagan philosophers on Pseudo-Dionysius’ thinking is far from an innocent error, but effectively results in a denial of the glorious revelation of God to man in Christ Jesus. Pseudo-Dionysius tells us that we must reach God by a mediation of a plethora of beings closer to God than we are, because he takes it as a universal rule that “beings … first meet with their kin and proceed then to go through these in bringing their activity to bear on other beings” (EH 5.4). If that is indeed the case, then the angels will have to go through us to reach God, “For verily he [Jesus] took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham” (Hebrews 2:16). Christ – who was God manifest in the flesh (1 Timothy 3:16) – took on our nature, and has become our kin, for “in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). The believer has no need for any other mediator, because our “bodies are the members of Christ” (1 Corinthians 6:15) and “he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:17), so that we are the very “temple of the Holy Ghost” (1 Corinthians 6:19). By being united to Christ via His human nature, we are through Him united to God Himself, and this applies to all believers – clergy or laymen: “they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). This is the wonderful Good News of the Gospel: that God – who we could never reach, regardless of how many mediating men and angels – condescended and took on flesh, so that we could know Him and have full forgiveness for all our sins. Scripture flatly contradicts an endless chain of mediators: “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).

When reading Pseudo-Dionysius, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Christ has even come. But this is understandable, because his theology is fundamentally of a pre-Christian, pagan brand. But how senseless is it! Beyond the Biblical refutation, how could one possibly climb his way up to God? God is absolutely and utterly different from every one of His creatures, and He has nothing in common with them as far as essence goes (see my essay on Divine Simplicity). Outside of union with Him through Christ, it’s impossible for one creature to be closer to Him than another. The view of the Areopagite and the Neo-Platonists makes their system more akin to henotheism than monothesism; regardless of the places where they state the utter dissimilarity between God and creatures, they effectively nullify any such assertion by saying that one creature is more like Him than others, which makes Him merely the top of a pyramid of beings rather than the One who utterly transcends them all, and who is an infinite distance from all beneath Him equally. But it’s an explicable error because all who are without Christ are “alienated from God” and have “the understanding darkened” (Ephesians 4:18). Without Him, they have no means of reaching God, so they construct a foolish ladder of men and angels in their minds, forgetting their own admissions of His incommunicability. Praise God that the believer is not in this predicament!


To thoroughly explore Pseudo-Dionysius’ ecclesiology, its relation to Neo-Platonic doctrine, and the influence it had on Western and Eastern forms of Christianity would require a book instead of an article. However, even this brief overview reveals that it’s impossible to deny the pagan elements of his thought and that these ideas were transmitted to church bodies at large. The elaborate liturgies and spiritual disciplines developed by the West and especially the East are impossible to justify from the Bible, but they flow perfectly from the Neo-Platonic thought that influenced many of the early church fathers like Pseudo-Dionysius. These practices and hierarchies, then, are not legitimate “alternative” ways of practicing Christianity, but are pagan and anti-biblical. Those true believers trapped within these systems should heed the words of God: “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (Revelation 18:4).


[1] Farina, John (Ed.), Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works (p. 21). Mahwah: Paulist Press

[2] ibid, p. 42

[3] The Babylonian Captivity of the Church 6:562.8-14

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