The Apophatic Ascent and Beatific Vision of God

Fr. Dr. Jossi Jacob

Fr. Dr. Jossi Jacob –  (Chief of the Center for Orthodox Studies – COS) – 15/10/18

Dionysius the Areopagite was the first theologian to distinguish two possible ways of theological enquiry as cataphatic and apophatic. Vladimir Lossky explains it thus: “Dionysius distinguishes two possible theological ways. One – that of Cataphatic or positive theology – proceeding by affirmations; the other – apophatic or negative theology – by negations. The first leads us to some knowledge of God but is an imperfect way. The perfect way, the only way which is fitting in regard to God, who is of His very nature unknowable, is the second – which leads us finally to total ignorance. All knowledge has as its object that which is. Now God is beyond all that exists. In order to approach Him it is necessary to deny all that is inferior to Him, that is to say, all that which is. If in seeing God one can know what one sees, then one has not seen God in Himself but something intelligible, something which is inferior to Him. It is by unknowing (a’gnosi’a) that one may know Him who is above every possible object of knowledge”[1]. Cataphatism became the predominant system in the theological development of the Western Church, whereas the east developed theology in an apophatic way of incorporating mysticism into it. Absolute un-knowability in His Ousia is presented as a determining characteristic of God in the Apophatic way of theologizing.

Apophatism: a way for Theologizing
Apophatism is basically a theological approach[2] rather than a rigid doctrine on the unknowability of God. In Vladimir Lossky’s own words, “It [apophasis] is not a branch of theology but an attitude which should undergird all theological discourse, and lead it towards the silence of contemplation and communion.”[3] The Apophatic approach in theology is not a mere intellectual ascent into ideas, but a constant enquiry of the absolute – negating each stage of knowledge acquired through the enquiry. The concept of the negation of knowledge for acquiring something higher is explained by Dionysius in his treatise, ‘The Mystical Theology’, as follows: “… my advice to you as you look for a sight of the mysterious things, is to leave behind you everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understandable, all that is not and all that is, and, with your understanding laid aside, to strive upward as much as you can towards union with absolute abandonment of yourself and everything, shedding all and free from all, you will be uplifted to the ray of the divine shadow which is everything that is.”[4] He advocates a sequence of negations aimed at an ascent to a mystical experience of the absolute one who is beyond the nature of everything else. For him, the denial of everything lesser would guide the enquirer to the absolute reality beyond comprehension. He again writes: “It (the absolute) is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.”[5] According to Dionysius both possibilities of assertion or denial are not applicable to the absolute reality.

The Greek Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas expresses certain aspects of apophatism in contrast to the Greek ontology, which views the essence of the absolute reality in the nous of existing things. He writes:

“For Greek thought was satisfied with indicating truth through the term auto- and furthermore it would never have proceeded beyond the nous which, for the Greeks was permanently attached to the truth[6].

The message of apophatic theology was precise that the closed Greek ontology has to be broken and transcended since we are unable to use the concepts of the human mind or of creation, for signifying God-the truth. The absolute otherness of God’s being at the heart of biblical theology is affirmed in such a manner, that the biblical approach to God contrasts strongly with that of the Greeks. Apophatism rejects the Greek view of truth, emphasizing what we know about being–about creation, that is–must not be ontologically identified with God. God has a simple unknowable existence, inaccessible to all things and completely unexplainable, for he is beyond affirmation and negation[7].

Zizioulas clarifies that the apophatic approach attempts to explore the communion with the ultimate God, Who has an entirely different ousia from the very being of created entities.

The inaccessibility of created intelligence to the comprehension of uncreated ousia of God is clearly noticeable in the Semitic liturgical and patristic literature. The Ethiopian Orthodox Anaphora of the Virgin Mary explicitly speaks of the incapability of human beings to attain to complete knowledge about God. “Again when I think of this my mind likes to soar and ascend secretly and drew back the curtains of the hiding places of the Living one; it became afraid of the flame of the fire and does not reach even one-fourth of the way to heaven…He is the mighty one whom none can discern by subtle devices.”[8] This poetic presentation points directly to the very understanding of the incomprehensibility of Godhead by the created finitude.

Ephrem the Syrian overtly mentions the ontological gap between the creator and created, which he calls a bottomless chasm. The teachings of St. Ephrem strongly testify to the apophatic approach, stressing the ineffability of God. He writes: “What is made cannot reach its maker.”[9] Sebastian Brock comments on this idea of Ephrem,

Linked to this consciousness of the inability of any created thing to cross this ‘chasm’ to the creator is an awareness (which Ephrem shared with many fathers) that the intellect that has knowledge of something must be greater than the object of its knowledge. On such an understanding, anyone who claims that it is possible to know (and so describe) God is at the same time implying that the human intellect is capable of ‘containing’ God, the uncontainable[10].

‘The absolute otherness of God’s being which is found at the heart of biblical theology’, as referred to by Zizioulas apparently neglects God’s immanence in the incarnation. Lossky’s explanation seems to fit in the context better:

The existence of an apophatic attitude –of a going beyond everything that has a connection with created finitude–is implied in the paradox of the Christian revelation: the transcendent God becomes immanent in the world, but in the very immanence of His economy, which leads to the incarnation and to death on the cross, He reveals himself as transcendent, as ontologically independent of all created beings.[11]

Apophatic Ascent Transcending Epistemological Boundaries
Apophatism is not a system advocating either Gnosticism or Agnosticism, rather it points to the need and possibility of a trans-intellectual mystical union of the devotee with the Deity. According to the Eastern Churches, the theological enquiry is inseparable from spiritual experience. Lossky explains as follows:

The eastern tradition has never made a sharp distinction between mysticism and theology; between personal experience of the divine mysteries and the dogma affirmed by the Church. The following words spoken a century ago by a great Orthodox theologian, the Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, express this attitude perfectly: ‘none of the mysteries, of the most secret wisdom of God, ought to appear alien or altogether transcendent to us, but in all humility we must apply our spirit to the contemplation of divine things.’ To put it in another way, we must live the dogma expressing a revealed truth, which appears to us as an unfathomable mystery, in such a fashion that instead of assimilating the mystery to our mode of understanding, we should, on the contrary, look for a profound change, an inner transformation of spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically. …

Unlike Gnosticism, in which knowledge for its own sake constitutes the aim of the gnostic, Christian theology is always in the last resort a means: a unity of knowledge sub-serving an end which transcends all knowledge. This ultimate end is union with God or deification, the θeosiς of the Greek Fathers. Thus, we are finally led to a conclusion which may seem paradoxical enough:  that Christian theory should have an eminently practical significance; and that the more mystical it is, the more directly it aspires to the supreme end of union with God[12].

Theology is inseparably united with the life of the Church. Apophatism is not a parallel ascent of intellectual enquiry to the higher plane of truth, but the very activity of the church integrating theology and spirituality. Mysticism in the eastern tradition is not something detached from the intellectual pursuit, but quite complementary to it and transcending it in the higher stages of spiritual growth towards ‘theosis’. Losssky explains, “God no longer presents Himself as an object, for it is no more a question of knowledge but of the union. Negative theology is thus a way towards mystical union with God whose nature remains incomprehensible to us”[13].

Apophatism and the Scholastic Claim of the Direct Unmediated Knowledge of God
Theologizing in the Scholastic system is generally known for its affirmative or Cataphatic nature. Reason plays a greater role than the scriptural rootedness and mystical ascent according to the theologizing or cataphatic way. It tries to define the divine self-revelation using human language and knowledge and to affirm the definitions and ideas as if they are perfect conclusions of theological affairs in an arbitrary manner. Such a trend prevents the understanding of theology as an enquiry which is everlasting and inseparable from the spiritual ascent towards union with God. It rather ends up with conclusions within the limits of human intelligence and reasoning capacity. It is rather speculative and philosophical than spiritual and mystical. Medieval western theology has eventually lost much of its pastoral traits in its attempt to bring the whole truth into the propositional dimension, which can be limited to human intellectual grasp. Spirituality is understood quite differently according to the intellectual grasp of divine matters. The comments of Hans Kung,[14] a Roman Catholic theologian of the 20’th century, about the theological approach of Thomas Aquinas clearly expresses the basic characteristics of Cataphatism, even though he doesn’t mention the term Cataphatic.

Thomas Aquinas’ theology, unlike the more contemplative monastic theology of the church fathers and that of Augustine, is essentially a rational academic theology, composed by professors of schools of higher learning, and basically not intended for the ordinary people and their pastoral care, but for students and their colleagues in theological institutions. All the works of Aquinas are thoroughly sealed with the scholastic approach to learning. They are all composed in Latin and are very clear, compact, concise, and dense but impersonal and monotone. This is due to their approach being consistently analectic with sundry divisions and subdivisions, with edged definitions of concepts, and formal distinctions, with objections and answers expressing all means of grammatical and dialectic controversies and deep theological acumen. There is a colossal use of highly developed and often over-developed scholastic skill. With this style Thomas created a new Philosophical and theological synthesis for the new time, brilliantly, constructed with methodological rigor and academic mastery, displaying an exceptional unity. He paved the way for a rational basis for theology by highlighting the use of reason in theology. This was his hermeneutical and methodological foundation.[15]

While holding to very strong approaches of a cataphatic nature, Aquinas also expressed traits showing awareness of eastern ways of theologizing. It was his grounding in the teachings of the Eastern Fathers of the Church, St. John Chrysostom[16]and Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite[17] that made the great Scholastic Theologian Thomas Aquinas agree to the incomprehensibility of God’s essence, but he also advocated the possibility that the human mind could have a direct, unmediated, intuitive, intellectual vision of God.[18] Pope Benedict XII in his Constitution entitled Benedictus Deus (On the Beatific Vision of God) dated January 29, 1336, declared the idea of beatific vision as an official teaching of the Catholic Church. He writes, “They (the elect) will see, and so see the divine essence in an intuitive and face to face vision, the divine essence appearing to them immediately, without a veil, clearly and openly, so that in this vision they might enjoy the divine essence itself.”[19] This concept affirms the principle of the possibility of having direct and unmediated knowledge of God, which is totally unacceptable from the Apophatic perspective of theology.

Almost in the same era, there was a controversial scholastic theologian John Eckhart who went even further by promoting the idea of acquiring a complete union and identification of the human soul with God through conscious comprehension of the divinity. Battista Mondin summarizes his arguments regarding the union of God and man thus: “Since God’s being is the same as His knowledge and man ascends to God as he approaches intellectually. In the intellect, and more precisely in contemplation, one realizes union with God… He also says that just as the bread and wine are changed into the Body of Christ, so the soul is transformed into God until no distinction remains.”[20] On one hand this underlying principle is in line with the Augustinian view, “which holds that only by conscious dependence on God can man become something,”[21] yet, on the other hand, the sharp Platonizing dualism which is a characteristic feature of the Augustinian approach is not highlighted except in the negligence of any mention of body in the process of transformation. This claim of complete comprehension of and union with God in the conscious intellectual ascent is unacceptable (or stands in opposition to) the Eastern theology with its Apophatic understanding. Transcending the level of consciousness limited to human intelligence is an essentially deep-rooted aspect of the way of apophasis.

The Apophatic ascent is clearly a trans-intellectual experience in which the devotee or enquirer of the divine goes beyond the limits of the conscious sphere of human intellect. Dionysius the Areopagite writes about the Apophatic ascent: “The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into the darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of the words but actually speechless and unknowing.”[22] The ascent of the human person, beyond the limits of intellectual grasp in an acquisition of the heights of Divine Likeness, is what is intended by the Apophatic enquiry. This approach is quite alien to western theological thinking.  Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios writes,

This is the paradox of Western Spirituality – that, on the one hand, it exalts the human intellect to the point of equality with the Divine mind now, but yet, on the other hand, it maintains the sinfulness and utter helplessness of the human being. Praising the human mind, it yet condemns human nature.

Eastern theology has the opposite paradox – it lacks great sanguinity about the power of human intellect, but still passionately holds to the perfectibility of the human to become an icon of the divine.[23]

Apophatic nature integrates Eastern Theology completely with spirituality as they cannot have independent purposes. This integration makes all the aspects of the Church, namely, liturgy, theology, and spirituality integrated and oriented towards a single goal.


[1] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (London 1973) 25.

[2] The notion of ‘theological approach’ here is not intending to convey a meaning of Theologizing as solely an intellectual pursuit detached from the spiritual ascent.

[3] Cited by R.D.Williams, ‘The Via-Negativa and the Foundations of Theology: An Introduction to the Thought of V. N. Lossky’ in S. Sykes (ed.), New Studies in Theology I (London1980) 95.

[4]Dionysius the Areopagite, “The Mystical Theology’, Pseudo-Dionysius the Complete Works (New York 1987) 135.

[5] Dionysius the Areopagite, “The Mystical Theology’, Pseudo-Dionysius the Complete Works, 141.

[6] Here Zizioulasimplicitly refers to Parmenides of 6thcentuary B.C, a philosopher hails from the Eleatic School, who presented nous as the common entity of being which is not multiple in nature. (Vellilamthadam Thomas, Greek Wisdom (Kottayam: Oriental Institute of Religious Studies, 1981) 22). Plotinus, later Neo-Platonist of 3rd Century A.D. also expresses some inclination to the concept of nous in Parmenides, but not much in an ontological frame rather in the frame of mystical epistemology (Dario Composta, History of Ancient Philosophy (Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 1998) 53; Paulos Mar Gregorios, ‘Does Geography Conditions Philosophy? On Going Beyond the Occidental-Oriental Distinction’, Neoplatonism and Indian Philosophy (New York: State University of New York Press, 2002) 28,29).

[7]John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (New York: St.Vladimir Seminary Press, 1997) 89, 90.
[8]Ethiopian Orthodox Anaphora of St. Mary, stanzas 85 and 88; The Liturgy of the Ethiopian Church (New Jersey, 1997) 79,80.
[9] Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Faith. 30:2; as quoted in Sebastian Brock, Luminous Eye: A Spiritual World Vision of Ephrem The Syrian (Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1992) 26.
[10] Sebastian Brock, Luminous Eye, 26.
[11]Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God (New York: St. Vladimir  Seminary Press, 1985) 14,15.
[12] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 8,9.
[13] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 28.
[14] Hans Küng was a very radical Swiss Catholic Theologian of the 20th century.
[15] Hans Küng, Great Christian Thinkers (London 1994) 107.
[16] St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on John, Homily XV; NPNF- 1: 14; pp. 107 – 113.
[17] Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, The Divine Names. 1:5; ColmLuibheid (tr.) Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1987) 53.
[18]Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios, A Human God (Kottayam: MGF, 1992) 26.
[19] This passage is as cited in Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios, A Human God, 26.
[20] Batista Mondin, A History of Mediaeval Philosophy (Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 1998) 387.
[21] Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios, A Human God,43.
[22] Dionysius the Areopagite, “The Mystical Theology’, Pseudo-Dionysius the Complete Works, 139.
[23] Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios, A Human God, 27.

Center For Orthodox Studies (COS)

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