“God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.” Hebrews 1:1-3
The basic principle of Apophatic theology is negation, teaching us what God is not. The essential point is that God is Wholly Other from every created nature. This includes the created natures of spirits; the angels do not share the nature of God any more than we do. Only God is without beginning, only God is uncreated. How, then, does God reveal himself to mankind in a way that can be understood by human reason? Nothing we know, nothing we can see or even contemplate, is distinct from created natures, and, as a result, all human language is finite, limited to things that are made.
For this reason we should speak with humility when we say the Creed, since what we express is beyond all human comprehension. Beyond the ordinary meaning of most of the words themselves, what can we really understand in such a passage as this? “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten not made.” We have a concept of light, obviously used here metaphorically as we understand light, and some grasp of truth, which we speak of with the word “very.” Ordinarily, we would understand what the word “begotten” means, but not in this case. That is because we have no understanding of the Nature of this Person who is “not made.” That is because he is “not made,” whereas all that we know is made. And, so all human language is about things that are made, created things that do not share the nature of God. Whatever we know and understand, God is not that.
It is essential to theology that we see God as separate from every created nature, and so from every created thing. It is this separation that first teaches us that God is holy. For this reason we cannot accept Pantheism, since the universe cannot be God, but is a creation of God. For the same reason we cannot speak of God with maternal imagery, as if creation had been “brought forth” as in given birth. One of the reasons that divine revelation always and consistently speaks of God as Father is because creation is the result of his word- whatever that means. God remains separate, “the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God…the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords, Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen” 1
How amazing, indeed, that one of Richard Dawkins’ attacks on Christianity sounds like nothing more than an affirmation of the doctrine of Divine Transcendence and of the method of Theology we call Apophatic. Here is a selection from Time Magazine recording a discussion that was part interview, as it took place between Dawkins and Francis Collins, about what has caused the universe to exist:
Time: Could the answer be God?
Dawkins: There could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible and beyond our present understanding.
Collins: That’s God.
Dawkins: Yes, but it could be any of a billion Gods…the chances of its being a particular God, Yahweh, the God of Jesus, is vanishing small—at least the onus is on you to demonstrate why you think that’s the case…I don’t see the Olympian Gods or Jesus coming down and dying on the cross as worthy of that grandeur. They strike me as parochial. If there’s a God, it’s going to be a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.
I think not. Theologians since the Apostles have taught this very thing about the incomprehensible God, and it is a necessary doctrine of our Faith. St. Paul taught it with poetic words, as we saw above. Indeed, the very opposite of Dawkin’s picture of Christianity-which cannot be called a caricature since it draws from no genuine characteristic-is taught by St. John with the words, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.”2
Some people who call themselves atheists may be closer to the faith than they realize, inasmuch as the God we believe in is beyond the limits of our understanding. But, the atheists have not yet acquired sufficient skepticism, as C.S. Lewis charged; and not only about the limits of science. They have yet to acquire sufficient skepticism about the illusion of comprehensive knowledge available to the mind. At least Dawkins appears to have broken through that barrier, which may well explain his presence, though non-communicating, at Catholic Masses in recent months.
But, as we see from the words above of St. John, we are not left with the unknowable God and theology of negation. We have as well the Affirmative approach based on the opposite and equally necessary understanding of Revelation. “No man has seen God at any time,” says the Beloved Disciple. But, we are not left there: “The only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” The Son is called in the same chapter the Word (the Logos λόγος). We gather from this that apart from the Word, himself God the Son, we could have no knowledge of God, even though Reason would dictate that the universe was created. So, the revelation of God to the human race, such as everything made known to the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament, was the work of the Logos who communicated to the human mind revelation about God.
This revelation involved words and images drawn from the only things available to the created mind of man (the condition we call the Fall into sin and death causing a further separation than merely that of Creator and creature), and so the very language of revelation had to be that of imagery: It had to be iconic. The iconic nature of Revelation is necessary, as is reason itself, for the Word of God to communicate to the human mind.
Icon against idol
This explains why it is that idolatry is so evil that God forbids it in the Torah with the strictest of penalties, namely death. The very nature of an idol, that is what an idol is, distorts the nature and product of Revelation. A partial-truth is the most insidious kind of lie, which is why idolatry contradicts Revelation with more terrible consequences than disbelief. The result of idolatry reached its most terrifying end with the human sacrifices to Molech, the religion of Baal that made Carthage so odious even among Pagans, and later, the religion of the Aztecs in Mexico. But, even in its more benign forms, idolatry must run into conflict with Revelation, and that is because Revelation is, due to the limits of our created minds, iconic. The idol blocks the way to the true God by presenting an image that is, in essence, a lie. Iconic Revelation opens a door to the true God, using what can be understood to teach about the One above and beyond all human knowledge.
Finally, the Living God cannot be represented by dead images, but he made a living image of himself that he named Man. The name Father is no metaphor, but rather man is himself iconic in the image and appearance of the mystery of Fatherhood. The name Son is no metaphor, but man in the image and appearance of sonship is, as a living intelligent being, the icon of the Word. Finally, in the Incarnation we see the perfect image of the Father, the living icon that reveals the full truth of God for our benefit, an icon without the defect of sin, the express image of the Father’s person now visible.
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.”
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”
“Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.” 3
- I Timothy 1:17, 6:15,16
- John 1:18
- I John 1:1f, John 1:14, I John 5:21