Systematic Theology: v.1: The Doctrine of God – Katherine Sonderegger

Review by The Very Revd Dr Frances Ward, Dean of St Edmundsbury

Katherine Sonderegger Systematic Theology: v.1: The Doctrine of God Fortress Press, Minneapolis 2015

The first part of Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology takes us to the heart of God with exhilarating style and energy. Her text commands attention as she conveys her excitement – no dull old tome is this! Her text is peppered with exclamation marks and capital letters – throughout she revives the forgotten practice of speaking of God with appropriate emphasis. It works! Sonderegger’s doctrine of God is Alive, Fiery, Full of Life!

So this is refreshingly new. She is bold and confident in her engagement with the old masters – Barth, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Thomas. Augustine is most prominent; for although she takes issue with him in places, it is with him she is most at home. For the God she tells of is the God in Whom we know, in Whose Light we see light.

She has set out to do something different. To write a different kind of theology. A theology that wets the appetite, that stirs desire. It’s worth hearing her – two paragraphs that are music to the ears of anyone today who wants to commend God as the reason to do theology, the reason to live!

Truth to tell, how many dull, very dull, doctrines of God have we theologians offered up to our readers, as if theology and theologians did not stand in all their poverty before the fiery Lord God of Israel! How often have we shielded ourselves from the Terrible One by dense and technical accounts of problem cases, of scholastic distinctions that serve only the thirst of the schools, of metaphysical systems that can lead the faithful only farther and farther away from the Love God who is zealous in all His Ways! …

To speak of God, to name the Divine Perfections, should be honey in the comb, the river of delight, the freshness and strong elixir of love. Love is the Truth of God, but also the Beauty. God is sublime, a zealous Good. Love alone is as strong as death, its passion fiacre as the grave. To know this God, the Living Lord, is to hunger and to delight and to hunger once more. Theology should pant after its God, the Love that is better than wine, for God is beautiful, truly lovely, the One whose Eyes are like doves. Eat, friends – all theology should ring out with this invitation – drink and be drunk with Love. (p. 472)

Theology is a prayerful, devotional pursuit, here; deeply rooted in worship and in the scriptures where God is to be encountered in all the living, fiery energy of His Love. Her first sentence says as much: ‘Theology awakens a grateful heart’. The final sentence of the Preface encapsulates it: ‘This is the proper dogmatic form of the doctrine of God: the intellect bent down, glorified, in prayer’.

Prayerfully, ecstatically, Sonderegger takes us through her thoughts on God’s Omnipresence, His Omnipotence, His Omniscience. In each we are reminded, in case we have forgotten – as many have today – that God’s Aseity is the bedrock of what and who God is. I AM WHAT I AM declared God to Moses – and perhaps Scripture should have stopped there, we are told. This is unabashedly theocentric theology, returning again and again to the Reality of God, to Almighty God who ‘… is both Object and Subject; both What and Who’ (xiii). So Sonderegger refuses any division of God into nature and attribute, or predicate; she argues strongly and convincingly that God’s being and doing are the same – whether it be presence, or power, or knowledge.

As she develops her theology of divine power, she carries forward a careful and critical conversation with different theologians who have understood such power as agency, asserting that ‘Divine Power is not the event of God’s realizing His aims,’ (p171) but rather ‘God does not have Power; He is Power, holy Power itself.’ She examines how complex a notion ‘power’ is in contemporary times; how widely accepted is Acton’s adage that power corrupts, absolute power corrupting absolutely, but that we must maintain that God’s absolute power is a blessing and a good, because God is good. To understand God’s power in terms of causality also receives short shift, and she engages with Schleiermacher as the theologian who most firmly identifies power and causality. To do so falls into the trap of seeing God’s power as something that causes effects, or as Schleiermacher has it, the dynamic of absolute dependence (p. 181).

In her consideration of the classical questions of God’s power and goodness in the presence of evil and pain Sonderegger makes no concessions as she argues against Moltmann – ‘no, to such radical cruciformity in the doctrine of God … Once again we must quietly but firmly state that Christology cannot be the sole measure, ground and matter of the doctrine of God; there is more, infinitely more to the One, Eternal God.’ (p. 157) William Temple, Process Theologians, all likewise, are found wanting for collapsing theodicial questions in one way or another. She takes her readers to Scripture, to the searing holiness of God’s power as experienced by Jeremiah and Job, and as explored in the Book of Numbers. Throughout she pushes beyond tired definitions and unsatisfactory answers to the questions of Omnipotence, theodicy and the unfashionability of power towards new renditions, demanded, she says, in a present-day doctrine of God. The best and highest way to understand God’s power is as humility and self-sacrifice, where power (and knowledge and presence) comes together as Love. For

Love is the very “matter,” the objective Reality of God. Just this we intend when we speak of the Love of God as holy Fire. We strain language when we speak thus; but we must say that God’s own Being burns with an unchecked Flame, red hot, incendiary. God does not have Love any more than He has Knowledge or Power: He just is these things. (p. 488)

Sonderegger follows Augustine closely as she argues for the compatibility of a God who is Knowledge, with how we know. God has created a compatible cosmos, compatible with His Reality; so we see in the Divine Light; we know because, as in Romans 8: 26, 27, we are inspired by the Spirit who works with us in our depths to understand. Sonderegger, as so many theologians today, turns with a deep reverence for Paul’s letter to the Romans, and particularly Chapter 8, for the rich meat it gives for explicating the relationship of God and human.

What of evil in the face of God’s omniscience? Sonderegger employs the extremely useful notion of comprehension to explain how it is that evil exists and is known by God, although evil is not-God, not-Good. Evil is other to God; yet God comprehends it. I was left unsure whether Sonderegger follows Augustine, that evil is nothing more than negation, privation – but actually, it matters not. For however evil is conceived, it can only be true that God comprehends it; that ultimately it is nothing, burned up in the fire that is God’s love. Sonderegger has it that ‘The Divine Wisdom comprehends evil in its scope and depth and shocking negation, its utter poverty and lack. God alone comprehends evil as such.’ (p. 372)

This first volume of Sonderegger’s Systematics ends with a short essay on Holy Scripture; how it is alive with the living God, who is the author who brings us into His fiery Presence. Her own writing is alive, full of energy and leaves one eager for more. She does justice to God in this volume; one is left sure she will do justice to the Son and the Holy Spirit in turn.

Her epistemological use of illumination shines through her own text, and it seems fitting to leave the last word to her, with thanks for the way her own words fill the mind and dazzle the senses as she has made better known the God who is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, and above all things, Love.

God is Light, eternal Radiance, and it is by His Light that earthly things are lit up and made known. Note that in Augustine’s doctrine, we do not see God directly: he is not the Object of our intellectual sight. Rather, He makes things known. He is the Light by which we see; but it is the world of His own making, the creatures and all that dwells below the skies, the earthly facts, concepts, categories, truths of all kinds, that fill our minds and dazzle our senses. (p. 425)

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 Systematic Theology: v.1: The Doctrine of God