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Dionysius of Alexandria |
The sage who escaped Decius

Dionysius of Alexandria is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 30, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit www.TheChristians.info.

Dionysius could talk atomic theory and was sharp in doctrinal debate, but it was his merciful policy to those who had failed the test that won the bishop bitter criticism

Dionysius of Alexandria - The sage who escaped Decius

Dionysius of Alexandria – The sage who escaped Decius
Plague followed pestilence in the Roman Empire of the late third century. According to Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, the Christians became known for the care they gave victims of the plagues that decimated that great city’s population. Attending to those not yet dead and burying those who were, Christians showed a courage and compassion that earned them grudging respect.

Christianity has never had a problem attracting the best and brightest, despite what anti-Christian propagandists habitually insist. The faith has held special appeal to those who sense a deeper reality beyond the conventional thinking of their day, which has made Christianity the most intellectually revolutionary force in history, forever challenging the status quo, often at high cost to believers. The exquisitely educated Paul was an early example of a powerful Christian intellect who changed the world; he was followed in the faith’s formative years by the likes of Cyprian and Augustine–and also Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria from 247 to 265.

Dionysius’s was a mind for the ages, one that should be better known in modern times. On one day, he would debate atomic theory with his era’s most vibrant atheists; his arguments against randomness as the First Cause continue to resonate in our day. Another occasion might find him illuminating the most intricate theological minutiae or composing history’s most searing first-person accounts of plague and persecution. He is the model of the fully engaged Christian intellectual–one who fought with his head against the insanity of persecution.

Dionysius is believed to have been born around 190 to a wealthy family. He was steeped in the wisdom of his day, and he saw straight through it. “I myself lived in the doctrines and traditions of the heretics,” he explained, “and for some time soiled my soul with their impure inventions; but at least I have, as a result of my stay among them, the advantage of confounding them in myself, and of having a much greater distaste for them.”

It was the Epistles of Paul that spoke directly to him and led to his conversion. He also, early on, experienced a vision that set him on his path as an intellectual combatant. A voice “gave me an explicit order: ‘Take all that you find, for you are capable of setting to rights and examining each thing, and in your case this has been from the first the cause of your faith.’” He interpreted this as a divine directive to study the work of his opponents, so that he could better bring them to the truth. In that endeavor he was perhaps unparalleled.

Dionysius rose quickly. He studied under Origen, a one-man Harvard University, and became the leader of Alexandria’s famed catechetical school at thirty; in 247, he was named bishop of Alexandria, a city said to be the match of Rome itself. Like Cyprian, the brilliant bishop of Carthage, westward along the northern coast of Africa, he shared many situations and opinions. he would quickly face challenges of almost supernatural breadth, depth, and horror. It is against this dark backdrop that the brightness of his achievement should be considered.

Bishop Dionysius had been on the job less than a year when unrest erupted in 248, largely over taxes. In the following winter, pagan mobs, inspired by a frenzied prophet, went on an anti-Christian rampage, brutal even by the standards of his day. First seized was an old man named Metras, who was beaten with clubs after refusing to deny his Lord, then blinded and stoned.

The pumps were now primed; the mob found its next victim in a woman named Quinta, who received the same treatment. An old lady named Apollonia had her teeth knocked out and her jaw broken. She was ordered to recant her faith as her tormentors suggestively lit a bonfire, and she is said to have struck a pose suggesting her possible compliance. But when her captors loosened their grip, she leaped into the flames, denying them their odious pleasure.

This was only the beginning. The emperor Decius began a formal persecution in 250, rounding up church leaders throughout the empire. Dionysius was eventually arrested. Great lives are often marked by bizarre events that may suggest divine intent, and so it was with Dionysius. A band of men from a wedding party, tipped off that their beloved bishop was being marched to prison, put down their wine, and intercepted the procession, putting Dionysius’s captors to flight.

The prisoner bishop, confusing his rescuers with robbers, offered them his cloak. No, they assured him, they had come to set him free. Dionysius could make no sense of this, protesting that he was fully prepared to wear the crown of martyrdom. Indeed, perhaps they would like to do him the honor of cutting off his head. One can guess a sense of growing consternation among his liberators, who placed Dionysius on a donkey and escorted him off to Libya. He might have desired the martyr’s crown, but other events awaited him.

Dionysius’s return in 251 brought its own troubles, including the charge that he had fled to avoid persecution. He found his chief accuser in Germanos, an Egyptian bishop, and so faced challenges from within his church nearly as daunting as the external threat.

The question of what to do with those who had lapsed during persecution was tearing the African church apart. On this matter, Dionysius and Cyprian were relatively moderate, at least compared with those who would cast the lapsed into utter hopelessness while gaining for themselves control of the church. Dionysius and Cyprian built a solid intellectual bulwark against this merciless position, as was soon discovered by Novatian, whose ferocity toward the lapsed went to the extreme of denying them reunion to the church even at the time of death, and whose personal ambition led him to have himself improperly elected bishop of Rome.

Novatian made the error of asking Dionysius’s blessing. The response was direct and to the point: “You ought to have suffered all things rather than have caused a schism in the Church. To die in defense of its unity would be as glorious as laying down one’s life for its faith; in my opinion, more glorious: because here the safety of the whole Church is concerned.”

To fellow bishops, he warned that if Novatian’s position were to be adopted, “We shall do the contrary of what was done by Christ. He was good, he went out to the mountains to seek for the lost sheep; if the sheep fled away, he called it; if he found it he brought it back with difficulty on his shoulders. We see the sheep coming, and harshly repel it with kicks.” Though his prose was highly polemical, it was employed in the service of advancing a Christlike mercy.

He was similarly direct with his outside accusers. During renewed persecution in 257, Dionysius was ordered to embrace the pagan deities. Not possible, he replied; that would be “contrary to nature.” He then offered a short tutorial. “Not all people worship all gods, but each one those whom he approves. We therefore reverence and worship the One God, the Maker of all, who hath given the empire to the divinely favored and august Valerian and Gallienus; and we pray to him continually for their empire, that it may remain unshaken.”

It is worth recalling who was holding the sword during this conversation, and that similar words were voiced by Cyprian during his confrontation with the authorities. In Cyprian’s case, they led to an appointment with the headsman.

Dionysius brought his powers to bear on a vast number of subjects, including what was the proper length of fasting (he favored short fasts because they were easier for people to observe), when to celebrate Easter, and what could and could not transpire in the marital bedroom (he left this to the conscience of husband and wife).

He was at no time more brilliant, however, than when describing the darkest episodes in human physical experience. During a period when plague and civil war beset his city, his writing could sear like the best in literature. At times, the killings in his beloved city stained the waterways with blood, he observed. “For often from the slaughters there committed they appear like the Red Sea,” he wrote in one letter. “When can the air, poisoned by these noxious exhalations, become pure? For such vapors arise from the earth, and winds from the sea, and breezes from the river, and mists from the harbors, that the dews are, as it were, discharges from dead bodies putrefying in all the elements around us.”

He was not seeking literary recognition, of course, but sought to inspire fidelity in the face of death, either by sword or by pestilence. This was no small assignment, but the power of his words brought a large measure of success. During plague time, the pagans “pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead, and treating unburied corpses as dirt.”

Dionysius’s flock, however, heeded his call to take the opposite approach. “Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves, and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.”

It is noteworthy that Dionysius’s policy toward the stricken had results he could hardly have guessed. Historian Rodney Stark believes that the care offered by Christians may have cut the mortality rate by two-thirds or more and eventually led to a large number of conversions to this merciful creed. That, in turn, further secured Christianity’s place in society and history. Thus his church, under his direction, prospered in the face of an almost unspeakable calamity.

There were calmer times, during which Dionysius would turn his mind to other challenges, often with great success. When an Egyptian bishop named Nepos began arguing that believers should expect a one thousand-year reign of Christ marked by vast corporal delights, he gained an instant following. That is not hard to understand. The Lord’s imminent return was widely assumed, and the promise that privation and persecution would be replaced by peace, joy, and rivers flowing with wine had obvious and immediate appeal.

Yet this doctrine was contrary to church teaching, which Dionysius restated, gently yet persuasively, in his Book of Promises. Like many authors, he went on tour, in this case in the erring bishop’s district, where he held a series of discussions with village priests. Within three days he had brought them around to his way of thinking, thus single-handedly heading off a schism that might have roiled and weakened the church for hundreds of years.

He was also very much at home with subjects of truly cosmic proportion. While many in the modern age assume that atomic theory is of recent vintage, it was a matter of great discussion among the intellectual elite of Dionysius’s day. The atomists argued that life was the accidental result of the collision of random atoms, a position heavy with philosophical implications.

Dionysius, who gave serious and respectful attention to his opponents’ position, responded with his most enduring book, On Nature. Dionysius looked into the heavens and saw a Guiding Hand at work. It was his devout hope that he could bring his atheistic opponents to see this hand as well. “But who, then, is the sagacious discriminator, that brings certain atoms into collocation, and separates others, and marshals some in such wise as to form the sun, and others in such a way to originate the moon?” That “discriminator,” of course, is God. This same hand created glories much closer to home, he added. “And whence came the soul, and the intelligence, and the reason, which are born with the philosopher? Has he gathered these from those atoms which are destitute alike of soul, and intelligence, and reason?”

Dionysius was spared the executioner’s sword, living until the age of seventy-five or thereabouts, his mind active to the end. Indeed, like the soul in which he so devoutly believed, his mind sought the eternal, and in the fullness of time, achieved a distinct immortality.

This is the end of the Dionysius of Alexandria category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 30, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Dionysius of Alexandria from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at www.TheChristians.info