Negative theology – What is it?

Negative theology is the study of what God is not, coupled with the belief that God is essentially unknowable. The reverse, or attempt to describe God, is called positive or cataphatic theology.

Also known as apophatic theology, negative theology holds that God is too abstract, difficult, and complex for us to really understand or describe. It rejects any attempt to describe God in the positive as He is beyond description. For example, negative theology would assert that "there is no evil in God" rather than saying "God is good."

Think about describing light (which can be measured) by saying it is the absence of darkness. This is the same sort of approach. Augustine is believed to be the first to describe evil as a lack of good. Evils such as hatred or apathy exist not because they have been created (for God is the Creator), but because they are the lack of love, which is part of God's character (1 John 4:8).

Negative theology can be helpful in certain ways, but on its own it fails because it opposes God's own desire to reveal Himself to us. Even in the great incarnation of Jesus, His desire was to show us God in the flesh, fully man and fully God (Hebrews 1:3; John 11:35; 21:12; Luke 19:41; 22:44; Matthew 19:14, John 21:12). God, through His Word, through Jesus, and through the Holy Spirit, wants to, and can, be known. John, the friend of Jesus and writer of a Gospel, says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1).

Negative theology must be coupled with positive theology to make sense. We find several positive descriptions of God in the Bible, such as His goodness (Psalm 135:3), mercy (Psalm 116:5), and righteous (Psalm 11:7). In John 14:6, Jesus describes Himself in the positive, as "the way, and the truth, and the life." Jesus is described in Scripture as wisdom, the Word, the one by whom everything was created (John 1:1–3, Colossians 1).

As humans, we are limited in how we can describe God and our experience with Him. Our very relationship with God is based in faith (Hebrews 11:6) and mystery. There are things we cannot know, and words do fail to fully describe God. But, with the help of the Holy Spirit (John 14:23), we can know God better, deeper, and more. God has been good to us to afford us a relationship with Him based on what He has presented to us (1 Corinthians 2:16).

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