Intro to Negative Theology, Part 1

Post by
Alvin Rapien

This series will address three topics: defining apophatic theology through a brief historical approach, the place of apophatic theology in systematic theology, and a brief reception of apophatic theology in modern discourse.


There is an incredible lack of introductory resources for those wanting to become familiar with apophatic/negative theology (also referred to as “apophaticism”), so this series will address three topics: defining apophatic theology through a brief historical approach, the place of apophatic theology in systematic theology, and a brief reception of apophatic theology in modern discourse.  These are not meant to be comprehensive but, while attempting to stay at a prefatory level so that readers may jump into further studies, the footnotes at the bottom point to resources for deeper engagement with apophatic theology.

What is Apophatic Theology? Searching For Meaning in History and Consensus

There is something of an inherent danger in positing the question of what apophatic theology is, since it may be misunderstood that all manifestations of apophaticism are the same.  As we shall see in the section on reception history, not all employments of apophatic theology are exactly alike – there are different emphases and nuances that work against any totalizing definition of apophatic theology.  Thus, there are two routes possible for forming a definition of apophatic theology: the historical approach, which goes back as far possible to trace the earliest apophatic elements in literature, or the consensus approach, which highlights the commonalities among the varied uses of negative theology, bringing together these shared traits to sketch out the “essential” features of apophaticism.  However, the historical approach presupposes a definition, as one assumes certain characteristics with which to judge whether a thinker is actually employing apophatic theology or simply just employing language similar in appearance.  While recognizing the interdependency of both the historical and consensus approach as well as the risk of oversimplifying definitions, the words of Orthodox scholar Andrew Louth provide some basic elements as to what one is looking for when searching for apophatic theology:

“[Apophatic theology] begins with an assertion of the incomprehensibility of God… we are approaching a mystery that is beyond human comprehension…”[1]

While Louth’s definition is simplistic in form, the contents and implications of apophaticism have been the topic of conversation for centuries, even millennia.  The incomprehensibility of God is the starting point for apophaticism, taking seriously the ontological gap between humanity and Divinity, which has epistemological implications for humanity “knowing” the Divine.  If God is completely Other, then what does that mean for our theological assertions?

This topic goes as far back to, at the very least, the 5th century BCE, with the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Protagoras (481-411 BCE) waxing eloquently in his work regarding deities: “About the gods, I am not able to know whether they exist or do not exist, nor what they are like in form; for the factors preventing knowledge are many: the obscurity of the subject, and the shortness of human life.”[2]  Many Greek philosophers, especially Plato and his legacy (Middle and Neo-Platonists), put forward various, sometimes incompatible, responses to this question of how mortal, material beings may know the immortal, immaterial gods.[3]  There is no definitive “apophatic theology” at work among the Greek philosophers; rather, the insight that there is an epistemological issue when finite beings approach seek to know divine beings is the motivation that drives these inquiries.

It is not until Philo of Alexandria (ca. 25 BCE – 50 CE), the well-educated Jewish exegete, that we see a comprehensive apophatic treatment of the Jewish scriptures.  It is important to refer to Philo on this topic as he lays the foundation for later Christian apophaticism.  However, in referring to Philo as “the Father of negative theology,” Louth perhaps overstates his case, considering the apophatic elements already present within Greek philosophy.[4]  Perhaps if one qualifies the statement by saying that Philo is “the Father of monotheist negative theology,” then the title comes closer to the truth.  In De Mutatione Nominum, Philo reveals a bit about his apophatic approach to God:

“Do not however suppose that the Existent which truly exists is apprehended by any man; for we have in us no organ by which we can envisage it, neither in sense, for it is imperceptible by sense, nor yet in mind … And why should we wonder that the Existent cannot be apprehended by men when even the mind in each of us is unknown to us? For who knows the essential nature of the soul?”[5]

There are some important elements here that call for highlighting.  First, Philo presupposes that God, in a very real sense, “exists,” as he refers to God as “the Existent which truly exists.”  This ontological topic is debated within apophatic discourse, as shown later.  Second, God is unable to be apprehended by humanity.  Below, we will see Philo qualify what he means by “apprehension,” although, for now, it is enough to say that humanity is unable to fully know God.  Third, there is a finite element that is already present within human epistemology: how can humanity apprehend God “when even the mind in each of us is unknown to us?”  This particular insight from Philo goes back to Greek philosophy,[6] yet theologians and philosophers have revitalized this topic due to its useful correctives for not only theological and philosophical construction, but also for anthropological discourse and interpersonal communication.[7]  The first two elements - the existence of God and the inability of humanity to apprehend God – are the starting points for apophatic discourse in Philo’s framework.  In his re-telling of Moses requesting to see God’s face, Philo reconstructs God’s response in a philosophically creative manner:

“Do not, then, hope ever to be able to apprehend Me or any of My powers in Our essence. But I readily and with right goodwill will admit you to share of what is attainable. That means that I bid you come and contemplate the universe and its contents, a spectacle apprehended not by the eye of the body but by the unsleeping eyes of the mind. Only let there be a constant and profound longing for wisdom which fills its scholars and disciples with verities glorious in their exceeding loveliness.”[8]

After reinforcing the inability of humanity’s ability to apprehend God, Philo claims that God does share “what is attainable” to humanity.  Presumably, this is, given the context, a type of knowledge of God attainable to humanity.  The contents of “what” is attainable become a central debate in later apophatic discourse.  What is also noteworthy here is a monotheist division between God’s essence and the contents of what is attainable, a foundational separation which is exploited in later Christian and even Jewish thinkers.  Another point worth singling out is the idea of contemplation: for Philo, it is not the physical senses that are most important, but the “unsleeping eyes of the mind” of those who desire wisdom that will reach what is attainable, albeit still unable to fully apprehend God.

These themes in Philo are then picked up and in developed in Patristic literature, namely by (but not limited to) Saints Clement of Alexandria,[9] the Cappadocians (Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea),[10] Augustine of Hippo,[11] Pseudo-Dionysius,[12] John of Damascus,[13] and Maximus the Confessor.[14]  However, this does not mean that Philo was the sole source of apophaticism within the early Church; the Church Fathers drew upon a multitude of Greek philosophers with Philo’s interpretations of God’s incomprehensibility largely influencing these appropriations of Greek philosophy, as seen in some Patristic writings, especially Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses.

Pseudo-Dionysius The Mystical Theology

The most influential figure on the topic of negative theology from the Patristic corpus is the mysterious Pseudo-Dionysius of the late 5th/early 6th century CE, writing under the pseudonym “Dionysius the Areopagite,” a follower of Paul mentioned in Acts 17:34.  Very little information is known about the actual author other than their texts, which provide Neoplatonist Christian constructions of mystical theology.  In fact, the most popular work by Pseudo-Dionysius (henceforth “Ps-D.”) is entitled The Mystical Theology, which opens with a prayer to the Trinity:

“Trinity!  Higher than any being, any divinity, any goodness!
Guide of Christians in the wisdom of heaven!
Lead us up beyond unknowing and light,
up to the farthest, highest peak of mystic Scripture
where the mysteries of God’s Word lie simple,
absolute and unchangeable
in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.”[15]

Ps-D. is adamant that God is “beyond all being and knowledge.”[16]  Ps-D.’s work touches upon the first element  – the existence of God – in the opening of The Mystical Theology, although there is a dispute regarding how to interpret the language of Divine ontology in Dionysius’ corpus and, building upon one’s interpretation of this issue, whether or not Ps-D.’s approach is representative of orthodox theological construction.  This issue is not simply limited to Patristic or even medieval Christian discourse, but one that occupies modern theologians and postmodern philosophers.

The issue revolves around Ps-D. positing God as “beyond all being” (υπέρ πάσαν ουσίαν).[17]  The Greek word “υπέρ” (hyper) can be translated as either “over,” “above,” “beyond,” or “excessive.”  The phrase, then, can be translated with at least three possibilities: God is over, above, or beyond all being, or excessive being (if one wishes, “being in excess”).  Later in The Mystical Theology, Ps-D. asserts that God is τον υπερούσιον ύπερουσίως[18] which Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem translate as “the Transcendent One in a transcending way.”[19]  Jacques Derrida translates the phrase as “what is beyond Being in a hyperessential mode.”[20]  What is the nature of this “transcendence” or “hyperessential mode”?  Recall that Philo posits God as “existing.” Within classical theism, God’s being is fundamentally different from all other beings: “God is the self-sufficient, eternal, immutable (unchanging) perfect being… God’s being is perfect and complete.”[21]  However, there are rare cases when ύπερ, when functioning as a prefix, can become a negation through an overemphasis of the “above” or “beyond” element,[22] possibly being translated as “without.”[23]  Thus, one could translate-interpret τον υπερούσιον ύπερουσίως as akin to “the One above Being without being,” “the One beyond being without being,” with even more radical approaches, such as “the One without being [that] transcends all being,” “beyond be-ing beyond-beingly before all,” or the Levinasian formulation, “otherwise than being.”[24]  What is ultimately at stake is how to construe God’s relationship to being: (1) is God the perfect being, (2) a being which transcends all being while maintaining a hyperessential form of existence (“a supreme being beyond the categories of being”), (3) or does God escape such constructions in such a way that one must say that God is “without” being?

We will leave this topic behind at the moment and move on the second element, that God is unable to be apprehended by humanity.  What most theologians historically agree on is that God is “Other” (whether that otherness is understood as ontological or transcending ontology) and that humanity is incapable of completely comprehending God.  God will always be, in a very real sense, a mystery.  The difficulty now lies within the paradox of apophaticism and theology and the possibilities of “(not) speaking of God”: if theology is the study of or discourse about God and apophaticism is the recognition of the limits of human epistemology and language being unable to fully represent or capture God, then apophatic theology is best defined as “that speech about God which is a failure of speech.”[25]  Here, one comes to a division between theologians who tend to be more positive (kataphatic) or negative (apophatic) and different uses of negative theology.  Theologians who tend to be more positive generally agree with theologians who tend to be more negative that we will never comprehend God’s essence, as God is incomprehensible.  However, there is a different degree of emphasis as to how much one may know of God, which is not unrelated to how one interprets Ps-D.

Aquinas and Dialectical Negative Theology

One may view the medieval Catholic Thomas Aquinas as one of the more well-known positive theologians.  However, this classification needs to be highly qualified.  Aquinas does incorporate insights regarding negative theology from Ps-D. in his own writings,[26] with Aquinas affirmingly quoting the Areopagite when the latter states that “God does not exist in a certain way”[27] and that the names humans apply to God “can be both affirmed and denied of God. They can be affirmed because of the meaning of the name; they can be denied because of the mode of signification.”[28]  Aquinas is quite clear that the created intellect (namely, humanity in this instance) is unable to comprehend God.[29]  However, Aquinas does insist that the “blessed” (saints) will “see” God’s essence,[30] though this “seeing” is still limited as God is infinite and humans remain finite:[31] “he who sees God’s essence, sees in Him that He exists infinitely, and is infinitely knowable; nevertheless, this infinite mode does not extend to enable the knower to know infinitely; thus, for instance, a person can have a probable opinion that a proposition is demonstrable, although he himself does not know it as demonstrated.”[32]  (It must be mentioned at this point that Eastern Orthodox theologians generally disagree with Aquinas regarding his assertion that saints can see (again, but not comprehend!) the essence of God; for the Orthodox, to the essence of God is to disregard the ontological otherness of the Creator, thus making this a continuing point of contention between Catholic and Orthodox understandings of beatitude/deification/theosis[33]).  Aquinas’ positivity regarding humans being able to know something of God is demonstrated in his employment of negative theology:

“Now, in considering the divine substance, we should especially make use of the method of remotion [literally “through the use of negative”; via remotionis utendum]. For, by its immensity, the divine substance surpasses every form that our intellect reaches. Thus, we are unable to apprehend it by knowing what it is. Yet we are able to have some knowledge of it by knowing what it is not. Furthermore, we approach nearer to a knowledge of God according as through our intellect we are able to remove more and more things from Him.”[34]

Here, one detects that Aquinas’ use of apophaticism is a bit different than that of Ps-D., a claim rooted in Aquinas’ ontological grounding and his positive epistemology.  First, despite positively quoting various ontological statements from Ps-D. regarding God’s being and existence, Aquinas consistently defers to his fundamental claim that God is Subsistent Being (esse) Itself.[35]  Second, and relatedly, Aquinas posits God as a subject that can be seen and known based on his understanding of 1 John 3:2 (“for we will see him as he is”, NRSV) and the connection between actuality and knowledge: “Since everything is knowable according as it is actual, God, Who is pure act without any admixture of potentiality, is in Himself supremely knowable.”[36]  So, in Aquinas’ view, one can gain knowledge of God through the language of negation, since God is knowable; however, God is incomprehensible as an infinite being, so finite beings are not able to comprehend or contain God within their created intellect.  Aquinas’ use of negative theology seeks to “correct the oversights and deficiencies of affirmative theology and doing the best it can to construct a negative theology of the One who cannot be known essentially.”[37]  This approach to negative theology as a “simultaneous-dialectical” apophaticism, where “negative theology and positive theology are hopelessly inseparable,”[38] is still influential in many theological circles.  Thus, Aquinas, while still incorporating Ps.-D’s mystical elements, still retains some type of rational hope in his quest to know God.

However, Ps-D.especially attempts to move beyond the bounds of rational theology, transcending both negations and affirmations.  The language of negation is not simply a denial of positive statements so that the latter can be corrected and the knower can come to some knowledge of God.  Rather, Dionysius wants to go beyond the interplay[39] between positive and negative statements of God, as seen in Aquinas, as he yearns to portray a true ignorance of the Divine that is unable to comprehend God qua God:

“There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it.  Darkness and light, error and truth – it is none of these.  It is beyond assertion and denial.  We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.”[40]

The above passage is the conclusion of Ps-D.’s The Mystical Theology, which offers an apophaticism that goes beyond positive and negative statements: it is, altogether, an attempt to portray God as something ultimately ontologically other in the most extreme way possible. This prevents any true knowledge of God.  Dialectical apophaticism, the negation of positive theological statements, is not enough to adequately capture Ps-D’s project.  One may even dare speak of a “post-ontological” view of God within The Mystical Theology.

Conclusion: On (Not) Speaking of Definitions

Reading Philo in light of Ps-D. and Aquinas reveals that apophatic theology tends to morph through the centuries and that one can only come up with a definition that recognizes repeated elements rather than a definition that encompasses all apophatic discourse.  Whereas Philo and Aquinas overlap in terms of their language of God’s existence and God sharing “what is attainable” to humanity, both the two figures and Ps-D. all agree that humanity is unable to fully apprehend/comprehend the incomprehensible God. How one understands Ps-D.’s language of τον υπερούσιον ύπερουσίως affects how to categorize the Areopagite.  If Ps-D. really does describe God as so far beyond being that one could say that God is “without” being or, as he states in The Divine Names, that “God is not some kind of being,” then that places the goal of Ps-D.’s apophatic approach into an entirely different category: one cannot speak of God just because the Divine is incomprehensible by virtue of being the most perfect being (Aquinas), but incomprehensible because God transcends even our attempts to gain knowledge of the Divine via dialectical negative theological discourse.  This is the total Otherness of God realized.

In recognizing two distinct employments of negation – the simultaneous-dialectical approach of Aquinas and the “post-ontological” approach of Ps-D. – defining apophatic theology becomes problematic.  While maintaining a view of God that remains transcendent, Aquinas posits that some, though not a completely comprehensive, knowledge of God is possible through negation.  Ps-D. disagrees completely: everything must be denied, even our negations.  However, between these two figures, both posit that God is incomprehensible and is totally distinct from Creation.  Thus, one may define apophatic theology as the discourse about God which is a failure of speech when faced with God’s incomprehensibility and Otherness.

[1] Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 29.
[2] Protagoras, On the Gods, as quoted in Deirdre Carabine, The Unknown God: Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition: Plato to Eriugena (Louvain Theological and Pastoral Monographs) (Louvain: Peeters, 1995), 13.
[3] Carabine, The Unknown God, 13-187.
[4] Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Oxford, 2007), 18.  Louth is, of course, aware of these apophatic elements within the Greek philosophers, though he does not seem to count them as genuine negative theologies.
[5] De Mutatione Nominum 7, 10, as quoted in Louth, Origins, 19.
[6] Louth, Origins, 19.
[7] Chris Boesel and Catherine Keller, eds., Apophatic Bodies: Negative Theology, Incarnation, and Relationality (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010).
[8] De Specialibus Legibus (i. 49ff.), as quoted in Louth, Origins, 20.
[9] Henny Fiska Hagg, Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Apophaticism (Oxford Early Christian Studies), eds. Gillian Clark and Andrew Louth (Oxford, UK: Oxford, 2006).
[10] Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen, 1992-1993) (New York, NY: Yale University, 1993), 40-56.
[11] Augustine of Hippo is perhaps the most controversial figure to place within this last as some scholars do not consider him to be a “true” apophatic theologian when compared to, say, Pseudo-Dionysius, with the former only carrying elements of negative theology within his work and the latter holistically engaging theology through an apophatic lens.  Lewis Ayres, Augustine and the Trinity (New York, NY: Cambridge, 2010), 262n26.  Vladimir Lossky, “Elements of ‘Negative Theology’ in the Thought of St Augustine,” SVTQ 21 (1977), 67-75.  For a view that affirms that Augustine maintains negative theology that still distinguishes his project from most other Patristic thinkers, see Paul van Geest, The Incomprehensibility of God: Augustine as a Negative Theologian (Leuven: Peeters, 2011); cf. Maarten Wisse, Trinitarian Theology Beyond Participation (T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology Volume 11), eds. John Webster, Ian A. McFarland, Ivor Davidson (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2011), 88-92.
[12] Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1987).  Andrew Louth, Denys the Areopagite (Outstanding Christian Thinkers) (New York, NY: Continuum, 1989).
[13] Andrew Louth, St John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology (Oxford Early Christian Studies) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 89-116.
[14] Ysabel De Andia, “Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor,” The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor, ed. Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil (Oxford, UK: Oxford, 2015), 177-193.  Andrew Louth, Maximus the Confessor (The Early Church Fathers), ed. Carol Harrison (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996), 51-52.
[15] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology I (997A-997B) in Pseudo-Dionysius, 135.
[16] Mystical Theology I (997B) in Ibid.
[17] Corpus Dionysiacum, Volume II: Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita. De Coelesti Hierarchia, De Ecclesiastic Hierarchia, De Mystica Theologia, Epistulae (Patristiche Texte Und Studien), eds. Gunter Heil and Adolf M. Ritter (Boston, MA: de Gruyter, 2012), 142.  Translation mine.
[18] Ibid., 145.
[19] Mystical Theology II (1025A) in Pseudo-Dionysius, 138.
[20] Jacques Derrida, “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials,” Derrida and Negative Theology, eds. Harold Coward and Toby Foshay (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1992), 80.
[21] Roger E. Olson, The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 274.
[22] Kevin Hart, The Trespass of the Sign: Deconstruction, Theology and Philosophy (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy), ed. John D. Caputo (New York, NY: Fordham University, 2000), 202.
[23] Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being, 2nd Ed., trans. Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 2012).
[24] Hart, The Trespass of the Sign, 202.
[25] Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (New York, NY: Cambridge, 1999), 20.
[26] Summa Contra Gentiles 1.26.10, 1.28.9, 1.29.4, 1.30.3, 1.49.6, 1.58.10, 1.91.4-14, 1.93.11.
[27] Ibid., 1.28.9.  Aquinas is citing Pseudo-Dionysius, On the Divine Names 5.4.
[28] Ibid., 1.30.3.
[29] Summa Theologica 1.12.7.
[30] Ibid., 1.12.1.
[31] Ibid., 1.7.1-4.
[32] Ibid., 1.12.7.ad3.
[33] A.N. Williams, The Ground of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 16-17.
[34] Summa Contra Gentiles 1.14.2.  Emphasis mine.
[35] Gregory P. Rocca, O.P., Speaking of the Incomprehensible God: Thomas Aquinas on the Interplay of Positive and Negative Theology (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 2004), 72.
[36] Summa Theologica 1.12.1.
[37] Rocca, Speaking of the Incomprehensible God, 72.
[38] Merold Westphal, Transcendence and Self-Transcendence: On God and the Soul (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 2004), 116, 120; cf. 116-123.  Westphal’s portrayal of Pseudo-Dionysius’ apophaticism is lacking, particularly in his exploration of what he terms the “successive-diachronic” relationship between negative and positive theology, as he portrays it as one leaving behind and moving beyond cognitive acts in relation to God; for Pseudo-Dionysius, it is more than this – it is a break from the “dia,” the interplay between positive and negative, altogether (Ibid., 116).
[39] Rocca, Speaking of the Incomprehensible God, 353-354.
[40] Mystical Theology V (1048A-1048B) in Pseudo-Dionysius, 141.  Emphasis mine.

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