Negative theology, also known as Apophatic theology, is a theological approach that describes God by negation, speaking of God only in terms of what He is not (apophasis) rather than presuming to describe what God is.

In negative theology, it is maintained that we can never truly define God in words. In the end, the student must transcend words to understand the nature of the Divine. In this sense, negative theology is not a denial. Rather, it is an assertion that whatever the Divine may be, when we attempt to capture it in human words, we will inevitably fall short.

Apophatic view of God Edit

In Negative theology, it is accepted that the Divine is ineffable - that is, humans cannot describe the essence of God - and therefore most descriptions if attempted will be false:

  • Neither existence nor nonexistence as we understand it applies to God, i.e., God is beyond existing or not existing. (One cannot say that God exists in the usual sense of the term; nor can we say that God is nonexistent.)
  • God is divinely simple. (One should not claim that God is one, or three, or any type of being. All that can be said is, whatever God is, is not multiple independent beings)
  • God is not ignorant. (One should not say that God is wise since that word arrogantly implies we know what wise means on a divine scale, whereas we only know what wise means to a human.)
  • Likewise, God is not evil. (To say that He can be described by the human word 'good' limits Him to what good means to humans.)
  • God is not a creation (but beyond this we do not know how God comes to be)
  • God is not conceptually definable in terms of space and location.
  • God is not conceptually confinable to assumptions based on time.

Even though negative theology essentially rejects theological understanding as a path to God, some have sought to make it into an intellectual exercise, by describing God only in terms of what he is not. One problem noted with this approach, is that there seems to be no fixed basis on deciding what God is not.

History Edit

One of the first to articulate this theological perspective in Christianity was the apostle Paul whose reference to the Unknown God in the book of Acts 17:23 is the foundation of works such as that of Pseudo Dionysius. Exemplars of negative theology such as the Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th century said that they believed in God, but they did not believe that God exists. In contrast, making positive statements about the nature of God, which occurs in most other forms of Christian theology, is sometimes called "cataphatic theology". Adherents of the apophatic tradition hold that God is beyond the limits of what humans can understand, and that one should not seek God by means of intellectual understanding, but through a direct experience of the love (in Western Christianity) or the Energies (in Eastern Christianity) of God. Apophatic theology can be also seen as an oral tradition. "It must also be recognized that "forgery" is a modern notion. Like Plotinus and the Cappadocians before him, Dionysius does not claim to be an innovator, but rather a communicator of a tradition." [1]

Negative theology played an important role early in the history of Christianity. Three theologians who emphasized the importance of negative theology to an orthodox understanding of God, were Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, and Basil the Great. It was employed by John of Damascus 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 Orthodoxy (see Gregory Palamas) where apophatic statements are crucial to much their theology, and is used to balance cataphatic theology.

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 Eckhardt and St. John of the Cross, exemplify some aspects of or tendencies towards the apophatic tradition in the West.

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