William C. Placher was my undergraduate mentor at Wabash College and became my colleague when I returned to teach there. He died on November 30, 2008 at age sixty while on sabbatical at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical Research at St. Johns University in Minnesota. His beloved mother preceded him in death by several years, and his father died right before he himself went to Wabash College as a student. He had no family of his own, unless one counts the entire Wabash community, which considered him its moral voice and its most respected representative.
Placher himself was well mentored at Yale Divinity School by Hans Frei, and he remained loyal to the Post-liberal theological project that Frei and others launched. Also known as narrative theology, post-liberalism followed Karl Barth in rejecting liberalisms attempt to find some common ground, whether metaphysical, experiential, or moral, for religious reflection. Post-liberals turned instead to the narrative structure of the Bibles witness to revelation as the source and criteria for all Christian claims. These days post-liberalism seems to have run out of steam, perhaps because it was never clear what the post in post-liberal meant¯as critics of theological liberalism, post-liberals were decidedly not conservative, which put them in the unenviable position of trying to find a middle way through the various polarizations in contemporary theology.
By temperament and training, Placher was ideally suited to fill in the details of this moderate, middle way. He began his publishing career with A History of Christian Theology (1983), an elegant and straightforward history of Christian theology. In the context of the culture wars of the 1980s, this book stands out for being an understated retrieval of the fullness of the Christian narrative. Placher found his voice by making the history of ideas look easy, and this text had and still has wide appeal, becoming one of the most popular undergraduate introductions to Christian thought in print. It is a work of history, not theology; although Placher did not make theological arguments in this book, his perfectly pitched prose was itself a theological argument. By narrating the Christian story so effortlessly, Placher made an implicit case for the continuity and harmony of theology through the centuries.
Letting the story carry the theological argument was, in a way, what post-liberalism was all about. Placher wrote his history book at a time when many liberal Christians were becoming increasingly alienated from the traditional doctrines of the Church. By embedding his theology in history, and by writing history so gracefully, he enabled people who had become suspicious of the theological tradition to read Church history again.
Plachers rhetorical style worked because he defended the integrity of the theological tradition without becoming polemic or apologetic; his tone was serene, not defensive. He ended his textbook with a few pages devoted to the rise of feminism and the shift of Christian strength from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere. The story of the Church, it turns out, begins with the Church Fathers and concludes with the end of patriarchy, but in Plachers telling, this is a smooth transition that unfolds without discord or discontinuity.
In all of his work, Placher preferred to make arguments indirectly¯by insinuation rather than demonstration. He also avoided appealing to personal experience to substantiate his theological claims. One could say that Placher and other post-liberals raised the virtue of personal discretion to the level of a theological method. They banned the category of experience from serious theology, because, they argued, liberals used it to validate their radical revisions of Church doctrines. Like Frei (and Calvin), Placher resisted talking about his conversion to Christianity in terms of a religious experience. He grew up among Midwestern Swedes and Dutch who never discussed inward experiences, and he did not become Christian until college, when studying theology and becoming politically engaged struck him as two aspects of the same process.
Plachers generation subjected the claims of tradition to the test of social justice, yet Placher was never tempted by the radical wing of the 1960s protest movements. What set him apart from them was that he came to liberal politics by way of the Bible. Consequently, he did not need to revise his understanding of the Bible to meet the demands of social justice. Political liberalism and the biblical narrative fit together so snugly in his thought that they were nearly indistinguishable. Placher found his middle way between the political left and the religious right by assuring liberals that the Bible had been with them all along, while trying to persuade traditional Christians that their beliefs were really quite politically progressive.
His balancing act proved to be very effective in his service to both the Presbyterian Church (USA) and Wabash College, the two institutions to which he maintained a lifelong and steadfast loyalty. The Presbyterian Church, like all the mainline denominations, had become increasingly ambivalent about its theological past, just as Wabash College, founded in the Presbyterian tradition, had become increasingly secular. He set out to regain the lost status of theology by showing that neither the church nor the academy had much to fear from each other.
As much as his definition of theology was churchly in character, his pedagogical practice was dispassionate and unobtrusive. He believed that the same theologian who could recover the biblical narrative for the church could impartially describe it for a secular, academic audience. We debated these issues so frequently that we finally published a dialogue in the journal, Teaching Theology & Religion (June 2000). Placher was effective at representing the seriousness of theology at Wabash because he rigorously avoided any proselytizing and he set out to deepen rather than challenge the political assumptions of our colleagues.
His reticence about personal experience carried over into his wariness about method. Indeed, Plachers next book, Unapologetic Theology (1989), made the case that theology does not need to explain itself at all. If asked how theology works, Placher argued, theologians should simply shrug their shoulders. His guardedness about method was not a variant of the negative theology that was all the rage in the aftermath of deconstruction in the 1980s and 1990s. It had nothing to do with the complex dialectic of how God withholds the divine nature within the event of revelation. For Placher, theologians should talk about the Christian message, not about how to talk about it.
The title of this book was ironic, because unapologetic can mean assertive, combative, and aggressive, but Placher meant the un to be taken in the sense of non . The obligation to defend the faith is as old as the Church itself, but Placher argued that apologetics always results in compromises with secular culture. Since the apologist must find some common ground upon which to argue with unbelievers, the apologist is tempted to make this common ground, rather than Jesus Christ, the foundation for faith. Placher thus elevated his own reluctance to explain how his theology hangs together to the position of a prescriptive rule.
His next major work Placher set out to show how theology can achieve its purposes through a simple retelling of the gospel stories. The gospels are, in the title of this book, Narratives of a Vulnerable God (1994). Although Placher displayed the skills of a close reader of the gospel texts, he refused to be drawn into arguments about the historical reliability of the New Testament and instead defended the Bible as art, not history, thus implicitly accepting their methodology.
It’s similar to how he circumvented the philosophical issues associated with apologetics. The gospels present a portrait of Jesus, he argued, and in portraiture, the details are meant to convey a lasting impression rather than describe empirical reality¯and the lasting impression is that God became vulnerable by becoming human. In Jesus Christ, God sides with the poor and the oppressed. The gospels lead the reader to a North American version of liberation theology, but they do so through the persuasive power of their narrative art, not necessarily liberal political theory or historical reconstruction.
More books followed on such topics as transcendence, Christology, and the Trinity, and they continued to follow this same skillful path of blending doctrinal traditionalism with progressive political recommendations. Placher’s prose was as modest as his books were popular. Liberals were not threatened by his temperate appreciation for tradition because he drew all the right political conclusions from the Bible, and he provided a safe way into the tradition for those who found it lacking in contemporary political and social relevance.
Bill and I disagreed more about political and social issues than theology. He was especially critical of any attempt to baptize the social order. The Church, he argued, should not provide any ideological support for the state. He also was critical of thinking of the Wabash religion department as playing an explicitly Christian role on campus. When it came to the college as a whole, however, he did not hesitate to see Wabash in sacred terms. He once told me that he did not want to retire in Crawfordsville, because being so close to the college without teaching in it would have been unbearable. Yet I knew that he could not bring himself to move away from Wabash either. He was spared that choice. In the instructions for his funeral, he asked that instead of a eulogy, a gospel sermon be preached, and he asked that it be held in the College chapel. Wabash was his family, but it was also his church, in a way, which might be why his theology was so reasonable and agreeable. He tried to make himself useful to an institution that had long ago turned its back on its Presbyterian roots. However successful he finally was, he is now at rest in the hands of God.
Stephen H. Webb is a professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. His recent books include American Providence and Taking Religion to School .