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Whatever one thinks about whether it is possible for Christian theology to be systematic—and there are good reasons to think not—we can at least say it is good manners to attempt to lay out everything one thinks in an orderly fashion.

The brief dogmatics seems to have made a return to English-speaking theology. In the UK John Webster and John Milbank are in the process of writing their respective (and very different) theologies in systematic form, from the Trinity to Eschatology. In America Kathryn Tanner’s Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity a few years back, David Hart’s extraordinary Beauty of the Infinite more recently, and now William C. Placher’s The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology each present, in Placher’s words, something “as close to ‘my theology’ as I can get right now” (ix).

The result with Placher is a book that will be as useful in college and seminary classrooms as his previous works on theological method, Christ, church history and much else have been. The Triune God is so lucid and engaging that readers will envy Placher’s many students at Wabash College, teaching whom surely makes for much of the clarity of his writing. This lucidity is ironic, given the theological turn this book signals for Placher. For the book’s primary insistence is that Trinitarian theology does not claim to comprehend God when it speaks of him simple, infinite, eternal, or even one-and-three. Such classical descriptions of divine attributes are negative markers, placeholders, that say no more than what God is not : a being with parts, temporal, spatial, countable, and so on. Reading David Burrell and others on Aquinas has showed Placher that much. “With these analyses in mind, I started rereading some classical Trinitarian texts in a new way” (120). The result of this rereading and theological change of course is this gem of a book, which never disparages venerable Christian doctrines like divine immutability, as Placher was inclined to do with previous books like The Domestication of Transcendence , and makes clear how little is clear when we speak of God.

The first chapter would seem to be about the Father, as the second and third are clearly about the Son and the Spirit. Yet it is entitled “The Unknowable God,” and is mostly a running engagement with modern and post-modern philosophers about “proof” for God’s existence. The rationale becomes clear in chapter 2: “All that we can say uniquely about the Father is that the Father is the Father of the Son” (80). So here things stay a bit nebulous: appropriately so, as Placher shows no Christian theologian ever offered a proof for God’s existence of the sort with which modern philosophers are taken. Anselm offers an extended prayer in an exercise of “faith seeking understanding.” Aquinas offers five ways of thinking about God which contradict one another, about which he shows little enthusiasm (his own preferred “way” is Christ). Pietists of various sorts have attempted to fill the gap between human comprehension and the divine nature with human “experience,” placing themselves squarely in the middle of theology precisely where God should be. The best we can hope for in philosophizing about God is to be “usefully puzzled,” Placher argues. Therefore the best philosophical dialogue-partners are the philosophers that theologians might be least inclined to trust: Derrida and Levinas can teach us much more about the incomprehensible God than anyone who pretends to know anything about God. And this is as it should be, as Placher shows with an unforgettable quote from Kierkegaard: “If God appeared as a man six yards tall, or as ‘a very rare and tremendously large green bird, with a red beak, . . . perhaps even whistling in an unheard of manner,” then faith would be impossible.

“Apart from God’s self-revelation, we can at best have unanswered questions,” Placher insists in the good, Barthian fashion of an orthodox, mainline Presbyterian (2). But is that all? St. Augustine seems to gather a good bit more from the “books of the Platonists”: that God is indeed simple, infinite, eternal, one, and so on. But that that God took flesh and died and rose for us, “that I did not read there,” Augustine says. It’s a paradox in Confessions : He could learn from secular philosophy everything there is to know about God. Except the most important thing. “Where you get, if you think you have gotten to God by your own efforts, is always an idol” (43). Always? I wonder whether we can’t know a good deal more via our “own” philosophical rumination without divine revelation, precisely because our “own” groping in the dark after God is occasionally not only our own at all, it can be ‘always already graced,’ to paraphrase Henri de Lubac. Might not creatures created in the image of God occasionally get something right about God by their own God-given resources, without revelation?

Placher’s second chapter demonstrates one of the strengths of the Yale School of his teachers Hans Frei and George Lindbeck: It is rigorously attentive to the text of the New Testament for its description of Jesus. The truth claims of the New Testament are “tyrannical,” Placher writes. They only make sense if we submit to these texts’ authority. Comprehension follows submission, or to use language beloved of the Yale school, “ Our world makes sense only if we can fit it into their framework” (51). Historical critics generally and historical Jesus scholars particularly come in for some rough treatment here: each is “oddly unshaken” by the clash between their historical reconstruction and those of their many contemporaries. Historical investigation simply cannot yield the sort of knowledge faith seeks, because God is mystery. We say God is wise, because scripture directs us to do so. But we cannot comprehend the way the word “wise” applies to God, and certainly cannot extrapolate from our experience of wiseness to the wisdom God is. Placher offers biblical scholars a primer on theological language here, with abundant footnotes to Aquinas, that one could only wish they would heed (let’s not hold our breath).

The third chapter on the Spirit feels to me like the one with the greatest energy from its author. He opens the book with an insistence that to link a “radical view of God’s transcendence” with a narrative Christology is “possible only through a strong doctrine of the Holy Spirit” (ix). He gets his primarily from his own Reformed tradition, especially John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. The fact that the Spirit is responsible for convincing anyone of the truth of Christ brings a “cheerful freedom” to Christian service (normally Calvinists appended that freedom to the doctrine of God’s sovereign election, but this Methodist reviewer isn’t complaining). The Spirit is terrifying, unpredictable, and gentle all at the same time. And the Spirit shows us nothing other than Jesus. The Spirit “has no face,” Placher says, quoting Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the Latin versions of the creeds have references to the Spirit in the ablative case: We believe in the Father and the Son by the Spirit. There is nothing else about God (or more strongly, there is no God) but the one we see in Jesus by the Spirit. “It” (to use Placher’s pronoun, which I find dissatisfying, though I have no good alternative) teaches us to see the patterns of God’s creative and redemptive work in the world, such that, with Edwards, we see God “even in lowly spiders . . . ‘from whose glistening webs so much of the wisdom of the Creator shines’” (97). Here especially Placher’s mind veers toward questions epistemological: Knowledge of God is more akin to consolation and spiritual assurance than it is to factual information, which requires no transformation in the knower.

The final chapter is the least satisfying. Here Placher turns to the sort of dogmatic topics most often treated in Trinitarian theology: Is Augustine’s psychological analogy for the Trinity (in which we image God as a single mind that knows and loves itself) or the eastern church’s social analogy (in which God is a community of persons) more correct? The predictable answer: Each needs the other. Placher laments western Christian terminology for the Trinity, since using persona for the Greek hypostasis could suggest an actor’s mask, such that God is really one but playacting as three (though of course in theologians’ hands it no longer meant that). He repeats the charge from John Zizioulas that the ancient eastern church “begins with” the threeness of the persons and the western “begins with” the one substance of God. He asks about the relationship between the economic Trinity (God as revealed to us) and the immanent Trinity (God in se ). These are important topics for a beginner to learn, and then dispense with. Recent Trinitarian historical and dogmatic scholarship from Lewis Ayres, Michele Barnes, Sarah Coakley, Rowan Williams, Hart and others, with which Placher does not here engage, has suggested that the east/west division is more misleading than helpful. To say an entire theological tradition “begins with” something or another must function on a highly metaphorical level, and even then, what does it mean? The chapter is not at all fatally flawed, however, as Placher continues his insistence on divine mystery: “Trinitarian terminology should function less to explain the mystery than to preserve it.”

This may be the paradox of having been so successful a teacher and writer: Placher cannot help but make things clear. The late twentieth century’s favorite Trinitarian pedagogical markers may be canards, but they can help introductory students get a grasp on vast amounts of sophisticated reading material. When teaching similar material I often begin with a disclaimer along these lines: ‘I am teaching you this so you can go write a dissertation about how wrong it is.’ But perhaps even this is granting too much purchase to generalizations about eastern and western Trinitarian emphases, about the economic and immanent trinities, about “beginning with” one or three. For the God we deal with in Christ cannot be understood, only adored. That this book should evoke that response of worship to this God is a mark of the praise it deserves.

Jason Byassee is assistant editor at Christian Century . His book An Introduction to the Desert Fathers has just been published by Cascade.

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