Access to the full content is only available to members of institutions that have purchased access. If you belong to such an institution, please log in or find out more about how to order.


Negative theology

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K053-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 17, 2024, from

Article Summary

The term ‘negative theology’ refers to theologies which regard negative statements as primary in expressing our knowledge of God, contrasted with ‘positive theologies’ giving primary emphasis to positive statements. The distinction was developed within Muslim, Jewish and Christian theism. If the negative way (via negativa) is taken to its limits, two questions arise: first, whether one may speak of God equally well in impersonal as in personal terms (blurring the distinction between theism and, say, the philosophical Hinduism of Śaṅkara); and second, whether it leads ultimately to rejecting any ultimate being or subject at all (blurring the distinction between theism and, say, the atheism of Mahāyāna Buddhism). However, within their original theistic context, positive and negative statements about God are interdependent, the second indispensably qualifying the first, the negative statements taken alone useless.

Negative qualifications on positive statements attributing so-called ‘perfections’ to God – for example, existence, life, goodness, knowledge, love or active power (‘strength’) – are obviously necessary if God is unimaginable. If his presence is always of his whole being and life all at once, in each place in space and time, he must be non-spatial and non-temporal in being and nature, and clearly he must be unimaginable. However, his supposed ‘simplicity’ and ‘infinity’ imply that he is much more radically outside the reach of understanding or ‘comprehension’, imposing the negative way at a deeper level than mere unimaginability. This unimaginability and incomprehensibility are key to theistic accounts of prayer and the mystical life.

Citing this article:
Braine, David. Negative theology, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K053-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

Related Searches



Related Articles