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Dionysius the Areopagite, Works (1897). Preface to the online edition

John Parker's translation of the complete works attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite requires some introduction, as he held views which were uncommon in his own day, and do not seem to be held today. I find in the standard handbooks, such as Quasten's Patrology, a consensus of opinion that the works were written in the late 5th or early 6th century. Among other reasons, they allude to theological ideas otherwise unknown before late antiquity. The reader is referred to these handbooks for a discussion of this point. Likewise the Liturgy which he attributes to the same author is in fact an independent production.  This was not unknown in Parker's day, which makes his hostility to these ideas rather awkward for a 21st century reader.

It is unfortunate that Parker attempts to reinforce his eccentric views by means of two arguments, neither without merit in the right place, but both misapplied. These approaches are not uncommon among the unwary, and it may be useful to highlight the limits of them.

Firstly he invokes the authority of the Christian church, and suggests that faith in Christ Jesus requires us to accept that these works are genuine. No doubt he was sincere, although the idea is a little hard to understand when plainly stated.  Perhaps some idea was present in his mind which does not reach us. But no statement is found in the scriptures that these works are by Dionysius the Areopagite -- how could there be? --, nor do the fathers make a dogmatic issue of the matter. It is hard to imagine what other possible source for authority on this matter there might be. 

The church has no special revelation on the question of the authenticity of these works; that they were considered authentic by many in the pre-modern era reflects only the lack of facilities to determine authenticity in that period. The unknown author of these works attempted to attribute them to Dionysius the Areopagite -- why, it is hard for us now to imagine, although he must have had a reason which seemed valid to him. But their value comes from their spiritual insight, not their author. At all events, to use the name of God to prop up a theory is to violate the second commandment, that we must not misuse the name of God. Misuse of the name of God makes people less willing to listen when it is legitimately invoked.

Secondly he attacks the integrity of the scholars -- German scholars -- who stated that the text could not be first century. 

Now it is certainly true that many scholars of that period practised what the French today call "l'hypercritisme" -- a wasteful, destructive process which ultimately placed the purely subjective as the central authority. It is likewise true that some of these same scholars, unwittingly or not, attempted to create a climate in which faithful belief in the scriptures was in fact impossible. In other areas of scholarship, it has been shown that some of those Parker attacks were not ashamed to create a consensus that rubbished the works of Lucian of Samosata for reasons which have been shown to be taken verbatim from non-scholarly anti-semitic publications.1 Such prostitutions of scholarship in the service of racial or religious malice are disgraceful.  Scholars should never act in such a way as to poison the well of learning and so force the honest outsider to choose between either a deceitful learning or honest ignorance; still less jeer at their victims, as some have done, for being uneducated.

But on matters of politics and religion, the consensus of scholarship is never more than a reflection of what Dr. Johnson called 'the clamour of the times,' and allowances must be made, then and now. If scholars feel obliged to follow the consensus of their time, it does not mean that they are dishonest when they do. It is not right to throw the baby out with the bath-water and risk a lapse into obscurantism. The failings of the scholars, however severe, do not mean that every conclusion of scholarship in a period of history can be dismissed whenever it is unwelcome. The 19th century was a time of real scholarly progress, even though tainted by unacknowledged bias and revisionism. What Parker should have done was to evaluate the discussion, and to discuss the raw data himself, and weigh it, for and against in an objective manner. Had he done this, even if his conclusions were wrong, his notes would still have had value.  Any detail of primary evidence is always of value.  But instead he resorted to excuses, which sadly means that his notes were not and are not useful. They have been transcribed, but the reader will need to look elsewhere for real information.

However, it would be unkind to leave matters there. John Parker did the world a considerable service in making all these works available in English. Perhaps he would never have done this but for his conviction that they were apostolic. 

Roger Pearse
31st January 2004
Revised 21st January 2005

1 Niklas Holzberg, Lucian and the Germans, Warburg Institute Surveys and Texts XVI (1988) : The Uses of Greek and Latin, (ed. Dionisotti, A.C.; Grafton A and Kraye, Jill), pp.199-209.

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This text was transcribed by Roger Pearse, Ipswich, UK, 2004.  All material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.
Greek text is rendered using the Scholars Press SPIonic font, free from here.

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