What might it look like to pursue a theology that, in its very form, is warped and bent around the voice of the God who speaks, the one who was is indeed most fully and vivaciously alive, of the one who truly “is a consuming fire” (cf. Heb 12:29)? Volume 2 of Katherine Sonderegger’s tour de force of a systematic theology, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity, appears to try and do just that. In prose that leaps and dances from the page, Sonderegger seeks to provide us with a contemplation of this Consuming Fire of a God, the one whom Christians worship as Triune.
Fortress Press, 2020
Sonderegger seems to have at least two primary aims: first, she strives to reorient Christian Trinitarian reflection away from its obsession with the economic, an obsession that she worries is anthropocentrism by another name. No, we can and must consider the very life of God, the One God who speaks in Holy Scripture and refuse the temptation to prioritize Kantian epistemological dilemmas. Sonderegger worries that theology in our present day and age has become ossified in its own search for some stone to build upon across the shifting, sinking sands of time. In so doing, theology has become beleaguered with a reductionism that prioritizes the economy over theology, reducing Trinitarian dogmatic construction to a series of footnotes on Christology, either in a soteriological or epistemological key. “Not all is Christology;” “Not all is Soteriology;” Not all is Revelation,” Sonderegger reminds us. No, God is so much more than just God for us. “We sinners must be moved quietly but firmly, out of the living center for the Christian religion. Only God stands there” (p. 34).
Second, and not unrelated, Sonderegger seeks to parse out an intelligible defense of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the face of accusations of pluralism and complexity (p. 430), while also affirming that Israel and the church fundamentally agree in their doctrine of God (p. 11). So how can Christians credibly claim to worship the YHWH, the God who is one, while also confessing that this self-same God is Triune, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Here, Sonderegger appropriates the language of “redoublement” Bonaventure to describe the need to speak of the One God twice, in two modes of speech. For Sonderegger, this “doubling” is appropriate and even demanded because this form of discourse mirrors the dynamic life of God himself (p. 415, cf. p. 433).
Christological Priority and the Economy
However, as is the nature of these things, questions linger and persist. First, one that has plagued Christian theologians from Augustine’s day until now: the question of knowledge of God and the pressing problem of idolatry. David Yeago summarizes the problem aptly in his exposition of Luther. According to Yeago, Luther is plagued with the question of how to know if he is worshipping the real God, or merely an idol bound up in the trappings of his own desires and wishes.David Yeago, “The Catholic Luther,” in The Catholicity of the Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 17, 19. Sonderegger argues, resourcing the language of Lateran IV, that the programs of Barth et. al. to stabilize the grounds for doctrinal content are still stuck in the mode of anthropocentrism,I wonder why the solution is not to adopt a more kaleidoscopic or dialogical approach to these themes as they are presented in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. binding the doctrine of God with the chords of human finitude. She writes, “We do not aim here, or in later doctrines, to explain how creaturely predication of God is possible or successful. . . . A reader of the tradition can be excused for thinking that none of these methods can fully execute their aim: a confident grounding or warrant for creaturely language for God” (p. 330). Instead, we can speak of God precisely “because the God of Light sheds His own Light into our realm: in His Light we see light” (p. 331).
Similarly, Sonderegger is wary of approaches that seek to begin Trinitarian reflection regarding God’s life en se with the economic or immanent Trinity (p. 453). This is the “modern” move and here I am sympathetic. Personally, I have often wondered, if, for example, Moltmann’s and Balthasar’s Trinitarian theology is simply a theologia crucias taken to its logical conclusion. But surely, one need not read very far through the Psalter to see an emphasis on the elation (and confusion) that arises in the intimate’s soul who has seen the very fact that YHWH is pro nobis. I am curious as to whether this proclivity to begin with God’s action toward us is a pressure both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament impress upon the reader, or at least to what extent said pressure must influence dogmatic construction.
The concern here, then, is not merely methodological, as meddlesome as such debates can be, but a concern regarding prioritization. After all, it is not only John’s Gospel that presumes a “Christological filter” for our knowledge of God, but it seems that Paul himself views the Incarnation of Christ as an interpretive key for the Shema itself (cf. 1 Cor 8:6) ).See Keith L. Johnson, “Compatibilism and Continuity in Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology,” International Journal of Systematic Theology, 19.2 (2017): 181. While I can agree with Sonderegger’s concern that contemporary theology has elevated epistemology, Christology, soteriology, and eschatology as the golden kernel around which all the husks of Holy Scripture are centered, I wonder why the solution is not to adopt a more kaleidoscopic or dialogical approach to these themes as they are presented in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.As Webster notes, “the extensive material on the second domain of Christian teaching will arise naturally from and make appropriate backward reference to the material on the first domain; economy is most fully seen when illuminated by theology, which it in turn illuminates.” From “Christology, Theology, Economy: The Place of Christology in Systematic Theology,” in God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2016), 53. At the very least, I’m curious as to what to do with those plethora of New Testament texts that seem to support a Christo-centered vision of theological inquiry and a Christo-centered interpretation of the Scriptures upon which it is built (cf. 1 Pet 2:7–8). And if that is the case, it seems to me that the Incarnate Son must at least remain paradigmatic in his “exposition” of the Godhead.
On Properties, Predication, and Nicene Theology
Second, I wonder if it is indeed true that we can have the goods of Nicene theology while adopting alternative methods and modes of theological discourse. While figural readings of Scripture have had a precarious relationship with many of those children of the Reformation, Sonderegger affirms many of the conclusions to Patristic exegesis regarding the eternality of the Son (against the Eunomians) and the Triune God (against the Sabellians). She even goes so far as to support Patristic judgments of Isaiah 53 regarding the eternal generation of the Son, resourcing the categories of the Intelligible and the concrete, with the former indwelling the concrete particulars of a text as its meaning (pp. 281, 285). For her part, Sonderegger argues that theological realism demands that “our words cannot be so cleanly distinguished from their Referent, nor can the new Names represent but a semantic change, a kind of empty synonym for an older Title” (p. 533). Instead, Sonderegger claims that “the Personal Names that dominate and structure the New Testament enact the Name theology of the Old; they are novel as the confirmation, completion, and exaltation of the old” (p. 542). In so doing, the revelation of the personal names, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are more than an exposition of the identity of YHWH, they are “the Unfolding and Consummation ofHowever, all this talk of how divine names work, both in Scripture and in theology, gives me a slight pause at the dangers of equivocation, a danger Sonderegger recognizes. the Divine Act who is God” (p. 543). Consequently, Sonderegger argues that we can reasonably conceive of these three Trinitarian persons as an Infinite Set (p. 551). Since “sets” lack any semblance of metaphysical standing but “simply signal that the gathering together has ceased,” we can indeed affirm the Unicity of the One God with this idiom without resorting to a dependence upon some “fourth thing” (p. 551, cf. p. 414). For both Jews and Christians alike, then, the Lord our God is One (cf. Deut 6:4).
However, all this talk of how divine names work, both in Scripture and in theology, gives me a slight pause at the dangers of equivocation, a danger Sonderegger recognizes (p. 544). More specifically, I’m concerned if this account of how the Intelligible indwells the concrete resurrects those participatory accounts of names that earlier generations tried to bury. Of course, curmudgeon that I am, I have no desire to lacquer the tradition in the face of modern objections regarding Christianity’s plausibility and, in Sonderegger’s immediate defense, her project seeks to demonstrate how the Law and the Prophets are the very word of God and therefore of dogmatic value to Christians (p. 12). Moreover, she does not appeal to participatory accounts of language as such. However, I still wonder about the larger move being made here regarding how divine names function, especially given the place such a conversation has held in the articulation of early Trinitarian dogma. For example, for both Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesarea, the argument against Eunomious is predicated upon rejecting the very notion that names put us into contact with the essence of a thing.According to Mark DelCogliano, “Basil’s nationalist theory of names, all names—including proper and absolute names—do not communicate substance but properties, often called distinguishing marks. Different kinds of names simply disclose different kinds of properties” in Basil of Caesarea’s Anti-Eunomian Theory of Names: Christian Theology and Late-Antique Philosophy in the Fourth Century Trinitarian Controversy, Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 221. Instead, these names serve as “distinguishing marks” that enable the identification of divine persons.Basil of Caesarea, Against Eunomius, 2.5–2.10, 2.29. Basil and Gregory are specifically rejecting an account of how our knowledge of God functions in relation to the essence of God, that is, they are rejecting the idea that our concepts grant us access to the depth of God. But if the Intelligible indwells concrete words and speech, concepts and judgments, as Sonderegger argues, doesn’t this suggest that we are in fact brought into contact with the Intelligble (God)? My worry here is that we teeter nearer still to the danger of univocity. For even if this all-consuming God of fire’s heart is sacrifice, as Sonderegger claims, isn’t he then more unlike than like both the fire that burns and the sacrificial act? But to say that is to ask a question regarding the boundaries of God-talk and the predication of terms. It is to ask: what restricts our knowledge of God if we do not resource the confines of creatureliness as Sonderegger advises? Finally, if the theory of names is abandoned or even significantly revised, I wonder how we can actually hold onto pro-Nicene judgments regarding the eternal generation of the Son and the meaning of His “Begottenness,” while forgoing their approaches to Scripture and the very nature of theological language. Or, to put the question the other way around, how can I keep the theological goods Basil, Gregory, and Augustine have acquired while eschewing the very approach that enabled them to attain them?
Sonderegger’s work is a joy and delight. While not for the faint of heart, it is interesting, and I mean that in the kindest way possible. Throughout Scripture, an encounter with the living God leaves the people of God quaking in awe or bowing in worship, but they are never bored. Students of theology will find themselves dared, tested, enthralled, and forced time and time again to return ad fontes. More than anything else, with Sonderegger’s treatment of the centrality of the temple in regards to dogmatic reflection, we are challenged to view and treat the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture. Not as a prelude or preface, introduction or author’s note, but as Holy Writ whose author is God. And if the Law of the Lord is all the Psalter suggests it might be, and if Christ comes not to abolish but to fulfill it, we would be wise to follow her lead.
It was our joy to host a panel discussion on this book, featuring the contributors to this symposium. You can find the video from that event on our resource page.