Apophats and Cataphats

> In the 1830s, virtually all American theologians—Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Unitarians alike—assumed theology to be a science whose aim was to produce exact formulations based on evidence … Generally, the Bible was thought to be a storehouse of facts and propositions and the task of theologians was to systematize these facts and to ascertain the general principles to be found in them … [A]ll, including the Unitarians, assumed that every passage in the Bible had only one meaning, and that all readers through history could understand it.

Frances Fitzgerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (Kindle locations 1065-1070).

This formulation shocked me, but I readily recognized it as accurate even when describing the Evangelicalism of my youth, 130 years later. The conceit that we were getting warranted certainties in sermons and chapel talks was strong, and I suspect it’s still around, if less universal, today. Some of those certainties were toxic falsities, as probably are some of today’s.

Fast forward a few decades from the 1830s to this recognizably similar view from a scholarly sort of Protestantism:

> Scottish Realism with its optimistic, democratic view that anyone could discover the truth appealed to many Americans, and it had particular appeal to the Protestant clergy because it posited the spiritual nature of consciousness and it involved no skepticism about religious truth … As Marsden points out, Old School Presbyterians, raised on the Westminster catechisms, tended to view the truth as a stable entity that, when expressed in precisely stated propositions, would be understood by everyone at all times in exactly the same way … Further, if moral laws could be adduced in the same way as the laws of physics, then theology was a science, too … to systematize the facts of the Bible, and ascertain the principles or general truths which those facts involve … “The Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science,” he wrote. “It is his store-house of facts.”

Id., Kindle locations 1305-1326.

Contrast this dissenting view from the 1830s:

> [Horace] Bushnell’s challenge to this whole way of thinking rested on the new science of philology and on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ideas about the indeterminacy of language … Dogma-based theologians, he argued, ignore the instability of the abstractions they use and work out Christian systems that are consistent but false simply because of their consistency … The authors of the Scriptures, the inspired witnesses to spiritual truths, could not convey these truths directly. Rather, like all good writers, they did their best by multiplying forms or figures, and by creating paradoxes and contradictions to give as many hints as they could to their inspiration … [I]t offended piety and intelligence to claim that the meaning of God’s self-expression in Christ could be captured in “a few dull propositions.”

Id., Kindle location 1077-1083.

I’m not endorsing Bushnell’s liberal Protestantism, let alone claiming that he was influenced by Orthodox Christianity, but I was surprised to see that on this occasion, the liberals are much more sympathetic to my Orthodox mind than was the mainstream. The uncertainty reflected in Orthodoxy’s apophatic theology seems to have something of the same look to it, though the lineages of the two are quite different.

Now, something more contemporary.

> Richard Dawkins argued against God’s existence, saying that omniscience and omnipotence are contradictory …

Garrison Keillor

Omniscience and omnipotence are familiar words to Christians, though perhaps only those of a Western sort. Having been a Western Christian, they’re familiar to me.

These are cataphatic, affirming two things about God: that He knows everything and can do everything. These are the kinds of "facts" (themselves abstractions) through which much or most Western Christianity purports to know God.

In contrast, here are a few things Eastern Christian apophatic theology says:

  • No one has seen or can see God (John 1:18).
  • He lives in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16).
  • His ways are unsearchable and unfathomable (Job 11:7-8; Romans 11:33-36).
  • The true knowledge and vision of God consists in this—in seeing that He is invisible, because what we seek lies beyond all knowledge, being wholly separated by the darkness of incomprehensibility (The Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa).
  • God is infinite and incomprehensible and all that is comprehensible about Him is His infinity and incomprehensibility (On the Orthodox Faith, John of Damascus).

OrthodoxWiki (hyperlinks omitted). An Orthodox Christian with a truly Orthodox mindset, not unduly influenced by a Western milieu, will still affirm those, and will demur from terms like omniscient and omnipotent.

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