Renewing the Heart of Systematic Theology – By Brad East

Brad East on Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology, vol. 1

Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, vol. 1: The Doctrine of God, Fortress Press, 2015, 539pp., $49
Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, vol. 1: The Doctrine of God, Fortress Press, 2015, 539pp., $49
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Academics love stories of decline, especially about themselves. But academic theologians may love them most of all (owing, perhaps, to the lapsarian character of their own narrative). So let us begin with such a tale. Once there was systematic theology. But because of a combination of serpentine factors, each tempting theology away from the comprehensive character of its object and method — whether by the allure of liberalism, the disenchantment of modernity, the fragmentation of postmodernism, the modifiers of emancipation, the crisis of authority, or the professionalization of academe — systematic theology lost its way, fell from grace, and scattered, confused, in the Babel of the modern university. Systematic theology is no more.

So, at times, the story goes. But Christian systematic theology in the English-speaking academy is having a comeback. Which raises the question: Where and why did it go in the first place? More to the point, what is systematic theology — what is it about, what work does it do, what is it for?

Katherine Sonderegger’s new book, the first in a three-volume systematic theology, offers an occasion to answer these questions in a concrete way. It also provides an opportunity to widen the frame on systematic theology’s would-be demise, or exile, and so to understand anew the current issues and challenges that face Christian academic theology today. Sonderegger’s work, for all its idiosyncrasies and allergy to fads, is no less representative for that, and is thus an excellent guide for such an endeavor.

An Episcopal priest, Sonderegger has taught theology at Virginia Theological Seminary since 2002, having previously taught at Middlebury and Bangor Seminary. Her only other book is a revised version of her dissertation at Brown, published in 1992 as That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew: Karl Barth’s “Doctrine of Israel.” Nearly every item of that brief academic biography ought to bring the reader up short. The author of the volume in question is an ordained woman and tenured professor of theology trained in a religious studies department; her expertise extends, on the one hand, to the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and, on the other, to the twentieth-century Swiss Protestant dogmatician Barth (himself once considered anathema to the Anglophone theological academy and certainly never confused for a feminist ally). Sonderegger, in other words, not only embodies a host of eclectic influences and interests; more important, such a person, with such interests, was only possible — institutionally, ecclesially, theologically — at a very recent point in time: the final two decades of the previous century.

Her second book continues this timeliness with a unique mixture of, among others, Thomas Aquinas, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Barth, and Robert Jenson: systematic theology as postmodern revisionary scholasticism. Leavened with doxology, suffused with Scripture, this concoction is Sonderegger’s proposed remedy to treat contemporary theology’s malaise.

Writing in 1969, one year after Barth’s death, Jenson described Barth’s 1919 commentary on St. Paul’s letter to the Romans as “a wild, boring and fascinating spin of contradictions … , a hypnotic dialectic which alternately energizes and immobilizes, and sometimes both at once.” I am inclined to echo these sentiments in evaluating Sonderegger’s Doctrine of God, not least given the featured role of both men as her interlocutors (albeit more often as foils than as forerunners). Granting some measure of truth to systematic theology’s decline — better, perhaps, its self-incurred seclusion — Sonderegger’s volume is less what Roman Catholic theologian Karl Adam characterized as a bombshell dropped in the playground of the theologians than a surprise attack on a divided battalion in retreat.

It is also weird. And the weirdness both explains and confounds the book’s constructive and polemical significance. At nearly every possible material juncture, Sonderegger chooses to work against the grain of modern theology’s preferences, prejudices, and predilections. Which is not to deny the work’s deeply modern character — neither the traditional nor the contrarian is alien to modern theology — only to clarify the nature of its relationship to its antecedent and current intellectual cultures.

Of the features that set the book apart from major trends in modern theology, some are substantive, but for the most part they are formal in nature, on the level of style, method, sensibility. And yet, though indeed they do cut against the grain of a number of long-term trends, these features are not exclusive to Sonderegger, but part of wider movements in theological scholarship at the present moment. Lifting up the virtues (or vices) of the work, beyond its winsomely contrarian bent; evaluating its relationship to past authorities and to contemporary currents and conversations; disentangling style from content, if such disentanglement be possible or desirable at all — these are the tasks of engaging Sonderegger’s new venture in systematic theology.

The volume’s subtitle is The Doctrine of God, but a more accurate subtitle would be “The Doctrine of the One God.” The theological claim that underlies and informs every part of the whole, the bedrock conviction that so arrests Sonderegger, is the oneness, the singularity, the unicity of God: “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.” Nothing is more basic, foundational, or axiomatic to Holy Scripture or to Christian confession than that the Lord is one. And yet nothing could be more radical, mysterious, or inexhaustibly rich, either. As the “foundational predicate” of the true God, divine oneness governs and determines all other discussion of God and God’s attributes. As the rest of the work unfolds, then, even when unicity is not the explicit subject, it is implicit on every page.

The book has a fivefold division, each for a different divine attribute: oneness, omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, and love. (Matters of method appear in the final two parts: theological epistemology, divine illumination, and biblical exegesis.) From start to finish, Sonderegger’s goal is to communicate, in the frail words of ordinary human language, the objective, luminous, and wholly present reality of the one living and true God’s intrinsically incommunicable nature. Spiritual, eternal, invisible, the being of the sovereign God is altogether transcendent of creaturely being, yet, out of its boundless kindness and liberality, it descends into the depths even of our own inadequate speech. Further, it is given to creatures to receive this humble grace and to speak aloud what they know to be ineffable: and all this as a sacrifice of praise and gladness to the One creator and redeemer of all.

Lest the skeptical reader — be she Jewish, Christian, or merely philosophically informed — raise a questioning eyebrow and levy the time-honored charge, “But isn’t this all post-biblical Greek metaphysics, more Plato than Paul, more Aristotle than Abraham? On what basis do you make these claims, and with what connection to Christian belief?” Sonderegger is ready with an answer. Contrary to the claims of Protestant liberalism and historical criticism, the Bible is metaphysical in its very marrow. It has its own idiom, to be sure, its own genres and forms and internal differentiations. But a non-metaphysical Scripture is either a prejudice or an (unargued) first principle, and in either case, it is false. In its own way, Scripture readily makes profound metaphysical claims, claims central to Jewish and Christian understanding and confession of not only who God is, but what God is — not only divine identity, but deity itself. Not to say that such understanding grasps or comprehends the divine nature, but it is nevertheless granted a share in the knowledge of God, which is to say, of both qui sit and quid sit Deus.

And, whether or not one judges Sonderegger successful, she follows through on her claim to be interpreting Scripture, which fills and animates the whole work. In particular, sustained attention to specific passages or books in the Old Testament abounds, at times making of specific doctrinal discussions (say, on omnipotence) something more akin to extended scriptural commentary than to dogmatics as practiced in the academy in the last century. This, for Sonderegger, is a sign of success, for “a theologian is most highly honored and most ably put to use when named as a doctor of the sacred page.”

Theology does not read like a typical academic publication; try as it might, even academic theology bespeaks an alien character unassimilable to the standards of style and substance common to scholarship normed by the sciences. Where other theologies balk at the discrepancy, seeking to narrow the gap, Sonderegger owns the difference, paying it no mind at all. Theology in her hands is irreducibly and unavoidably spiritual, a task of the soul as well as the mind. Indeed, the work’s opening sentence reads, “Theology awakens a grateful heart.” And in the final chapter she writes,

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 lovely, the One whose Eyes are like doves. Eat, friends — all theology should ring out with this invitation — drink and be drunk with Love.

No detached disinterestedness here; no postmodern irony; no pitiable attempt at respectability. No, this is the glad task of a convicted, converted, enlivened intellect, seeking language and concepts sufficient to the reality of the living God. Little surprise that she concludes her methodology with doxology: “… the Master, Conquerer [sic], and Perfect Knowledge of all that is not: O, praise Him!”

Such an unabashedly spiritual style is not unheard of in modern theology, but neither is it common or held up as a model. Another uncommon feature is the central formal-material move of the entire book: beginning with the oneness of God. Whole volumes have been written about the “trinitarian renaissance” or the “return to the Trinity” in the twentieth century, usually ascribed to Barth and/or to the German Jesuit priest Karl Rahner. The idea is that Christians should not begin with some generic concept of God, ostensibly shared by non-Christians (or at least Jews and Muslims), draw the relevant conclusions about God’s being, character, and attributes, then conclude by tacking on the — vaguely embarrassing — bit about “three persons in one God.” Instead, that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the starting point for Christian confession, and it is either misguided natural theology or discomfort with particularity to suppose it a good idea to move from oneness to Trinity rather than the other way round.

Unlike nearly all theology written in the last century, Sonderegger is unconvinced. And, as we saw above, her counter is not philosophical, nor is it motivated by interreligious concerns. She thinks it plain that the Bible mandates this principal claim about God’s oneness, and requires in turn that theology begin with it as cornerstone in the doctrine of God. God’s triunity is neither threatened nor subordinated by the priority of oneness, but that does not obviate the dogmatic call to begin with unicity prior to Trinity. And since a principle or correlate of prioritizing triunity to unicity is a certain Christ-centeredness, in method and in substance, she even marshals forth a rallying cry that reverberates across the book’s pages: “not all is Christology!”

Sonderegger further distinguishes herself with her biblical exegesis. The last two decades have seen an explosion in interest in what is called “theological interpretation of Scripture,” a complex of trends that includes both a call to return to premodern scriptural reading habits and a postmodern critique of historical-critical biblical scholarship. Though sympathetic to some of its emphases, hers is less an intervention in the arguments happening there than an exemplary instance of the practice it calls for: systematic theology as scriptural interpretation. Nor does she weigh down her readings (or her endnotes) with an exhaustive apparatus of secondary literature, running her exegesis by the historical critics, seeking the SBL imprimatur. She “just reads”: not naïvely, as if there are no legitimate questions to ask or issues to raise, but theologically, with built-in spiritual, bibliological, and hermeneutical convictions governing her reading in a disciplined manner. In this she has performed the work so many have asked for from the theological interpreters, and performed splendidly.

What makes Sonderegger’s biblical engagements even more interesting is the consistent centrality of the Old Testament for her theological reasoning. The book of Numbers, if it is studied in seminaries at all, is limited to a course on the Hebrew Bible, and very likely discussion is reduced to “problems” it is said to exhibit: moral, historical, and most of all theological, in its depiction of God. Sonderegger sees Numbers differently: as a living site for interrogating the pressing, existential questions of God’s immutability and power, which culminate in the mystery of prayer. Indeed, “The book of Numbers, in its wilderness encounters and in its lofty praise of the changeless One, manifests in its own frail idiom the very mind of Christ.” The flexibility of the hermeneutic here — happy to offer figural or christological readings in one place, resistant to awkward “anachronistic” readings in another — is a testament to the relaxed systematicity of Sonderegger’s theology. It also clarifies the way in which this work, in one sense so obviously primed for Jewish-Christian dialogue, given the centrality of Tanakh and the oneness of God, is also irreducibly Christian, in form and content. I happen to think that such substantive particularity is a boon to conversation between Jews and Christians, but I acknowledge that there are those who demur.

Finally, Sonderegger’s work raises the question of Christian feminism and systematic theology. Apart from the occasional reference, I think it is fair to say that this is not a work of Christian feminism, if by that one means an instance of a genre, a participant in a methodology and a discourse recognizable as such. Sonderegger engages in almost no direct conversation with feminist theology or theory, and declines to take on board any of its main practices (such as a suspicious hermeneutic of Scripture, a stance critical of the tradition’s misogyny or patriarchy, or dropping the masculine pronoun for God). The work is not thereby inimical to feminist theology, however, or of little interest to it. For one of the principal ways in which Sonderegger’s book is both novel and reflective of wider trends is that it is part of a larger movement of Christian systematic theology published by women who run the gamut of the ideological spectrum, from Kathryn Tanner to Sarah Coakley to Francesca Murphy. This is a premier site for contemporary theological reflection, negotiating the value and potential of certain traditional doctrines while reinterpreting or revising others. As indirect as her contribution may seem, Sonderegger’s voice is nonetheless an important one to include in this ongoing conversation.

Twenty-five years ago, Stanley Hauerwas wrote that theologians “must learn to write theology in such a way that denies that theology can be systematic,” for “[t]he very idea of systematic theology was a result of a church with hegemonic power that belied the very substance that made it church to begin with.” Coming to the first volume of Katherine Sonderegger’s systematic theology, one might initially be tempted to agree: here is a traditionalist return to the “omni-” scholasticism of times past, before Kant, before Schleiermacher, before Heidegger and Wittgenstein and Derrida and Ruether. Or perhaps such a return finds welcome as good news in some quarters, as a rebuke to the false modesty of modern theology and a bold reclaiming of theology’s status as queen of the sciences.

Sonderegger gives us neither. For, incidentally, rumors of systematic theology’s demise were always greatly exaggerated anyway. Yes, its reputation has waned, and with it, its practice; yes, its practitioners have increasingly restricted themselves to topics and sub-topics, in monographs and articles; yes, disciplinary fragmentation has undercut its twin virtues, comprehensiveness and coherence. Systematics has, at a minimum, been chastened, and in some places become a byword.

But theology does not measure itself by prestige, much less by interloping inclusion in that ill-suited master genus: Wissenschaft. Theology, indeed theology most deserving of the title “systematic,” is measured by its gentle stubbornness to be nothing but itself, and therefore to refuse to impersonate other intellectual practices, however distinguished. Such commitment is a feature common to a number of projects published in recent years (by James McClendon, Jenson, Stanley Grenz, Tanner, Anthony Thiselton, B. A. Gerrish), as well as those currently in process by Coakley and (now) Sonderegger. Her distinction, therefore, is not that she does systematic theology — returning, as it seems to be, from the wilderness — but how she does it. Her style is a throwback: unashamedly spiritual, punch-drunk with praise and prayer, compelled by living encounter with divine reality. Not for her the diminishing returns of talk about talk about talk about God. Her theology, true theology, wants the real thing or nothing at all.

At the same time: Sonderegger’s proposals, which at first glance suggest either a premodern ressourcement or a postmodern naïveté, turn out to be quite revisionary in substance: God as — somehow or other — mutable, passible, timeful, non-causal. The irony, then, is that her book is undeniably, and indelibly, modern; and, as such, is an instance of a genre, systematic theology, falsely thought to have been snuffed out in modern Christian theology.

The story continues.