Metatheological Reflections. A Third Way Beyond Positive and Negative Theology?

Essay, 2017
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1. Introduction

2. Positive Theology and Its Problems

3. Negative Theology and Its Problems

4. A Third Way?

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

In this essay, I want to suggest that, in view of the fact that different ways of doing (philosophical) theology, like positive (cataphatic) and negative (apophatic) theology, face serious difficulties, we should take a step back and examine the presuppositions of these methods critically and thus recognize their limitations. A byproduct of this analysis is the insight that there could be a third way of doing theology beyond positive and negative theology. I call these methodological reflections metatheological, although the distinction between theology and metatheology could be problematic and one might ask if the latter has theological implications or presuppositions itself.

I will proceed by, firstly, presenting positive theology, which seems to be the dominant form of theology in the Abrahamic tradition. Then I shall show some problems which this kind of theology has run into. Secondly, I will outline the basic idea of negative theology and its relation to the problems of positive theology. Afterwards, I will sketch an approach which seems to be very close to negative theology, which is why it has often been confounded with it. Following Jean-Luc Marion, I will call it ‘the third way’ (cf. Marion 1999). In the end, I evaluate the outcome of these metatheological reflections.1

2. Positive Theology and Its Problems

The dominant form of theology in the Abrahamic tradition seems to be one that tries to describe the nature of God and thus makes positive assertions about his (necessary) properties. The underlying assumption is that we can know something about God (or his concept). In most cases, this kind of theology starts from the idea that God is a perfect being. Therefore, one could call this also ‘perfect being theology’. Yet, how ‘perfection’ is understood is crucial for the kind of theology one pursues. Often it has been interpreted as meaning ‘of the highest possible degree’ (i.e. a maximum). The question about which properties this perfection implies and how they relate to each other has been answered in different ways. The most frequently cited properties are: God is a perfect person, he is absolutely transcendent as well as immanent (or omnipresent); moreover, he is said to be omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, perfectly free, perfectly good, and necessary (cf. Mawson 2005).

Prima facie, it seems that there could be some incoherence to the concept of God considering this combination of properties. How can something be transcendent and immanent at the same time? That sounds contradictory at first. On the one hand, God is conceptualized as a person having a mind that transcends the physical world. On the other hand, he is supposed to be everywhere. Basically, the world is his body. ‘Why does God need a body at all?’, one might ask. Is it an imperfection not to have a body? A reason might be that in order to act a person needs a body. (Of course, there could be also mental actions.) And if God is to be omnipotent, he needs to have a body that is not limited to a particular region in space-time. It must encompass everything. However, if we understand this picture to be dualistic, we might have similar problems regarding mental causation that also apply to us human beings and it does not seem to be a matter of power whether mental events can cause physical events. Furthermore, as human beings we are part of a dynamic universe in which only change seems to be persistent. Therefore, questions of personal identity arise. Now, even if God has no particular body like we do, does not change occurring in the universe imply a change of his body and therefore of him as a person? Would that kind of change count as an imperfection? As we have seen, reconciling God’s transcendence and immanence is not an easy job. Let us look at further issues that come up when we try to integrate the other properties we mentioned above.

God’s omniscience is often understood as implying divine foreknowledge. However, if this is true, this would rule out human freedom (in the libertarian sense of ‘free will’) since our ability to do otherwise is thought to render knowledge of the future impossible. All-encompassing foreknowledge could, therefore, only be possible if the world is absolutely determined. Maybe it has to be determined by God in order to realize the best possible world. Even if one would accept that, the same problem reappears in God himself. How could God, as a necessary being which necessarily does what is best (according to his perfect goodness), be free at all? Maybe only in the limited sense of freedom of action, in the sense that God can do what he wants to do (as long as it is logically and metaphysically possible) because there is nothing that could prevent him from doing it (omnipotence). Yet, if willing is a kind of action (i.e. a mental one) too, then he might not be free in that sense in general. What is at risk is God’s (and also our) freedom of will. (Also, why should we praise God if he cannot do otherwise?) In conclusion, we would have to say that God is either not perfectly free or he cannot be a necessary being (in every sense). This is at least one problematic tension involved in the combination of the various properties attributed to God.

A further issue is the doctrine of divine simplicity which could be understood as implying that all of God’s properties are identical (so, talk of ‘combination’ would not be adequate). However, I think that this is not plausible since there are non-reducible conceptual differences regarding God’s attributes. Thinking God’s simplicity in a radical way (not only in a mereological sense) would probably require one of the different theological methods that I will sketch in the next sections.

3. Negative Theology and Its Problems

As we have seen, positive theology gets into some serious problems the more it wants to say about God’s essential attributes. Although there seems to be a primacy of positive assertions, of positive predications preceding negative ones (naturally), when we look at our general way of dealing with beings, in the case of God, this approach might not be appropriate. Since, by defining what God is we limit the unlimited. Even if we start from a perfect being theology, we have to acknowledge that God’s perfection implies his infinity; and this infinity is, according to some philosophers, impossible to grasp for us finite beings. Therefore, we should no longer engage in positive theology, but instead

show God’s sublimity only by saying what he is not, thereby illustrating his limitlessness. According to the thinkers who pursue this kind of strategy, positive theology does not take God’s transcendence seriously enough. Moreover, the whole endeavour of positive theology might be too anthropomorphic to be possibly right. Thus, only negative statements about our inability to know God’s essence are permitted.

However, a series of questions and objections could be raised concerning this approach. Can one not also be wrong in making negative claims as one is sometimes in the positive cases? Maybe we can, indeed, know some things about God. Maybe we can cope with God’s infinity just like we seem to do it in mathematics. Another interpretation of negative theology could reveal it to be only a version of positive theology by understanding its negations, respectively, as affirmations of the opposite. Yet, I think that this could be easily rejected by explaining that the negations are meant to express the non- applicability of the predications involved. The only thing left is, then, that we know that (and what) we do not know. Furthermore, one might ask how negative theology can be a form of theism at all if it not at least makes the positive claim (or implicitly presupposes it) that God exists. That is not an easy question, but one might argue that ‘existence’ is not a predicate and is, therefore, excluded from the discourse of negative theology. Also, negative theology does not seem to be agnostic, insofar as both, atheism and agnosticism, concern the existence of God. There might be even some negative theologians who would say that our notion of ‘existence’ does not apply to God. Another sense in which negative theology might depend on positive theology is that, as we have seen, positive theology asserts God’s transcendence. Negative theology would then focus only on this aspect. However, maybe this is not a positive statement in the first place. Finally, there is also a psychological factor that is responsible for the resistance to negative theology, namely, the desire to make God more present which results in making him an object. (Is it subconsciously a desire to control and exploit God?) This desire seems to be grounded in the view that the God of negative theology is anaemic, too abstract and, therefore, not close enough to people’s lives. All these problems cast doubt on the viability and meaningfulness of negative theology. Nevertheless, in the next section, I will outline an even more radical (‘parsimonious’ one might say) form of theology which is, indeed, hard to distinguish from negative theology: the ‘third way’.

4. A Third Way?

Jean-Luc Marion (1999) introduced the notion of a ‘third way’, in reference to Pseudo- Dionysius the Areopagite, as a way of doing theology that is neither positive nor negative, but rather goes beyond this dichotomy of affirmation and negation. This kind of theology is illustrated by usages of the prefixes ‘hyper’, ‘trans’ or other kinds of expressions like ‘beyond’. One should not understand them as positive attributions nor are they supposed to say that God lacks anything, although, superficially, they might be read as being positive (as Derrida did and consequently criticized) or negative (as a lot of literature on negative theology seems to do). Marion’s main reason to strengthen this idea of a third way is, I think, that he sees both, positive and negative theology, as remaining within the horizon of Being (and accordingly non-Being) when it comes to thinking God. Exactly this could again be interpreted as a limitation and therefore degradation of God which is to be avoided. What finds its expression in the discourse of the third way are precisely the defects of theological discourse itself and the impossibility of thinking God in general, thereby avoiding falling into a metaphysics of presence. The third way is paradoxical in its nature because it consists in speaking about that which, according to itself, is beyond what can be spoken of. Yet, it is intended to be a discourse without any ontological commitment. God is not even understood as a pure Meinongian object because his transcendence is taken so seriously in the third way. Another option would be to stay silent. However, this alternative seems not to be useful as a first step to get people on the straight and narrow. Similar to what we encountered in our examination of negative theology, it is hard to see here what kind of God is left for us and in what manner this God is related to what is found in the Holy Scriptures. The third way, like negative theology, is closer to mysticism. The believer has to transcend his own being in order to become one with God. Maybe positive and negative theology even are essential preconditions of the third way, stages the God seeking individual has to go through.

5. Conclusion

The preceding metatheological inquiry has shown that there are fundamentally different ways of doing philosophical theology which all have their pros and contras. We could, now, interpret this fact pessimistically as a sign of failure or, on the contrary, embrace this plurality of methods, as I do, and continue exploring every possible way to God.


MARION, Jean-Luc. 1992. “Is the Ontological Argument Ontological? The Argument According to Anselm and Its Metaphysical Interpretation According to Kant”. In: Journal of the History of Philosophy 30 (2), 201-218.

— 1997. “Metaphysics and Phenomenology: A Summary for Theologians”. In: Graham Ward (ed.): The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader. Blackwell, 279-296.

— 1999. “In the Name: How to Avoid Speaking of ‘Negative Theology’”. In: John Caputo & Michael Scanlon (eds.): God, the Gift, and Postmodernism. Indiana University Press, 20-42.

— 2007. “The Impossible for Man-God”. In: John Caputo & Michael Scanlon (eds.): Transcendence and Beyond: A Postmodern Inquiry. Indiana University Press, 17-43.

MAWSON, T. J. 2005. Belief in God: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Oxford University Press.

1 This essay is strongly inspired by my recent reading of some of Jean-Luc Marion’s papers: Marion (1992), (1997), (1999), (2007).

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Metatheological Reflections. A Third Way Beyond Positive and Negative Theology?
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Martin Scheidegger (Autor), 2017, Metatheological Reflections. A Third Way Beyond Positive and Negative Theology?, München, GRIN Verlag,


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