Who Do You Say That I Am? – Pseudo-Dionysius on the Divine Names

Thoughtful individuals, both within and without the faith, may be forgiven for experiencing perplexity in their encounters with common Christian descriptions of God. Often times, such perplexity is formally stated in the form of a paradox, generated between the divine attributes and one’s experience of the world: If God is all powerful, all knowing, and all loving, then how is it that the shadows of evil, suffering, and death continue to plague humankind? At other times, the paradox is internal to the concept: How can God be indivisibly one and yet, without contradiction, also three divine persons? Such paradoxes emerge, in many cases, on account of the difficulty of fully comprehending the concepts invoked, especially when such concepts, like omnipresence and omniscience, do not feature in everyday life. To be present and to have knowledge are familiar enough, but attempting to extend these concepts for applicability on an infinite or unbounded plane falls far beyond what is familiar. The temptation to discard the divine attributes as meaningless or to dismiss the concept of God on a charge of incoherence ought, however, to be resisted.

One must, of course, consent to address the problem with subtlety. And since the Hellenization of early Christianity, theologians have attempted to address these theological problems with the philosophical subtlety that they require, connecting language, metaphysics, and epistemology to develop a deeper understanding of the divine names. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagate, a theologian writing in the fifth and sixth centuries, produced two tracts The Divine Names and Mystical Theology that address these difficulties directly. A synthesis of Christian and Platonic thought, his writing is as lyrical as it is penetrating, and that later theologians as influential as St. Thomas Aquinas have cited Pseudo-Dionysius frequently testifies to the importance and the insight of his work. In this article, I will draw from Pseudo-Dionysius’ approach to articulate more precisely the problem of divine predication and to outline its solution. In brief, the problem of understanding the divine names is the problem of discovering how a superhuman significance could possibly dwell within a language that has developed squarely within the boundary lines of human realities and human concerns. In developing a creative, yet principled approach to this problem, Pseudo-Dionysius allows both the transcendence and the immanence of God to guide his thinking, such that, on his account, the semantic relationship between human and divine descriptions, properly understood, comes to reflect the deeper, metaphysical relationship between God and the world.

Such an investigation is hopeless, of course, if God so outstrips human language that all names must fail radically as descriptions of the divine nature. In this case, bestowing titles on God might primarily be an emotive act, expressing honor, reverence, and awe, as would be fitting for creatures inferior to their creator.

The words “God is Life, God is Light, and God is Truth” would not, despite their appearance, effectively predicate anything of their subject; instead they might translate into an insubstantial “Yay for God!” With God so far surpassing mortal ken, the divine names would not lead to God, or express knowledge about any aspect of his Nature. At the inception of The Divine Names, Dionysius frames this question himself: “[If God] cannot be reached by any perception, imagination, conjecture, name, discourse, apprehension, or understanding, how then is our Discourse concerning the Divine Names to be accomplished, since we see that the Super- Essential Godhead is unutterable and nameless?”[1] At this juncture, one confronts a choice between two undesirable options. Either God becomes unknowable, a nameless stranger floating impossibly high above the world, or else God becomes lowered to the level of human intellect, suffering a diminution of his transcendent and unbounded glory.

Such a dilemma would prove intractable if God had sealed Himself away from the world, leaving man to search him out without the aid of mark or sign. A finite creature like man could not, under such conditions, possibly approach a revelation of the infinite. Fortunately, the Infinite God gifts to man, and to all of creation, a revelation of himself: “while dwelling alone by Itself, and having there firmly fixed Its super-essential Ray, It lovingly reveals Itself by illuminations corresponding to each separate creature’s powers, and thus draws upwards holy minds into such contemplation, participation, and resemblance of Itself as they can attain.”[2] The question arises, then, as to the nature of this illumination. Leaving aside a personal revelation through mystical experience, Dionysius locates God’s self-revelation in two sources, the Holy Scripture and, in a secondary sense, the Book of Nature. Of the two, however, Holy Scripture must predominate: “We must not then dare to speak, or indeed to form any conception, of the hidden super-essential Godhead, except those things that are revealed to us from the Holy Scripture.”[3] For Dionysius, such reverence is not mere pretense. Holy Scripture represents the most direct self-revelation of a transcendent, otherwise wholly unsearchable God. For man to rely on himself would be for him to fall into the yawning chasm between his own finitude and the infinite nature of his Creator. Holy Scripture provides a certainty, otherwise unattainable by man, that a given starting point of investigation into the divine nature, that is a divine name, leads forward toward truth.

It happens, though, that the inspired authors of Holy Scripture apply a surprisingly diverse set of epithets to God. Dionysius mentions a number of more straightforward, or at least more conventional, names: Good, Wise, Eternal, Lord of Lords, and Creator of Ages. Yet he also mentions a series of names that cry out for further explanation, citing passages of Holy Scripture wherein authors refer to God alternately as “Fire,” “Water,” “Dew,” “Cloud,” and “Archetypal Stone.” In such cases, Dionysius observes, the Spirit has moved the inspired writers of Holy Scripture to draw from nature in describing nature’s God. This second, subsidiary source, the Book of Nature, encompasses the whole of the created world, which must, as all creations do, reflect something of its Creator. Dionysius writes, “[God] contain[s] all things beforehand within Itself, after a simple and uncircumscribed manner through the perfect excellence of Its one and all-creative Providence, and thus we draw from the whole creation Its appropriate praises and Its Names.”[4] To indulge, somewhat prematurely, in analogy, all of creation is described here as pre-existent in the mind of God, not unlike the way in which the finished form of a statue might preexist in the mind of a sculptor. Through the action of divine Providence, God draws all of creation to a likeness with the model that pre-exists in him. Hence, the inspired authors speak according to reason in likening some parts of creation to their creator and, in so doing, applying them as names.

Having established that the names possess some significance, however, is a minor victory. It still remains to uncover exactly what sort of significance such names might have. In order to pose the problem more precisely, it will be help to consider it as it arises in an example. At the beginning of the Holy Gospel according to John, the evangelist refers to God as logos, translated “mind,” “reason,” or, perhaps most famously, as “word.” Let us consider the middle name, “reason.” Through reason, human beings examine the validity of arguments, infer conclusions from premises, and construct valid arguments of their own – reason is discursive. A successful course of discursive reasoning can lead individuals proceeding from sound premises towards knowledge of the truth. The objects of human reason include mathematical entities, abstract qualities, and, most generally, propositions. Although more could certainly be said about the nature of reason, perhaps it is possible already to examine an intuitive claim about the meaning of this name: human discursive reasoning reflects divine reasoning, which proceeds in the same way and with the same objects, except infinitely more effectively. God solves each and every problem instantaneously, without difficulty or error.

However, the picture that emerges, of God as a sort of superhuman, a more intelligent Einstein, lowers God uncomfortably close to man and, in doing so, raises more issues than it resolves. Discursive reasoning, and additionally the solving of a problem, represents a sequential process that occurs, however rapidly, in time. These two elements -sequence and time – contradict at least two other of the divine attributes, namely the changelessness and the eternity of God. For an entity to undergo any sequential process entails its transition from one state to the next, impossible in a being that remains always the same. Similarly, temporal processes cannot unwind for a being whose mode of existence does not contain a temporal dimension. So, rather than illuminating the divine nature, the straightforward application of this name only throws it into confusion. If such is the fate of “Reason,” one can only shrink back from the thought of titles like “Water” and “Cloud.” To state the problem more generally, if one predicates names or qualities of God in the normal way, then one reaps, though hoping for knowledge, only contradiction and incoherence. Yet, for reasons earlier discussed, such names must lead, through some method, towards truths about God.

Sensitive to this problem, Dionysius attributes confusion of this nature to a misuse of language. In order to examine his explanation clearly, it is worth quoting him at length:

We misinterpret things above us by our own conceits and cling to the familiar notions of our sense, and, measuring Divine things by our human standards, we are led astray by the superficial meaning of the Divine and Ineffable Truth…the act whereby the Intellect communes with the things that are beyond it transcends its intellectual nature. This transcendent sense, therefore, must be given to our language about God, and not our human sense.[5]

Stated otherwise, human beings develop the meanings of their descriptive terms in the context of sensible reality, through direct sensory acquaintance and through the application of their intellect, at varying degrees of abstraction, to sensible objects. As a result, a familiar notion emerges, applicable in the same way to a variety of different objects. Consider, as an example, the term “vast.” Although wastelands, skies, deserts, oceans, mountain ranges, and outer space all differ significantly, one can apply the term “vast” in the same way to each. Such predication, conveying the same sense in diverse cases, is called univocal predication.

Nevertheless, there arise instances in which differences in kind can grow to such a significant degree that univocal predication becomes impossible. The mind, especially the mind of a particularly wise and contemplative individual, might be described appropriately as vast. Yet the mind is not vast in the same exact sense that the sea is vast; with regard to the sea, “vastness” denotes a spatial property, whereas with regard to the mind, “vastness” denotes a property that is unequivocally non-spatial. In order for the application of terms like “vast” to communicate anything meaningful about the mind, they cannot be understood to apply in the same way. With such a wide difference in kind, predication must proceed analogically, so that the same description possesses different senses depending on the nature of its object. Although a commonality exists between the ocean and the mind, such that the same word might apply to both, this commonality holds by similarity of particular properties rather than by their identity. When one interprets a divine name “Reason” analogically, one avoids the problem of univocity, namely incoherence, but stumbles, at least at first, into a problem of ambiguity. That crucial similarity in which the analogy consists, for “Reason” and for many other terms, remains unclear.

In understanding the “human standard” to which Dionysius refers, one must observe that in many cases even such analogical predication is parasitic on the human experience of the sensible world, and on the operation of the intellect upon it. Insofar as the familiar notions of most descriptive terms developed with primary reference to physical realities, the extent to which and direction in which they can stretch, even analogically, depends on that reality. Whereas analogical predication avoids the complete incoherence of univocal predication with respect to God, it remains only partially a success. Dionysius, therefore, urges the reader to seek out a transcendent sense of words, more befitting for the interpretation of divine names.

What, though, could be meant by a “transcendent sense?” Dionysius illustrates his intention with an example, beginning with, as discussed above, a passage from Holy Scripture: “The foolishness of God is wiser than men.”[6] In this passage, the divine author predicates foolishness and wisdom of God. Dionysius, then, sets himself about the ambitious task of clarifying not just one name, but a title, “Foolish Wisdom,” subject to a compresence of opposites. Confronted with this dilemma, Dionysius invokes the transcendent sense: “Speaking, then, in a transcendent manner of this ‘Foolish Wisdom,’ which has neither Reason nor Intelligence, let us say that It is the Cause of all Intelligence and Reason, and of all Wisdom and Understanding.”[7] The transcendent sense, then, reaches beyond the way in which God’s nature reflects both halves of a binary, and touches upon the point at which God grounds its terms. It does not attempt so much, as the analogical does, to predicate a property of God; rather, it aims to assert a much more foundational sort of the relationship between a property and its divine subject. In the normal case, any substantial being, a horse, a vine, and so on, stands in relation of priority to its properties – the bold-spiritedness of a horse cannot exist absent the horse, nor can the vine’s winding shape exist absent the vine. The transcendent sense of the divine names express that God and his Divine properties stand in a sort of super-priority to all properties analogous to his own. All such properties, in a word, exist only insofar as and to the extent that they first exist in him. As both its originating and sustaining cause, God therefore stands prior to all human wisdom, hence the transcendent sense of “Foolish Wisdom.”

One might complain, however, that such a solution only solves half of the problem. The divine nature may comprehend wisdom in this way, but to suggest that foolishness also has its source in God seems absurd. Yet Dionysius assures the reader that “the lack of Mind and Sensation must be predicated of God by excess and not by defect…the Mind of God embraces all things in an utterly transcendent knowledge and, in Its causal relation to all things, anticipates within Itself the knowledge of them all.” Once again, Dionysius negates in order to break the stranglehold of familiar notions, to impress upon the reader that divine Wisdom and human wisdom are of such different orders that there can be no admixture of the two in God. In referencing God as a cause, however, Dionysius demonstrates his belief that any further elaboration on this point requires an understanding of the transcendent sense. The foregoing sections defined the transcendent sense with respect to affirmations of God, but to what could the transcendent sense refer in cases like this one, where the predicate is instead negation. Further elaboration from Dionysius will prove helpful in this respect: “We do not say that the fire which warms and burns is itself burnt or warmed. Even so if any one says that Very Life lives, or that Very Light is enlightened, he will be wrong…unless…he were to use these terms…to mean that the qualities of created things pre-exist, after a superlative manner as touching their true Being in the Creative Originals.”[8] In a way, then, this passage elaborates on the points raised above. Dionysius observes that a source or a cause contains, in a sense, its effects within itself, but that it does not simultaneously exist as the subject of most of these effects. To take another example, the heated coil filament of an incandescent bulb can illuminate an entire room but does not also illuminate itself. Or rather, the wire, as the source of light, is most intensely illuminated and, for this reason, most obscured. So, one might identify God as the source of human wisdom and yet as lacking human wisdom, not for being beneath human wisdom but for being its ultimate progenitor. Hence, God is called foolish for inconceivably outstripping human wisdom, for causing it, and thus only in a transcendent and excessive sense, for lacking it.

For Dionysius, then, one seeking knowledge of God through his divine names must understand these names analogically and, even more importantly, in their transcendent sense. Yet because of his recognition of the finitude of human language, Dionysius did not consider this sort of affirmative predication, or via positiva, to constitute the highest sort of investigation into the divine nature. If the transcendent sense of “Foolish Wisdom” embodies both an affirmative and a negative dimension, then one might characterize Dionysius as valuing the negative dimension much more highly. This negative dimension in the transcendent sense of the divine names shades into an apophatic theology, or via negativa, that consists in expressing truths about God through negation, and of this mode of theological inquiry, Dionysius writes, “in the present treatise [Mystical Theology] [the course of the argument] mounts upward from below towards the category of transcendence, and in proportion to its ascent it contracts its terminology, and when the whole ascent is passed it will be totally dumb, being at last united with Him Whom words cannot describe.”[9] Affirmations of God might, if carefully qualified, not mislead one about the Divine Nature, even if incapable of capturing its full reality, but negative theology, Dionysius claims, actually leads the soul up to union with God. For as one soars to meet God in contemplation, terminology that is defective gradually falls away, until even the most basic concepts or attributions, themselves still admitting of some defect in describing a transcendent God, fall away as well. After one comes to an understanding of these negations, one is left with nothing, with the Darkness that is God dwelling in Unapproachable Light.[10] Of course, the sense in which one grasps God cannot be the same discursive sense in which one grasps a concept, or any other abstract entity, for “It transcends all affirmation by being the perfect and unique Cause of all things, and transcends all negation by the pre-eminence of its simple and absolute nature – free from every limitation and beyond them all.”[11] In one sense, then, man cannot even negate sufficiently to reach down to the bottom of everything, where the simplicity of the divine character resides. In another sense, however, he has cleared his intellect, as far as humanly possible, from every degree of falsity, freeing the soul and its spiritual sense to bask in the unoccluded, super-essential ray of its God.



1. The Divine Names, Dionysius 59
2. Dionysius 54
3. Dionysius 51
4.Dionysius 63
5. Dionysius 147
6. Dionysius 147
7. Dionysius 148-149
8. Dionysius 75
9. Mystical Theology, Dionysius 198
10. Dionysius 198
11. Dionysius 201

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