Flexible fixity: Theorizing, realizing, and negotiating Byzantine ideals of ecclesiastical hierarchy

Ashley Marie Purpura, Fordham University


This dissertation studies the construction of hierarchy as a theological concept in the Byzantine Christian tradition and argues that ecclesiastical hierarchy is best understood as the communication of divinity. Thus "hierarchy" as a theological ideal carried more positive values in the history of Byzantine Christianity than it does today, by referring more to the manifestation of a divine reality rather than human administrative structures. Even in instances where the term "hierarchy" is not invoked, the theological conception signified by it is frequently adopted in the tradition to negotiate challenges of authenticity, justification, and continuity in ecclesiastical order and spiritual authority. In this dissertation, I argue that the theological ideal of hierarchy as originally coined by Dionysius the Areopagite as that which most fundamentally communicates divinity necessitates a reconsideration of the inclusivity and exclusivity of hierarchy in Byzantine theology and prompts reflection on issues commonly related to discussions of hierarchy historically, and in present-day Orthodox churches. Beginning with the Dionysian coinage of the term and its theological development, I argue that reading hierarchy as divinizing activity in the context of theoretical construction of the term, its application in ritual interpretation, and negotiation in problematic practice resolves tensions within the Corpus Dionysiacum, its authorship, and subsequent popular Byzantine reception. I then turn to evaluate three later Byzantine authors, Maximus the Confessor, Niketas Stethatos, and Nicholas Cabasilas who name Dionysius as authoritative in their writings, and address issues of order and authority in the contexts of theory, ritual, and practice by mirroring the theological conception of hierarchy named by Dionysius. Through this survey of appropriation and theological reflection I posit that the conception of authentic hierarchy as that which communicates divinity provides insight into the way that Byzantine Christians conceived and continue to conceive of their theological tradition in a way that is paradoxically fixed to a continuity of theological content and inevitably flexible in the naming and locating of this content as tradition.

Subject Area

Religion|Religious history|Theology

Recommended Citation

Purpura, Ashley Marie, "Flexible fixity: Theorizing, realizing, and negotiating Byzantine ideals of ecclesiastical hierarchy" (2014). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3643082.