The Apophatic Quality of Speaking About God

by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon

001 blue eyed childIt is always a good thing, surely, to examine the meanings of the words we speak, but when we speak about God critical reflection is downright imperative.

Take, for instance, the adjectives “eternal” and “infinite,” which for many centuries have been used as descriptive of God. If we spend a minute or so examining these modifiers, it should be obvious that they are not, in our usual sense, descriptive. To declare that God is infinite is not something on the order of saying the soup is hot. Nor is ascribing eternity to God like attributing roundness to a pipe.

A first thing to observe is that these words—infinite and eternal—act in a negative way. In theology their function is to deny something. “Eternal” and “infinite, terms derived from our limiting experience of time and space, simply declare that God has no such experience. When we say He is eternal, we mean that He has no beginning and no end. Time is unable to contain His existence. He is not restrained by time. He has no experience of it.

When we say God is eternal, all we can mean is that His existence is, as it were, open at both ends.

“Without beginning” (anarchos) tells us what God does not have. And “unto ages of ages,” if we understand it literally, means “a really, really, truly long time.” When we say “eternal,” then, we have only the foggiest notion what we mean. It is hardly more than a vague impression. In short, “eternal” says nothing positive about God. (Boethius, if he had in mind to clear this up, was not completely successful, I think.)

Likewise, when we say that God is infinite, we mean that He has no fines, no limits; He is contained by no space. Once again, the adjective says nothing positive about God. It is a negative spatial metaphor.

In short, both modifiers, “eternal” and “infinite,” describe God by not describing Him. Both are what we call apophatic; they are modifiers of denial. They say what God is not.

This apophatic quality about God-talk is occasionally (indeed, rather often) taken to imply that complete silence represents man’s best approach to God. That is to say, if metaphors drawn from our simplest and most basic human experiences—time and space—are unable to help us say anything positive about God, why should we trust language more complex?

This inference is unwarranted and misguided, I believe. Truly, I confess to an impression that the appeal to a via negativa is sometimes hardly more than a disguise for intellectual laziness. Murkiness is not a quality of the true faith.

Consider: In order to grasp the apophatic quality of these terms—eternal and infinite—I must actually use them. I must start by saying “eternal” and “infinite.” Before “eternal” and “infinite” can be apophatic, they must be spoken. If their apophatic quality prohibits their being spoken, they cannot be apophatic. If I am reduced to utter silence with respect to God, I don’t have an apophatic theology. I just have a blank mind. In short, the apophatic quality of God-talk requires me to . . . well, talk about God.

And when I talk about God, the apophatic quality of the talk does not mean that all statements about God are correct or equally proper. For instance, the denial implied in the term “eternal” does not mean that God is not eternal. Likewise, the negative quality inherent in the term “infinite” does not signify that God is finite. The apophatic nature of “eternal” and “infinite” is not a negative assessment imposed on these statements from without. It is, rather, a quality inherent in the statements themselves. The apophatic is not a quality of silence but of speech.

Nor is this negative quality of theological statements simply a metaphor descriptive of man’s mental limitations—as though I would be able to speak about God more positively if I were just smarter or better informed. In that case the apophatic quality of our language would have only an epistemological reference.

This is emphatically not so. On the contrary, the more positively God reveals Himself—the more He posits about Himself—the more apophatic our theology becomes. If, on our own and supported only by the testimony of our conscience and the created order, our talk about God bears am apophatic quality, what shall we say about the full light of the Gospel, in which the one God reveals Himself as the Father of a co-eternal, co-infinite, and consubstantial Son?

Orthodox Christology, far from reducing us to silence, demands a very high attention to how we say things.



About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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