1. The Unknowable God

ttg.jpgPlacher, William C.

The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology

Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007. Pp. x + 163. Paper. $24.95.

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In this first chapter of The Triune God Placher takes what seems to me to be a very Eastern approach to the Trinity with an apophatic way of talking (or not talking) about God.  He shares an anecdote whereby one of his students suggested that he was going to prove the existence of God while on sabbatical to which he said: “My project, though, might better have been described as ‘arguing that trying to prove the existence of God is a bad idea.'” [p. 1]  He argues that:

If we could prove the existence of God, moreover, then we would have this one God firmly established, and the claim that God is triune would be at most an afterthought, an added complexity to a basic belief in one God. If, however, as I believe, we can know God only as revealed in Christ through the Holy Spirit, then we start with three. [p. 1]

Again, this is very reminiscent of the Eastern approach to the Trinity.  In the East it was commonplace to begin with the three (hypostases) whereas in the West it was standard to begin talk about God with the one (ousia), although Gregory of Nazianzen’s famous quote always stands in the back of my mind when (mis?)classifying Eastern Trinitarianism in this way, he said: “No sooner do I conceive of the one than I am illumined by the splendour of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one” (Orations 40.41).

But Placher takes it a step further in arguing that proving God is akin to idolatry when he says:

Talk of “proof” is inappropriate, for proof involves defining one’s terms, and an entity so defined is inevitably an idol rather than God. Neither human reason nor human religious experience can lead us to God. [p. 25]

Placher spends the chapter examining various philosophers (Descartes, Locke, Anselm, Aquinas, Eckhart, Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Wittgenstein) from the middles ages to modern times, both summarizing their arguments and critiquing their shortcomings, as well as clearing up some common misconceptions about them (e.g., that they tried to ‘prove’ God’s existence).  For the philosophically illiterate such as myself this chapter was thoroughly readable and highly entertaining.  I found myself laughing at times, like when he quotes David Tracy as saying that Kierkegaard was willing to try any approach except a system [p. 29].  I also found myself challenged, especially when he expresses his worries about Levinas’ identifying God with the ‘human other’ and his unwillingness to consider contexts other than ethical for talking about God [p. 34].

I especially appreciated his remark that:

[P]remodern thinkers like Anselm and Aquinas, and the mystical tradition before the early modern age, were not trying to prove God’s existence, define God’s essence, or describe their own experiences of God. They were trying, instead, to show that such enterprises are impossible and that God lies beyond all our proofs and definitions and imaginations.  [p. 22]

But not to worry, Placher is not here arguing for agnosticism as some might think.  Instead he contends that: “Biblical texts claim to tell us more. It is God’s self-revelation, and that alone, that can get us beyond fumbling, unanswered questions…” [p. 41].

His concluding words to this chapter are thought provoking to say the least.  To loosely paraphrase, he argues that if God came to us in a way that we can describe God, that would render faith impossible.  But since he came to us as a servant, in the form of a man, nothing tempts us to say that we understand God. [p. 41-42]


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