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Apparent Dionysian Themes in Luther’s Theology

May 10, 2012

Scholars such as Bernard McGinn and Paul Rorem have highlighted Martin Luther’s explicit criticisms of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite in gauging the relationship of the Wittenberg Reformer to his Medieval and mystical theological predecessors. As Rorem points out, Luther’scriticisms of Dionysius are continuous throughout his early and mature theologies. In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, one of Luther’s more mature writings, he states:

[I]t greatly displeases me to assign such importance to this Dionysius, whoever he may have been, for he shows hardly any signs of solid learning. I would ask, by what authority and with what arguments does he prove his hodge-podge about the angels in his Celestial Hierarchy—a book over which many curious and superstitious spirits have cudgeled their brains? If one were to read and judge without prejudice, is not everything in it his own fancy and very much like a dream? But in his Theology, which is rightly called Mystical, of which certain very ignorant theologians make so much, he is downright dangerous, for he is more of a Platonist than a Christian. So if I had my way, no believing soul would give the least attention to these books. So far, indeed, from learning Christ in them, you will lose even what you already know of him. I speak from experience. Let us rather hear Paul, that we may learn Jesus Christ and him crucified. He is the way, the life, and the truth; he is the ladder by which we come to the Father (LW 36:109).

Erich Vogelsang distinguished between (1) Dionysian mysticism, (2) Latin mysticism, and (3) German mysticism. Since Luther emphasized Christ’s humanity and the mystic’s self-despair, Vogelsang argues, he represents German mysticism to the exclusion of all other types. In his chapter in the recently published, Re-Thinking Dionysius the Areopagite, Piotr Malysz challenges this neat categorization of Luther, specifically with regard to Dionysian mysticism. Though Luther is critical of Dionysius, perhaps, Malysz asks, these criticisms should be openly weighed against Luther’s use of similar themes in his theology.

Malysz claims that Luther’s theology of the cross, his reference to God as Deus absconditus, and the doctrine of justification by faith alone bear similarities to the Dionysian concepts of Deus incognitosand the Neoplatonic theme of divine procession and return. Malysz, depending upon Rorem’s earlier work (“Martin Luther’s Christocentric Critique of Pseudo-Dionysian Spirituality”), notes that much of the history of the Corpus Dionysiacum revolved around the interpretive task of situating Dionysius’s Christology. According to Rorem, theologians from Maximus the Confessor to Bonaventure sought to make the Areopagite’s theology more Christ centered. Malysz argues that Luther continues the line of thinkers who contribute a Christocentric interpretation of Dionysius, adding his own particular solution to the problem of where Christ fits in Dionysian negative theology.

Dionysius, Malysz argues, distinguishes God from creation as theos agnostos. “Because ‘he is not some kind of being’, God enables the distinct identity of the world and is the framework for the unfolding of the world’s astounding multiplicity” (Malysz, 681). For Dionysius, man cannot know God in his nature but can know him in some way from the projection of things from him. But, God is not known through any particular thing. What is known is God’s simultaneous presence in all things while remaining unapparent and transcendently other to all. For Malysz, Luther’s The Bondage of the Will is an elaboration of divine hiddeness. Deus praesens appears in this work, he argues, as God at work in creation – all things transpire through the will of God which is his essence. Luther notes, “everything we do, everything that happens, even if it seems to us to happen mutably and contingently, happens in fact … necessarily and immutably, if you have regard to the will of God” (ibid). The unfolding of God’s omnipotence, Malysz clarifies, does not violate the human will, in Luther’s view, but animates it. Doing the good out of free choice cannot occur apart from the Holy Spirit. Creation cannot yield knowledge apart from God. Malysz argues:

Luther does not reject divine unknowability but locates it, as does Dionysius, on the level of divine operation ad extra. Luther departs from Dionysius in questioning whether God’s unknowability can be conceptualized at all apart from God’s being God in relation to creation. It is fundamentally as praesens that God, for Luther, is unknown and unknowable (ibid., 684).

Malysz argues that Luther turns from the argument over divine presence with Erasmus to engage in similar debate with Zwingli. He argues with Zwingli that the presence of Christ’s humanity along with his divinity does not destroy Christ’s humanity. Luther correlates the presence of the humanity of Christ with God’s presence noting, “all created things are … much more permeable and present to him than they are in the second mode,” Malysz clarifies, “that is, when the risen Christ passed through closed doors, for example” (idib., 684).  For Luther, God’s presence is not a filling of space but space is present to him. For Luther:

God is no such extended, long, broad, thick, high, deep being. He is a supernatural, inscrutable being who exists at the same time in every little seed, whole and entire, and yet also in all and above all and outside all created things. . . . Nothing is so small but God is still smaller, nothing so large but God is still larger . . . He is an inexpressible being, above and beyond all that can be described or imagined (Luther quoted in ibid., 684).

Both Luther and Dionysius maintain that one does not come into God’s presence since God has the world present to himself: “he is the time and space of the world” (ibid., 685).  God remains in himself while giving himself to the created order. One difference between the two, notes Malysz, is that for Dionysius, God’s creating activity is for the sake of returning all things to him. For Luther, on the other hand, God’s majesty only evokes terror. However, Luther’s soteriology has a procession and return structure, Malysz argues. For Luther, the terror of God’s majesty is not meant to lead to absolute despair but to salutary despair. The God who is revealed as wrathful is also the God who reveals himself in the weakness of the cross. “Rather,” Malysz notes, “the purpose of his all-working hiddenness is to bring proud humans down to nothing, at which point they are not longer able to trust in themselves” (ibid., 686).

Despair over God’s majestic hiddenness gives way to faithful appreciation of his salvific hiddenness. For Luther, sin in its essence is a turning of the mind toward its self, principally in seeking to gratify ones desires by one’s own perceived righteousness. The sinner whose will is turned inward upon itself, who seeks self-justification, must come to nothing. In losing one’s relatedness to self, the relationship with God can be re-established. Malysz argues that, for Luther, one receives the joy of salvation through faith by fleeing from the majestic hiddeness of God to the hiddeness of the cross.

Rather than being instruments, the locales of God’s favour are Christ’s testament, which establishes the believer’s identity by imparting to her Christ’s life, righteousness and salvation. More importantly, they convey God’s relationship to humanity by defining this relationship as unquestionably favourable, rooted in God’s merciful identity (ibid., 687).

Freed to live in an “identity-bestowing relationship” with God, the believer is freed from self-justification and thus made open to relational living (ibid., 687).  By being properly placed in an orderly relationship the believer is freed from the self and enabled to seek to justify others. Malysz affirms that this other-seeking motive brought about by justification has important socio-political implications:

Luther’s dramatic plea that public offices be filled by Christians must be seen in this context. The transactional nature of civil law, despite its capacity for social order, cannot by itself assure justice, for the law objectifies those under it. It is therefore imperative that public officers not lose sight of those under their authority as persons and apply the law with equity” (ibid., 687).

Believers exhibit in their lives Christ’s “other-justifying descent” (ibid., 688).  In seeking to share the divine light through justifying others, believers are simultaneously returning to their source. Luther acknowledges that God is the source of every good – faith “consummates the Deity … it is the creator of the Deity, not in the substance of God but in us” (Luther quoted in ibid., 688).  In performing just acts the believer participates in the return of God’s own divinity to himself. Luther’s point of departure, Malysz argues, is the necessity of salvation seen in primarily psychological terms (bondage of the will, etc.). For Dionysius it is the attribution of harmony to a multiplicity of created goods.

For Dionysius the creature has an anological identity – participating in the harmonious gathering and return of all things to the One. The creature’s identity is encompassed by the desire to participate in God’s own desire to create. Malysz affirms that, in Dionysius’s view, creatures are able by free will to act against the divine harmony and cause chaos and disorder, yet all of creation yearns for and is called to oneness with God. With both Luther’s and Dionysius’s affirmations of the sinful predicament of the human will and the created order in mind, Malysz asks, “How can such sinners come to know God?” Both Dionysius and Luther agree that to think that one sees and understands God is to mistake the creation for the Creator. For Luther, God has veiled himself in creation and in the humanity of Christ to preserve man’s analogous nature. In accepting the hidden God believers must halt the activities of the mind and receive him who is “hidden even amid the revelation” (Luther quoted in ibid., 689).  Malysz summarizes what he sees as the quintessential similarities between the Areopagite and the Wittenberger. Both: (1) see creation’s harmony as a structure of divine impartation (2) this impartation can be phrased in terms of procession and return (3) emphasize the analogical relationality of the human person and the divine.

Though Malysz’s comparison and contrast of Luther and Dionysius performs a much needed second look at Luther’s relationship to his Medieval theological predecessors, he leaves the reader with some unanswered questions. What is Luther’s exact relationship to the Corpus Dionysiacum? How do we balance an apparent influence of Dionysian Neoplatonism on Luther’s theology with his own words in opposition to the Areopagite? Malysz does not offer a solution to this overarching problem, other than pointing to some intriguing similarities. On this note, Malysz’s analysis could stand to be more empirical. It could stand to focus more on Luther’s explicit positive use of Dionysian terminology. Also, his analysis might be more thorough if it focused on the importance of faith and the relationship between the law and gospel, two very prominent themes in Luther’s theology where, I believe, he uses Dionysian terms and reasons most explicitly. For a more text-based analysis of the similarities between Luther and Dionysius, I point the reader to Knut Alfsvåg’s article which I may get around to reviewing later, “Luther as a Reader of Dionysius the Areopagite” (Studia Theologica 65 [2011], pp. 101- 114). Also, a mention of the difficult tension between justification and deification in Luther’s theology would have been apropos. A needed clarification on this point comes by way of Bruce Marshall’s “Justification as Declaration and Deification” (International Journal of Systematic Theology, 4:1 [2002], pp. 3-28).

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