Why So Negative?

Ryan Mullins holds an M.A. in Philosophy of Religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is about to begin a PhD in Theology at the University of St Andrews.

During the ITIA conference I noticed that the term apophatic theology (negative theology, or describing God in terms of what He is not) was used often. This was usually done without any reference to kataphatic theology (positive theology, or describing God in terms of what He is). Trevor Hart was the only presenter to my recollection that pointed out that apophatic and kataphatic theology ought to be used together. What I found interesting is that there was no mention of the method of the via triplex (a three step process for talking about God) within which Christian theologians in the past have placed negative theology. As such, I think that negative theology was unintentionally misused by various presenters at the conference. Some Christians do talk as if we can only describe God in terms of what God is not, and take this to be the methodology of negative theology. I find this to be rather misguided for one can only know what God is not if she has some idea of what God in fact is. For instance, I can say that “God is not hate” because I know that “God is love.”

I think that if and only if we place negative theology within the via triplex we will find that it can be useful for theological aesthetics. For theologians like Pseudo-Dionysius, negative theology is the second step in a threefold process for talking about God. This threefold process is called the via triplex. The first step in the via triplex is the via positive. At this step one looks for a perfection or communicable attribute that God and creatures have in common like goodness. We thus positively predicate it of God by saying that “God is good.” Yet, say Dionysian thinkers, God is not good in the same way that we are good for we participate in goodness, and surely God does not participate in goodness (i.e. His goodness does not depend on something external to Himself). Thus, in the second step we negate, not deny, goodness of God. (I say “negate” because Pseudo-Dionysius typically uses aphaeresis which means “removal” instead of apophasis which means “negation.”[i]) So the second step, the via negativa, contrasts the way God and creatures have various properties without denying the predicates simpliciter of God. Which brings us to the third step: the via causalitatis. At this step a Dionysian will affirm that God has goodness in some superabundant way because He is the cause or source of all goodness. Within the context of the via triplex negative theology does bring us to a better understanding of God, whereas negative theology by itself seems to me quite useless.

As several presenters pointed out at the conference, the beauty we find in art and in the natural world points beyond itself toward God. If one were to use the via triplex she might come to the conclusion that God is beautiful in a superabundant way because God is the source and cause of all beauty. She could start by observing beauty in the natural world and see it as a perfection that it is better to have than not have. As such, she could predicate it of God, yet note that God is not beautiful in the same way the natural world is for God is the source of beauty and creation participates in the divine beauty. This seems close to what many of the presenters were trying to say, and I think this makes sense within the via triplex. It seems to me that within this context one can truly say that the beauty of creation is a signpost that points beyond itself to the divine artisan.

[i] Timothy Knepper, “Three Misuses of Dionysius for Comparative Theology,” Religious Studies 45, 2009, 209.



  • Ryan Mullins holds an M.A. in Philosophy of Religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is a current PhD student in Theology at the University of St Andrews working on the philosophy of time and God’s eternality.

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