Apophatic theology

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Apophatic theology (from Ancient Greek: ἀπόφασις via ἀπόφημι apophēmi, meaning "to deny"), also known as negative theology, via negativa or via negationis[1] (Latin for "negative way" or "by way of denial"), is a type of theological thinking that attempts to describe God, the Divine Good, by negation, to speak only in terms of what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God.[2] It stands in contrast to cataphatic theology.

An example occurs in the assertion of the 9th-century theologian John Scotus Erigena: "We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything [i.e. "not any created thing"]. Literally God is not, because He transcends being." When he says "He is not anything" and "God is not", Scotus does not mean that there is no God, but that God cannot be said to exist in the way that creation exists, i.e. that God is uncreated. He is using apophatic language to emphasise that God is "other".

In brief, negative theology is an attempt to clarify religious experience and language about the Divine through discernment, gaining knowledge of what God is not (apophasis), rather than by describing what God is. The apophatic tradition is often, though not always, allied with the approach of mysticism, which focuses on a spontaneous or cultivated individual experience of the divine reality beyond the realm of ordinary perception, an experience often unmediated by the structures of traditional organized religion or by the conditioned role-playing and learned defensive behavior of the outer man.[3]

Apophatic description of God

In negative theology, it is accepted that experience of the Divine is ineffable, an experience of the holy that can only be recognized or remembered abstractly. That is, human beings cannot describe in words the essence of the perfect good that is unique to the individual, nor can they define the Divine, in its immense complexity, related to the entire field of reality. As a result, all descriptions if attempted will be ultimately false and conceptualization should be avoided. In effect, divine experience eludes definition by definition:

Even though the via negativa essentially rejects theological understanding in and of itself as a path to God, some have sought to make it into an intellectual exercise, by describing God only in terms of what God is not. One problem noted with this approach is that there seems to be no fixed basis on deciding what God is not, unless the Divine is understood as an abstract experience of full aliveness unique to each individual consciousness, and universally, the perfect goodness applicable to the whole field of reality.[4] It should be noted however that since religious experience—or consciousness of the holy or sacred, is not reducible to other kinds of human experience, an abstract understanding of religious experience cannot be used as evidence or proof that religious discourse or praxis can have no meaning or value.[5] In apophatic theology, the negation of theisms in the via negativa also requires the negation of their correlative atheisms if the dialectical method it employs is to maintain integrity.[6]

In Christianity

Christianity is a revelation-based model. God has certain attributes positively ascribed to Himself. The text is said to be inspired. Another way to say this is God represents Himself through the text. For example: Christianity teaches that the Logos (the Second Person of the Trinity) became incarnate. This type of reasoning is known as cataphatic theology.

Examples of apophatic theology include God's appearance to Moses in the Burning Bush; the ineffable Name of God (יהוה); and the prophet Elijah's theophany, where God reveals Himself in a "still, small voice" (1 Kings 19:11–13). St. Paul's reference to the "Unknown God" in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 17:23) is sometimes pointed to as an apophatic statement.

According to Tertullian, “[t]hat which is infinite is known only to itself. This it is which gives some notion of God, while yet beyond all our conceptions  our very incapacity of fully grasping Him affords us the idea of what He really is. He is presented to our minds in His transcendent greatness, as at once known and unknown.”[7]

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Catechetical Homilies, states: "For we explain not what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns God to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge."[8]

The fourth-century Cappadocian Fathers stated a belief in the existence of God, but an existence unlike that of everything else: everything else that exists was created, but the Creator transcends this existence. The essence of God is completely unknowable; mankind can know God only through His energies.

Apophatic theology found its most influential expression in works such as those of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor; in his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas quotes Pseudo-Dionysius 1,760 times.[9] Augustine of Hippo defined God aliud, aliud valde, meaning "other, completely other", in Confessions 7.10.16.[10]

In contrast, making positive statements about the nature of God, which occurs in most Western forms of Christian theology, is sometimes called cataphatic theology. Eastern Christianity makes use of both apophatic and cataphatic theology. Adherents of the apophatic tradition in Christianity hold that, outside of directly-revealed knowledge through Scripture and Sacred Tradition (such as the Trinitarian nature of God), God in His essence is beyond the limits of what human beings (or even angels) can understand; He is transcendent in essence (ousia). Further knowledge must be sought in a direct experience of God or His indestructible energies through theoria (vision of God).[11][12] In Eastern Christianity, God is immanent in his hypostasis or existences.[13]

Negative theology played an important role early in the history of Christianity, for example, in the works of Clement of Alexandria. Three more theologians who emphasized the importance of negative theology to an orthodox understanding of God were Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, and Basil the Great. John of Damascus employed it when he wrote that positive statements about God reveal "not the nature, but the things around the nature." It continues to be prominent in Eastern Christianity (see Gregory Palamas). Apophatic statements are crucial to many modern theologians in Orthodox Christianity (see Vladimir Lossky, John Meyendorff, John S. Romanides and Georges Florovsky).

In Orthodox theology, apophatic theology is taught as superior to cataphatic theology. While Aquinas felt positive and negative theology should be seen as dialectical correctives to each other like thesis and antithesis which produces a synthesis, Lossky argues, based on his reading of Dionysius and Maximus Confessor, that positive theology is always inferior to negative theology which is a step along the way to the superior knowledge attained by negation.[14] This is expressed in the idea that mysticism is the expression of dogmatic theology par excellence.[15]

Negative theology has a place in the Western Christian tradition as well, although it is definitely much more of a counter-current to the prevailing positive or cataphatic traditions central to Western Christianity. For example, theologians like Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz), mentioned above, exemplify some aspects of or tendencies towards the apophatic tradition in the West. The medieval work, The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John's Dark Night of the Soul are particularly well known in the West.

C. S. Lewis, in his book Miracles, advocates the use of negative theology when first thinking about God, in order to cleanse our minds of misconceptions. He goes on to say we must then refill our minds with the truth about God, untainted by mythology, bad analogies or false mind-pictures.

The mid-20th century Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, who is often associated with a neo-Calvinistic tradition, provides a philosophical foundation for understanding why we can never absolutely know God, and yet, paradoxically, truly know something of God. Dooyeweerd made a sharp distinction between theoretical and pre-theoretical attitudes of thought; it might be noticed that most of the discussion of knowledge of God presupposes theoretical knowledge, in which we reflect and try to define and discuss. Pre-theoretical knowing, on the other hand, is intimate engagement, and exhibits a diverse range of aspects. Theoretical knowing, by its very nature, is never absolute, always depends on religious presuppositions, and cannot grasp either God or the law side. Pre-theoretical intuition, on the other hand, can grasp at least the law side. Knowledge of God, as God wishes to reveal it, is pre-theoretical, immediate and intuitive, never theoretical in nature. The philosopher Leo Strauss considered that the The Bible, for example, should be treated as pre-theoretical (everyday) rather than theoretical in what it contains.[16]

Karen Armstrong, in her book The Case for God (2009), notices a recovery of apophatic theology in postmodern theology.[17]

Ivan Illich, the historian and social critic, can be read as an apophatic theologian, according to a longtime collaborator, Lee Hoinacki, in a paper presented in memory of Illich, called "Why Philia?"[18]

While negative theology is used in Christianity as a means of dispelling misconceptions about God, and of approaching Him beyond the limits of human reasoning, most common doctrine of western Christianity is taken to involve positive claims: that God exists and has certain positive attributes, even if those attributes are only partially comprehensible to us.[19]

In Greek philosophy

See also: Epoché, Pyrrhonism, and Skepticism

The ancient Greek poet Hesiod has in his account of the birth of the gods and creation of the world (i.e., in his Theogony) that Chaos begot the primordial deities: Eros, Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus, who begot Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx (Night), and Plato echoes this genealogy in the Timaeus 40e, 41e where the familiar Titan and Olympian gods are sired by Heaven and Earth. Nevertheless, Plato is far from advocating a negative theology. His Form of the Good (identified by various commentators with the Form of Unity) is not unknowable, but rather the highest object of knowledge (The Republic 508d–e, 511b, 516b).

Plotinus was the first to propose negative theology. He advocated it in his strand of neoplatonism (although he may have had precursors in neopythagoreanism and middle Platonism). In his writings he identifies the Good of the Republic (as the cause of the other Forms) with the One of the first hypothesis of the second part of the Parmenides (137c–142a), there concluded to be neither the object of knowledge, opinion or perception. In the Enneads Plotinus writes: "Our thought cannot grasp the One as long as any other image remains active in the soul…To this end, you must set free your soul from all outward things and turn wholly within yourself, with no more leaning to what lies outside, and lay your mind bare of ideal forms, as before of the objects of sense, and forget even yourself, and so come within sight of that One."

In Hinduism

Apophatic movements in Hinduism are visible in the works of Shankara, a philosopher of Advaita Vedanta school of Indian philosophy, and Bhartṛhari, a grammarian. While Shankara holds that the transcendent noumenon, Brahman, is realized by the means of negation of every phenomenon including language; Bhartṛhari theorizes that language has both phenomenal and noumenal dimensions, the latter of which manifests Brahman.[20]

The standard texts of Vedanta philosophy, to which Shankara also belonged, were the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras. An expression of negative theology is found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, where Brahman is described as "neti-neti" or "neither this, nor that".[21] Further use of apophatic theology is found in the Brahma Sutras, which state:

Whenever we deny something unreal, it is in reference to something real.[22]

In Advaita, Brahman is defined as being Nirguna or without qualities. Anything imaginable or conceivable is not deemed to be the ultimate reality.[23] The Taittiriya hymn speaks of Brahman as "one where the mind does not reach". Yet the Hindu scriptures often speak of Brahman's positive aspect. For instance, Brahman is often equated with bliss. These contradictory descriptions of Brahman are used to show that the attributes of Brahman are similar to ones experienced by mortals, but not the same.

Negative theology also figures in the Buddhist and Hindu polemics. The arguments go something like this – Is Brahman an object of experience? If so, how do you convey this experience to others who have not had a similar experience? The only way possible is to relate this unique experience to common experiences while explicitly negating their sameness.

In other Eastern traditions

Many other East Asian traditions present something very similar to the apophatic approach: for example, the Tao Te Ching, the source book of the Chinese Taoist tradition, asserts in its first statement: the Tao ("way" or "truth") that can be described is not the constant/true Tao.

In Islam

The Arabic term for "negative theology" is lahoot salbi,[24] which is a "system of theology" or nizaam al lahoot in Arabic. Different traditions/doctrine schools in Islam called Kalam schools (see Islamic schools and branches) use different theological approaches or nizaam al lahoot in approaching God in Islam (Allah, Arabic الله) or the ultimate reality. The lahoot salbi or "negative theology" involves the use of ta'til, which means "negation," and the followers of the Mu'tazili school of Kalam, founded by Imam Wasil ibn Ata, are often called the Mu'attili, because they are frequent users of the ta'til methodology.

Shia Islam is another sect that adopted "negative theology". Most adherents to the Mušabbiha sect reject this methodology and adhere to it's opposite. They believe that the Attributes of God such as "Hand", "Foot" etc... should be taken literally and hence believe that God is like a human being. Most Sunnis, who are Salafi, Ash'ari, and Maturidi, however adhere to a middle path between negation and anthropomorphism.

In Judaism

See also: Philo

In Jewish belief, God is defined as the Creator of the universe: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" (Genesis 1:1); similarly, "I am God, I make all things" (Isaiah 44:24). God, as Creator, is by definition separate from the physical universe and thus exists outside of space and time. God is therefore absolutely different from anything else, and, as above, is in consequence held to be totally unknowable. It is for this reason that we cannot make any direct statements about God. (See Tzimtzum (צמצום): the notion that God "contracted" his infinite and indescribable essence in order to allow for a "conceptual space" in which a finite, independent world could exist.)[25]

Bahya ibn Paquda shows that our inability to describe God is similarly related to the fact of His absolute unity. God, as the entity which is "truly One" (האחד האמת), must be free of properties and is thus unlike anything else and indescribable; see Divine simplicity. This idea is developed fully in later Jewish philosophy, especially in the thought of the medieval rationalists such as Maimonides and Samuel ibn Tibbon.

It is understood that although we cannot describe God directly (מצד עצמו) it is possible to describe Him indirectly via His attributes (תארים). The “negative attributes” (תארים שוללים) relate to God Himself, and specify what He is not. The “attributes of action” (תארים מצד פעולותיו), on the other hand, do not describe God directly, rather His interaction with creation . Maimonides was perhaps the first Jewish Thinker to explicitly articulate this doctrine (see also Tanya Shaar Hayichud Vehaemunah Ch. 8):

God's existence is absolute and it includes no composition and we comprehend only the fact that He exists, not His essence. Consequently it is a false assumption to hold that He has any positive attribute... still less has He accidents (מקרה), which could be described by an attribute. Hence it is clear that He has no positive attribute however , the negative attributes are necessary to direct the mind to the truths which we must believe... When we say of this being, that it exists, we mean that its non-existence is impossible; it is living it is not dead; ...it is the first its existence is not due to any cause; it has power, wisdom, and will it is not feeble or ignorant; He is One there are not more Gods than one… Every attribute predicated of God denotes either the quality of an action, or, when the attribute is intended to convey some idea of the Divine Being itself and not of His actions the negation of the opposite. (The Guide for the Perplexed, 1:58)

In line with this formulation, attributes commonly used in describing God in rabbinic literature, in fact refer to the "negative attributes" omniscience, for example, refers to non-ignorance; omnipotence to non-impotence; unity to non-plurality, eternity to non-temporality. Examples of the “attributes of action” are God as creator, revealer, redeemer, mighty and merciful . Similarly, God’s perfection is generally considered an attribute of action. Joseph Albo (Ikkarim 2:24) points out that there are a number of attributes that fall under both categories simultaneously. Note that the various Names of God in Judaism, generally, correspond to the “attributes of action” in that they represent God as he is known. The exceptions are the Tetragrammaton (Y-H-W-H) and the closely related "I Am the One I Am" (אהיה אשר אהיה Exodus 3:13–14), both of which refer to God in his "negative attributes", as absolutely independent and uncreated; see "Names of God in Judaism".

Since two approaches are used to speak of God, there are times when these may conflict, giving rise to paradoxes in Jewish philosophy. In these cases, two descriptions of the same phenomenon appear contradictory, whereas, in fact, the difference is merely one of perspective: one description takes the viewpoint of the "attributes of action" and the other, of the "negative attributes". See the paradoxes described under free will, Divine simplicity and Tzimtzum.

See also


  1. McCombs, Richard (2013). The Paradoxical Rationality of Søren Kierkegaard. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. p. 84. ISBN 0-253-00647-3; ISBN 978-02-5300-647-9.
  2. NICHOLAS BUNNIN and JIYUAN YU. "negative theology : The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy : Blackwell Reference Online". Retrieved 2010-08-18.
  3. Belzen, Jacob A. and Antoon Geels (2003). Mysticism: A Variety of Psychological Perspectives. Amsterdam: Rodopi. pp. 84–87. ISBN 9042011254. Retrieved 16 August 2015.
  4. Pondé, Luiz Felipe (2003). Crítica e profecia : a filosofia da religião em Dostoiévski. São Paulo: Editora 34. pp. 74–92. ISBN 8573262842.
  5. Lonergan, Bernard (1972), "Method in Theology", New York, N.Y.: Seabury Press, ISBN 0-8164-2204-4
  6. Buckley, Michael J. (2004), "Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism", New Haven, C.T.: Yale University Press, p. 120ff, ISBN 0-300-09384-5
  7. Tertullian, Apologeticus, § 17
  8. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem (c. 335), "Catechetical Homilies, VI §2", in Schaff, Philip, Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers (2nd Series), VII, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. (published 1994), p. 33, retrieved 2008-02-01
  9. Ware, Kallistos (1963), The Orthodox Church, London: Penguin Group, p. 73, ISBN 0-14-020592-6
  10. Vessey, Mark, ed. (2012). A Companion to Augustine. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. p. 107. ISBN 978-1-405-15946-3. ISBN 1-405-15946-4. Retrieved 3 July 2016.
  11. Lossky, Vladimir (1997), The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Crestwood, N.Y.: SVS Press, p. 81, ISBN 0-913836-31-1
  12. Lossky (1997), The Vision of God, Crestwood, N.Y.: SVS Press, pp. 36–40, ISBN 0-913836-19-2
  13. Papanikolaou, Aristotle (2006), Being With God: Trinity, Apophaticism, and Divine–Human Communion (1st Edition), Notre Dame, Indiana:University of Notre Dame Press, p. 2, ISBN 978-0-268-03830-4
  14. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church p. 26
  15. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church p. 9
  16. Smith, Gregory B. (2008). Between Eternities: On the Tradition of Political Philosophy, Past, Present, and Future. Latham MD: Lexington Books. p. 199. ISBN 0739120778. Retrieved 16 August 2015.
  17. LA Times: Jack Miles. Faith and Belief: 'The Evolution of God' by Robert Wright and 'The Case for God' by Karen Armstrong
  18. Hoinacki, Lee
  19. McGrath, Alister E. (2011). Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th Edition. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons. p. 188. ISBN 9781444335149. Retrieved 16 August 2015.
  20. Coward, Harold G. and Foshay, Toby. Derrida and Negative Theology. State University of New York, 1992. P. 21. ISBN 0-7914-0964-3.
  21. Tharaud, Barry. Emerson for the Twenty-First Century: Global Perspectives on an American Icon. Rosemont Publishing and Printing Corp, 2010. p. 453. ISBN 978-0-87413-091-1.
  22. Verse III.2.22, Brahma-Sutra, Translated by Swami Gambhirananda.
  23. Renard, John. Responses to One Hundred One Questions on Hinduism. Paulist Press, 1999. P. 75. ISBN 0-8091-3845-X.
  24. Hart, David Bentley (2013). The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. p. 142. ISBN 9780300166842. Retrieved 16 October 2016.
  25. Note that, alternatively, the construct of God incorporating all of reality is also offered in some schools of Jewish mysticism. Notably, in the Tanya (the Chabad Lubavitch book of wisdom), it is stated that to consider anything outside of God is tantamount to idolatry. The paradox that this introduces is noted by Chabad thinkers (how can an entity be a creator of itself), but the resolution is considered outside of the potential realm of human understanding.

Further reading

Franke, William. A Philosophy of the Unsayable. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014.

Karahan, Anne. “The Image of God in Byzantine Cappadocia and the Issue of Supreme Transcendence”. In: Papers presented at the Sixteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford 2011 (Studia Patristica LIX, vol. 7 (2013): 97-111). Eds. A. Brent and M. Vinzent. Leuven: Peeters Publishers 2013.

Karahan, Anne. “The Issue of περιχώρησις in Byzantine Holy Images”. In: Papers presented at the Fifteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford 2007 (Studia Patristica XLIV-XLIX: pp. 27–34) Eds. J. Baun, A. Cameron, M. Edwards, and M. Vinzent. Leuven: Peeters Publishers 2010.

Keller, Catherine. Cloud of the Impossible Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Wolfson,Elliot R. Giving Beyond the Gift: Apophasis and Overcoming Theomania. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014.

Yannaras, Christos (1999), "Apophatic Theology", in Fahlbusch, Erwin, Encyclopedia of Christianity, 1, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, pp. 105–106, ISBN 0802824137 

External links and resources

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