Icon (Close Menu)

On Knowing and Not-Knowing God: Reflections on the Apophatic

By Joseph Mangina

The theological college where I teach stands at the almost exact geographical center of a great university. Of all the disciplines in the university, theology is in the odd position of being unable to point to its subject matter, to say that’s the thing we’re trying to give a rational account of. The biologists can point to their frogs, whales, and amoebas; economists have actual producers and consumers whose behavior can be analyzed; chemists can show reactions in a beaker or lines produced by a spectrometer. The subject matter of fields in the humanities may be a bit more elusive, but a Jane Austen novel or a philosophical treatise by Hegel at least has a certain comforting specificity to it, even if each opens up depths of meaning that are hard to fathom.

But theology’s subject matter is God, and God, by definition, cannot be seen: “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18). So at the heart of the university is a group of scholars who can’t produce the thing that most interests them, for the simple reason that God is not a “thing.”

It is my invariable practice to open classes with a prayer. I sometimes wonder what my colleagues in the arts and sciences would say about this, given that the students and I are invoking a “you” who, to all appearances, just isn’t there. Here we can also see the difference between theology and religious studies. The latter seeks to understand the visible behavior, symbols, and cultural practices of human beings and not (as religious studies scholars will quickly remind you!) God or the gods as such. At my school we maintain an excellent working relation with these colleagues — they ask some of the best questions at Ph.D. oral defenses, for instance — yet we’re both keenly aware of the differences separating our two fields.

It needs to be underscored that the “inability” of theology I’ve been talking about is a feature, not a bug; a virtue, not an embarrassment. For if we could produce God on demand, the deity in question would be precisely this or that feature of the world — in short, an idol. This is the reason all good theology has an element of apophaticism to it. We need constant reminders that God is not an object that we can manipulate or control. As Karl Barth once wrote, the first commandment is perhaps the most fundamental of all theological axioms.[1] It is instructive to think about the many ways in which theologians have sought to build this awareness into their “systems.” Think for instance of Anselm’s famous argument for God’s existence, which begins with the insight that God is “that greater than which nothing can be conceived.”[2] Please note, Anselm does not say “the greatest thing that can be conceived,” which would just be another idol, but greater than anything that can be conceived. God is, so to speak, off the scale of human knowing altogether. Anselm here gives a sort of scholastic precision to his master Augustine’s insistence on the radical distinction between Creator and creation.

There are other ways of “doing” apophasis. Thomas Aquinas has many tools in that particular toolkit. Thus, his shrewd insight that while there are many things we can rightly say about God, we don’t really understand what these terms mean in God himself. (In technical language, the human modus significandi or mode of signifying differs from the divine significatum.) God is good, but just how God is good lies beyond our present knowledge.[3] Gregory Palamas’s — admittedly controversial — distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies is a classic apophatic move. Karl Barth’s use of dialectic in theology is another such tool. Barth never abandoned his youthful insistence that doing theology is like trying to capture the movement of a bird in flight. Just when we think we’ve got this God thing figured out, God the Wholly Other comes along and surprises us. Theological dialectic for Barth is at best a method, never a closed system; although in his mature theology, the method went hand in hand with a confidence that we actually can speak about God, as a response to God’s address to us in the incarnation, cross, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.

Just so; because while apophaticism seeks to set limits on human speech and knowledge, there are limits to apophaticism. For if all we have is our un-knowing, how would that be different from agnosticism or even atheism? But the theological tradition has never been interested in apophaticism for its own sake. True, it has wanted us to be humble in our claims about ourselves — but only to make room for hearing the truth of God, whether as expressed in the works of creation or in the economy of redemption. Apophasis never exists apart from kataphasis, or affirmation. Of many biblical examples one could cite, consider Paul’s deeply suggestive musings in the opening lines of 1 Corinthians. The word of the cross, he writes, is foolishness to the Greeks and a scandal to Jews. It eludes these human frameworks in which we seek to enclose it. And yet it is, for all that, a word, a logos — speech, utterance, discourse, reason. The figure of Christ crucified is the very form in which God chooses to come among us, a form that both incites language (is there anyone more talkative than Paul?) and fashions a way of life, the ekklesia.

Theology in the Reformation tradition, at least, will always have a certain tilt toward the kataphatic, in so far as it is constantly oriented toward the preaching of the gospel. Yes, we need the apophatic moment too, so that our preaching doesn’t become a positivistic assertion of ourselves and our agendas “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5). But when apophasis itself is turned into a system, it becomes yet one more idol — a rather more subtle way of beginning with ourselves and our agendas. It creates a knowledge vacuum that is all too ready to be filled by our human “stuff.”

I am not simply pulling these themes out of thin air. In recent years, I’ve noticed that my own graduate students are intrigued by an apophatic approach to theology — partly, perhaps, because they’ve been schooled in a certain critical-theory skepticism that tends to treat all language as guilty until proven innocent. There’s no doubt a place for critical theory in the theological enterprise. Even as robustly kataphatic a theologian as Robert Jenson can find a use for it![4] But it is not apophasis as understood in the tradition, which begins with the divine mystery rather than with the hermeneutics of suspicion.[5] The limits on our speech derive not so much from our incapacity as from God’s overflowing fullness. There is always more of God than can be adequately said.

And yet God speaks. Theology begins quite literally with a speech-act: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). The Word incarnate gives rise, in turn, to the Word of Scripture and the Word of apostolic testimony. In all of these forms we find a complex ecology of divine mystery and divine self-disclosure, revelation and otherness. “No one has ever seen God” but “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18) Or again, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

For a healthy balance between the apophatic and kataphatic we should look to the liturgy. The liturgy is a complex performance, a ritualized midrash on Holy Scripture that alternates between moments of knowing and not-knowing. Think of the Sanctus, where the seraphic hymn of “holy, holy, holy” declares the LORD’s radical otherness even as it announces his presence among us. The readings and their commentary in the sermon would seem to represent a powerfully kataphatic moment, and so they are; we do not proclaim the gospel with our fingers crossed. And yet the public reading of Scripture, a practice especially dear to Anglicans, reminds us that there is always more of Scripture than we can exhaust with our ideas about it. Sadly,  the lectionary regularly edits out some of the weirder stuff in the Bible. We could use more of the weird stuff — more reminders that God is God, and that there is always more of God to know. Yet at the heart of the entire liturgy stands the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, in whom the invisible God has made himself startlingly well-known to us humans. The passion is a divine mystery that in a certain way excludes us; it is God who is the agent here, not ourselves. And yet the assembly that celebrates it is the body of Christ, the community of those who have been incorporated into Christ’s passion and death, and in him offer their worship to the Father.

There is perhaps no hymn that better captures both the kataphatic and apophatic moments than Gerald Moultrie’s beloved adaptation of the Liturgy of Saint James. The text itself is powerful, but is made even more so by being set to the haunting tune of Picardy. (It says something about the catholicity of the Church that a liturgy from ancient Jerusalem rhymes so beautifully with a 17th-century French carol tune.) It bids us creatures and sinners to be silent (apophasis) at the coming of God in Christ (kataphasis):

Let all mortal flesh keep silence
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly-minded,
for with blessing in his hand
Christ, our God, to earth descending,
comes our homage to command.

The angelic beings cover their faces before the mystery, and yet cannot help but sing:

At his feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the presence
as with ceaseless voice they cry:
“Alleluia, alleluia!
Alleluia, Lord Most High!”


[1] Karl Barth, “The First Commandment as an Axiom of Theology,” in The Way of Theology in Karl Barth: Essays and Comments, ed. H. Martin Rumscheidt (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Press, 1986)

[2] See The Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm: with the Proslogion, ed. Benedicta Ward (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973). This edition is especially useful in that it sets Anselm’s scholastic arguments firmly in the context of prayer and the liturgy.

[3] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.13.3.

[4] See Robert Jenson, “The Creed as Critical Theory for Scripture,” in Canon and Creed (Westminster/John Knox, 2010), 79-89.

[5] Although I cannot pursue the theme here, I cannot help wondering if the contemporary fascination with the apophatic is driven more by ethico-political concerns than by the doctrine of God.


  1. That’s the most helpful meditation I’ve ever read (or heard) on this subject: recognizing the strengths of of each polarity in its health, and its traps when untethered from the other.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Get Covenant every weekday:


Most Recent

Wycliffe College and the Character of Anglicanism

Wycliffe College came into being in the midst of a bitter dispute over what it meant to be...

The Sabbath and the Dignity of the Weak

If you cannot keep the Sabbath, you cannot save a life. This is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s bold implication...

Singleness: Eschatological and Evangelical

The Meaning of Singleness: Retrieving an Eschatological Vision for the Contemporary Church By Danielle Treweek IVP Academic, 336 pages, $35 This important...

Anglican Mysteries

If you’re on the hunt for some summer reading, my reading in the past ten years commends the...