CATAPHATIC AND APOPHATIC THEOLOGY - Orthodox Catechism

CATAPHATIC AND APOPHATIC THEOLOGY

When discussing the names of God, we inevitably conclude that not one of them can give us a complete idea of who He is. To speak of the attributes of God is to discover that their sum total is not God. God transcends any name. If we call Him being, He transcends being, He is supra-being. If we ascribe to Him righteousness and justice, in His love He transcends all justice. If we call Him love, He is much more than human love: He is supra-love. God transcends all attributes that we are capable of ascribing to Him, be it omniscience, omnipresence or immutability. Ultimately we arrive at the conclusion that we can say nothing about God affirmatively: all discussion about Him remains incomplete, partial and limited. Finally we come to realize that we cannot say what God is, but rather what He is not. This manner of speaking about God has received the name of apophatic (negative) theology, as opposed to cataphatic (affirmative) theology.

The traditional image of Moses ascending Mount Sinai to God, surrounded in darkness, inspired both St. Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius the Areopagite to speak about the divine darkness as a symbol of God’s incomprehensibility. To enter the divine darkness is to go beyond the confines of being as understood by the intellect. Moses encountered God but the Israelites remained at the foot of the mountain, that is, within the confines of a cataphatic knowledge of God. Only Moses could enter the darkness; having separated himself from all things, he could encounter God, Who is outside of everything, Who is there where there is nothing. Cataphatically we can say that God is Light, but in doing so we liken God to sensible light. And if it is said about Christ transfigured on Mount Tabor that ‘his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light’ (Matt 17:2), then the cataphatic notion of ‘light’ is used here symbolically, since this is the uncreated light of the Divinity that transcends all human concepts of light. Apophatically we can call the Divine light, the supra-light or darkness. Thus the darkness of Sinai and the light of Tabor are one and the same.

In our understanding of God we often rely upon cataphatic notions since these are easier and more accessible to the mind. But cataphatic knowledge has its limits. The way of negation corresponds to the spiritual ascent into the Divine abyss where words fall silent, where reason fades, where all human knowledge and comprehension cease, where God is. It is not by speculative knowledge but in the depths of prayerful silence that the soul can encounter God, Who is ‘beyond everything’ and Who reveals Himself to her as in-comprehensible, in-accessible, in-visible, yet at the same time as living and close to her — as God the Person.