[Common Places] Engaging with Kate Sonderegger: The One and the Many

Michael Allen on August 6th, 2015. Tagged under ,,,,.

Michael Allen

Michael Allen (Ph.D., Wheaton College) is the John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. He is the author of numerous books and articles and serves as a Presbyterian teaching elder. With Scott Swain, he serves as general editor for the New Studies in Dogmatics series published by Zondervan Academic.

Systematic Theology

Systematic Theology, volume one: The Doctrine of GodThe arrival of a new contribution to a multi-volume systematic theology marks a major moment in the discipline. All the more so when the author goes against the grain of much contemporary theology. Kate Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology, volume one: The Doctrine of God is such a book.

Whereas contemporary theology this side of Barth and Rahner has focused on being Christ-centered not only in a soteriological sense but as a methodological key, Sonderegger has decidedly argued that Christology must follow the doctrine of God. So the most determinative factor regarding this volume, at least as it relates to others in its genre in recent decades, involves its character as a study of the one true God rather than the triune nature of God. This contribution deserves our attention and repays our engagement. In this introductory post, I offer an orientation to the volume; two subsequent posts will then explore particular facets of the project in greater detail.

Introducing the Text

What observations might be made about the book and the wider project? Many things could be said, some of which demand notice (albeit briefly). The cadence of the work takes a biblical and mystical tone throughout. Sentences land heavily, evoking worlds of spiritual meaning that take time to explore fully. One of my favorite sequences of rumination comes late:

[T]o believe in Almighty God is to lift up one’s head, to see this world, and see beyond it too. It is to trust that there is more. More riches in a text that meet the eye; more Grace and Life in bread and wine and oil than anyone glimpses there; more distinction in human reason than biology can teach us; more dignity to all creatures than economic striving can show us; more weight to our concepts and ideals and quotidian facts than our weary age can hope for: more is the name of Christian dignity (p. 456).

The claims address metaphysical reality, albeit in terms explicitly drawn from the world of spirituality and liturgy. Kate’s conversation partners are an ecumenical lot: while Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth regularly appear in virtually every chapter, others pop in for visits from time to time (ranging from Anselm and Francis Turretin to Charles Hodge and Sergei Bulgakov).

The structure of the volume moves from considering the oneness of God to attending to his omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience, followed by final reflections on divine love and on the exegesis of Holy Scripture. The chapters are few but long, working comparatively with regard to opposing approaches without attempting to provide any representative or complete synopsis of all positions held on any given topic. Regularly the author’s position is brought into relief by exposition alongside another approach of some prestige. In many ways, then, the volume bears a classic vintage.

Against Idolatry

I do want to explore one crucial facet of this volume related to its decision to begin with the one God rather than with Christology.

Early on, we encounter the claim that “metaphysical claims about Oneness and idolatry go together” (p. 19). One might think that this would prompt a protocol of specification for the sake of avoiding idolatry, commending a theology with strict contours and sharp edges so as to avoid veering into paganism. Without detracting from edges and specifications, Sonderegger points to a more startling reality: the call to honor the divine mystery. “Divine mystery is not a sign of our failure in knowledge, but rather our success. It is because we know truly and properly—because we obey in faith the First Commandment—that God is mystery. His metaphysical predicate of Oneness, when known, yields mystery” (p. 24). Elsewhere the point is repeatedly pressed home that mystery is an intellectual achievement flowing from divine presence, not a limit owing to divine absence (see, e.g., pp. 40, 42, 50, 87, 460).

The image of the journey or pilgrimage is not only epistemologically but, more fundamentally, metaphysically determinative in her account: “There is no moment in earthly pilgrimage or heavenly rest when our encounter with God is not defined by this Oneness; even the blessed who have ‘loved much’ can see only what is beyond all form, similitude, and likeness. They see the Utterly Invisible and Unseen” (p. 25). Notice that she addresses not only those on the way from Egypt, but also those having arrived in Canaan. For the blessed as well as the wayfarer, God remains mystery, invisible, and altogether one.

This emphasis upon oneness and idolatry is fundamental because the christological method of much recent theology has been goaded along by the argument that anything but a christocentric approach veers into speculation and, by extension, idolatry. Sonderegger reminds us that the scriptural polemic against idolatry predates the incarnation and finds its moorings in texts like Deuteronomy 6:4-5. As one who thinks many of the maladies of modern theology stem from a Marcionite approach to doctrine, I am greatly indebted to Sonderegger for this line of reflection.

Intellectual Discipleship

While I have some concern and reservation regarding the internal structure of this volume (namely, why these and not other attributes were addressed and in what order) and some particular judgments found therein (e.g. the polemic against causality language) and some lingering questions about how exactly matters are being approached (as in the transcendental moves sketched vis-à-vis avoiding idolatry on pp. 447ff.), nonetheless, I am struck forcibly by the broader structural judgment that divine oneness is more fundamental than the christological manifestation of God’s character.* Sonderegger’s return to talking oneness before threeness, theology before economy, better follows the divine pedagogy of redemptive history and of the actual course of the scriptural canon (which I take to be not only fundamental as the content of theology but also the pattern of theology).

Most pointedly and perhaps ironically, her approach better fits the method of Jesus himself as conveyed through the evangelists, inasmuch as he moved from Old to New in explicating his own identity. It was Christ, after all, who introduced himself by taking the words of the prophet upon himself, saying “The spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Luke 4:17-19, citing Isa 61:1, 2). If we seek to follow him intellectually, as well as in every other way, might we not also observe the scope and sequence of his own self-presentation?

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* This point has also been argued with special force by John Webster, “The Place of Christology in Systematic Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook to Christology (ed. Francesca Murphy; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), ch. 39; the essay will also appear in John Webster, God Without Measure, volume 1: God and the Works of God (London: T & T Clark, 2015), ch. 4.

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Michael Allen (PhD, Wheaton College) is Associate Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. Michael is a Presbyterian teaching elder and is the author of several books, including Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (with Scott Swain) and Justification and the Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies, as well as many articles on Christian doctrine and historical theology.

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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