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VIII.—THE SCRIPTURAL BASIS OF DIONYSIUS’S DOCTRINES
In the treatise “Concerning the Divine Names,” Dionysius seeks to reconcile
his daring conceptions with Scripture. Nor can he be said to fail. His argument,
briefly, is that in Scripture we have a Revealed Religion and that things which
are Revealed belong necessarily to the plane of Manifestation. Thus Revealed
Religion interprets to us in terms of human thought things which, being
Incomprehensible, are ultimately beyond thought. This is merely what St.
Augustine teaches when he says2828Com. on St. John, Tr. I. 1: “For who
can declare the Truth as it actually is? I venture to say, my brothers, perhaps
John himself has not declared it as it actually is; but, even he, only according
to his powers. For he was a man speaking about God—one inspired, indeed, by God
but still a man. Because he was inspired he has declared something of the
Truth—had he not been inspired he could not have declared anything of it—but
because he was a man (though an inspired one) he has not declared the whole
Truth, but only what was possible for a man.” that, the Prologue of St.
John’s Gospel reveals the mysteries of
41Eternity not as they
actually are but as human thought can grasp them.2929[What Augustine says is
that St. John, because he was only human, has not declared the whole Truth
concerning Deity. But this is very different from saying that what St. John has
declared does not correspond with the eternal Reality. While Augustine holds
that the Johannine revelation is not complete, he certainly held that it was
correct as far as it goes. Augustine had no conception of a Deity whom the
qualities of self-consciousness and personality did not essentially represent.
It is more than questionable whether Augustine would have accepted the statement
that the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel does not record the mysteries of Eternity
“as they actually are.“ Augustine had a profound belief that God as He
is in Himself corresponds with God as He is revealed.—Ed.] The
neo-Platonism of Dionysius does not invalidate Scripture any more than that of
Plotinus invalidates the writings of Plato. Dionysius merely says that there is
an unplumbed Mystery behind the words of Scripture and streaming through them,
just as Plotinus and other neo-Platonists hold that there is an unplumbed
Mystery streaming through from behind Plato’s categories of thought. And if it
be urged that at least our Lord’s teaching on the Fatherhood of God cannot be
reconciled with the doctrine of a Supra-Personal Godhead, the answer is near at
hand.3030[The writer argues that Christ and Plotinus both employ the same
expression, Father, to the Deity. But the use of the same expression will not
prove much unless it is employed in the same meaning. No one can seriously
contend that the Pagan Plotinus meant what Jesus Christ meant of the Fatherhood
of God. Surely it is unquestionable that the Fatherhood of God meant for Jesus
Christ what constituted God’s supreme reality. It was employed in a sense which
is entirely foreign to the metaphysical doctrine of a Supra-Personal Deity. The
Semitic conception of the Godhead was not that of a neo-Platonist
metaphysician.—Ed.] For the Pagan Plotinus, whose doctrine is similar to
that of Dionysius, gives this very name of “Father” to his Supra-Personal
Absolute—or rather to that Aspect of It which comes into touch with the human
soul.3131e.g. Enn. I. 6, 8: “We have a country whence we came, and we
have a Father there.” Moreover in the most rigidly orthodox Christian
theology God the
42Father is not a
Personality. St. Augustine, for instance,3232[What Augustine says is that we
do not speak of three essences and three Gods, but of one essence and one God.
Why then do we speak of three Persons and not of one Person?
“Why, therefore, do we not call these three together one Person, or one
Essence and one God; we say three Persons, while we do not say three Gods or
three Essences; unless it be because we wish some one word to serve for that
meaning whereby the Trinity is understood, that we might not be altogether
silent when asked, what three, while we confessed that they are three?”
1. Augustine’s distinction is between the genus and the species. Thus Abraham Isaac and Jacob are three specimens of one genus. What he contends is that this is not the case in the Deity. 2. The essence of the Deity is unfolded in these Three. And “there is nothing else of that Essence beside the Trinity.” “In no way can any other person whatever exist out of the same essence” whereas in mankind there can be more than three. 3. Moreover the three specimens of the genus man, Abraham Isaac and Jacob, are more, collectively, than any one of them by himself. “But in God it is not so; for the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit together is not a greater essence than the Father alone or the Son alone.” What he means is that the Trinity is not to be explained by spacial metaphors (De Trin. vii. II).
Augustine then is not teaching that the Persons of the Trinity are Elements whose true nature is unknown to us. He certainly does teach that Personality in the Godhead must exist otherwise than what we find under human limitations. But Augustine’s conception of Deity is not the Supra-Personal Absolute. To him the Trinity was not confined to the plane of Manifestation. We have only to remember how he regards Sabellianism to prove this. Moreover, who can doubt that Augustine’s psychological conception of God as the Lover, the Beloved and the Love which in itself is personal, represented to his mind the innermost reality and ultimate essence of the Deity? God is not for Augustine a supra-personal something in which both unity and trinity are transcended. The Trinity of Manifestation is for Augustine that which corresponds with and is identical with the very essential being of Deity. God is not merely Three as known to us but Three as He is in Himself apart from all self-revelation.—Ed.]teaches that the “Persons” of the Trinity are Elements whose true nature is unknown to us.3333De Trin. vii. 11: “Why . . . do we speak of Three ‘Persons’ . . . except because we need some one term to explain the meaning of the word ’Trinity,’ so as not to be entirely without an answer to the question: ‘Three What?’ when we confess God to be Three.” They correspond however, he says, to certain elements in our individual personalities, and hence the human 43soul is created (he tells us) not in the image of one Person in the Godhead but in the image of the whole Trinity.3434De Trin. vii. 12 Thus he by implication denies that God the Father is, in the ordinary sense of the word, a Personality. And the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas is very similar.3535Summa, Pars I. Q. xlv. Art. vii. It may, perhaps, even be said that the germ of the most startling doctrines which Dionysius expounds may be actually found in Scripture. A state, for instance, which is not knowledge and yet is not ignorance, is described by St. Paul when he says that Christians “know God or rather are known of Him.”3636Gal. iv. 9. This is the mental attitude of Unknowing. For the mind is quiescent and emptied of its own powers and so receives a knowledge the scope and activity of which is outside itself in God. And in speaking of an ecstatic experience which he himself had once attained St. Paul seems to suggest that he was, on that occasion, outside of himself in such a manner as hardly, in the ordinary sense, to retain his own identity.37372 Cor. xii. 2–5. Moreover he suggests that the redeemed and perfected creation is at last to be actually merged in God (ἵνα ᾖ ὁ Θεός τὰ πάντα ἐν πᾶσιν3838I Cor. xv. 28). And the doctrine of Deification is certainly, in the germ, Scriptural. For as Christ is the Son of God so are we to be Sons of God,3939New Testament, passim. and Christ is reported actually to have based His own claims to Deity on the potential Divinity of the human soul.4040John x. 34–36 Moreover we are to reign with Him41412 Tim. ii 12; Rev. i. 6; v. 10; xx. 6. and are, in a manner passing our present apprehension, to be made like Him when we see Him as He is.4242I John iii. 2.
Now all the boldest statements of Dionysius about 44the ultimate glory for which the human soul is destined are obviously true of Christ, and as applied to Him, they would be a mere commentary on the words “I and the Father are One.”4343John x. 30. Therefore if Christ came to impart His Life to us so that the things which are His by Nature should be ours by Grace, it follows that the teaching of Dionysius is in harmony with Scripture so long as it is made to rest on the Person and Work of Christ. And, though Dionysius does not emphasize the Cross as much as could be wished, yet he certainly holds that Christ is the Channel through which the power of attainment is communicated to us. It must not be forgotten that he is writing as a Christian to Christians, and so assumes the Work of Christ as a revealed and experienced Fact. And since he holds that every individual person and thing has its pre-existent limits ordained in the Super-Essence, therefore he holds that the Human Soul of Christ has Its preexistent place there as the Head of the whole creation. That is what he means by the phrase “Super-Essential Jesus,” and that is what is taught in the quotation from Hierotheus already alluded to. No doubt the lost works of Dionysius dealt more fully with this subject, as indeed he hints himself. And if, through this scanty sense of the incredible evil which darkens and pollutes the world, he does not in the present treatise lay much emphasis upon the Saviour’s Cross, yet he gives us definite teaching on the kindred Mystery of the Incarnation.
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