A theological term which derives from a Greek word meaning a denial or negation. Its opposite is cataphatic, which means something that is made known or affirmed. As a theological term it has chiefly been used in the tradition of Byzantine or Eastern Orthodox theology to refer to the relation of human rationality to the knowledge of God, although it has clear equivalents in western Latin theology.
In the Greek theological tradition, the three theologians who are most commonly associated with the apophatic tradition are Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century), Maximus the Confessor (seventh century), and Gregory Palamas (fourteenth century). The doctrine in Greek theology is extremely complex and the source of much controversy. Basically, however, it is the assertion that human beings, because of their finitude and sinfulness, cannot comprehend God's essence or being. God "lies beyond" or transcends all human apprehension of God, except as God is revealed in the positive symbols of revelation and the knowledge of God which is possible through the positive categories of dogma (cataphatic theology). Ultimately, God is "unknowable," not as an absence of knowledge but as a knowledge of silence or negativity-the kind of knowledge which is possible in the silence of contemplation.
Western or Latin theology has generally been more positive (scientific) in its approach to human knowledge of God, but the apophatic is found in both the theological and the mystical tradition. Thomas Aquinas, for example, begins his Treatise on God with the statement, "Now we cannot know what God is, but only what God is not; we must therefore consider the ways in which God does not exist, rather than the ways in which God does." He then proceeds to discuss how God is known from the positive effects of God in creation. This tradition is also carried out in the mystical tradition of Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, and many others. One of its chief contemporary exponents is Karl Rahner. See Cappadocians, or Cappadocian Fathers; see Cataphatic.