The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics

Volume 21, 2001

Jennifer A. Herdt
Pages 253-273

Divine Compassion and the Mystification of Power
The Latitudinarian Divines in the Secularization of Moral Thought

William Placher and others have charged seventeenth-century theologians with "domesticating" divine transcendence, with fostering an understanding of God that was clear and comprehensible, but unattractive, unpersuasive, and easily undermined by secular thought. This essay tests that claim by analyzing the discourse of divine compassion which became prominent among post-Restoration Anglican divines. While the second generation of latitudinarians do exemplify the trends Placher traces, the first generation of latitudinarians, notably Cambridge Platonist Benjamin Whichcote, succeeds in finding a way to affirm divine compassion without undermining divine transcendence. Moreover, Whichcote argues that an insistence on divine incomprehensibility fosters a voluntaristic conception of divine power and—contrary to Placher—undermines efforts to promote transformative justice in human society. The present case study suggests that we must reconsider our modes of articulating divine transcendence.

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