In theology, three ways of ‘knowing’ God are distinguished. The first is kataphatic, which affirms the ability to make positive statements about God. The second is via negativa, which affirms that only negative statements can be made about God. This is often confused with apophatic theology. Apophatic theology asserts that not even negative statements can be said of God. At first glance there may not seem to be much of a difference between via negativa and apophatic theology, which would explain why they are often confused with each other, but there is.
One might say that via negativa belongs to the Aristotelian tradition that comes to dominate Christian theology after Duns Scotus while apophatic theology belongs to the Platonic tradition, which finds its fullest expression in Aquinas.
Plato, in the Timaeus, makes it clear that any talk of the divine must be analogical. First of all, the divine cannot be an object of understanding: “But the father and maker of all this universe is past finding out; and even if we found him, to tell of him to all men would be impossible.” Second, language is inadequate for the job of talking directly about the divine: “And in speaking of the copy and the original we may assume that words are akin to the matter which they describe; when they relate to the lasting and permanent and intelligible, they ought to be lasting and unalterable, and, as far as their nature allows, irrefutable and immovable-nothing less. But when they express only the copy or likeness and not the eternal things themselves, they need only be likely and analogous to the real words.”
Finally, we as mortals are limited and therefore must be satisfied with what is probable: “for we must remember that I who am the speaker, and you who are the judges, are only mortal men, and we ought to accept the tale which is probable and enquire no further”. Surely this is a warning against thinking that our talk of God somehow gets us to God’s essence without resorting to the
Plotinus makes it clear in the Fifth Ennead that the divine is not a thing, has no being, but is, rather, the generator of being: “The One is all things and no one of them; the source of all things is not all things; all things are its possession – running back, so to speak, to it – or, more correctly, not yet so, they will be”. And every kind of understanding of the divine is a representation of the divine and therefore a downward movement, or a movement away from the divine. In other words, all understanding, even the purest kind, is only a mirror or reflection, and therefore must be taken analogically.
It seems to me that the significance of the Christological controversies of the first few centuries of the Christian Church lies in their ruling out ways of talking about God that give positive content to God’s nature. Which leads to the apophaticism of the Cappadocians such as Gregory of Nazianzus who writes: “God always was, and always is, and always will be. Or rather, God always Is. For Was and Will be are fragments of our time, and of changeable nature, but He is Eternal Being. And this is the Name that He gives to Himself when giving the Oracle to Moses in the Mount. For in Himself He sums up and contains all Being, having neither beginning in the past nor end in the future; like some great Sea of Being, limitless and unbounded, transcending all conception of time and nature, only adumbrated by the mind, and that very dimly and scantily … not by His Essentials, but by His Environment; one image being got from one source and another from another, and combined into some sort of presentation of the truth, which escapes us before we have caught it, and takes to flight before we have conceived it, blazing forth upon our Master-part, even when that is cleansed, as the lightning flash which will not stay its course, does upon our sight …” (Oration 38)
In other words, our talk of God is always analogical, distanced from God like a flash of light in a mirror.
In “On Christian Doctrine” Augustine writes: “Have I spoken of God, or uttered His praise, in any worthy way? Nay, I feel that I have done nothing more than desire to speak; and if I have said anything, it is not what I desired to say. How do I know this, except from the fact that God is unspeakable? But what I have said, if it had been unspeakable, could not have been spoken. And so God is not even to be called “unspeakable,” because to say even this is to speak of Him. Thus there arises a curious contradiction of words, because if the unspeakable is what cannot be spoken of, it is not unspeakable if it can be called unspeakable. And this opposition of words is rather to be avoided by silence than to be explained away by speech. And yet God, although nothing worthy of His greatness can be said of Him, has condescended to accept the worship of men’s mouths, and has desired us through the medium of our own words to rejoice in His praise. For on this principle it is that He is called Deus (God). For the sound of those two syllables in itself conveys no true knowledge of His nature; but yet all who know the Latin tongue are led, when that sound reaches their ears, to think of a nature supreme in excellence and eternal in existence.”
Which brings us to probably the best example of an apophatic theologian, Pseudo-Dionysius.
“There is neither logos, name, or knowledge of it. It is not dark nor light, not error, and not truth. There is universally neither position nor denial of it. While there are produced positions and denials of those after it, we neither position nor deny it.” (“Divine Names”)
No words can express God’s nature including the words “No words can express God’s nature”. This contradiction must be left aside in favour of the further understanding that God encourages us to talk about God. So, we are encouraged to talk about God but always with the mental reservation that this talk of God is analogical, agnostic when it comes to the manner in which our words map onto God.
It is with Aquinas that, in my opinion, we have the best balance of kataphatic, negative and apophatic theology. “Thus all names applied metaphorically to God, are applied to creatures primarily rather than to God, because when said of God they mean only similitudes to such creatures. For as ‘smiling’ applied to a field means only that the field in the beauty of its flowering is like the beauty of the human smile by proportionate likeness, so the name of ‘lion’ applied to God means only that God manifests strength in His works, as a lion in his. Thus it is clear that applied to God the signification of names can be defined only from what is said of creatures. But to other names not applied to God in a metaphorical sense, the same rule would apply if they were spoken of God as the cause only, as some have supposed. For when it is said, ‘God is good,’ it would then only mean ‘God is the cause of the creature’s goodness’; thus the term good applied to God would included in its meaning the creature’s goodness. Hence ‘good’ would apply primarily to creatures rather than to God. But as was shown above (2), these names are applied to God not as the cause only, but
also essentially. For the words, ‘God is good,’ or ‘wise,’ signify not only that He is the cause of wisdom or goodness, but that these exist in Him in a more excellent way. Hence as regards what the name signifies, these names are applied primarily to God rather than to creatures, because these perfections flow from God to creatures; but as regards the imposition of the names, they are primarily applied by us to creatures which we know first. Hence they have a mode of signification which belongs to creatures, as said above..(ST I,13, a.6)
God can be referred to only figuratively, and that is through either metaphor or analogy. In both cases, signification is possible through the participation of the divine in all of creation. This is the Platonic element in Aquinas. When theology uses metaphor, it draws on the similarity between cause and effect where the world is the effect of God’s creative activity. So, God can be likened to a lion or any other part of creation. When theology uses analogy, it draws on the intuition that some parts of creation require a perfection. So, God can be called Good or Wise because we recognize gradations of goodness and wisdom. In both its metaphorical and analogical form, theology signifies God but the signification always remains firmly fixed in the created order.
An article by Chris Bruce