Kataphatic and Apophatic Theology

Most people are probably looking at the title of this post and thinking, “huh?” But let me explain the terms. Kataphatic theology is positive theology, describing what and who God is. Apophatic theology is negative theology; it describes who and what God is not. This is another difference between East and West in the doctrine of the Trinity. Kataphatic theology is the way that the West uses; apophatic theology is the method of the East. There are inherent pluses and minuses to both ways of thinking. Kataphatic theology assumes that we can know something about God as He truly is. Especially it assumes that the revelation of the Bible describes God truly as He is. However, the danger is an arrogance that we can know God fully, and find out everything there is to know about Him. Apophatic theology assumes much more mystery about God. Oftentimes, it assumes that we cannot know God as He truly is. The danger here is complete agnosticism about God, that we cannot know anything truly about God. It should be noted that the best practitioners of each kind of theology recognize the shortcomings and attempt to alleviate the dangers. Personally, I see nothing inherently wrong with either approach. However, I strongly side with the West in that I firmly believe that the God of the Bible is God as He truly is, though the Bible does not exhaustively describe Him. The Bible gives us truth about who God really is, though we cannot exhaustively know Him. We can therefore know Him truly, though never completely. In this sense then, I believe that the dangers of apophatic theology are more dangerous than the dangers of kataphatic theology. But it is helpful in theology to describe both the truth as it is, and also the falsehood as it is. it is oftentimes helpful to know what God is not, but always with a view to better describing who He is. I think this is the path of wisdom, as long as we recognize that there is a remainder in theology which we can never fully comprehend. We must be humble in our pursuit of the knowledge of God.                                                                                            



  1. November 25, 2006 at 11:04 am

    Since a translate into Portuguese “The Cloud of Unknowing” I am deeply impressed in Apophatic Theology. In search of this I follow a series of conferences in Princeton Seminary that was very disappointing to me. It seems to me very honest to confess that I feel love inside of me but I know nothing about the God everyone propose everyone else to look for. What is this called faith from the point of view of a non-believer but wish-to-be lover of something greater than the universe?
    Sorry for my English.
    Luiz Carlos Lisboa
    (writer, journalist, constant traveler)


  2. Seth McBee said,

    November 25, 2006 at 12:37 pm

    If you wish to know God’s love for us, I would read the Gospel of John from the canon of Scripture. It will reveal to you, theologically, how much God loved us that He sent His Son. You say that you have a “wish-to-be lover of something greater than the universe” and I would hope that John would show you what you SHOULD be a lover of, and that is Christ Jesus because while we were all sinning He still came down from His throne in heaven and died for His people so that we would someday be joined with Him in heaven.

  3. greenbaggins said,

    November 26, 2006 at 2:16 pm

    I think ultimately that God has revealed who He truly is in the pages of the Bible. Seth’s suggestion is a good one. If you want to know about God, then you need to read what God wrote about Himself. There you will find the God who is bigger than the universe. There you will find a God who is just, all-powerful, and all loving. You will find that God has dealt with evil on the cross of Christ, and that Christ’s death takes away our sin, if we trust in Him. Thanks for commenting.

  4. May 3, 2007 at 12:57 am

    I understand the meaning and how they cam from but could you give me short examples so that I can understand them better especially with the time that we live.
    God bless you
    Fraternally yours in Christ,
    Br. Kassu McFantaye, FSC

  5. May 3, 2007 at 1:00 am

    there are many people who are struggling with these two ideas Apopatic and Kataphatic. on the other hand people are aproving it? It is very difficult to understand the vission and image of the people and all of the sudden they change their way of life. in other words their doesn’t tell you about esecially, apopatic.
    God bless
    Br. Kassu McFantaye, FSC

  6. lisacolondelay said,

    October 16, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    I see some of our interests link our blogs together a bit. A great perspective for better understanding both sides is a book I read for class by Kenneth Boa, “Conformed to His Image: Biblical and Practical Approaches to Spiritual Formation” –quite helpful. I think we tend to short change the style we are least familiar with. The Christian faith is actually an Eastern one, but yes, in different cultures, different aspects come to the fore. It’s easy to think of Christianity as “American” … with these USA styles, purview, and early influence of Roman Catholic, law/reason proclivities. the early church for 300-400 years was more focused on the apophatic tradition. (think desert fathers & mothers) It was a rich tradition and style I had basically no true knowledge of, let know explored. It’s been to my great benefit to appreciate both.

    I’m thankful for your even-handed treatment here.

    I’d be honored if you’d comment at my blog. (search for apophatic prayer)

  7. July 7, 2010 at 10:53 am

    This is post actually is mistaken. Apophatic and Cataphatic are both employed across the East/West divide and this goes for the Reformation traditions as well following the scholastic doctrine of God in the main. The difference is this. They cash out each in different ways. For the East, God is ad intra not being (essence) and ad extra being (energies/activities) such that what we know of God is genuine but God remains in and of himself incomprehensible. The divine persons are the middle term for they exist in the divine essence and the energies are their actions. For the West, God is self subsisting being or an infinitely intense being, but since God is simple, none of the names of God while referring to genuine divine perfections can be picked out by those terms in an univocal way. Hence they are said analogically. God is then beyond all created being for the West and is simple in a way that makes univocal predication impossible. This is how the West understands both apophatic and cataphatic theology. The difference is between them that the East takes the divine names (knowledge, will, etc.) to refer to geninely different but unseparatable workings of God whereas the West takes the names to refer to one thing just understood through the skewing lens of creaturely existence as different things.

    The western take varies but it is widely found in Catholic and Protestant sources. Pickup Muller’s Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics volume on the divine essence.

  8. Fr. Harry Lawrence said,

    July 19, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    I really like Lisa’s assessment in which she points out the experiential recognition of God in the early centuries of Christianity, that were lost- even condemned- by “theologizing” in the Age of Enlightenment and afterward. We’re only now beginning to regain the “experiential” through the apophatic disciplines proposed by Fr.Joseph Keating. Cynthia Bourgeault and others of Contemplative Outreach. Fr. Harry Lawrence

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