Theologians at least since Luther, who was developing the rhetoric of Nicolas of Cusa, have often used what is called the via negativa. In essence, the via negativa is to describe something (say the Emergent movement) by saying what is not (say, not traditional Evangelicalism). Luther is known for his rhetoric about the theology of glory and the theology of the cross.
First, this sort of rhetorical strategy typifies those who are forming their own boundary lines so that their own identity is clear.
Second, it is also a provocative and famously communicative form of rhetoric: if someone asks me if I am a baseball fan, as I was recently asked when speaking in New York, I said right away, “I am not a Yankee fan.” Now I was not saying I was not a baseball fan, but I was making an important fan — and I’ll let you guess what I think about George Steinbrenner and about baseball.
Third, the via negativa has its limits and this needs to be recognized: the via negativa’s negatives are not always opposites or complete alternatives. If someone asks me what kind of a theology I espouse and I say, “Well, I’m not Calvinist or Arminian or Lutheran or Baptist…” that does not mean that I think everything about any of those positions is completely wrong. In fact, I like lots of things in each of these systems. The via negativa approach sets out alternatives, draws a line in the sand, but in so doing it recognizes that this rhetoric is just as much rhetoric as it is substance. And, another of its limits is that it useful only for a time and yet another is that it does not often give us the best answer to what we are looking for.
Fourth, I’m wondering if Jesus’ statement “if you do not hate your parents” statement is not an early precursor of the via negativa. We all know that Jesus wasn’t urging hatred, but comparative love.
And I wonder if the Emergent use of via negativa is not also comparative love. Or ought to be.