Dionysius’ Wise Silence

Dionysius, as is the case with Parmenides and Plotinus, firmly held that to be is to be intelligible. In other words, being and knowledge go hand in hand. Being implies that which is determinate and derivative; hence, God is not a being but is the creator of being, who necessarily transcends being. God is not a “facet of being. Rather, being is a facet of him. He is not contained in being, but being is contained in him” (DN V.8). Given what we have said so far, we discern a strict logic at work: if to be is to be intelligible, and God is not a being, then God is not intelligible. That is, God transcends our rational abilities—“He [in his essence] is completely unknown.” Moreover, since God is beyond being and knowing, he is likewise beyond predication. As Dionysius explains in the Divine Names, his purpose is not to reveal God in his transcendence—that is an impossible task beyond mind and words altogether—rather, he wants to “sign a hymn of praise for the being-making procession of the absolute divine Source of being into the total domain of being” (DN V.1). In other words, Dionysius recognizes that the divine names in no way (quidditatively) define God, yet this is not to say that Dionysius is confined to complete silence. Rather, Dionysius emphasizes the significance of the divine names in their liturgical, and hence, doxological context. Given that God himself, who is completely enfolded (and beyond our comprehension), unfolds himself via the hierarchs and a mediated process of illumination, the divine names do in fact refer to God and reveal him in a non-exhaustive, yet meaningful manner. In fact, Dionysius’ opening words of the Divine Names provides a kind of broad outline as to what he hopes to accomplish in his work, as well as what he understands himself to be communicating and not communicating. Though somewhat lengthy, the following passage is worth quoting in full:

“I come now to an explication of the divine names, as far as possible. Here too let us hold on to the scriptural rule that when we say anything about God, we should set down the truth “not in the plausible words of human wisdom but in demonstration of the power granted by the Spirit” to the scripture writers, a power by which, in a manner surpassing speech and knowledge, we reach a union superior to anything available to us by way of our own abilities or activities in the realm of discourse or of intellect. This is why we must not dare to resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being, apart from what the sacred scriptures have divinely revealed. Since the unknowing of what is beyond being is something above and beyond speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being. Let us therefore look as far upward as the light of sacred scripture will allow, and, in our reverent awe of what is divine, let us be drawn together toward the divine splendor. For, if we may trust the superlative wisdom and truth of scripture, the things of God are revealed to each mind in proportion to its capacities; and the divine goodness is such that, out of concern for our salvation, it deals out the immeasurable and infinite in limited measures” (DN I.1).

As Dionysius explains, he seeks to explicate (to “unfold”) the divine names in so far as this is possible. Likewise, he contrasts “plausible words of human wisdom” with those of scripture, which were given in a revelation which surpasses human cognitive abilities. In other words, the scripture writers were granted a special illumination from God—not through their own rational processes—but through a union that surpasses human knowledge. Yet, they in turn hand down what they received in a way those below them can understand. Thus, the divine names are not the product of (merely human) theological activity in which human beings attempt to form propositions about God that define him in quid. Rather, the divine names are given by God through a process of mediated illumination, and thus “we may trust the superlative wisdom and truth of scripture.” Consequently, the divine names are one way in which Dionysius’ “wise silence” speaks.

2 thoughts on “Dionysius’ Wise Silence”

  1. C –

    Do you think this squares in significant ways with what WCF VII describes as God’s condescension?

  2. Hi Mike,

    It strikes me as having a good deal in common; however, I doubt that any of the divines would want to cite Dionysius as a source–I would love to be wrong on that. My intuition is that Dionysius would be considered too much of a mystic for their tastes. Again, perhaps, I am wrong.


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