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Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Doctrine of God
Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Doctrine of God

Fortress Press, 2015
539 pp., 49.00

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Daniel J. Treier

Theology on Fire

Katherine Sonderegger’s doctrine of God.

Among my dumber pronouncements of the last decade: "The genre of the multi-volume systematic theology is apparently dead." What American would have the learned means? What Brit would have the motivation to transcend the essay, or what German to transcend Barth's successor Pannenberg (and the quasi-systematic Moltmann)? And who outside "the West" would have the opportunity?

My pronouncement proved to be premature, the death of "systematic" theology greatly exaggerated. Of course my bet was hedged. Evangelical theologies would continue proliferating (but only textbooks); Robert Jenson made a daring effort in the late 1990s (but really of one-volume scope); and still others have appeared, from the likes of Donald Bloesch (but not daring enough). My chief wager: "Postmodern" trends left even traditionalists commenting on or trying to imitate Thomas Aquinas or Barth rather than taking up their task, with everyone else avoiding "systems" like the plague. Plus the genre in question was hardly widespread or historically dominant: Did Augustine write a systematic theology?

The last three decades have reenergized the discipline, however, and the last three years have reenergized its multi-volume genre. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, a Finnish Pentecostal who also teaches at Fuller Seminary, has published (as of this writing) three volumes of his series A Constructive Christian Theology for a Pluralistic World (Eerdmans). Sarah Coakley, an Anglican priest who teaches philosophy and theology at Cambridge University, has published the first volume in a projected four-part series (already reviewed in Books & Culture). Other luminaries are rumored to have large-scale dogmatics underway or on the drawing board.

And the blogosphere's most recent dogmatic buzz concerns Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Doctrine of God from Katherine Sonderegger, an Episcopal priest who teaches at Virginia Theological Seminary. Her book is sufficiently unlike any dogmatics you've ever read—yet perhaps just enough like Coakley's—to put it on John Wilson's reading list. After all, when (with the periodic exception of Barth) could a large-scale systematic theology be described as fiery?

The Fiery One

Sonderegger's doctrine of God champions classic subjects in turn: God's oneness and the three omnis—omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience. Her theological vision also remains fairly classic: She ardently defends "substance metaphysics," the traditionally philosophical and then Christian dogmatic preoccupation with "being" that construed God as the Most Perfect Being, One, Good, True, and even Beautiful.

These days, however, a metaphysical God opposes the theological and spiritual Zeitgeist, so Sonderegger must claim Israel's Scriptures as the catalyst for her defense. In Sonderegger's voice, this defense of the biblical One lilts and hums. Her preface concludes, "The Objectivity of God—this Beauteous Light—brings forth from the creatures who behold it a wonder that lies beyond saying. The Subjectivity of God—this Living One—kindles the fiery love that is the Lord's own gift, set ablaze in the creature's heart. This is the proper dogmatic form of the doctrine of God: the intellect, bent down, glorified, in prayer." The ensuing contemplative prose therefore abounds with frequent and bizarre capitalization, exclamation points, ceaseless and emphatic questions, allusive asides, and above all manifest spiritual energy. Her God is Fire, her heart is on fire, so her writing often gobbles up all the surrounding oxygen, all in the service of the Bible's metaphysical One.

Not surprisingly, then, Sonderegger begins with the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, one Lord … ), but her appeal to Scripture hardly ends there. She aims to demonstrate the pervasive biblical weight placed upon this foundation: At the Old Testament's theological center of avoiding idolatry, Israel's true God "is marked off from the false by invisibility: the nature of the One God is to have no image, form, or likeness." Divine mystery, she insists, "is not a sign of our failure in knowledge, but rather our success." Such divine mystery hardly restrains energetic claims about God, though: "God is Real in our encounter with Him, and in just this way, is exceeding Mystery, superabundant Light." The One God may be invisible but is also a dazzling fire.

When Sonderegger turns to divine omnipresence, she celebrates God's hiddenness in response to modern atheism. God is neither nonexistent nor absent from the world; instead, God is the generous One who gives creatures such integrity of existence that they can fail to recognize the marks of divine presence. The flipside of modern atheism is the form of idolatry—being enraptured by the visible—that divine hiddenness restrains. Sonderegger champions "theological compatibilism": "God's Aseity is present and disclosed and known within our earthly words and world and signs"—in the divine communication of perfections, establishing God's fundamental compatibility with creatures. God is the Fire that does not consume the thornbush, the beauty of the Invisible.

Divine omnipotence in turn is the perfection of God's holy humility. Sonderegger takes seriously the worries of modern process theology about a sovereign tyrant vis-à-vis creaturely suffering. Thus she removes the category of "cause" from divine omnipotence entirely, aiming—ironically? paradoxically?—to preserve the classic tradition's better foundations by discarding one of its key planks. If power is a substantive transcendental good, identical with God's own Being, then we cannot envision providence in terms of a divine mind planning which options to actualize. Instead, energy becomes an analogous sign, objectively existing and coming to creaturely expression, indicating that God relates to creation as the self-expressive Light present in our midst. In this context Sonderegger's pastoral wrestling with evil can be searing in its engagement with biblical paradigms like Job and Jeremiah. But this wrestling also frequently bogs her down, preoccupied with purifying the theological dross of what we must not say.

The surprise lurking in the second half of Sonderegger's account of omnipotence is her appeal to Friedrich Schleiermacher, the paragon of early "liberal" theology. Schleiermacher's account of Christ's instructive character—his very person transforming human creatures into a redeemed communion—informs Sonderegger's account of God's power: "God's Perfection and blessing radiates outward, communicates itself to those made receptive to its Presence." An act of God is relatio with creatures: God just is "Life, vital, Personal Life." Moses becomes paradigmatic of the theosis or deification in which God takes up the human into the divine life. This God is "immutable Mutability"—not the last seeming paradox we encounter in this book, which grounds the Creator-creature distinction not in God's will but in God's spiritual nature.

That lesson from Schleiermacher catalyzes Sonderegger's treatment of divine omniscience as well. Divine knowledge is not a matter of quantifying what God knows or qualifying what God wills. If God is not just what we creatures are not (the way of negation ironically allows creatures to set too much of the theological agenda), then a doctrine of God must ensue "from communication, the transcendental bestowal of incommunicable Life upon the creature. It is the nearness of God that marks out His exceeding mystery and transcendence." Divine Eternity, God's exhaustive knowledge, is the Self-Presence of Spirit.

For a taste of the book's pastoral perception, take Sonderegger's recognition that God's knowledge—especially of evil—generates not just puzzling debate, but also spiritual terror:

Our premodern teachers in the faith saw much further than we, for they tasted directly the guilt and terror of a holy God inside and not outside the devices and desires of sinners. This is the specter of the panopticon held in the hands not of a human guard or voyeur, but rather of a perfect, omnipotent, and holy Judge. The surveillance extends to the heart, its desires and sly ways, its meanness and hypocrisy and longing to hurt; all these lie bare to the Lord's eye, and there is no hiding from its scorching Heat.

Devices and desires—prayer-book language that became literary, in the hands of P. D. James and others—the panopticon; surveillance; awareness of the past, present, and perennial contexts of the human heart; and once again the fire metaphor: such elements are typical of this theology's contemplation and proclamation. When it comes to divine knowledge, then, Sonderegger's God is kind enough to give creatures being that is distinct enough for the Spirit to intercede for them—while close enough for Christ to become incarnate as one of us.

Still, Sonderegger insists that the Incarnation is sui generis: Far from an analogous paradigm with which to solve problems of providence, the Incarnation is the exception that sends us looking for other rules. We do not assimilate God's general interaction with the world to accounts of the unity and mutual integrity of Christ's divinity and humanity. Likewise, modern theological efforts to reason about everything from a Trinitarian perspective receive little sympathy. Sonderegger's fiery God, while ultimately the Trinitarian God of whom one Person became incarnate, is the One of the Old Testament that undergirded the metaphysical tradition. The Light of this true God was already in the world before the Incarnation of the Logos.

In the volume's final section, Sonderegger highlights the spiritual character of theology's exegesis of Scripture, against both critical scholarly and conservative doctrinal accounts: Both, she insists, one-sidedly treat the Bible "like any other book" rather than the holy site of encountering God. In a fiery penultimate chapter, she insists on thinking of divine love as a "disposition" that needs no object: Prior accounts, ancient and modern, assume an appetitive notion of love requiring an object or, in God's case, struggle to deny such a requirement without leaving the Deity self-enclosed. Accordingly, Sonderegger offers yet another raging paradox: Scripture's "Passionate, yet Impassible" God.


Concluding her insistence that "the Love that just is God is dispositional, a State and Power, a Dynamism wholly at rest, wholly eternal and free … a Substance," Sonderegger translates this claim into a cherished biblical idiom: "God is holy Fire." Why am I so preoccupied with fire when this book celebrates divine oneness as its fundamental theme? For reasons of style, substance, and sources—reasons why much of this book is dazzling, yet I find myself treading carefully around the earth it has scorched.

As for style: Its aforementioned quirks generate not only distinctive spiritual energy but also substantive effects. (A side note anticipating future volumes: The early charm and spiritual energy dissipate a little due to some frequent editorial problems that need solving.) This eccentric style lies partly in unexpected readings of unexpected sources. Sonderegger neither straightforwardly opposes nor simply marshals the usual proof texts, whether biblical or traditional. Along the way, to be sure, we encounter the usual theological suspects—often with, simultaneously, a spirit of deference and the letter of critique. But we also hear newer voices raising modern pastoral and cultural concerns. Parenthetical citations of Scripture are few, yet Sonderegger offers intellectually daring and spiritually rich appeals to neglected passages in unexpected spots: Numbers, Jeremiah, the narrative of David and Jonathan, and so on.

As to substance: What ground has Sonderegger's blazing theology cleared for new growth? If modern, both anti-metaphysical and pro-Christological, readers are tempted to flee early, there is more to see here than they might think. Meanwhile traditionalist readers may tread carefully around Sonderegger's occasional Christological moves, finding them curious in light of her championing the metaphysical One God. Most centrally, her construal of God as luminous Spirit of Eternal Life borrows a Christological move from Schleiermacher after she has steadily critiqued modernity's Christological preoccupation. Apparently her particular Christological moves borrow more general characterizations of God vis-à-vis Christ—not moving simply from Christology to or against the One God—in order to renew rather than reject that tradition. Yet many readers may want more clarification to be satisfied.

Likewise, excluding divine causality from omnipotence, and the willing divine mind from omniscience, may leave many readers unconvinced. Sonderegger does not clarify another way to handle legions of biblical narrative claims, in which God as the subject with an action verb implies at least the possibility of cause-and-effect relationships. Nor does she clarify another way to handle biblical passages concerning the divine will or decree—even those swaths of Scripture, like Isaiah 40 and following, that seemingly make sovereign divine foreknowledge the distinguishing characteristic of Israel's Creator. Without pressing such biblical texts into a literalistic mode, they create at least prima facie tension with Sonderegger's account. For all the fiery suggestiveness in her readings of out-of-the-way Scriptures, so far Sonderegger leaves some more standard biblical materials out in the cold.

Yet the incense of Sonderegger's reading of Scripture still smolders, and this fiery theology sheds some light on the way forward. While the book highlights divine oneness as its core concept, after its early celebration of invisibility Light makes constant appearances. This Light is holy: Our God is a consuming fire. This Light is loving: Our God is passionate, the very disposition of our own rightly ordered, delightful yet restful, emotion. This Light is therefore fiery, the Holy Love that appears in and to creatures without consuming them—that which transformed Moses, glorified Jesus, and transforms us. Fire, on my reading, is the kind of visible yet invisible Light that Sonderegger thinks the One God is.

Thus, finally, as to sources: They help to explain why Sonderegger's joins the aforementioned projects of Kärkkäinen, Coakley, and others in fostering a healthier climate for contemporary systematic theology. Each acknowledges the authority of Holy Scripture and attends to the witness of Christian tradition while addressing new pastoral challenges—world religions; global Christianity; sexuality; spirituality; and so on. These challenges catalyze creative yet careful reengagement with classic theological sources. Perhaps it seems ironic, but it is no accident, that such important retrievals of classic sources are emerging from female Anglican and other theologians who are attentive to contemporary pastoral concerns (not least feminism). These authors could not write such theology without being who they are, yet neither can any of their works or even particular positions be predictably typecast. Sonderegger's is a truly independent mind at work: While many a male Barthian gets embroiled in heated debates over the proper form of his anti-metaphysical legacy—debates having important consequences, about which I admit to being conflicted—this female Anglican (who wrote her dissertation on Barth) quietly proceeds with the dogmatic task. The stunning result is a book burning with a metaphysical God somewhat unlike One we have ever known.

Fifteen years ago, my first Books & Culture review celebrated a book from another female Episcopal theologian, Ellen Charry, who recovered classic Christian tradition while engaging contemporary feminist concerns. Now projects like Sonderegger's fulfill the dogmatic promise of Charry's pastoral agenda. As I began reading Sonderegger's book, my discussions with John Wilson spilled over into the last coffee conversation we enjoyed with our dear friend Brett Foster, the recently departed poet. Here I confess, in Brett's honor, that my reading of Sonderegger generated biblical and philosophical worries about some of her more poetic or seemingly paradoxical moves. But perhaps the poets should occasionally win their periodic battles with the philosophers! Certainly a theologian like me needs to encounter fire like Sonderegger's more often—that I might behold the beauty of the Invisible One, even though I am inclined to tread carefully.

Daniel J. Treier is Blanchard Professor of Theology at Wheaton College. His most recent book, co-authored with Kevin J. Vanhoozer, is Theology and Mirror of Scripture: A Mere Evangelical Account> (IVP).

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