The Domestication of Transcendence by William Placher


Placher Book Cover

Book Review

My friend Holopupenko urged me—no, implored me—to read William C. Placher’s book The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking About God Went Wrong. It’s excellent. I want to give you a taste of it from Placher’s own summary starting on page 181.

A basic lesson: theologians get in trouble when they think they can clearly and distinctly understand the language they use about God. In Cajetan’s and Suarez’s reinterpretations of Aquinas on analogy, in Protestant scholasticism’s restatements of the Reformation in philosophical categories, and in the quest for precision and certainty that in Descartes and others shaped the beginnings of modem philosophy, early modern thinkers sought and claimed to achieve such clarity. At least three sorts of trouble emerged as a result:

1. Many theologians came to think of God as one of the entities or agents in the world among the others, and of God’s properties as differing from those of created things in degree rather than in kind. If we insist on a clear understanding of our language about God, then we have to think of God’s love or power as rather like the love of a human being or the power of a steam engine—only greater. Thinking of God in such terms leads to asking where God is, and which are the things that God does, and attempts to answer such questions in ways compatible with Christian faith have often made theology the enemy of science, fighting to preserve a place for the “God of the gaps” in the face of ever-more-comprehensive scientific explanations. (See chapters 5 and 8.1)

2. The effort to make God, and God’s agency, comprehensible also leads to thinking about the relation of God to human freedom and responsibility as a zero-sum game…. On the one hand, this leads to niggling accounts of grace, in which we debate the degree of our own contribution rather than simply acknowledging in gratitude that we owe all things to God. On the other hand, it makes faith in God’s sovereignty and grace the enemy of freedom, since whatever we claim God does comes at the cost of our own free responsibility. (See chapters 6 and 9.2)


An alternative—which I have argued tended to get lost in the seventeenth century—would be to think of God as transcendent in a more radical sense, admitting that in important ways we do not know what we mean when we talk about God, and that God is not the most distant of the things in the world but a transcendent mystery to whom none of our categories of distance or doseness apply. Not all Christians, or even all Christian theologians, before the seventeenth century held this view, and those who did hold it expressed and understood it in very different ways. But Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and many other premodem theologians, with all their differences, did share such a view of God and our language about God. (See chapters 2, 3, and 4.)

Let me re-summarize: For all their differences, Aquina, Luther, and Calvin shared a belief in a transcendent yet immanent God who could not be understood in human categories. Early modern attempts to bring God within the realm of comprehension produced a distorted view of God and our relation to him, which in turn made Christianity an unnecessary enemy of science, of human freedom, and of much more that’s central to our understanding of God, reality, and our place in the world. We’ve brought God down to size; we’ve “domesticated his transcendence.” It’s an intellectual effort that’s guaranteed to go wrong, and Placher explains in just which ways that may have happened.

Placher does not, however, follow current streams of thought so as to suggest there is nothing we can say about God. This is a book of historical theology, anchored in three of the most trustworthy historical theologians: Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, but more than that, in God’s revelation through Scripture. Placher rejects both overly confident modernist and overly cautious postmodernist epistemologies, and in fact takes direct aim at via negativa theologies ancient and modern.

Perhaps the biggest weakness I’ve encountered in it so far has been the third point of his summary. Either I slept through the part of the book he was recapping, or he introduced new material in the summary.

Nevertheless I recommend the book. It places the intelligent design question in a whole new context, for one thing. Along with that it provides perspective on the growth of unitarianism, scientism, even atheism.

Better than all that, though, it has shown corrections I need to make in my view of God. I’m a product of the century in which I live, and I had gathered in some of the mood of domesticating God. Mr. Beaver’s famous word to Lucy (“Safe? No. But good.”) comes to mind here, but even that is inadequate to explain it. God is God, above all earthly conceptions. His goodness is good in a way we both can and cannot comprehend. All of his attributes are.

God himself is God in a way we cannot comprehend, yet he brings us in close enough to him in relationship and in knowledge that we can love and worship him.

Sound confusing? Read the book. It’s well worth it.

The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking About God Went Wrong by William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996. 215 pages plus index.

3 Responses

  1. David says:

    Consider my interest piqued. I may just have to have a read if this.

  2. Cody says:

    While there’s much to be admired in such an approach (i.e., in emphasizing the value transcendence), the waters are far deeper than you indicate.
    First, read Norm Geisler on analogy (his systematic theology series, vol 1): if our concepts are analogical and not just the way we predicate our concepts, we end up saying nothing. This view (analogical concepts), while having the pretense of piety, actually reduces to the equivocal God-talk of Maimonides. These same considerations led to the ‘death of God theology’ of the 1960’s. if our concepts don’t fit, why use them?
    Second, a string statement of this view is self-refuting. If none of our concepts apply to God, then at least one of our concepts applies to God; namely, that He is beyond our concepts (which is itself a concept). Not attributing this view to you or the author your reviewing, but it’s rubbish. See Plantinga, ‘Does God Have A Nature’ on this point.
    Third, Eastern Orthodoxy has a radical view of transcendence, and it doesn’t seem to have helped them out much. It may have kept them clear of ‘modernism’ as Vladimir Lossky suggests, but it also kept them in monasteries on Mt. Athos, arguing about navel gazing prayer. More realist God-talk seems to have led Western Europe to science (See Stark, Glory of God).
    We need a balance between ‘transcendence and imminence, but I don’t think this is it. Postmoderns might like it, but not because it’s true; because it’s easy, allowing us to live easy in a world full of conflict. No need to argue for God (or argue at all) if the subject is so transcendent that its unbroachable. Knowledge of God is the real solution to these conflicts, and its both real and potent (See Willard, Knowing Christ, or Moreland, Kingdom Triangle; see Rom 1:18-21, Hos. 4:6; cf. 2 Cor 10:3-5). This view, unfortunately, undermines knowledge as the solution: wholly other beings, however great, are not objects of knowledge, and it’s only knowledge that guides.

  3. Tom Gilson says:

    Cody, I haven’t read Geisler but I have read Plantinga on this.

    if you have a via negativa or apophatic view of theology in mind, that’s not what Placher was endorsing. He was arguing for a strong form of analogy in which for instance when we say God is good, we say something that is true, but God’s goodness is not to be construed as our goodness times infinity; it is qualitatively and not just quantitatively different for God to be good than for us to be good.

    Placher is decidedly not postmodern. If anything he is premodern. Geisler warns against slippery slopes that we can slide down if we start on the path of negative theology; Placher has identified the slippery slope that came from modernist theology, and which has landed us in contemporary postmodern mud.

    I can’t summarize it effectively here, though. I’ll probably need to re-read it; and even then I’m not sure it will fit in the space of a blog post or comment.