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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