[Common Places] Engaging with Kate Sonderegger: Interview (Part 1)
The release of a book within a multi-volume systematic theology project makes for a momentous occasion in the world of systematic theology. Over the last few years a number of such projects have launched, none to greater acclaim or worthy of more significant attention than Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology. In a previous post we introduced and began to explore critically the volume on the Doctrine of God. In this and another post we will make available an interview that Scott Swain and Michael Allen had with Kate Sonderegger. In this post we inquire about her book’s organization, her theological influences, her commitment to monotheism (in light of charges that such a belief leads to hegemony and violence), and how this inaugural volume will relate to her upcoming volumes in this series.
You describe at great length why you start with divine unicity or oneness. Could you describe why your account of that one God addresses these attributes and not others? What guided your judgments of inclusion and exclusion, of focus and emphasis? You also enlist and engage a varied cast of characters across the text for engagement. Could you describe something of your process of selecting or deselecting figures for inclusion and conversation (whether in agreement or disagreement)?
Kate Sonderegger: This is an excellent question, and I think touches on a deep conviction of mine, that method follows doctrine; it does not precede it. So, I think, on one hand, that I might say that these decisions are simply primitive: these theologians speak powerfully to me in this area, these texts guide my thought, the elements of the majesty of God demand my attention. I simply begin, and begin there. In some ways I think theology as a whole should be primitive in just this sense—these voices from the tradition are simply given. But on the other hand, there are decisions that lie close to hand. I aim to take up theologians who have developed a particular attribute or perfection most powerfully and lucidly; they are the ones recognized by the tradition as pioneers, exemplars in this area of doctrine. Always theology should honor the arguments of others at their strongest. I aim, too, to manifest and enact the conviction that the traditional “scholastic” Attributes of God—Omniscience, Omnipresence, Omnipotence—are biblical and arise from an attentive and faithful reading of Holy Scripture.
Regina Schwarz has argued in her well-known book The Curse of Cain that an emphasis upon monotheism historically leads to violence. Could you say something regarding the way a classical Christian commitment to divine unicity should or should not affect our behavior amongst one another?
Kate: The creation narrative in Genesis has struck and instructed me by its use of the “jussive” as the form of the LORD God’s work ad extra: the Lord “welcomes” or “invites” creaturely reality into being. (Typical jussives: let us walk together, let us consider this question, let there be peace on earth, let there be light.) They are imperatives, commands, but of a welcoming kind. I think this is the Way of our God, in creation and providence, and beyond. We are commanded in just this jussive way—invited—to walk in love, to outdo one another in showing honor, to live humbly and justly, to give and shed light abroad. Those are all ways that the God who is One prompts a broad, humane, and ethical ways of life. I think too that we might consider the Unicity of God an encouragement to pay special honor to one another’s uniqueness, each one’s “thisness” or “haecceitas,” and it in this way to welcome rich diversity and difference among creatures. Of course we human creatures have hardly excelled over the seasons and centuries in patterning ourselves on the Divine Generosity; there’s no denying the sometimes frightful history. But we are welcomed into the Beloved Community all the same—and this is grace.
The theology of Karl Barth has been a strong influence throughout your theological career. In this volume you make a number of rather un-Barthian moves. Does this signal change in your own thinking about the Basel Master? If so, what are some of the factors that led to this change?
Kate: Barth, I think, will always stand as a father of the faith to me, and a Doctor of the Church, for us all. The Church Dogmatics is matchless; there truly is no other voice like his. But Barth has always given me the wonderful gift of freedom. I have never had the conviction, when I study him, that I must agree with him in all particulars, even in most, to stand in his circle or to learn from him. Unlike many modern theologians, it seems to me, that Barth welcomes, indeed, insists upon independent thought. He challenges us to read afresh, to hear the Word in our day, to give our answer. It may strike others as odd to say, but I find this theologian, so seemingly combative and “intolerant,” a great apostle of liberty.
Can you give us a hint about how your commitments regarding divine unicity and uniqueness will come into play in your treatment of divine triunity in the next volume?
Kate: It seems to me that the Mystery of Trinity should be a form and expression of the Divine Oneness: we say and honor One when we say, Triune. I hope to develop this conviction through an exposition of the Divine Life: the Processions as the Dynamic Generativity and Generosity of the Living God. This Life of the One God, Itself Infinite, does not exist without determination or order; God is a Structured Infinity. The Life of God is the Source—not Ground or Antitype!—of all creaturely structure, life, place. In Him we live and move and have our being: this too is an element of the Mystery of Trinity. God is Truth and Goodness; altogether Very Good. This is Trinity, and the Source of Incarnation.
Kate Sonderegger (DMin, STM, Yale University; AB, Smith College; PhD, Brown University) is the William Meade Chair in Systematic Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary, VA. She is the author of That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew: Karl Barth’s “Doctrine of Israel” (University Park: Penn State Press, 1992) and Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God, Volume 1 (Fortress, 2015), the first installment of her multi-volume systematic theology. Professor Sonderegger is a member of the American Academy of Religion, Kampen-Princeton Barth Consultation, Karl Barth Society of North America, American Theological Society, Society for the Study of Theology, and the co-chair for the Reformed Theology executive committee.
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