Reading Notes – Carabine, 223-233

Reading notes from Deidre Carabine’s The Unknown God: Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition: Plato to Eriugena

Terms and Phrases

Ineffability –

Unnameability –

Ungenerate (agennetos) –

Key Points, Quotes, Ideas.

  • Platonic thought is instrumental to understanding the development of Christian appropriations of apophatic theology.
  • Clement and Origen both relied on Middle Platonic descriptions of ineffability and unnameability of the Divine.
  • Philo of Alexandria provided the biblical hermeneutic framework through which the early Church Fathers contended for God’s ineffability and unnameability based on their reading of the Old Testament.
  • Carabine calls Middle Platonism an ‘ally’ of the early Christians but cautions readers in assuming that the early Christian fathers were just repeating Platonic thought.
  • Whereas in the OT, the theme of darkness tends to be something that was related to the mystery of God (e.g. the dark cloud on Sinai), in the NT darkness takes on more negative connotations of evil, sin, and death, while light was used to symbolize truth, freedom, joy, wisdom, and salvation.
  • For Christians, Jesus the Christ is the “image of the invisible God” and as such “reveals a hidden nature” of God. (225)
  • However, Jesus also stated that ‘No one knows or has seen the Father except the Son.’ (my paraphrase)
  • The Incarnation signaled the “supreme manifestation” of God.
  • The difficulty that the task of negative theology faces is that those “who assert that God cannot be known, [are] at the same time forced to take account of the central truth of the New Testament.” (226)
  • Negative theology was utilized by early Christians to insist upon the vast chasm between the Christian God and pagan gods (especially the difference in their transcendence and unity).
  • Justin Martyr (JM) was one of the first Fathers to begin to use negative terms to bolster God’s transcendence and difference from Creation.
    • JM was responsible for arguing strongly for the notion of God’s ungeneracy; for if God were generate (made or created) that would suppose some higher reality that could name God. (“Ungeneracy for Justin, implies namelessness, for the naming process involves an ontologically prior namer. [227, cf. II Apol. 6])
    • JM did believe God was knowable; affirmations of God’s unknowability developed in the 4th century apophatic theologians.
    • “Divine transcendence cannot be divorced from divine immanence, or from the reality of the incarnation, for the invisible Father is revealed through the visible Son.” (228)
  • Clement of Alexandria (CA) was responsible for a more systematic use of apophatic thought.
    • Critical components of CA’s apophatic thought (that would later influence Gregory of Nyssa) include: (1) “that we can know what God is not (not what he is)”; (2) “the use of the concept of abstraction”; and (3) “his mention of the dark cloud of Sinai, wherein God is invisible and ineffable.”
    • CA’s theological project was an attempt to harmonize Paul and Plato; thus, his apophatic thought is Platonic but constructed within the shape of Pauline theology.
    • CA writes, paraphrasing Plato, “for the God of the universe, who is above all speech, all conception, all thought, can never be committed to writing, being inexpressible even by his own power.” (Strom. 5, 10)
    • God’s attributes “are to be understood solely in an allegorical sense.” (230, cf. Strom. 5, 11)
    • Names of God are seen as helpful road signs for the person climbing the mountain of God, but not as the summit (names of God are not the actual name of God).
    • Clement still believed, like Justin, that God was knowable through “divine grace and through the Logos.” (230)
    • Three keys to wisdom: illumination, purification, and contemplation.
    • Contemplation requires aphairesis (abstraction), or, removing notions of depth, breadth, length, and ultimately position from the subject (God); thus, we will come to know what God is not, not what God is.
  • Ultimately, Carabine argues that pre-Cappadocian negative theology is very similar to Middle Platonism (because they still affirm that God is not beyond nous and ousia)
  • Three problems exist for Christian theology if it is going to be apophatic:
    • First, apophaticism proposes that God is beyond ousia (or being). How does this fit with God’s claim in Ex 3.14 that “I am who I am”?
    • Second, if humans are made in the image of God, then it becomes difficult to suggest that God is unknowable; many, including Plato and Augustine have seen the task of knowing oneself to be an important step in knowing God.
    • Third, if the Incarnation happened, then how can the apophatic theologian claim that we cannot know God? Because of the Incarnation, isn’t it now possible to know God with the intellect and through faith?

Key Texts

D.W. Palmer, “Atheism, apologetic, and Negative Theology in the Greek Apologists of the Second Century.”

Justin Martyr, 2nd Apology, 6, 12, 61, 63

Justin Martyr, 1st Apology, 14, 25, 49

Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 5

Plato, Timaeus 28C


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