Dumitru Staniloae: The Rational and Apophatic Knowledge of God

For the past two months I have been reading the first volume of the dogmatics of Dumitru Staniloae in concert with the Fellowship of St Maximus. Staniloae enjoys the reputation of being the finest Orthodox theologian of the 20th century. He stands within what is known as the neo-patristic school and is quite likely its most accomplished representative. As I have been reading this volume, I have thought often of that other great neo-patristic theologian, Vladimir Lossky. Both were deeply rooted in St Maximus the Confessor, Dionysius the Areopagite, and St Gregory Palamas, as well as the Cappadocians; both sought to liberate Orthodoxy from the scholastic style that dominated, and constrained, Eastern theology for five hundred years. But Staniloae lacks that polemical edge that is so characteristic of Lossky. He is not driven by the need to distinguish authentic Orthodoxy from all things Western. Of course, Lossky wrote his most famous book, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, in the 1940s, whereas Staniloae wrote his dogmatics in the 1970s, after the neo-patristic paradigm had already firmly established itself within modern Orthodoxy. Staniloae is committed to a truly catholic vision of the Christian revelation. He is not afraid to incorporate into his presentation the insights of Latin theologians (though his assessment of Western theology remains largely negative). As Met Kallistos Ware notes in his forward: “Through The Experience of God there is a sense of balance and wholeness. It is truly a catholic work, total and all-embracing, expressing an Orthodoxy that is open and generous, not polemical and partisan” (I:xxiv).

The Maximus Fellowship has now arrived in its reading at what, for me, is the most interesting and challenging chapter so far—“The Knowledge of God” (chap. 6).  Modern Orthodox theologians sometimes contrast the (disapproved) cataphaticism of Latin scholasticism with the (approved) apophaticism of the Eastern Fathers. Staniloae also draws this contrast, yet he does so in a way that seeks to integrate the two approaches into one indivisible knowing of God, a knowing that is simultaneously rational and mystical, intellectual and experiential. He believes that this integrated apprehension of divinity characterizes the Eastern Fathers, who “pass frequently from one mode to the other” (I:96).

Our rational knowledge of the divine Creator, Staniloae avers, is grounded upon our perception of God as mediated through the structures of the world and the intrinsic rationality of nature. Through reason we know God as the creative source of all that exists and the fulfillment of the human quest for ultimate meaning. But in itself, rational knowledge is inadequate. It must be completed by supernatural revelation, fulfilled in Jesus Christ and the Pentecostal gift of the Holy Spirit. Supernatural revelation achieves its purpose in the deification of human beings and their transformative incorporation into the divine life of the Holy Trinity. “Revelation consists,” Staniloae writes, “not so much in a disclosure of a sum of theoretical information about a God enclosed within his own transcendence, as it consists in God’s act of descending to man and of raising man up to himself so that there might be achieved, in Christ, the deepest possible union” (I:34).

Theologians typically describe the apophaticism of Eastern Christianity as the way of negation (via negativa) and the cataphaticism of Western Christianity as the way of affirmation (via affirmativa). Staniloae, however, corrects this misconstrual by grouping both ways under the rational comprehension of the Creator. Whether one attempts to apprehend God by denying of him all finite limitations or by affirming of him analogous likeness to created beings, one is engaged in intellectual cognition, deduction, speculation. The apophatic experience, however, transcends this rational knowing by its directness and personal immediacy: “In apophatic knowledge the soul is absorbed in discerning God’s presence” (I:96).

Though intellectual knowledge cannot achieve the salvation of the human person—by itself it is only “theological speculation carried out from a distance”—Staniloae does not minimize or depreciate its importance. Not only does the rational apprehension of divinity not assert anything contrary to the apophatic experience, but it provides the language by which the apophatic experience can be expressed:

According to patristic tradition, there is a rational or cataphatic knowledge of God, and an apophatic or ineffable knowledge. The latter is superior to the former because it completes it. God is not known in his essence, however, through either of these. We know God through cataphatic knowledge only as creating and sustaining cause of the world, while through apophatic knowledge we gain a kind of direct experience of his mystical presence which surpasses the simple knowledge of him as cause who is invested with certain attributes similar to those of the world. This latter knowledge is termed apophatic because the mystical presence of God experienced through it transcends the possibility of being defined in words. This knowledge is more adequate to God than is cataphatic knowledge.

Rational knowledge, however, cannot simply be renounced. Even though what it says about God may not be entirely adequate, it says nothing which is opposed to God. It is just that what it does say must be deepened through apophatic knowledge. Moreover, even apophatic knowledge, when it seeks to give any account of itself at all, must resort to the terms of the knowledge of the intellect, though it does fill these terms continuously with a deeper meaning than the mind’s notions can provide. … In our opinion these two kinds of knowledge are neither contradictory nor mutually exclusive, rather they complete each other. Strictly speaking, apophatic knowledge is completed by rational knowledge of two kinds, that which proceeds by way of affirmation and that which proceeds by way of negation. … One who has a rational knowledge of God often completes this with apophatic knowledge, while the one whose apophatic experience is more pronounced will have recourse to the terms of rational knowledge when giving expression to this experience. (I:95-96)

The contemplative experience, therefore, does not exclude the intellectual dimension but includes and perfects it in the personal encounter with the “very mystery of God” (I:98). Our rational knowing of deity becomes imbued and saturated with the mystical. “In apophatic knowledge the world remains, but it has become transparent of God,” elaborates Staniloae. “This knowledge is apophatic because the God who is now perceived cannot be defined; he is experienced as a reality which transcends all possibility of definition” (I:99). Staniloae rejects the divorce of the rational and apophatic in Orthodox theology. He explicitly names Vladimir Lossky and Christos Yannaras as two theologians who have improperly devalued the role of human reason in our knowledge of God.

Rational knowing and apophatic knowing … but then Staniloae surprises us with a third knowing …

(Go to “The Knowledge of Faith”)

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10 Responses to Dumitru Staniloae: The Rational and Apophatic Knowledge of God

  1. tgbelt says:

    I like the way Denys Turner integrates cataphatic and apophatic discourses.

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  2. Fr. Athanasius says:

    Well stated! This understanding of how each approach to God (apophatic and cataphatic) are dependent on each other is an excellent clarification and balance that is too often sorely needed in the dialogues between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. I appreciate how Staniloae takes us out of the wrong type of narrow dogmatism that is in fact a distortion of true dogmatics. And you stated this very well in your blog!

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  3. Mina says:

    But was scholasticism solely cataphatic, or did it merely stress this part in their writings to answer some of the difficult questions that plagued them at the time?

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  4. tgbelt says:

    Sure. To clarify, here are a couple of my favorite Turner quotes (from Silence and the World):

    …all talk about God is tainted with ultimate failure. But this is because an adequate cataphatic theology has to be unremitting in its affirmations of theological language, for everything about the world tells us something about the creator. You cannot understand the role of the apophatic, or the extent to which it is necessary to go in denying things of God, until you have understood the role of the cataphatic and the extent to which it is necessary to go in affirming things of God. And the reason for this, as I see it, logical interdependence of the negative and the affirmative ways is not the true but trivial reason that logically until you have something to affirm you have nothing to negate. The reason is the more dialectically interesting one that it is in and through the very excess, the proliferation, of discourse about God that we discover its failure as a whole.

    …the way of negation is not a sort of… mechanical process…of serial negation, affirmation by affirmation, of each thing you can say about God, as if affirmative statements about God were all false; nor is it…simply adding the prefix ‘super’ to already superlative Latin adjectives predicated of God…. Rather…the way of negation demands prolixity; it demands the maximization of talk about God; it demands that we talk about God in as many ways as possible, even in as many conflicting ways as possible, that we use up the whole stock-in-trade of discourse in our possession, so as thereby to discover ultimately the inadequacy of all of it….

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    • tgbelt says:

      Turner’s point is that the apophatic-cataphatic relationship is a ‘dialectic’ — “the encounter with the failure of what we must say about God.” That helped me.

      There’s an interesting comment by Pseudo-Dionysius in The Mystical Theology on this (Turner picks up on it too). PD says:

      What has actually to be said about the Cause of everything is this — since it is the Cause of all beings, we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings, and more importantly we should negate all these affirmations, since it surpasses all being. But we should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations, but rather that the cause of all is considerably prior to this, beyond privations, beyond every denial, beyond every assertion.

      When PD says apophatic denials are not simply the opposites of affirmations, he means apophatic denials are not merely the logical (Aristotelian) contradictions of affirmations, because to speak of logical contradictions is to remain within the domain of the cataphatic. Take “God exists.” It’s true cataphatically. We affirm it. And within the domain of cataphatic discourse we also must affirm that it’s contradictory is false. “God does not exist” is false, not true.

      Where’s the apophatic denial come in? The proper apophatic denial (if I follow Turner) is to deny BOTH cataphatic propositions (“exists” and “does not exist”), that is, to deny the logic of the disjunction (‘God exists’ OR ‘God does not exist’) itself, to deny that God is exhausted by the logic of the cataphatic. That’s more radical. But to just line up every affirmation and ‘contradict’ it, Turner says, isn’t apophatic discourse. That’s just straight up irrationality that’s unable to hand us off to true mystery.

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