Apophatic theology (from the Greek, apophanai, to speak out, to deny) developed within the Christian tradition as a reaction to eunomius in the 4th century and to other thinkers who overstressed cataphatic theology (from the Greek, kataphasis, to speak positively or in an affirmative manner) and exaggerated the ability of human beings to form rational concepts—as though they exhausted the reality of God.
The key thinkers who evolved apophatic theology were the Cappadocian Fathers, St. basil, St. gregory of nazianzus, and St. gregory of nyssa. This teaching must be distinguished from St. thomas aquinas' via negativa which is a corrective to an affirming theologizing about God and His qualities. Whatever we affirm of God must be somehow also denied in the way it pertains to God in His essence. True apophatic theology will always contain such a strictly so-called via negativa in order to remove the limitations of human thinking about God.
The essence, however, of apophatic theology, as evolved by Gregory of Nyssa, has a very positive aspect and provides the basis for true mystical theology. It embraces a positive statement covering an experiential knowledge of God that goes beyond anything that the mere power of human beings can attain outside of God's gift.
Gregory of Nyssa's mystical writings, especially his Commentary on the Song of Songs and his Life of Moses, form the basis of this dialectical, mystical experience of God, a knowing by not knowing, that Pseudo-Dionysius in his 6th-century classic, Mystical Theology, would bequeath to Maximus the Confessor of the 7th, to Scotus Erigena and the 14th-century Rhenish and Flemish mystics, such as Meister Eckart, Tauler, Suso and Jan Ruysbroeck, to the anonymous writer of the 14th-century English classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, as well as to St. John of the Cross of the 16th.
Gregory describes this apophatic presence without seeing through intellectual knowledge: "The Bride is surrounded with the divine night in which the Bridegroom comes near without showing Himself … but by giving the soul a certain sense of His presence while fleeing from clear knowledge" (Commentary on the Song of Songs ).
Knowledge in Loving Union. The very transcendence of the infinite God brings darkness to one's own reasoning powers, but offers a more sublime way of knowing God through loving union, a sheer gift of God to the pure of heart. In paradoxical fashion, the closer one comes to union with God, the more blinding God becomes to human reasoning. This is not a matter of the knowledge of God becoming more abstruse, but of the nature of God itself becoming more immediately present. Such a presence brings to the human individual the realization of the absolute awesomeness of the goal of one's earthly existence.
The apophatic approach is found also in Far Eastern religious traditions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Such apophatic terms of negation, common to all true mystical traditions, especially Eastern Christianity and the Far Eastern religions, such as emptiness, void, darkness, and nothingness, are paradoxically positive. Such terms are symbols pointing to God who remains completely "other." God is not known by him who knows Him, not understood by him who understands. He alone contemplates Him who has ceased to contemplate Him. In all knowledge, as though by intuition, the wise man discovers and experiences God.
Bibliography: gregory of nyssa, The Life of Moses, tr. a. j. malherbe and e. ferguson (New York 1978). dionysius the areopagite, On the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology, tr. c. e. rolt (New York 1940). nicholas of cusa, On Learned Ignorance, tr. j. hopkins (Minneapolis 1981).
[g. a. maloney]