Apophatic vs. Cataphatic Theology: An Introduction

I have often talked about Apophadic theology, or the theology of negation. It attempts to describe the Divine not by stating what it is, but by illustrating what it is not. Cataphatic theology, on the other hand, is the theology of revelation, or positive theology, and is more optimistic about our ability to describe God.

The Dual Foundations of My Theological Approach

The combination of these two forms a (if not the) bedrock of my theology – certainly of my epistemology. We must seek a delicate balance between our apophatic and cataphatic theologies.

East Meets West: A Theological Marriage

It is a delicate marriage between the Eastern and Western Churches. Eastern Orthodoxy normally emphasizes apophatic theology, while Protestants and Catholics are more known for cataphatic theology.

The Yin and Yang of Theology

It is the Yin and Yang of Christian theology. It represents the matrimony of the male and female relationship and the need for both emotion and logic in our relationship with God. One is not superior to another. Both are different. Both are needed.

A Verse Close to My Heart: Deuteronomy 29:29

My key verse is Deuteronomy 29:29:

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

This verse emphasizes the idea that there are certain mysteries known only to God, but what He has chosen to reveal to humanity is for our understanding and obedience. We pursue cataphatic theology in all areas, but we are willing to disengage and accept mysteries when they present themselves.

Delving into the Early Middle Ages: Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite

All of this to introduce you to a passage from one of my favorite theologians of the early Middle Ages. He is credited with the formulation of a more comprehensive apophatic theology. Listen to the ineffability, the mystery and wonder with which he speaks of God:

Again, ascending yet higher, we maintain that it is neither soul nor intellect; nor has it imagination, opinion, reason or understanding; nor can it be expressed or conceived, since it is neither number nor order; nor greatness nor smallness; nor equality nor inequality; nor similarity nor dissimilarity; neither is it standing, nor moving, nor at rest… but it is the utterly simple, the entirely consistent and invariable; the fountain of life and immortality, the fountain of reason and intellect, the limpid fount of unapproachable light.”

-Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite’s “Mystical Theology,” (excerpt from Chapter 1), trans by C.E. Rolt

My Take on the Divine Mystery

Let me attempt to paraphrase this:

“God is beyond our understanding. He’s not bound by our concepts of thought, reason, or understanding. He’s not describable by any quality we know, like size, position, or comparison. He’s the source of life, intelligence, and pure light that we can’t fully grasp.”

Concluding Thoughts: Embracing the Mystery

In our pursuit of understanding and knowing Him (Jer. 9:23-24), we often find ourselves at a difficult crossroads of knowing and not knowing, of formal articulation and reverent silence. And this is the paramount, theological imperative: The balance between Apophatic and Cataphatic theologies. It reminds us that while we have the capacity to grasp aspects of God through revelation and reason, there will always remain chasms of the infinite mystery that escape our comprehension. It is this balance that grounds our faith, keeping us humble yet curious, reverent yet passionate. As we journey deeper into our understanding of God, may we remain open to the wondrous blend of the known and the unknown, and may this harmonious dance lead us closer to the heart of the Divine.

I invite you all to ponder these thoughts, and as always, I appreciate your engagement and reflections on this completely awesome subject. (As you can tell, I’m quit excited about this!)

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

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