Apophatic theology is alive (at least on the blogosphere)

The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most ven...
The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most venerated of Orthodox Christian icons of the Virgin Mary. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This isn’t going to be a long post.

First, I read this by Stephen Webb this morning. I was left with the distinct impression that Webb did not know what he was talking about, or wrote in such a way to be more polemical than enlightening. Why? He mentions apophatic theology and calls it “more historically grounded now than in the postmodern eighties.” He means the 1980’s, not the 380’s and the Cappadocian Fathers who helped to “mainstream” negative theology. Further, he reaches to tie it to the liberalism of the last few decades, as if they are one and the same. Webb notes, “Negative theology is a sign of a crisis in theological authority.” Given the great writers who used it, Sts John of Damascus and Maximus the Confessor, among others, I doubt they were so troubled in their faith as to shrink into “cowardice.”

When I went to search for Webb, to see who he was, I discovered that this Roman Catholic holds close affinities for Mormon theology. In fact, he has adopted some of their theology about the nature (i.e., matter) of God. As one reviewer summarizes Webb’s theology states,

God is material, knowable, embodied, “not radically different from everything else that exists.” As spirits, human intelligences are eternal, existing before mortality in the presence of heavenly parents. That God is “one of us” does not impede Mormon wonder, awe, or love of the divine. Human beings can become more like God or even become gods, but in a universe of eternal progression God is also “ever becoming more Godlike.” Per Webb, Mormon materialism fosters a healthy, optimistic understanding of God, human beings, and the universe. Other Christians, Webb suggests, have a “breathtaking opportunity” to discover “the full intellectual richness of the Christian tradition” through Mormonism.

Essentially, Webb holds to a Mormon view of God and matter, eschewing the Platonic side of orthodox Christian theology. This shades his view of apophatic theology, as much as apophatic theology (and church history) shades my view of Mormon theology. Webb not only fails to give apophatic theology its proper historical context, setting, and tradition, but fails to include its role in Eastern Orthodoxy and even in the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

Finally, there is this view.

Apophatic is only one half of full theology. You have to have the positive side as well.

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4 Replies to “Apophatic theology is alive (at least on the blogosphere)”

  1. Joel,
    I noticed you are working on a Ph.D on the atonement. Very cool. Are you familiar with “The Orthodox Revolutionary” and his work on critiquing “Penal Substitutionary Atonement”? His name is Paul Vendredi, and his website is http://www.orthorev.net He has posted 61 podcasts so far. It is a very in-depth examination of the atonement. Let me know what you think.


  2. Joel, I knew Stephen when he was professor at Wabash College and I was pastor in Crawfordsville. I was glad you had a post, for I did not know he died this year. He had an interesting book on Bob Dylan. He also had an interesting way of thinking in his brief book, “American Providence.” He was a vegetarian who ate shrimp because they were “the insects of the sea.” I know his idea was that religion or theological writers needed to write with popular culture in mind. He was a good a man to know.
    “We were too enamored, for one thing, by the adroitness by which European intellectuals were able to turn every defeat of reason into a victory for irrationality. Denial of the knowledge of God is surely the enemy of theology…” “All theological statements about God must be negated.”
    I think these statements are pretty good. I wish Stephen had named theologians other than the early Barth, but I think I get his point. Among the matters with which I wrestle is that if we can positive content from historic Christian affirmations, then the principle that nature does not tolerate a vacuum takes over. We can then fill up traditional Christians affirmations with any content suitable to us.
    Thank you for the post, as always.

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