White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Negative Names in Theology Proper: A Very Elementary Explanation

Published Friday, January 8, 2021 By Ryan M. Hurd

It is good to remind ourselves of the absolute basics of negative names and their use in theology proper, within the specialty of systematics, where we dare to utter what God is. Confusion on the negative names in systematics is unfortunately quite abundant today, and has been for hundreds of years if we are to be frank. An example of persistent confusion is evident in the current face-off between “classical theists” and their non-classical theist disputants (of whatever stripe; they are not all of the same color). The principial points remain, in my opinion, obscure for major representatives of classical theism, who are still groping in the dark on the issues on the whole, and to that extent have not perhaps made the best showing that they could do in articulating what is the orthodox line of the holy catholic church on issues of doctrine of God.

What are negative names? Negative names are in many respects an unlimited collection of “names” that are variously manipulated in theology proper. I say the collection is unlimited, in the sense that in theory one could multiply these names for as many things one needs to deny; whereas in the regular cadence of the discipline everything that could be denied is handily reduced to certain specific concepts which are denied, that stand in for a host of things. Thus the negative name “infinity” eventually becomes a catch-all for many, and in fact all, ways of finiteness that there are, which are not denied one by one but all at once in the name “infinity.” In the history of theology, there is thus a fair amount of flex on the number and meaning of negative names, as the case may be; one must be extremely careful in especially tracing the history of negative names in theology proper, because what is being denied differs so greatly throughout the ages, even if the same name is being repeated. Perhaps “spirituality” was in regular use at one time as a name to deny bodily properties, but later becomes sublated (and so its concerns covered) by, e.g., “simplicity.” Whereas “simplicity” in the fathers is continuous and also quite discontinuous with its final dogmatic statement and as that is understood by its greatest interpreter, Thomas Aquinas. What is crucial, and has been the regular impetus for crafting a negative name, is that when something needs to be denied of God, perhaps because it has become thematic in the philosophical milieu, or has been popularized on the street, thus theologians develop the respondent judgments targeting precisely that, or tailor earlier ones so as to include this new thing (or idea) that does not signify what God is.

“Names,” for the old Latin “nomina,” are roughly what we would just call “words” or “terms” today; here, they are the intelligible content of the predicate: “God is x,” where “x” is the name. This class is called “negative” names, for a reason that should grab our intentional focus. They are called “negative,” because unlike all other names in theology proper (including the names to signify the divine attributes, that are really in God), they signify judgments of negation, rather than (as all other names) being the predicate of judgments of affirmation. This is a point of first magnitude.

Turning aside from theology for a moment, when we use words (“nomina”), we use them to signify things; the thing that the name is used for is called the name’s res significata, “thing signified.” In our everyday, and as we learn from the time we are two, the regular and originary res significata of most names is a concrete thing in the world, like a cup, a dog, or somebody’s nose. We learn to speak these names, because we are told that these are the things that are meant (signified) by “cup,” “dog,” and “nose,” pronounced “cup,” “dog,” and “nose,” as our mothers tell us. As we grow our intelligence, though, we find that there are many other things that are not “things” in this tactile way, but still serve as the res significata of a name we form. Sometimes these things become very abstruse or ethereal and are difficult even to lay intellectual hands on, like metaphysical principles.

In the case of negative names, the res significata is only an intellectual activity. The thing signified is a negative judgment that is performed by a creaturely intellect. All negative names in theology proper signify an intellectual motion within our creaturely intellect, and that is the whole extent of their res significata broadly speaking. This is the positive expression of the flip side, “Negative names signify what God is not,” as has always been the position of the catholic church. Then what do they signify, since not God? They signify our judgment of negation.

For purposes of understanding this basic point, it is helpful to think about a judgment of negation, which some negative name signifies, as made up of two “parts.” The judgment of negation is composed of (1) the intellect’s own removing motion hooked into (2) the predicate formality which the intellect is pulling away from seeing the subject in whilst performing this judgment. When I point to a dog and I judge “The dog is not brown,” this judgment of negation is comprised of (1) the “is not,” which is the intellect’s own removal, and (2) my concept of “brown,” which is the predicate and intelligible formality the intellect is moving away from seeing the subject in, at this current bit of knowledge. So it is for all judgments of negation, which I can then stand back and name as “something,” as I do all the time. My judgment saying “is not studious” of a schoolboy can later be reforged into a new predicate, “delinquent,” and at the moment this name means or signifies not my concept of “studious” on its own, not my “is not” isolated from this current concept “studious,” but the “is not studious” altogether which is the original judgment of negation I afterward name for short, “delinquent.”

In the case of the name “simplicity,” the thing signified is composed of my intellectual removal and the predicate formality “composite,” here itself a mental formulation involving a long series of fructified, refined, and refructified ideas that we can for now avoid: but both these together are signified by the word or name, “simplicity.” In the case of “infinity,” the thing signified is again constructed from an “is not” I have fused to the predicate formality “finite”: both these together I can stand back from and bequeath the title, “infinity,” just as I name any thing be it a cup or dog or nose or something else I’ve conjured up on a rare occasion. Again, it goes the same: for “immutability,” the thing signified is identically my own intellect’s shrinking back from seeing the subject in my idea of “mutable,” altogether of which I christen with a new name, “immutable.” Once more, “both these together” does not intend to imply they are separable or absolute “parts”; we are speaking only figuratively and roughly, in that it is specifically the activity of negatively judging itself (attached to whatever relevant predicate formality in which I am seeing the subject) that is the thing signified in each case–the “is not” that I make and do and that is located in my creaturely intellect, or perhaps yours.

Thanks to all this, in no use of a negative name in systematics, are we able to extract understanding of what God is. In the use of all negative names, we have not gained some understanding of God. Said once more: there is no understanding of what God is, latent beneath the predicates involved in negative names, even when I turn around and make a judgment of affirmation with what is now the formalized judgment of negation refashioned into a negative name--such as, the words “simplicity,” “infinity,” and “immutability,” each of which is the meaningful reexpresion of the original three separate judgments of negation. God is immutable is the afterwards contrived version of God is not mutable–and the perspicuous formal light of “immutable” in its true and necessary predication of God does not say what God is or give you insight into his nature.

Theologians of high standing have consistently been duped on this point for many generations, and it can be hard not to avoid this mistake in a perfectly consistent way throughout the entirety of theology proper as a discipline, or even in the quiet and casual moments of contemplating what is God, whilst one is tying his shoes. Reactions away from negative names in theology because they are thought to make God dead, lifeless, cold, or overly metaphysicized (!) are not the worst fruit of this slip. Bringing about what I suggest is a more destructive outcome, are theologians (of whom there are plenty who could be pointed out today) who champion the negative names in defense of “classical theism,” but have neglected to digest how aggressive and potent this elementary point actually is, so that they convert these negative names into attributes, perfections, admirable qualities, and generally cause for celebration and dance in that “simplicity” is what God is, and also that immutability is a good thing! Sed contra! “It is obvious that these names are not signifying God’s substance in any way; they are instead signifying our removal of something,” i.e. our judgment of negation welded to a predicate, Thomas says.[1] What God is, is in no way being signified here. To put a sharper point on it, what God is, is not immutability, and infinity is not a form, much less something in God. And let the record show, it is not good for God to be simple. Negative names are not divine attributes. Uncomfortability with straightforward and utterly primitive claims like these, evidence that one has not quite assimilated the implications of what it means for negative names to signify what God is not, not what God is. God is simply not in the equation.

Let us try and force it; let us see about gaining some understanding of what God is, by the use of a negative name in an affirmation (which is how these names are regularly, and not unfittingly, deployed—not in their original form of a judgment of negation, “God is not mutable,” but an affirmation, “God is immutable”). In such a case the understanding of “what” God is would be something like: “God is such a one that we are always necessarily removing the predicate opposed to the currently affirmed predicate.” That is the sort of “intelligibility” gained about God (and, yes, we have got things rather wrenched), involved in basic affirmations like “God is simple,” or “God is infinite.” The cause of this verbal side-eying and awkwardness, is directly because what is now being predicated in an affirmation was originally a judgment of negation, and it is the predicatein an affirmation in an entirely artificial and intellectually affected way. Remaking things into affirmations is not a bad thing in any way, so long as we remember why they are called, in fact, negative names. Because they are negatings. One cannot make the mistake of thinking we understand God in the intelligible light of the predicate when we have converted these negative names (signifying our judgments of negation) into the predicates of affirmations. As an affirmation, “God is infinite” is true because its prior judgment of negation is true, and we might well say (though it is somewhat more complicated) that the intelligibility involved in this affirmation is wholly and only the extent of that intelligibility formalized out of the judgment of negation, as an intellectual activity is reframed into a meaningful formality: “not-finiteness.” The predicate involved in an affirmation of what is priorly a negative name is entirely wrapped up in the conceptual content in the prior judgment of negation, as it is made meaningful by the intellect’s conceptualizing it.

Properly speaking then, when we are presented with a negative name in systematic theology, what are we to do? The first thing to do is immediately to unpack it into the original form it had in the mind of the theologian who supplied this name to signify what was for him an intellectual activity continually performed in any and all of his theology proper—if he is anything like a good theologian. In speaking of God, we unpack any negative name in this way: into a proposition where God is the subject, whose verb is a judgment of negation (“is not”), and whose predicate is the opposed formality of the negative name. In some cases, this is rather straightforward to do, and perhaps so easy that it is trespassed against more easily than it is respected and preserved. “God is immutable” transposes readily to the judgment of negation with the opposed formality: “God is not mutable.” This last is what “God is immutable” actually is out in the wild of the intellect, before it has been tamed and formalized. In other cases, it is not quite as clear but the move is exactly the same: “God is simple,” opens up from this compressed state into what it primitively is, “God is not composite.”

Unpacked in this way, negative names have their clear function in systematics as judgments we are called and demanded to make of God. And we must make these judgments indeed. And the catholic church has always made or at least been prepared to utter these judgments when she needs to, from the most elemental statements like “God is not a rock,” when confusion arises upon Scripture truthfully and meaningfully saying, “God is a rock,” or the highest refined statements like the final dogmatic statement of the divine simplicity in Lateran IV: God is omnino simplex, “simple in every way.” What is it to make these judgments, and by “make” them I mean, to “do them”? Their distribution throughout systematic theology as a whole, seeking insight into what God is, is merely, but critically, for the intellect to perform the precise intellectual activity which is the thing signified of the name. That activity, in every case, is “removing,” and the negative names individually will tell you what it is that is to be removed. Simplicity, in the discipline of systematics as a whole, brings us to remove from God all composition that is placed before us, however it is crafted and framed; infinity, all finitude; immutability, all change. And so it goes.

What this is, then, is fundamentally and originally the removal of creatureliness from God, inasmuch as a creature is not what God is, and inasmuch as we are committed as theologians to pronounce for the church what God is, and to teach the church how to pronounce this, just as our mothers once taught us our letters. These then are judgments, humbly uttered in the specialty of systematics, by a theologian in the role of a teacher, because he has done this, and they are presented to others in the role of a student, so that he does do this, and does do it consistently and constantly throughout his entire performance of theology proper. Until he sees God face to face, while he is understanding God here below, he is called to do what is asked of him in all these negative names.

It should be clear from this that all negative names, none of which signify what God is, but only signify what God is not, have something of a “subordinate” function in the specialty of systematics. This does not functionalize the negative names unjustly, nor does it devalue their importance; it merely reiterates the fact that they arise as names from intelligent and belabored meditation on what God is, within the exposition of which precisely these judgments of negation are continually occurring (and necessarily occurring) and occurring once again in the lively act of speaking of God. They are principles that are perpetually running in the background of any and all theology, which is not only the saying of words and beating of air but the actual insight into what God is as in a mirror. The negative names are all the operating systems, as it were, that the mind must have consciously engaged whilst simultaneously looking at God in the mirror, an equally conscious and intentional activity.

Because of this, all negative names are well conceived as systematic functions or jobs, not systematic positive content, each and all of which is being continually run in the background in the positing of the names of the divine attributes, uttering what God is. When we say, God is simple, what we mean is, “God is such that…perform the removing of composition…,” and then we come along behind with some declaration of what he is. And when we say what he is, we are required to nestle behind the affirmed predicate all the negative names: “God is (*be doing all the removing here*) good.” It should be clear that this is why and in what sense negative names are “prior” in systematics to the affirmation of divine attributes. I perform this removal beforehand to pave the way for the coming affirmation of goodness, wisdom, and others of this sort, which are something in God, just as I move mountains to see behind them the sun.

It should be clear that all this is only the basics. We have cloaked quite a lot of the technicality involved in these issues to generally explain negative names; but this is the elementary way we handle negative names in theology proper.


[1] Thomas, ST I q 13 a 2 resp. manifestum est quod substantiam eius nullo modo significant; sed remotionem alicuius ab ipso.

RM Hurd is a systematic theologian whose area of expertise is doctrine of God, specifically the Trinity. His primary training is in the high medievals and early modern scholastics as well as the twentieth-century ressourcement movement. His main project is writing a robust systematics of the Trinity; he also teaches systematics on God as a teaching fellow with The Davenant Institute.

  • Ryan M. Hurd