Do you claim Pseudo-Dionysius?

(This is kind of a repost, but it dovetails with some stuff I’ve been thinking of lately).

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, and hair.  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 formulae 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.


5 comments on “Do you claim Pseudo-Dionysius?

  1. Eric Castleman says:

    I have much to say, and so little interest in saying it, but I will go against my better judgment and engage your thoughts.

    Just to get this out of the way; I don’t know why you would even reference Drake Shelton after he renounced Christianity publicly, and it is because of this stuff. One person even bet me that he would eventually endorse exactly what he is now endorsing after spewing these exact ideas above. Secondly, I know you have seen Perry’s video, in which he takes Shelton to town, and even in that video he deals with ideas you are now promoting. So yes, people have answered him, yet, most people just don’t want to spend hours answering 100 stupid arguments that Drake has conjured up. because nobody is getting paid to do so. If Drake was a better mind he could articulate a valid argument in one post, but everything he does is shotgun. But that is beside the point.

    I don’t understand how any of this is Dionysius stuff is so central to Orthodoxy alone, since Aquinas quotes Dionysius more than anyone else, and Calvin borrows from Aquinas from issues which are linked to Dionysius. This isn’t hard to grasp, since it is a well known fact that while the east upholds apophatic theology, Rome holds not to cataphatic theology, but both cataphatic theology and apophatic theology. This is necessary because it is impossible to speak of infinity outside of negation. Can you explain to me the incomprehensibility of God without using negative language?

    I also don’t understand how using Christ, the very point in which Orthodox base our theology of icons on, is any evidence against apophatic theology, since we think Christ is comprehensible. So speaking of Christ in so far as his hair etc. isn’t an argument against apophatic theology.

    I don’t know where this notion comes from that the Greeks relied heavily on allegory, as if the reformed don’t. Almost every word from Christ is turned into allegory by the reformed.

    Finally, I get what Farrell and Daniel are saying when it comes to Dionysius, and I honestly take them seriously when they speak about it, however, I just am not convinced of it, because everything borrowed from Dionysius can also be found much earlier. In fact, most of his major views are held in the most popular and well known fathers of the church. Now, I can see how this revelation can cause some people to become a Messianic Jew and end up rejecting the trinity all together.

    • My point with reference to Drake is that I came to many of these conclusions independently from him (I draw heavily upon the Oxbridge scholar Colin Gunton, Drake does not).

      It’s not entirely clear that Calvin borrows from Aquinas (at least not directly). Recent natural law monographs have demonstrated that Calvin could not have had access to Thomas’s folios.

      My critique of icons has little to do with the above post. My critique is along the lines of the impropriety of positing Christ’s two natures outside his real hypostasis. I don’t think I touched on that in the above post.

      ***econdly, I know you have seen Perry’s video, in which he takes Shelton to town, and even in that video he deals with ideas you are now promoting***

      Perry answered Drake, not Colin Gunton. Drake is advancing the argument that Perry’s own view terminates back upon the One, similar to Damasus (the pagan whom you know as Pseud-Dionysius). I don’t know who is right in that exchange, Perry or Drake. I really don’t care, either, since my argument is independent of those two.

  2. “Despite all the outward resemblances (due primarily to a common vocabulary), we are far removed from the negative theology of the Aeropagitica. The God of Dionysius, incomprehensible by nature, the God of the Psalms: ‘who made darkness his secret place’, is not primordial God-Unity of the neo-Platonists. If he is incomprehensible it is not because of a simplicity which cannot come to terms with the multiplicity with which all knowledge relating to creatures is tainted. It is, so to say, an incomprehensibility which is more radical, more absolute. Indeed, God would no longer be incomprehensible were, as in Plotinus, rooted in the simplicity of the One. Now it is precisely the quality of incomprehensibility which, in Dionysius, is the one definition proper to God–if we may speak here of proper definitions…In his treatise ‘Of the Divine Names’, in examining the name of the One, which can be applied to God, he shows its insufficiency and compares with it another and ‘most sublime’ name–that of the Trinity, which teaches us that God is neither one nor many but that He transcends the antimony, being unknowable in what He is.”

    And to reiterate, “All that can be said in regard to the Platonism of the fathers, and especially in regard to the dependence of the author of the Areopagitica on the neo-Platonist philosophers, is limited to outward resemblances which do not go to the root of their teaching, and relate only to a vocabulary which was common to the age.”

    Vladimir Lossky, “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church”; Chapter titled, “The Divine Darkness”

    • ***”Despite all the outward resemblances (due primarily to a common vocabulary), we are far removed from the negative theology of the Aeropagitica.***

      I find that hard to believe. Many EO fathers claim Ps-Dionysius as a father, leaving one to assume that they share more than a common vocabulary. And the rest of the quote by Lossky only proves the point. He does not remove himself from this neo-Platonism but even seems to harden it.

      • No forgive me, this was unclear. When he says we are “far removed” it is in reference to the neo-platonic ideas he was referencing just before the passage I posted. There is no doubt in pseudo-Dionysius influence on Trinitarian doctrine.

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