Apophatic theology, also known as negative theology,[1] is a form of theological thinking and religious practice which attempts to approach God, the Divine, by negation, to speak only in terms of what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God.[web 1] It forms a pair together with cataphatic theology, which approaches God or the Divine by affirmations or positive statements about what God is.[web 2]

The apophatic tradition is often, though not always, allied with the approach of mysticism, which aims at the vision of God, the perception of the divine reality beyond the realm of ordinary perception.[2]

Etymology and definition

"Apophatic", Ancient Greek: ἀπόφασις (noun); from ἀπόφημι apophēmi, meaning "to deny". From Online Etymology Dictionary:

apophatic (adj.) "involving a mention of something one feigns to deny; involving knowledge obtained by negation", 1850, from Latinized form of Greek apophatikos, from apophasis "denial, negation", from apophanai "to speak off," from apo "off, away from" (see apo-) + phanai "to speak," related to pheme "voice," from PIE root *bha- (2) "to speak, tell, say."[web 3]

Via negativa or via negationis (Latin), "negative way" or "by way of denial".[1] The negative way forms a pair together with the kataphatic or positive way. According to Deirdre Carabine,

Pseudo Dionysius describes the kataphatic or affirmative way to the divine as the "way of speech": that we can come to some understanding of the Transcendent by attributing all the perfections of the created order to God as its source. In this sense, we can say "God is Love", "God is Beauty", "God is Good". The apophatic or negative way stresses God's absolute transcendence and unknowability in such a way that we cannot say anything about the divine essence because God is so totally beyond being. The dual concept of the immanence and transcendence of God can help us to understand the simultaneous truth of both "ways" to God: at the same time as God is immanent, God is also transcendent. At the same time as God is knowable, God is also unknowable. God cannot be thought of as one or the other only.[web 2]

Origins and development

According to Fagenblat, "negative theology is as old as philosophy itself;" elements of it can be found in Plato's "unwritten doctrines," while it is also present in Neo-Platonic, Gnostic and early Christian writers. A tendency to apophatic thought can also be found in Philo of Alexandria.[3]

According to Carabine, "apophasis proper" in Greek thought starts with Neo-Platonism, with its speculations about the nature of the One, culminating in the works of Proclus.[4] According to Carabine, there are two major points in the development of apophatic theology, namely the fusion of the Jewish tradition with Platonic philosophy in the writings of Philo, and the works of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, who infused Christian thought with Neo-Platonic ideas.[4]

The Early Church Fathers were influenced by Philo,[4] and Meredith even states that Philo "is the real founder of the apophatic tradition."[5] Yet, it was with Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor,[6] whose writings shaped both Hesychasm, the contemplative tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the mystical traditions of western Europe, that apophatic theology became a central element of Christian theology and contemplative practice.[4]

Greek philosophy


For the ancient Greeks, knowledge of the gods was essential for proper worship.[7] Poets had an important responsibility in this regard, and a central question was how knowledge of the Divine forms can be attained.[7] Epiphany played an essential role in attaining this knowledge.[7] Xenophanes (c. 570 – c. 475 BC) noted that the knowledge of the Divine forms is restrained by the human imagination, and Greek philosophers realized that this knowledge can only be mediated through myth and visual representations, which are culture-dependent.[7]

According to Herodotus (484–425 BC), Homer and Hesiod (between 750 and 650 BC) taught the Greek the knowledge of the Divine bodies of the Gods.[8] The ancient Greek poet Hesiod (between 750 and 650 BC) describes in his Theogony the birth of the gods and creation of the world,[web 4] which became an "ur-text for programmatic, first-person epiphanic narratives in Greek literature,"[7][note 1] but also "explores the necessary limitations placed on human access to the divine."[7] According to Platt, the statement of the Muses who grant Hesiod knowledge of the Gods "actually accords better with the logic of apophatic religious thought."[10][note 2]

Parmenides (fl. late sixth or early fifth century BC), in his poem On Nature, gives an account of a revelation on two ways of inquiry. "The way of conviction" explores Being, true reality ("what-is"), which is "What is ungenerated and deathless,/whole and uniform, and still and perfect."[12] "The way of opinion" is the world of appearances, in which one's sensory faculties lead to conceptions which are false and deceitful. His distinction between unchanging Truth and shifting opinion is reflected in Plato's allegory of the Cave. Together with the Biblical story of Moses's ascent of Mount Sinai, it is used by Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite to give a Christian account of the ascent of the soul toward God.[13] Cook notes that Parmenides poem is a religious account of a mystical journey, akin to the mystery cults,[14] giving a philosophical form to a religious outlook.[15] Cook further notes that the philosopher's task is to "attempt through 'negative' thinking to tear themselves loose from all that frustrates their pursuit of wisdom."[15]


Plato Silanion Musei Capitolini MC1377

Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC), "deciding for Parmenides against Heraclitus" and his theory of eternal change,[16] had a strong influence on the development of apophatic thought.[16]

Plato further explored Parmenides's idea of timeless truth in his dialogue Parmenides, which is a treatment of the eternal forms, Truth, Beauty and Goodness, which are the real aims for knowledge.[16] The Theory of Forms is Plato's answer to the problem how one fundamental reality or unchanging essence can admit of many changing phenomena, other than by dismissing them as being mere illusion.[16]

In The Republic, Plato argues that the "real objects of knowledge are not the changing objects of the senses, but the immutable Forms,"[web 5] stating that the Form of the Good[note 3] is the highest object of knowledge.[17][18][web 5][note 4] His argument culminates in the Allegory of the Cave, in which he argues that humans are like prisoners in a cave, who can only see shadows of the Real, the Form of the Good.[18][web 5] Humans are to be educated to search for knowledge, by turning away from their bodily desires toward higher contemplation, culminating in an intellectual[note 5] understanding or apprehension of the Forms, c.q. the "first principles of all knowledge."[18]

According to Cook, the Theory of Forms has a theological flavour, and had a strong influence on the ideas of his Neo-Platonist interpreters Proclus and Plotinus.[16] The pursuit of Truth, Beauty and Goodness became a central element in the apophatic tradition,[16] but nevertheless, according to Carabine "Plato himself cannot be regarded as the founder of the negative way."[19] Carabine warns not to read later Neo-Platonic and Christian understandings into Plato, and notes that Plato did not identify his Forms with "one transcendent source," an identification which his later interpreters made.[20]

Middle Platonism

Middle Platonism (1st century BC–3rd century AD)[web 6] further investigated Plato's "Unwritten Doctrines," which drew on Pythagoras' first principles of the Monad and the Dyad (matter).[web 6] Middle Platonism proposed a hierarchy of being, with God as its first principle at its top, identifying it with Plato's Form of the Good.[21] An influential proponent of Middle Platonism was Philo (c. 25 BC–c. 50 AD), who employed Middle Platonic philosophy in his interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures, and asserted a strong influence on early Christianity.[web 6] According to Craig D. Allert, "Philo made a monumental contribution to the creation of a vocabulary for use in negative statements about God."[22] For Philo, God is undescribable, and he uses terms which emphasize God's transcendence.[22]


Neo-Platonism was a mystical or contemplative form of Platonism, which "developed outside the mainstream of Academic Platonism."[web 7] It started with the writings of Plotinus (204/5–270), and ended with the closing of the Platonic Academy by Emperor Justinian in 529 AD, when the pagan traditions were ousted.[web 8] It is a product of Hellenistic syncretism, which developed due to the crossover between Greek thought and the Jewish scriptures, and also gave birth to Gnosticism.[web 7] Proclus was the last head of the Platonic Academy; his student Pseudo-Dinosysius had a far-stretching Neo-Platonic influence on Christianity and Christian mysticism.[web 7]



Plotinus (204/5–270) was the founder of Neo-Platonism.[23] In the Neo-Platonic philosophy of Plotinus and Proclus, the first principle became even more elevated as a radical unity, which was presented as an unknowable Absolute.[21] For Plotinus, the One is the first principle, from which everything else emanates.[23] He took it from Plato's writings, identifying the Good of the Republic, as the cause of the other Forms, with the One of the first hypothesis of the second part of the Parmenides.[23] For Plotinus, the One precedes the Forms,[23] and "is beyond Mind and indeed beyond Being."[21] From the One comes the Intellect, which contains all the Forms.[23] The One is the principle of Being, while the Forms are the principle of the essence of beings, and the intelligibility which can recognize them as such.[23] Plotinus's third principle is Soul, the desire for objects external to the person. The highest satisfaction of desire is the contemplation of the One,[23] which unites all existents "as a single, all-pervasive reality."[web 8]

The One is radically simple, and does not even have self-knowledge, since self-knowledge would imply multiplicity.[21] Nevertheless, Plotinus does urge for a search for the Absolute, turning inward and becoming aware of the "presence of the intellect in the human soul,"[note 6] initiating an ascent of the soul by abstraction or "taking away," culminating in a sudden appearance of the One.[24] In the Enneads Plotinus writes:

Our thought cannot grasp the One as long as any other image remains active in the soul [...] To this end, you must set free your soul from all outward things and turn wholly within yourself, with no more leaning to what lies outside, and lay your mind bare of ideal forms, as before of the objects of sense, and forget even yourself, and so come within sight of that One.

Carabine notes that Plotinus' apophasis is not just a mental exercise, an acknowledgement of the unknowability of the One, but a means to ecstasis and an ascent to "the unapproachable light that is God."[web 10] Pao-Shen Ho, investigating what are Plotinus' methods for reaching henosis,[note 7] concludes that "Plotinus' mystical teaching is made up of two practices only, namely philosophy and negative theology."[27] According to Moore, Plotinus appeals to the "non-discursive, intuitive faculty of the soul," by "calling for a sort of prayer, an invocation of the deity, that will permit the soul to lift itself up to the unmediated, direct, and intimate contemplation of that which exceeds it (V.1.6)."[web 8] Pao-Shen Ho further notes that "for Plotinus, mystical experience is irreducible to philosophical arguments."[27] The argumentation about henosis is preceded by the actual experience of it, and can only be understood when henosis has been attained.[27] Ho further notes that Plotinus's writings have a didactic flavour, aiming to "bring his own soul and the souls of others by way of Intellect to union with the One."[27] As such, the Enneads as a spiritual or ascetic teaching device, akin to The Cloud of Unknowing,[28] demonstrating the methods of philosophical and apophatic inquiry.[29] Ultimately, this leads to silence and the abandonment of all intellectual inquiry, leaving contemplation and unity.[30]


Proclus (412-485) introduced the terminology which is being used in apophatic and cataphatic theology.[31] He did this in the second book of his Platonic Theology, arguing that Plato states that the One can be revealed "through analogy," and that "through negations [dia ton apophaseon] its transcendence over everything can be shown."[31] For Proclus, apophatic and cataphonic theology form a contemplatory pair, with the apophatic approach corresponding to the manifestation of the world from the One, and cataphonic theology corresponding to the return to the One.[32] The analogies are affirmations which direct us toward the One, while the negations underlie the confirmations, being closer to the One.[32] According to Luz, Proclus also attracted students from other faiths, including the Samaritan Marinus. Luz notes that "Marinus' Samaritan origins with its Abrahamic notion of a single ineffable Name of God (יהוה‎) should also have been in many ways compatible with the school's ineffable and apophatic divine principle."[33]