Last week I mentioned the via negativa (the way of negation) and the via affirmativa (way of affirmation) as helpful paths for getting to know God better. Let’s explore the way of negation further with the help of John of Damascus, a wise mentor from the eighth century whose book The Orthodox Faith is regarded by some as the first historic instance of a systematic theology.” 

John carefully points out that it is not within our capacity … to say anything about God or even to think of Him, beyond the things which have been divinely revealed to us,” and for this reason, the things we say about God do not indicate what He is, but what He is not.” Here John is clearly following both the positive and negative paths: He affirms that truths about God have been revealed to us – real knowledge – while also writing that these truths help us to understand more about what God is not than what God is. Why adopt this use of negation, the method of declaring what is not true about God in order to get at what is true?

John explains that the living God does not belong to the class of existing things: not that He has no existence, but that He is above all existing things, nay even above existence itself. For if all forms of knowledge have to do with what exists, assuredly that which is above all knowledge must certainly be also above essence: and, conversely, that which is above essence will also be above knowledge.” Wow. That’s a mouthful. What’s John’s point — one that bears enormous significance for the Eastern Orthodox tradition today? 

Logic cannot capture the transcendent God, a point I’ve been making throughout this series of blogs. Yet to affirm this is entirely rational, based on God’s revelation to us. God as mystery offers us a paradoxical knowledge in which the positive way and the negative way stand side by side, each supporting and enriching the other, sometimes even in bewildering ways. 

Can we know God? The church fathers’ answer is clear and distinct, but it is a clear and distinct yes and no.” Yes, we certainly can know God; Christians are not atheists or skeptics. And yet no, we obviously cannot know God with any of the rationalistic mastery that we associate with knowledge of created things. There is real knowledge of God, and there is real unknowing” as well. There is genuine revelation that makes known the mystery of God, and there is also a genuine mystery that no revelation can dilute. To lose either pole of this creative tension is to lose sight of the fullness of the Christian gospel. 

One last word about Christianity’s long, rich reflection on the negative way.” Given what we have already seen in the biblical testimony about God, perhaps we are not surprised to find that many ancient Christian thinkers emphasized the via negativa” as strongly as they did. Still, it is possible that some emphasized it too strongly. My point is simply to recognize the important place that Christians in the early centuries happily gave to divine mystery. Even if some made false steps in the way they affirmed mystery, it is clear that the denial of mystery was and is an equally false step. We who wish to be faithful to Christ should studiously avoid the errors in both directions.

Catch up with all the previous installments of this series at Conversations with Chris.

This series has been adapted from Steven D. Boyer and Chris Hall’s The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable. Hungry for more? Please visit Baker Academic for more information.