Sonderegger’s ‘Systematic Theology’ (so far) pt. IV

Previous installments here, here and here.

Continuing with the doctrine of divine omniscience, we come to Sonderegger’s explication and application of Augustine’s doctrine of illumination:

Illuminationism is the name given to Augustine’s doctrine of theological knowledge, a name taken to be broadly Platonist in character. Augustine held that we creatures know – gaze upon but also grasp, understand – by seeing the objects and concepts of this world as they are lit up from Beyond, by heavenly Light.’ (p. 419)

‘As it is the merciful Lord who must act in grace towards the sinner, so it is the Divine Light that must radiate into darkness to ease our ignorance and teach us the truth.’ (p. 425)

As we’ve seen before, Sonderegger couples omniscience with, and sets it within, God’s presence and God’s humility, which, as we’ve also seen, is a mode of God’s presence, and by virtue of this coupling, argues that it is God who makes things true, or is the truth of all things, as it were:

‘The humility of God governs the whole doctrine of Knowledge, the whole of Omniscience. 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 dwell below the skies, the earthly facts, concepts, categories, truths of all kinds, that fill our minds and dazzle our senses. He makes others to shine, to stand forth from the darkness, to appear. He, the Light, makes Himself an instrument in His own created world: He makes earthly realities clear. Just so, as the Truth itself, he lays bare the truths each of us grasps in the act of understanding. He is content to lie behind our act of knowing – He, the true Knowledge itself.’ (p. 425)

Here, to me, is one of the most interesting things Sonderegger does with omniscience: by tying together knowledge with presence and humility, Sonderegger is able to explicate in a brilliant way how God truly takes on the form of a servant:

‘He ministers to us as the Source and Instrument of our knowing: Behold, I am at the table as One who serves. He, the Lord, becomes invisible, transparent in our cosmos. We look through Him, and by Him, we know our world, material and intellectual. He is content to stand quietly in our world, the Eternal Spirit, to grace and perfect the creature through the act of knowledge. Those who would be great must be least of all: that is the condescension of the Divine Light, hidden in the material and intellectual world of the creature.’ (p. 426)

God, then, makes His created world visible by His invisible and humble presence. And it is this, Sonderegger says, that allows us to fully love both God and our neighbor:

‘…when we consider the entire idiom of sight, as did Augustine in the Soliloquies, we discover a startling truth: when we look directly at the world, we see not God, but the creature! Directly in front of us, manifest before our very eyes, is not our Maker, but the creature He has made and made known. He trains our eyes to see the natural world; He opens our eyes to the neighbor. We are to love God above all things, yes. This is the first and great commandment. But the Love who is God is the good God, the Dear Lord, the One who steps aside, who veils Himself, so that our neighbor rises up, full and concrete and visible, fresh before our eyes. We know our neighbor; we know our world. And just this is the sight the Spirit of God bestows upon us.’ (p. 426)

Webster and Augustine on Scripture and Revelation

‘The acts of authorship which lie behind Scripture are functions of God’s communication of Himself. So the author is patient – that is, one who has been granted divine revelation and one who has been given grace to contemplate that revelation, to be instructed by divine wisdom, and to be commissioned to testify to and therefore extend divine revelation. Again, Augustine:

‘That God made the world we can believe from no one more safely than from God Himself. But where have we heard Him? No where more distinctly than Holy Scriptures, where His prophets said, ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’. Was the prophet present when God made the heavens and the earth? No, but the wisdom of God by whom all things were made was there, and wisdom insinuates itself into holy souls and makes them into friends of God and His prophets, and noiselessly informs them of all His works.’ (Augustine, ‘City of God’,  quoted by John Webster)

Sonderegger’s ‘Systematic Theology’ (so far) pt. III

Previous installments of this series can be found here and here.

After omnipotence, Sonderegger moves to divine omniscience, and this so far has proven to be the most interesting discussion of the book so far. As we’ve come to expect at this point, she’s not interested in a bare account of God knowing X, Y and Z, but rather an account of divine knowledge set within the context of God’s oneness and presence. It’s the latter that, I think, makes her discussion here so fascinating.

Sonderegger sets the divine knowledge, interestingly, within divine eternity and divine wisdom:

‘Most properly Holy Scripture has personified Divine Knowledge: Dame Wisdom is the Substance and the Spirit and the self-Presence of God as Living Truth. She is at the beginning of all God’s ways and works, because Wisdom is not a creature at all, but rather the good Light that is the Lord’s own Personal Life. In this Mode of Divine Being, Dame Wisdom is the utter Clarity – the shimmering Intelligibility – of Divine Spirit, the b=Blessing is that just is God, the Eternity of Divine Truth.’ (p. 344)

We see here how divine wisdom is seen to just be God – but this doesn’t mean that God eternally knows in the sense that God has an eternal catalog of facts at his disposal. This rather means that God knows his creatures and his creations from the inside, as it were:

‘Divine wisdom as subtle and mobile and beautiful enters into every holy soul, making them friends of God (Ws. 7:22, 29, 27); the omniscient God knows not simply the truths about each creature; rather She knows the creature “from the inside” (Ws. 6:12). ‘ (p. 344)

‘The lord enters into the mind and heart and strength of His creatures as that very one, the unmistakable mark of individuality and concreteness. And not just human individuals! God sustains and enters into and is the truth of this particular whoried shell on the seaside; this very element of wind and fire; this leaf still in spring’s fresh bud; this gaunt traveling bird, dipping its weary beak into fresh water. Just this is what we mean when we say that God is Life, Being, Presence, Goodness.’ (p. 345)

So how does this cash out for divine knowledge, exactly? Sonderegger notes that when we ask about God’s knowledge, ‘we ask about this Realtio, the knowing Presence of God with His creatures’ (p. 349). God’s knowledge, like his other attributes, cashes out to be nothing other than God’s presence with us:

‘…we would see more clearly, I believe, if we thought not about God’s mode of knowing contingent events but rather considered the dear Lord’s humble Presence in all existents – how He communicates their life and strength and rationality, their hope and their end – and in just this way enters into their unique kind and mode as eternal light.’ (p. 350)

This way of thinking, of God’s knowledge as an intimate presence with the creature has the most interesting consequences for Sonderegger’s doctrine of the divine knowledge of evil:

‘We might say that an omniscient God must not only know our inner sin, but must know it in a “first persona;” way; it must be possible, we might say, for God to know – to borrow a famous phrase from Thomas Nagel – what “it is like” to be a human creature, frail and fallen. God’s perfect knowledge, that is, must extend to the act of “seeing through our eyes”, entering so fully into creaturely ways that the Creator knows “from the inside” what our very being is like.’ (p. 359)

This is quite a thing to say. God knows – not just knows of, or knows about, but knows – our sin, and our evil. The immediate question is, of course, how? How can God remain wholly good with a first-person, what-it-is-like knowledge of sin and evil? Keeping in mind that Sonderegger affirms a privative account of evil – evil as what is not – we can see as she deploys her compatibilism here:

‘It must be, then, that even as God can be immeasurably near to creation without destroying or sublimating the creatures, so the Divine Knowledge of evil can be incorporated into God’s very Wisdom without compromising, delimiting, or defiling Divine Goodness.’ (p. 370)

‘God does not know, in His Perfect Wisdom, good from evil. This omniscient comprehension is neither comparative nor dialectical…God, we must say, does not comprehend evil as a partner and shadow of good, nor does all good receive its balance and completion in evil, its dialectical twin. No, evil is known by God, is God’s own Wisdom, in its own negation, its haeccitas, as such. For this reason, God Himself can be perfectly, superabundantly good, not good and evil.’ (p. 373)

What Sonderegger says. then, is that God can see that which is the negation of his life, being and blessing – to recall Nietzche, he gazes into the abyss, and the abyss gazes back – and yet, not only is God not defiled or overcome by it, he overcomes it himself. While counterintuitive at times, Sonderegger is keen on pushing just this idea as the good news, against aspects of Thomistic thought, in which God is the only object of his own understanding – and has his knowledge of the world and its creatures through his understanding of himself:

‘…the Wisdom of God is not closed up in its own Goodness, does not stay only within its own Truth and Light, but may and is able to look into the abyss, to grasp and occupy it, to break its formless dread, and to know it – fully, completely – as the enemy conquered.’ (p. 379)

Perception, a Propositional Attitude?

Tim Crane has a number of his essays available online, and I read through ‘Is Perception a Propositional Attitude?’ Here’s my rough gloss on it:

To show that perception is a propositional attitude, the perceptual experience would need to have propositional content and would thus need to have truth-conditions. This seems obvious, since, for example, my experience of ‘the cat on the mat’ has as its content the proposition that ‘the cat is on the mat’, which has a truth-condition – it is either true or false. Thus, the content of experience would be roughly the same as the content of belief.

However, granting that experience can be accurate or inaccurate, it doesn’t follow that the contents of experience have truth conditions. What follows, given that accuracy is a matter of degree, is that experiences can have greater or lesser degrees of accuracy – not that they are true or false.

Thus, experiences are either accurate or inaccurate, not true or false, and therefore don’t have truth conditions, and therefore don’t have propositional content, and therefore are not propositional attitudes.

Sonderegger’s ‘Systematic Theology’ (so far) pt. II

See the previous installment in this series here.

Sonderegger moves from God’s oneness and omnipresence to His omnipotence, His omnipotence a se, which she takes to be the primary teaching of Scripture:

‘Once again we remind ourselves that this starting point in Holy Scripture, central as it is for Christian doctrine, does not, principally and first of all, teach us about God’s mighty acts ad extra. We are not beginning with the positive explication of Divine Omnipotence with His Power in and over creatures – even though we begin with the scriptural record, born of God’s gracious disclosure to creation.’ (‘Systematic Theology’, p. 185)

Omnipotence, after a journey through the tradition in which modern process and kenotic explications of the doctrine are treated at length, is seen to collapse on itself if its defined in terms of ’cause’ or ‘causality’, and a lengthy discussion of omnipotence, divine will and divine freedom lead us to to see that omnipotence must be not be thought of in causal terms at all:

‘We must say that Omipotence cannot be a species or form of causality because the most general definition of cause – to bring something about – entangles the Divine Being, in its very Power, with creation, or, per impossible, with other gods…so we can only applaud Thomas’s conviction that theology declares a radical dissimilarity of God to His “creaturely effects”. But it is hard to say just how a Reality so radically unique as is our God can be identified as “Cause” related to our finite and mortal effect. Indeed, we must affirm God’s very relation to the world is and partakes of His Uniqueness: the relatio of God to the world cannot be a species of a larger category, even the broadest forms of cause or “bringing about”. God is His own relation to the world; there is no other.’ (p. 178-179)

This is a point Sondergger drives home relentlessly: God simply is His own relation to the world. He is it, and He establishes it. It is a wholly other, and cannot be subsumed under the category of cause.

Sonderegger surveys omnipotence in Augustine and Schleiermacher and finds Augustine to invite a number of problems based on his definition of power as ‘doing what one wills’ – such characterizations invite a very anthropomorhpic, agentic picture of God as someone who looks at his options and executes his decrees. Schleiermacher fares no better, since Sonderegger sees in his divine omnicausality resulting in causal monism – a picture of God that Barth thought to be tyrannical.

It is here, however, with Schleirmacher that Sonderegger develops an account of omnipotence based on personal relation (she takes her cues from his christology, and not his doctrine of omnipotence proper, which she finds too problematic to draw on):

‘Just this we seek in the doctrine of Divine Power: the expression of the Divine Aseity, the Living Fire, in Relation to the world, not as separate Act or Decree or executed Will, nor less as unrelenting Cause, but rather as ties, imparations to the world, distinct in their own way, yet One: One Relatio ad extra, One God.’

‘Now in some such way, the omnipotent God expresses Himself and relates to another. The Lord God, we might say, is the radiant teacher, the effective Truth, the powerful and life-giving Word. One way to read the entirety of Scripture is as a lesson by the eternal Teacher, a guidance, a law, a wisdom and truth that is not so much handed down- though to be sure there is this objective act as well – as it is radiated, suffused through the halls of reality by the One God, the Truth.’

‘So the vast the arc of the Bible shelters the Presence, the Living Fire, of the eternal Teacher who radiates His own vitality to the earth. He is this, all this, as subject, a Living Lord, who becomes Object for us in His own self-giving, His own free Relation to the world. The relation of this God to this world is unique: it is simply and resplendently the Living, Vital tie that is the Lord Himself, His very Nature, communicated to the world.’ (p 264-265)

Key here is the idea that God’s power isn’t something He has but something He simply is – and His power and presence, far from being causal, is relational. To summarize: God’s omnipotence, his divine power, must be thought of not in causal, but relational terms – and it is God who is and establishes His relation to the world in personal, relational presence-terms. Thus God’s relation to the world is the relation of a wholly-other God.

Between Action and Reason

– Agent causation operates on the idea that there are basically two kinds of causation out there: agent causation (duh) and event causation. The former is what happens when I do something, the latter is what happens when something happens. To clarify, the former is an account of the action of the rational agent, the latter is an account of non-rational things.

– Right away we notice that the agent is rational. In this context, let’s take that to mean that the agent acts for reasons. Reasons serve an explanatory role in action. From the causal side, we can say that the agent produces his actions and his effects. This again serves to distinguish between agent and event causation – the latter simply automatically produces its effects. Agent causation is non-deterministic and non-nomic.

– Acting for reasons opens up another aspect of agent causation, the teleological. If I act for a reason, then I also act towards a goal.

– Crucial here is the holistic nature of agent causation. This is a non-reductive viewpoint – the agent and his actions can only be analyzed in terms of the person as a whole and not as the mere behaviour of the non-personal constituents of the person.

A short exposition of Timothy o’Connor’s philosophy of agent causation can be found here.

Russell Against the Pragmatists

A wise man once said that there are as many pragmatisims as there are pragmatists, so there’s a danger in even trying to formulate objections and arguments against such a fluid position (if it can even be called a position). What I’ll attempt to do here is look at the two classic streams of pragmatism, the (1) objective and the (2) subjective by looking at their respective founders: Peirce and James, and by way of Bertrand Russell sketch some objections against their ideas.

The pragmatism of Peirce is rather unlike the pragmatism that many are familiar with today in that it is a primarily semantic pragmatism – it’s more a theory of meaning than a theory of action (which is the hallmark of James-ian pragmatism). Thus his famous maxims:

‘To attain clearness in our thoughts of an object, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object might involve.’

‘If one can define accurately all the conceivable experimental phenomena which the affirmations or denial of a concept could imply, one will have therein a complete definition of the concept.’

Peirce’s theory is, again, semantic. He’s looking at how we can attain clear and accurate definitions of concepts in the service of scientifc discovery and theory-making. It is within a community of ‘rational inquirers’ that these maxims apply. Thus, truth, for Pierce, is a matter of consensus:

‘Truth is what is destined: it enters the picture regulatively as an ideal that rational, i.e. scientific, inquiry, if pursued sufficiently far, will produce an ‘overwhelming consensus’ among those dedicated to its pursuit (‘Collected Papers’, vol. 6 paragraph 610). Reality is what is represented by those opinions which have produced that consensus.’ (Richard Robin, ‘A Companion to Metaphysics’, p. 408)

Distinctive here is Peirce’s commitment to the natural sciences – he fashioned his metaphysics and epistemology after the method of observation, experience and reason – as well as objectivity, since Pierce is keen to avoid a psychologistic pragmatism. Though for Peirce is able to avoid psychologism by a nod towards realism prompted by John Duns Scotus. Though, Peirce’s inquiry is very fallibilistic – he remains ready to ‘dump the whole cartload of his beliefs the moment experience is against them’, his metaphysic includes such things as universals, laws and patterns , which sustained scientific inquiry will eventually expose. These universals, laws and patterns exist independent of any mental activity or particulars that are observed. It is these regulative aspects of his thought which guards against psychologism, and prompted him to change the name of his theory from ‘pragmatism’ to ‘pragmaticism’.

The pragmatism of William James is more well-known today – a much more subjective and psychologistic conception than Pierce, where the cash value of a true belief is simply that it works – we might crudely term this a ‘street-level’ pragmatism. Is a belief useful? Then it’s true. James’ pragmatism is a street-level pragmatism. Are the effects of a belief good? Then it’s true.

”The true’ is only the expedient in our way of thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in our way of behaving’. (James)

‘Ideas become true just insofar as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience.’ (James)

Russell took exception to both these theories largely on the basis that they ignore extra-human facts and make some tenuous assumptions:

‘I find great intellectual difficulties in this doctrine. It assumes that a belief is ‘true’ when its effects are good.. If this definition is to be useful — and if it is not to be condemned by the pragmatist’s test — we must know (a) what is good, (b) what are the effects of this or that belief, and we must know these things before we can decide if a belief is ‘true’, since it is only after we have decided these things that we have a right to call it ‘true.’

‘There is another difficulty. Suppose I say there was such a person as Columbus; everyone will agree that what I say is true. But why is it true? Because of a certain man of flesh and blood, who lived 450 years ago — in short, because of the causes of my belief, not because of its effects. With James’ definition, it might happen that, ‘A exists’ is true although in fact A does not exist. I have always found that the hypothesis of Santa Claus ‘works satisfactorily in the widest sense’; therefore, ‘Santa Claus exists’ is true, although Santa Claus does not exist.’

‘James’ doctrine is an attempt to build a superstructure of belief upon a foundation of skepticism, and like all such attempts it is dependent on fallacies. In his case, the fallacies spring from an attempt to ignore all extra-human facts. … But this is only a form of the subjectivistic madness which is characteristic of most modern philosophy.’ (quoted paragraphs taken from here)

In the spirit of Russell, I offer these critiques of my own of the James-ian type of pragmatism, since it is this kind that is most common:


(1) If the James-ian pragmatist theory of truth is correct, then it is true that…

(a) it is useful to believe that god exists (or the effects of believing that god exists are good)

(b) it is true that god exists

…mean the same thing.

(2) (a) and (b) do not mean the same thing

(3) therefore, James-ian pragmatism is false.

Second (and this is a very brief and rough sketch of a possible objection:

James-ian pragmatism cannot be falsified, since its criterion for truthfulness is purely subjective and relativistic, nor can it falsify any idea or theory.


(1) If there are no extrahuman facts, James-ian pragmatism is true.

(2) There are extrahuman facts (it is the case that there are true propositions apart from whether or not their effects are good if I believe them)

(3) Therefore James-ian pragmatism is false.

Mathematics and the Form of Life

‘It is fair to say that Wittgenstein brought about a revolution in philosophical perspective, making platonism – as traditionally presented – impossible. When a person can carry out a mathematical procedure correctly – for example, he can extend the series 2, 4, 6, 8…the platonist says he has learned to follow a rule or has apprehended a universal. We manifest our apprehension of a universal, our grasp of a rule, by at most a finite amount of behaviour, yet the grasp of a universal, or rule guarantees a potentially infinite amount of behaviour. Wittgenstein’s point is, roughly, that it is not because we have grasped a universal or rule that we behave in a certain way, but because we act in certain ways that we say that we have grasped a rule or universal. No rule or universal will guarantee that someone will not extend the series 2, 4, 6, 8, 17, 28, 1002, =, Δ…saying that at each step he is doing exactly what he did before. There is no such thing, Wittgenstein argued, as absolute sameness. A procedure is a case of doing the same thing again if it is a practice within what Wittgenstein called a ‘form of life’ – a community that shares perceptions of salience, routes of interest, feelings of naturalness – in which it is perceived as the same. If the platonist tries to step out of the form of life in order to tell those within how things really are, then he must come to grief. For outside the form of life there is nothing: no rules, no universals, no sameness, no reality.’ (Johnathan Lear, ‘Ethics, Mathematics and Relativism’, in ‘Essays on Moral Realism’, ed. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, p. 87)

Sonderegger’s ‘Systematic Theology’ (so far)

Sonderegger takes an interesting and potentially controversial line with her work: beghinning from de Deo Uno. Her work may lay claim, however, to being the most Biblically informed account of the One God – God’s oneness is couched firmly within the freedom of God and a rejection of idolatry as seen within ancient Israel’s life.

The method here is profoundly apophatic – God’s oneness, for Sonderegger, is always seen in contrast to the created, visible idol. In fact, the contrast to the visible or the created serves as a way to highlight the absolute qualitative distinction between the being of God and the being of everything else:

‘Radical oneness, radical uniqueness, demands thought beyond any class, any universal, any likeness. This is an annhilating concreteness.’ (p. 25)

Sonderegger develops this theme in conversation with Aquinas – where we see that God doesn’t belong to oneness or any kind of genus or concept – the conclusion is drawn that oneness isn’t an attribute of God, but rather God’s oneness just is His being:

‘Now, God is His existence. His essence and existence are One, and God is therefore the Necessary Being. Just this is what it means for God to have “life in Himself.” God’s reality is then utterly unique. God’s oneness does not add to His unique reality; it is not “a number” nor an addition or “accident” to His reality. Rather, Unicity just is His being.God does not “share being” with all that is, nor is He supreme among them. God is real, utterly and perfectly and ineffably real.’ (p. 34)

Sonderegger next treats God’s omnipresence and develops an account of divine hiddenness:

‘…the principle lesson of these repeated movements upward, beyond the earth into the heavens, is not to disclose that God is there and not here, not in one place and so absent in another, but rather that in virtue of His invisible habitation, the Lord’s modal Reality as the Hidden one is compatible with His earthly presence among his creatures.’ (p.67)

Sonderegger shortly after turns to what she calls ‘theological compatibilism’, which is a major part of her doctrine of divine hiddenness. In her reading of Exodus 3:1-8, she notes some major metaphysical and epistemological themes, which can be summarized roughly as (1) God is compatible with his creatures and (2) ‘God is known a se in our words turned towards Him’ (p. 86):

‘The Lord God can Himself dwell with creatures. and the creature endure, abide, speak. Note what follows. When the burning bush is placed in the center of dogmatics, every other doctrine radiates its light: the cosmos is phosperic, Light bearing. God’s Presence – His Omnipresence – is compatible with nature, with human history, with human flesh, with bread and wine and water and oil, with the saints, militant and at rest. God Himself! Exodus makes it plain that the Reality of God is present in the fiery bush, not simply a divine effect or sign or “energy”.’ (p. 81)

Perhaps most interesting so far is Sonderegger’s position on divine predication, which is neither strictly analogical, univocal, or Barthian but rather affirms that our words can, and do, refer to God – even going so far as to say that our words are (gasp) instrinsically fitting to refer to God:

‘Now, for my part, I say that there is indeed a fittingness, intrinsic to the creaturely word, that allows our language to reach out and lay hold of its Divine Object: just this is the “negative” Attribute”, most especially, the Attribute of Divine Hiddenness and Invisibility. Now we do not expect too much of these negative terms. They point; they glimpse; they say in ordinary and rough-and-ready way the exceeding Mystery and Dark Light of Almighty God, his Nearness as the Unseen One. Or to echo Barth’s own idiom more closely: Divine Invisibility is revealed to us in Holy Scripture. But it is not in virtue of its being revealed – and only that – that the words Hidden and Invisible aptly draw near to the one, formless, and Unique God. It is indeed that the Lord wills that His very own Reality is compatible with our naming him; he makes the creature a fit home for himself. But God is the “most liberal giver”, as Thomas Aquinas famously says, and He has set up for Himself a temple, a house, in the land of creaturely words; He gives us this gift and settles there.’ (p. 105)

These are a few of the more interesting points Sonderegger makes within the first third or so of the book (which is about how far I am). There is a lot here – a lot – and I’ve not even skimmed the surface. A lot could be said about her methodology – explicitly defying Kantian strictures, for example, or refusing to start from christological principles – and no doubt a lot will, both here and in the wider theo-blogging world. But for now, these are a few of the choice parts of the book. More to come.