Dionysius Alexandrinus surnamed the Great, was born a heathen, but was converted early to Christianity by the teaching of Origen. He became a catechist about A.D. 233, and succeeded Heraclas in the bishopric of Alexandria about A.D. 247. His episcopate was full of troubles, as it continued during the persecutions of Decius and Valerian, and in it a pestilence ravaged the whole Roman empire, to say nothing of the disputes and controversies which at the same time greatly disturbed the peace of the Church. He was driven, with many of his flock, by the Decian persecution, into the deserts of Libya. In about a year's time, the persecution being abated, he returned to Alexandria, A.D. 251. In 257 the Valerian persecution began, and Dionysius was banished by AEmilian, praefect of Egypt, to Cephro, in Libya, where he continued at least three years. Valerian having been taken prisoner by the Persians, the persecution was again stayed, and Dionysius returned to his flock at Alexandria, where he died about A.D. 265. Dionysius was a man of learning and piety. He took an active part in the controversies of the time; and from what remains of his Epistles, his moderation and spirit of conciliation are sufficiently apparent. A few fragments only remain of his works.
Dionysius finally refuted the Chiliastic doctrine, against which Origen had dealt so heavy blows. SEE MILLENNIUM. "An Egyptian bishop, Nepos, in a work called ἔλεγχος Α᾿λληγοριστῶν, insisted particularly on the literal interpretation of the Apocalypse, and the description of the Millennium therein contained. Owing, no doubt, to the persecution by Decius, this view was extensively adopted by the oppressed Christians, to whom it furnished strong motives of endurance. But this having ceased, Dionysius succeeded, by personal argument and his treatise περὶ εὐαγγελιῶν, in expelling Chiliasm from the Eastern Church" (Gieseler, Church History, 1:62).
In refutation of the Sabellians, Dionysius wrote a letter to Ammonius and Euphanor (see the fragments in Athanasius, de Sentent. Dionysii) which seems to fix upon him the Origenistic doctrine of the subordination of the Son to the Father. "The Sabellians, though they denied the hypostasis, retained the idea of the ὁμοούσιον; this led Dionysius to describe the Logos as foreign to the Father in his essence, as his ποίημα, to speak of his having a beginning, and to make use of striking comparisons to express his subordination. As the Western Church had already developed with great distinctness the idea of unity of essence, Dionysius, bishop of Rome, took offense at these expressions as derogatory to the divine nature. Dionysius of Alexandria defended himself against these imputations in an apologetical letter (ἔλεγχος καὶ ἀπολογία, of which fragments are preserved; see Gieseler, Ch. Hist. volume 1, § 62). His moderation stayed the controversy: he blamed his accusers for having laid too much stress on comparisons, since in heavenly subjects it was not possible to use comparisons that were perfectly adequate. Ποιεῖν was used to express the bringing forth of beings of the same kind. He also acknowledged the sameness of nature, only he scrupled to use the term ὁμοούσιον, as he did not find it in Holy Writ. He had called the Son γεννητός, not in order to express an origination in time, but the derivation of his being from the Father — his eternity as founded in that of the Father. He marked the unity of essence thus: an ἀρχή from which everything else is derived, and with which the Logos is inseparably combined" (Neander, History of Dogmas, Ryland's transl., 1:169) "The Arians even asserted (see Athanasius, Opera, 1:253) that Dionysius taught like themselves: Ούκ άεὶ ῏ην ὁ Θεὸς πατήρ, οὐκ ἀεὶ ῏ην ὁ υἱός· ἀλλ᾿ ὁ μὲν θεὸς ῏ην χωρὶς τοῦ λόγου· αὐτὸς δὲ ὁ υἱὸς οὐκ ῏ην πρὶν γεννηθῇ· ἀλλ᾿ ῏ην ποτε ὅτε οὐκ ῏ην, οὐ γὰρ ἀϊvδιός ἐστιν, ἀλλ᾿ ὕστερον ἐπιγέγονεν (comp., however, thi expressions quoted by Athanasius, page 254, which go to prove the contrary). But the bishop of Rome insisted that Dionysius should adopt the phrase ὁμοουσία, to which the latter at last consented, though he did not think that it was founded either upon the language of Scripture, or upon the terminology till then current in the Church. Orthodox theologians of later times (e.g. Athanasius), endeavoring to do more justice to Dionysius of Alexandria, maintained that he had used the aforesaid offensive illustrations κατ᾿ οἰκονομίαν, and that they might be: easily explained from the stand he took against Sabellianism (Athanasius, page 246 sq.; see, on the other side, Löffler, Kleine Schriften, 1:114 sq., quoted by Heinichen on Euseb. 1:306)" (Hagenbach, History of Doctrines, § 87). Dorner holds that Diony. sius had really gone too far, and was bound to retract, but yet excuses him on the ground that "he was endowed with but a small measure of scientific acuteness, and hence did not fully foresee the consequences of the principles he laid down. His tendency was very different from that of Arius" (Dorner, Person of Christ, Edinb. transl. div. 1, volume 2, page 179). Bull, in the Defensio Fid. Nican., defends Dionysius against the charge of Arianism in various passages, one of which we give, as follows: "Of the heads of doctrine which his adversaries objected against him before Dionysius Romanus, the following was one: 'God was not always a Father, the Son was not always, but God was some time without a Logos. The Son himself was not before he was born, or made, but there was a time when he was not. For he was not eternal, but was made afterwards.' Athanasius expressly saith that Dionysius defended himself from these accusations. Now it appears from this accusation that the proposition, there was a time when the Son was not, was by the Catholics held to be heterodox and absurd in the times of Dionysius. But how does Dionysius defend himself? By owning the charge? No. He professes that he did from his heart acknowledge, and always had acknowledged, the co-eternity of the Son. For in the first book of his refutation and apology, he says, 'There was not a time when God was not a Father.' And some time after he writes thus concerning the Son of God: 'Since he is the effulgence of the eternal 'light, he himself is altogether eternal; for since the light is always, the effulgence, it is manifest, must also be always.' Again: 'God is an eternal light, without beginning or end; therefore an eternal effulgence is projected by him, co- exists with him 'without beginning, and always born.' And again: 'The Son alone is always coexistent with the Father, and is filled with the existent Being, and is himself existent from the Father.' There are places parallel to these in the epistle to Dionysius, which is now extant, to Paulus Samosatenus, and in his answer to Paul's questions set after the epistle. In the epistle he writes thus of Christ: ' There is one Christ, who is in the Father, the coeternal Word.' In his answers he thus introduces Christ speaking from the prophet Jeremy: ' I who always am the Christ subsisting personally, equal to the Father, in that I differ nothing from him in substance, coeternal also with the Almighty Spirit.' Here he confesses the entire, coeval, coeternal trinity of persons. The same Dionysius blames Paul because he would not call Christ the co-eternal character of God the Father's person. And in the same place he thus declares the eternity of the Son 'As then we perceive, when one takes from one of our material fires, and neither affects nor divides it in the kindling one light from another, but the fire remains, so incomprehensibly is the eternal generation of Christ from the Father.' Lastly, that this was his constant opinion, which he always held, everywhere preached and professed, he affirms in these words: ' I have written, do write, confess, believe, and preach that Christ is co-eternal with the Father, the only-begotten Son, and Word of the Father.' Let Sandius brazen his forehead, and boast still that the great Dionysius Alexandrinus was of Arius's mind." It was at the close of Dionysius's life that the second council was convoked at Antioch to condemn the heresy of Paul of Samosata, and to the fathers of the council Dionysius sent an epistle, in which he asserts, according to bishop Bull, the true divinity of the Son of God. See Eusebius, Hist. Ecclesiastes 6:29, 35, 40, 46; 7:20, 26, 28; and Lardner, Credibility, 3:57-132, where most of the remaining fragments are noticed, and many of them translated. His remains are published separately: Opera Dion. Alex. quae supersunt, Gr. and Lat. (Romie, 1796, fol.). They are given also in Galland, Bibl. Patr. 3:481; in Routh, Reliq. Sacrae, volumes 2 and 3; and in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, 10:1237 sq. A special work on the life and writings of Dionysius has been written by Dittrich (Roman Catholic), Dionysius der Grosse von Alexandrien (Freiburg, 1867). See Clarke, Succ. of Sac. Lit. 1:176; Herzog, Real-Encyklopädie, 3:410; a full account in Ceillier, Histoire Giniale ides auteurs ecclesiastiques, 2:396 sq.; Hefele's Conciloengeschichte, 1:222 sq.; and Murdock's excellent note to Mosheim, Church History, book 1, cent. 1, part 2, chapter 2, § 7. A translation of the remains of Dionysius is promised in the Ante-Nicene Christian Library, now publishing (1868) at Edinburgh.