The Natural Theology of Negation

In ‘Christianity and Classical Culture‘, Jaroslav Pelikan spends a good deal of time on the topics of both natural theology and negative theology, or apophatic theology, in the thought of the Cappodicians. The Cappodicians were concerned not only with the dogmas of the Trinity, Holy Spirit and so on but also with interacting from the classical Greek culture in which they were steeped, and they had no hesitation in appropriating what they took to be parallels between classical thought and Christian thought.

A key example can be found in Gregory of Nyssa, whose overall method was what we might call a method of ‘circumcision’ – so named because he took there to be a number of doctrines in classical thought (creation, for example) that in and of themselves were sound but needed to have the corrupting aspects cut away, as it were (in this case, Gregory cuts away Plato’s doctrine of the co-existence and co-eternality of matter with the creator).

Gregory’s method, then, looks something like this:

(1) find parallels between classical thought and Christian thought

(2) tease out the truths in the parallels

(2a) from (1) and (2) establish a kind of ‘natural theology’

(3) cut away the contrasts – the corrupting philosophy attached to the parallels

Gregory can thus point to a ‘natural theology’ or ‘natural religion’ – he is fond of saying ‘Does not nature say the same?’, when arguing for Christianity, and provide some answers to objections to his faith. This was a key task for the Cappodicians and indeed their apologetics overlap considerably with their evangelistic and pastoral concerns (at times it is difficult to even distinguish between the three).

Taken in an unqualified sense such a method poses grave dangers – it is but a step from the above method to drawing positive statements about the divine on the basis of created, finite things, and this was a danger of which the Cappodicians were fully aware. It was with this danger in mind that they expounded their negative theology:

‘To protect themselves against distortion, whether accidental or deliberate, any “proper conceptions about the divine nature”, therefore, needed to begin from the fundamental premise that the divine nature was “unlike anything known” that might be used in speaking about it.’ (Jaroslav Pelikan, ‘Christianity and Classical Culture’, p. 45

Such was the language of negation – the recognition that there was no way for human thought or language to ever comprehend fully the divine. There is no perfect analogy – any analogy had to proceed with the presupposition that while it may be an understandable analogy it is ultimately an inadequate one. Apophatic theology thus serves as a guide or a boundary marker within which reason is free:

‘For negative theology could be construed not only as a limitation on the mind but at the same time as a liberation of the mind, setting the human reason, as the image of God, free to pursue its speculations within the boundaries that had been set for it.’ (p. 57)

It is not reason itself, however, that recognizes these limits. This recognition comes through faith, a mode of knowing given through grace, and it is faith that recognizes and accepts the transcendence of God – for Gregory, the divine has its being where thought does not reach.

An interesting contrast may here be noted between the Cappodicians and Aristotle. The latter held that being qua being is the proper object of human inquiry and the end of human reason – the former held that apart from faith, the divine being was hidden from human reason and in fact was not comparable to any other thing that existed or could be known:

‘Apophatic metaphysics, then, was inseparable from apophatic epistemology, whose fundamental axiom was: “The divine being is to be known only in the impossibility of perceiving it.” The divine being – to whom, at Athens in the very first confrontation between Christianity and classical culture, the apostle Paul had applied a quotation from a pagan Greek poet, “In him we live and move, in him we exist” – could not be compared to any other beings to which the terms “being” and “knowing” had ever been applied. In the case of these other beings, a growth in human knowledge meant an increase in understanding and comprehending the subject, but here it meant the opposite, an ever deepening awareness of the incomprehensibility of the subject.” (p 55)

There is, then, a twofold payoff to be seen here: faith both fulfills and refutes reason. The former it does by means of the latter: faith allows us to know God – thus fulfilling reason – by showing us that we cannot know God – thus refuting reason – by showing us the limits of reason.

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5 thoughts on “The Natural Theology of Negation

  1. J. Matthan Brown June 26, 2015 / 8:57 am

    Thanks for sharing this, I’m going to reference this book in my dissertation 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. PeterJ June 26, 2015 / 9:47 am

    This post raises all sorts of interesting issues. I enjoyed it but cannot quite go along with it.

    “There is, then, a twofold payoff to be seen here: faith both fulfils and refutes reason. The former it does by means of the latter: faith allows us to know God – thus fulfilling reason – by showing us that we cannot know God – thus refuting reason – by showing us the limits of reason.”

    I’m afraid I don’t believe that faith shows us anything at all. Practice and analysis is what shows us things, and it shows us that God (if we are using that word) lies ‘beyond the coincidence of contradictories’ thus beyond the intellect. Faith may motivate practice but on its own it can achieve nothing. Faith leading to knowledge is what we would need. How could faith fulfil or refute anything? Only reason or experience could establish the limits of reason. Faith is not knowledge.

    I wonder also if Gregory’s method was as arbitrary as it is presented. I don’t know so maybe, but he would go down in my estimation if so.

    Thought proving stuff though. The Christian/Greek interaction is fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Amyclae July 6, 2015 / 4:10 pm

    Thanks for this. I think I was reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s “Vindication of Tradition”, which I’d recommend, and was utterly mystified by some of the throw away points about many of the same theologians, Orthodox generally, that he threw in his second or third lecture. Now it makes more sense.

    Liked by 1 person

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