[Common Places] Engaging with Kate Sonderegger: On Divine Invisibility
“The Lord’s style of language”
One of the theologian’s primary tasks is to assist the church in better understanding what Augustine once called, “the Lord’s style of language.” This task is challenging, not because the Lord employs an esoteric angelic language when he speaks to us, but because he uses ordinary human language to speak of extraordinary things: In Holy Scripture, the Lord speaks of God and all things in relation to God. The first volume of Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology is the product of a theologian well trained in the art of following “the Lord’s style of language.” Therein, Sonderegger offers an account of God’s oneness and perfection that trades upon the correspondence between the Lord’s unique mode of speaking in Holy Scripture and the Lord’s unique mode of being as God.
In a previous post, Mike Allen provided a broad introduction and orientation to Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology. In the present post, I want to focus on one particular theme in this admirable book, namely, its treatment of divine invisibility. One of Katherine Sonderegger’s special contributions to the Christian doctrine of God lies in recovering the biblical idiom of divine invisibility, locating it within the context of the Bible’s affirmation of divine oneness, and demonstrating its radiance and fecundity as a divine perfection.
Reading and Speaking of the Invisible God
According to Sonderegger, the biblical revelation of divine oneness follows a twofold pattern of predication. The Bible’s manner of speaking characteristically weds the affirmation of God’s oneness with the prohibition against idolatry. The doctrine of divine invisibility is one application of this twofold pattern of biblical predication.
To the positive affirmation of God’s eloquent and radiant presence in the midst of his people at Sinai and in the incarnation of the Son of God, the Bible binds the negative attribution of God’s invisibility: “The Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deut 4:12). “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). The God who dwells in the midst of his people reveals himself to be “the invisible God” (Col 1:15).
The revelation of God’s invisibility is, on Sonderegger’s careful reading, a revelation of God’s nature, not simply a statement about our lack of perception. When we speak of “the invisible church,” we speak of an entity whose membership at present remains hidden from our sight but which has the potential of being seen by those gathered around the throne of God and of the Lamb. When we speak of “the invisible God,” however, we speak of one who forever remains hidden from our sight because he by nature transcends all creaturely modes of visible embodiment and perception. To say that God is invisible is not to say that an otherwise visible God has put on an invisibility cloak. To say that God is invisible is to say that God transcends all creaturely likenesses and forms and that he transcends all creaturely capacities to grasp God within the limits of species, genus, and differentia.
The confession of divine invisibility that Scripture evokes should not be interpreted as a form of dark apophaticism, a quiet relinquishing of the quest to know the one true and living God. Sonderegger insists that the revelation of the invisible God is the revelation of an “unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6:16), a light that awakens “in us created words for that which is ineffable” (23). For this reason, the confession of divine invisibility is “not a sign of our failure in knowledge, but rather our success.” In praising the invisible God, we praise someone “we know truly and properly” (24).
What is the character of this knowledge? The knowledge of divine invisibility rendered to us by Holy Scripture is knowledge of God’s “positive infinity.” The reason God cannot be embodied in any creaturely form or likeness, and the reason God cannot be subsumed under any creaturely scheme of classification, lies in the fact that God’s perfection positively outstrips these creaturely forms, likenesses, and systems of classification in its concrete unity, fullness, and wholeness. The goodness of the invisible God is not the goodness of this or that thing among God’s created wonders; it is Goodness Itself, subsisting in and as the one true and living God. God is invisible “as the One who is the much more, the One exceedingly beyond, even in His Presence. Always He is the Greater, the More of the same—no, the More of every kind, inexhaustibly More Gracious, More Powerful, More Real” (128).
Throughout her treatment of divine invisibility, Sonderegger is careful to couple the biblical metaphysics of divine uniqueness with the biblical message of evangelical consolation. Here too Sonderegger exhibits her exceptional capacity for following “the Lord’s style of language.” The doctrine of divine invisibility is pure gospel because it is as the invisible one that God makes his dwelling in our midst. The Lord who dwells in a high and holy place, who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, also stoops down low in order to revive the spirit of the lowly, in order to bring life and immortality to light (Isa 57:15; 1 Tim 6:16; 2 Tim 1:10). God manifests the fullness and wholeness of his invisible perfection here. “The invisible God” (Col 1:15) is pleased to be “God with us” (Col 1:19). Sonderegger reminds us that, within an evangelical metaphysics of divine perfection, the negative attribute of divine invisibility belongs with the positive attribute of divine omnipresence because the Lord is our God and because the Lord is one (Deut 6:4).
Learning “the Lord’s style of language” is not easy. Doing so is nevertheless a gift. Readers of Holy Scripture and students of God’s perfections will find in Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology many helps in understanding the Lord’s unique mode of speaking about his unique mode of being. Accordingly, they will find many reasons for thanksgiving.
Scott Swain is Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. He is author of several books, including The God of the Gospel: The Trinitarian Theology of Robert Jenson, and Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and its Interpretation. He serves as general editor (with Michael Allen) for T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary and Zondervan’s New Studies in Dogmatics series. He is a regular blogger at Reformation21.
Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.
Our current series, Engaging with Kate Sonderegger, explores the recently released first volume of a significant multi-volume project in systematic theology from a classically minded contemporary theologian. This brief series not only introduces the project but critically explores some of its salient and distinctive features.
Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors