God Is Not Apophatic (Because I Can't Say "God Is Not Love")

God Is Not Apophatic (Because I Can't Say "God Is Not Love") June 17, 2010

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been exploring apophatic statements about God.  I am, as I’ve admitted, drawn to the apophatic.  I suppose it’s because that I struggle intellectually with the whole concept of God and particularly with statements that anthropomorphize God — which is just about every statement that I ever hear uttered about God.

As I have written posts about what God is not, I’ve known that there’s one statement that would be the zenith of apophatic theology.  And I’ve also known that if I cannot write a post in defense of that statement, then I’d hit the limit of apophaticism.  That statement is:

God Is Not Love.

And I cannot affirm that.  Try as I might, I cannot figure out how to justify that sentence.  Maybe Pete can, but I cannot.  (Pete, are you listening?)

But, maybe this is exactly the beauty of apophatic theology, which is meant to remind us that God is not sum-up-able.  God cannot be definitively articulated, not even by apophatic theology.

Can God be articulated by God?

N.B., This post is part of a series exploring apophatic statements about God.

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  • Matthew Edwards

    Hi Tony, thanks for keeping me thinking. What about this:

    I sure hope God isn’t the kind of love I seem to practice. Frequently insincere; prone to fading; driven by the unpredictable winds of the emotions!

    Does that help?

  • peter rollins


    Interestingly I also wish to question apophatic theology. Although in a slightly different way. Like Derrida I think that apophatic theology (with its prohibition) is too kataphatic. In other words, the prohibition is designed to cast our mind into a place of contemplating Gods hyper-presence. The more I reflect upon this the more problematic it becomes. I also find that the apophatic prohibition of Christian mysticism functions differently from the Jewish prohibition. For the later is aimed at short-circuiting hyper-presence and thus expresses a veiled materialist theology (which I like).

    In short, in the new book, I am working on a theological expression which critiques Christian apophatic thought for being too other-worldly. I see the Christological event as a form of theological atheism that is about embracing life and birthing the courage to be. Like Bonhoeffer I am interested in the theological significance of Etsi Deus non daretur as the way of affirming God.

    So my rejection of apophatic thought is not connected to the desire to claim that God is love. Rather it is because I think we need to enter into a totally different theological register.

    Sorry that this is the form of a statement of intent rather than an argument… got to wait for the book for that 🙂

  • My thoughts are in the same ball park as Matthew’s. We try to domesticate God; we try to domesticate love. Since we don’t know real love apart from God in Jesus – and yet usually take it for granted that our notion of love is correct, adequate, and antecedent to our knowledge of God, we are prone to start with a definition of love, look at God, see a gap/difference between our definition and what God exemplifies, and reject God – or at least an assessment that God is love.

  • I believe that “God” is most real when we experience the divine nature, and through those experiences, we often feel “loved.” But to say that God is only “love” or only “justice” or only the “source” is to ignore the Being’s “I-Am-ness,” which is his unique ability to be everything humanity wants or needs him to be. (Note, we often abuse God by making the divine nature into what we need it to be, but that’s another topic for another day.) Just my two cents.

  • Dan Hauge

    I like it 🙂

    The final question is an interesting one: I’d have to start out by saying ‘probably’, with all the provisos that of course we can’t fully understand what God is articulating . . .

    However, it comes back to the question of revelation to me. If we are to believe Jesus, and believe Scripture in any way at all, it does seem like God wants to communicate some things about himself to us. Not everything, not exhaustively in a way we can fully comprehend. But some things. God wants to communicate, in some way. So is it not possible for God to do so?

  • Seth

    Can God be articulated by God?

    Yes, but only unto God – which is the issue.

    Can God be articulated by God to me?

    Never. Only in a glass, darkly.

  • While we have to confess always that God is love, not as an attribute, but as his very nature, I think we do have to simultaneously acknowledge that if we use our love as the measure, that God so far transcends what we have experienced of love that we must also say that he is not love. We only understand God’s nature of love at all in and through the lens of Jesus. But we do not see clearly. The closer in communion with Jesus we grow, I think we see more of God, but I have the sense that we also grow more in our ability to perceive how much we do not see. I think when we lose the tension of the apophatic sense, even in the matter of God’s nature of love, we begin to construct an image of a God our minds can compass.

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  • God is not love because whatever our definition of “love” is, God transcends it. He is not that.

  • E. Sutter

    That’s why I’m so drawn to the concept of apophatic as opposed to cataphatic. When you get to the limits of apophatism, you get the real heart of what God is: Love.

  • “Can God be articulated by God?” I don’t remember where, but Moltmann discusses how only God can articulate God’s own being – yet our God is the God of Israel and this is done not in words but in liberating acts in history. Ultimately only God can articulate God and this will have only happened when God is all in all @ the eschaton. Then God will have negated the negation (philosophically) or Death will be swallowed up in sweet victory!

  • Apophatizing the apophatic, nice. But I would submit that like God, the word love is overused and misused so much that it would behoove us to be clear — however provisionally — about what love is not, too. Otherwise it just ends up becoming overly sentimentalized and superficial. So, to extend your comment in those last few sentences, one might say that God is always in excess (I’m tempted to say always deconstructing) of how we choose, in all our parochialism and finitude, to define and practice what is called love.

  • Mike


    To anthropomorphize God does not mean that we must necessarily intellectualize God; said differently, to imagine or image God as having attributes like us does not require us to capture this via neat and clean and “enlightened” cognition — it is, biblically, more bodily or visceral. God is not defined by ideas/concepts, rather he is defined by his actions in and around the history of humankind, and that requires some sort of analogous extension:

    …When Moses asks who he should say sent him, God responds or recalls historically that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, thus emphasizing his faithful action through history with his covenant people — but he also presents or enfolds a metaphysical quandry into the mix: “Tell them I AM has sent me to you” and he also says “I AM who I AM” (Exodus 3). Now, this statement negates, it seems to me, the attempt to intellecutalize or metaphysically encapture the essence of God, but this is not to say that anthropomorphizing God comes prepackaged with such a heady/intellectual attempt, as action via the characterisitc “outstretched arm” of Yahweh is integrally humanlike (while of course retaining an opacity that is transcendental and outside of humankind). Indeed, as Ezekiel intimates, such a God even (anthropomorphically) will lie down with the exilic prophet.

    An exegesis of the biblical account thus has articulation and anthropomorhic attributes of God are more closely synonomous than that of intellectualism and anthropomorphism.

  • Mike

    … And so, God is not love, true; that is, he is not the kind of intellectualized “love” that we humans wish to formulate and engineer in precise formations. The Western metaphysical enterprise fails to understand the holistic dynamic of love, an ancient NearEastern love that is integrally and messily physical as well as metaphysical. This context must reframe our current Westernized context, otherwise we miss out on the full meaning of the biblical account.

  • Ah, Tripp. You and your Hegel! 🙂

  • Can God articulate himself to himself with a mouthful of burrito that he microwaved so hot he couldn’t eat it?

    These are the questions of our lives.

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