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A Great Chain of Lights Let Down from Heaven: Dionysius’ Apophatic Theology

Jacob Nielsen

Dionysius the Areopagite, the pseudonymous author of the Corpus Areopagiticum, is a figure shrouded in mystery. Although the author of the Dionysian corpus identifies himself as Paul’s convert mentioned in Acts 17, modern scholarship is unanimous in its judgment that Dionysius (or “Pseudo-Dionysius” according to scholarly convention) lived and wrote sometime during the late fifth or early sixth century.[1] The first mention we find of Dionysius is at the colloquy between the Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians in 532, where the non-Chalcedonians (mis)quote a passage from Dionysius’ fourth letter in support of their “monophysite” (or “miaphysite”) claim that there is only one nature in the incarnate Christ.[2] As Andrew Louth explains, the “received story” concerning Dionysius’ writings is that he was a subtle monophysite who was rendered orthodox by John of Scythopolis and Maximus the Confessor, both of whom wrote scholia explaining difficult passages in the Areopagite’s works.[3] What this received story does not account for, Louth argues, is why Dionysius’ writings came to be so deeply valued by orthodox and non-orthodox alike. In fact, if we see Dionysius only as a closet monophysite, we miss the grandeur of his theological vision: “In succinct and sometimes intoxicating language Dionysius expressed convictions that were dear to the Byzantine Christian mind.”[4]

Anyone familiar with Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Cyril, and other Byzantine theologians will find Dionysius’ understanding of salvation as deification coupled with his insistence on the ineffability of God right in keeping with the theological vision of his predecessors. Dionysius’ accomplishment was to incorporate these themes into a soteriological-cosmological vision of the hierarchically ordered relationship of God to the world. Much contemporary interest in Dionysius concerns his “apophatic” theology, which is summed up in the short treatise Mystical Theology. But it is important to recognize that Dionysius’ understanding of the celestial and ecclesial hierarchies was just as central to his theological vision as apophasis. These hierarchies are “deifying theophanies” which manifest the divine glory down the chain of rational beings and thus “enable beings to be as like as possible to God and to be at one with him.”[5] In order to understand Dionysius’ apophatic theology, we must see how it relates to his concept of hierarchy, for both concern our knowledge of God and are a means of union with Him.

Before considering the concepts of hierarchy and apophasis, it will be helpful first to take a quick glance at the overarching structure of Dionysius’ thought. There is a fundamental liturgical orientation to Dionysius’ works which may easily be lost on the reader who is intent on simply finding in them an “apophatic epistemology.” The Divine Names, for example, is not a purely speculative inquiry into the abstract principles governing theological predication; rather, it presupposes the act of celestial and ecclesial worship as it searches into how we may properly praise God with the names he has revealed for himself in Scripture.[6] And the Mystical Theology, as we shall see, concerns how those within the hierarchies should properly respond to God’s “ecstatic” manifestation of himself in the hierarchies. Louth argues that the order of Dionysius’ treatises which we find in the manuscripts (beginning with the Celestial Hierarchy and the Ecclesial Hierarchy and ending with the Mystical Theology), is a “logical and coherent way” to introduce Dionysius’ theology, because it sets his apophatic and kataphatic theology in the context of “the praises we sing in the liturgy.”[7] Thus, Louth writes

The theology of Denys focuses on the liturgy. The principle of God’s movement towards men and women in transfiguring light is worked out in his contemplation of the eternal workings of the angelic ranks and hierarchies. How this transfiguring manifestation is realized amongst us in the liturgical structure and liturgical activity of the Church on earth is dwelt on at length in his discussion of “our hierarchy.” And in all this celebration God is addressed by the praises of men and angels. But how is God addressed? How do we use words of him, and what do those words mean?[8]

The relationship is one of call and response. God manifests himself to creation through the hierarchies, and participants in the hierarchies respond with praise. Even the ascent through negations explained in the Mystical Theology centers on the creature’s response of praise to God’s self-manifestation: “for this would be really to see and to know: to praise the Transcendent One in a transcending way, namely through the denial of all beings.”[9]

We can already see that the concept of hierarchy has a central place in Dionysius’ theological vision. In order to understand why this is so, we must think of ecclesial and celestial hierarchy in quite a different way than is customary in the modern world. Far from being a suffocating structure imposed on participants with the effect of distancing them from God, Dionysius understands hierarchy as, in Louth’s terms, “an outreach of God’s love.” Dionysius defines hierarchy as “a sacred order, knowledge and activity, which is being assimilated to likeness with God as much as possible and, in response to the illuminations that are given it from God, is raised to the imitation of Him in its own measure.”[10] A hierarchy is like a great chain of lights let down from heaven; it is a manifestation of God to his creation. In created hierarchy, the multiplicity of creation is ordered such that it provides a means of knowing the unity of its Source.

Hierarchy is thus a theophany. If we understand the difference between Creator and creation in the way that any Byzantine theologian understood it, then prima facie, the metaphysical difference between the Source of being and creation might seem to make all knowledge of the Creator on the part of the creature impossible. Dionysius’ understanding of hierarchy allows him to affirm that “created reality is not, as created, an obstacle to his glory, neither because it owes its being to something other than (or even alien to) God, nor because it is an increasingly remote echo of God’s original creative urge.”[11] The effect of hierarchy is to manifest God to creation; not to distance creation from God. To understand hierarchy in the latter sense is to misunderstand the significance of the difference between the Creator and the created. The “lights coming down from above” do not distance us from God; they cross the distance that is already there by manifesting to creation its Source.

Hierarchy is not only theophany, it also the means of theosis. Hierarchy “enable[s] beings to be as like as possible to God and to be at one with him.”[12] Because the order of a hierarchy “bears in itself the mark of God,” it “causes its members to be images of God in all respects, to be clear and spotless mirrors reflecting the glow of primordial light and indeed of God himself.”[13] In concrete terms, this means that participants in the hierarchy are purified, illuminated, and perfected through their participation in the sacred order.[14] Some have the task of being purified while others do the purifying, and likewise with illumination and perfection. But this does not mean that only some of the members are purified, illuminated, and perfected. Those who do the purifying, illuminating, and perfecting are themselves purified, illuminated, and perfected through the doing of the activity proper to their role. Hierarchy is a source of deification for all its members, not because it is a ladder up which participants may climb on their way to God, but because each member “actually imitate[s] God in the way suitable to whatever role it has.”[15]

Dionysius’ understanding of hierarchy as a deifying theophany is the context for his apophatic theology. In the Divine Names Dionysius explores the human response to God’s manifestation of himself in the hierarchies. Since God’s manifestation comes before the human response, it makes sense that Dionysius cautions against the use of “plausible words of human wisdom,” and instead argues that in our explication of the divine names “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.”[16] Even the fact that God “transcends being” is not mere human wisdom but a truth given in divine revelation: “many scripture writers will tell you that the divinity is not only invisible and incomprehensible, but also unsearchable and inscrutable . . . since it actually surpasses being.”[17] There is thus a paradox concerning that which is revealed in scripture about God; God is revealed as the One who “transcends being . . . [and thus] also transcends knowledge.”[18] We know God as the One who is unknowable.

How does this paradox manifest itself in our praise of God? And what does it teach us about the meaning of the words we use of God? Dionysius distinguishes between two kinds of theological predication: affirmations and negations.[19] With affirmations we say that God is something while with negations we say that God is not something. These two kinds of predication parallel the paradox of our knowledge of God as the One who is unknowable. Scripture reveals that God is the “Cause of all existence” who, precisely as the Cause of being, transcends all being. This leads to paradoxical conclusion that

God is known in all things and apart from all things; and God is known by knowledge and by unknowing. Of him there is understanding, reason, knowledge, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name and many other things, but he is not understood, nothing can be said of him, he cannot be named . . . he is all things in everything and nothing in anything.[20]

Since all being has its source in God, “the songs of praise and the names for it are fittingly derived from the sum total of creation.”[21] But precisely because God is the Source of all being and not a being among beings, nothing that can be said of being can be properly said of God. Thus, the principle that allows affirmations of God is that “he is celebrated by all beings according to the analogy that all things bear to him as their Cause.”[22] But the principle behind the negations is that “he is not one of the things that are.”[23] Thus, our praises to God consist of both affirmations and negations. And while the negations are superior (since they prevent us from confusing God with the things he has made), it is God’s own “affirmation”—i.e., his self-manifestations—in the ecclesial and celestial hierarchies (and utmost in Christ) that make both our affirmations and negations possible. All our praise is a response to God’s deifying theophanies.

There is, however, another reason that Dionysius privileges negations, one that takes us to the center of the apophatic character of his theology. Apophasis, or “turning from speech,” is a “way up through negations” that causes the soul to stand “outside everything which is correlative with its own finite nature.”[24] It is important to understand that the apophatic assent outlined in the Mystical Theology is a movement toward union with God. Negations do not simply follow affirmations in order to balance the theological scales; rather, the ascent moves through both affirmations and negations as it approaches true apophasis by turning completely away from speech.

Since it is the Cause of all beings, we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings, and, more appropriately, we should negate all these affirmations, since it surpasses being. Now we should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations, but rather that the cause of all is considerably prior to this, beyond privations, beyond every denial, beyond every assertion.[25]

The way of negation must even negate the negations: God “is also beyond every denial.”[26] What, then, is the purpose of the apophatic ascent, if it is not simply to balance affirmations with negations? In short, the purpose of apophatic theology is union with God. Dionysius’ apophaticism is not disconnected from his broader theological vision; the purpose of the ascent of negations is, in Louth’s words, “to be drawn up to God and ecstatically out of oneself in an act of loving surrender.”[27] The link between the way of negations (apophasis) and the soul’s standing outside itself (ecstasy) is the focus of the Mystical Theology. Like the Divine Names, the Mystical Theology describes the ascent through negations of creatures that are set within the context of the ecclesial and celestial hierarchies. However, the focus the Mystical Theology is “union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge.”[28] Such union comes by means of negative theology which, as we have seen, presupposes the “affirmative” theology of God’s self-manifestation in the ecclesial and celestial hierarchies. In fact, since Dionysius describes the purpose of the hierarchies as assimilation to God, it makes sense to see the ascent outlined in this short treatise as the fulfillment of Dionysius’ account of theosis.

Louth articulates the purpose of the ascent through negations as the “meeting” of “the human ecstasy of union with God and the divine ecstasy of creation.”[29] Dionysius does not reserve the concept of ecstasy—the coming outside of oneself—for creation alone. He argues at length that God’s self-manifestation to creation (which is the substance of the hierarchies) is an instance of ecstatic love.

And, in truth, it must be said too that the very Cause of the universe in the beautiful, good superabundance of his benign yearning for all is also carried outside of himself in the loving care he has for everything. He is, as it were, beguiled by goodness, by love, and by yearning and is enticed away from his transcendent dwelling place and comes to abide within all things, and he does so by virtue of his supernatural and ecstatic capacity to remain, nevertheless, within himself.[30]

We saw earlier that the purpose of the ecclesial and celestial hierarchies is to manifest God to creation in a deifying way. Participants in these hierarchies are not deified by climbing up the ladder, so to speak, of the hierarchy, but are rather deified precisely by fulfilling their particular tasks within the hierarchy. The manifestation of God given in the hierarchies does, however, make a certain kind of ascent possible—not an ascent of rank, but an ascent of love. The apophatic ascent is man’s ecstatic response to God’s love. This is why Dionysius admonishes Timothy in the beginning of the Mystical Theology “to leave behind you everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understanding, all that is not and all that is, and, with your understanding laid aside, to strive upward as much as you can toward union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge.”[31] The Mystical Theologys turning from speech is an ecstatic movement whereby the soul stands outside of itself and fixates on the Beloved. But since God is the Source of all being and, as such, beyond all being and all knowledge, we can only fix our attention on God by distancing ourselves from everything else, from all that is and is not. This ascent through negations is man’s ecstatic response to God’s ecstatic self-manifestation. The ecstatic meeting of God and man is the fulfilment of theosis, because in it man is brought completely outside of himself and enters into union with the transcendent Source of all.

Perhaps the best way to conclude this treatment of Dionysius’ thought is with a statement that would have been obvious to Dionysius but is perhaps lost on many of his modern readers: the whole of Dionysius’ theological vision is shaped by the gospel of God’s love for man. Dionysius is not simply an esoteric mystic set on circumventing the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and the Church by means of an individualistic pursuit of union with God. In fact, as Louth points out, in light of Paul’s use of the term “mysterion,” Dionysius would not have understood the term “mystikos in contrast to the catholic revelation of God in Christ, as modern Christians sometimes do. Rather, “in Christian vocabulary, mystikos means something that refers us to this mystery of God’s love for us in Christ and makes it accessible to us.”[32] The ecclesial and celestial hierarchies are the concrete forms which God’s love for us in Christ takes; they are the deifying theophanies that make God known to creation and assimilate members of the hierarchy to God to insofar as this is possible. Thus, Dionysius’ vision of union with God through the ascent of negations concerns the sacramental heart of the ecclesial hierarchy—“the inner ‘mystic’ meaning [which is] the manifestation of God’s love in divine acts that culminate in the incarnation.”[33] The mystic’s apophatic union with God is not achieved in spite of the incarnation but because of it; it is the ecstatic meeting of man with God that was made possible by the incarnation.



[1] Coakley, Sarah. “Re-Thinking Dionysius the Areopogite” (Modern Theology 24 no. 4, October, 2008), 531.

[2] Louth, Andrew. “The Reception of Dionysius up to Maximus the Confessor” (Modern Theology 24 no. 4, October, 2008), 574.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 581.

[5] Dionysius, Celestial Hierarchy, 165a.

[6] Dionysius, Divine Names, 588a. “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.”

[7] Louth, Andrew. Denys the Areopagite (Guildford: Biddles Ltd., 1989), 31.

[8] Ibid., 78.

[9] Dionysius, Mystical Theology, 1025a.

[10] Dionysius, Celestial Hierarchy, 164d.

[11] Louth, Denys the Areopagite, 86.

[12] Dionysius, Celestial Hierarchy, 164d.

[13] Ibid., 165a.

[14] Ibid., 165c.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Dionysius, Divine Names, 588a.

[17] Ibid., 588d.

[18] Ibid., 593a.

[19] Dionysius, Mystical Theology, 1000b.

[20] Dionysius, Divine Names, 872a-b.

[21] Ibid., 597a.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 981b.

[25] Dionysius, Mystical Theology, 1000b.

[26] Ibid., 1048b.

[27] Louth, Denys the Areopagite, 108.

[28] Dionysius, Mystical Theology, 1000a.

[29] Louth, Denys the Areopagite, 108.

[30] Dionysius, Divine Names, 712b.

[31] Dionysius, Mystical Theology, 1000a.

[32] Louth, Denys the Areopagite, 28.

[33] Ibid., 108.