ⓘ Apophatic theology, also known as negative theology, is a form of theological thinking and religious practice which attempts to approach God, the Divine, by neg ..


ⓘ Apophatic theology

Apophatic theology, also known as negative theology, is a form of theological thinking and religious practice which attempts to approach God, the Divine, by negation, to speak only in terms of what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God. It forms a pair together with cataphatic theology, which approaches God or the Divine by affirmations or positive statements about what God is.

The apophatic tradition is often, though not always, allied with the approach of mysticism, which aims at the vision of God, the perception of the divine reality beyond the realm of ordinary perception.


1. Etymology and definition

"Apophatic", Ancient Greek: ἀπόφασις noun; from ἀπόφημι apophēmi, meaning "to deny". From Online Etymology Dictionary:

apophatic adj. "involving a mention of something one feigns to deny; involving knowledge obtained by negation", 1850, from Latinized form of Greek apophatikos, from apophasis "denial, negation", from apophanai "to speak off," from apo "off, away from" see apo- + phanai "to speak," related to pheme "voice," from PIE root *bha- 2 "to speak, tell, say."

Via negativa or via negationis Latin, "negative way" or "by way of denial". The negative way forms a pair together with the kataphatic or positive way. According to Deirdre Carabine,

Pseudo Dionysius describes the kataphatic or affirmative way to the divine as the "way of speech": that we can come to some understanding of the Transcendent by attributing all the perfections of the created order to God as its source. In this sense, we can say "God is Love", "God is Beauty", "God is Good". The apophatic or negative way stresses Gods absolute transcendence and unknowability in such a way that we cannot say anything about the divine essence because God is so totally beyond being. The dual concept of the immanence and transcendence of God can help us to understand the simultaneous truth of both "ways" to God: at the same time as God is immanent, God is also transcendent. At the same time as God is knowable, God is also unknowable. God cannot be thought of as one or the other only.


2. Origins and development

According to Fagenblat, "negative theology is as old as philosophy itself;" elements of it can be found in Platos "unwritten doctrines," while it is also present in Neo-Platonic, Gnostic and early Christian writers. A tendency to apophatic thought can also be found in Philo of Alexandria.

According to Carabine, "apophasis proper" in Greek thought starts with Neo-Platonism, with its speculations about the nature of the One, culminating in the works of Proclus. According to Carabine, there are two major points in the development of apophatic theology, namely the fusion of the Jewish tradition with Platonic philosophy in the writings of Philo, and the works of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, who infused Christian thought with Neo-Platonic ideas.

The Early Church Fathers were influenced by Philo, and Meredith even states that Philo "is the real founder of the apophatic tradition." Yet, it was with Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor, whose writings shaped both Hesychasm, the contemplative tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the mystical traditions of western Europe, that apophatic theology became a central element of Christian theology and contemplative practice.


3.1. Greek philosophy Pre-Socratic

For the ancient Greeks, knowledge of the gods was essential for proper worship. Poets had an important responsibility in this regard, and a central question was how knowledge of the Divine forms can be attained. Epiphany played an essential role in attaining this knowledge. Xenophanes c. 570 – c. 475 BC noted that the knowledge of the Divine forms is restrained by the human imagination, and Greek philosophers realized that this knowledge can only be mediated through myth and visual representations, which are culture-dependent.

According to Herodotus 484–425 BC, Homer and Hesiod between 750 and 650 BC taught the Greek the knowledge of the Divine bodies of the Gods. The ancient Greek poet Hesiod between 750 and 650 BC describes in his Theogony the birth of the gods and creation of the world, which became an "ur-text for programmatic, first-person epiphanic narratives in Greek literature," but also "explores the necessary limitations placed on human access to the divine." According to Platt, the statement of the Muses who grant Hesiod knowledge of the Gods "actually accords better with the logic of apophatic religious thought."

Parmenides fl. late sixth or early fifth century BC, in his poem On Nature, gives an account of a revelation on two ways of inquiry. "The way of conviction" explores Being, true reality "what-is", which is "What is ungenerated and deathless,/whole and uniform, and still and perfect." "The way of opinion" is the world of appearances, in which ones sensory faculties lead to conceptions which are false and deceitful. His distinction between unchanging Truth and shifting opinion is reflected in Platos allegory of the Cave. Together with the Biblical story of Mosess ascent of Mount Sinai, it is used by Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite to give a Christian account of the ascent of the soul toward God. Cook notes that Parmenides poem is a religious account of a mystical journey, akin to the mystery cults, giving a philosophical form to a religious outlook. Cook further notes that the philosophers task is to "attempt through negative thinking to tear themselves loose from all that frustrates their pursuit of wisdom."


3.2. Greek philosophy Plato

Plato 428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC, "deciding for Parmenides against Heraclitus" and his theory of eternal change, had a strong influence on the development of apophatic thought.

Plato further explored Parmenidess idea of timeless truth in his dialogue Parmenides, which is a treatment of the eternal forms, Truth, Beauty and Goodness, which are the real aims for knowledge. The Theory of Forms is Platos answer to the problem "how one unchanging reality or essential being can admit of many changing phenomena and not just by dismissing them as being mere illusion."

In The Republic, Plato argues that the "real objects of knowledge are not the changing objects of the senses, but the immutable Forms," stating that the Form of the Good is the highest object of knowledge. His argument culminates in the Allegory of the Cave, in which he argues that humans are like prisoners in a cave, who can only see shadows of the Real, the Form of the Good. Humans are to be educated to search for knowledge, by turning away from their bodily desires toward higher contemplation, culminating in an intellectual understanding or apprehension of the Forms, c.q. the "first principles of all knowledge."

According to Cook, the Theory of Forms has a theological flavour, and had a strong influence on the ideas of his Neo-Platonist interpreters Proclus and Plotinus. The pursuit of Truth, Beauty and Goodness became a central element in the apophatic tradition, but nevertheless, according to Carabine "Plato himself cannot be regarded as the founder of the negative way." Carabine warns not to read later Neo-Platonic and Christian understandings into Plato, and notes that Plato did not identify his Forms with "one transcendent source," an identification which his later interpreters made.


3.3. Greek philosophy Middle Platonism

Middle Platonism 1st century BC–3rd century AD further investigated Platos "Unwritten Doctrines," which drew on Pythagoras first principles of the Monad and the Dyad matter. Middle Platonism proposed a hierarchy of being, with God as its first principle at its top, identifying it with Platos Form of the Good. An influential proponent of Middle Platonism was Philo c. 25 BC–c. 50 AD, who employed Middle Platonic philosophy in his interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures, and asserted a strong influence on early Christianity. According to Craig D. Allert, "Philo made a monumental contribution to the creation of a vocabulary for use in negative statements about God." For Philo, God is undescribable, and he uses terms which emphasize Gods transcendence.


3.4. Greek philosophy Neo-Platonism

Neo-Platonism was a mystical or contemplative form of Platonism, which "developed outside the mainstream of Academic Platonism." It started with the writings of Plotinus 204/5–270, and ended with the closing of the Platonic Academy by Emperor Justinian in 529 AD, when the pagan traditions were ousted. It is a product of Hellenistic syncretism, which developed due to the crossover between Greek thought and the Jewish scriptures, and also gave birth to Gnosticism. Proclus was the last head of the Platonic Academy; his student Pseudo-Dinosysius had a far-stretching Neo-Platonic influence on Christianity and Christian mysticism.


3.5. Greek philosophy Plotinus

Plotinus 204/5–270 was the founder of Neo-Platonism. In the Neo-Platonic philosophy of Plotinus and Proclus, the first principle became even more elevated as a radical unity, which was presented as an unknowable Absolute. For Plotinus, the One is the first principle, from which everything else emanates. He took it from Platos writings, identifying 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. For Plotinus, the One precedes the Forms, and "is beyond Mind and indeed beyond Being." From the One comes the Intellect, which contains all the Forms. The One is the principle of Being, while the Forms are the principle of the essence of beings, and the intelligibility which can recognize them as such. Plotinuss third principle is Soul, the desire for objects external to the person. The highest satisfaction of desire is the contemplation of the One, which unites all existents "as a single, all-pervasive reality."

The One is radically simple, and does not even have self-knowledge, since self-knowledge would imply multiplicity. Nevertheless, Plotinus does urge for a search for the Absolute, turning inward and becoming aware of the "presence of the intellect in the human soul," initiating an ascent of the soul by abstraction or "taking away," culminating in a sudden appearance of the One. In the Enneads Plotinus writes:

Our thought cannot grasp the One as long as any other image remains active in the soul its transcendence over everything can be shown." For Proclus, apophatic and cataphonic theology form a contemplatory pair, with the apophatic approach corresponding to the manifestation of the world from the One, and cataphonic theology corresponding to the return to the One. The analogies are affirmations which direct us toward the One, while the negations underlie the confirmations, being closer to the One. According to Luz, Proclus also attracted students from other faiths, including the Samaritan Marinus. Luz notes that "Marinus Samaritan origins with its Abrahamic notion of a single ineffable Name of God יהוה should also have been in many ways compatible with the schools ineffable and apophatic divine principle."


4.1. Christianity Apostolic Age

The Book of Revelation 8:1 mentions "the silence of the perpetual choir in heaven." According to Dan Merkur,

The silence of the perpetual choir in heaven had mystical connotations, because silence attends the disappearance of plurality during experiences of mystical oneness. The term "silence" also alludes to the "still small voice" 1 Kings 19:12 whose revelation to Elijah on Mount Horeb rejected visionary imagery by affirming a negative theology.


4.2. Christianity Early Church Fathers

The Early Church Fathers were influenced by Philo c. 25 BC – c. 50 AD, who saw Moses as "the model of human virtue and Sinai as the archetype of mans ascent into the "luminous darkness" of God." His interpretation of Moses was followed by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, the Cappadocian Fathers, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Maximus the Confessor.

Gods appearance to Moses in the burning bush was often elaborated on by the Early Church Fathers, especially Gregory of Nyssa c. 335 – c. 395, realizing the fundamental unknowability of God; an exegesis which continued in the medieval mystical tradition. Their response is that, although God is unknowable, Jesus as person can be followed, since "following Christ is the human way of seeing God."

Clement of Alexandria c. 150 – c. 215 was an early proponent of apophatic theology. Clement holds that God is unknowable, although God’s unknowability, concerns only his essence, not his energies, or powers. According to R.A. Baker, in Clements writings the term theoria develops further from a mere intellectual "seeing" toward a spiritual form of contemplation. Clements apophatic theology or philosophy is closely related to this kind of theoria and the "mystic vision of the soul." For Clement, God is transcendent and immanent. According to Baker, Clements apophaticism is mainly driven not by Biblical texts, but by the Platonic tradition. His conception of an ineffable God is a synthesis of Plato and Philo, as seen from a Biblical perspective. According to Osborne, it is a synthesis in a Biblical framework; according to Baker, while the Platonic tradition accounts for the negative approach, the Biblical tradition accounts for the positive approach. Theoria and abstraction is the means to conceive of this ineffable God; it is preceded by dispassion.

According to Tertullian c. 155 – c. 240,

God is not absolutely unknowable, and yet it is true that we cannot define Him adequately. But we can conceive and name Him in an "analogical way". The perfections manifested by creatures are in God, not merely nominally equivoce but really and positively, since He is their source. Yet, they are not in Him as they are in the creature, with a mere difference of degree, nor even with a mere specific or generic difference univoce, for there is no common concept including the finite and the Infinite. They are really in Him in a supereminent manner eminenter which is wholly incommensurable with their mode of being in creatures. We can conceive and express these perfections only by an analogy; not by an analogy of proportion, for this analogy rests on a participation in a common concept, and, as already said, there is no element common to the finite and the Infinite; but by an analogy of proportionality.

Since then Thomism has played a decisive role in resizing the negative or apophatic tradition of the magisterium.


4.3. Christianity 20th century

Apophatic statements are still crucial to many modern theologians, restarting in the 1800s by Soren Kierkegaard see his concept of the infinite qualitative distinction up to Rudolf Otto, Karl Barth see their idea of "Wholly Other", i.e. ganz Andere or totaliter aliter, the Ludwig Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, and Martin Heidegger after his kehre.

C. S. Lewis, in his book Miracles 1947, 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. Most of the discussion of knowledge of God presupposes theoretical knowledge, in which we reflect and try to define and discuss. 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 knowing, on the other hand, is intimate engagement, and exhibits a diverse range of aspects. 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 Bible, for example, should be treated as pre-theoretical everyday rather than theoretical in what it contains.

Ivan Illich 1926-2002, 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?"


4.4. Christianity 21st century

According to Deirdre Carabine, negative theology has become a hot topic since the 1990s, resulting from a broad effort in the 19 and 20th century to portray Plato as a mysticist, which revived the interest in Neoplatonism and negative theology.

Karen Armstrong, in her book The Case for God 2009, notices a recovery of apophatic theology in postmodern theology.


5. Islam

The Arabic term for "negative theology" is lahoot salbi, 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 tatil, which means "negation," and the followers of the Mutazili school of Kalam, founded by Imam Wasil ibn Ata, are often called the Muattili, because they are frequent users of the tatili methodology.

Rajab ʿAlī Tabrīzī, an Iranian and Shiat philosopher and mystic of the 17th century. instilled a radical apophatic theology in a generation of philosophers and theologians whose influence extended into the Qajar period. Mulla Rajab affirmed the completely unknowable, unqualifiable, and attributeless nature of God and upheld a general view concerning God’s attributes which can only be negatively affirmed’, by means of the via negativa.

Shia Islam adopted "negative theology". In the words of the Persian Ismaili missionary, Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani: "There does not exist a tanzih more brilliant and more splendid than that by which we establish the absolute transcendence of our Originator through the use of these phrases in which a negative and a negative of a negative apply to the thing denied." Early Sunni scholars who held to a literal reading of the Quran and hadith rejected this view, adhering to its opposite, believing that the Attributes of God such as "Hand", "Foot" etc. should be taken literally and that, therefore, God is like a human being. Today, most Sunnis, like the Ashari and Maturidi, adhere to a middle path between negation and anthropomorphism.


6. Judaism

Maimonides 1135/1138-1204 was "the most influential medieval Jewish exponent of the via negativa." Maimonides, but also Samuel ibn Tibbon, draw on Bahya ibn Paquda, who shows that our inability to describe God is 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. According to Rabbi Yosef Wineberg, Maimonides stated that 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.

According to Fagenblat, it is only in the modern period that negative theology really gains importance in Jewish thought. Yeshayahu Leibowitz 1903-1994 was a prominent modern exponent of Jewish negative theology. According to Leibowitz, a persons faith his commitment to obey God, meaning Gods commandments, and this has nothing to do with a person’s image of God. This must be so because Leibowitz thought that God cannot be described, that Gods understanding is not mans understanding, and thus all the questions asked of God are out of place.


7. Indian parallels

There are interesting parallels in Indian thought, which developed largely separate from Western thought. Early Indian philosophical works which have apophatic themes include the Principal Upanishads 800 BCE to the start of common era and the Brahma Sutras from 450 BCE and 200 CE. An expression of negative theology is found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, where Brahman is described as "neti neti" or "neither this, nor that". 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.

Buddhist philosophy has also strongly advocated the way of negation, beginning with the Buddhas own theory of anatta not-atman, not-self which denies any truly existent and unchanging essence of a person. Madhyamaka is a Buddhist philosophical school founded by Nagarjuna 2nd-3rd century AD, which is based on a fourfold negation of all assertions and concepts and promotes the theory of emptiness shunyata. Apophatic assertions are also an important feature of Mahayana sutras, especially the prajñaparamita genre. These currents of negative theology are visible in all forms of Buddhism.

Apophatic movements in medieval Hindu philosophy are visible in the works of Shankara 8th century, a philosopher of Advaita Vedanta non-dualism, and Bhartrhari 5th century, a grammarian. While Shankara holds that the transcendent noumenon, Brahman, is realized by the means of negation of every phenomenon including language, Bhartrhari theorizes that language has both phenomenal and noumenal dimensions, the latter of which manifests Brahman.

In Advaita, Brahman is defined as being Nirguna or without qualities. Anything imaginable or conceivable is not deemed to be the ultimate reality. The Taittiriya hymn speaks of Brahman as "one where the mind does not reach". Yet the Hindu scriptures often speak of Brahmans 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.


8. Apophatic theology and atheism

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. Apophatic theology is often accused of being a version of atheism or agnosticism, since it cannot say truly that God exists. "The comparison is crude, however, for conventional atheism treats the existence of God as a predicate that can be denied" God is nonexistent”, whereas negative theology denies that God has predicates". "God or the Divine is" without being able to attribute qualities about "what He is" would be the prerequisite of positive theology in negative theology that distinguishes theism from atheism. "Negative theology is a complement to, not the enemy of, positive theology". 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. 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.


9. External links and resources

  • General
  • At the Origins of Modern Atheism, Michael J. Buckley, Yale University Press 1987, ISBN 0-300-03719-8
  • God and Other Necessary Beings, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Negative Theology, Austin Cline
  • Apophatic theology, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions
  • Saying Nothing about No-Thing: Apophatic Theology in the Classical World, Jonah Winters
  • Christian material
  • "Paradoxes", in "The Aryeh Kaplan Reader", Aryeh Kaplan, Artscroll 1983, ISBN 0-89906-174-5
  • Understanding God, Ch2. in "The Handbook of Jewish Thought", Aryeh Kaplan, Moznaim 1979, ISBN 0-940118-49-1
  • Chovot ha-Levavot 1:8, Bahya ibn Paquda – Online class, Yaakov Feldman
  • Jewish material
  • Attributes, jewishencyclopedia.com
  • Derrida and Negative Theology, ed H. G Coward, SUNY 1992. ISBN 0-7914-0964-3
  • Modern material