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Kevin Gallagher

REL 721: Medieval Theology

Prof. Denys Turner
T.A.: Jonathan Teubner
April 30, 2010
The Divine Names in St. Thomas and in the Pseudo-Denys

Et tamen deus, cum de illo nihil digne dici

possit, admisit humanae vocis obsequium, et
verbis nostris in laude sua gaudere nos
—Augustine, de Doct. Christ.

St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, was obviously one of the most

innovative theological thinkers of the medieval period. But what is equally obvious

is that, perhaps unlike the majority of modern theologians, he had no desire to be

seen as innovative, and in fact saw innovation as something to avoid. For St.

Thomas, the project of theology must always be conducted within the boundaries

established by the church’s doctrinal tradition; any innovation, then—any attempt

to move beyond those boundaries or to decisively break with the past—would be

something very close to heresy. Continuity with the tradition, or at least a pretense

of such continuity, was and is the hallmark of catholic theology. And in the case of

St. Thomas, the theological importance of establishing continuity with the past, of

smoothing over potential contradictions, and of avoiding conspicuous innovation

was only strengthened by his own personal humility: he was a saint, after all, as

well as a professor, and by all accounts he was not motivated by any desire to make

a name for himself or to make a splash in the world of Catholic theology. But

because of the value St. Thomas placed on theological continuity, it is often difficult

to detect exactly where his thought departs from his predecessors in the catholic

theological tradition. If possible, he generally attempts to demonstrate why

apparent contradictions between his doctrines and theirs are actually no

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contradictions at all (most of the responses to objections in the Summa Theologiae

play this sort of conciliatory role), and he is absolutely unwilling to score rhetorical

points by striking an antagonistic pose against figures who have taught otherwise

(he dispatches the ontological argument, for example, without mentioning Anselm

in connection with it1). In his doctrine on language about God, therefore, one can

expect that St. Thomas will make no effort to criticize the position laid out in the

pseudo-Dionysian treatise On the Divine Names. For St. Thomas, the prestige of

this work, and what was for him the barely subapostolic authority of its writer,

demand that any subsequent discussion of the subject take seriously what the

pseudo-Denys had to say. It is a text that may be wrestled with, but not rejected.

That St. Thomas recognized the authority of this text is clear, if only from the

number of times he cites it in his own theological writing. But without directly

criticizing the pseudo-Denys, or at least while avoiding the appearance of such

criticism, St. Thomas in fact proposes a doctrine very different from that of the

pseudo-Areopagite. St. Thomas does not announce this, and I believe that he would

say the pseudo-Dionysian position is not incorrect, if properly understood—such

irenic thinking is St. Thomas’s modus operandi. But even if the difference between

St. Thomas and the pseudo-Denys is no more than a difference of emphasis, it is not

a difference without consequence for theology. If one wants to say that St.

Thomas’s project is to establish a grammar for theology, then one could say that he

wants that grammar to allow us to say things which the pseudo-Denys would not.

Before considering St. Thomas’s divergences from the pseudo-Dionysian

teaching, we should consider that teaching in itself, which, as a very ancient and

very prestigious teaching, would always have been in the back of St. Thomas’s mind

as he wrote about the names of God.

Summ. Theol. Ia.q2.a1.
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The pseudo-Denys’s position is heavily Platonic, or rather Plotinian. God is

infinite, beyond our proper understanding, and so properly nameless. We can name

God from created things, he says, because God and the world are connected in a

double motion: the exitus by which things are created by God, and the reditus by

which they ever yearn to return to him. The things of this world, caused by God,

retain something of the Cause by which they came to be; as all things yearn for

him, they hint to us at their final goal. God is simultaneously the essential and final

cause of all that exists.2 But since creation is something God does, and since

everything God does must be an essential part of his nature (as a good Platonist,

and a good Christian, the pseudo-Denys believes in the simplicity of the Godhead),

then it would be impossible if creation did not reveal to us something about the

Godhead who is its origin and goal. And so the pseudo-Denys writes that

as Cause of all and transcending all, he is rightly nameless and

yet has the names of everything that is. […] Certainly he is to be
praised as being of all things the creator and originator, the one
who brings them to completion, their preserver, their protector,
and their home, the power which returns them to itself, and all
this in the one single, irrepressible, and supreme act.3

In a word: what we know about God is what we know about how God relates to

creatures. Due to the finite and imperfect nature of all fallen things, this means that

we necessarily see through a glass darkly: the pseudo-Denys describes the image of

God in creation in overtly Platonic language, as a seal impression that does not

perfectly represent the seal due to the imperfection of the wax.4

But for the pseudo-Denys, our knowledge about God from created things falls

short not only because these impressions are faulty. It is not that our knowledge

See, e.g., de Div. Nom. I.5 593d: Providence “is the Cause of everything,” and “everything
has it for a destiny.” Translated in Colm Luibheid, Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works
(Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987).
ibid. I.7, 596cd
ibid. II.6, cf. Plat. Timaeus 50c.
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fails in spite of its basis in impressions of the divine nature; it fails precisely

because it is based merely in impressions of the divine nature. We know about God

from what we know about his relation to created things, but all we know about that

relation is what we know about it in the created things. The pseudo-Denys is quite

clear that this knowledge does not “reveal” anything about God, who remains

perfectly hidden, but merely discloses something about God’s processions or

emanations. Ultimately, the most that created things can tell us about God is that

they are related somehow to him:

When, for instance, we give the name of “God” to that

transcendent hiddenness [adumbrated to us in our knowledge of
created things], when we call it “life” or “being” or “light” or
“Word,” what our minds lay hold of is in fact nothing other than
certain activities apparent to us, activities which deify, cause
being, bear life, and give wisdom.5

The full implications of this are quite far-reaching: to call God “God” means only “he

deifies”; to call God “being” means only “he causes to be,” &c. We know God as the

cause of things, but we know him only as the cause of things. One could say that,

according to the pseudo-Denys, no man may see the living God, though we may see

his signs of life. Or, to adopt an idiom well-suited to the pseudo-Denys, we could say

that we sit on the floor of Plato’s Cave, seeing only the shadows and never the fire,

and by the word “fire,” signifying nothing more than “that which casts shadow.”

God is unknown not only in that he is greater than anything we might know about

him, but also in that he is other than anything we might know about him. There is,

so to speak, a sort of phenomena/noumena distinction in the thought of the pseudo-

Areopagite: even if we can see manifestations or emanations of the divine

mysteries, nevertheless “their actual nature, what they are ultimately in their own

source and ground, is beyond all intellect and all being and all knowledge.”6
ibid. II.7, 645a
ibid., loc. cit.
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In this light, it makes perfect sense that the pseudo-Denys considers the

Good, more so than Being or Truth or Wisdom or any other name, to be the

preeminent name of God. The Good, he argues, is diffusivum sui,7 constantly giving

out more of itself, and never so perfectly communicated that there is not more of it

to be received. The good diffuses itself without limit, and constantly makes itself

more manifest; it is, therefore, the best name we can have for a God whom we

know only through the manifestation of his activities, a God whom we know only

“phenomenally,” and never “noumenally” (if it is permitted to abuse Kantian

language to make a point). For the pseudo-Denys, since the emanations of the

Godhead tell us nothing about the Godhead who emanates (except that he

emanates), the name of the self-emanating Good is obviously the most appropriate

one our minds can conceive of. Accordingly, the pseudo-Denys gives Goodness

priority even over Being.8 Being, as something which is manifested to us, must, for

him, be inferior to the infinitely unknowable Godhead that manifests it. Thus the

Good, the “first name” of God, “tells of the universal Providence of the one God,

while the other names [“Being,” “Life,” “Wisdom,” &c.] reveal general ways in

which he acts providentially.”9 But ultimately, these names are names not of God

himself, but of his Providence, of his action: we name God from what we know of

what he does outside himself.

ibid., IV.1, 693b, about the Good: “It sends the rays of its undivided goodness to everything
with the capacity, such as this may be, to receive it.”
see ibid., V.5, 820a: “He originated being, I mean absolute being, and with that as
instrument he founded every type of existent.” (emphasis added). Also V.6, 820c: “The first
gift therefore of the absolutely transcendent Goodness is the gift of being.” For the pseudo-
Denys, the first principle of Being is something other than God; Being itself is not, as in St.
Thomas, the essence of God’s life, but rather one of the first (and admittedly, one of the
best and most important) of his emanations or “gifts.” Thus the pseudo-Denys, with
negative theologians everywhere, says in the first chapter of the Mystical Theology not only
that God is “higher than any being,” but also that he is “beyond all being.”
de Div. Nom. V.2, 817a.
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For the pseudo-Denys, God as he is in himself is utterly secret. The one who

would truly know God, he says, must cast away all knowledge about God, and finally

abandon knowing itself, before God will be truly known to him. And as regards this

knowledge of the “noumenal” God, beyond all knowledge of God’s “phenomenal”

processions and emanations, the pseudo-Denys’s language, never entirely sober,

becomes an absolute riot of paradox. One only knows God, he says, when “one is

united to the completely unknown by an inactivity of all knowledge, and knows

beyond the mind by knowing nothing.”10 “The most divine knowledge of God,” and

the only knowledge of God which is knowledge of God himself, is “that which comes

through unknowing.”11 Just as our language is unequal to the task of describing God

as he is, so also is our knowledge unequal to the task of knowing God as he is. And

thus the pseudo-Dionysian account of language about God must always end with a

deafening apophatic silence.

And with this silence on the part of the pseudo-Denys, we also will fall silent

about the Dionysian doctrine of the divine names. This very brief account has been

enough to make clear the parts of his teaching where St. Thomas Aquinas diverges

from him. But first of all, one must not assume that St. Thomas intends explicitly or

implicitly to reject the pseudo-Denys’s account completely. He also believes, after

all, that “it is impossible for any created intellect to comprehend God,”12 and he

approvingly quotes the pseudo-Denys to the effect that through grace we come to

know God quasi ignoto, “as if something unknown.”13 Though St. Thomas is not

Myst. Theol. I.3, 1001a., also in Luibheid.
de Div. Nom. VII.3, 872a.
Summ. Theol. Ia.q12.a7, corpus. Translated in St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica,
trans. English Dominicans, (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947), vol. 1.
ibid., q12.a13, ad 1um. Interestingly, he uses this quote both in the objection and in the
reply thereto. This is, perhaps, a suggestion of the extent to which he sees the
straightforward Dionysian teaching as something in need of further explanation. At any rate,
as will become clear, St. Thomas quotes these words in a slightly different sense from that in
which they were written.
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famous as a negative theologian, he, like the Christian tradition generally, has no

intention of stating that God can ever be completely unmysterious. Whatever the

difference is between St. Thomas and the pseudo-Denys, it’s something subtler
than that. Like the pseudo-Denys, he insists that we name God from creatures;

unlike the pseudo-Denys, he believes the knowledge of God expressed in these

names applies not only to God’s progressions or to his relations to the created

world, but also to his substance. St. Thomas argues that we name God from

creatures, and thereby name God as he is in himself.

This Thomistic position, like most Thomistic positions, is based on a series of

distinctions, in this case among the names that can without error be ascribed to

God. The first of these distinctions that Thomas makes is between the names of God

that are applied to him metaphorically, and those that are applied to him literally.

The metaphorical names of God, like all metaphors, are constructions which are

understood to be literally false, although illustrative in some way. If I say that God is

my rock, I have not stated that God is actually a stone, but that some of the

perfections of a rock—its durability, its strength, &c.—are also qualities I wish to

predicate of God. By the same token, there are some qualities of the rock—its

material nature, its dimensions—which could not be predicated of God without

absurdity. In contradistinction to these metaphorical names, there are names of

God which St. Thomas calls literal, which according to him involve nothing which

would result in absurdity when applied to God.15 Though our overview of the

Dionysian account above should make it clear that the pseudo-Denys would be

ibid., q13.a1, corpus: “In this life we cannot know the essence of God, but we know him
from creatures as their principle.” This formulation is more than superficially indebted to the
pseudo-Denys, but as we will see, St. Thomas is here using the word “principle” in a way the
pseudo-Denys would be unlikely to countenance.
This distinction, and St. Thomas’s grounds for it, can be found succinctly in Summ. Theol.
Gallagher 8

reluctant to apply any name literally to God himself, this Thomistic distinction

between metaphorical and literal names is paralleled by a Dionysian distinction

between the names based on sense perception, discussion of which the pseudo-

Denys postpones to his perhaps nonexistent but at any rate missing Symbolic

Theology, and so-called conceptual names of God,” which seem to be the same as

those of the divine names that St. Thomas calls “literal.”16 This distinction, of

course, is nothing to be surprised at. It is obviously something else to call the Lord a

“fighting man” (Ex. 15:3) than to refer to him as the Almighty.

But if St. Thomas here establishes a distinction with which the pseudo-Denys

would most likely agree, he does it while making an argument that subtly distances

himself from the Dionysian position. St. Thomas, in raising an objection to the

possibility of naming god literally, cites the pseudo-Dionysian Celestial Hierarchy to

the effect that all names “are more truly withheld from God than given to him,”

including names such as “good, wise, and the like” that we might be most inclined

to ascribe unambiguously to God.17 If this is the case (and this, of course, is why St.

Thomas raises it as an objection), not only can there be no literal names for God,

but metaphorical names for God are also rendered problematic; in accordance with

the pseudo-Denys’s thought as outlined above, we might metaphorically or even

literally name a progression or emanation of God, but we may never presume to

apply such a name to God in his own nature. St. Thomas, naturally, does not believe

that this objection cannot be overcome, but what is interesting is that he refers

again to the pseudo-Denys in his response, where he argues that

such [literal] names as these, as Dionysius shows, are denied of

God [by the pseudo-Denys] for the reason that what the name
signifies does not belong to him in the ordinary sense of its
de Div. Nom. I.8, 597b. This is also very like the distinction the pseudo-Denys makes
elsewhere between “dissimilar similitudes” and “similar similitudes.”
Summ. Theol. Ia.q13.a3, obj.2.
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signification, but in a more eminent way. Hence Dionysius also

says that God is above substance and all life.18

St. Thomas, that is, will allow the pseudo-Denys to deny the goodness or wisdom of

God only inasmuch as he argues that the pseudo-Denys actually means to say that

God’s goodness or wisdom is so much better or wiser than ours that it barely

deserves the same name; that in refusing to predicate life and substance of God we

mean to indicate that God is actually more perfectly substantial and more wholly

living than we. This is true, and certainly ad mentem Thomae, as far as that goes,

but it seems like a very weak idea on which to base a thoroughgoing negative

theology like the pseudo-Denys’s: it reminds me of a time years ago when my

young brother, newly confident in his verbal skills, used to entertain himself by

telling my mother that her cooking was not good—since it was, after all, great. Such

a denial, at least as it seems to me, is just a backhanded affirmation: my mother’s

cooking is pretty good, however you want to say it. But we need not be concerned

with such cases here, since that kind of denial is manifestly not what the pseudo-

Denys advocates, at least not in On the Divine Names. The pseudo-Denys, as we

have seen, argues not only that God is greater than what our language can handle,

but also that he is other than what our language can handle. He calls for silence,

apophaticism, and unknowing, not because language cannot say enough, but

because language, as far as he is concerned, ultimately leads in the wrong

direction. It is for this reason that the pseudo-Denys insists, in the very chapter of

the Celestial Hierarchies that St. Thomas quoted in the above objection, that

metaphorical images “are actually no less defective than” conceptual names for

God.19 Language, for the pseudo-Denys, falls so short of God that there is very little

point in comparing the value of utterances about God. In his response to that
ibid, q13.a3, ad 2um.
Coel. Hier. II.3, 140c. Also in Luibheid.
Gallagher 10

Dionysian objection, however, St. Thomas reinterprets the pseudo-Denys in such a

way that the pseudo-Denys seems to support St. Thomas’s own view of the

question, a view that forms the basis for a confident affirmative theology that

seems to be completely at odds with the pseudo-Dionysian theological project.

For reasons of theological continuity, St. Thomas tries to make it appear as if

the pseudo-Denys might support his argument. Even if the prospect of

appropriating the Areopagite’s authority to St. Thomas’s arguments seems less

admirable to a modern than it would have to a medieval reader, the question still

remains: since St. Thomas’s doctrine on the divine names evidently does not come

out of the pseudo-Denys, where actually does it come from? On what grounds does

St. Thomas bridge the gap between what we see in creation and what we can say

about the divine essence in itself?

It should be emphasized, first of all, that St. Thomas believes that language

can bridge this gap, but not that the gap is thereby closed, or that created language

can be applied to the divine nature unproblematically. Indeed, the difference

between their positions is very small. The pseudo-Denys argues that no name can

signify the divine substance, because all names fall short of a full representation of

God. St. Thomas, on the other hand, argues that “these names signify the divine

substance, although they fall short of a full representation of him.”20 St. Thomas

makes this claim with full awareness that he goes against the pseudo-Denys. In the

article of his Summa treating on these substantial names of God, St. Thomas raises

an objection by citing the pseudo-Denys to the effect that the names of God are

named “according to the divine processions,” and “what expresses the procession

of anything does not signify its essence.”21 St. Thomas also seems to be referencing
Summ. Theol. Ia.q13.a2, corpus.
ibid, q13.a2, obj. 2. This is what we have inadvisedly called the “phenomenal/noumenal”
distinction in Denys’s thought.
Gallagher 11

the pseudo-Denys when he briefly considers an opinion that the names of God

derive merely from his causal and other relationships with his creatures.22 St.

Thomas rejects these reasons, on grounds that (like so much in his thought) have to

do with his understanding of the relation of creature to creator. For the pseudo-

Denys, as we have seen, to be created is to proceed from God, or to be emanated;

that is, creation is understood primarily as separation from God.23 This

understanding is completely in line with the thematic of creative exitus and erotic

reditus that predominate in the pseudo-Denys’s thought, and for that matter can be

found in some form or another in any number of Christian thinkers. But this

separation explains why for the pseudo-Denys, though created things can certainly

point in the direction of God, they cannot actually lead us to him. But, in the context

of his discussion of the divine names, St. Thomas rejects this understanding of the

relation between creator and created, and offers an alternative:

God possesses in himself all the perfections of creatures, being

Himself simply and universally perfect. Hence every creature
represents him and is like him so far as it possesses some
perfection, yet it represents him not as something of the same
species or genus, but as the excelling principle of whose form
the effects fall short.24

This is not a narrative of emanation but of participation. Perfections, here, are not

like Platonic forms stamped upon recalcitrant matter, but rather more like

Aristotelian forms, in which matter takes part. And so the perfections of God—the

perfections that are God, since St. Thomas is also a believer in the simplicity of the

ibid, q13.a2., corpus.
N.B. This is not, in the pseudo-Denys, anything close to a Manichean view. He does not
think that the world is evil or abandoned by God, but rather that creation exists as an
emanation into time of a primal and eschatological unity. He emphasizes absolutely that
creation, though coming from God, is not God; and God, though before and behind
everything in creation, is not creation. It probably would be better to call this something
other than “creation’s separation from God,” but I can’t think of happier language that
wouldn’t spoil the real (erotic) tension between procession and return that strikes me as
such a prominent theme in his thought.
Summ. Theol. Ia.q13.a2, corpus.
Gallagher 12

Godhead—are perfections that can also occur in creatures. The perfections of God,

according to St. Thomas, are more, infinitely more, than any creaturely perfections.

But the way in which he understands the relation of creator and created allows him

to say that creaturely justice is a participation in divine justice, creaturely beauty is

a participation in divine beauty, and creaturely being is a participation in the pure

esse of God. Of course creatures represent their creator imperfectly, but inasmuch

as there are any perfections in creatures, it is correct, for St. Thomas, to say that

they are also the perfections of God. For “whatever good we attribute to creatures,

preexists in God.”25 For this reason, it is not a problem to name God from creaturely

perfections; the “processions” of God, inasmuch as Thomas thinks in such terms, do

in fact represent his essence, since every perfection he communicates into creation

is also a perfection that exists essentially in him. St. Thomas, then, believes in a

theological language which can never speak completely, but which can speak

correctly. Unlike the pseudo-Denys, he believes human language is (or at least can

sometimes be) on the right track.

At this point, however, St. Thomas seems to have come dangerously close to

a very serious theological problem. In the article cited above, he argued not only

that the perfections of creatures can represent the perfections of God, but he also

argued that this representation does not happen according to “the same species or

genus.” But in this case, when the same words are not applied according to the

same species or genus, it would seem that they are applied equivocally. This would

not be a problem for metaphor, or for the always self-undermining theological

language of the pseudo-Denys, but it does seem to seriously threaten St. Thomas’s

project to defend a theological language capable of speaking literally about God.

And yet one can see why he needs to add this qualification; for if God and creatures
ibid., loc. cit.
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were described according to the same species and genus—that is, univocally—then

the absolute distinction that St. Thomas (and almost all theological authorities)

placed between creature and Creator seems to have broken down. Confronted with

this dilemma, the pseudo-Denys chose equivocal language, and the consequent

disconnection of all God-talk from God, rather than language that would

blasphemously reduce God to a being among beings. Confronted with the same

dilemma, St. Thomas’s response is to deny that it is a dilemma, and to argue for the

existence of a tertium quid—analogical language.26 Simply put, it means that

though God is not good in the same way that creatures are good, there is

nonetheless a notion of goodness that is somehow common to them both. The

difference has to do with divine simplicity and created complexity; the

commonality, with participation. God possesses his excellences simply, and so his

goodness, his mercy, his justice, &c. are all the same thing in his essence.

Creatures, on the other hand, which are not simple, possess their excellences in a

complex way. And yet because of the participation of creatures in divine excellence,

the same excellences are possessed (under different metaphysical conditions) by

God and creatures alike.

But the metaphysics of analogy are not really our concern here: it is

paradoxical to advance the claim that creatures can take part in the life of a God in

whom there are no parts, but what Christian would dare to deny it? Our main

concern here is what analogical language allows St. Thomas to accomplish

theologically. And it is no small thing. We have seen that St. Thomas agrees with

the pseudo-Denys that all language about God is first creaturely language, which

we then apply to God with a greater or lesser degree of justification. But the crux of

St. Thomas’s teaching about analogical language is that some of the language we
ibid., q13.a5
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first learn about creatures is actually already language about God.27 If the pseudo-

Denys has proposed for us a ladder of theological ascent, by which we ascend to

less and less concrete talk about God until we abandon the ladder, our language

exhausted—if that is a fair simile for the pseudo-Denys’s theology, then St. Thomas

has given us a ladder more like Jacob’s ladder, on which the angels both ascend and

descend. By metaphor, we use earthly things to point up to God; in analogy, we

discover that the divine perfections are already somehow present in and among

creatures. When St. Thomas, then, writes that through faith we are united to God as

if to something unknown (quasi ignoto), he adds that “we know him more fully

according as many and more excellent of His effects are demonstrated in us.”28 In

principle, the pseudo-Denys could agree with this; he believes, after all, that we can

only know God through his effects in creation. He could not, however, agree with it

—in fact, he would probably worry that what St. Thomas means by it is outright

blasphemous. For the pseudo-Denys, the quasi ignoto is the summary of our

knowledge of God; for St. Thomas it’s a kind of condition superadded to his

description of the way in which we know God. St. Thomas insists that God is

knowable (even if not perfectly comprehendible); he insists that the heavens

declare the glory of God, and that the invisible things of God are clearly known from

the things that are made, and that our human language is not inadequate to

speaking of these.

And though the roots of this divergence in St. Thomas’s and the pseudo-

Denys’s theology, or in their theological styles, can be found in a small difference of

opinion regarding the relation of creation to Creator, the end results are extremely

different. Parvus error in principio magnus est in fine, as St. Thomas might point

ibid. q13.a6
ibid. q12.a13, ad 1um.
Gallagher 15

out. And so St. Thomas produces a theological textbook, filled with precise

definitions and neat distinctions, while the pseudo-Denys tries to get us to

understand how the divine essence “is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor

goodness,” and “falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being.”29 For

his part, St. Thomas considers the pseudo-Dionysian critique of affirmative

theology, and concludes that it is based on nothing more than a failure to properly

understand the modes of signification according to which a statement about God

may be univocally false and analogically true;30 he treats the critique as another

problem to be solved by an intellectual distinction within the affirmative system of

his thought. A negative theologian might see this style of theology as a very

disappointing thing, a far cry from the passionate yearning of the soul for God in

unknowing. But to be fair, one cannot say that St. Thomas is opposed to negative

theology, or to mystic contemplation; at least at the end of his life, he knew

something about divine mysteries greater than language’s power to express. But for

St. Thomas, it was no denigration of mysticism to claim that that “true affirmative

propositions can be formed about God.”31

Although St. Thomas’s theology leaves room for mysticism, its style and its

affirmative nature were largely determined by the unmystical nature of his

theological project. For a monk like pseudo-Denys, devoted to a life of asceticism

and to yearning after the inexhaustible bliss of God, a theology which, cut off from

creaturely references, strains in vain to capture mystic exaltation within the

constraints of language is the most suitable theology that could be imagined. Even

St. Thomas admits that the contemplative life is best, and he admits, most

importantly of all, that his teaching work is but “milk” when compared to the true
Myst. Theol. 5, 1048a
Summ. Theol. Ia.q12.a12, ad 1um.
ibid, loc. cit.
Gallagher 16

“meat” of the Christian life.32 There is much more to know about God than can be

revealed by an intellectual edifice built of Aristotelian metaphysics and neat

distinctions and analogies. But St. Thomas was not a monk. He was a Dominican: if

a monk’s duty is to weep, a Dominican’s is to use language for the glory of God, to

pray, to bless, and to preach, and to teach others to do likewise. Language that can

correctly be used of God is among the basic prerequisites of these responsibilities.

And for those of us who are not monks, who are not prepared to yearn for God in

silence, who want to know what to say about God and how to pray to him, language

something like St. Thomas’s is absolutely necessary. To borrow another culinary

metaphor,33 if our theological diet might be blander without the paradoxical pastries

of the pseudo-Denys or even of Meister Eckhart, we would be seriously

malnourished without healthy portions of Thomistic brown bread.

Summ. Theol. prooemium.


For which I am indebted proximally to Mr. Jonathan Teubner, and distally to Josef Pieper’s