The Pseudo Dionysius

One of the ancient influences on Christian theology is a collection of books claiming to be epistles from Dionysius the Aeropagite to Timothy. The name is taken from a convert of Paul’s preaching in Athens mentioned by Luke. The correspondence purports to explain the things known and taught by the Apostle Paul. Timothy, the conceit goes, has had some difficulty understanding the more recondite matters Paul at one or another time touched on, and wishes further elaboration. Happily for him, Dionysius, being a trained thinker gloriously converted, is in a position to oblige.

With the exception of some pockets of Eastern Orthodoxy, I understand, most people today recognize that the writing is pseudonymous, and that its provenance is probably from Syria in the 5th century. This date is given because it is mentioned in another letter early in the 6th century and because its thought bears an uncanny resemblance to the thought of the pagan philosopher Proclus, who was delivered from his material body in the year 485. As to the location, when the thinking going on in these short books is studied and compared with records of what other Christians were thinking, Syria seems to be the most likely location for these interests and pursuits.

This pseudonymous correspondence was an ingenious ruse, and I think so for at least four reasons. (1) The most obvious is that it really seems to have taken almost everybody in for a very long time. There was some dubiety expressed as to the genuineness of the works early on, but that soon vanished. They entered the canon of serious theology, dangerous interpretations were eliminated by none less than Maximus Confessor, the thought was assimilated, and today it is impossible to understand the history of Christian theology without some acquaintance with these curious writings. The ruse worked amazingly well! It is hard for us to take something pseudonymous seriously, but the fact is we have to.

(2) The ruse was also ingenious because the figure himself, Dionysius the Aeropagite, serves as a symbol for what the author wanted to accomplish. He appears to me to have wanted to smuggle a philosophical approach which already informed Christian thought further in. He did it at a time when philosophy was increasingly viewed with suspicion. So he got a trained philosopher who had been converted and put in his mouth the theological insights he had achieved. I think he got the most qualified person you could desire. A less ingenious person might have picked Apollos, or Titus, or even Mary Magdalene—persons with higher profile, having perhaps more described abilities, or enjoying corresponding holy auras. That is not what our subtle Syrian did, and he did well.

What he accomplished was to Christianize the later insights of a philosophical approach already assimilated to Christianity, and in this way he made sure it was fruitful. Christians have always had an uneasy relationship with philosophy. We seem to be more skeptical of its influence than we are of any other activity we share with unbelievers. By the fifth century when philosophy—an ancient critic of pagan religion—was being degraded into a kind of pagan theology, the attitude was understandable. But if you think of it, philosophy had no way forward in paganism, it did have a way forward in Christianity (and later in Islam). Thanks to our ingenious author, that which could be harvested even from late neo-Platonism was stored in the Christian barn.

(3) The Pseudo Dionysius, as he is known, coined a very important word: hierarchy. That, one may say, was one of his main contributions. We moderns are trained and even brainwashed against the concept of hierarchy. What the Pseudo Dionysius did was to employ it for theology. Without hierarchy, there can be no order; there can be no order of all-pervading equality. There was hierarchy before, but the actual word that we use comes from the Pseudo Dionysius, and coining a word that actually stays is an ingenious thing to do. Had he not done so, who would have? Credit to whom credit is due.

(4) Apophatic theology is probably the main contribution of the Pseudo Dionysius. It is theology by negation. If the Pseudo Dionysius did not originate the approach, he certainly brought it into focus. When we speak about God we neither speak univocally or equivocally. When we say that God sees, we know it is a metaphor; when we say that God knows, we understand that it is analogical: there is some way in which it is similar, but not altogether. If it were altogether similar, we would speak univocally and reduce God. If it were altogether dissimilar, we would speak equivocally and say nothing or just nonsense. Both must be avoided. Apophatic theology is a way of approaching this which emphasizes the difference: it wants to proceed with the constant reminder that God is not like us and always hold before us his strangeness. God is so not like us, the Pseudo Dionysius says, that we cannot univocally ascribe any category we know to him, not even being. Bearing in mind this is not all there is to say, that there is a kataphatic approach (which pulls us away from the equivocal error because it is theology by affirmation) and even a hyperphatic (theology by denial and affirmation, by way of eminence), apophatic theology is a useful and necessary part of theology. It keeps theologians on the knife edge of analogical language. As long as it isn’t used to make our language about God merely equivocal, as long as it pulls us away from merely univocal language, it serves to keep reverence in our theological discourse.

Doing theology with reverence is something our age could use more of. Which is why I think the Pseudo Dionysius is worth getting to know. However strange, he has been very influential. If you like savoring the writings of the early church (you should learn to do that), he’s another one you can read through with deliberation and attention.

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A Penetrating Mind

Having discovered David Bentley Hart only recently, I’ve been bingeing on him (in my disciplined way). I dislike the dog things he sometimes writes, but when he is not doing those I find he is altogether congenial. His views of politics are very sound. “A cynical poltroon of infinitely pliable principles is in many cases less a threat to liberty, justice, or peace than someone whose mind has been corrupted with ‘high’ ideals or (worse yet) high ideas,” in “Anarcho-Monarchism.”

I am almost certain that he’s another Christian Platonist. Unlike me, he has an admirable amount of discretion and subtlety. He lets drop mention here and there, hints and rumors. It may be that I am too eager, but I think there is a good case to be made that he actually is in the tradition: from Origen to Hart. It is the same with fairies, one is almost persuaded he believes. What a great guy!

Theology and metaphysics are what he does best, as one would expect of a Platonist; pure orthodoxy there, from what I admiringly recal. (His asides about American Evangelicalism alone are worth reading him for.) He has a good argument on the failure of Christendom that I see appearing in scattered essays, and what is most persuasive about Hart is that he traces it back to the doctrine of God.

Voluntarism, after all, began as a doctrine regarding God, and only gradually (if inevitably) migrated to the human subject. The God of absolute will who was born in the late Middle Ages had by the late sixteenth century so successfully usurped the place of the true God that few theologians could recognize him for the imposter that he was. And the piety he inspired was, in some measure, a kind of blasphemous piety: a servile and fatalistic adoration of boundless power masquerading as a love of righteousness. More importantly, this theology—through the miraculous technology of the printing press—entered into common Christian consciousness as the theology of previous ages never could, and in so doing provided Western humanity at once both with a new model of freedom and with a God whom it would be morally and psychologically necessary, in the fullness of time, to kill.

That is in “Impassibility and Transcendence” in The Hidden and the Manifest. I’m at present reading through the systematic theology list for my comprehensive exams at WTS. Good stuff, so far. Classic, some of it. Very seldom, however, does it attain the clarity and penetration that Hart regularly achieves.

the unattainable divine What

Dealing with the great problem at the heart of his proposed solution, Karl Barth speaks of the reception of divine revelation as the How. “This How is the attainable human reflection of the unattainable divine What. Our concern here must be with this reflection.”

Concern indeed! Barth’s radical rejection of natural theology, because—I think—he wants a solution to the problem of liberalism’s contradictory anti-supernatural theology (and so whenever I read him protesting natural theology, I supply instead anti-supernatrual theology and what he means then makes sense to me), Barth’s rejection of any natural theology makes his reception of divine revelation problematic. And, I think, modern, as opposed to pre-modern.

I cannot read Barth and believe his god is anything but a god of becoming. It seems to me that that is the modern dilemma: there are no modern theologies in which there is an immutable God. The problem is not simply a denial of classic theism, it is a denial of the corresponding intellectualism. Intellectualism is only possible with language that is analogical or univocal. The anti-supernatural theology of liberalism with its immanent-but-not-transcendent god represented a univocal intellectualism, and Barth reacts to this. But if there is no analogy, which voluntarism essentially denies, then all you have is equivocation. And a god about which nothing can be asserted is conceptually no different from a god of becoming. For all practical theological purposes, all voluntarism, it seems to me, has to involve a god of becoming. Barth’s Trinitarian thought can be reduced to a serial, uninterrupted modalism, which is to say, he has a god of becoming. The stability of the unchanging God of such utter perfection that he is pure actuality is exchanged for the instability of the god of ineffable dynamism, a sheer untamed and indescribable power with no other dominant quality. The problem for Barth, then, is not simply that the Immutable is revealing himself in the realm of the mutable, it is that the unattainable divine What offers no point of reference himself. He has reacted to univocity by affirming equivocity, rather than reverting to analogy.

I am beginning to wonder whether the rejection of natural theology is a position incompatible with pre-modern assumptions. I wonder if you have to be modern or post to accept it. Is it, in short, an innovation subsequently read back into theology and Scripture?

Essentially, you can accept the analogical intellectualism of pre-modern theology, the theology of classic theism, or you can go with the theological manifestation of philosophical nominalism, which is voluntarism, a radical skepticism about our ability to know what is transcendent. You can either deny transcendence by only speaking in terms of exalted human experience, or you can effectively deny transcendence by denying any point of contact whatever. If you want to argue that it is not that simple, I am open to persuasion. At this point I just can’t see how an argument against what I’m saying can be made. The argument for what I’m saying is that of continuity with the assumptions on the basis of which theology was done, of the palpable affinity between nominalism and voluntarism, and of the trajectory we see devolving from both the philosophical and the theological assumptions that are nominalism and voluntarism.

Editorializing I.1

WCF – Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.

My take on presuppositional apologetics, and why I can’t stand it, is that to me it changes the last words of the sentence to read: Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give knowledge.

* * *

2LBC – The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience, although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and his will which is necessary unto salvation.

Is it an improvement? I think that if you judge strictly in literary terms, the WCF is more elegant and as clear. I feel that a tendency to overstatement has characterized particular Baptists ever since . . . I also feel the burdensome precision of a legal—or worse, a government—document. The 2LBC starts as a document hedged against human perversity. And yet (and so?), who would want to omit those words?

And lastly, why do I want to alter the punctuation? The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience. Although etc.

Of the Tradition

In an essay called “The Secret Commonwealth” David Bentley Hart considers a 1691 treatise written by the reverend Robert Kirk (1644-1692, and now believed to be imprisoned in a pine overlooking the site of his alleged grave) entitled The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. He winds his essay down with these words:

One need not believe in fairies to grasp that there is no good reason why one ought not to do so. To see the world as inhabited by these vital intelligences, or to believe that behind the outward forms of nature there might be an unperceived realm of intelligent order, is simply to respond rationally to one of the ways in which the world seems to address us, when we intuit simultaneously its rational frame and the depth of mystery it seems to hide from us. It may be the apprehension of such an unseen order, when it comes to the form of folklore about fabulous beings, has been overlaid by numerous strata of illusion—but so what? Everything we know about reality comes to us with a certain alloy of illusion, not accidentally, but as an indispensable condition. Even the dreariest Kantian can tell you that our ability to know the world depends upon those transcendental qualities the mind impresses upon it before it can impress them upon the mind, and that all perception requires the supreme fictions of the synthetic a priori. At the most primordial level of consciousness, the discrimination between truth and fantasy—if, by truth, one means the strictly empirically verifiable—becomes merely formal. Moreover, even if one suspects this is not a matter so much of illusion as of delusion, again that is of no consequence. A delusion this amiable is endlessly preferable to boredom, for boredom is the one force that can utterly defeat the will to be, and so the will to care at all what is or is not true. It is only some degree of prior enchantment that allows the eye to see, and to seek to see yet more. And so, deluded or not, a belief in fairies will always be in some sense far more rational than the absolute conviction that such things are sheer nonsense, and that the cosmos consists in nothing but brute materials in haphazard combinations.

Reader, read him.

The Storm

On the presidential front is was a Stormy week. Isn’t it amazing? The one thing President Trump can ignore and did. Not so impulsive, perhaps, as we have been led to believe. Unfortunately for him, that still tells you something. There can be little doubt that the harlot’s enormous attractions attracted the New York billionaire. There is also little doubt that we still live in a country in which infidelity can’t be that much of a scandal. I mean, look who’s trying to agitate for the kind of reaction a scandal would get: liberals, godless neocons, and the whore of Babylon’s own news service, the Wall Street Journal. My money is still on Trump. I think he’ll keep the throne. Who are people trying to kid by exposing what everybody already assumes is true about him, for heaven’s sake? Perhaps it is done more with a view toward click-bait. It is certainly a better strategy than the old Russian collusion!

I did enjoy the terminological ambiguity of the whole affair. ‘Porn-star,’ if you think about it, is not just slang but also somewhat insidery—like you’re part of the scene. And so when the WSJ uses it in a headline, one wonders where our experienced editors were. Did you notice that they quickly changed that headline? The designation was pulled. The alternative ‘adult-film actress’ conveys the meaning, but adds too much dignity, is almost staid. So much so that it is close to innocuous and may be mistaken for the eminently respectable designation of ‘adult actress,’ as opposed to ‘child actress.’ In today’s climate, the word ‘film’ somehow gets lost, doesn’t it? Of course, ‘hooker’ is still slang and probably too obvious, even for this affair; ‘whore,’ perhaps the most accurate, is inappropriate because it falls below correct manners and undermines the credibility of the one whose credibility is required; and ‘harlot’ is simply archaic. How does a respectable paper write about it? No doubt thesauri were thumbed. Obviously they were trying hard, trying perhaps a bit too hard. And that is the reason such a thing will not be a scandal, let it be noted. On top of everything there is the persistent, familiar use of her trade name rather than her real name. I can’t be the only one to find that amusing.

In which Richard Muller Distinguishes Edwards from the Reformed Orthodox Tradition

If you want to understand the thinking of the fathers of the early church, you have to be conversant with the thinking of classical antiquity. One does not come up with sophisticated intellectual tools all by oneself. The Christian thinkers of the early church realized and appreciated this, if they did not always give credit where credit was due. If you want to understand the thinking of the theologians of the middle ages, you need to be familiar with the philosophy that was employed then. You have to understand the Christian Platonism that arose in the first few centuries and was dominant until the twelfth. You will have to understand this Christian Platonism as the context in which a more taxonomically versatile and methodologically explicit Christian Aristotelianism arose in the thirteenth century. If you want to understand the thinking of the Reformers and of Reformed Orthodoxy, you still need to be conversant with the philosophical commitments of medeival theologians because there are more continuities than discontinuities. Richard Muller is eminently conversant in the philosophical approaches and distinctions that inform the theology of the reformation.

This lecture is nothing new, but it was to me, and very interesting. Reformed Protestants with a strong commitment to the authority of confessions have been expressing disquiet about Jonathan Edwards, and this has puzzled me. It is no doubt part of the unease with American Evangelicalism, of which all American Reformed Protestants are in some way a category. They wish always to stress the differences. Jonathan Edwards’ star is bright in the firmament of American Evangelicalism.

Richard Muller argues that Edwards’ determinism is not that of the calvinism of the Reformed tradition. If I understood correctly, he claims that Edwards’ departure consists in claiming for causality a much reduced definition, one in which there is little more than an efficient causality and not the full range of causality the Christian Aristotelianism of Reformed Orthodoxy accepts. The result is that rather than having all the necessary distinctions to allow for free choice, fundamental indeterminacy of the will, and faculty psychology, Edwards develops in a more Amyraldian way, taking as his philosophical forebears Hobbes and Locke.

There is Q & A following, which is worth listening to also.