Systematic Theology Volume 1 // Katherine Sonderegger.

Many theology books are instructive, some delightful, and a few inspiring, but precious rare ones set a fire so deep within that it both burns me thoroughly and is impossible put out. Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology Volume 1 is such fire.

“Theology awakens a grateful heart.” (vii)

This is particularly true of Katherine Sonderegger’s first installment of her daring project: Systematic Theology Volume 1. To my knowledge, Katherine Sonderegger and Sarah Coakley are the first two and only women working on a multi-volume systematic theology; you can read my review of Coakley’s first volume here. So, Sonderegger’s systematic theology is a welcome breath of fresh air and daring testament.

Sonderegger dares to speak afresh tired divine traits, namely, omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience. We often drone these as divine attributes, not really chewing on its substance. “God is everywhere,” so says omnipresence. But if God is Light and Radiance, does the Holy One dwell in darkness and the hidden recesses of our abandonment and fears? “God is all-powerful,” so says omnipotence. But if power corrupts, then does absolute power—God Almighty—corrupt absolutely? “God is all-knowing,” so says omniscience. But if God is Knowledge itself, then what is the relationship or distinction between ours and God’s knowledge? Without fresh eyes and voice that tackles pressing questions, theology tends to crust and flake.

God is invisible and hidden; that is His Omnipresence…. God is humble and living; that is His Omnipotence…. God is Eternal Spirit and Lady Wisdom; that is Divine Omniscience…. God is Love; that is His very Nature and Goodness. (xvi)

Sonderegger also revisits these divine attributes because they’ve become so tired that they’ve devolved into stumbling blocks. The Omni-God is too stagnant and too unlike the dynamic, fiery God of Israel, so says critics. But Sonderegger, like her predecessor Karl Barth, rings a resounding “No!” Rather, we have misunderstood and misapplied these very biblical divine-attributes. Instead of abandoning them, the omni-traits are in dire need of rekindling—sparking their explosive depth.

Systematic Theology Volume 1 is rich and textured. Sonderegger is in constant conversation with theological giants—Augustine, Aquinas, Schleiermacher, Kant, Barth, and Jenson. This can make her a difficult read. The nuance of her claims can go undetected without some elementary grasp of these figures. Nonetheless, her overarching themes stand tall, some of which I’ll touch on below.

Subjective in Objectivity

Who is God? And what is God? (Qui sit et quid sit Deus). These are questions of an entire lifetime. Nothing reaches so deep into the purpose of human life, nor demands the full scope of the human intellect as do these two brief queries. (xi)

Just like how Thomas Aquinas opened his magisterial Summa Theologica, Sonderegger puts these two questions at the head. These are properly two questions, not one, and they mutual inform and shape one another. Philosophy and “abstract” thinking tends to dominate the What question: God as object of reason and speculation. Systematic theology obsesses over, however, the Who question: God as subject or actor in the Bible and history. And either side tends to keep each other at arm’s length. Sonderegger rejects such binary. God is both Subject and Object; just listen to her dynamic prose (best read aloud):

Almighty God, we say, is both Object and Subject: both What and Who. In just this astonishing truth lies the surpassing humility of God, that He will come within our roof, appear to heart and mind as Spiritual Substance, lie open to our investigation and praise. Deity will “receive predicates,” be described and set out as a Nature with Attributes. Divine Objectivity will invite us—a great wonder!—to explore the Unique Reality that is Deity: Omnipresence, Omnipotence, Omniscience, Infinity…. The Objectivity of God closes the intellect up in wonder. The richness of this Mystery is inexhaustible, and we study it only in prayer.
But this is not all that should be said; not by a great measure! For God is also Subject, also Person and alive…. Almighty God does not “possess” Perfections, nor “have” a nature: His Objectivity is not under the aegis of His Subjectivity. The Lord God, rather, is simply personal, Person, in all His Nature and Substance: he is this Living One, this Identity altogether in His full Reality…. [And] in all His unsearchable and infinite Mystery, God is Person and Nature, Subject and Substance: One God. (xii-xiv)

In other words, God offers Himself to be studied—to be an Object, Nature, and Substance. But God never loses His dynamic personhood—to be Subjective and Person in His Objectivity. God is humble but uncontrollable, knowable but mysterious. With such a stroke, Sonderegger reunites the What and Who questions and rekindles the omni-traits with God’s blazing presence.

Compatibilism and the Oneness of God

Sonderegger’s insistence on God’s Subjectivity in His Objectivity is reflected in her other repeated themes: compatibilism and the oneness of God. In short, all of God’s Who and What are compatible because of God’s oneness. God as Love, Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Light, Hiddenness, Power, Humility, Knowledge, and Spirit are compatible because God is One. This is the bedrock of Sondergger’s systematic theology: the mysterious unicity and irreducible oneness of God.

Such starting-point stands against the 20th-century trend of putting the Trinity or Christology at the helm. She characteristically responds, “not all is Christology” and “not all is Trinity.” She is not saying that either is unnecessary, but that they have their place only within and after the oneness of God (the Doctrines of the Trinity and Christology are addressed in her next volume). Sonderegger is not being revisionist; rather, she is trying to be faithful to Holy Writ, especially the First Testament (or Old Testament):

The Christian doctrine of God begins, is governed by, and finds its rest in the call to the One God, the One Lord of Israel. (3)

The shema, the first creed, confesses the Oneness of God (Deut 6:4). Everything else follows. Such compatibilism and oneness renew the omni-traits: God as Light and God’s Hiddenness in omnipresence; God’s Humility and Dynamism in omnipotence; and God as Knowledge and Eternity in omniscience (honestly speaking, I found omniscience the most difficult to understand; I’ll need to revisit this section).

Theology as Spiritual Language

Sonderegger’s prose is simply delightful and sublime. She writes theology as prayer and doxology. She heralds as she confesses Divine Fire. It’s devotional—a deep well of replenishing. It is one of the best features of her work. Satiate in her stylistic prose in the following quote on the gratifying nature of theology; I recommend reading aloud:

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 fierce 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 love, the One whose Eyes are like doves. Eat, friends—all theology should ring out with this invitation—drink and be drunk with Love. (472-3)

She writes and does theology as it is should be done: full of praise and God’s rapturous love. And she writes as such out of theological convictions, for God is Love and Beauty. This stands against the typical, dry academic writing—boring as a sloth. Yes, there’s time and room for meticulous precision and clarity, but should not theology also reflect the beauty and allure of God? To feed the soul as it informs the mind—filling our lungs with God’s life-giving breath?

I hope to write and do theology as such. It is a rich and searing endeavor, allowing Divine Fire to scorch and warm, to consume but not destroy.

Many thanks to Oliver D. Crisp who introduced me to Katherine Sonderegger, or “Saint Kate” as we affectionately called her while feasting on her book.

Also, Brad East’s review is both fair and detailed. His example inspired mine.