A Clarification

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In my last post, I talked about cataphatic theology, which emphasizes God as revealed, and anaphatic theology, which emphasized God as mystery. I argued that while both have their place, the higher of the two is anaphatic theology since God is so far beyond our comprehension and our theological systems that even the best of them fail to capture who God is completely. And I would add here that when we absolutize our theological systems without recognizing the limitations of our formulations about God, we run the risk of turning them into idols–mental images that conceal more about God than they reveal.

What I didn’t say is that cataphatic theology does tell us real truth about God accommodated to human language and to our ability to understand. Thus when God tells Moses He is the slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, those words describe God in a way that is comprehensible to us; they convey true Truth about God in normal human language.

This is in contrast to Islam, for example. Allah is described as merciful, yet anyone who reads the Koran would be hard pressed to find a merciful Allah there. When pushed, Islamic scholars will tell you that Allah is merciful because he says he is, but we have no idea what that word actually means when applied to him.

When we talk about the Bible being accommodated to human understanding, it means that when Scripture says God is merciful, it means exactly what it sounds like it means. Cataphatic theology has it right: God is merciful in a way that we can understand.

The anaphatic perspective would add that there are limits to our understanding of mercy (particularly as it relates to justice), and that though God is merciful, His mercy utterly transcends our ability to comprehend it completely. This does not mean that the cataphatic perspective is wrong, just limited.

The point is that cataphatic theology is a valid and necessary pursuit, and we should do our best to understand God through His revelation to us. Without question, we must be committed to this. And there are some things that are truly non-negotiable for Christians. No question there either. But we must also be careful to recognize the limits of our ability to understand God and not try to put Him in a box. Quite simply, He won’t fit.

One thought on “A Clarification

  1. Aaron Friar

    Seems what you might need, dear brother, is the fundamental distinction between God’s knowable Persons and His unknowable essence/nature. Keep person and nature distinct, and it will keep you out of a whole host of theological problems, i.e. cataphatic- Persons; apophatic-nature.

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