For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God. This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness. Wherefore John the sublime, who penetrated into the luminous darkness, says, No one has ever seen God, thus asserting that knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable not only by men but also by every intelligent creature. – St. Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, 167.
There are images of God that are healthy but many that reveal nothing more than our own subjective desires, serving as a psychological crutch to help us make sense of our importance or our tragedies.
For me, in moving from Fundamentalism to Christianity, apophatic theology helped tremendously. It is not a one-sided theology as many often see it, but one part of the theological spectrum. For me, barely scratching the surface, it allows me not to have to worry about an “accurate” definition of God. Indeed, as St. Gregory of Nyssa puts it, this act and imagination is unattainable. This fact must keep the theologian and every believer humble. God is not ours to define. God the transcendent…
But, instead we focus on God the immanent, which is Jesus Christ. If Christ is a historical person with a historical goal, then we should do our best to understand that, within history and within Christian theology.
But, I am getting off track.
St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches us that our images of God are all faulty. As good friend of mine has compared God to the image of Disneyland. This is wisdom, of course, to know that we as humans are extremely inadequate in trying to draft an image for the Immortal, Invisible, and Transcendent.
For a good paper/chapter on understanding Apophatic, or Negative, theology, see here.
Thought this was an interesting article which I discovered as I was studying a bit on the nature of God in Gregory’s writings.
‘Apophaticism consists in negating that which God is not; one eliminates firstly all creation, even the cosmic glory of the starry heavens and the intelligible light of the angels in the sky. Then one excludes the most lofty attributes, goodness, love, wisdom. One finally excludes being itself. God is none of all this; in His own nature He is the unknowable. He „is not.” But here is the Christian paradox; He is the God to whom I say „Thou,” Who calls me , Who reveals Himself as personal, as living.’
This is why we work hard and continue to struggle, for our hope is in the living God, who is the Savior of all people and particularly of all believers. (1Ti 4:10 NLT)
I want to follow the same method which I used with John 12.32.
From the start, this verse appeared in Ignatius’ greeting to the church at Philippi, attached to the Lord Jesus Christ:
Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church of God which is at Philippi, which has obtained mercy in faith, and patience, and love unfeigned: Mercy and peace from God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, “who is the Saviour of all men, specially of them that believe.”
Just as a side note here, Ignatius is writing in the early 2nd century, about 110. This helps us in two areas. First, in authorship and dating of 1st Timothy, it should help to nail down that 1st Timothy was known in Asia Minor widely enough to have the most important church leader of the time, which as a bishop of Antioch followed in Peter’s footsteps, to use it and to use it expecting no controversy. Remember, this is a congregation to which Paul wrote as well and now the blessed Polycarp, a disciple of John, was leading. Secondly, it helps to show Ignatius’ Christianity was one which used not only Petrine and Johannine writings, but Pauline as well and doing so without controversy. Tertullian accused his opponents of using this verse, and others, in such as way as to ‘effeminate’ others, while pandering to God. The Latin writers was not one to shy away from a fight, but this seems to be a case in which he didn’t want people imitating the Scriptures:
“But,” say they, “God is ‘good,’ and ‘most good,’7 and ‘pitiful-hearted,’ and ‘a pitier,’ and ‘abundant in pitiful-heartedness,’8 which He holds ‘dearer than all sacrifice,’9 ‘not thinking the sinner’s death of so much worth as his repentance’,10 ‘a Saviour of all men, most of all of believers.’11 And so it will be becoming for ‘the sons of God’12 too to be ‘pitiful-hearted’13 and ‘peacemakers;’14 ‘giving in their turn just as Christ withal hath given to us;’1 ‘not judging, that we be not judged.’2 For ‘to his own lord a man standeth or falleth; who art thou, to judge another’s servant?’3 ‘Remit, and remission shall be made to thee.’”4 Such and so great futilities of theirs wherewith they flatter God and pander to themselves, effeminating rather than invigorating discipline, with how cogent and contrary (arguments) are we for our part able to rebut,—(arguments) which set before us warningly the “severity”5 of God, and provoke our own constancy? (Tertullian: Part Fourth: On Modesty)
Origen uses it against the ancient opponent, Celsus:
But since he has represented those whom he regards as worms, viz., the Christians, as saying that “God, having abandoned the heavenly regions, and despising this great earth, takes up His abode amongst us alone, and to us alone makes His announcements, and ceases not His messages and inquiries as to how we may become His associates for ever,” we have to answer that he attributes to us words which we never uttered, seeing we both read and know that God loves all existing things, and loathes2 nothing which He has made, for He would not have created anything in hatred. We have, moreover, read the declaration: “And Thou sparest all things, because they are Thine, O lover of souls. For Thine incorruptible Spirit is in all. And therefore those also who have fallen away for a little time Thou rebukest, and admonishest, reminding them of their sins.”3 How can we assert that “God, leaving the regions of heaven, and the whole world, and despising this great earth, takes up His abode amongst us only,” when we have found that all thoughtful persons must say in their prayers, that “the earth is full of the mercy of the Lord,”4 and that “the mercy of the Lord is upon all flesh;”5 and that God, being good, “maketh His sun to arise upon the evil and the good, and sendeth His rain upon the just and the unjust;”6 and that He encourages us to a similar course of action, in order that we may become His sons, and teaches us to extend the benefits which we enjoy, so far as in our power, to all men? For He Himself is said to be the Saviour of all men, especially of them that believe;7 and His Christ to be the “propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”8 And this, then, is our answer to the allegations of Celsus. Certain other statements, in keeping with the character of the Jews, might be made by some of that nation, but certainly not by the Christians, who have been taught that “God commendeth His love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us;”9 and although “scarcely for a righteous man will one die, yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.”1 But now is Jesus declared to have come for the sake of sinners in all parts of the world (that they may forsake their sin, and entrust themselves to God), being called also, agreeably to an ancient custom of these Scriptures, the “Christ of God.” (Origen: Origen Against Celsus)
In a letter to a contemporary, Origen writes,
If any one sin, we read,2 “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for those of the whole world,” since He is the Saviour of all men,3 especially of them that believe, who4 blotted out the written bond that was against us by His own blood, and took it out of the way, so that not even a trace, not even of our blotted-out sins, might still be found, and nailed it to His cross; who having put off from Himself the principalities and powers, made a show of them openly, triumphing over them by His cross. And we are taught to rejoice when we suffer afflictions in the world, knowing the ground of our rejoicing to be this, that the world has been conquered and has manifestly been subjected to its conqueror. Hence all the nations, released from their former rulers, serve Him, because He5 saved the poor from his tyrant by His own passion, and the needy who had no helper. This Saviour, then, having humbled the calumniator by humbling Himself, abides with the visible sun before His illustrious church, tropically called the moon, from generation to generation. And having by His passion destroyed His enemies,
To the same friend, Origen writes about the use in scripture of the phrase ‘of the world.’ Some were using it to mean just the Church, but Origen attempts to write against it, saying,
The reader will do well to consider what was said above and illustrated from various quarters on the question what is meant in Scripture by the word “world”; and I think it proper to repeat this. I am aware that a certain scholar understands by the world the Church alone, since the Church is the adornment of the world,1 and is said to be the light of the world. “You,” he says,2 “are the light of the world.” Now, the adornment of the world is the Church, Christ being her adornment, who is the first light of the world. We must consider if Christ is said to be the light of the same world as His disciples. When Christ is the light of the world, perhaps it is meant that He is the light of the Church, but when His disciples are the light of the world, perhaps they are the light of others who call on the Lord, others in addition to the Church, as Paul says on this point in the beginning of his first Epistle to the Corinthians, where he writes, “To the Church of God, with all who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Should any one consider that the Church is called the light of the world, meaning thereby of the rest of the race of men, including unbelievers, this may be true if the assertion is taken prophetically and theologically; but if it is to be taken of the present, we remind him that the light of a thing illuminates that thing, and would ask him to show how the remainder of the race is illuminated by the Church’s presence in the world. If those who hold the view in question cannot show this, then let them consider if our interpretation is not a sound one, that the light is the Church, and the world those others who call on the Name. The words which follow the above in Matthew will point out to the careful enquirer the proper interpretation. “You,” it is said, “are the salt of the earth,” the rest of mankind being conceived as the earth, and believers are their salt; it is because they believe that the earth is preserved. For the end will come if the salt loses its savour, and ceases to salt and preserve the earth, since it is clear that if iniquity is multiplied and love waxes cold upon the earth,3 as the Saviour Himself uttered an expression of doubt as to those who would witness His coming, saying,4 “When the Son of man cometh, shall He find faith upon the earth?” then the end of the age will come. Supposing, then, the Church to be called the world, since the Saviour’s light shines on it–we have to ask in connection with the text, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,” whether the world here is to be taken intellectually of the Church, and the taking away of sin is limited to the Church. In that case what are we to make of the saying of the same disciple with regard to the Saviour, as the propitiation for sin? “If any man sin,” we read, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world?” Paul’s dictum appears to me to be to the same effect, when he says,5 “Who is the Saviour of all men, especially of the faithful.” Again, Heracleon, dealing with our passage, declares, without any proof or any citation of witnesses to that effect, that the words, “Lamb of God,” are spoken by John as a prophet, but the words, “who taketh away the sin of the world,” by John as more than a prophet. The former expression he considers to be used of His body, but the latter of Him who was in that body, because the lamb is an imperfect member of the genus sheep; the same being true of the body as compared with the dweller in it. Had he meant to attribute perfection to the body he would have spoken of a ram as about to be sacrificed. After the careful discussions given above, I do not think it necessary to enter into repetitions on this passage, or to controvert Heracleon’s careless utterances. One point only may be noted, that as the world was scarcely able to contain Him who had emptied Himself, it required a lamb and not a ram, that its sin might be taken away.
Gregory of Nyssa writes,
If, then, every good thing and every good name, depending on that power and purpose which is without beginning, is brought to perfection in the power of the Spirit through the Only-begotten God, without mark of time or distinction (since there is no delay, existent or conceived, in the motion of the Divine will from the Father, through the Son, to the Spirit): and if Godhead also is one of the good names and concepts, it would not be proper to divide the name into a plurality, since the unity existing in the action prevents plural enumeration. And as the Saviour of all men, specially of them that believe3 , is spoken of by the Apostle as one, and no one from this phrase argues either that the Son does not save them who believe, or that salvation is given to those who receive it without the intervention of the Spirit; but God who is over all, is the Saviour of all, while the Son works salvation by means of the grace of the Spirit, and yet they are not on this account called in Scripture three Saviours (although salvation is confessed to proceed from the Holy Trinity): so neither are they called three Gods, according to the signification assigned to the term “Godhead,” even though the aforesaid appellation attaches to the Holy Trinity.