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).
Buglakov, Sergius. The Comforter
Gunton, Colin. Act & Being.