Negative theology, also known as Apophatic theology, is a theological approach that describes God by negation, speaking of God only in terms of what He is not (apophasis) rather than presuming to describe what God is.

In negative theology, it is maintained that we can never truly define God in words. In the end, the student must transcend words to understand the nature of the Divine. In this sense, negative theology is not a denial. Rather, it is an assertion that whatever the Divine may be, when we attempt to capture it in human words, we will inevitably fall short.

In contrast, making positive statements about the nature of God, which occurs in most other forms of Christian theology, is sometimes called cataphatic theology.

Negative theology played an important role early in the history of Christianity. Three theologians who emphasized the importance of negative theology to an orthodox understanding of God, were Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, and Basil the Great. It was employed by John of Damascus when he wrote that positive statements about God reveal "not the nature, but the things around the nature." It continues to be prominent in Eastern Orthodoxy (see Gregory Palamas) where apophatic statements are crucial to much of their theology, and is used to balance cataphatic theology.

Resources

  • Colin Gunton, Act and Being (Eerdmans, 2003) - Gunton critiques the use of negative theology in the construction of the attributes of God.

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