Understanding Apophatic Theology (Part Two)


/  Apophaticism is an essential feature of Eastern Catholic theology but is often misunderstood by Western theologians and thinkers.  This is part two of a series of articles designed to introduce apophatic theology to those who are unfamiliar with it . . . It should also prove useful for those who have a negative aversion to negative theology (pun intended).   /

Another way to characterize apophaticism is in terms of the impersonal versus the personal.  In contrast to Plato’s heavenly realm of the forms and enigmatic Demiurge, or Aristotle’s reduction of form to that of particular instantiations of essences and his impersonal notion of the Unmoved Mover, early Christian apologists and theologians grounded the forms in the mind of God.  Unlike the Greek philosophers, Christians understood Ultimate Reality in terms of a dynamic, self-determined, Personality who lovingly created (out of nothing) and maintained the world.  Identifying the forms with the mind of God, however, necessarily leads to apophatic conclusions.  Why?  Because no one can know the mind of God.

Dionysius declares that we,

“must not dare to apply words or conceptions to this hidden transcendent God [outside of what He Himself has revealed],” because, “the divinity is not only invisible and incomprehensible, but also “unsearchable and inscrutable,” since there is not a trace for anyone who would reach through into the hidden depths of this infinity.”

These statements make all the more sense when we recognize that the transcendent God is personal.  There is always an element of profound mystery attached to human personhood; especially in terms of  communicating our personhood to other persons.  No matter how ardently we attempt to communicate our interior life to the outside world the human soul remains a “black box” to those who remain forever distinct from us.  No matter how intimate the relationship there forever remains something private and unseen between even the closest friends.   If this is true of the human heart and mind, how much more so when it comes to the Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity?  As Judith states, “You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or understand the workings of the human mind; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his thought?” (Judith 8:14).

In this, apophaticism offers an epistemological advantage because it grounds our discovery of the Good, of Truth, of Ultimate Reality, in love.  For it is out of love that God makes Himself known (in as much as He can be known) and it is out of love that we seek to know Him.  According to apophaticism, seeking Truth–seeking to understand Existence–is ultimately the pursuit of and desire for intimacy with a Person (whether the pursuer realizes this or not).

Thus we are faced with a paradox.  Apophaticism teaches that the Divine Nature is completely inaccessible to us, and that He is actively seeking to make Himself known to us (which is why apophaticism, rightly understood, acknowledges that we can make positive statements about God).  But how can this be?  To understand this, we must now turn our inquiry to an important distinction; namely, the difference between God’s essence and His energies.

God’s Active Presence and Self-Revelation

While it is impossible for us to comprehend the essence of God, it is possible for us both to know and experience Him.  How?  By participating in His energies.  Because God is love (1 John 4:8) He desires to be known and to be in communion with His creation.  His active presence and self-revelation in the world is what apophatic theology refers to as God’s uncreated energies.  God’s foreknowledge, His providence, His will, His goodness, His love, His justice, Hist power–all of these attributes are discovered through participation in God’s energies.  These works of God are, according to St. Gregory Palamas, “manifestly unoriginate and pretemporal.”

Which is simply to say, they are uncreated and, hence, not something ontologically grounded outside of God’s being.  St. Palamas explains:

“Neither the uncreated goodness, nor the eternal glory, nor the divine life nor things akin to these are simply the superessential essence of God, for God transcends them all as Cause.  But we say He is life, goodness and so forth, and give Him these names, because of the revelatory energies and powers of the Superessential.”

Thus, while God’s energies dynamically flow out of His essence, his energies are not to be mistaken as being His essence.  To understand this, St. Palamas provides a very simple illustration:

“The divine essence that transcends all names, also surpasses energy, to the extent that the subject of an action surpasses its object; and He Who is beyond every name transcends what is named according to the same measure.  But this is in no way opposed to the veneration of a unique God and unique divinity, since the fact of calling the ray “sun” in no way prevents us from thinking of a unique sun and a unique light.”

So, as it would be mistaken to confuse the act of eating with the person eating it would be mistaken to confuse God’s foreknowledge with the One who knows future contingents.  Likewise, we would be mistaken to separate God’s providence from His essence as we would be mistaken to separate rays of light from the sun; nevertheless, we are able to recognize the rays as being unique in relation to the sun as we are able to recognize that God’s providence is unique in relation to His essence.

It must be stressed, however, that the things we learn about God through participating in His energies are still restricted by the confines of our finite language and limited noetic capacities.  Thus, while we can affirm positively that, for example, God is good–because He is creator and sustainer, always keeps His promises, brings about our salvation, etc.–we must remember that such a positive affirmation is still analogical, and does not provide us with information about the Divine Nature.  For, as Dionysius states,

“we use whatever appropriate symbols we can for the things of God.  With these analogies we are raised upward toward the truth of the mind’s vision, a truth which is simple and one.”

Likewise, St. John of Damascus explains that,

“many of those things about God which are not clearly perceived cannot be fittingly described, so that we are obliged to express in human terms things which transcend the human order.  Thus, for example, in speaking about God we attribute to Him sleep, anger, indifference, hands and feet, and the alike.”

Apophaticism, therefore, maintains God’s complete transcendence–His otherness–and his nearness and familiarity without falling into contradiction.

This article was previously posted on Truth is a Man.


Understanding Apophatic Theology (Part One)


/  Apophaticism is an essential feature of Eastern Catholic theology but is often misunderstood by Western theologians and thinkers.  This is the first of a two part series designed to introduce apophatic theology to those who are unfamiliar with it . . . It should also prove useful for those who have a negative aversion to negative theology (pun intended).   /   

Apophatic theology, within the Christian tradition, is grounded in the Incarnation–the mystery of the eternally begotten Word made flesh and born of the Virgin Mary.  It is this paradigmatic paradox that highlights both God’s transcendence and immanence.  In the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar:

The “I” of Jesus Christ is the measure of God’s distance from and nearness to man, that unimaginable nearness of him who is, and remains, even more unimaginably sublime above everything in the world (in similitudine major dissimilitudo)–and both things are equally true.  We shall never be in a position to encapsulate the mystery of this “I”, with its nearness and its distance, in a concept or a formula, for at its heart lies the mystery of the relationship between God, the Absolute, and man, the relative.

This antinomy is most clearly expressed in the first chapter of St. John’s gospel which proclaims that, “No one has seen God at any time.  The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:18); and affirmed also by St. Paul who states that Christ is, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1: 15).  Thus, the Incarnation is at once God’s ultimate and most intimate revelation of Himself to His creation and a fixed reminder of the mysterious and ineffable nature of the God who remains unseen and invisible.

As we shall see Christian apophaticism is not synonymous to agnosticism; it is not an attempt to eradicate positive statements about God or deny our personal experience of God (as some believe).  Aristotle Papanikolaou explains that, “there is always a gap between our language about God and what God is.  In an apophatic approach, theology, attempts to stretch language in order to express the central antinomy revealed in the Incarnation–God’s transcendence and immanence.”  Apophaticism is, therefore, an acknowledgment of the complete transcendence and utter incomprehensibility of the Divine Nature and the humble admission that human beings lack the noetic capacities and linguistic tools needed to grasp or properly communicate the infinite, eternal, Godhead.  Furthermore, it is the acknowledgment that God loves His creation and condescends to make Himself known in spite of our limited capacities.

This fact–the radical ontological distinction between the creature and the Creator, the unknowability of God’s essence, and God’s desire to make Himself known–is vividly portrayed in the account of Moses on Mount Sinai in the Old Testament.  Scripture tells us that:

On the third day in the morning, there were thunderings and lightnings and a dark cloud on Mount Sinai; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, and all the people in the camp trembled.  And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  Now Mount Sinai was completely enveloped in smoke, because God descended upon it in fire.  Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the people were exceedingly amazed . . . and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.  Then God spoke to Moses, “Go down and solemnly charge the people, lest they break through to gaze at God, and many of them perish” (Exodus 19:16-21).*

In this passage we see that God, in his unfailing love and desire for communion–and in order to initiate a covenant with Israel–manifested His presence in a physically provocative way; thus condescending to our human nature.  Yet what God is, His essence, is symbolized by the impenetrable cloud of darkness, thick smoke, and fire; for God is invisible and His nature a mystery.  His presence, if directly beheld by man, is so overwhelming that God warns Moses not to let the people ascend the mountain lest they gaze directly upon Him and die.

The inadequacy of creaturely language–with regard to its ability to describe God–becomes even more obvious as we read Moses’ own account of his experience on the mountain in the presence of God in chapter thirty-three:

But He [God] said, “You cannot see My face; for no man can see My face and live.”  Moreover, the Lord said, “Here is a place by Me you shall stand on the rock.  So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by.  Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:20-23).*

For surely the Divine Nature is not a body–possessing hands and a face–but is incorporeal.  Our language is simply unable to explain that which transcends all creaturely categories; thus, Moses, writing metaphorically, speaks of God having a ‘face’ and ‘hands’ and a ‘back.’  As the Lord Himself declares in this passage, “no man can see My face and live”–which is to say that no man can peer into the very essence of God; this knowledge is too great for us.  Yet, mysteriously, God allows Moses to experience Him indirectly; allowing him to see His “back.”  This, itself, is unhelpful for those who seek to understand what God is because there is know way for us to understand what it means to gaze upon the Lord’s back.  Here, again, human language fails us; Moses’ own experience was virtually indescribable (even to himself).

The stark contrast that we find in these passages and, throughout the Bible, between the creature and the Creator, are exactly what led the earliest Christian theologians to promote apophaticism.  For the Greek philosophers (namely those in the stream of Platonic and Aristotelian thought) believed that being or existence could be grasped by the human intellect and explained using purely human categories.  Christians, however, embracing the ontology of Scripture, recognized that Existence Himself, the great “I AM,” stood outside of all creaturely thought.  As Fr. John D. Zizioulas explains:

The message of apophatic theology was precisely that the closed Greek ontology had to be broken and transcended, since we are unable to use concepts of the human mind or of creation, for signifying God–the truth.  The absolute otherness of God’s being which is found at the heart of biblical theology is affirmed in such a manner that the biblical approach to God contrasts acutely with that of the Greeks.  Apophaticism rejects the Greek view of truth, emphasizing that what we know about being–about creation, that is–must not be ontologically identified with God.

Plato’s famous analogy of the cave makes the difference between Greek and Christian thought explicit.  For in Plato’s account truth can be grasped when we stop looking at the mere shadow of being on the wall–i.e., the imperfect copies of eternal forms–climb out of the cave, and fix our gaze directly on the sun–the good;  the immaterial and immutable realm of the forms; the, “cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything”  In Plato’s ontology, gazing directly at the good is possible through purely human intellectual effort.  In contrast, Christian theology teaches that the Good transcends all human distinctions and categories; the Good is completely other and, hence, unknowable by means of purely human effort.  For the Good says, “no man can see My face and live” (Exodus 33:20).*

Such considerations are what spurred Pseudo-Dionysius, that great champion of apophatic theology to proclaim:

Indeed the inscrutable One is out of the reach of every rational process.  Nor can any words come up to the inexpressible Good, this One, this Source of all unity, this supra-existent Being.  Mind beyond mind, word beyond speech, it is gathered up by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name.  It is and it is as no other being is.  Cause of all existence, and therefore itself transcending existence, it alone could give an authoritative account of what it really is.

*All Scripture quotations are taken from the Orthodox Study Bible which utilizes the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible).  Therefore, the chapter and verse numbering might not correspond to those found in translations, e.g., ESV, NIV, KJV, etc., which utilize the oldest available Hebrew and Aramaic texts.

Previously posted on Truth is a Man (in a slightly different format)

The Rational Mystery of God

In one of the recent comments someone brought up that it’s apparently a contradiction to say that belief in God is rational, yet also say that God is beyond knowledge and beyond reason. In fact, I’ve dealt with this topic before.

Yet, there’s no reason to assume that “God is incomprehensible/a mystery” is somehow mutually exclusive to, “Believing in God is rational.”

To say that God is incomprehensible or that God is a mystery is pointing to God’s ontology; since we are finite and He is infinite, it necessarily follows that we cannot understand Him. Thus, His ontology (should it be said that God has an ontology) is beyond our own, which places necessary limits on our epistemology. This is not to say, however, that we can’t have knowledge of His existence or know the plausibility of His existence.

While we may not understand God, we can point to some evidence where God is plausible, or we can point to logical proofs to show that God necessarily exists. But all of this has to do with our knowledge of His existence, not with His existence proper. When dealing with His existence proper, rather than our knowledge of His existence, we conclude in mystery because He is greater, therefore mystery is a necessary conclusion.

One can think of the universe and how it is a mystery to us because it is greater than us. Yet we can know it exists and we can know certain things about the universe. We do not see the mystery (and our lack of knowledge) as contradictory to our belief that the universe exists; we do not say it is irrational to believe the universe exists just because we see it ultimately as a mystery. So it is with God.

A Fundamentally Naked Pastor

My internet friend David Hayward (The Naked Pastor) wrote a post yesterday posing some good questions about the rise of fundamentalism in today’s world. He sees the retreat to fundamentalism as a response to our uncertain and changing times. To him, it is merely an unwillingness to deal with mystery that causes people to become more and more rigid. To a certain extent I agree with him.

In both liberal and conservative sects, the more we eradicate mystery, the more rigid we tend to become. For conservatives it’s the eradication and elimination of drinking, smoking, women wearing pants, and so on. For liberals it’s the eradication and elimination of the belief in any miracles, in using Scripture for spiritual purposes, and so on. So I would contend that fundamentalism comes in both variations; one is remaining fundamental to conservative ideals with the other is pointing to the fundamentals of liberal ideals.

Where I would disagree is in pointing out that today’s world isn’t any less confusing or less mysterious than the world of yesterday. Think of the people who were experiencing the collapse of the Roman Republic. Certainly that was a confusing time when the Senate seemed to be impotent and the Emperors began to rise. With this change also came a dynamic change in Roman culture. Or what about the rise of Christendom, which also would have confused the masses. We could turn to the collapse of the Roman Empire, the rise of Islam in the East, the power vacuum of Europe shortly after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the collapse of Constantinople, the Protestant Reformation, the discovery of a New World, and the list goes on and on. The point being, our world has seemingly always been in a time of upheaval and that today would be no different from any of those times.

What has remained consistent during this times, however, is that the fundamentals of the Christian faith have stayed constant. Christians today who claim orthodoxy would differ very little in their central beliefs from Christians two thousand years ago, even though we are separated by time, culture, and language. The reason for this is that though Christianity has fundamentals to follow, it is ultimately based on a mystery. Being based on a mystery means that nothing can overcome it, nothing can overpower it, and as confusing as our world is, it’ll never be more mysterious than God.

It is in uncertain times when we need to embrace the stable mystery of Christ, lest we be swept away by the turbulent seas of uncertainty.

God is beyond us, yet with us

(Un)Knowing God

Though many people have opinions on who or what God is (or whether or not he exists), the irony is that God is ultimately unknowable. For all the opinions and theological treatises on God, the end of the discussion is, “Well I don’t know.” This is because God is transcendent, which means that he is beyond our capacity of knowing or thinking. God is so far above us that there is little we can know about Him. This is not to say that we can’t speak of God, just that there are some things we can know and some things we can’t know.

To focus on what it means to not know God, we have to know what the term ‘nature’ means. It seems like a big word and a lot of philosophers have attached complicated meanings to the word, but an easy way to think of what ‘nature’ means is, “What something is.” In other words, we know a human is a human and not a chair because the human has a human nature. We know what a rock is because we know the nature of a rock. We know that a cat is not a bird and a bird is not a fish and a fish is not a human baby because we know the natures of each thing.

When it comes to God though, we don’t know his nature. We know that everything we experience isn’t God, but that just means that we can define God’s nature as, “Is not…” rather than describe God’s nature in an explanatory way. All other natures are comprehensible in some fashion; we can define what is and is not the nature of a fish (e.g. has to be in water, has gills, etc) meaning that we have some comprehensive knowledge of what it is to be a fish. God, on the other hand, is incomprehensible, meaning we know nothing about his nature.

Consider that Psalm 145:3 declares God to be unsearchable. When we think of the sea we can imagine searching through the sea, though we cannot comprehend all the valleys and crevices, we can search them and find them. The sea, as vast as it is, is searchable. Or we can think of the Universe and how it seems to go on for infinity. The closest stars are millions upon million upon millions of miles away. It will take centuries for us to figure out a way to reach distant planets (if we can reach them at all). But despite all its vastness, we can still search the heavens and discover its vast treasure-trove of information. God, however, cannot be searched. The reason he cannot be searched is that he is so far above us that we have no starting point in searching for God. It’s not that God is simply incomprehensible, meaning we can search him out, but will never fully understand him; rather, God is unapproachable and unsearchable, meaning that he is so far beyond us we can’t even hope to know who he is. While we might name a distant star or discover a new area of the sea, God will forever remain eternally elusive to us.

The lack of knowledge about God’s nature also means that we cannot define God or give a definition to God. Rather, any definition of God would be along the lines of, “He who cannot be defined,” which isn’t really a definition. No one can comprehend God except God (1 Cor. 2:10-12), so how can we define that which we can’t comprehend or even approach? I can provide a definition for an ocean, but I can’t provide a definition for God because he is above me.

But what does it mean to say that God is “above” us? Is he really located up in the sky on some cloud? The “above” doesn’t refer to location, but stature. God is above us by stature, meaning that we are far lesser than he is. Not like a child is ‘lesser’ to an adult, because the child will someday become an adult and share rights and responsibilities with that adult. Instead, God is above us by nature so that we’ll never become like him. No matter how good we get, God is better. But by being above us, God is beyond defining and beyond our knowledge. This doesn’t make him irrational, but supra-rational, meaning that our rationality can’t explain him. Continue reading

God is known and unknown: Thoughts from St John Chrysostom

I have been reading through St. John Chrysostom’s homilies on the mystery of God and have truly found this work to be a treasure. It is my firm belief that all Christians should read this at some point in their lives because it is both deeply theological and deeply devotional.

One point that Chrysostom brings up is that God is not merely incomprehensible, but that God is also unapproachable. He is pulling this distinction from 1 Timothy 6:15-16, which reads:

“…he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords,  who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.”

The commentary that Chrysostom provides on this passage states that, “…Paul did not say, ‘Who is an unapproachable light,’ but, ‘Who dwells in unapproachable light.’ But if the dwelling is unapproachable, much more so is the God who dwells in it. Paul did not say this to limit God to a place, but to prove all the more cogently that God can neither be comprehended nor approached.”

This is sometimes difficult for Christians to grasp. All are guilty of creating an idol of the mind when it comes to God. Often times Christians desire to have a comprehensible God. This is why conservatives act as though they can speak for God on all matters – after all, God is against gays, against abortion, again Democrats, pro-Republican, and watches Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. But the liberals aren’t any better. To them God is all loving, welcomes all religions, hates CEO’s and Republicans, and wears designer jeans. What happens for both sides is they begin to create a God that looks more like them. They conform God to themselves rather than conform themselves to God. Continue reading

The Rationality of Mystery

Being in a college environment, it’s sometimes not appropriate to fall back onto “well it’s a mystery” when explaining a doctrine. In dealing with theology and philosophy students, it appears that everything and anything about God must be explained and must be rational. Thus, when I find myself turning to mystery, I’m told that it’s a “cop-out” or that I’m simply being lazy in my study.

However, without going into too much detail, I readily believe that the most reasonable aspect of Christianity is its mystery. Even Paul calls the Gospel a mystery (Ephesians 6:19). But why would He do so and why is mystery actually rational?

For one, God declares in Isaiah 55 that His thoughts and ways are above our own; this indicates that He is beyond comprehension. Anything that is beyond comprehension is, by definition, a mystery. To look at this logically:

(1) Anything beyond comprehension is a mystery

(2) God is beyond comprehension

(3) Therefore, God is a mystery

When people try to rationally explain every aspect of God’s being, they attempt to pull Him within the realm of comprehension. However, isn’t this always the sign of an idol? The Hebrews didn’t understand why God had abandoned them at the base of a mountain, so they created a false image of God, an image of gold, one they could comprehend. Think of all the false religions of old and present where the gods are more than human, but still close to humans. They can be comprehended, predicted, and understood just as clearly as any other human being is understood.

Continue reading