In the fourth century three eminent Greek theologians, called the Cappadocian Fathers, gave birth to a theology that has remained in the church through the centuries. I am quite persuaded that a recovery of this theology is underway among some Christians in the West. Let me explain.

basil Two brothers, Basil of Caesarea (icon at left) and Gregory of Nyssa, together with their close friend Gregory of Nazianzus, began to stress the incomprehensibility of God. This emphasis, which was later called apophatic theology (from the Greek for negation), reached a climax by the end of the fifth century in the divine darkness of Dionysius. It was Dionysius who introduced into theology the terminology of mysticism. For Dionysius the word theology meant wisdom, indeed theology was the highest form of wisdom. Theology was not an end in itself but a wisdom that should be used to serve and love God. The word mystical is thus derived from the word mystery. In mystery there is a hidden, dark and ineffable sense to knowing God, thus mystical theology. This cannot be expressed in clear-cut images and concepts thus it will always be rejected by people who crave rational and purely logical theology.

Dionysius is himself a controversial figure. His identity and orthodoxy have both been questioned. All we know for sure is that someone in the ancient world affixed to his writings the name of Dionysius the Areopagite, the disciple of St. Paul (Acts 17:34). Though questions of authenticity remain the Dionysian writings became extremely influential in the Eastern world. They were eventually translated into Latin in the ninth century and greeted with considerable enthusiasm in the West. Bonaventura called Dionysius the prince of mystics and Thomas Aquinas quoted him some 1,700 times. The theology of Dionysius influenced Western writers like Tauler and Eckhart to St. John of the Cross. These writings are read to this day and their popularity has recently surged. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing made a free translation of Dionysius.

Both Erasmus and the Reformers raised questions about the writings of Dionysius but most scholars now conjecture that he was a Syrian monk, a Christian neo-Platonist. He seems clearly to have possessed a deep commitment to Jesus and a profound religious experience.

This much we know. After the Cappadocians and Dionysius the theology of negation flowed into the mainstream of Christian thought and practice. The Fourth Lateran Council, held in November 1215, declared that “between creator and creature no similarity can be noted without a greater dissimilarity being noted.” Please read that again. We are like God, in some ways. But our likeness must always remind us of just how unlike God we really are when all is said and done. Vatican I (1869-70) added that “the divine mysteries so exceed the created intellect that, even when given in revelation and received by faith, they remain covered over by the veil of faith itself.” This is, in my understanding, good theology! Faith reveals truth to us, mostly by revealing Truth. But faith leads us to see that there is much more we do not see than we ever understood before we knew Christ.

Mystical theology has assumed an even greater role in the church today for several reasons. First, postmodernism has rightly challenged what we know and how we know it. The whole idea of certitude is being challenged, in many cases for good reasons. Second, this theology of negation will become more important as the Christian faith encounters other religions and thus different ways of expressing the mystery of the divine nature. This is especially true when you deal with Asian and Indian religions.

paul Don’t let these developments frighten you. Paul himself said “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). This text is placed into a context where the apostle is talking about the wisdom of God which transcends all human ability to comprehend. Paul says we understand these things because “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16b). So there is paradox here if I read this correctly. We have “the mind of Christ” but we do not comprehend as God comprehends and we must confess this as well as the positive.

Mystical theology has its own unique and practical ways of speaking about negation. It insists that God is not this, not this and then not this! It urges all who believe to live in a cloud of unknowing, forgetting things seen in this world in order to enter into a silent mystery of God. Does this have dangers? You bet. But it also has huge potential in an age like ours, driven by science and efficiency.

Apophatic theology has a role in modern Christian faith and practice. It has served me in some rather wonderful ways over recent years.  But it must always have this role with an equal and proper emphasis upon cataphatic theology, or a theology of affirmation. The Cappadocian Fathers avoided the dangers of mystical theology by giving us a solid model of spiritual life that emphasized both the role of negation and affirmation. They were, pre-eminently theologians of the Trinity. Gregory of Nyssa said that the believer who ascends into the divine darkness also enters into the mystery of Christ. (Gregory was about all being Christocentric).When this happens God then speaks to the believer “face-to-face” because the Christian is God’s friend, as Moses was on the mountain. So the Cappadocians blended this negative theology of what God was not with a positive theology of what God was as he was revealed in Jesus Christ. This resulted in them believing there was a single paradoxical experience! This paradoxical experience is what I have found so helpful in understanding my growing relationship with God.

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  1. Jim June 19, 2011 at 9:00 am

    Thank you, John, for your nicely balanced account. It is especially helpful to see that the Cappadocian fathers, so important for their Trinitarian affirmations, held them with a sense of mystery and humble confidence. Be blessed.

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