Katherine Sonderegger on the Task of Dogmatic Theology: “The Bible is…”
That was the question theologian Katherine Sonderegger engaged at the 2016 Los Angeles Theology Conference, which also forms the backbone of the resulting The Task of Dogmatics, edited by Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders.
Since 2013, Biola University, Fuller Seminary and Zondervan Academic have brought together a diverse coalition of top scholars from different schools and confessions to foster serious, collegial engagement with Scripture and tradition, retrieving the best of the Christian past in order to forge theology for the future. The 2017 conference examined dogmatic methodology theologically, with these contributors: Kevin Vanhoozer, Scott Swain, Sameer Yadav, Chris Tilling, Henri Blocher, Katherine Sonderegger, Darren Sumner, James Arcadi, Brannon Ellis, Josh Malone, Michael Allen, and Gavin Ortlund.
Sonderegger’s contribution is “a highly constructive account of the nature of Scripture as a source of theological authority in dogmatics” (20). Her paper “Holy Scripture As Sacred Ground” is her “public account of the doctrine of Scripture that undergirds her work” (20). We’ve highlighted 5 elements of that account below to inform how you yourself understand the nature of Scripture and its place within the task and method of dogmatic theology.
1) A Book Like No Other
This short summary, “the Bible is a book like no other,” stands as Sonderegger’s “strongest conviction about Holy Scripture as Sacred Ground of theology” (132). Drawn up in the Bible’s uniqueness are these themes:
- It confronts us as nothing else can or will
- It belongs to no kind of class
- It brooks no rival yet can speak to all
- It un-makes us as we read it
- We can never come to the end of it
For Sonderegger, the Bible isn’t merely unique: it is strongly so, and in a way that belies mere individuation.
2) More than a Text
This observation cuts across both the liberal and conservative understandings of the nature of Scripture as a text:
- liberal, in that Schleiermacher insisted “the Bible should be…read like any other ancient text” (135), leading to both “lower criticism” and “higher criticism” biblical engagement
- conservative, in that its “strong Inerrantist position affirms…this One Book, the Bible, stands as a historical and moral record without error” (136), leading to an infallibilist rooting of biblical authority.
Instead, Sonderegger insists the Bible is more than either an ancient or inerrant text: “It stands utterly alone, sovereign, majestic. It stands at the beginning of all our theological ways simply because there is nothing like it—really nothing at all” (137).
3) Divine Self-Disclosure
Nodding toward Barth’s Deus dixit, Sonderegger argues along with him and others like John Webster that Scripture is Divine Self-disclosure:
God speaks, yes. And we live by that living Word. But God has also spoken; there is a proper past, a record, a deposit, and legacy of that speaking….And the Lord God will speak; the future is also His. (137)
She appreciates Second Vatican Council’s Dei Verbum, which suggested “the Bible as a kind of Sacrament, a verbal companion to the Holy Eucharist” (138), serving as a corrective to the epistemic obsession of the modern interpretation of the Bible.
4) A Mode of Divine Presence
“When we speak of the Bible as Holy Scripture,” Sonderegger writes, “we say simply that we encounter God there” (140). Here she underscores the word encounter, believing it to be an important feature of the Bible’s nature:
I do not think the Bible’s holiness stems from some truth it contains, though to be sure it contains many. Nor do I think its holiness can be anchored to its particular events, histories, and peoples, though to be sure the Bible is a specific book from an elect nation. No, the Bible is Holy, the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Covenants, just because we meet God there. (141)
And this encounter, apprehended by faith, is what she calls inspiration; it “is the name we give to the meeting of God in the Bible” (141).
5) The Ground of All Theology
Finally, Sonderegger insists theology does not rest on the Bible “because it is traditional to do so, or even that it is the heritage and instruction of the magisterial Reformers to do so, nor that it is the Christians’ Sacred Text.” None of these reasons are “strong enough, radical enough, for the place of the Bible in dogmatics” (143).
Instead, “The Bible as the place where we encounter God stands at the head because it can stand nowhere else.” It can stand nowhere else but “at the origin, the beginning of all theology’s ways and works” (143). Further: the Bible is our source for theology neither because we learn things there nor because of what it contains. Rather “in virtue of the Divine Presence is the Bible the Unique Ground of all theology, of all Christian prayer and contrition and praise” (143).
Add The Task of Dogmatics to your bookshelf to not only engage the fullness of Sonderegger’s argument for the Bible’s nature and place in dogmatics, but also the ten other explorations in theological method.