The Necessarily Trinitarian Shape of Divine Freedom: or, How It is Impossible to Preserve Freedom in a Doctrine of God Unless Trinity is Priority

Towards the back end of her Systematic Theology, Katherine Sonderegger attempts to work out a coherent doctrine of divine freedom within her doctrine of God. Her account of God is to a large degree set over against what she takes to be overly-trinitarian accounts: as should be well known at this point, her fundamental starting point is God’s oneness, as opposed to God’s triunity. Much to modern theology’s chagrin, she also enthusiastically embraces substance as a legitimate category for describing God, and she also enthusiastically positions herself against Barth on a number of matters. What I want to do here is draw out what I think are some serious shortcomings over her view here and then see where Barth, something of a bête noire for Sonderegger, can offer a better way forward. Continue reading


Sondergger vs. Barth on the Sinlessness of Christ

In her contribution to ‘Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John Webster‘, ‘The Sinlessness of Christ’, Katherine Sonderegger looks at a variety of ways of thinking about the doctrine non posse peccare. In its own right it’s a fantastic essay, focusing primarily on Aquinas, with a glance at liberation theology as well as patristic theology. She also sketches out her own approach which closely follows the classical accounts (namely, that Christ did not and could not sin), which she develops in light of and against Karl Barth and Edward Irving’s understanding of Christ’s assumption of fallen human flesh. It seems to me, though, that her own approach is marred by a serious misreading of Barth, and it’s on this specific aspect of her essay that I want to focus on.
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Balthasar, Barth, Sonderegger and Divine Spatiality

Hans Urs von Balthasar opens his seminal study on Gregory of Nyssa with a chapter on the idea of ‘spacing’ – or, more precisely, he opens his study with an observation of an apophatic nature: the creature is not God. This seems somewhat obvious and perhaps even trivial, but it’s fundamental in his concept of spacing. Space, for Balthasar, is roughly the character of the creature that establishes quantity and number. It denotes the non-identity of the material world – non-identity being another way of denoting the material worlds created-ness. To think in terms of space is, then, to think apophatically. The world and the creature are created and this is set against God, who is uncreated. This is the sharpest possible distinction that can be drawn. The creator/creature distinction, Balthasar says, is a ‘fact of creation’ that is the ‘limit’, as it were, of finite being:
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Sonderegger on God’s Existence

‘Long before Kant, Thomas knew that “existence is not a predicate”. Being is rather the reality of an essence, its instantiation. In this Thomas affirms the fundamental axiom of Anselm’s Proslogion: this very Name is realized, is actual, mens et in res. There is, then, no common class that binds all existing things together as such, as things that are. Rather, each substance is actualized as itself: its essence exists. 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 then is 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. That is what we must say and alone may say of the Living God. God is not a member of genus being, then, in this rich and radical sense.’ (Katherine Sonderegger, ‘Systematic Theology’, p. 34-35)

Sonderegger’s ‘Systematic Theology’ (so far) pt. V: Final Things

Previous installments here, here, here and here.

I was going to write on Sonderegger’s treatment of the love of God, but that’s already been covered quite nicely here, so consider this a wrapping-up reflection.

Sonderegger’s work has left me feeling, for the most part, pretty good. Her ‘metaphysical’ reading of Scripture is solid and her grasp of the philosophical issues such a reading raises is equally solid. She is a truly charitable reader and critique-er, spending pages drawing out what a given thinker has to say before gently (perhaps too gently) saying ‘no’ or ‘yes’. Perhaps my favourite part of her conversation with theologians past and present is the simple fact that she’s willing to say ‘no’ to ideas that are considered mere orthodoxy today (Barth, Rahner and Kant seem to be her primary targets when she does this). This was delightful for me to read, partially because I agree with her (in the case of Kant, there’s little reason to make his thought any kind of court to which theology must appeal) and partially because I love it when someone is a bit of a troublemaker. Those who take Barth/Rahner to be the standard of orthodoxy today will no doubt subject Sonderegger to heavy criticism – her refusal to begin with christology and her decision to reject a ‘christomorphic’ or ‘christocentric’ theology is another example of her theological troublemaking (much needed troublemaking, of course).

Perhaps the greatest strength here is Sonderegger’s keen eye for reading Scripture – in particular, her reading of the relationship between David and Johnathan as a type of the Love of God in the covenant history of Israel (pp. 497-502). I’d say that this reading is the highlight of the book, in fact. While her readings and exegesis of Scripture are all outstanding (her exegesis of the concept of divine hiddeness in both the New and Old Testament, pp. 66-76, and of course the opening exegesis of the concept of divine one-ness from p. 10-21 are two more examples of rigourous and attentive biblical reading), this particular example is the cream of the crop.

There is occasion for critique here, however. Sonderegger is sometimes to prone to assert more than argue that something is the case, an example being her treatment of analogy, univocity and actualism when speaking of God. One is left with the feeling that we don’t need analogy, can’t have univocity and don’t need actualism – but at the same time, it is affirmed that every doctrine of God must in fact have some kind of analogy! Exactly how all this works out is less than clear, especially given Sonderegger’s own ‘compatibilism’ with regard to speaking/knowledge of God – it feels as though these issues are simply brushed away at times. Perhaps a lengthier discussion would have benefited this topic. In general, the weaknesses of Sonderegger’s work are along this line: not poor engagement, but not length enough engagement.

Having said that, however, Sonderegger has given us a brilliant, challenging and provocative work full of sound exegesis, theological awareness and academic rigour. Reading it will only make you a better person, so go out, get it, and dig in.

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)

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)

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.

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.