When St Gregory the Theologian says in Oration 28.10 that “It is much simpler, much briefer, to indicate all that something is not by indicating what it is, than to reveal what it is by denying what it is not” it seems that he is denying apophatic theology and advancing cataphatic theology. Indeed, earlier in this same chapter Gregory discusses the “negative” attributes of God, incorporeal, ingenerate, unoriginate, immutable, and immortal and finds them wanting, for they are like someone who when asked what five plus five is answers by saying that it is not two or three or four, etc. Likewise, these descriptions of God by negation do not “give an all-embracing revelation of God’s essential being.”
Gregory’s goal in this oration is to answer through epistemology the correct nature of God’s essential being. Against those who say that God has a body Gregory asserts that God is incorporeal, but he not content to simply leave the answer in the negative. He must move beyond this negative description to explain how it is that God then exists in this incorporeality. Does an incorporeal being exist in “spatial location”? and if it does not does it even really exist? Gregory answers by saying that God does not exists in his incorporeality within the universe nor above it, but is beyond mental comprehension. So though Gregory criticizes purely negative descriptions of God, he himself fails to come to a fully positive description of the “essential being” of God, leaving such an answer to the realm beyond our mental faculties. For, as Gregory says, to comprehend God is to delimit him.
The similarities and differences of this theology to the theological method laid out by Dionysius the Areopogite in his Mystical Theology deserves exposition. While Dionysius is usually made out to be the apophatic theologian par excellance a close reading of Dionysius shows that his theology is nowhere as theologically one-dimensional as some believe.
Dionysius speaks of symbolic representations of God in his work Divine Names. In this work Dionysius says that to call God a lion is appropriate because the attributes of a lion describes appropriately an aspect of the divine nature. A lion then is, in some sense, the same as God. Yet a lion is also radically not the same as God. Thus one can, following Dionysius, say “God is a lion” and “God is not a lion.” Both are true statements. God and the lion “share what can not be shared” and yet the lion is still “infinitely and incomparably subordinate” to God. What is similar between the two is affirmed while what is dissimilar is negated.
Dionysius applies the same method of exegesis in Mystical Theology. Dionysius first says everything that God is, working from the most exalted descriptions to the most base, he then says what God is not, working from the most base to the most exalted. The initial affirmation is necessary, for without it one would have nothing to negate. So unlike Gregory who says that those who say that five plus five is not two, not three, not four, etc. in order to avoid affirming that the answer is ten, it can be said that Dionysius does indeed begin by affirming that the answer is ten and then moves to understanding that the answer can not be two or three or four. By realizing what it is about the numbers two and three and four that make them incorrect one can more fully appreciate why the number ten is correct, and thus gain a higher understanding of the question.
The reason for this theological method for Dionysius is not, like Gregory, to come to an epistemological description of God, but to lead learners into spiritual interpretation and growth. When the learner moves up from the base descriptions of God to the transcendent descriptions of God, negating the things about them which are dissimilar to God, the learner loses the capacity of language to describe what God is, and then the learner will be at one with God.
The reason why language is unable to describe “what God is” (the “essential being” of God) is because God is transcendent to our world and our language. Since God is the cause of this world Dionysius affirms that God is revealed in parts in this world and human knowledge, but these are not sufficient for a complete understanding or knowledge of God. In order to have knowledge of God, then, one must know God through “unknowing”. All of our human language and concepts are limited by our human experience. Since God transcends this experience in order to know God we must also move beyond this terminology which is bounded by human experience and into that which is beyond what we know. To insist on only speaking of God in terms which we can humanly conceptualize is to subject God to “delimitations” as Gregory says.
This is why Dionysius can say that “God is good” and “God is not good”. “God is good” is true because God can be described as exhibiting characteristics which we would define as being “good”. But one can also say that “God is not good”, not because this means that God is less than good or evil, but because God is beyond being simply “good” as we humanly understand goodness to be. Ultimately, even this denial needs to be overcome, God is also much more than “not good”, for even the concept of “not good” or “beyond good” fails to capture exactly the “essential being”. For that which is “beyond every assertion” and “beyond every limitation” is also “beyond every denial”. Therefore, even negation needs to be negated in the spiritual ascent, and this is where the learner passes into being “speechless and unknowing”. Here one overcomes simply negative theology to pursue mystical theology, an experience of ecstatic union with God. This is the divine darkness of Moses on Mount Sinai, which is not a place of spiritual abandonment but a place of knowing God in a way which “transcends understanding”.
Given this understanding of Dionysius’s theology the characterization of Dionysius by Vladimir Lossky seems mysterious. Lossky begins by saying “Dionysius distinguishes two possible theological ways – that of cataphatic or positive theology – proceeds by affirmations; the other – apophatic or negative theology – by negations.” This is overly simplistic, and ignores what we have seen is the role of symbolic theology and mystical theology in these categories. Although, Dionysius himself likely did not form for himself very neat boundaries or definitions for these various “theologies” that we ascribe to him. Lossky continues, “The first leads us to some knowledge of God, but it is an imperfect way. The perfect way, the only way which is fitting in regard to God, who is of His very nature unknowable, is the second – which leads us to total ignorance.” If Lossky believes that the “imperfect” knowledge of God that cataphatic theology gives us is the way various objects can correctly symbolize aspects of God, then Lossky is correct. However, Lossky then makes an antithesis between this knowledge and the “perfect way” of apophaticism, which is not consistent with how Dionysius the describes the descent into multiple base descriptions of God and the ascent through these descriptions through negation. While Dionysius does believe that the ascent brings us closer to truly understanding God and may therefore be qualitatively referred to as “better” the ascent would not be possible without the descent. Therefore, to say that one is more “fitting” than the other is to force a value judgment between connected parts. Also, it is a bit much to say that apophaticism leads one into “total ignorance”. Within Dionysius’s system it would be more correct to say that apophaticism leads one into understanding all that God is not, only then does one move beyond this understanding of negation into unknowing. Finally, Lossky says “All knowledge has as its object that which is. Now God is beyond all that exists. In order to approach Him it is necessary to deny all that is inferior to Him, that is to say, all that which is.” This denies Dionysius’s fundamental starting part, that God is revealed in parts in creation and that we can know God through analogy and symbol and then work through these to a union with God. If one takes this statement of Lossky seriously one is left simply on the “perfect way” of negation and after denying everything there is in the world we end up with a god who is null and void.
It is perhaps not too much to say that Lossky has fundamentally misunderstood Dionysius’s delicate interplay of revelation in symbols, the multiplicity of affirmations, the narrowing of negations, and the overcoming of all of these into knowledge beyond knowing. It is this absolute and solitary negation of knowledge which Lossky describes which seems to be the very thing which Gregory is speaking against in Oration 28.10, the refusal to say that five plus five is ten and instead be stuck with saying that the answer is no less than ten and also no more than ten. Gregory and Dionysius are not that far apart then, they are both saying in their own way that one must make the affirmation, that five plus five equals ten, but that the answer is also much larger than one can comprehend, where and how does ten exist? Purposeful ignorance of ten does not aid in the comprehension of ten. Both Gregory and Dionysius affirm that certain words and ideas are descriptive of God but that God is, in his “essential being”, beyond the limitations of human language and understanding.