Apophatic Theology: The Path of Negation

Apophatic theology is another name for «theology by way of negation,» according to which God is is known by negating concepts that might be applied to him, stressing the inadequacy of human language and concepts used to describe God. Philo and Plotinus influenced the Christian apophatic tradition, which is founds in the works of Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite.

It is characteristic of mystic theology and Eastern Orthodox; and shows parallels with Indian Advaita VedantaA.G.H.

 

Apophatic theology  negation

 

Concept and Origins

Apophatic theology, also known as «theology by way of negation,» is a theological approach that defines the divine by negating human concepts and language attributed to God. This form of theology emphasizes the limitations and inadequacy of human language in capturing the true essence and nature of the divine. It suggests that God transcends all attributes or descriptions that humans might conceive.

 

Influences from Philo and Plotinus

The development of Christian apophatic theology was significantly influenced by earlier thinkers like Philo of Alexandria and Plotinus. Philo’s Hellenistic-Jewish philosophy and Plotinus’ Neoplatonism both stressed the ineffability and incomprehensibility of the ultimate reality, laying a philosophical groundwork that was later integrated into Christian theological thought.

 

Christian Apophatic Tradition

 

Notable Christian Theologians

Within Christianity, this approach finds expression in the works of early church fathers and theologians. Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th-century bishop, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, an influential Christian mystic, are key figures in the development of apophatic theology. Their works often focused on the transcendent nature of God, beyond human understanding and expression.

 

Characteristics in Christian Mysticism and Eastern Orthodoxy

Apophatic theology is a hallmark of Christian mysticism and is particularly prominent in the Eastern Orthodox Church. It plays a crucial role in the mystical pursuit of union with God, where the abandonment of concrete concepts and imagery is seen as essential for spiritual progress.

 

Parallels in Indian Philosophy

Advaita Vedanta and Non-Dualism

Apophatic theology in Christianity shows striking parallels with the Indian Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Advaita Vedanta, a non-dualistic school of Hindu philosophy, also emphasizes the indescribable nature of the ultimate reality, Brahman. Just as apophatic theology negates attributions to understand God, Advaita uses a similar approach to transcend conceptual limitations in realizing the non-dual Brahman.

 


Source:

Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 81