[Common Places] Engaging with Kate Sonderegger: Interview (Part 2)
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 our first post we introduced and began to explore critically the volume on the Doctrine of God, then we posted the first installment of an interview that Scott Swain and Michael Allen had with Kate Sonderegger about her book, her theological approach, and her upcoming volumes. Now we conclude that interview by considering some substantive decisions made in this volume, regarding substance metaphysics, causality language, and scriptural exegesis that spans the whole canon.
You offer a defense of “substance metaphysics” in the face of a whole lot of criticism of that notion (or something going under that title) in recent decades. Why? How?
Kate: Philosophical terms have assumed many guises in theology; often it’s the livery of “symbol.” In my view, “substance metaphysics” has become “symbol” in just this sense. It stands in for an ancillary background picture that has emerged powerfully in nineteenth-century academic theology: Not metaphysics but rather Bible! Not substance but rather the event or Word of Promise! There’s much to take seriously here, but we need not accept the symbolic role of this term, all the same. Holy Scripture speaks plainly, I say, of “substances”: the creation narratives brim over with them, but so do the historical dramas of monarchs and tribes and enemies, and the epistles speak of elements and things and kinds. We need the range and power of traditional philosophical categories—especially of metaphysics—to capture the complexity of Scriptural language about God and creatures. The sturdiness of creatures, their endurance over many seasons and days, their continuity over change, sometimes great change—all these features of created objects and beings, held in life by a Generous God, can be properly and usefully described through the idiom of substance. Principally, God is Eternal; God is Eternity. God endures forever. God is the Living One; Power and Light. God grants and invites created beings into existence out of the Treasury that Is God, His Being and Life and Fiery Light. God in astonishing generosity makes Himself Object to our world and to our thought; He can live in this way too. All these claims about Creator and creature belong to metaphysics, and they draw upon the complex vocabulary of substance. Theology need not rely upon such terms, but we can put them to work!
You do not offer a defense, however, of causal language with regard to God. Why not? Is anything lost in refusing to uphold that language? How might what has traditionally been conveyed through causal imagery be upheld, more faithfully, in another idiom?
Kate: I have been impressed throughout the theological tradition by the tormented, at time insoluble problems generated by the category, cause, especially as applied to the God-world relation. Think of the neuralgic points: determinism; pantheism or theopanism; theodicy; sin as “caused” by God; quarrels over Virgin Birth, resurrection, consummation. And that’s not touching the red-hot matter of analogy! The Unique God’s relation to the world must be unique, it seems to me, and Thomas signals that by his use of terms such as equivocal or universal cause. Better, I would say, is to simply speak of God, His Perfections and Powers, His ways ad extra, and underscore the surpassing uniqueness of all these Realities and relations.
Finally, your text is saturated with scriptural language, ranging from echoes and allusions coursing through each paragraph to sustained exegeses of particular passages or even narrative cycles. In some cases you seem to be referring to a classic seat of doctrine (sedes doctrinae) like Deuteronomy 6, while in others you seem to be suggesting a more innovative approach. How do you determine which texts should mark a particular topic? Do you have any governing principles to help guide those decisions?
Kate: I have to say that prayer is in truth the only principle that I have followed generally and across the Doctrines. Reading Holy Scripture as Vox Dei in a lectio has seemed to me the best, most generous, and the most instructive guide to finding the proper passage and Books in Scripture. Of course there are texts, as you say, that could not be ignored—the Church would not let us! How could a theologian discuss Divine Love without 1 John? But there are other texts that present themselves, intrude on our thoughts and plans, demand a hearing. I suppose it might be better to say that they guide and govern me. Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities.
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