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Classical Divine Attributes, Freshly Illumined: A Review Essay of Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology Vol. 1

A Review Essay of Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology Vol. 1: The Doctrine of God, Fortress Press, 2015, xxvi + 539pp. (Link to purchase here).

sonderegger doctrine of godReading (and I assume writing!) a multi-volume systematic theology is a quite taxing endeavor. For one, readers must choose wisely which theologians are worth their time, and then must stick through the often cumbersome – even in the best of books – sections of the series to reach the end. There, one hopes, a full picture of an individual’s thinking about many of the major topics of the Christian faith will become clear. Katherine Sonderegger’s first volume, The Doctrine of God, offers readers a foray into the most basic of theological questions – both the investigations of “what?” God is, and “who?” God is. Her written style is unique among modern systematicians in that I found it to be quite enjoyable in and of itself, regardless of content. Sonderegger simply knows how to write almost poetically, yet she always remains within a rigorous academic treatment of her subject matter. The uniqueness of her style foreshadows, in particular, a few of her own constructive contributions to the doctrine of God that, while being illuminating, a modern theological student might struggle to buy into.

In fact, Sonderegger wastes no time delivering her admittedly peculiar sentiments to the reader. She begins with a sort of justification of her entire project while trying to avoid the normal course of declaring a specific theological methodology (For a peak at her qualms with method – “Doctrine governs and generates method, not the converse!” xx, and “Method is a fatal disease in dogmatics,” 377). Since the mid-20th century, at least, theologians by and large have decided to stress the Trinitarian nature of God, and have begun their theology from that starting point rather than the oneness of God. Similarly, it is often the case that theologians ground their doctrines in Christology as the ultimate revelation of God’s nature (a sometimes burdensome refrain is scattered throughout this book: “Not all is Christology!”). Sonderegger rejects these two common moves, for “nothing is more fundamental to the Reality of God than this utter unicity” (xiv). It’s not necessarily clear as day why she begins that way, but I sense it has a lot to do with how much her theology attempts to embed itself within the order given in scripture. She understands the Christian faith to be deeply rooted with the tradition of ancient Israel along with a corresponding stress upon the relative value given to the Torah. She writes, “The Bible rests upon its own foundation, the law given to Moses, and inscribed in the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses” (13).

Underpinning this turn to the Hebrew Bible lies her understanding of theological reading of the text. Unfortunately, she waits until the very end of her book to explicitly disclose her method of reading scripture. The core of this method is that she believes scripture, even when not obviously instructive in genre, has the ability to teach doctrine, to teach metaphysics even. This allows her to give extraordinarily profound readings of familiar texts like the burning bush of Exodus, Elisha and his servant of 2 Kings, the structure of the Book of Numbers, and the first creation account of Genesis. These readings (more on these later) are one of the strongest, yet at times controversial, aspects of Sonderegger’s work.

Enough of my own throat-clearing; let’s dive into the main discussions in this text. Besides a few intro and concluding remarks, this first volume of systematics is largely framed around three classical attributes of God: omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience. In this first section then, Sonderegger’s overarching argument is that the one God’s omnipresence is God’s hiddenness. Of course, on the face of it, presence and hiddenness seem just the type of features we would consider polar opposites, but Sonderegger offers reasons why in a doctrine of God they should go together. Succinctly, “The presence of the One God takes place in the Mode and form of invisibility: when He is disclosed, He is not seen” (74). In this argument, her readings of the burning bush and 2 Kings 6 come into play. In the story of Elisha’s servant, we realize that God surrounds us with an infinite, yet hidden, presence. Again, while the text may not explicitly be instructive in genre, Sonderegger argues that this text is one of the foundational stories upon which to learn the metaphysical reality of God’s spiritual nature and invisibility. With the burning bush (an episode which she oddly claims is the “bedrock of all theological reasoning,” 80), a similar truth about God’s very nature is taught: God is clearly revealed in the bush as the One Moses encounters, but God remains unseen and hidden even when “revealed” in that way. Moreover, this story teaches about the compatibility between God and creatures – the bush is not consumed. God can be ever-present to creatures without their diminishment.

Along the way, Sonderegger remarks that God’s nature, in these instances, reveals itself as naturally communicable. In other words, it is the self-communication of God that teaches us the hidden nature of God’s omnipresence. This would be opposed to an apophatic type approach which arrives at a theology of hiddenness due not to the disclosure of God, but rather the lack thereof! Perhaps most strikingly, Sonderegger even cites atheism as testifying, albeit in a non-straightforward way, the hidden nature of God. While these moves are certainly clever, and quite illuminating at times, for the same reasons it is difficult to get fully onboard her project. Hiddenness and invisibility may certainly be a divine attribute based on God’s spiritual nature, but it is hard to see how Sonderegger’s approach is not at least a partial whitewashing of profound problems in certain Christian understandings of God. Sonderegger turns hiddenness into quite the virtue, indeed it even reveals the holy humility of the Lord in easing into our ways of knowing. I fear, however, that such a swift theological gesture to remove divine hiddenness from the deepest anxieties of human life discredits the profoundness of trying to make do with an often hidden God. Sonderegger is clear that the “hiddenness of God… emerges not from absence but rather from divine presence,” (68) with a stress on presence, but I’m not convinced that hiddenness should be so quickly put to positive use.

In the middle portion of the book, Sonderegger addresses the issue of divine omnipotence, or rather, as she puts it, the Lord’s holy humility. She is well aware of contemporary problems of divine power, i.e. the classical problem of evil, abuse, and basic definitions. Along the way, she makes interesting use of the identity of essence and existence of God according to scholastic theology; power is not a capacity that God has, but is God’s reality – God just is power (e.g., “God does not wield power, does not own it, or exercise it, but rather simply is this,” 188). Perhaps controversially, especially to those students of the tradition of omnipotence, Sonderegger does “not define power as to do as one wills” (176). Even further, “we must say that Divine Omnipotence, the Lord’s Holy Humility, must be removed from the category cause altogether” (177). Adding to the, now long, list of popular positions she rejects, Sonderegger refuses to think of God as either will (certainly not a deliberative will) or intellect, both positions favored by some of the more influential figures in Christian history. At this point, she tests the waters of her theory against Schleiermacher’s conception of God as absolute cause, favoring her own account of divine power in relation with creatures.

Delving into a theological reading of Jeremiah and the Book of Numbers, Sonderegger argues for a vision of a “dangerous” God, completely free over creation. With Jeremiah, she wonders whether the Israelite pattern of exile and return should not rather simply be called abuse. While foreshadowing elements of her later Christology, she proclaims that the cycle of exile and return has an ending (and it is not that we deserve our own suffering or trials), ultimate redemption, brought about by our relation to Christ – again, the real form of divine power. But perhaps more interesting is Sonderegger’s reading of Numbers as a whole. Through all of its rampant disorder and confusion, Numbers, for her, represents the general character of our human lives that are often difficult to put into a meaningful narrative. Strikingly, God seems rather strange in this book: jealous, changing moods, etc. Moses instead looks like the God Christians know; he intercedes for Israel, is patient, and embodies humility. She takes this to be a sort of (metaphorical?) fusion of divine and human in Moses and the Lord of Numbers whereby Moses displays many of the divine attributes we have been discussing thus far. Sonderegger writes, “The daring distribution of subjectivity we find in Numbers, the deification of Moses (!), speaks in its own idiom, of Christ’s personal life, His Hypostatic Union with the Word” (293). Apart from some often times odd remarks concerning Moses’ relation with the latter revelation of Christ, the point is driven home that God’s power lies within God’s relation.

This God, working through the human Moses and Jeremiah combines a sort of mutability in immutability. The relation to creatures that Sonderegger reads from these familiar narratives is the expression of omnipotence: holy humility, to descend and engage with creation. The creation accounts of Genesis come to her aid regarding the fusion of humility and power with Sonderegger’s account of the jussive “let there be…” of Genesis 1. This, according to Sonderegger, is God’s invitation to life demarcated from the notion of command. However, “the initiative in any relation ad extra lies with Almighty God: He makes a relation possible” (301). In summarizing all of these points, it is difficult to see just how Sonderegger imagines how the relation of the divine nature to creation results in what we would normally consider power. While rejecting any concept that identifies omnipotence with an all-powerful will, act, or causation altogether, the reader is hard-pressed to understand just what the divine relation ad extra is. Perhaps her forthcoming volumes will address this issue in its requisite depth when dealing with Christology – a unique salvific relation (utilizing Schleiermacher) she hints at in a few places in the present work.

Moving lastly toward divine omniscience, Sonderegger again highlights the identity of essence and existence in God. Knowledge, here, is not a faculty, nor the result of a filled divine mind. Connecting knowledge with the divine perfection of eternity (which for her, “is not the absence of time,” 343), Sonderegger makes a quite clever argument for God’s knowledge apart from any creation. God’s knowledge is not what is learned from observing the events of the world, in other words. Omniscience, like power and presence from above, is the way the Lord relates to creatures. In short, Lady Wisdom, for Sonderegger, is God personified – wise in all her ways. Omniscience, then, is independent of creatures, and is, in my mind, better placed alongside traditional notions of what it means to be wise – a feature of how one lives their life. Rejecting ideas of God filled with anxiety and fear, Sonderegger is adamant to argue that God as wisdom itself does not mean that God is a relentless inquisitor always ready to attack the human conscience. Humility, as in the other attributes, plays a central role; God’s knowing is humble, giving creatures their privacy and space to be themselves.

I’ll admit Sonderegger’s argument for divine omniscience was complex and took many detours along the way. It’ll take much closer study to arrive at the full ramifications of her thesis here, and to learn from her theological acumen. Sandwiched between her conclusions regarding divine omniscience proper is a brief roundabout treatment of human knowledge of God and the world. She calls these the problems of grounding and representation. Our knowledge is not “grounded” in an archetype in God’s mind, say, nor is God properly known through mental representation – this would violate the fundamental axiom that God is uncircumscribable and spiritual, without form. A nuanced form of representation is true though, especially regarding Christ (again with odd remarks regarding Moses – Christ is “the one who represents Moses perfectly,” 409), known in loving faith by humanity, and as a representative (rather than a representation) of God.

As was admitted in the beginning of my review, readers heavily influenced or convinced by a Christological grounding of theological epistemology may be confused why Sonderegger just doesn’t take that next step, particularly here when the potential seems most alluring. Readers on this point may just have to leave it at a fundamental theological disagreement, yet this should not be reason to ignore Sonderegger’s poking and prodding on this subject matter. Moving on now, Sonderegger concludes the section on divine omniscience with a heavily Augustine-influenced doctrine of divine illumination. God is not seen, but is that which we see by. God provides the basis for our own ability to know things.

Readers who have traveled this far, both in my review and deep into the last pages of Sonderegger’s book, will be graced with a discussion of divine love as the “keystone of divine perfections” (perhaps another nod to the structure of Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith). Theology, for her, should evoke love, not burden the reader with dull ‘castle in the sky’ remarks. Once again returning to her favorite theological position, Sonderegger tries to explore what it means for God to be love, not just have it. This immediately raises the question of whether or not God as love itself is inherently in need of an object for that love, after all, what is love without an object? Many theologians, Barth and Augustine included, have run full speed with this metaphor to posit the necessity of eternal distinctions within God to account for the seemingly necessary character of an object for divine love. But Sonderegger, as is par for the course by this point, wants to say that God is love irrespective of an object of that love. She likens divine love to a disposition that is a fact regarding God’s nature. Here, “The Lord God is Love as a metaphysical Disposition and Truth, a Substance that carries this Property, a Nature that is defined in just this way” (488). In the end, this God is passionate, but not in the same way as some liberation theologians would have it; God does not suffer in love, nor does emotion entail embodiment as some might worry.

That wraps up the first volume of Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology. While there are many points where readers and I may disagree on quite fundamental levels, others may find her account of God nearly flawless in its unique ability to illuminate our subject matter as theologians. Regardless of one’s perspective on the specifics, her book is at the same time thoroughly enjoyable to read, think through, and devote time to as it is a stark challenge to much late 20th century theology. I can wholeheartedly recommend this work to anyone with an interest in theology, content in my own experience of assurance that Sonderegger will challenge, and ultimately strengthen, the reader’s own understanding of God.

Also check out Chris Green’s wonderful review of this book over at The Other Journal.

My (5) Favorite Living Theologians

In no particular order; although if you’ve been to my blog before, you probably already know my bias!

  1. Sarah Coakley

sarah coakleySarah Coakley is currently Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. A theologian in the Anglican tradition, she is well known for her creativity, and attention to distinctly contemporary issues in the Church – frequently utilizing the categories of Christian desire and contemplation. She is currently in the process of writing a multi-volume systematic theology, the first of which was published in 2013 titled God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay on the Trinity. I enjoy her refreshing, yet unique, takes on theological issues, and she always seems to draw out the significant implications from her prayer-grounded vision of the Christian Life.

2. Ian McFarland

ian mcfarlandIan McFarland is currently Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge (chair established in 1535!). While his theological potential is surely yet to be fully realized, as he is only now beginning to enter the heart of his career, McFarland has already written some very interesting books on creation and on sin (In Adam’s Fall). I first came across Professor McFarland when writing a undergraduate paper on creation; his newest book revitalizing the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, titled, From Nothing: A Theology of Creation, is a quite rigorous treatment of creation in McFarland’s unique style of theological precision and use of historical theology. He studied under Kathryn Tanner at the University of Chicago, receiving his PhD in 1995.

3. Joerg Rieger

joerg riegerJoerg Rieger is currently a constructive theology professor at Vanderbilt. Generally located in the liberation tradition of theology, Rieger has prolifically tackled issues such as economics, globalization, and empire. Connected with his academic writing, he has been a community activist advocating for labor and broader social justice for many years and speaks often in such contexts. I first became acquainted with Rieger’s economic theology work in No Rising Tide, but have since then moved beyond to his short text, Globalization and Theology, and his book Christ and Empire. Just this month, he released a new book on labor, inequality, and theology, Unified We Are a Force.

4. Kathryn Tanner

kathryn tannerKathryn Tanner is currently the Marquand Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School. Arguably one of the most influential theologians of this generation, Tanner’s powerful theological vision is nothing short of profound. I first read her short systematic text, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, and was immediately hooked, then was subsequently inspired to embark upon my own journey of theological education. First, she developed her concept of the non-competitive relation between God in Creation (God and Creation in Christian Theology), then directed her attention to how traditional Christian theology has radical implications for social justice (Politics of God) and argued for a heightened understanding of culture (Theories of Culture). Turning toward systematics more explicitly, she has outlined her theology in the above-mentioned systematic text, and then fleshed out her Christological emphasis in Christ the Key. In-between those two works, she outlined a Christian approach to economics, a task which she has recently engaged in further as part of the 2016 Gifford Lectures. Tanner has dabbled quite widely in her theological writings, turning at times to sociology, philosophy, economics, critical theory, and feminist theory to name a few.

5. Katherine Sonderegger

kate sonderregerI’m a relative newcomer to Katherine Sonderegger, Chair of Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary, and though I often disagree with her approach, I have included her on this list because she is a fascinating thinker, unique in her use of extensive biblical commentary in her theology. Active both as a priest and an academic theologian, Sonderegger hasn’t published too much throughout her career, but when she does, she seems to make it count. Professor Sonderegger has just this past year published her first of a planned three volume systematic theology, on the doctrine of God. She does quite a bit of reworking contemporary theological themes; most notably, she reverses both the trend toward beginning with Trinitarian theology, favoring the unity and oneness of God, as well as the Christological turn in much recent theology, again favoring grounding Christian claims in the doctrine of God more strictly than the revelation of Christ. For these, admittedly grand, theological moves, she is certainly worth attending to and reading closely.

Feel free to list your favorites in the comments!