When most theologians hear the phrase “absolutely ineffable,” they nod approvingly and reach for their Dionysius. I cringe and reach for the Bible. Every theologian can admit that the Bible’s descriptions of God need to be contextualized, qualified, and grounded in a properly Christian metaphysics, but for many theologians today, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite delivers us from the problem of anthropomorphism altogether. Especially for those influenced by postmodernism or postfoundationalism, everything Dionysius says about Godand he says plentyadds up to one great (and absolutely good) negation. (Dionysius wrote in the early sixth century and used a pseudonym based on the Athenian convert Paul mentions in Acts 17:34.)
Being in the knowledge business, theologians are acutely aware of how hard it is to ascertain the contents of any cognition with even a smattering of precision, so it is understandable that so many would find Dionysius seductive. It turns out, however, that Dionysius, not God, is the one who has been misunderstood all this time. In the future, anyone thinking about ineffability should be strongly encouraged to reach for Timothy Knepper’s new book, Negating Negation: Against the Apophatic Abandonment of the Dionysian Corpus.
Knepper’s thesis is nearly as complex as negative theology itself: “The Dionysian God is ineffable only in certain respects and for certain reasons and to certain ends.” His brief book moves swiftly through a dizzying array of logical and exegetical arguments. In fact, he rejects both traditional views of Dionysius and contemporary views of ineffability, which can be confusing. Dionysius did not defend absolute ineffability in part, Knepper argues, because nobody can.
One common way to interpret Dionysius is to say that he preserves metaphorical predications of God while denying any literal ascriptions. Another way is to say that he lets us know something about how God interacts with the world but nothing about what God really is. Knepper rejects both interpretations. He reads the divine names of God (what we typically call God’s attributes) as “divine causes of the intelligible properties in which beings participate.” They are similar to the Platonic forms. Calling God life-itself means that God is the cause of life. Negating that name does not mean that God is therefore not life or not living, and it certainly does not mean that God is as much like inanimate things as organic. We still know that God is more like a human being than a rock, for example. What Dionysian negation reveals is that God is preeminently living. God is, quite literally, life-itself.
The divine names help us to understand God’s relation to the world, but what do they say about God’s nature? That is where things get fuzzy. They certainly are not angels, as a blurb on the back of the book suggests. They are also not exactly attributes of God, in the sense of having only nominal value. Most importantly, they are not ingenious attempts to name that which is unnamable. They are, in fact, intelligible concepts, not perceptible symbols. Calling God a rock requires a change from the sensible to the non-sensible meaning of rock. Calling God life does not. This difference is the ground for Knepper’s contention that in some respects God really is life-itself. Life is not just an attribute of the divine, but something like a property essentially belonging to and freely distributed by God.
The divine names are who God is or, more adequately, what God does. They are divine processionsbeing, life and wisdomthat function as the causes of the properties they source. (There are also names that are the sources of the ordering of the world and the return of all things to God.) God is beyond being but not beyond being named, in the sense that God contains all the divine names, which in turn contain all of their effects. Like the Neoplatonic henads, the names pluralize the divine, which makes it possible for everything created to participate in the creator. Knepper’s Dionysius, it should go without saying, does not believe in creation out of nothing.
More precisely, the divine names signify how God possesses the properties of the created world in the highest respect. That preeminence is what negative theology’s deprivations reveal. There are an excess of “hypers” in Dionysius, and for good reason. Hyper does not indicate that God is beyond the names, but that the names are in God in ways that exceed the existence of their effects in creatures. For example, God is invisible because God is light, not because we are in the dark about God’s true nature. Indeed, with a little imagination we could say that Dionysius situates God’s intelligibility in the transgressive aspects of Jesus’s call to love beyond the usual limits.
Negative theology is thus an exercise in hyperbole, not litotes, multiplication, not subtraction. There is always more God to know, but that does not invalidate what we already know. Moreover, and this is crucial, Dionysius never lets apophasis trump the hierarchy of angels and the sacramental rituals that make possible our divinizing return to God.
Knepper’s cumulative case against absolute ineffability still leaves Dionysius in the Platonic trap of thinking that God is incomprehensible to the senses while intelligible to the mind. While God’s hyper-being is revealed by scripture, we must receive it in a state of hyper-knowing that renders the sensible close to being superfluous. That risks leaving out Jesus as the hyper-human who quite literally unites the physical and the spiritual. Knowing God is not a matter of climbing a mountain whose peaks are always out of sight, thus leaving us in the valley even when we think we are nearing the top. There is always more to know about God, but there is not a different God than the one we know in Jesus Christ.
Knepper’s book puts a warning label on negative theology. Ineffability needs to be qualified in so many ways that it should be handled with the greatest care. Dionysius remains a mysterious figure in the history of theology, but his philosophical project has never been clearer. Like all Christian philosophers, Dionysius thinks that the purpose of metaphysics is to demonstrate that Jesus, who made God known, has also made him knowable.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity.