September 3, 2011

Apophatic (Negative) and Cataphatic (Positive) Theology

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

We often make a watertight distinction between apophatic (negative) and cataphatic (positive) theology. We insist that apophatic theology is more perfect, while cataphatic is imperfect. Still the worst is when we see apophatic theology only in the existence of a few terms and expressions.

True, in the patristic teachings we encounter such a division. The expression of St. John the Damascene is characteristic: "The Divinity, then, is limitless and incomprehensible, and His limitlessness and incomprehensibility is all that can be understood about Him. All that we state affirmatively about God does not show His nature, but only what relates to His nature". But then again St. John the Damascene says: "Moreover, there are things that are stated affirmatively of God, but which have the force of extreme negation".

There is an interpenetration between apophatic and cataphatic theology. Theology is one, and it is experience, revelation. The saints attained deification and saw God. They saw that God is Light, they saw God's energy. Thus God is participated in with regard to His energy, but He is altogether unshared by man with regard to His essence. But when the saints wish to express this experience, they use negative figures. They say, for instance, that God is Light, but at the same time add "because of His surpassing brightness" in relation to the created light of knowledge it is also "darkness". Moreover, even the so-called affirmative expressions, such as that God is love, in reality are impossible for human reason to understand in the terms of human thought and employing representations.

We can say that the knowledge of God is experience. The way to knowledge of God is apophatic, which means that we concentrate our nous in our heart, following, according to St. Dionysios the Areopagite, the uniform concentration of the nous. The experience of God, of God's energy, is positive. But the expression of this experience is formulated also by negative expressions("invisible", "incomprehensible", "indescribable" etc.), because of man's inability to express this experience.