Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-xfwgj Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-17T09:26:43.687Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Three misuses of Dionysius for comparative theology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 April 2009

Department of Philosophy & Religion, Drake University, 216 Medbury Hall, Des Moines, IA 50311 e-mail:


In his 2000 Religious Studies article ‘Ineffability’, John Hick calls upon the Dionysian corpus to bear witness to the ‘transcategorality’ of God and thereby corroborate his comparative theology of pluralism. Hick's Dionysius avows God's transcendence of categories by negating God's names, while at the same time maintaining that such names are metaphorically useful means of uplifting humans to God. But herein reside three common misunderstandings of the Dionysian corpus: (1) the divine names are mere metaphors; (2) the divine names are therefore negated of God; and (3) the negation of divine names is the means by which humans return to and unite with God.

Copyright © 2009 Cambridge University Press

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



1. The Dionysian corpus is composed of four treatises: Celestial Hierarchy (CH), Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (EH), Divine Names (DN), and Mystical Theology (MT) – and ten epistles (EP). Due to the literal inaccuracy of Colm Luibheid's translation of the Dionysian corpus – Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, Colm Luibheid (tr.)(Mahwah NY: Paulist Press, 1987), I have translated all quoted passages from the Dionysian corpus directly from the critical edition of the Dionysian corpus (in a way that makes them more literal but therefore less readable); Beate Regina Suchla (ed.) Corpus Dionysiacum I: De Divinis Nominibus (New York NY: Walter de Gruyter, 1990); Günter Heil & Adolf Martin Ritter (eds) Corpus Dionysiacum II: De Coelesti Hierarchia, De Ecclesiastic Hierarchia, De Mystica Theologia, Epistulae (New York NY: Walter de Gruyter, 1991). In doing so, I have consulted the translations of both Luibheid and John D. Jones; John D. Jones (tr.) The Divine Names and Mystical Theology (Milwaukee MN: Marquette University Press, 1980). Also note that, for stylistic ease, I refer to Pseudo-Dionysius here simply as Dionysius.

2. Hick, JohnIneffability’, Religious Studies, 36 (2000), 3546, 37–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Hick suggests ‘transcategorial’ as an alternative to the overworked term ‘ineffable’. According to Hick, ‘each of the world religions has a dual concept of God as both transcategorial in the ultimate divine nature and yet religiously available in virtue of qualities analogous to but limitlessly greater than our own’ (ibid., 36). I refer to this theory of Hick's as a comparative theology (rather than philosophy) simply because it evinces obvious commitments to the truth of the religions that it compares.

3. Ibid., 38, 39.

4. Ibid., 39. Although Hick cites a passage from DN, 1.5 to show that Dionysius was aware of the so-called problem of transcategoriality (38–39), Hick's evidence for his claim that all divine names are metaphorical comes solely from passages that concern perceptible symbols: CH, 1.3 (n. 24), CH, 2.1–2 (n. 23), and EP, 9 (n. 26).

5. DN, 1.5, 593CD; Cf., DN, 1.7, 596C–597A. Although the Dionysian corpus employs a considerable number of synonyms for the term divine name, all of them reveal the causal nature of divine names (e.g. ‘procession’, ‘power’, ‘source’, ‘cause’, ‘radiation’, ‘flowing’, ‘manifestation’, ‘providence’, ‘giving’, ‘gift’, ‘production’). I have tried to incorporate some of this varied terminology in an attempt to paint a more robust picture of the divine names.

6. But as Sheldon-Williams, I. P. argued in ‘Henads and angels: Proclus and the Dionysius’, Studia Patristica, 11 (1972), 6571Google Scholar, the closest analogue is Neoplatonic henads qua pluralized unities/divinities and transcendent forms/causes. Given, then, what appears to be Dionysius' attempt to distinguish his understanding of DIVINE NAMES from Neoplatonic henads at DN, 11.6, 953CD, Dionysian scholars should revisit the precise similarities and differences between Dionysian DIVINE NAMES and Neoplatonic henads. It is clearly not enough simply to say that Dionysius rejects Neoplatonic henads as pagan deities.

7. One of the more bewildering interpretive problems of Divine Names has been the ordering of the divine names therein, for, while the divine names of chs 4–7 (‘good’, ‘being’, ‘life’, and ‘wisdom’, respectively) are easy identifiable as a variation of the first and second hypostases of Athenian Neoplatonism, there is no generally accepted way of arranging the divine names of chs 8–13. Although Christian Schäfer The Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite (Boston MA: Brill, 2006) contains the most extensive and compelling attempt to date, it takes ch. 11's divine name ‘peace’ as pertinent to remaining rather than return and therefore misses the apparent triadic-triadic ordering of chs 5–7, 8–10, and 11–13.

8. DN, 2.7, 645A. Cf, DN, 1.4, 589D; DN, 1.5, 593CD; DN, 1.6, 596ABC; DN, 13.3, 981A. Note that I have left the Greek preposition/prefix hyper untranslated in this and all subsequent passages from the Dionysian corpus since I believe it conveys two different spatial and logical relations: a sense of being beyond or across something (horizontal distance) and therefore of exceeding beyond the having of that thing, and a sense of being over or above something (vertical height) and therefore of having that thing in excessive measure.

9. DN, 9.5, 913B; MT, 3, 1033B; DN, 1.8, 597AB. Note that this is not to say that perceptible symbols themselves are arbitrary; in fact, EP, 9.2, 1108C refers to them as ‘descendants and impressions of the divine stamps’. I thank Eric Perl for pointing this out to me; see ch. 7 of his Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite (Albany NY: State University of New York Press, 1997) for more on perceptible symbols. This is also not to say that perceptible symbols are useless; in fact Dionysius repeatedly extols them for their necessary efficacy and secrecy; CH, 2.2–3, EP, 9.1–2.

10. DN, 11.6, 953C; Cf. DN, 2.1, 636C; DN, 2.8, 645D; DN, 4.16, 713C; DN, 4.21, 724C; DN, 5.5, 820ABC; DN, 6.1, 825C; DN, 6.1, 856B; DN, 6.2, 856C; DN, 6.3, 857C; DN, 7.1, 865B, 868A; DN, 7.2, 868C; DN, 8.2, 889D; DN, 9.6, 913D; DN, 9.6, 916A; DN, 9.10, 917A; DN, 11.2, 949C; DN, 11.6, 953B–956B; EP, 2, 1068A–1069A.

11. I am grateful to the journal's anonymous reader of my paper for pointing out the need to make explicit this distinction. I'm not sure, though, that much more can be said about the relationship between these two aspects of God beyond what Dionysius says above – namely, that the hyper-being God gives substance to or is the substance of the divine names.

12. For more passages that call God the substance of divine names, see the following: DN, 6.1, 825C; DN, 6.1, 856B; DN, 7.1, 865B; DN, 7.2, 868C; DN, 9.6, 913D; DN, 9.10, 917A; DN, 11.2, 949C; DN, 11.6, 956A. For passages that associate God qua substance of divine names with hyper-prefixed divine names, see the following: DN, 11.6, 956A; EP, 2, 1068A–1069A. And see Jones, John N.The status of the Trinity in Dionysian thought’, Journal of Religion, 80 (2000), 645657CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for the argument that Dionysius' God is also not transcendent of the persons of the Trinity.

13. DN, 11.6, 953D–956A; Cf. DN, 2.4, 640D; DN, 2.5, 641D–644B; DN, 2.7, 645A; DN, 2.11, 649AB, 652A; DN, 4.7, 701C; DN, 11.6, 956AB. Note that, although making suffixed divine names are most common, producing, begetting, and giving suffixed divine names are also present in the Dionysian corpus.

14. Hick ‘Ineffability’, 38.

15. When translating from the Dionysian corpus, I have translated aphairesis as ‘removal’ and apophasis as ‘negation’, as seems to be common translational practice. (Note that the Paulist Press translation translates aphairesis as ‘denial’; this, however, does not properly preserve the semantic distinction between aphairesis and apophasis.) I have always left the Greek term apophasis un-translated in the main body of the paper so that the English term ‘negation’ can function inclusively of both apophasis and aphairesis. For stylistic ease, however, I have sometimes translated aphairesis as ‘removal’ in the main body of the paper.

16. The register of Greek terms in the critical edition of the Dionysian corpus lists twenty-six occurrences of ίɸαίρεσις/ίɸαιρέω and eight occurrences of ίπóɸασις/ίποɸάσκω.

17. MT, 2, 1025AB.

18. MT, 5, 1048A–1048B.

19. According to Laurence Horn's encyclopedic Natural History of Negation, such syntax (in Ancient Greek) is indicative of the marked word order of narrow-scope predicate-term negation (rather than the normal word order of wide-scope predicate denial); (Palo Alto CA: CSLI Publications, 2001), 6–21, 102–103, 110. And according to Aristotle, predicate-term negation – which includes both alpha privatives such as un-wise or wise-less and infinite/indefinite names such as not-wise – yields contrary opposition (rather than contradictory opposition) in which the law of the excluded middle does not obtain just in the cases of vacuous reference and category mistakes; Aristotle Categories, 11b17ff, 11b38ff, 13b12ff; idem On Interpretation, 19b20ff, 20a31ff; idem Prior Analytics, 51b5ff. Thus, if the property of life, for example, is a category mistake of God, then it is both false that God is life and false that God is not-life. For Dionysius this is the case precisely since God is preeminently-life. Thus, we might say that Dionysian negation fails to exclude a non-middle. Here, though, lie at least two open issues for Dionysian scholarship. First, just how aware was Dionysius of this Aristotelian distinction (as well as Athenian Neoplatonism's apparent preference for apophasis over against Plotinian aphairesis)? Second, can hyperochē be consistently translated as ‘pre-eminence’ in the Dionysian corpus – and if so, what exactly does ‘pre-eminence’ mean both logically and ontologically?

20. DN, 7.1, 865BC.

21. EP, 4, 1072B.

22. MT, 1.2, 1000B. Note that this passage does not say that apophasis is hyper aphairesis, i.e. that apophasis somehow regulates or culminates the method of aphairesis. It is God, not aphairesis, that is here said to be hyper the methods of both position (thesis) and aphairesis. For the claims that apophasis does regulate or culminate aphairesis, see Jones, John N.Sculpting God: The logic of Dionysian negative theology’, The Harvard Theological Review, 89 (1996), 355371Google Scholar; and Williams, JanetThe apophatic theology of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite’, Downside Review, 117 (1999), 157172CrossRefGoogle Scholar, respectively.

23. For an explanation of the function of narrow-scope predicate-term negation here, n. 19.

24. John Searle's speech-act theory, for example, would call such illocutionary acts ‘self-defeating’, insofar as the illocutionary force of assertion cannot be achieved on the propositional content of non-assertability. See John Searle & Daniel Vanderveken Foundations of Illocutionary Logic (New York NY: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 151–152.

25. Hick ‘Ineffability’, 39.

26. Two related points are in order here. First, although this paragraph deliberately interchanges three different terms for the ultimate end of human beings in the Dionysian system – ‘salvation’, ‘union’, and ‘divinization’, all three of which Dionysius equates at EH, 1.3, 376A – the precise differences between these terms (as well as ‘return’ and ‘uplifting’) not only require investigation by Dionysian scholars but also may be relevant to determining the exact salvific role of negation. (Note that some preliminary work has been done here in Paul Rorem Biblical and Liturgical Symbols within the Pseudo-Dionysian Synthesis (Toronto: Pontinfical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1984).) Second, while I here argue that negation is neither the sole nor the ultimate means of salvation, I do not argue that negation is in no way necessary to salvation (qua union). In fact, it seems that there are three different types of union in the Dionysian corpus, the first of which is a preliminary union of the soul within itself and with the divine names (qua ‘unities’ or ‘unifications’) through the method of aphaeresis; DN, 1.4, 592CD; DN, 1.5, 593BC; DN, 4.9, 705AB; DN, 4.11 708D; DN, 7.3, 872AB; DN, 11.2, 949C–952B; MT, 1.1, 997B; MT, 1.3, 1001A; MT, 3, 1033C. Note, though, that this form of union seems to be surpassed both by a higher union with God or Jesus or One through hierugical understanding and practice (DN, 2.9, 648A; DN, 3.1, 680A, 680D; CH, 3.2, 165A; EH, 2.I, 392A; EH, 3.I, 424CD; EH, 3.III.8, 437A; EH, 3.III.12–13, 444BCD; EH, 3.III.13, 444C), and by a final union at death (DN, 1.4, 592BC; EH, 3.III.9, 437C). I thank the anonymous reviewer for pointing out the need to address each of these issues.

27. CH, 3.2, 165BC; CH, 3.3, 165D–168A.

28. CH, 9.2, 260AB.

29. CH, 8.2, 240C; CH, 10.1, 272D; CH, 13.3, 301D–304A.

30. EH, 5.I.4, 504C; CH, 3.2, 165A; Cf. DN, 4.1, 696A; CH, 4.3, 181A; CH, 8.2, 240D; CH, 10.1, 273A.

31. EH, 1.4, 376BC; Cf. EH, 3.III.12, 441C; EH, 5.III.7, 513C.

32. EH, 1.1, 372B; EH, 3.I, 424CD; EH, 3.III.12, 441C; EH, 5.I.3, 504BC; EH, 6.III.8, 516AB. Note that, while hierurgical practice includes not only the sacramental rites of baptism, eucharist, and myron consecration but also the non-sacramental rites of clerical ordination, monastic tonsure, and the rite for the dead, it is the sacramental rites – especially the sacrament of eucharist – that are most crucial to salvation. For passages that discuss the importance of these sacramental rites, see the following: EH, 2.I, 392AB; EH, 2.III.8, 404D; EH, 3.I, 424D–425A; EH, 3.III.7, 436ABC; EH, 3.III.12, 444AB; EH, 3.III.13, 444CDE; EH, 4.I, 472D; EH, 4.III.3, 476C; EH, 4.III.12, 485A; EH, 6.III.5, 536BCD. For the distinction between sacramental and non-sacramental rites, see Rorem Biblical and Liturgical Symbols, 39–46.

33. EH, 2.I, 392A; Cf. EH, 3.I, 424C–425A.

34. EH, 2.III.2, 397C; Cf. CH, 2.5, 145B. Note also that Dionysius exalts the hierurgical rites in general as ‘precise images’ of divine realities (EH, 2.III.6, 401C) and the rite of baptism in particular as absolutely fitting (EH, 2.III.1, 397A) and appropriate (EH, 2.III.7, 404B).

35. EH, 3.III.13, 444CD; Cf. EH, 2.III.7, 404BC; EH, 3.III.7, 436D; EH, 3.III.12, 441C–444B. Thus, hierurgy, the ‘sacred work’ performed by humans, is the ritual enactment of theurgy, the ‘divine work’ performed by God (especially in the incarnation of Jesus Christ). Sarah Klitenic is therefore correct in saying that Dionysian hierurgy is roughly equivalent to Procline theurgy; Klitenic, SarahTheurgy in Proclus and Dionysius’, Yearbook of the Irish Philosophical Society, 90 (2001), 8595Google Scholar; cf. EH, 3.III.4, 429; EH, 3.III.12 441C.

36. Although CH, 2.3–5 offers a comparison of negations and symbols, it neither states nor suggests that perceptible symbols of the angels or rites are to be negated.

37. The terms salvation (σωτηρία) and theosis (θέωσις) are entirely absent from the Mystical Theology. And although union (ἕνωσις) is used three times (MT, 1.1, 997A–1000A; MT, 1.3, 100C–1001A; MT, 3, 1033C), none of these passages explicitly says that aphairesis effects union with God himself. See n. 26 for more on the ambiguity of the term union in the Dionysian corpus.

38. See n. 26 for supporting passages.

39. This is yet another open issue for Dionysian scholars, one that will probably require resolving the status of negative theology in Prolcine theology. For more on this, see Klitenic ‘Theurgy’, as well as Burns, DylanProclus and the Theurgic liturgy of Dionysius’, Dionysius 22 (2004), 111132.Google Scholar

40. See especially ch. 5 of John Hick God Has Many Names (Philadelphia PA: Westminster Press, 1982) and ch. 14 of idem An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1989).

41. I am indebted here to the contextualism of both Steven Katz and John Clayton. See Stephen T. Katz ‘Language, epistemology and mysticism’, in idem (ed.) Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (New York NY: Oxford University Press, 1978), 24–66; and idem ‘Mystical speech and mystical meaning’, in idem (ed.) Mysticism and Language (New York NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 3–41. And see John Clayton's essays in his posthumously published Religions, Reasons and Gods: Essays in Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion, prepared for publication by Anne M. Blackburn and Thomas D. Carroll (New York NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

42. Hick ‘Ineffability,’ 41.

43. I am indebted here to the Comparative Religious Ideas Project of Robert Neville and the work on it by Wesley Wildman. See especially Neville and Wildman's essays ‘On comparing religious ideas’, in both Robert Cummings Neville (ed.) The Human Condition (Albany NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), 9–20, and idem (ed.) Ultimate Realities (Albany NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), 187–210.

44. Here I am again indebted to the work of Steven Katz and John Clayton.

45. I thank the Drake University Center for the Humanities for a two-course release that enabled me to carry out most of the research for this paper and John Finamore for aiding me in my research during this release time. I also thank John Finamore, John N. Jones, and Eric Perl for offering helpful feedback of a much earlier and somewhat different draft of this paper. And I especially thank the Editor and an anonymous reviewer for Religious Studies for their invaluable and insightful criticism of this paper, without which it would have been much the worse.