March 15, 2011 / Perspective
If there’s no feast for this appetite No reason in nursery rhymes Why can’t I …
October 29, 2015
Katherine Sonderegger. Systematic Theology Vol. 1: The Doctrine of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2015.
This first volume of Katherine Sonderegger’s systematic theology has already received high praise. John Webster, whose comments are printed on the book’s back cover, has hailed it as a work of “enduring intellectual and spiritual substance” and “one of the most distinguished treatments of the doctrine of God in recent decades.” High as it is, such praise is well deserved. In turns learned and insightful, daring and provocative, difficult and troubling, the book is remarkable from beginning to end.
But make no mistake: it is not an easy read. The overall effect of Sonderegger’s allusive, elliptical, and repetitious ways of thinking and her opulent writing style, which makes frequent and odd use of capital letters (e.g., “The Lord’s humility begins with His Hiddenness in the world He has made. God is the Publican in His own cosmos” ) and regularly slides out of prose into poetry, can be overwhelming. Take for instance her enumeration of human frailties:
The crushing suffocation of sin, the rage that sweeps over us like torrents, the weakness that undermines all resolve, the pitiful self-righteousness that cannot ignore how tinny it all sounds, the smallness and meanness, the icy darkness of cruelty: Christ has tasted all this in His baptism for us and for our sake. (217)
Some readers may find this style off-putting. But strange as it may seem at first, this way with words and ideas in fact serves the work’s theological vision. In the end, the strangeness and opulence of her prose leaves the impression that Sonderegger is drunk with delight at the thought of God’s nature. And who can fault her for that?
Sonderegger makes her controlling purpose clear from the first. Against what she deems the “anti-Hellenist” current of most modern theology, which “has shown an allergy to questions about Deity” (xi), she means to find words to say what God is, and only in this way to identify who God is. To that end, she reinvigorates the doctrine of the divine attributes, ordering the book around three classical themes: “God is invisible and hidden; that is His Omnipresence. . . . God is humble and living; that is His Omnipotence. . . . God is Eternal Spirit and Lady Wisdom; that is Divine Omniscience” (xvi). After an opening part devoted to the oneness of God, the book is ordered to these divisions, beginning with omnipresence and ending with omniscience.
The treatment of these divine attributes rests on a fascinating, if not entirely coherent, account of theological predication. Sonderegger contends that the “confession of the First Commandment annihilates our thought [so] we cannot think the absolutely Unique” (27). Because God is “Mystery, Holy Mystery” (27), we are left with “a kind of ‘forensic righteousness’ in the realm of creaturely predication” (104), with “servant words, stagehands” (97) forced to carry burdens they cannot truly bear. In this pattern of naming, “negative terms have pride of place,” because they prove the least inadequate in speaking of God’s “Divine Nearness as the Hidden One” (106). She makes the point sharply: “there can be no affirmation of God that is not controlled by the radical negation of form, image, and likeness” (29). Hence, we can only speak rightly of God in praise and petition by “the negation of all creatureliness” (29), that is, by insisting at every turn that God’s perfections are not human perfections “blown up” to divine proportions. She stands convinced that we speak most rightly of God when we insist that God is what we are not, what we could never be.
At the same time, Sonderegger also somehow holds that “the Attributes of God are principally, wonderfully, and lovingly communicable in character” (106) so that there remains a “fittingness, intrinsic to the creaturely world, that allows our language to reach out and lay hold of its Divine Object” (105). She maintains that “the Divine Reality is compatible with the cosmos” (xix; 77–78) and that our experience of divine mystery, therefore, is “not a sign of our failure in knowledge, but rather our success” (24). “It is,” she continues, “because we know truly and properly—because we obey in faith the First Commandment—that God is mystery” (24). It is not quite clear—to me, at least—how all of this fits and holds together.
The book begins with an extended account of God’s oneness, which for Sonderegger, is axiomatic for all Christian theology: “all other predicates, Attributes, and Perfections, all other disclosures of God as Word and Spirit are governed by and determined by Oneness” (25). No defense for this methodological starting point is offered. In fact, she says such a starting point, because it is foundationally confessional, cannot be defended, only demonstrated (xv). Method follows doctrine (xviii), she argues, not the other way around.
In this way, Sonderegger’s work differs significantly from other recent systematic theologies, including, for example, Sarah Coakley’s God, Sexuality, and the Self, Oliver Davies’s Theology of Transformation (2013), and Frances Young’s God’s Presence (2013), all of which contend overtly and at length for peculiar theological methodologies. Sonderegger, by contrast, remains largely unconcerned with providing an apologetic for her approach to theology, trusting instead that the work will speak for itself. Other times, however, she suggests—always in passing—that her methodology is modeled on the order of Scripture itself and finds its “indirect justification” there (9, 13, 21).
Be that as it may, there seems to be slippage in Sonderegger’s use of “oneness.” Most of the time, she apparently means it as a designation for uniqueness, which she relates to the doctrine of divine freedom. But at other times she uses it as a designation for unicity, evidently in an attempt to counter the emphasis on the doctrine of the Trinity so prevalent in Christian dogmatic theology after Karl Barth. In so doing, she sometimes suggests—purposefully or not—that God’s oneness is more basic than God’s threeness, as if the hypostatic relations depend upon and derive from the preexisting divine nature.
In spite of her (acknowledged) debts to Barth, Sonderegger wants to move beyond a radically christocentric account of God. This includes if not an outright rejection of the identity of the economic and immanent Trinities, at least a modification of those Trinities. As she puts it, while it is true that oneness may be used to describe “the Divine activity ad extra” (15), we need to “go further” (15), developing a doctrine of God that reveals divine oneness as a “metaphysical predicate” (15) without grounding that revelation in or deriving it from reflection on the events of God’s life in Christ (xvii). She even goes so far as to say she wants to treat the deity of Christ in distinction from his humanity, not working “up” from his story by a narrative reading of the gospels but “down” to it from meditation on the divine perfections (xvii–xviii).
Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether such work could and should be done, it seems to me that Sonderegger does not always submit to her own methodological controls. Again and again, in section after section, she finds in the stories of Scripture—all of which she takes as belonging to the story of Christ—the light that illumines for us the beauty of the divine nature. The notion of God’s humility is basic to everything she says about God’s presence, power, and knowledge, and she acknowledges outright that we can only speak of God as humble because God has let himself be known as a creature in Christ (75).
Similarly, after she asserts that God is “the Aseity that is Love” (xvi), and that without absolute freedom in self-determination God would not be God, she goes on to say that the only way to make faithful sense of the doctrine is as the way in which God is able to “reside among us, without contradiction or identity or annihilation” (83), a truth we know only through the life of Jesus as it is storied to us! In her account of divine predication, she confesses that “in Christ alone does the Divine Reality directly communicate, touch but also [make itself available to] be touched by creaturehood, find a proper and true ‘point of contact’” (105).
What is more, and again in contrast to what one would expect given her stated methodological commitments, Sonderegger’s readings of Scripture are both narratival and Trinitarian, because they are centered on Jesus. In a spectacular passage, she describes the book of Numbers as “the event and literary remains of the inner Life of Christ” (293). The Christian reading of Numbers “brings us within the veil, to the holy mercy seat, to Christ’s own Person” (293). In these stories of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness, we read “in broken fragments . . . Christ’s own mind in Gethsemane, His own Inwardness on the cross” (293). Indeed, Sonderegger goes so far as to claim that “primarily, at ground, the Christian faithful read the whole Bible in lumine Christi because we encounter there the Wonder, the created Sign, the Object that bears the Divine Word” (213). In the end, then, despite her professed intentions, Sonderegger’s doctrine of God is radically christocentric—and I am convinced it is all the better for it.
Sonderegger frequently appeals to premodern arguments against characteristically modern teachings and habits of thought, but hers is nonetheless a decidedly contemporary work. As she says, “the truths of the faith must be gained anew in each generation” (172). Perhaps the best way to read this book, then, is as an attempt to regain the significance and centrality of the divine attributes in Christian teaching as they matter for Christians in the postmodern West.
Bearing that in mind, Sonderegger’s work makes at least two remarkable contributions to contemporary theological conversation. First, in measured agreement with process theologians and open theists, she holds that traditional accounts of God’s power will not do. We need, she argues, a “radical break with the [Augustinian] tradition” (177). We need to rid ourselves of the equally inadequate modern alternatives as well. To that end, “Divine Omnipotence, the Lord’s Holy Humility, must be removed from the category cause altogether” (177), and a “noncausal account of Divine Power” must be developed (177). In the shadows of the cruelty and senselessness of evil and injustice, we must not speak of God as one who does whatever God wants or as “Absolute Cause” (210). We need instead to think of God as so compatible with creaturely reality that all things can be what they are in themselves, without being distanced from God (as in Deism) and without God being collapsed into them (as in Pantheism). All things exists in a “living relation” with the living God (292), as God “descends down through the individuals and kinds He has made with His own Life, His own Vitality and Truth, so that they catch Fire, they combust with the Life that is Divine—yet they remain their own kind, the bush not consumed” (266). God is the one who “bears all things,” as it were, in silence: “The Lord does not lift up His Voice as He sustains the world, does not announce His Presence as He bears us from nothingness into the frail reality of creaturely life” (239).
Second, and just as provocatively, Sonderegger proposes that we need to rethink the doctrine of divine knowledge. Against most traditional accounts—including that of Thomas Aquinas, which she holds as among the best—God does not intellectually observe and collect “the events and doings of His creatures” (349). Instead, “God’s Presence to creatures is intellectual Nearness to full creaturely reality, including the marking of time” (351). In other words, God does not know us—including our sin—in a “third-person” way, as a perfect observer standing over and against us, cataloging all the details of our reality. God knows us, rather, in a “first-person” way. God knows—personally!—the “very fabric” of our lives, and from within that knowing, God the Spirit intercedes for us, “and in just this way, marks out the space between Creator and creature that is the Creator’s own gift” (362).
Finally, we can fittingly end where Sonderegger begins. In the Preface, after setting out her intention to deal with deity as such—the what of God—she concludes: “the Objectivity of God closes the intellect up in wonder. The richness of this Mystery in inexhaustible, and we study it only in prayer” (xiii). I believe it is to her credit that her work, with all of its strangenesses and difficulties, pushes readers in the direction of wonder and prayer, even while it pulls them into deeper study and more critical reflection. What are those if not the marks of faithful theology?
 In this way, Sonderegger’s agenda turns out to be remarkably similar to that of Sarah Coakley, who opens the first volume of her systematics (God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ [Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013], 1) with the claim that she intends, unapologetically and against the tide of popular habit, to begin with the doctrine of God.
 In keeping with her aim to write theology that is thoroughgoingly biblical, Sonderegger ties her treatment of omnipresence to readings of the stories of Isaiah and Elisha. In the same way, she treats omnipotence in conversation with Jeremiah, the book of Numbers, and Genesis 1 and 2, and omniscience through engagement with the Wisdom literature, the relation of Moses to Christ, and the story of Jonathan and David.
 See Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self; Davies, Theology of Transformation: Faith, Freedom, and the Christian Act (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Young, God’s Presence: A Contemporary Capitulation of Early Christianity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
 She even has a battle cry: “monotheism is not a shame word!” (xiv). On this point, as so many others, she is indebted to Karl Barth, although she disagrees with him often and always at least as deeply as she depends upon him.
 Coakley makes a similar move. See her God, Sexuality, and the Self, xiv–xv.
 Interestingly, Sonderegger and Coakley evidently share the first commitment—that theology need not begin with Christology—but not the second. At least it is not clear how Coakley’s account of theotic participation in prayer would work if she accepted Sonderegger’s reworking of the relationship of God’s life ad extra to God’s life ad intra. Given this commitment, it is strange that in a lovely passage near the end of the book she refers to God’s life as “mixed into our world”; God is, she says, “content to be ingredient in this lowly world of ours, to be its Light, and to present as admixture in this unholy place” (449–50, italics added).
 She is clear: this is not a theodicy, but it is a way of avoiding speaking blasphemously of God, either by attributing evil to him or by making him powerless in the face of evil.
Chris E. W. Green
Chris E. W. Green is an associate professor of theology at Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee. He received his PhD in theology from Bangor University. He is also the teaching pastor at Sanctuary Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma.