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.

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