Apophatic Talk About God

 “Why are many people prepared in advance to maintain that, whatever else God may be, He is not the concrete, living, willing, and acting God of Christian theology…But then there comes erudite limpets, limpets who write histories of philosophy and give lectures on comparative religion, and who have never had any vision of their own. What they get out of the prophetic limpet’s words is simply and solely the negatives…

— C.S. Lewis from Miracles

Traditional or classical theology claims that God in his essential deity, is unknowable, inexpressible, incomprehensible, and ineffable.  This tradition includes Platonic philosophy, Greek Orthodoxy, Roman Orthodoxy, the Reformed Orthodoxy and current Evangelical Orthodoxy. The term Apophatic is from the Greek. (ἀπόφασις from ἀπόφημι – apophēmi, “away from speech.”  Apophatic (or negative) theology describes God by what cannot be said of Him. Most of the adjectives used by classical theologians to describe God’s attributes are apophatic descriptions of God.

In Orthodox theology, apophatic theology is superior to cataphatic theology (that which can be said of God).  The Three Hierarchs of Eastern Christianity ( Basil the Great 329-379, Caesarea, Gregory the Theologian 329-390, Nazianzus,  and John Chrysostom 347-407, Archbishop of Constantinople) were proponents of  apophatic theology.  These three Doctors of the
Church ascribe attributes to God by method of via negativa, the way of the negative.  The three are venerated as saints in Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism and are responsible for the initial formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.

The most influential proponent of apophatic theology is Thomas Aquinas,  a Latin Catholic Theologian. (1225-1274)  Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican Friar, Theologian and Philosopher. Pope John XXII (1323) declared Thomas Aquinas a Saint,  Pope Saint Pius V (1567) declared him a Doctor of the Church, and he was eulogized by Pope Saint Pius V, declaring his writings  to be the norm for Christian philosophy.   Even modern Protestants theologians, such as Norman Geisler, declare themselves to be Thomists.  His reasoning for the attributes of God are the basis of Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic systematic theologies.

In the Scholastic tradition he emphasized dialectical reasoning and in the Aristotelian tradition he would emphasize the metaphysical reasoning of Aristotle as modified by Neo-Platonism.   Seeking reconciliation of Christian doctrine with Neo-Platonism, he would impose apophaticism on the Church.  His two greatest works Summa contra Gentiles (1259-1264), and the Summa Theologica (Summary of Theology),  are exercises in Neo-Platonic reasoning.  He is still considered by many to be the most important theologian of  Christianity.

Apophatic theology is responsible for the generation of the list of classical attributes.  How can apophatic theology, which means to go away from speech or reason be reconciled with the dialectical reasoning needed to construct the list of classical attributes?

Gregory P. Rocca from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Berkeley, lists three types of apophatic theology of  Thomas Acquinas.  [1]  Qualitative negations are negations such as immutability and atemporality.  The trait is not suitable to God, mutability, and therefore it is denied. (immutable)  The second is objective modal negations which refer to divine perfections not subject to limitations.  God is omniscient, he knows everything that is happening, will happen and has happened.  The third type of negation, subjective model negations,  those attributes of God like wisdom which are accidentally attributed to humans are essentially related to God.

Aquinas believed in a fourth type of apophatacism.  God cannot be comprehended because in the mystical direct experience of God, the mystic is unable to express the ecstasy of the experience.  What is not always noted by theologians is his mysticism,  which has a priority over  dialectical reasoning. 

For imperfect happiness, such as can be had in this life, external goods are

necessary, ….On the other hand, such goods as these are nowise necessary for perfect Happiness, which consists in seeing God. [2]

Perfect happiness for St. Thomas consists in seeing the beatific vision which is unable to be expressed in human speech.  In this mystical union with God, the mundane goods of our bodily existence are able to produce only imperfect happiness.  This mystical happiness, becoming one in spirit with God, is the ultimate goal of Aquinas.  Aquinas has a foretaste of this vision before he dies, and this vision may explain why he was unable to finish the Summa Theologiae.  He compared his mundane, discursive theology as greatly inferior to his vision.

What may be expressed about Thomas’ systematic theology is the mundane aspect of God, the dialectical reasoning of his literary works.  Although his dialectical reasoning is a poor excuse for his mystic vision, Aquinas will attempt to approach god in the negative way of apophatacism.  He will envision the apophatic method as an approach that moves one closer to understanding the nature of God.

On the contrary, the closer one moves to the apophatic explanation of God the farther away one moves from the God of Scriptures.  There are many descriptions about God that are directly contrary to the God expressed by the apophatic attributes of God.   What are these attributes and how are they logically related to apophatic methodology.

Almost every Systematic Theology text begins or includes a section on the attributes of God.  An attribute of God is an essential trait to God’s nature.  Theologians classify essential traits as necessary to describe God’s existence or essence.  Without this trait God would not be God.  An accidental trait is not essential to God’s existence.  As an example a human’s  accidental trait would be running or blonde hair.  A human can have this trait or not have this trait and still be human.  Although attributes includes such traits as God’s holiness and love, this study concerns itself with the incommunicable traits of God; the essential traits of God.  Geisler will list the nonmoral traits of God (not a complete list, see page 410, Geisler, Norman L., Systematic Theology in One Volume, Bethany House Publishers, Bloomington, Minnesota, 2011):

1)      Pure actuality

2)      Simplicity

3)      Aseity

4)      Immutability

5)      Eternality

6)      Impassibility

7)      Infinity

8)      Immateriality

9)      Omnipotence,

10)  Omnipresence

11)  Omniscience

12)  Ineffability

Each of these traits can be explained apophatically:

Pure actuality  (God has no potentiality)

Simplicity        (God is not composite)

Aseity               (God has no need of the world)

Immutability  (God does not change)

Eternality       (God is not in time)

Impassibility  (God is not subject to outside changes)

Infinity           (God is not limited by space)

Immateriality  (God is not made of material substance)

Omnipotence  (God’s power is not limited)

Omnipresence(God is in no place, therefore he is everywhere)

Omniscience   (God is not limited in knowledge)

Ineffability      (God cannot be explained in human language)

Each of these traits and the concepts they represent have little or no Scriptural support, which will demonstrated later.  Few of these words have any Scriptural counterpart.  Each of these attributes of God, offered by the Christian classical theologians  have comparable if not identical attributes of the Neoplatonist god of Plotinus.  Each of these attributes have been slightly redefined by Christian theologians to make them more palatable to the tastes Christians.  Such redefinitions make the system less coherent than the Neoplatonist system.

Walter Bruggemann eloquently explains the dilemma:

More important, Israel’s characteristic adjectival vocabulary about Yahweh is completely lacking in terms that have dominated classical theology, such as omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, This sharp contrast suggests that classical theology, insofar as it is dominated by such interpretive categories, and such concerns are engaged in issues that are not crucial for Israel’s testimony about Yahweh and are in fact quite remote from Israel’s primary utterance…

That is, perhaps Israel understood, even or especially in the presence of more philosophically inclined neighbors, that Yahweh, as known in its text, simply does not qualify as omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent, and so Israel does not seek locate Yahweh in such speech that is fundamentally incongruent with who Yahweh is. [3]

In addition it is necessary to look at what Terence Fretheim says about neglected metaphors.  There are many references in Scriptures both through metaphors and direct statements about God that contradict these attributes of God.  He complains that “metaphors matter,” and the classical theologians attempts to dismiss such metaphors as anthropomorphic metaphors of the Old Testament are contrary to the understanding of the God of the Old Testament.  In particular he examines the suffering of God and shows that “suffering belongs to the person and purpose of God”.  This is contrary to the attribute of divine impassibility.[4]

Now returning to the limpets of CS Lewis “limpet’s words is simply and solely the negatives.” There is no similar metaphysical reasoning in Scriptures which uses rational logic to develop the attributes of God.  These arguments are from Aristotle, Plato, Plotinus and the Platonic philosophical reasoning of Pseudo-Dionysius, Augustine and Aquinas.

It should be unsettling for classical theologians to know that the God described in the divine attributes listed above was worshipped in the pagan world by Platonists.  In fact there is no need to explain these attributes by reference to Scripture, because these traits of God are not in Scripture.



[1] Theological Studies 54, 1993

[2] Summa Theologica, edited by Anton C. Pegis, An Introduction to St. Thomas

Aquinas (New York: Random House, 1945) pp. 811


[3] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: testimony, dispute, advocacy (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1997),  P225-226


[4] Terence Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1984.


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