What is Negative Theology in Christianity?

Women participate in Bible study
asiseeit / Getty Images

Also known as Via Negativa (Negative Way) and Apophatic theology, negative theology is a Christian theological system that attempts to describe the nature of God by focusing on what God is not rather than on what God is. The basic premise of negative theology is that God is so far beyond human understanding and experience that the only hope we have of getting close to the nature of God is to list what God definitely is not.

Where Did Negative Theology Originate?

The concept of a “negative way” was first introduced to Christianity in the late fifth century by an anonymous author writing under the name Dionysius of Areopagite (also called Pseudo-Dionysius). Aspects of it can be found even earlier, though, for example, the Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th century who proclaimed that while they believed in God, they did not believe that God exists. This was because the very concept of “existence” inappropriately applied positive attributes to God.

The basic methodology of negative theology is to replace traditional positive statements about what God is with negative statements about what God is not. Instead of saying that God is One, God should be described as not existing as multiple entities. Instead of saying that God is good, one should say that God commits or allows no evil. More common aspects of negative theology that appear in more traditional theological formulations include saying that God is uncreated, infinite, indivisible, invisible, and ineffable.

Negative Theology in Other Religions

Although it originated in a Christian context, it can also be found in other religious systems. Muslims, for example, may make a point of saying that God is unbegotten, a specific refutation of the Christian belief that God became incarnate in the person of Jesus. Negative theology also played a crucial role in the writings of many Jewish philosophers, including for example Maimonides. Perhaps Eastern religions have taken the Via Negativa to its farthest extent, basing entire systems on the premise that nothing positive and definite can be said about the nature of reality.

In Daoist tradition, for example, it is a basic principle that the Dao that can be described is not the Dao. This may be a perfect example of employing the Via Negativa, despite the fact that the Dao De Ching then proceeds to discuss the Dao in more detail. One of the tensions that exist in negative theology is that total reliance on negative statements can become sterile and uninteresting.

Negative theology today plays a far greater role in Eastern than in Western Christianity. This may be in part due to the fact that some of the earliest and most important proponents of the method were figures who continue to be more prominent with Eastern than with Western Churches: John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, and John of Damascus. It may not be entirely coincidental that a preference for negative theology can be found in both Eastern religions and Eastern Christianity.

In the West, cataphatic theology (a positive statement about God) and analogia entis (analogy of being) play a much greater role in religious writings. Cataphatic theology, of course, is all about saying what God is: God is good, perfect, omnipotent, omnipresent, etc. Analogical theology attempts to describe what God is by reference to things we are better able to comprehend. Thus, God is “Father,” even though he is only “Father” in an analogical sense rather than a literal father like we normally know.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "What is Negative Theology in Christianity?" Learn Religions, Aug. 28, 2020, learnreligions.com/negative-theology-250967. Cline, Austin. (2020, August 28). What is Negative Theology in Christianity? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/negative-theology-250967 Cline, Austin. "What is Negative Theology in Christianity?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/negative-theology-250967 (accessed June 5, 2023).