Apophaticism, Dogma, and the Transformation of Gnosticism

Pantheism and monism run through Western modernity largely merged with the apophaticism and the concomitant immanent rationalism which entered major currents such as Arianism and Socinianism. The tendency to onesidedly apophatic, negative theology – which has, it should be pointed out, been interpreted as simply a misunderstanding of the positive and concrete experience of the prophets and the saints [See C. S. Lewis, Miracles (1947 (1998), 93.] – had already long exercised an important influence.

Long before the Pseudo-Dionysius, what he called apophatic theology had lurked in the background of the work of the Alexandrian Fathers, which in other respects preserved to some extent the traditions of the differentiated high culture of Hellenism. There arose through the influence of the Alexandrian school and of Neo-Platonism a kind of theological rationalism in which the transcendence of God was conceived in a way which tended to reduce it to meaninglessness. The analysis of this kind of rationalism and its modern ramifications has been pointed to by Robert Pattison as the central, unifying, and distinctive theme of the work of John Henry Newman [Robert Pattison, The Great Dissent: John Henry Newman and the Liberal Heresy (1991).] – but the significance of the analysis for the thematic of personhood must also be brought out.

For Arius, God, the ultimate reality, was strictly ineffable, and human reason and human concepts could reach and express only the verities of what, through an adaptation of Neo-Platonism, was considered a merely created mundus intelligibilis, and a created Christ. Reason and its concepts were thus separated and abstracted from the concrete, differentiational experience of transcendence. The Arian position implied a new kind of insistence, against the background of impersonalistic radical monism, that language could not in any way express ultimate reality and divine truth. No statements about transcenence could be valid. From this kind of rationalism, relativistic and sceptical conclusions must sooner or later inevitably follow. A God about whom nothing meaningful can be said fades into the background.

Already in Arius, worship of created beings became permissible, reasonable, logical. If Christ is not divine, we might as well worship other elevated humans, our own highest selves, or nature. Once again, All becomes God. If God is asserted merely as exclusively unspeakable and unfathomable, the assertion might not amount to much. Human reason is granted free play on all levels below the one it cannot reach anyway, that of strict divine transcendence – and it is free to exploit them. Only the immanent sphere is accessible. The authority of language tends to be lost as it is separated from the divine Word and is increasingly perceived to be purely conventional.

Against this development stood not only the original Platonic higher, experienced intuition of transcendence and the prophets’ communion with God; there stood against it also the Christian dogma of the Incarnation, as the personal manifestation of the transcendent Godhead, of the divine Word, in the immanent sphere. Since Christ was considered to be consubstantial with the Father, the Church asserted that we can know God and speak truthfully about him. Beyond the idealistic and deistic abstractions, divine transcendence can be expressed by human language. Dogma is such an expression, a living manifestation of the power of the transcendent yet incarnated God. And this God was personal. Christian dogma went even further beyond the bare rational truths of God than the revelation of the prophets; it added with the Incarnation a sharper focus on the personal nature of transcendence.

Yet as a whole, it was difficult to present even by means of non-literal interpretation a picture of these new teachings of Christian orthodoxy – creation, the view of man, sacred history, the atonement, soteriology, eschatology – that could be accepted as coherent in terms of philosophy in the Greek tradition. [I have discussed this difficulty elsewhere.] And the rising orthodoxy which asserted these things was intolerant and narrow. When even the Alexandrian school was repressed and forced underground, the philosophical legacy could not be upheld. Alexandrianism tended instead to merge with the wilder forms of Gnosticism which the Neo-Platonists too had once fought. In the course of the development of medieval heterodoxy, the Alexandrian worldview was increasingly distorted by its ever more radical heirs. Voegelin makes reference to Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), which shows in detail how the repressed currents emerged as radical sectarian movements at the time of the Reformation.

Little remained of the original logos-theology when in the course of modernity the new, self-appointed pneumatic élites, guided by gnosis regarding the necessary course of history, rose to political power. What was left was immanentistic, secular utopianism. The inner light of gnosis became increasingly democratized, and, variously “enlightened”, not just religious fanatics, eccentric philosophers, and aristocratic esotericists and libertines, but also ordinary men turned – in time, in the name of the whole of the People – against social and ecclesiastical hierarchies, seeking to replace them with new individual and social identities.

Thus continually transforming itself into something ever less divine and ever more human, the light of gnosis entered into the basic formation of the currents that constitute the two mighty wings of modernity, that of rationalism and that of romanticism. Voegelin seeks to show how the closing of the openness of differentiation, in which alone the reality and the values of the person can fully manifest, culminated in the apocalyptic violence of the modern totalitarian revolutions.

5 Responses to “Apophaticism, Dogma, and the Transformation of Gnosticism”


  1. 1 Angermannaland March 22, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    Har aldrig slagit upp så många ord för att läsa ett blogginlägg förut… Men jag uppskattade redogörelsen mycket. De flesta av oss har ingen aning om varför vi har de åsikter och den världsåskådning vi har, många tror helt enkelt att deras uppfattning om världen är den enda rationella och därför sann.

    Hade jag varit 19 år igen och skickat in min ansökan till universiteten hade jag valt humaniora och samhällsvetenskap istället, men då tyckte jag att det var för flummiga ämnen. Jag lockades av historia, filosofi och samhällsvetenskap så det var inte brist på intresse, om jag ska skylla på något får det bli den “göra rätt för sig”-kultur jag växt upp i som inlandsfödd norrlänning. Men jag får väl ta igen det nu så gott jag kan, i mån av tid mellan arbete och familj. Önskar verkligen att vi hade ett mer positivt intellektuellt klimat i Sverige, i det avseendet lämnar kultureliten verkligen mycket övrigt att önska.

    • 2 Jan Olof Bengtsson March 30, 2013 at 8:05 pm

      De flesta engelskspråkiga texterna i kategorin Personalism är i själva verket delar av en enda serie inlägg; om du går till min Philosophy-webbplats (rulla ned i högermarginalen till Other Jan Olof Bengtsson Websites) hittar du denna serie som en enda (oavslutad) artikel med rubriken ‘Person and Differentiation’, i vilken jag lägger till de olika inläggen som avsnitt allteftersom de publiceras här; deras rubriker är där underrubriker.

  2. 3 Kim Petrusson February 25, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    Är vi inte aningen västorienterade här? I Östeuropa utvecklades, mig veterligen, inte alls samma extrema och fragmentariska strömningar som de gnostiska förgreningarna i Väst? Jag vill hävda att anledningen till detta står att finna i Östkyrkans grekiska arv, och dess theosis-doktrin.

    • 4 Jan Olof Bengtsson February 25, 2014 at 7:27 pm

      Jag håller helt med: vi är inte bara aningen västorienterade, vi är helt och hållet västorienterade. Se första meningen, där jag talar om “Western modernity”. Denna modernitet påverkar visserligen också Östeuropa inklusive det europeiska Ryssland, men jag är väl medveten om att “Östkyrkans grekiska arv” i de av Östkyrkan präglade delarna av Östeuropa delvis utgör en stark motvikt till detta – till den grad att de inte innefattas i vad jag avser när jag talar om “Western modernity”. (Däremot finns annat viktigt att säga om Östkyrkan i ljuset av vad jag skriver inte minst i inläggen med historiska anteckningar kring valda delar av forskningen om personbegreppet och relaterade begrepp i kategorin Personalism, men också i inlägg i andra kategorier.)

  3. 5 Kim Petrusson February 28, 2014 at 9:03 am

    Tack för hänvisningen!


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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi