What is negative theology?
Question: "What is negative theology?"
Answer: Negative theology, also called apophatic theology, is a way of looking at God using negation. It is the study of what God is not rather than what He is. Negative theology asserts that the transcendent God is essentially unknowable. He is too complex and abstract a being for humans to understand, and words will always fall short of truly describing Him. Therefore, we are unable to make positive statements about Him. For example, rather than say, “God is good,” negative theology would say, “There is no evil in God,” and leave it at that. Negative theology attempts to come to a knowledge of God indirectly, by removing those things that God is not. Negative or apophatic theology is the counterpart of positive or cataphatic theology, which deals in positive descriptions of God’s nature.
Apophasis is also sometimes used to describe things in the natural world. For example, darkness is not, in itself, a thing—darkness is best described as a lack of light (light being a real, substantial, measurable thing). In theology, negation is helpful, too. Augustine is credited with first saying that evil is “a lack”; that is, evil is the negation of good. Similarly, hatred and apathy are not creations of God; they are an absence of love, which is part of God’s nature (1 John 4:8).
When made to stand on its own, negative theology makes little sense. Negative theology has its place, but only as a balance to positive theology. Positive descriptions of God fill the Bible. God is good (Psalm 135:3), merciful (Psalm 116:5), and righteous (Psalm 11:7). Jesus referred to Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and John called Him the life which was the light of men (John 1:4). Jesus is the embodiment of wisdom, the Word, the One by which everything came to be, and without Him nothing would exist (John 1:1–3).
Negative theology is an interesting philosophy, but, as a way of discovering the truth about God, it fails. A reading of the Bible, which is God’s Word, immediately shows that God is interested in revealing Himself to man. Jesus was called “the exact representation” of God’s being (Hebrews 1:3). A living, breathing, human being, who cried and loved children and ate food and shed blood (John 11:35; Luke 19:41; Matthew 19:14; John 21:12; Luke 22:44). This is not a picture of an abstract or unknowable God who can only be described indirectly. The apostle John’s message was based on tangible evidence: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim” (1 John 1:1).
Yes, words have limitations, but God has chosen words to communicate to us about Himself. The Bible is written communication. And, yes, we are limited in our ability to grasp everything about God. There are many things that make us struggle and many things we must accept by faith (Hebrews 11:6). Some things about God are mysterious, but not everything. The Bible contains more than negative theology; it makes many positive statements about God. Along with the Bible, God has given us His Holy Spirit in order to “make a home” with those that love Him (John 14:23). We can know God through the fellowship of His Spirit and through His Word. “‘Who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).
Recommended Resource: The Moody Handbook of Theology by Paul Enns
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Questions about Theology
What is negative theology?