1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hierarchy

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HIERARCHY (Gr. ἱερός, holy, and ἄρχειν, to rule), the office of a steward or guardian of holy things, not a “ruler of priests” or “priestly ruler” (see Boeckh, Corp. inscr. Gr. No. 1570), a term commonly used in ecclesiastical language to denote the aggregate of those persons who exercise authority within the Christian Church, the patriarchate, episcopate or entire threefold order of the clergy. The word ἱεραρχία, which does not occur in any classical Greek writer, owes its present extensive currency to the celebrated writings of Dionysius Areopagiticus. Of these the most important are the two which treat of the celestial and of the ecclesiastical hierarchy respectively. Defining hierarchy as the “function which comprises all sacred things,” or, more fully, as “a sacred order and science and activity, assimilated as far as possible to the godlike, and elevated to the imitation of God proportionately to the Divine illuminations conceded to it,” the author proceeds to enumerate the nine orders of the heavenly host, which are subdivided again into hierarchies or triads, in descending order, thus: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones; Dominations, Virtues, Powers; Principalities, Archangels, Angels. These all exist for the common object of raising men through ascending stages of purification and illumination to perfection. The ecclesiastical or earthly hierarchy is the counterpart of the other. In it the first or highest triad is formed by baptism, communion and chrism. The second triad consists of the three orders of the ministry, bishop or hierarch, priest and minister or deacon (ἱεραρχης, ἱερεύς, λειτουργός); this is the earliest known instance in which the title hierarch is applied to a bishop. The third or lowest triad is made up of monks, “initiated” and catechumens. To Dionysius may be traced, through Thomas Aquinas and other Catholic writers of the intervening period, the definition of the term usually given by Roman Catholic writers—“coetus seu ordo praesidum et sacrorum ministrorum ad regendam ecclesiam gignendamque in hominibus sanctitatem divinitus institutus”[1]—although it immediately rests upon the authority of the sixth canon of the twenty-third session of the council of Trent, in which anathema is pronounced upon all who deny the existence within the Catholic Church of a hierarchy instituted by divine appointment, and consisting of bishops, priests and ministers.[2] (See Order, Holy).

  1. Perrone, De locis theologicis, pt. i., sec. i. cap. 2.
  2. Si quis dixerit in ecclesia catholica non esse hierarchiam divina ordinatione institutam, quae constat ex episcopis, presbyteris, et ministris: anathema sit.