Research Project: Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite’s Reception among Key Thinkers of the 20th Century Orthodox World (Vl. Lossky, Fr. Sophrony, Chr. Yannaras, J. Zizioulas)

This project intends to examine the diverse reception of the corpus of writings from the 6th century attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite (Corpus Areopagiticum) by four seminal figures of the Orthodox world in the 20th century: on the Russian side (yet active in Western Europe), Vladimir Lossky and Father Sophrony (Sakharov); and on the Greek side, Christos Yannaras and Metropolitan John Zizioulas. Historically speaking, Dionysius was held in great esteem in both the East and West; for example, by Maximus Confessor, John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, and Gregory Palamas. From the Renaissance onwards, however, starting with the discovery of his pseudonymity, Western Christianity became critical of Dionysius, whereas some influential Orthodox theologians of the 20th century (e.g., John Meyendorff) also adopted such critical readings. Against this dominant current, Lossky regarded Dionysius’ key doctrine, namely apophaticism, as the distinctive mark of Orthodox Christianity in contrast to the Latin West. Yannaras also followed Lossky and attempted to examine Dionysius through a specific lens (e.g., hesychastic) so as to show his Western misreading. Yet, Zizioulas, due to his scepticism for Lossky’s apophaticism, essentially ignores Dionysius in his influential theological work. Finally, for the same reason, Fr. Sophrony was critical of Dionysius’ proclamations about an abstract ascent to God and did not pay any particular attention to him.

This attests to a quite varied Orthodox reception of Dionysius in the 20th century, which reveals major tendencies within Orthodox theology and its development in the modern period that are not free from ideological premises (e.g., anti-Western) and subjective interpretations. After all, this was a time when Orthodox theology attempted to rediscover its allegedly lost “genuine identity” away from adulterating Western influences – a controversial process with mixed results. This project attempts, on the one hand, to explain the above differences in the Orthodox evaluation of Dionysius and to consider their respective background. On the other hand, it tries to deconstruct these Orthodox readings of Dionysius by showing, first, the contingency of their anti-Western discourse, given that various Western influences can still be traced in them.  Second, it aims to show the often arbitrary and fragmentary uses of the Orthodox past and tradition through contemporary lenses, based on idiosyncratic criteria and partially uncritical perspectives. Finally, the analysis of Dionysius’ Orthodox reception will hopefully confirm the need for a more fruitful encounter and productive exchange between East and West, not the least because it is about a Christian writer stemming from the period of the one, undivided Church.


Funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), 2022-2025 

Dionysius Areopagita – Russian Icon, 17th c.