Expanding your vocabulary can be dangerous


Just getting into Gregory Rocca’s Speaking the Incomprehensible God: Thomas Aquinas on the Interplay of Positive and Negative Theology, wanting to keep growing in the conversation about language and God-talk. In the opening pages, he summarizes the vocabulary used to express divine transcendence in the formative years of the Church. The main sources of these concepts, argued by Jean Daniélou, are Hellenistic Judaism, Middle Platonism, and Gnosticism (an interesting range of sources). Rocca reviews the vocabulary/conceptual contribution of each of these sources (pretty much focusing on negative names as expressed in the alpha privative; no mention of concepts for transcendence using the “hyper” prefix [Eph. 3:19’s hyperballousan, knowing love that “surpasses” knowing]).

It is no surprise that these key philosophical terms make their way into the New Testament. Rocca lists them (p. 8). There’s no avoiding their presence and function within biblical language and worldview. Even if you’re not an Orthodox (and I am not) and are not especially inclined to apophaticism (indeed, many are explicitly critical of it), there’s no pretending these terms don’t occupy an important place in the apostolic lingua franca. Consider the list:

  • aoratos (invisible), from Romans 1:20, where Paul states that the invisible things of God are known from the visible things of creation; the same word appears in Colossians 1:15, where Christ is said to be the image of the invisible God.
  • arrētos (ineffable [a concept I was once told was purely pagan and unbiblical]), from 2 Corinthians 12:4, where Paul describes how he was caught up in rapture to paradise and heard ineffable words. [One could add aneklalēto (unspeakable) of 1 Peter 1:8, where we exalt in joy unspeakable.]
  • anekdiēgētos (indescribable), from 2 Corinthians 9:15, where Paul praises God for his indescribable gift of grace.
  • anexereunētos (unsearchable), from Romans 11:33, which is a doxological statement declaring to be unsearchable the judgments of God concerning the fall and eventual restoration of Israel.
  • anexichniastos (untraceable or uninvestigable), from Romans 11:33, occurring as a general synonym for anexereunetos; it also occurs in Ephesians 3:8, which mentions the privilege of preaching to the Gentiles the gospel of the uninvestigable riches of Christ.
  • athanasia (immortality), from 1 Timothy 6:16, a doxology claiming that God alone has immortality.
  • aprositos (inaccessible), from 1 Timothy 6:16, a doxology starting that God dwells in light inaccessible.

2 comments on “Expanding your vocabulary can be dangerous

  1. rwwilson147 says:

    Hummm, all Pauline terms. So, does Paul the hyper Jewish theologian use these terms in Middle-Platonic or Gnostic senses? Or are they subsumed in Paul’s overwhelmingly Hebraic thought matrix?


    • Tom says:

      Hi Richard,

      I’m not sure what you mean by Paul’s being a “hyper Jewish theologian.” He was, after all, a Hellenistic Jew. So no, I don’t think he uses these terms in “hyper Jewish” ways (whatever that means) that are utterly disconnected and uninfluenced by Hellenistic thought. You’d have to get rid of the NT to purge it of all Hellenistic influence.

      I’m interested in the relationship and overlap between these terms within those three sources as well. I don’t suppose that for Paul or other Hellenistic Jews these terms have transparently opposite meanings as employed in Greek Platonist or Gnostic sources. But obviously Paul isn’t merely affirming everything about Platonist or Gnostic worldviews. Some similarities? Certainly. Blind repetition? Certainly not. But it’s difficult to make “unsearchable” come out meaning “searchable,” or to construe “ineffable” as meaning “utterly explicable,” or to render “surpassing/exceeding” to mean “circumscribable.”


      Liked by 1 person

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