Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume VII/Dionysius/Introductory Notice
DIONYSIUS, BISHOP OF ROME.
[a.d. 259-269.] Dionysius is no exception to the rule that Latin Christianity had no place in Rome till after the Nicene Council. He was a Greek by birth, and reflects the spirit and orthodoxy of the Greek Fathers; and what we have from him is written in the Greek language. We find it in Athanasius, where, remarks Waterland, its genuineness cannot be suspected, because “Athanasius did not entirely approve of it, and would certainly never have forged an interpretation different from his own.” He concurred with the Easterns in the discipline of Paul of Samosata. Waterland says of the following fragment: “It is of admirable use for showing the doctrine of the Trinity as professed by the Church of Christ at that time.”
The purely receptive character of the Roman See during the Ante-Nicene period must be sufficiently apparent to the possessors of the volumes of this series. Until after the Council of Nice, as a Roman pontiff has testified, she was unfelt in the churches as a teaching church. Irenæus has justly stated her case: as the focus of the empire, she was the natural center of exchange and social commerce among all nations. Thither all Christians converged, and there at all times might be found representatives of all the churches,—those of Gaul and Britain; those of Asia Minor and Syria; those of Alexandria and Egypt; those of North Africa, where Latin Christianity had begun to exist, and where it had reached a vigorous maturity at the Nicene period. Hence, from all these churches came into Rome a Catholic testimony, which was thus preserved at the metropolis by the pressure from without.
This is the fact which gives importance to the earliest dogmatic testimony proceeding from the See of Rome. Dionysius has the great distinction of sustaining the orthodoxy which Hippolytus and other comprovincial bishops had established against the heresy of two of his predecessors; and this little essay, embedded in the works of Athanasius, comes forth as a genuine “bee” out of his precious amber, sweet with the honey of truth, and pungent with the sting of an acute and piercing testimony against error.
For the necessary preface to this essay or synodical letter, the reader must turn to the history of Dionysius of Alexandria, surnamed the Great, and to the letters he wrote to his namesake of Rome. For a complete view of the whole matter, and for the originals of both these great prelates, the student will not fail to consult Routh. Athanasius, the touchstone of orthodoxy, does not altogether commend the idioms of either; but he sustains the essential orthodoxy of both with that vast sweep of genius which could insist upon Nicene idioms after the council, but sustain those who, in defective language, fought previously for essential truth.
For a just view of Novatian and of the orthodoxy of Rome in the times of Dionysius, as that unhappy but competent witness sets it forth, the reader would do well to consult Dr. Waterland. For a vindication of the Alexandrian Dionysius, to whom his contemporaries gave the surname Magnus, see the same lucid expounder of antiquity. For a sententious statement of the subordination of the Son, on which so much hinges in these inquiries, consult the same theologian.
I might have suffixed this essay to the works of the great Dionysius but for several important considerations: (1) I was glad to give due prominence to this exceptional voice from old Rome, and to place Dionysius with due dignity before the reader; (2) as the Bishop of Rome was without a hearing at Nicæa, I was anxious to show what good Sylvester would have said had he been able to attend the council; (3) I was not willing, therefore, to hide this writer’s light under the bushel of the pages devoted to the Alexandrian school; (4) I was anxious to close this important volume by a just exhibition of the Ante-Nicene doctrine, previous to the compilation of the Great Symbol; (5) I considered it judicious to elucidate Dionysius by the doctrines of Athanasius, to whom we owe the preservation of the fragment itself; and (6) I felt that here was the place to record the “Athanasian Confession” (so called), which, apocryphal though it be, as a “creed” under his name is allowed to embody the principles for which the whole life of Athanasius was a contest unparalleled in the history of Christianity.
- Works, vol. iii. p. 318
- Vol. iv. p. 170, this series. Compare Irenæus, vol. i. pp. 415-460, this series.
- Novatian (vol. v. p. 607, this series) must not be overlooked, but he is valued merely as a personal witness.
- See pp. 78 and 92, vol. vi., this series.
- Reliqu. Sac.; vol. iii. pp. 221-250.
- Works, vol. iii. pp. 57, 119, 139, 214, 274, 454-459.
- Ib., pp. 43, 111, 274.
- Works, iii. p. 23.