“Theology awakens a grateful heart.” Thus the first words of Katherine Sonderegger’s remarkable Systematic Theology fall. I began reading theology years ago out of a longing to know the Lord. Desire drove study. It still does.
Unfortunately, over the years I have found that at least as often as not, it is the desire for God one brings to the study that makes it delightful; not the desire made manifest in the study. Not all theologians love the Lord.
We encounter a notable exception with Sonderegger. Her work radiates holy desire. The student of her work will find themselves moved often to adoration as they explore the mystical landscape she unfurls. The preacher will find themselves driven back to the text of Scripture with a renewed imagination and desire to preach.
I know, because I am both. Indeed, the last time I found myself moved this profoundly by a work of theology was when I first read the late Robert W. Jenson’s own magnificent two-volume systematics. The ringing (happily) has not, nor (pray God) will ever, leave my ears: God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead…
Who and What is God?
This, as it turns out, is deeply ironic, since Sonderegger will set her vision in (sometimes) direct contrast to Jenson, Barth, Rahner, and other late modern theologians. We embark with her on what will be a breathtaking theological journey in the preface where she contends that the questions Who is God? and What is God? are “[m]ost properly…two questions, and not one.” She goes on:
Modern Christian theology has shown an allergy to questions about Deity—what God is…Much to be preferred in systematic work both Catholic and Protestant, has been the question of Divine Identity—who God is. Indeed, the impulse of much modern theology is to assimilate the question of Deity into the question of identity: Almighty God just is, in length and breadth, height and depth, altogether who He is…The Living God of Holy Scripture, modern dogmatics tells us, is personal, or better, a Person, the True Subject, and declares through His own sovereign self-disclosure who He is.
Those schooled in the so-called narrative and relational turns in theology will perhaps find themselves—as I did—nodding their approval and muttering audible affirmatives at much in the foregoing lines. To turn Jensonsian (or Barthian) for a moment: What God is—so we are trained to think—is whatever God is in being the God he is for us in Jesus Christ, right?
Into our affirmatives, Sonderegger throws down a gauntlet: “Now,” she states flatly, “this book says otherwise.” The collapse of the ‘what’ question into the ‘who’ question, of God’s ‘objectivity’ into God’s ‘subjectivity’ she takes to be a massive mistake. Trinity and Christology are not proper starting points for thinking about the Identity and Being of God.
Instead, the proper starting point is Divine Oneness, Divine Unicity. “Nothing is more fundamental to the Reality of God than this utter Unicity…Oneness governs the Divine Perfections; all in the doctrine of God must serve, set forth, and conform to the transcendent Unity of God.”
Nothing more fundamental? All must serve and set forth? Sonderegger does not pull punches. Even the Trinity falls under this uncompromising programmatic:
But even here we must say that the doctrine of the Trinity, however central to the Christian mystery, must not be allowed to replace or silence the Oneness of God.
Now, it will be the aim of this dogmatics to honor Christ throughout a doctrine of God that is nevertheless not grounded nor derived from his incarnate life.
Just so, the twin refrains ring throughout her work: All is not Trinity! she will say. All is not Christology! Reflection on the doctrine of God must begin not with speculation on the relationship between the three Divine Persons, nor with the earthly life of the Man from Galilee; rather it must begin where Israel began: the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9). The Shema is the cornerstone of the biblical command to humanity, setting forth both God’s ‘subjectivity’ and God’s ‘objectivity’. This God is Israel’s God; the One Lord of heaven and earth. Israel’s testimony to Divine Unicity is our starting point.
As such, we ought to read Israel’s Scripture as it is given to us. “The subject matter—the Sache—of the Old Testament is not ‘story’ or ‘narrative,’” she contends. (Here students of Rahner and Barth and Jenson and even—from the world of biblical studies—N.T. Wright, Richard Hayes, and others, are clenching their teeth.) “Rather, the form or pattern of ancient Israel’s teaching is Torah; its subject matter is the One God.”
It is not to a story but to a new vision of God, indeed to the truth of God, to God’s very Being as the One God, the Only Lord—it is to this, she argues, that Israel is called. This ‘Torah’ is what sets Israel apart from the nations; it is to this ‘Torah’ that the prophets continually call Israel back; it is this ‘Torah’ that Jesus affirms; and it is this ‘Torah’ that St. Paul wrestles with in articulating his mission to the Gentiles—the One God: formless, invisible, unique; the universal and Only Lord.
The Key Question and the Four Perfections
Accordingly, the key question of systematic theology is, “How in our doctrine of God do we obey the first commandment, ‘You shall have no other god to set against me’?”. We do this, Sonderegger answers, by affirming four Perfections of the Divine Nature: God’s Omnipresence, God’s Omnipotence, God’s Omniscience, and God’s Love.
The chapters that follow make up the substance of the book and reward careful study. And since neither time nor space permit a full treatment of each, I’ll set them out here in capsule and then offer a few reflections on Sonderegger’s work as a whole.
To affirm Divine Omnipresence is to affirm that because God is “a-se”—dependent on no one but Himself—he is, to invoke Nicholas of Cusa, “non-aliud”, not a thing among other things, but rather the very possibility and source of all thing-hood. Just thereby, God is revealed to us in Scripture as “the present Lord…invisible in His cosmos.” Scripture reveals God’s presence precisely in his invisibility, his pervasive hiddenness in the world he has made.
To affirm Omnipresence is necessarily to affirm what Sonderegger calls a “compatibilist” understanding of the relationship between God and his cosmos. The burning bush of Exodus 3 is paradigmatic. “We notice first the principal relatio: God is compatible with His creatures. The thornbush burns with divine fire; yet the bush remains unconsumed.” Indeed, it is an icon of the saving truth of the whole Scriptural witness: “This event and truth is simply the Mystery of the cosmos itself, the glory and destiny of creatures, the astonishing deliverance and mercy of human life before Almighty God. This,” she says, “is the gospel”—that the One God can dwell with us in “molten” presence, and we with Him, and we live.
This compatibilist understanding of Omnipresence will form the foundation of Sonderegger’s account of Divine Omnipotence. The One God does not have power or exert power; he simply is power. And by that power—the Omnipotence of the Omnipresent One—we live and move and have our being. Just this is what makes Omnipotence a properly moral doctrine. God condescends to dwell with lowly creatures like us. The High God is Humble. “Even as the One Lord is omnipresent, so is He omnipotent. The Mode of His power, His superabundant Omnipotence, is Holiness in Humility, a holy Lowliness…The Omnipotence of God overspreads the whole earth, holding it in being, yes, but even more, in goodness.” God, the Omnipotent One, is good.
But no genuine account of God’s power would be complete if it did not reckon with the problem of evil and suffering. Living on the far side of the bloodiest century in modern history, the entire notion of Divine power has become troublesome in our day. “Must God renounce power in order to be good?” Sonderegger asks. Many theologians of the modern era answer flatly, “Yes.” It is here that she sees the radical Christological and Trinitarian turns wreaking the most havoc in the doctrine of God. Jurgen Moltmann’s articulation of the Divine Being in The Crucified God is exhibit A of what not to do:
…The Crucified God slices straight through the doctrine of the One God…Moltmann’s passionate, suffering God is explicitly and exclusively Trinitarian in character. Indeed, God just is the “event” between the grieving and abandoning Father and the abandoned, suffering Son, from whom the Spirit of radical freedom and new life breaks forth.
To all such formulations of the Divine Being—those that take their cues first from the history of the suffering Son—Sonderegger proposes a theological vision that “simply, quietly, but firmly, say[s] no.” God’s power is not defined by his relationship with the world ad extra. Scripture declares that “the Lord God is Dunamis, forceful, powerful Life…God’s Vitality is His very Nature, first and principally, not His Working.” It is just so that we have being at all; indeed, it is just so that God can save us—for Omnipotence is not defined or limited by the created realm, not locked into our fallen ontological frame.
What, then, of Divine Omniscience? In keeping with her program, Sonderegger asserts that the One God does not so much have knowledge or exercise wisdom and understanding so much as He is Knowledge, Wisdom, and Understanding—in and of himself, full and complete, quite apart from the created order. God is “utterly Light, Reason, perfect Truth, Perfection itself.” Following Aquinas, she teaches us to say that God’s knowledge “is neither discursive nor successive, but rather simple, perfect, and whole.”
The Omniscient Lord, as such, beholds the heights and the depths, all that is actual and all that is possible. He alone knows good and evil, entirely. Such knowledge does not bully or constrain. Rather, as the Omnipresent One, pervasively present in our cosmos, and as the Omnipotent One, graciously donating vitality and life, God the Omniscient One makes our world rational, intelligible, and good, allowing us to know it, and Him, and one another, according as he granted us capacity. “The Lord communicates His conscious Life to each creature, and admixes the Divine Light in our light and through our eyes.”
Divine Omniscience awakens and invites us in our creaturely being, ever comprehending us, both in our righteousness and in our rebellion. Just so, even when we turn from the knowledge of God to the great negation that is sin, Omniscience rushes to our aid: “The gospel…tells us of a God who both comprehends and stands outside evil: He surrounds it in His Perfect Wisdom, yet remains external to it…He is Life, inextinguishable Life, in the midst of death and wrong, yet utterly, unmistakably beyond them.” This is our God.
And so to the last Perfection—Divine Love. “Love is the keystone of the Divine Perfections, we should say, the Attribute that holds together, sums up, and makes lovely the entire Divine Nature, all its Properties and its Glory.” Love is simply what the One God is—perfect, complete, entire Love.
Once again, in keeping with her program, we learn that this Love that God is and has does not depend on an “other” in order to be realized. Neither a created “other”—this much we might have expected—nor even (much to our surprise) a Divine Other. She parts ways with a great majority of the tradition here—Eastern and Western alike, from Augustine to Aquinas to Barth—in stipulating that Divine Love ought not be defined as will or appetitive motion, even within the Divine Being.
Fearing that such relational understandings of Divine Love as movement-towards veer “perilously close to the deep abyss of a creature ingredient in, and necessary to, the Being of God,” Sonderegger asserts that Divine Love a-se by definition “can exist without an object; indeed, in God, we say, Love takes on and expresses this very form, pure, objectless Love”—whether that object be human or Divine. Once again, it is just so that God as Love can and does save us, needing nothing beyond Himself to be what he is—absolute Love. “God is Rock,” Sonderegger reminds us, “adamantine Reality. And Love is just such Presence, Truth, and Being.”
Now what are we to make of all of this?
On the one hand, I think we must read Sonderegger’s work as a full-throated attempt to recover the “one” of Nicaea’s confession of Deity: We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty… Too often, in our zeal to address the unfolding of the mystery of the Triune life amid the economy of salvation, we rush past the deep metaphysical and contemplative horizons that open for us if we will pause and meditate once again on Israel’s Shema and heed Israel’s first commandment.
Further, I think that so doing will prove to be a helpful mental discipline for those of us reared in late modern theological habits. The historical and relational turns represented, for instance, by Jurgen Moltmann, hold great promise as they force us to address the many ways in which static, unfeeling, metaphysically remote deity fails to address the human heart, the human need. Bonhoeffer’s famous line resonates with us: “Only a suffering God can help.”
Indeed. Yet Sonderegger helps us see that such turns also hold hidden peril, if they are not articulated in ways that match Scripture’s most bracing claims about the Divine Nature. More to the point: how do we name the “God” in “suffering God”? If we lose what Sonderegger characteristically calls “Divine Unicity” and what the tradition has characteristically handled under the rubrics of “Impassibility”, “Immutability”, and “Transcendence”, we are no longer left with God at all but with a god—supreme, perhaps; empathetic, possibly; but always and finally locked inside our metaphysical frame. Such a god cannot save us, and Cyril of Alexandria’s bold Christological formula—”The Impassible suffered”—simply falls apart. There is simply no God there to suffer for and with us. We must thank Sonderegger for reminding us of this.
Yet for all that, she sometimes overstates her case, and often to her detriment. We don’t have to subscribe to the teaching of any particular late modern theologian to recognize that Nicaea constrains us to prefer articulations of Deity that regard the Persons—revealed in the economy of salvation—as constitutiveof the One God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Creed declares, are the fundament and the firmament of Deity—the very eternal, hypostatic being of the One God of Israel.
Our theology is better when we maintain Nicaea’s pattern of speech. I flagged perhaps dozens of moments in Sonderegger’s systematics when I thought, “Trinity does the work you need done here!” I might cite, for instance, her account of Omnipotence—why not appeal to the Triune Life of the One God as actus purus, power whole and complete in and of itself, needing nothing, eternally realized in the Divine Persons? Or her account of Omniscience—why not appeal, as theologians from the 2nd century onward have done, to the Father’s knowing resting whole and complete in his the Eternal Logos, the Son, by the Spirit? Or her account of Divine Love—why not side with the tradition here and say that “God is Love” just to the extent that the Triune One is Lover, Beloved, and the Love that unites them, now opened up to humanity in Christ the Lord by the power of the Spirit?
I confess, I had the odd sensation while reading her work of knowing the melody of this song, the movements of this symphony, desperately waiting for it to reach what I thought would be a massive Trinitarian crescendo—and was left instead feeling like something was missing. A robust trinitarianism awaited her here and at turn after turn, and she did not fully avail herself of it.
This, I must believe, is quite by design. Perhaps the great crescendo of the heavenly host—Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—is yet to come. Nevertheless, I am reminded of words the Apostle Paul wrote: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11, NIV). Does volume 1 of Sonderegger’s systematics pass Paul’s test? I found myself wondering that often as I read her.
Indeed—ironically—just as I often noted to myself how we would not be reading her theology at all were it not for the Resurrected One, revealed to us in the economy as the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father, the One God of Israel. Lest we forget—this is Christian systematics. So much of her theology in fact depends on work done by those convinced that the Three Persons are indeed the hypostatic being of Israel’s One God. Is it too much of a stretch to say that Sonderegger (unwittingly?) plundered the storehouses of Triune wisdom to construct her vision of the One God?
Let the reader be the judge. In the meantime, we eagerly await her 2nd volume, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons, which perhaps will lay these concerns and questions to rest, or answer them more fully.
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Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology Volume 1, the Doctrine of God (Minneapolis, Fortress: 2015), vii. ↑
Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Volumes 1 and 2 (New York: Oxford, 1997 and 1999). ↑
‘Apathos epathen’ was a favorite formula of Cyril’s, and forms the substance of his argument in On the Unity of Christ (St. Vladimir’s, Crestwood, NY: 1995). See esp. pp. 113-133 where the formula repeats in different iterations. ↑