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via negativa
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The via negativa ("negative way") is a form of apologetics which is sometimes called the via negationis, though its formal name is Apophatic theology. According to the philosophy behind the via negativa, God is not an object in the universe and, therefore, it is not possible to describe God through words and concepts which are necessarily limiting. It is, instead, better to talk about God based upon what God is not.

The via negativa is, therefore, a means of coming to know God and what God is through negation.

Although the via negativa is often associated with Christianity because it is one of the three ways which Thomas Aquinas describes as coming to understand God, it has also appeared in other theistic religions. Names given to it include neti neti in Hinduism, ein-sof in Judaism and bila faifa in Islam


Via Negativa and Apologetics

The via negativa is most often associated with the mystical traditions of any given religion in which it appears because mysticism typically focuses on ineffable religious experiences in contrast to logical arguments that tend to be found in traditional apologetics. However, ideas that can be attributed to apophatic theology can be found in more traditional theological writings as well.

For example, in traditional Christian apologetics, there are quite a few attributes ascribed to God which are phrased negatively and thus belong to apophatic theology. These include the claim that God is: infinite (has no beginning, end, or boundary), invisible (cannot be seen), immutable (does not and cannot change), etc.

There are other attributes which are not obviously phrased in a negative manner but which effectively have a negative meaning. For example, describing God as "eternal" means that he has no temporal beginning or end.


Categories and God

A key argument of defenders of the via negativa is that God is beyond all human categories - they are, put simply, human categories which are based on human experience, knowledge, and limitations. God, being beyond all of that, cannot be treated as if he were constrained by such limitations. If any human categories were to apply at all, it would be by sheer accident.

Such categories include, but are not limited to:

  • existence / non-existence
  • good /evil
  • male / female
  • wise / ignorant
  • physical / spirit
  • simple / complex
  • location in space
  • location in time


Criticism of the Via Negativa

Atheist critics of theism can find quite a few problems in any attempt to argue from apophatic theology. The most fundamental is made obvious right away in the claim that human categories cannot apply to God. Since that includes the categories of existence and nonexistence, anyone making the argument is implicitly admitting that they cannot claim that their god actually exists!

Put another way, any god being described in this way cannot be reasonably distinguished from fantasy or fiction - it cannot be distinguished from something that doesn't exist. Simply saying that some being which has been given the label "god" is "beyond the category of existence" doesn't make it so. What's required is an argument demonstrating that the claim is coherent and reasonable, but that's impossible because the ability to argue such was given up once the premise of human categories was abandoned.

Another serious problem with apophatic theology is a hidden premise: how can one reasonably claim what something is not unless they have some clear idea of what it is? For example, how can I claim that a cat is not a reptile unless I first know what the characteristics of a "reptile" are and then also know that a cat lacks them? I may not know enough to say that a cat is a mammal, but I have to know some things about the cat.

If someone claims that their god is neither male nor female, is neither good nor evil, is not visible, or has no beginning or end, then how do they know it? Where does this knowledge come from? Whatever its source, it must have been acquired along with some measure of knowledge about that god's nature. If they cannot say what there god is instead of whatever they are denying, then they have no reasonable basis for making the denial in the first place.

Also Known As: via negationis

Alternate Spellings: none

Common Misspellings: none

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What is the Philosophy of Religion?
Sometimes confused with theology, the Philosophy of Religion is the philosophical study of religious beliefs, religious doctrines, religious arguments and religious history. The line between theology and the philosophy of religion isn't always sharp, but the primary difference is that theology tends to be apologetical in nature, committed to the defense of particular religious positions, whereas Philosophy of Religion is committed to the investigation of religion itself, rather than the truth of any particular religion.

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Austin Cline
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