Reflecting the Mystery: Analogy Beyond Negation and Affirmation

by Robert F. Fortuin

Silence is a mystery of the age to come, but words are instruments of this world.
~ St Isaac the Syrian

The Holy Spirit, in delivering to us the Divine mysteries,
conveys its instruction on those matters which transcend language
by means of what is within our capacity.

~ St Gregory of Nyssa1

All theology, not merely mystical theology, faces what appears to be an insurmountable problem – how are mere words, the ‘instruments of this world’ as Isaac the Syrian calls them, able to express a reality which transcends this world? Our words must account for the interval of dissimilarity between God and creation – but how is this accomplished, if it is at all possible? In this essay I would like to draw attention to an important aspect of theology which is all too often overlooked in theological pursuits: namely, the problematic task of language to convey meaningful concepts about theology proper. Most of the time it is simply assumed that concepts and words about God, our ‘theo-logoi,’ equally apply to God as do words that apply to everything else. Take for instance ‘existence.’ It is said that ‘God exists,’ and ‘the cosmos exists’; therefore, by way of affirmation ‘to exist’ is thought to apply univocally to both God and creation. The extreme opposite is often assumed to be true as well: words and concepts entirely lose their meaning when applied to theology proper. The absolute equivocity of words, it is claimed, is warranted due to the radical dissimilarity of God. God is good, but we must negate the meaning of what ‘good’ means as applied to God, for how God is good is shrouded in the impenetrable darkness of absolute apophaticism. The ability of language to convey meaning related to theology proper is thought to break down on a fundamental level.

It is here that Gregory of Nyssa’s arguments in Contra Eunomium help demonstrate that ordinary use of language, that is to say univocal and equivocal use of language, is unfit to adequately convey meaning about theology proper. As a way out of this conundrum, the fourth century bishop lays out an alternative philosophy of language which he contends can indeed, pace Eunomius’ univocity2, reflect the mystery of the one God eternally existing in three Persons. Gregory affirms that ordinary words, with certain important provisos, can be used to apply to and represent the infinite mode of being which transcends the created order. Given specific grammatical rules to govern our theo-logoi, discourse about matters theological is possible. In order to appreciate the genius of Gregory’s proposal, close attention has to be paid to the rules for discourse about God; the grammar of ‘theo-logic’ will therefore have to be (briefly) considered to understand Gregory’s approach. The theological grammar specifically concerns the rules which govern predication of God; this discipline aims to inquire how theological language functions differently from that which concerns ordinary, non-divine subjects. To come back to the example of ‘existence’; this inquiry specifically asks in what sense can existence be said of God (i.e. that ‘God exists’). How does divine existence differ, if it differs at all, from non-divine existence? More specifically, how can divine difference (and conversely, divine likeness) be accounted for in our theological grammar whilst avoiding on the one hand an onto-theology of univocity, and on the other hand the complete loss of meaning in the equivocity of the apophatic denial? The inquiry specifically considers the possible implications divine difference has on the signification of words. The need to pay attention to theological language is of particular concern to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and, more broadly, to any Christian tradition for which God’s radical otherness, the absolute divine dissimilarity, constitutes the sine qua non of the mystical dimension of theology. Because words, ‘the instruments of this world,’ are the only tools available to the theologian, attention to the demands which theology proper exerts on language is more than an idle pre-occupation. The theologian stands or falls by the words she chooses and the grammatical rules she utilizes. The importance of the rules of theological language is demonstrated in that it concerns itself not merely with epistemology but operates in a space where dogmatics, metaphysics, and linguistics intersect. Certainly this is not quibbling over mere semantics. Setting aside for a moment the question as to the ground for theological knowledge (epistemology shall be noted later), we return to the opening question: how can we adequately formulate a ‘theo-logos,’ words or discourse about God, given the mysterious and transcendent nature of the theological subject? God as subject: this should make the alarm bells go off because the fathers and mothers of the undivided church overwhelmingly warn that God is not an ordinary subject. God is not to be reckoned as a being within the continuum of beings. God is, in a real sense, not a proper subject at all. In the words of Pseudo-Dionysius: ‘if in seeing God one can know what one sees, then one has not seen God in himself but something intelligible, something which is inferior to him.’3 Dionysius warns us that if in naming God we think we thereby have come to a comprehension of the nature of God, i.e. what God is, we will have deluded ourselves in describing an idol. John of Damascus is no less direct: ‘God does not belong to the class of existing things: not that he has no existence but that he is above all existing things, nay even above existence itself.’4 The difficulty these Christian theologians of Late Antiquity point to is that in offering a description of a transcendent object its very transcendence has been betrayed; the words we choose, the meaning we ascribe to them, and how we utilize them — when we speak of theology proper — must therefore be very carefully considered. For these theologians there is a sense in which our words should not exhaustively signify God; this is so, they warn, for words cannot describe God. Gregory of Nyssa sums up this limitation of words used to describe divinity: ‘the infinity of God exceeds all the significance and comprehension that names can furnish.’5 Words, descriptions, and concepts, then, are unable to exhaust divine transcendence; God ever exceeds what words can signify. The Cappadocian father exposes a complication for God-talk: how can discourse about God who ‘is above existence itself’ proceed when our language can only signify concepts of inferior things? The task demanded of language is to bear the ineffable mystery of the transcendent God – but this does not seem to be possible. How can words signify the ‘ever-exceeding-beyond’ when the only reference available to language is the comprehension of our ‘here and now’? Gregory of Nyssa overcomes this problem by means of a theory of theological language grounded in the reflection of God’s likeness which he contends is beheld in creation. This reflection is a creaturely quality neither accidental nor superficial; the created order, by reason of its being called into existence as a creature, ontologically constitutes a mirror analogically reflecting God’s likeness. Thus, the ontological quality of creation reflecting the divine image prevents pure equivocation as it enables him to establish predication of theology proper warranted by analogical similarity: our discourse about God can convey true meaning. Furthermore, by incorporating analogical predication Gregory accounts for absolute divine dissimilarity on the basis that the analog comparison never identifies the reflection with its archetype, and thus preserves difference and otherness. Although our discourse about theology proper does convey meaning it can never be considered to exhaustively represent, and thus be identified with, its subject: an analogical remove will ever open up an interval of difference between God and the cosmos.

The aim of this essay is to establish two assertions in regards to the nature of theological discourse as developed by Gregory of Nyssa. The first point is that special grammatical rules govern theological discourse in order to account for the infinite interval of God’s difference from creaturely mode of existence. The second is that analogous predication is the conceptual means whereby a theological discourse of theology proper can be affirmed. The need for attention to theological grammar is no more evident than in Gregory of Nyssa’s Contra Eunomium. Gregory charges his Neo-Arian interlocutor, bishop Eunomius of Cyzicus, with the error of using words in their normal, univocal sense to signify the divine mode of existence. Eunomius, says Gregory, is breaking the cardinal rules of theological grammar. Arguing against Eunomius’ claim that ‘there was a time when Christ was not,’ Gregory points out that the Son’s generation from the Father is unlike creaturely generation which denotes non-existence and succession in time.6 According to Gregory, Eunomius’ error lies in the univocal use of the term ‘generation’: he uses the creaturely mode of begetting to signify the divine mode of generation.7 For the Cappadocian bishop, the requirement for a distinctive theological grammar is due to God’s radical otherness from creation; consequently, a literal or univocal use of ‘generation’ is not to be predicated of God. Divine dissimilarity, according to Nyssa, is the reason for the inadequacy of the ordinary sense and univocal signification of language in discourse about God. Failure to account for divine difference in theological grammar leads to, or is a result of, erroneous anthropophatic conceptions of divinity. Words must be utilized in such a way to move beyond their ordinary, univocal signification: for Gregory theological grammar must go beyond mere apophatic negation (i.e. the negation ‘the Son is not generated’ is equally erroneous and inadequate) in order to establish in what sense the Son can be said to be generated. Based on an atemporal filial generation which precludes non-existence Gregory refutes the Anomoeians’ claim that the Son is essentially unlike the Father. Gregory’s use of terms acknowledges the difference between the divine and creaturely mode of existence. Dissimilarity from creation is thus of utmost importance to Gregory’s theology and theological language: divine unlikeness must somehow — and always — be reflected in our discourse of theology proper. However, dissimilarity never amounts to simple negation or absolute equivocity.

It should come as no surprise then to find that Nyssa’s defense of Nicene orthodoxy is built on a detailed articulation of God’s radical difference from creation. Undoubtedly, divine difference has important implications for how theological language is constructed. Gregory’s ontological Anschauung consists of an absolute division between the uncreated and created order of existence – an interval which he refers to as the ‘ultimate division’ of being or άνωτάτω διαίρεσις (anotato diairesis). This abyss is a ‘disproportion of ontological dissimilarity’ marked by the infinite, absolute existence of God8 in contradis­tinction to the finite, contingent being of the created order. God’s infinite mode of existence is utterly unlike the mode of existence of the cosmos which is constrained by limitation, composition, distention, and change. According to Gregory, God’s existence does not come into being9 but always simply ‘is’; there is no ‘before,’ ‘during’ and ‘after’ in God’s mode of being.10 Furthermore, unlike creation God’s existence is marked neither by a ‘here’ nor a ‘there’ as if composed of parts which extend into space. God’s illimitable mode of being thus knows neither time, place, extension, nor composition.11 According to Gregory, God is ‘the cause of his own existence’ which denotes that the άνωτάτω διαίρεσις constitutes an ontological disproportion between God and his handiwork.12 He self-exists and is therefore unlike derivative existence, for God does not depend on anything or anyone ‘outside’ Himself for His existence. God’s aseity is the possibility for creation as only He that self-exists can freely give being to being without prior constraint, suffering no diminishment nor necessity. Furthermore, God is perfect, without unrealized potential; for according to Gregory, ‘nothing can be added to God.’13 This is a very quick sketch of how the Nyssen construes the infinite interval of difference which distinguishes God from creation.

The pertinent point here is that the ultimate division of being as Gregory develops it poses a difficulty for theological discourse, a problem of which Gregory was quite cognizant. As Gregory explains it, ‘the created nature and the Divine essence being thus divided, and admitting no intermixture in respect of their distinguishing properties, we must by no means conceive both by means of similar terms.’14 The distinction between God and creation precludes the use of similar designations – words are emptied of signification by reason of their inability to bridge the infinite interval of difference. Because each nature has its own distinct mode of existence it is not possible to, ‘express by the same terms the created and the uncreated essence, seeing that those attributes which are predicated of the latter essence are not discoverable in the former.’15 The interval between God and creation thus forecloses all possibility of theologizing — for according to Gregory the division does not allow for ‘intermixture’; therefore ‘similar terms’ (i.e.univocal) cannot be used. But are words not emptied of their meaning? Equivocation, the complete breakdown of signification, seems to rule the day for absolute unlikeness presents a complete disjunction forestalling all God-talk. However, and this is a very important ‘however,’ Gregory shows how he overcomes this difficulty in his response to Eunomius:

we are taught by the divine Scriptures many names of the Only-begotten—a stone, an axe, a rock, a foundation, bread, a vine, a door, a way, a shepherd, a fountain, a tree, resurrection, a teacher, light, and many such names. But we may not piously use any of these names of the Lord, understanding it according to its immediate sense. For surely it would be a most absurd thing to think that what is incorporeal and immaterial, simple, and without figure, should be fashioned according to the apparent senses of these names… but we transfer the sense of these names to what better becomes the Divine nature, and form some other conception, and if we do designate Him thus, it is not as being any of these things, according to the definition of His nature, but as being called these things while He is conceived by means of the names employed as something else than the things themselves.16

Nyssa affirms the use of normal words, but not with the usual or what he calls the ‘immediate’ and ‘apparent’ sense of their significations. Gregory cautiously approves that discourse about theology proper is possible provided we remain aware of and utilize the signification of words befitting God’s mode of existence. Thus, it is proper according to Nyssa to predicate of Christ that ‘he is a rock,’ provided we ‘form some other conception’ and say that Christ is not a rock in the ordinary, apparent sense of a rock. Note that here (in the case of a term which does not describe a divine attribute) apophaticism is appropriate. A simple apophatic denial of the affirmation is adequate: ‘God is not a rock, an axe, a door, and so forth’ because God ‘is not as being any of these things.’ In the case of metaphors then apophaticism is appropriate; however, the inadequacy of apophaticism shall be noted below for not all predication of God is by way of metaphor. At any rate, Gregory maintains that theological discourse must account for God’s utter dissimilarity from creation; consequently, God-talk must ‘transfer the sense’ of ordinary words to ‘what better becomes’ the uncreated nature.

The disjunction between the divine and created mode of existence raises the further question as to the nature of this ‘transfer of sense’ and the question as to the possibility of such a shift in knowledge and meaning. Gregory elsewhere in Contra Eunomium explains how he formulates a transfer of sense in theological discourse:

… the Holy Spirit, in delivering to us the Divine mysteries, conveys its instruction on those matters which transcend language by means of what is within our capacity … it portrays the Divinity in bodily terms … none of which things is apprehended to belong in its primary sense to the Divine Nature … it describes by terms well worn in human use, facts that are beyond every name, while by each of the terms employed concerning God we are led analogically to some more exalted conception. [The Holy Spirit] taking just so much from each [human concept] as may be reverently admitted into our conceptions concerning God … indicates by those conceptions concerning God which correspond to them, not admitting the corporeal senses of the words … yet does not speak in that sense which our customary knowledge enables us to understand.17

In this important pericope the Nyssen points to two distinct but related aspects – he establishes the epistemological ground for theological discourse and how such epistemology determines the mode whereby this discourse is to be conducted. As to the latter, the mode of discourse, the Cappadocian father notes that by means of ordinary language ‘well worn in human use’ conceptions proper to theologia can be obtained by way of analogy, transferring from human concepts just that which is befitting the Divine nature. Analogy or ‘αναλογια‘ used by Gregory in this passage denotes ‘a relation by measure of proportionality’ — an analogical likeness proportionate to the degree that creaturely existence reflects or participates in the existence and perfections of God. Although a true likeness is affirmed, similarity is always incomplete and consequently in describing God our words always fall short (true in degree only), ever reaching but never capturing its archetype.18 The flip side of the analogy is that insofar the created mode of existence is unlike divinity, dissimilarity precludes the use of terms in their univocal or ordinary sense. It is worth pointing out that analogical theology embeds similarity within an ever greater dissimilarity in order to account for the disjunction which divine transcendence presents. Recall how this functions in Gregory’s argument against Eunomius: the likeness of human generation to divine filial generation is affirmed in that the Son is begotten, and He is Son of the Father; whilst it is also maintained that the generation of God the Son by God the Father is fundamentally dissimilar to creaturely generation. Hence Gregory and the Nicenes insist that generation predicated of divine trinitarian life is atemporal — categorically denying notions of beginning, becoming, and non-existence. Theological discourse by mode of analogy thus acknowledges the ever-present need for further explication in order to approximate the ‘in-what-sense’ of its predication of God; analogical predication is thus cognizant of its permanent state of incompletion in light of the infinite alterity of God. The ‘in-what-sense’ of our predication always falls short, as no word or words can name what it is to be God the Trinity. The grammar of analogy is thus quite slippery — my contention is that precisely this quality of analogical language makes it the only proper ‘theo-logic’ for a theology of divine transcendence. This way of predication is aware that the ‘object which is not an object’, theology proper, is ever out of reach, never fully captured by word and concept; at the same time, predication by way of analogia affirms that words and epinoia can truthfully reflect divine mystery, and so constitute a true means to encounter and participation in divine otherness.

As touching the epistemological ground for theological discourse referenced earlier, Gregory indicates the existence of a correspondence or proportional (analogical) likeness between created and uncreated being. His epistemology is based on the ontological correspondence of divine likeness present in the created order; a correspondence which in turn constitutes the possibility for meaningful discourse about God. Theological grammar must however account for the likeness whilst always noting unlikeness. In Gregory’s words, ‘that which is “made in the image” of the Deity necessarily possesses a likeness to its prototype,’ and ‘the reflections of those ineffable qualities of Deity shine forth within the narrow limits of our nature.’ Whilst recognizing similarity, Gregory is keen to note dissimilarity for, ‘it would be no longer an “image,” if it were altogether identical with that other.’19 By means of analogy Gregory of Nyssa frames a theological language which is grounded in God’s likeness in creation and which, at the same time, accounts for divine dissimilarity due to the finitude of creaturely existence. It is thus that he construes his grammatical rules to guide theological discourse in order to ‘transfer the sense’ of names to ‘what better becomes the Divine nature.’

Analogical predication exposes the inadequacy of unqualified apophaticism as the ground for theological discourse. As noted earlier, analogical discourse of God accounts for the interval of dissimilarity whilst being grounded in an epistemology of correspondence. Apophaticism as a theology of denial, however, foregrounds dissimilarity such that it undermines the possibility of theological discourse. This shortcoming of the via negativa as a mode of discourse is evident when applied to divine attributes or perfections (i.e. goodness, being, wisdom, truth, and so forth) when predicated of God. In the case of terms not signifying a divine attribute, denial is proper: so we can state that ‘God is not a rock’ and leave it at that for God is not really a rock. But this is not the case for divine perfections; take for instance ‘goodness.’ We can affirm that ‘God is good’ without qualification (keeping in mind of course that our manner of signifying perfections always falls short, but ‘God is good’ nonetheless can be properly said of God). The statement ‘God is not good’ however cannot be properly predicated of God. The denial must be qualified to signify how, in what sense, divine goodness is dissimilar to goodness as encountered in creatures. Here the analogy of proportionality, Nyssa’s grundregel for theological grammar, has to be applied: God is not good in the sense goodness is predicated of creatures – creatures participate in goodness by measure of acquisition and becoming (i.e. in various degrees), but God does not participate in goodness for He is the good and He is goodness (recall the difference in mode of existence according to Gregory’s ultimate division of being). By this analogical rule then discourse of God acknowledges the likeness and the dislikeness of goodness. The good can be found in creatures, but in the sense in them only according to their proportion (that is by analogy). As such, creaturely goodness is both similar and infinitely dissimilar to divine goodness. By αναλογια then Nyssa is able to account for dissimilarity (‘God is the good and goodness’) and similarity (a ‘man is good’ based on a measure or proportion of correspondence) in theological discourse. In contrast the apophatic method can only signify a mere denial (‘God is not good’ or ‘we don’t know what good means when applied to God’) and is therefore inadequate to construct a theological grammar which is able to reflect the mystery of Exodus 3:14 of the ‘I Am Who I Am,’ who is beyond the dialectic of negation and affirmation. The priority given to dissimilarity by strict apophaticism must give way to divine analogical correspondence lest meaning is entirely vacated from theological discourse.

Alas some have overlooked or departed from Nyssa’s epistemology of ‘analogical correspondence’ and instead foreground apophaticism to regulate theological discourse. Perhaps such a departure is already detectable in the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, fond as he is of the way of negation; this may have been picked up later by John of Damascus. An extreme expression of negative theology can be seen in the writings of Meister Eckhart, for whom God is ‘nonGod, a nonspirit, a nonperson, a nonimage.’20 It seems plausible that Eckhart’s approach to apophatic theology influenced a theologian closer to our time — Vladimir Lossky. Lossky’s apophaticism allowed him to state without qualification that ‘God is not being, He is not the good.’21 Aristotle Papanikolaou has effectively demonstrated the problematic such a construal of apophatic theology poses for epistemology. Lossky’s prioritization of apophaticism precludes knowledge of theologia (God in Himself, the immanent Trinity) and permits knowledge of God only in the realm of oikonomia. For Lossky theologia remains shrouded in absolutely hiddenness for ‘not even God’s economy can reveal anything positive’ about God ad intra.22 Apophaticism construed and utilized in such a way dangerously forestalls theological discourse by emptying words of their ability to carry meaning, having lost their ontological grounding in divine correspondence. Papanikolaou aptly points to the dire consequences Lossky’s apophatic break between theologia and oikonomia has for theological discourse: ‘the God who is experienced in the economy is not the God who is free to be in communion with the non-divine order … Lossky’s apophaticism results in a break such that there is no experience of God’s immanent life.’23 If there is no revelation of God’s immanent life whatsoever, the meaning of the economic revelation is called into question. It is thus possible to come to conclude with Lossky that ‘God is not the good.’ The consequences for theology proper are far from trivial. Theological language without epistemological grounding in analogical correspondence of God in creation is emptied of its ability to convey meaningful and trustworthy information. Pure equivocation constitutes a nihilism of theological grammar which makes it is impossible to establish a meaningful distinction between ‘God is good’ and ‘God is not good’ — all theological predication is vacated. Such radical apophatic theology may be labelled as mystical theology, but it raises the question in what sense such mysticism has a justifiable claim to be called biblical or patristic. At any rate, such use of acute apophaticism appears to be in sharp contrast with Gregory of Nyssa’s analogical discourse of God in which theology proper is expressed by meaningful affirmations qualified by the awareness of the ontological abyss of dissimilarity between God and creation in the ‘ultimate division of being.’

I will conclude with a brief thought about the implications which Gregory’s theory of discourse of God may have for contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologies of the essence/energy distinction. I suggest there is a very close parallel between Lossky’s prioritization of apophaticism and popularized construals of the essence/energy distinction favored by many Orthodox. I surmise that the distinction functions in a similar way to Lossky’s apophatic break between the Theologia-Oikonomia. The epistemological break between the essence and energy of God is modelled after Lossky’s bifurcation of the revelation of the oikonomia and the unknowable inner triune existence of God. The Orthodox essence/energy distinction risks devolving into, appropriating a phrase from Papanikolaou, a ‘non-ontology of non-being.’ The Trinitarian life is wholly obscured by complete equivocation (i.e. nothing may be predicated of God’s uncreated essence or nature); whereas univocal, ordinary predication is applicable to God as he is revealed (i.e. his uncreated energies). Gregory of Nyssa, however, makes no distinction between the divine essence and energies in this regard, for both are God’s mode of existence – which is to say that for Gregory the infinite interval of dissimilarity and the analogical similarity apply equally to the divine essence as they do to the divine energies. The implication is that univocal predication of God’s energies is no less unfitting as is equivocal predication of God’s essence. Analogous discourse is as befitting God’s essence as it is of God’s energies. For Gregory the only distinction that exists is that between uncreated and created existence. Similarity and dissimilarity apply equally to God’s essence as to his energies; similarity makes possible the discourse of the immanent Trinity and the divine economy. Divine dissimilarity — of essence and energy — makes it necessary to conduct discourse of God by way of analogical grammar. It appears thus that a re-thinking of the utility and formulation of the essence/energy distinction is critical for contemporary Eastern Orthodox theology. The two areas of immediate concern are the placement of an epistemological division within God by way of the essence/energy distinction, and the priority given to apophaticism without an ontological grounding in creation which threatens the possibility for meaningful theological predication in regards to theology proper. Gregory of Nyssa’s construal of theological discourse in an ontology of analogical correspondence — which posits no distinction between God’s uncreated essence and uncreated energies — seems to be particularly promising and warrants further exploration to address the problematic encountered in contemporary Eastern Orthodox theology.

If predication of God is to avoid idolization, theological grammar cannot proceed by univocation – words describing creatures cannot be utilized in the same sense of God. If predication is to avoid agnosticism it cannot proceed by equivocation and apophaticism – words need to retain meaning so as to prevent failure to communicate information. To reflect the mystery of the revelation of the ineffable and inscrutable Creator, in constructing our grammar of theological discourse we would do well to follow Gregory of Nyssa in recognizing God’s utter dissimilar mode of existence whilst affirming its epistemological grounding in an ontology of proportional correspondence. Only a theological discourse which proceeds by way of a language of analogy is able — albeit always tentatively and in part — to reflect the mystery of presence and remove, of similarity in dissimilarity. Analogous predication is a discourse of mystery, a language which befits the transcendent God who is ever beyond negation and affirmation.


[1] Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1880), VIII NPNF V, 208. All references to works of Gregory in this essay are from NPNF (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Volume V.

[2] Eunomius, a fourth century bishop of Cyzicus, is Gregory of Nyssa’s neo-Arian nemesis. Much of Gregory’s rhetoric is directed against Eunomius and his followers.

[3] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works. Tr. C. Luibheid, (London: SPCK, 1987), 263.

[4] John of Damascus. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 1.4. John here is expressing the difference in how it can be said that God exists and creatures exists. We see here a negation of existence (‘God does not belong to the class of existing things’), a denial of negation (‘not that he has no existence’), and a double affirmation of existence (‘he is [i.e. exists] above all existing things, nay even [exists] above existence itself’).

[5] Nyssa, Contra Eunomium, 147.

[6] Nyssa, Contra Eunomium, 206. Gregory denies the validity of univocal predication, or ‘community and identity of meaning’ as he calls it. Generation is only one example of the inadequacy of univocal language, many other instances can be found in Contra Eunomium.

[7] This error is compounded by Eunomius’ identification of God’s nature with being ‘unbegotten’ – because only the Father is unbegotten, therefore the Son is not divine.

[8] Nyssa, Contra Eunomium, 98

[9] Nyssa, Contra Eunomium, 94

[10] See Nyssa, Contra Eunomium, 67, 69, 94. Interestingly, timelessness does not denote incompatibility with time for Gregory, as time issues forth from infinity. Nyssa, Contra Eunomium, 67ff. God we may say transcends time; this seems to denote for Gregory that eternity is in some way compatible to, or can ‘contain’, time.

[11] Nyssa, Contra Eunomium, 70. ‘owning the same cause of His being’

[12] Nyssa, Contra Eunomium, 90.

[13] Nyssa, Contra Eunomium, Book VIII, Chapter 5

[14] Nyssa, Contra Eunomium, 194.

[15] Nyssa, Contra Eunomium, 208.

[16] Nyssa, Contra Eunomium, 204-205.

[17] Gregory further maintains that concepts (epinoia) pertaining to God are a valid means by which to do theology, provided it is understood that the divine essence is thereby never comprehended. This contrasts sharply with Eunomius who affirmed that the divine essence can be described (namely as agenetos ‘unbegotten’, to wit that to be God is to be agenetos), and this not by way of epinioa but by divinely inspired knowledge given to passive humans.

[18] The parallels between the theology of word and the theology of icon should be noted here in that the image as far as it is said to be a true reflection, is never identified with its archetype, ever pointing beyond itself. Both similarity and dissimilarity are affirmed. It is for this reason the word, like the icon, is often compared in patristics to a mirror.

[19] Gregory of Nyssa, The Soul and The Resurrection, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1880), 437.

[20] Meister Eckhart, Sermon 83, Renovamini Spiritu, p 208. To be fair, negation is not Eckhart’s sole approach to theology proper, but strict apophaticism does tend to play a dominant role.

[21] Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir Press, 2002), 40. In later writings Lossky seems to have been aware of the problematic inherent in his theological method.

[22] Papanikolaou, Aristotle. Being with God. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2008), 99.

[23] Papanikolaou, Being with God, 123-124.

Copyright © 2017 Robert F. Fortuin. All rights reserved.

This essay is an adaptation of a presentation made at the 2016 Sophia Institute’s Conference on the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

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Robert F. Fortuin is Adjunct Professor of Orthodox Theology at St Katherine College in San Diego, California. He holds an MLitt Divinity from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and a BA in Religious Studies from Vanguard University. He is currently hacking away at the theology of Gregory of Nyssa for his Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

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9 Responses to Reflecting the Mystery: Analogy Beyond Negation and Affirmation

  1. brian says:

    Excellent work, Robert. Rather tangentially, I recommend the works of the Swiss philosopher poet, Max Picard. His understanding of Silence as a plenitude that the music of the world participates in is a useful counter to the excesses of “mystical apophaticism.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Robert Fortuin says:

    Thank you, Brian, for the kind words, and also the reference to Picard.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Matthew Hryniewicz says:

    Hi Robert,

    I’m a little hung up on the part where you say “In the case of metaphors then apophaticism is appropriate; however, the inadequacy of apophaticism shall be noted below for not all predication of God is by way of metaphor.” It seemed like you just finished saying that according to Gregory we could speak things like “God is a rock” so long as we did not conceive of ‘rock’ in its immediate sense. Wouldn’t that be the same as saying that it is ok to speak of God metaphorically as a rock and that apophaticism is not necessary when our words are thus qualified?

    I must admit that I’m posting mid-reading here so maybe when I get time to finish I’ll have a clearer view of what you’re saying.


    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Hi Matthew,

      Hopefully the rest of the essay explains it. But to summarize:

      A distinction is made between God’s perfections and derivative attributes. An example of a divine perfection is ‘goodness’ and ‘the good’, and so it is affirmed that God is goodness itself and ‘the good’. This cannot be said of derivate attributes, such as (being like) ‘rockness.’ The distinction then calls for a difference in how we speak about God. When pointing out the difference between God’s perfections and derivative attributes metaphors fail to apply – so it is misleading to say ‘God is like a good.’ The same applies to apophatic negations when speaking of divine perfections – to say that ‘God is not the good’ is to slip into error, whereas an apophatic negation of derivate attributes (such as ‘God is not like a rock’) is not only acceptable but quite necessary.

      Does that help?

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      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        In terms of metaphorical language, is what we end up saying that both “God is like a rock” and “God is not like a rock” in that it is acceptable to say that in some ways God is like a rock, provided that we are careful also remind ourselves that in some ways he isn’t?
        Also, is a statement such as “God exists” effectively a metaphorical statement in your terminology, such that God existing is sufficiently similar in some ways to, say, us existing to make the statement meaningful, but only so long as we remind ourselves that it is not exactly the same?

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Hi Iain,

          As to metaphors (‘God is like a rock’ or ‘God is a rock’), indeed the proviso is absolutely necessary to remind ourselves, as you say, that in some very important ways he is not like rock. But the point is we cannot make such provisos when speaking of divine perfections.

          Existence (i.e. ‘to be’) predicated of God is generally accepted to refer to divine perfection – so strictly ‘God exists’ is not a metaphorical statement. I suppose one could protest and counter that existence can be used metaphorically, as in ‘divine existence is like human existence’. It appears to me with such one can only end up with pure negation, which is to say that one cannot affirm that ‘divine existence is like human existence’ but rather only that ‘divine existence is unlike human existence.’ This is so because being or existence is a divine perfection, which is to say that God’s nature is to be. And this is a very uncreaturely attribute. Keep in mind also that all divine perfections are one; so, for example, there’s no difference in God between goodness and existence.
          All this has to be kept in mind when speaking of God, these have repercussions for our theological language.

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      • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

        Ok, let me see if I’m following correctly now. When we speak of God’s perfections we are speaking of what God is, whereas when we speak of derivative attributes we are speaking in terms of what, in the created order, God is like. Metaphors deal in the latter, and since transcendence guarantees that God is radically dissimilar from everything in the created order, apophaticism is always appropriate to this kind of predication of God. To speak of the derivative attributes is to speak of God’s image in creation, so while we can speak with a measure of truth about God by describing that image, it is also true that the image is not God.

        On the flip side, when we speak of what God is, it does not work to take the apophatic approach because we would be saying that God is dissimilar to God. However, since God is transcendent of all the categories with which we have to conceptualize, we must not think that when we predicate something like goodness of God that such goodness is equal to what we commonly call goodness. So it is not that we fail to speak truthfully when we say “God is good” but that we always fail to understand precisely what that means. God is the horizon towards which our concepts of truth, goodness, beauty, etc. are pointed. To say that we speak analogically is to admit our limited understanding of the terms we must use to describe God, while affirming that they do in fact describe him.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          That is well stated, Matthew. The distinction speaks to the limits of apophaticism, a caution which has been ignored at times. We can see the dangers of this, for instance, in some of the theology of Dionysius and Lossky.

          On the positive side, we stand before a mystery of beauty beyond compare which beckons us to come and, behold. There’s an excess which speech and imagination cannot contain. We are now in the land of art and poetry, of symphony and beauty, a dispassionate hyper sense experience.

          Sadly we moderns have stripped the faith down to rational proposition, to cold and heartless calculation, becoming strangers to the mystery and beauty of icon.

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