Pseudo-Dionysius: Dooming theology to silence

I never quite understood the impact that Ps-Dionysius had on theology until recently.   (The Title is taken from a footnote in the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov’s work The Comforter). Summarizing a host of monographs and risking oversimplification, one can say that Ps-Dionysius represented the final triumph of neo-Platonic thinking over Hebraic-Apostolic-Creational thinking (and I realize the infinite shades of Middle and Neo-Platonism apply, but few people can follow those discussions, so neo-Platonism is as good a moniker as any.  I can always advance something like von Harnack’s thesis if I have to).    True, it is Olivianus who informed me of the Ps-Dionysius problematic, but my critique has operated somewhat independently of his.   People criticize him, but few have actually answered him point-by-point.  You can begin here.

The Negative Way

Ps-Dionysius argues that as our ascent toward God continues, language falters–becoming more and more abstract, more and more negation.   As readers of Joseph Farrell recall, the more “abstract” talk-of-God becomes, eventually it doesn’t say any-thing, which seems to be Ps-Dionysius’s point.

A Problem by way of response:  this is not how Scripture reveals God.   Scripture is full of positive statements about God.  The most devastating critique is from Colin Gunton:

This worldview ought to have been rejected centuries ago on the grounds of a doctrine of creation in light of the Trinity.  The interaction of God and the world in Christ–with its implicit affirmation of the goodness of the created world, material as well as spiritual, implies a radical critique of the dualism of material and intellectual, sensible and insensible…But without that dualism, the way of ascent becomes impossible, cut off by the descent of Christ (Phil. 2)…who makes God known within the world, within the structures of space and time, not by abstraction from them” (Gunton 65).

Earthy Hebraic Christianity

When we go to the Bible for talk of “kingdom” and “heaven,” does the Bible sound like Ps-Dionysius?  Is the goal of human existence to abstract towards unity with the one OR eat and drink with Jesus in the Kingdom?  Or to look at it from another way:  would Ps-Dionysius be comfortable speaking the way the Bible speaks?  Ps-Dionysius talks about negating language on our unity to the One, freeing language by means of abstraction.  The Bible talks about blood, sweat, hair, and semen emissions.  Which world do you live in?  (Okay, that’s a bit crass, I confess, but it’s far tamer than Leviticus 18 or Ruth 3–go read conservative commentaries on Ruth 3:4, 7-8.  Daniel Block’s is the best.  He knows darn well what “uncovering the feet” really means in the Hebrew idiom). Is it any wonder that allegory arose in the Greek Christian tradition?  Adolf von Harnack was very wrong on some important things, but there is an undeniable grain of truth to his Hellenization thesis; he simply misplaced it.  I don’t have a problem with Hellenized formulas like impassiblity, provided at the end of the day we let exegesis, particularly Hebrew Old Testament, be the guide).

Works Cited:

Buglakov, Sergius.  The Comforter

Gunton, Colin.  Act & Being.

13 comments on “Pseudo-Dionysius: Dooming theology to silence

  1. Mark says:

    Bayou Huguenot, what is your take on “cover the feet”?

    • In this and other contexts “feet” is a reference to genitalia. of course, the word can also mean feet as it is normally used. It’s hard to imagine the Bible commending Ruth for breaking God’s law; on the other hand, Ruth’s actions make more sense if “feet” is interpreted as genitalia. Of course, I am specifically not claiming she slept with Boaz.

  2. Mark says:

    What about the case of Saul and Eglon? The only two instances of “cover his feet”? Does that mean take a nap?

    • As I said, it’s not interpreted as an idiom every time. Block lists the variant appearances of that phrase in the OT. Unfortunately, I don’t have it with me at the moment.

  3. Mark says:

    I always thought Ruth simply shared portion of Boaz’s blanket, and slept by his feet. One thing that came to my mind is, what good it serve to uncover Boaz’s part, because Boaz still said he know about another redeemer who is closer to him, so for illustration, if the other redeemer redeemed Ruth, it makes the whole strategy of uncovering his part a failure considering the risk and embarrassment this action will cause.

  4. […] seen the Father” (Jesus seems to be making positive affirmations about knowing God, contra the later tradition). We know that when Jesus ascends, the divine life lives in the church through the Holy Spirit.  […]

  5. Daniel Jones says:

    It would probably be helpful for both you (and Drake) to get an understanding of the Areopagite’s *philosophy* by reading Dr. Perl’s book Theophany – The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite along with Dillon and Wear ‘Dionysius and the Neoplatonic Tradition’. While I can sympathize that you cannot find much of his doctrine in the “canonical” texts (to a certain point of course), this does not entail that you (or Drake) have given an answer to the Areopagite. Terminating at a plural nous (the divine mind as Drake says), would only entail that you have terminated at a derivative form.

    Why would metaphysical dualism be a helpful move, instead of seeing the sensible and intelligible as two cognitive levels on a path of a continuum of knowledge?

    • I admit I have not given a full answer to Dionysius (yet). One of my perhaps unstated points was to show how problematic he should be for guys at OrthodoxBridge.

  6. […] starkest form, the essence-energies distinction, most starkly represented by Romanides, adopts the Dionysian hyper-ousia (God is beyond being) of which we cannot know, but he reveals himself in his energies, […]

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